*** BREAKING NEWS! ***
These tips are now part of a two-part online writing course!
Also see Exercises, Ideas and Sentence starts. I’m also a freelance editor so also share over 70 editing tips on this sub-page. I talk about various subjects on Me Guest Blogging On Your Site. Rosalind Minett also has writing tips on her blog.
There is also some of my advice on my Ask Me page – scroll down to the comments section.
I don’t profess to know everything there is to know about creative writing (do brain surgeons know everything about the brain?) but I’ve been on tons of courses, workshops and to literature events, talks etc. over the past eight years (probably spent more than an MA!) for a fair amount to have sunk in. I’ve also been running writing groups since 2008 and teaching since 2013. Anyway, on to the reason for this page…
At 5am on Wednesday 24th October 2012, I woke up to a message from my Facebook friend Scott Goodman saying, “Hello again Morgen. Been listening to some of your podcasts on tips for new writers, really interesting about the common mistakes that are made. Just to throw an idea at you have you thought about a section on your blog for, so to speak “writing 101″, how to teach the complete idiot to put pen to paper (yes me lol)”. I’ve met Scott (at the booQfest 2012) and know he is far from an “idiot”. I replied what a good idea it was and that “idiots” were only beginners who hadn’t learned yet… so, hence this page. Thank you, Scott!
I’ll build it up with lots of hints and tips but if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know then leave a comment at the bottom (and I have an Ask Me facility). There’s also a (Roald Dahl) shed load of hints and tips on the Podcast – mixed episodes page.
I shall start you with my writing essentials below, but as they build I shall probably create sub-pages under topics…
American science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournell is reported to have said “I think it takes about a million words to make a writer… that you’re going to throw away.”
I disagree. I started writing for fun in 2005 and have written eleven novels (at various stages including seven NaNoWriMo novels) and various short story collections (including Story A Day May, and ‘Fifty 5pm Fictions’ Collections) so I’ve reached that target but I’ve thrown very little away. If like me, you’ve dabbled before 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 providing you write regularly (daily is the ideal but when does life afford that luxury, although 300 words equates to 100,000 words a year so a great incentive) you’ll get there… and here are a few basics to put in your suitcase:
- Beginnings – where better to start than at the beginning? Beginnings should invariably start with the action. Avoid information dumps where you giving so much to the reader that their brain hurts especially where it’s irrelevant – do they need to know where the main character (protagonist) went to school? Sure, if it’s relevant and if they’re still there, or they’re reflecting back on it for a reason. That said, when you’re writing a first draft it doesn’t matter how you start. It’s often said that an author can either delete (or better still cut / paste into another document) the first two chapters because the action starts in the third. If the first two chapters are important they can be slotted in later. Sure, we need to know who our protagonist is, the dilemma they’re facing, an indication of setting and another character fairly soon as they’re bound to have an interaction with someone else at some stage and it’s often another character (the antagonist) that causes our protagonist the problem”.
- Bit by bit – I love the statistic that 300 words equates to over 100,000 words a year – a healthy novel word count – so a great incentive. I post two sets of writing exercises on my blog every weekday, each one set for 15 minutes. You could write your 300 words in that time!
- Chapters: endings – just like a TV drama where the end of a section (giving you time to go off and make a cup of tea), it should be so compelling that you can’t wait to continue watching. With your novel, your reader want to start the next chapter regardless of the time (a lot of readers read at night). Your endings should either resolve your chapter but reveal a new fact that could then be expanded on in the next chapter, put your character in peril so you want to know that they’re going to be alright. I talk more about endings later.
- Chapters: lengths – how long should your chapters be? It doesn’t matter. James Patterson’s are anywhere between a paragraph or a few pages. Graham Hurley’s 300-page novel Nocturne has three chapters. I’d advise no more than 15-20 pages per chapter so that your reader can read the whole chapter in one sitting (e.g. before going to bed), although hopefully your novel will have such a great hook that they want to keep reading anyway.
- Characters: antagonist vs protagonist – the hero / heroine is the protagonist and the person (or thing) they’re up against is the antagonist because they are antagonising them (pro vs anti). Most protagonists will be likeable and antagonists unlikeable but you’ve got to feel strongly for them all so that you care what happens to the good guy / girl and that the bad guy / girl gets their comeuppance.
