Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of some nuts and bolts of writing is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey – not really a guest, I know, but I had a gap and thought it was about time I contributed. 🙂 It was due to be about writing groups and I’d written a chunk of the post but currently having a sieve-like brain (too many late nights) I left my memory stick at work so I apologise in advance but tonight’s is a post I wrote for Jodine Turner‘s blog back in September 2011 (with a tweak as I’ve done another NaNoWriMo since then). I hope you will still find it useful / interesting* (*delete as appropriate). 🙂
American science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournell is reported to have said “I think it takes about a million words to make a writer. I mean that you’re going to throw away.” I started writing for fun nearly seven years ago and more seriously three years ago and with three NaNoWriMo novels, one and a half in between, part of a script, some poetry and loads of short stories (including four and a bit collections of short stories for NaNo November 2011 – I know, it’s cheating but I still wrote more than 50,000 words in the 30 days) under my belt I’m pretty sure I’ve reached that target. How much of them I’ve thrown away I couldn’t tell you but it’s only a fraction, and if like me, you’ve dabbled before really knuckling down, you’ll feel better for it. It’s all about practice. If someone sat you in front of a piano, would they expect you to play a concerto… would you expect that of yourself?
In my experience too many novice writers worry about finding their ‘voice’ and understanding their ‘craft’ early on. It can be a long journey, perhaps not as long as a million words, but as long as you write regularly (daily is the ideal but when does life afford that luxury?) you’ll get there… and here are a few basics to put in your suitcase:
- Probably the most used phrase when teaching writing is ‘show don’t tell’. If you have a character who is angry for some reason, saying ‘Andy was angry’ is a classic example of ‘tell’. Simply put, you’re not showing us how. If you wrote ‘Andy slammed his fist onto the table’ you are.
- Dialogue tags – it’s recommended that you can only go up to six pieces of dialogue (between no more than two people) without attributing it to someone. And there’s nothing wrong with ‘said’. Don’t be tempted to look at your thesaurus and say ‘Andy postulated’. You could also avoid tags by another character saying “Oh Andy, that’s…” or in the description; ‘Andy laughed. “That’s…”
- Character names are important as we often get a sense of their personality by what they’re called. A Mavis is likely to be older than a Britney and would, usually, act differently. Avoid having names starting with the same letter; if you have a Todd talking to a Ted, the reader can easily get confused. Bill and Ted would be fine and as we know, they had a wonderful time back in the late 1980s.
- I’m a big fan of repetition… of not doing it. Unless it’s ‘the’, ‘and’ etc, a word should only be repeated if the second instance is to emphasise or clarify the first. For example, ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn of the car.’ You don’t need ‘of the car’ because we already know he’s in the car. If you said ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn and the car shook’ that would be fine because you’re clarifying that it’s the car and not the horn (because it’s the last object you mentioned) that’s shaking.
- Stephen King’s writing guide / autobiography ‘On writing’ has been the most suggested book in the interviews I’ve conducted. Amongst other things he’s notoriously against adverbs (‘ly’) and fair enough in, ‘completely dead’ you wouldn’t need the completely because dead says it all, and a character doesn’t need to be ‘sighing wearily’ because the sighing tells us enough, but adverbs are necessary in the right context. Again it’s all about clarification and fine-tuning.
- Every word has to count; does it move the story along or tell us about your characters? If not, the chances are it can be chopped.
- If you’re having trouble with a passage move on or leave it and return later with ‘fresh eyes’.
- Read. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your genre or not (one of my Monday nighters writes amazing sci-fi but has never read a word of it) but reading will help you see how a story is structured and balanced between dialogue and description; short sentences speed the pace, long passages slow it down.
- Join a writing group, get your work critiqued. Read your work out loud. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up when you hear it outside your head.
- Subscribe to writing magazines, go to workshops, literary festivals. If you really want to write immerse yourself in all things literary.
- Finally there’s the five sense; we have what the characters hear (dialogue), see (description / action) but what do they smell? taste? touch? You’ll likely not get them all in but you could try. 🙂
There are many more examples I could give you but all you need to remember is that it’s not about clever words (because that ends up becoming ‘purple prose’) but just getting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and have fun. When your characters take over (and they will) you’ll have the time of your life!
If you’re still raring for tips, you can read my article about writer’s block (which came out today) on Fiona Veich Smith’s ‘Crafty Writer’ website.
Thank you… er, me.
When not at her day job (a sore point – she’s been trying to escape since October!), Morgen Bailey runs a ticking-over nicely (about 150-200 visitors a day) blog which, like her, is consumed by the topic of writing. She shares her house in Northampton, England with an 11-year-old Jack Russell / Cairn cross who is used to her waving her arms about (as she tests how her characters do something) or clapping when she’s written a particularly wonderful line.
Best with deadlines, she loves projects like NaNoWriMo and StoryADay (producing three novels & four and a bit collections of short stories between them) because she’s like a dog with a clichéd bone… give her a challenge and she’ll do her damnedest to get it done… sometimes with just minutes to spare. She’s sold to Woman’s Weekly, given to NAWG for their ‘Link’ magazine and other online establishments. She currently has two $1.49 eBooks (a 31-story anthology and a writer’s block workbook) and free eShorts available via Smashwords.com but once the day job is dust she plans to edit her novels, let her editor rip them apart, then head for Amazon KDP and a bread and water lifestyle that is (often) that of a writer… and she can think of nothing more thrilling. There’s more about her via her ‘Me‘ page… should you have nothing better to do. 🙂 And you can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with Dale T Phillips – who coincidentally was mentored by Stephen King! – the two hundred and fifty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.