Transcription of Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast episode 015 (Nov 2010) – mixed topics inc. writing rules

The fifteenth episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 29th November 2010 and the content has never been released other than website links (on my website http://www.morgenbailey.com) so I hope you find this information useful. In the first fourteen episodes (see earlier blog posts), I covered ‘show not tell’, the five senses, repetition, points of view, tenses, dialogue, characters, crime, poetry, short stories, novels, writing for children, scriptwriting, comedy, romance and chick lit, and erotica. This episode was a mixed bag.

Hints & tips

W. Somerset Maugham once said that there are three rules for good writing but no-one knows what they are. I think there are more than that and have come up with a few. To use a cliché (I’ll be mentioning them again later), I’ve only scratched the surface so will be passing along other gems from time to time.

  • This sounds really obvious but a short story or novel should have a start, middle and end. I was one of the judges on a local short story competition recently and one of the fifty stories I judged only had a middle. Whilst it should have been disqualified before it reached me, it lost some major points (I start at 10 and work downwards; although two of the stories I judged got the full 10/10) for not sticking to that golden rule.
  • The basic premise of a good story is that you have a character who wants something, or to achieve something, and there is an obstacle in his or her way. It’s often described as a three-act play (of course not necessarily in a play format). First of all you have your set-up (the location and characters), then the confrontation / obstacle and finally the resolution. And most importantly the character must have learnt something by the end. Even in the gentler stories, such as those found in People’s Friend magazine, the obstacle can’t have been removed by someone else, otherwise the story falls flat. The character can have help but he or she must have learnt by what’s happened. This also means that there doesn’t to just be one obstacle in his or her way – there is likely to be for a short story but in a novel, or film, there are usually two major obstacles. Taking Sleepless in Seattle as a classic example, apart from the geographical distance between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ characters, Meg’s already engaged and Tom’s met someone that his son disapproves of so Tom’s son takes it upon himself to get him together with Meg, which we know will ultimately happen but if it was just a case of the two of them getting on a plane, it would be a less interesting and much quicker movie. The film was actually inspired by An Affair to Remember which had many similarities except for Deborah Kerr’s accident being the added complication stopping her meeting the lovely Cary Grant.
  • Have a mix of dialogue and description – long patches of description can put some readers off (including me). One of my poets, Pat M, loves narrative but I sigh at a chunk of text and tend to skim through it, so you won’t necessarily win whatever you do but it’ll vary the pace of your writing; quick dialogue interspersed with slower passages of description.
  • Genuine dialogue is the most realistic but don’t overdo the ums and ers. It has to sound realistic and your characters can have quirks but too many and it’ll become annoying.
  • Vary your sentence lengths – short sentences increase pace but too many and it’ll get tiring. Like description, longer sentences slow the pace and a mix of both is highly recommended.
  • Don’t overdo the ‘he/she said’ – if you’ve got two people speaking you don’t need to label every line of dialogue. Every sixth or thereabouts should do it, or you could find other ways of indicating who’s saying what, for instance have a character mention the other person’s name or mention what the person is doing, like… Eve jumped off the sofa. “Hold on, Frank!”
  • Equally you want to avoid having too many adverbs. You don’t have to say “Oh no!” she said frustratingly. We know by what she’s saying that she’s frustrated.
  • Don’t try to be too clever in the words you use. A good story can be simply told – a strong character- or plot-based story is much more rewarding than one with overly flowery language.
  • Show don’t tell – this is a phrase you’ve probably heard before but it’s a major tip. The best way to explain it is, for example, ‘She was angry.’ is tell (where the narrator is telling the reader how the character feels) but ‘She slammed her fist onto the counter.’ shows us that she was angry.
  • Something that isn’t talked about so often is ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’, or ‘active’ and ‘passive’. An example of indirect would be ‘her arm was broken by the fall’ – this is where something happens to a character rather than a direct action such as ‘she broke her arm falling off the sofa’ and a reader is going to feel more empathy with the character if it happens to him/her.
  • I’ve mentioned the five senses before. You should automatically have sight (what’s happening), sound (dialogue) and touch (unless your characters aren’t carrying anything, holding hands etc) but you may well not have smell and taste. Unless your character is eating something, taste may be a sense that isn’t going to be included because it’s not appropriate, and that’s fine, but wherever your characters are there are going to be smells so it would add another dimension for the reader to include this.