- Characters: endearing – is the main character likeable? Even if he or she isn’t, the reader has to care what happens to them. If your reader doesn’t care about your hero / heroine, they probably won’t continue to the end of the story.
- Characters: flaws – all characters should have flaws. No one is perfect, even the good guys (and gals). Most readers will find characters with a disability, however small (a lisp, a limp), endearing. As well as external flaws, your characters can, and should, have internal flaws, e.g. thinking they’re not as attractive as they are, thinking they’re more attractive etc. On the flipside, consider giving your antagonist (the bad guy) a redeemable quality. As the cliché goes, not everything is black and white. What may not appear as a flaw, e.g. a character being particularly tall, could hinder them, e.g. a tall woman trying to find a tall partner. What difficulties would a 2m / 6’6″ man have? Someone taller who has to dip under doorways?
- Characters: names – 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. Try to avoid starting your sentences with your character’s name, as it can get repetitive and obvious. I’ve often recommended to my editing clients to write a list of their (your) characters in a five-column portrait table: 1. A-Z going down the page (at least two lines per letter); 2. Female first name (& chapter no. if you’re writing a novel); 3. Female surname / chapter no.; 4. Male first name / chapter no.; 5. Male surname / chapter no. As well as ensuring they don’t all start with the same letter, it encourages them (you) to try for the more unusual letters. I have a Character table for novel (and another for short stories). Let me know (email@example.com) if you’d like me to email either / both to you. Also do search for your main character names online (e.g. search engines and online bookstores) because you don’t want to create a protagonist or antagonist who is already famous in another writer’s book, on TV or in real life.
- Characters: quantity – don’t have too many characters in your stories. Two or three is usually enough for a short story. I read Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes At The Museum for a college course. The novel had about a dozen (eleven, from memory) different female characters. I ended up drawing a family tree (they were all related on the maternal side) and admit I was struggling but I persevered and was very glad I did… she became my favourite living author.
- Characters: viewpoint – even if you’re using omniscient third-person point of view, you must have a new section (blank line then new non-indented paragraph) if you’re changing point of view, i.e. if you’ve been in one character’s head in the earlier paragraph and now want to be in another.
- Clarity – How often have you read something and wished the author was available to run something by? As writers, we know what we mean by what we write but conveying it to the reader can be tricky. This is why it’s recommended to leave your writing for a while and asking others to read it so you can get their feedback as a first-time reader.
- Clichés – try to avoid clichés. It’s OK to have a character quoting the occasional well-worn phrase but the narrator shouldn’t. Try and find a better way of saying something we’ve heard a million times (to use a cliché!). The same goes for similes and metaphors. Rather than saying something was ‘as white as chalk / snow’ or ‘black as night / ink’, think of something else to replace the noun with. Your character could say something was as white as his / her mum’s face, which also tells us that her mother either uses too much make up, is naturally fair-skinned or is ill, and that his / her dog or cat is as black as his / her laptop. Just by having the words ‘as white as’ and ‘as dark as’ implies that they are extreme.
- Colours – it’s easy to forget to include colours in your writing, but adding them does make your writing feel more vivid. So rather than say brightly-coloured, tell the reader what colour something was and rather than say ‘red’, which can be any shade of red, tell us it’s russet, claret, pillar box etc., although a less cliched red would be better – you could compare it to something that people would know, e.g. the red was so bright, she looked like a walking phone box. That would also place the narrator as British. Also see ‘Adjectives’ on the Editing Tips page.
- Conflict / dilemma – there has to be some conflict or dilemma in your story. It doesn’t have to be world-ending but enough to cause an inconvenience to our character. In a women’s magazine story it could be something as simple as a washing machine going wrong or in Jason Bourne’s case he had amnesia and has people chasing him across the globe. How much conflict you have will also depend on the genre you write. I’ll be talking more about genre later.
- Consistency – unless you’re intentionally writing a character who is inconsistent, make sure you’re consistent with everything you write. If your character has blue eyes in chapter one, they’re not going to have green eyes in chapter twelve, unless in the meantime they’ve put in contact lenses.
- Copyright – generally words are all that are copyright. As soon as you write something, it becomes your property and your copyright. If you look at the publishing information page of any book (usually on the left-hand side of the first page of a book), you’ll see that the copyright lists the author as the owner. Names, titles and ideas are not copyright. You could write about a boy wizard but you wouldn’t be able to call him Harry Potter (not that you would want to anyway) because ‘Harry Potter’ has been trademarked.
- Description – there is a fine line between giving the reader too little and overloading them with too much detail. If you look out the nearest window and count how many objects there are (over twenty in my case), you wouldn’t need to include them all, just what is relevant to the story. There should be an approximate 50/50 split between description and dialogue. Description will slow down the pace whereas dialogue will speed it up. I talk about ‘pacing’ later.
- Dialogue: accents (also see ‘Slang’ below) – less is more; indicate where someone’s from but don’t have their entire speech in that accent (or slang speak) as you’ll alienate readers who don’t know that part of the country / world. That said, a piece should feel authentic so if you’re writing historical, your characters won’t speak as we do now but don’t go overboard, use just enough.
- Dialogue: keeping it real – remember that we don’t always talk in complete sentences. Have characters interrupt each other, which would be written with a dash where the first character is cut off, e.g. “I knew you were going to–” “What?” I’d recommend studying any fictional TV programme and see what they do. Soaps are good examples because they’re often fast moving and set in minimal locations, e.g. a street or area of a town so more dialogue than action / camera movement (the equivalent of description in a book).
- Dialogue: layout – each character should have its own paragraph when speaking so if you have two or more characters speaking, when they speak the text should appear on a separate paragraph.
- Don’t follow trends – unless you write really quickly, or have a passion for the current trend and want to write it anyway, don’t write what is popular at the time. While there will always be a market for vampires, some trends come and go so you may get on the clichéd band wagon too late and the agent / publisher you send it to say that too many people have written about this topic before. The lottery is one example but if you can come up with a different angle, they may be interested. Do your research (on search engines and online bookstores).
- Don’t worry, enjoy! – above all, have fun. Writing can be hard work so don’t give yourself a hard time if you get stuck (when I do, I just put ‘MORE HERE’ and carry on with another part of the novel), think you’re waffling (when I do that I still type it but
cross it throughso that I can return to it later and keep or delete) or think what your writing is terrible. In most cases, it won’t be as bad as you think and you’ll either leave it for a week (or three) then see that there are gems that can be rescued or ask someone you trust to give you their honest opinion, so they tell you why it does or doesn’t work. This may sound odd but I’d advice against having a character being bored or saying things like “this is boring” because it can encourage the reader to think the same, and perhaps that the writer was when they were writing it. 🙂
- Emotions – emotions are vital to any writing. If your characters are emotional, hopefully your reader will be too. Your characters should have dilemmas or conflicts in your stories and this will make them feel emotional… angry, worried, upset, resolute. Your reader should care about your characters so care what happens to them.
- Endings – endings are just as important, if not more so than beginnings. They have to tie up all the loose ends – unless you’re writing a series where questions will be answered in later books, you need to make sure that any queries the reader may have had about the plot through the book are answered by the end. They also need to leave the reader with some emotion; relief, pleasure, at the very least satisfaction. How many times have you thrown down a book (a paper one rather than electronic, hopefully) because you’d been disappointed by the ending. Not only have you invested money in what you’ve just read but also several hours of your time. Of course if the beginning and middle weren’t good enough to keep you motivated you may not have reached the end but if they were then it’s even more important to reward the reader for making it thus far. It wasn’t all a dream (thank you, Bobby Ewing) or the antagonist a figment of the protagonist’s imagination (aka Stephen King’s Secret Window). Everything has to make sense, to the point where the reader says, “Oh yes, of course!” or they go back looking for the clues and find them.
- Equipment – the great thing about being a writer is that you need very few ‘tools’. My simplest tip is to always carry a notebook (in every jacket pocket / bag) and two pens – in case one doesn’t work – because you never know when inspiration will strike. There’s nothing worse for a writer with a brilliant idea than to have had the best ever thought but have no way of recording it. If you’re like me, it will only take the most simple distraction to lose it… possibly forever.
- Exposition – I’ve been asked how to write first-person exposition, that is where the reader needs to be told facts that the character knows but without them repeating it, i.e. without saying (to another character), “As you know, Rick, when I lost my job I…” http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2013/05/23/writing-first-person is very good, http://www.longridgewritersgroup.com/rx/wc11/tinting_exposition_with_character.shtml is interesting. You don’t have to have the exposition in dialogue, you could have it in the description, e.g. ‘Losing her job changed her…’ (although that’s more tell than show), you can have it from another character in dialogue, e.g. ‘I thought you’d always hated your job. Never mind, you’ll get another.” (again quite weak). If you’re writing a first draft, I’d suggest just writing it then see how much you can take out afterwards. It’s all about context. If the reader can deduce from other events / dialogue that something specific has happened to a character then the telling of that event can go. It’s inevitably about reaction to the event that ‘shows’ the reader what happened.