  • Colours. It’s amazing how many short stories I’ve read, and have written over the years, that don’t mention colour. Don’t go mad saying a character has brown hair while wearing a black dress and walking to her blue car but a splash of colour here and there does again add to the reader’s visualisation of a scene, although you want to leave something to their imagination.
  • Avoid repetition wherever possibly unless you are reiterating or explaining something, for example to say ‘Sarah saw the car pull in to the drive. The car was dirty.’ You would want to say something like ‘Sarah saw the car pull in to the drive and noticed how dirty it was.’ Or it would have more impact with something like ‘Sarah saw the dirty car pull in to the drive and watched the man put on a balaclava’, although of course it depends where your story is going but just her noticing that a car is dirty isn’t newsworthy but emphasising the car, using repetition’ by saying something like ‘Sarah saw the car pull in to the drive. It was the sort of car that was non-descript; silver, dirty, average size, but Sarah felt there was nothing ordinary about this one.’
  • Also sets of three work well. Unless you’re specifically listing something then having three items or descriptions work better than two. Of course you could have said that the non-descript car was silver and dirty but it doesn’t seem to flow as well, unless you avoid using it in list form and use the description as an adverb: a dirty silver car which would be fine.
  • Always use distinctive names. You don’t have to use unusual names but ideally avoid the same starting letter, for instance having a John, Joe and Joseph in the same story is likely to get very confusing.
  • Be concise. In short stories and flash fiction every word counts. In novels you can ‘waffle’ a bit (which is probably why I like writing them) but it still has to be related to the story or ‘move it along’ (i.e. it has to be going somewhere to warrant being in it). Whilst you won’t be able to match the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s 6-word story (For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn) and unless it’s for a competition, you probably wouldn’t want or need to. But look at your story paragaph by paragraph or line by line and if a story can manage perfectly well without it, then it can come out. Don’t throw anything of any substance away though – unless it’s particularly specific you could probably use it elsewhere. The great thing about computers is that you can have varying versions of the same document so if you thought something had to go but then you realise that it’s key, you can go back to an earlier version and retrieve it.
  • As well as chopping out sections that may not be appropriate, there may be stronger ways of saying something, for instance instead of saying ‘hit hard’, ‘thumped’ would not only be more concise but it’s also a great example of an onomatopoeia – which website Wise Geek (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-onomatopoeia.htm) explains is a language technique or device used to create an effect in or for the reader.
  • Also there may be simpler alternatives to words; for instance instead of using ‘go back’ would ‘return’ be better? It may only be losing one word but if you have a word count limit, it may make all the difference.
  • Redraft – first drafts rarely look much like the finished article so don’t worry if it sounds like a load of rubbish. If the story works then that’s brilliant but most writing is a work-in-progress and will need some polishing before it can go anywhere. The chances are that it could be but put it away for a week or a month then look at it again with fresh eyes. Apparently horror writer Dean Koontz polishes each page 25-30 times.
  • Read your piece out loud – you are more likely to hear what is wrong if you do. It also helps to spot that you are consistent with your viewpoint and tense.
  • Podcaster of Packing Heat and erotica novelist Jordan Castillo Price says to avoid “info dumps”. She says that a snappy introduction works really well and gave “Space: A final frontier” as a classic example. The beginning must be a hook and start where the action starts – if the action starts three paragraphs or pages in, chop the beginning completely or feed it in later in the story. It’s very tempting to throw lots of information at the reader so you think they know where they are but letting them get to know a character first and feeding bits they need to know in as they go along, works much better and they’ll retain more of it. Jordan also says there shouldn’t be any more than two adverbs (for example; nervously or happily) per chapter! Whether this is achievable or not is another matter. Also recommended is to avoid the words: very, actually, really, totally, quite, already, fairly and much!
  • Equally, stop where your story feels right to stop. I’ve read some stories (and again written some) where I’ve felt the conclusion is earlier than it ends up being. If all the threads are tied up and the dilemma resolved, the chances are that that’s it.
  • A question sent to Writers’ News Helpline column a while back was from a reader wanting to know how to indicate when someone is shouting. Rather than use capital letters or exclamation marks, columnist Diana Cambridge suggested simply using verbs such as he/she shouted, screamed, shrieked, bellowed, thundered, yelled, barked brayed or boomed. So, plenty of choice.