- Finding time to write – try and find a regular time to write; early in the morning is best so you can add more later or so you have the satisfaction of having written before you go to work, take your children to work etc. You’ve had the statistic that 300 words equates to a novel a year. What’s happened in the last year? They fly by, don’t they. Just think that by putting aside a few minutes a day, you could have that novel done by this time next year.
- Flash Fiction – stories can be as short as six words. Ernest Hemingway, although not the first to write it, is the most famous with his ‘For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn’. Writing flash (usually under 1,000 words) or micro fiction (usually under 200 words) can be a great tool for creating your novel’s synopsis (one/two-page summary – including the ending!), elevator pitch (no more than 150 word summary) or tagline (<25-word teaser). The tagline for my chick-lit novel, ‘The Serial Dater’s Shopping List’ is ’31 men in 31 days – what could possibly go wrong?’. If re-written as a 6-worder, I would say ‘Isobel. Journalist. 31 men. 31 days.’ So, if you want a bit of fun, try the 6-word stories… and if you like them, I post them (<10 per author) on my blog on the last Friday of the month). See 6-word FFFs.
- Genres – don’t worry early on if you don’t know what genre you’re writing. You will need to know when you come to submit your story but for now, just write it. Generally, if a crime is the central focus (happening to or by your main character) then it will be a crime story but it could have elements of other genres; there could be romance (a love interest), thriller (the crime extends beyond the original location and become a chase), western (your story’s set in the Wild West) or historical (the crime happens in the 1800s).
- Inspiration – some writers struggle with ideas and find a blank page daunting but there are many simple ways to get ideas. Try morguefile.com for a variety of (free) photographs. A starry sky could lead to a romantic story about two (albeit clichéd) star-crossed lovers), a crime story about that couple being robbed or witnessing a murder. If they witnessed a UFO, that could make it science-fiction story, or give them a horse, saddle and open fire, it could be a western. As well as photographs, you could start with a single word: ‘hand’ could also make a romance or crime story. Sentence starts give you a beginning to lead on from. If you write with friends and / or a writing group, using the same beginning can be fun as you’ll usually go off in various directions. I post eight writing prompts on my blog’s main page (https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com) every weekday so forty a week – plenty of options to choose from.
- Journey – your character doesn’t have to go on an actual journey during the story (the films ‘Phone Booth’ and ‘Buried’ are perfect examples of this) but they will usually have learned something or become a better person by the end of it. Chris Vogler’s ‘The Writer’s Journey‘, although aimed at screenwriters, is a great book on this topic.
- Locations – locations often do vary depending upon genre. Thrillers, for example, tend to have a far wider geography than a romance or crime. Have a dead body in the beginning of your novel and the chances are that the police will concentrate on that area and find the killer lives within the vicinity. This can vary, of course, but the story should be about plot rather than location, although the locations can often be used as another character e.g. the Lake District, Edinburgh, Dartmoor etc. Locations can often determine the type of story e.g. you’d usually have a horror set in a graveyard rather than a romance but there’s nothing stopping you have two lovers meeting there. Locations can be inside or outside; Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ mainly takes place in a room, Agatha Christie’s ‘The Orient Express’ takes place on a train, and the Bourne trilogy / Mission Impossible / James Bond films take place in several countries.
- Metaphors and similes – these are very similar and it’s not surprising that people get confused. Similes most common and are ‘as slow as’ or ‘like a’ so something’s being compared as something else (that it’s similar too). A metaphor is more direct; for example, ‘he was a mountain of a man’, so although the man is being compared to a mountain, the narrator is saying he is one.
- Middles – writing the middles of novels is hard. You have to join the starts with the ends in such a way that your reader cares about your characters and wants to know what happens next, so they turn the page, and keep turning. So, how can you fix your ‘saggy’ middle? Think about what’s happened so far… What is your conflict or dilemma facing your character? Is it a complex enough one that when the character tries to do something about it they make matters worse? Does something outside of the character’s control make it worse? Do you have enough characters? Can you introduce a new character that will complicate (in a bad or good way) the plot? I talk more about middles in my ‘Creative Writing – Intermediate’ course.
- Non-fiction – you may think that you don’t know enough about a topic to write about it. This may be the case for a whole book but you can write articles. Apart from building your writing CV, they can inspire your fiction.
- Pacing – there should be peaks and troughs in your writing, especially longer pieces such as novels. Have too much action for too long and your reader will find it exhausting, have it too slow and they’ll get bored and you run the risk of them pressing the ‘home’ or ‘library’ icon . I talk more about pacing in my ‘Creative Writing – Intermediate’ and ‘Writing Genres’ courses.
- Poetry – your poetry doesn’t have to rhyme and making it do so is a tough ask for beginner poets because some writers will invert the line endings or have too few or too many words on a line which then doesn’t sound right when read out. Rhythm is everything in poetry and reading aloud is essential. As with prose, you can write about anything in poetry, often the world around you. As with flash / micro fiction, writing poetry is a great tool for prose writers as it will make you think about every word you use. Does it serve a purpose? I cover poetry in my ‘Creative Writing – Beginners’ course and look at the shorter forms of haiku, Fibonacci and limericks. http://www.rhymedesk.com and http://www.rhymezone.com are great resources for poets of every level.
- Points of view – most people think of there just being two points of view: first (I/we) and third (he/she/they) but there’s also second person (you). Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative_mode. Whatever point of view you’re writing in, make sure you keep in that point of view within the same section. If you switch point of view, i.e. moving from first person (I) to the narrator talking about the main character (protagonist) or from third person about the protagonist to another character, perhaps the baddie (antagonist), then you will need to leave a clear line and start a new section (the first paragraph of which would be flush to the left then subsequent paragraphs indented – see ‘Layout’ below). Then if / when you switch back to the original point of view you would do the same thing; leave a clear line then start a new section (with the same formatting; flush first line, indented subsequent lines). Some authors write differing / alternate points of view in differing / alternate chapters (Judith Allnatt’s 1970’s novel ‘A Mile of River’ does this). Having the same point of view within the same section (and it doesn’t matter how short your section is) runs the risk of a reader thinking that the alternate viewpoint is from the original character’s point of view but thinking about themselves or another character. This is one piece of advice given by London agent Carole Blake on the part one video on the home page of http://wannabeawritertvshow.com.
- Purple prose – you may have heard of this term. It refers to too-fancy writing. Keep it simple. Your readers will be interested in the story than how it’s written. If it’s bogged down by flowery writing, unnecessary or overly-technical research, too much description or scenes that don’t enhance the characters or move the plot forward, your reader could feel overwhelmed and stop reading.
- Research – get your facts right. If you don’t, someone will be sure to let you know! Either that or once they find an error they may not believe that everything else is correct, or at least feasible. These days we’re so lucky that we have the internet to turn to but use at least one site to ensure your information is accurate.
- Repetition – 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.
- Sentence lengths – vary the length of your sentences. Short, snappy sentences make for pacier reading. Longer sentences are ideal when you want to slow down the action… perhaps for dramatic effect e.g. in suspense stories. Try and avoid having the noun (e.g. character’s name, He, She…) at the beginning of the sentence too often. It’ll feel like a list.
- Sentence fragments – it’s a writer’s personal choice to use fragmented sentences (e.g. He used the brush. The brush that she’d used in her hair moments before.) instead of separating with a comma. (I prefer the latter.) Grammatically it’s incorrect for sentences on their own not to make sense but it highlights the emphasis in the subsequent paragraphs so it’s a ‘tool’.
- Show vs. tell – 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 he feels. If you wrote ‘Andy slammed his fist onto the table’ and / or ‘Get out!’ you are. The best way for a writer to write characters is by having them doing or saying. Readers will stick with you if they feel (love or hate!) for your protagonist (the main character, usually a good guy / gal) or antagonist (the bad guy / gal or at least someone who puts a dilemma or problem in our protagonist’s way so they have to overcome it. So, the doing; as I have above, your character should act angry (sad, happy, etc) and the saying, if they’re angry have them shout (don’t have them shouting too loudly or certainly not swearing if you’re submitting to the likes of the gentle People’s Friend). There’s a great article on this writing essential here.