  • If a story isn’t working, is it because you’ve got it in the wrong point of view? If you’re on a computer create another copy of the document then take a particularly meaty chunk of the story and change the point of view. For instance if you’re writing a third person viewpoint story, is it not working because you don’t feel connected with your character or is it because it’s first person and you’re finding it too limited because you can only know what character is thinking about. Or you could try a totally different angle or re-write it in second person viewpoint (Wikipedia’s ‘narrative mode’ page – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_of_view_%28literature%29#Second-person_view) has more details on second person and I also mentioned it in episode two.
  • If you’re struggling with a particular character, another option would be write a monologue from that person’s point of view. Have them talking about what’s going through their mind. Whilst it may not be relevant to the story you’re doing, it’ll give you an insight into the character. Most writers will have their characters take over and guide the writing and anyone who doesn’t write heard that they’d probably think we were mad and it does all come from our subconscious but it is amazing how and what actually comes out so if you know anyone who doesn’t write but may have the slightest inclination to do so, I’d heartily recommend it.
  • If the point of view in your story is fine, is the tense the best one for it? For instance if you’re using past tense and it seems too disconnected, would it feel more realistic in present tense. Even if it’s a historically-based story, there’s no reason why it can’t be set in the present tense. Or if you story is set in the present tense, you might find the tight timeframe too intense and wish to plan to story over a longer period of time.
  • These two seem like quite drastic changes but if something’s not working it may take you longer battling on as it is than taking a look at what might be making it stick.
  • Try a twist ending. Some publications such as The People’s Friend that I mentioned earlier, don’t like twist endings but generally they are incredibly popular but which in turn means that writers need to find cleverer ways of fooling the reader into thinking one thing where in fact the complete opposite happens – but with clues peppered in along the way; easier said than done? Most definitely. But they’ve been around for years. Roald Dahl was a master at twists – hence the popularity of his Tales of the Unexpected.
  • They say to write about what you know. I volunteered recently at last weekend’s Chorleywood Literature Festival (and have recorded a review of it which I hope to release in the next few days) and one of the authors I met there was said in one of her reader discussion groups that she doesn’t write about her life because she deems it not interesting enough but she does write about her experiences so you never know when something that might appear mundane at the time could end up being fodder for a story you write in the future.
  • However well you know a topic though it’s likely you are still going to have to do some research and we’re really lucky that we have the internet to get information from. Whilst it won’t give you the feel of a place, it’s perfect for checking odd facts that either you’ve forgotten or where were missing that one final ingredient that will make your story authentic. If it’s not accurate, there are bound to be readers who will know and let you know! That said, even the most famous of authors have had people writing to them to point out inaccuracies so you can only do the best you can do.
  • Formatting – in the UK most guidelines request a double-spaced, single-sided manuscript in Times New Roman font size 12. This obviously can vary but one thing I hadn’t realised until I started submitting was that the first paragraph of a story, chapter or section, is NOT indented but the rest of the section are. Where you have dialogue to start, the first person’s speech wouldn’t be indented but the other person’s would be. And remember that where different characters are talking or creating action, their text should be in different paragraphs.
  • Again, this is probably stating the obvious, but take a notepad and pen with you wherever you go. Neither has to be anything fancy but how annoying is it when you think of something brilliant then have nothing to jot it down with and have forgotten it by the time you get somewhere to make a note of it. I keep a mini pad and pen in each jacket and bag I own just to be sure. Then at night, I keep my mobile handy so that if I think of something, I don’t have to switch the light on, just type it in the diary or jotter sections or record it into the Dictaphone – most mobiles have them; even my five year old Nikon compact camera does.
  • One of the most important, and again probably obvious, things to say is that you should enjoy writing story. If it’s boring you, the chances are that you readers will be bored too. If you’ve been working on a piece for too long a period of time, put it away (unless you have a deadline to stick to) for a few days, move on to something else and then come back to it when it’s a little less familiar. This may sound bizarre but if you also have a character who’s bored or a story where nothing happens then this will easily turn the reader off.