- Slang – thanks to David Miller for asking this question (below in the comments section): “What’s your take on using pop slang in a novel when characters are talking like “Ok lemme know …” Or ” Sheesh! you don’t wanna do that” I think the meaning is obvious n it’s adds authenticity to the conversation but some purists may disagree I guess.”. I answered thus: “I have a bit on accents on the page and the same refers to slang. Less is definitely more. If a reader has to try to work out what the characters are saying, it’s going to pull them out of the story or at least slow them down. You don’t want anything that can distract them from the (hopefully) fast pace of your novel. I’d say OK for a minor character where they have two or three lines. The thing about dialogue is that it should tell us about the character by what they say. Slang is a good way of ‘placing’ someone.”
- Social media – social media can be a great source of inspiration and of course, a brilliant way of finding an audience for your writing. If you want to talk writing on Twitter, http://www.bookmarketingservices.org/ultimate-list-of-author-specific-hashtags is a useful list of hashtags (the # symbol alongside topics), a great way of people finding your content.
- Song lyrics – including lyrics in a piece is always tricky because if your story was self-published, you’d probably have to ask permission from the songwriter’s agent / record company, and maybe pay a royalty fee (usually steep for a well-known song). Submitting to a competition would be the organisation’s responsibility to check because they’d be the one publishing it. Quoting a song’s title is fine because titles aren’t copyright.
- Synopses – it’s useful to write a synopsis for your novel (not usually needed for short stories unless you’re pitching a series) because it helps you shape it. By that, I mean that it gives you a start middle and end. A synopsis is what you’d send an agent or publisher, where it includes the ending because they will want to know that it works. It’s different to a book jacket blurb because you wouldn’t want the reader to know what happens or they might not buy the book! Writing an outline per chapter for your novel is handy too because you can see how it progresses. You can do this before, during and after you write your book and it will likely change at each stage (and thereafter as you re-draft, edit and edit some more). You may also have heard of taglines (usually your book in about 20 words) and an elevator pitch (how to ‘sell’ your book to an agent travelling no more than three floors of a hotel), about 100-150 words. Whatever you can prepare in advance of writing will help you as you go along. That said I’m still a pantser, where I get an idea and go with it. As crime novelist (of Vera, Sheland and more), Ann Cleeves, said, she doesn’t know what happens at the end of her novels until she’s written them because if it’s a surprise to her, it’ll be a surprise to her readers. A good plan. 🙂
- Tenses – in theory this is easy, with ‘he went’ as past, ‘he goes’ as present and ‘he will go’ as future but you may have a section where you’re looking back. Generally if you’re writing in the past tense anyway and are reflecting just use the past perfect, ‘had been’ (or equivalent) for a couple of sentences so the reader knows it’s previous to the story then slip back into simple past tense or it’ll become heavy reading. You can then start a new paragraph / section break to return to the original timing.
- Titles – finding a title for your masterpiece is often harder than writing the story / poem. You could start off with a title in mind and then find that it doesn’t suit it at all; because the title does have to encapsulate the piece. I used to write a short story a day for my 5pm Fiction slot and quite often the title would be a phrase from the piece which leapt out as I was writing it. All that said, don’t be too precious about the title you’ve chosen because quite often the publisher will change it anyway (and you’d likely have no say in the matter).
- Unreliable narrator – Wikipedia describes this as “is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised… Sometimes the narrator’s unreliability is made immediately evident. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to the character’s unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story’s end. This twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator’s unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted. An exception is an event that did not or could not happen, told within the fictionalized historical novels, speculative fiction, or clearly delineated dream sequences. Narrators describing them are not considered unreliable.” Wikipedia’s examples in novels include Nabokov’s Lolita, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby.
- Verbs – try and make verbs as simple as possible. Avoid adverbs (see above) where you can so instead of saying ‘he walked slowly’ say ‘he plodded’ or ‘he shuffled’. Also unless something is happening ongoing change ‘she was smiling’ to ‘she smiled’ (or ‘she is smiling’ to ‘she smiles’ in present tense). The tighter you can make your writing, the better and the quicker a read (even if it’s not, it’ll feel like it) for your reader. Also use simple past (e.g. he walked) rather than continuous past (e.g. he was walking) unless it’s for a specific reason.
- What if? – make an ordinary situation extraordinary. Of course it doesn’t have to be extraordinary but something has to happen. You see the postman/woman walking up your path holding a parcel. What if he / she wasn’t a postman / woman? What if he / she was but knew what was in the parcel? Are they smiling / grimacing?
- Writer’s block – it depends on whether you get stuck before you start, i.e. no idea for a story, or whether you’re mid-project. For the former, I post writing prompts which I know helps a variety of authors, especially those starting out. If stuck mid-story, I’d recommend moving on to something unrelated – another story or non-writing – then coming back to it or add another character, dilemma or location. If you know something that happens in a later chapter then put ‘more here’ and come back to it. You can then search for your ‘more here’s and by then hopefully be able to continue them and / or by moving on you will be able to piece what happens in between.
- Write what you know – ‘they’ say to write what you know and it’s true. Every day life will give you some great inspiration. Sitting on a bus or waiting room can provide you with characters, conversation, objects to write about. Reality programmes are made because they will be fascinating to watch, whether it’s someone getting married, doing an interesting job or being plonked on an almost-deserted island and being made to fend for themselves.
- You’ve written the story – when you’ve finished your story, think about…
– Is the main character likeable? Even if he or she isn’t, the reader has to care what happens to them.
– Unless it’s flash fiction, do you have a start, middle and end?
– Does the ending work? If you’re writing a sequel, you can leave sub-plots left open to be resolved subsequently but the main plot will usually be tied up, or at least hinted at. Or vice versa; the sub-plots are resolved but the main plot will be resolved thereafter.
– Is there enough action for the reader to be wanting to read on?
– Have you avoided repetition unless it’s to emphasise?
– Do you have the five senses? You won’t always have taste, touch and smell (as well as sight and sound) but if you can get them in (naturally), all the better.
– Do you have plenty of colour? Try to use russet, scarlet etc rather than red.
- Finally… read it aloud again (and / or get someone else* to do so) and spell / grammar check. When you’re happy with it… or as happy as you can be… then it can go. I have lists of various outlets within the Submission info. of this blog. Good luck! * an honest friend / family member and / or a text-to-speech app (Macs and Kindle Fires have this facility built in)
And advice from two (other) experts: Top 10 tips for being a best-selling author by Sophie Kinsella and PD James. Interesting that they both say not to divulge the plot to anyone until it’s finished. Also Top 10 tips for writing a Hollywood blockbuster by Tony Gilroy (who wrote the scripts for The Devil’s Advocate, Armageddon and the Bourne films).
EDITING – I have many (over 70) editing tips on this sub-page.
LAYOUT (this can vary from publisher to publisher but the notes below are the standard)
- Dialogue: layout – each character should have its own paragraph when speaking so if you have two or more characters speaking, when they speak the text should appear on a separate paragraph.
- Font – usually in Times New Roman or Arial, pitch font size 12. If you’re eBooking, either is fine for Amazon but Smashwords prefers Garamond.
- Italics – if you have a character thinking, you’d usually use italics. You can also use it for quoting names in your story, such as a restaurant or book title.
- Justification: left side – pick up a book of fiction (especially a recent one) and you’ll see that the first paragraph of any chapter is not indented but the rest are. This is fairly standard across the board and how agents / editors would want to see your manuscripts laid out. The indented space should equate to 2-3 spaces maximum. You can adjust this by moving your ‘first line indent’ tab on your ruler (if you’re using Word or equivalent, it looks like a diamond-triangle) across 2-3 spaces from the left. You would need to move this back (or press your backspace key once) when you create a blank line between paragraphs or start a new section.
- Justification: right side – your document doesn’t have to be right-hand justified. It’s actually best not to because if you have a line with some long words, it’ll create too many spaces between them as it stretches them across the page.
- Spacing: paragraph – some writers are tempted to leave a gap when they’re changing character speech or a different topic but you would just use a new line. Generally you’d only use a new paragraph (with a blank line in between) when there has been a passage of time. You must however, have a new section (blank line then new non-indented paragraph) if you’re changing point of view, i.e. if you’ve been in one character’s head in the earlier paragraph and now want to be in another.
- Spacing: words/sentences – another kind of spacing: spaces between words. One. Old school (when I first started my secretarial training) was for two spaces but text these days is just separated by one space, even sentences.