Ideas

Here I normally give you a couple of story ideas or ways to get new ideas then list seven sentence starts picked from my http://twitter.com/sentencestarts Twitter page; each one, if you’d like to use them, for a daily writing project. However, this time I’ve thrown a few more in…

  • Try looking around the room for inspiration. Pick six words at random and see if they will make a story. Either that or have the actual words included in your story; the quirkier the better.
  • Pick one of those words and set a timer for 10 minutes. You may only get a piece of flash-fiction length out of it but you may be surprised where it can take you. If you have time, set a reminder at a certain time every day and do a series of 10 minutes exercises. Even if it only lasts a week, it may spur you on to keep writing, and however you get on, you’ll have had more written than if you’d not done it at all.
  • Take a look at a story you’ve finished (old or otherwise) and check that it has all five senses.
  • Write down a list of clichés that you know and see if you can find unique alternatives – http://www.suspense.net/whitefish/cliche.htm is a great example of existing clichés.
  • Sites for example similes are http://www.saidwhat.co.uk/spoon/similes.php (as clear as mud… for example) and metaphors (http://www.saidwhat.co.uk/spoon/metaphors.php – he was an ox of a man); see if you can come up with original alternatives (better ones than those in other words)!
  • A lot of writers talk about ‘What if?’ Stories work well when a new angle is looked at. Take an ordinary situation and think ‘what if’, perhaps with a quirky twist, and there’s a great book by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter called ‘What if? – writing exercises for fiction writers’ which Amazon’s UK store, as an example has from £1.53 plus postage & packaging, or $3.95 in the US store.
  • I went to a writing workshop with novelist Toby Litt at the Chorleywood Literary Festival a few days ago and he got us to write down three objects, four names, three places (countries) and three emotions then said we had to cross out one object, one name, one place and an emotion and see whether what we had left would make a story. Apparently that was one of fellow novelist Ali Smith’s ideas so thanks to both of them for that. The majority of the workshop focused on dialogue which I mentioned near the beginning of this episode but also asked us to write down a portable object that we’ve always wanted but had never owned. On reflection I would have said an iPhone but at the time I couldn’t think of anything and came up with a pain-free back. I know it technically broke the rules but it did get me writing. We then had to think of a place that we could never go back to and I thought of my father’s first camera and art shop which was later made into a house so whilst I could physically go back to the location, I could never step inside the shop again. We were also asked to create a character of someone in disguise so I thought of a con man posing to be someone he wasn’t.

And today’s sentence starts…

1. As she/he put the flower on the grave…

2. Ethel and Hilda were best friends until…

3. Spring was Anne’s favourite season because she…

4. Craig lifted the veil and gasped…

5. With just 100 yards to go, Bertie…

6. “Come on, I can’t wait forever.” Kim tapped her foot repeatedly.

7. Amicability was not was Marline had planned…

The podcast concluded with News & Feedback, On This Day in History and a 60-worder called ‘Dating heaven’:

The Brington Advertiser’s lonely hearts advert read ‘gentle giant 40s sought for romantic picnics and cinema visits by petite blonde late 30s, reply to PO Box 147’. Eve waited for over a week for replies to trickle in but by the second week she’d had fifty. She sifted through them and found her ideal man, Adam…a match made in heaven!

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