- Speech marks vs inverted commas – I’m either old school or just plain English but to me, speech marks (” “) are for speech and inverted commas (‘ ‘) for names, speech within speech marks etc. Either way, you would use one for dialogue and the other for pretty much everything else. As long as you’re consistent you can use either. Remember though that the punctuation in dialogue is different, e.g. “It wasn’t the only one,” he said, scratching his head. The comma there goes inside the speech marks whereas if you use them as a name: My latest book, ‘The Serial Dater’s Shopping List’, is a chick lit. the comma would go outside because it’s not dialogue. I often get mixed up with dialogue punctuation as it doesn’t follow ‘normal’ rules so have a look in any book and you should be able to see an example of what you’re looking for.
- Submitting your manuscript – if you’re submitting to a competition, you mustn’t have your name on the document. You should if you’re submitting elsewhere. These days, you’re likely to submit via email so it will remain one document but if you’re sending a printed document, I’d recommend having your name in the footer (on the left-hand side, and the page number on the right-hand side) and the title of your novel in the middle of the top header. Rules for eBooking are different (especially page numbers – you shouldn’t use them – because eReaders will have their own numbering system depending on what font the reader themselves use to view the document) and I mention them here.
- http://www.marlyspearson.com/formatting_101.htm is a great guide targeted at submissions for US agents / publishers although much of it is relevant for the UK.
BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER
- 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. I have some writing group tips on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/writing-groups.
- Subscribe to writing magazines, go to workshops, literary festivals. If you want to write, immerse yourself in all things literary.
- A bit of a wild card but do you ever want to include phone numbers in your fiction and put random numbers in the hope they’re not real? If so, Ofcom.org.uk states that in the UK 01632 (then usually six digits) isn’t used and in the U.S. the equivalent is 555 and http://home.earthlink.net/~mthyen lists a load used in the movies / on TV. Now you know. 🙂
- Know your audience: If, say, you’re writing for UK women’s magazines, know what level of a dilemma you can use for the likes of People’s Friend (gentle) to Woman’s Weekly or Take a Break (crime, spine chillers etc).
- I’ve been asked about copyright and http://mistakeswritersmake.blogspot.com/p/copyright.html explains this well. Unless the author sells it, copyright will always stay with them until 75 years after their death. This means anyone reprinting their (your) writing, has to have permission until after that date, and well-known authors will usually have estates who will have continued their copyright thereafter. If you sell something, or donate a piece of work to a charity anthology, you’re not giving away (or selling) your copyright but the rights (usually ‘first serial rights’) for them to print it but make sure you know to what extent. Usually with shorter pieces, such as fiction in magazines, you can then sell ‘second serial rights’ after a year) but check your contract. So, if you’ve been asked to give over (or sell) your copyright, I’d say don’t, unless they’re offering you lots of money or it’s something you don’t mind ‘giving’ away. If it’s for a short amount of time (though that seems strange to me), I’d say get someone in the know to read the contract to ensure that it would unequivocally be reverted to you. If your piece appears in an anthology it should appear in the credits / acknowledgements as copyright your name, e.g. (c) Joanne Smith. If you’ve been offered a novel publishing contract (or sold a certain number of books), you can apply to be a member of the Society of Authors (UK only) and although it costs £90pa to belong, it’s worth it for the free (ongoing) legal advice.
- Synopses – see above.
- Titles – see above.
- Perhaps most obviously is write. Even if you haven’t got much (or anything) to say, if you start putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, something will come out. Even if it’s appalling (a lot of my early writing was), you can’t edit a blank page.
There are many more examples I could give you (and I will put more on this page), 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 having fun. When your characters take over (and they will) you’ll have the time of your life!
I also have a tip of the week (so that’s 52 tips!) in my 365-day Writer’s Block Workbook (Volume 1), just $0.99 (or it should be, the most it would be is $1.49).
Let me know if you have any specific queries. You can Ask Me or my email address is below. What are your writing essentials? Do let us know.
Other useful tips (in alphabetical order of site name):
- http://www.advicetowriters.com has loads of advice and a great list of ‘Rules and Commandments’ on the left-hand vertical menu.
- Publisher Apostrophe Books has some great advice for authors from Hunter S Thompson, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.
- https://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops was mentioned (very favourably, and you’ll see why) in one of the Writing Excuses podcasts.
- http://www.theshortstory.net/submission-guidelines (underneath the competition guidelines.
- http://www.wordsbyevanporter.com/writing-tips-from-famous-writers lists ’19 Amazing Writing Tips from Famous Writers’
- Do you know of other tips sites? If so, do email me.