Some weeks, I look up what letter I’m supposed to be writing a post about and wonder why I thought it would be a good idea to write a weekly writing blog based on an A-Z.
This is one of those weeks.
There aren’t that many writing-related subjects beginning with O.
I thought of ‘onomatopoeia but wondered just how much I could write about words that describe the sound of what they name (bang, cuckoo, splash, slap, rustle, etc).
Or I could write something about oxymorons, where the meanings of a phrase contradict each other (deafening silence, open secret, honest thief, etc.).
In the end, I settled on outlines.
I use outlines.
There, I said it (waits for my pantser friends to stop walking by with protest signs saying, ‘down with this sort of thing,’ against the constraints of outlines).
When I first started writing, I didn’t use outlines at all. I would sit down and write whatever came into my head. It felt wonderful and liberating, but after a while I would run out of ideas, or write myself into a corner, or get totally off-track and lost. Before I started outlining, I never managed to get a novel past about 40,000 words before one of those things happened.
When I talk about outlining, I’m not talking about plotting out every little bit of a story before sitting down to write it. That would be far too time consuming, and would take the thrill of discovery-writing away. No, I start with the concept of a story and ask myself these questions:
How does it start?
How does it end?
Once I know these two things, I sit and think about what has to happen for my character to get from the first point, to the last. This is usually a series of steps, and I use these for my chapter outline.
And that’s about it. I use my characters to get me from one step to the next, writing freely. Sometimes, my free-writing will reveal something that wasn’t in the original outline. At that point, I’ll decide whether it’s something I want to keep, and if I do, I’ll alter the outline to accomodate the new plot point, or character.
For example, in The Lost Weaver, I wanted a minor antagonist to make Kestrel’s life more difficult as she tries to fulfil her plot-line. So, I wrote in a fellow bounty-hunter who had a vendetta against her, and who interfered with her business at every opportunity. However, as anyone who’s beta-read the novel will tell you, he becomes so much more than just a pain in her neck (no, he’s not a romantic interest either). This was something that revealed itself as I wrote the novel, and I liked it so much I went back and reworked the plot to give him more prominence, and to foreshadow what happens, so that it doesn’t come as a total surprise to the reader.
I’ve also started outlining short stories as well. Instead of just writing the story and having it turn into a non-story, I’ll brainstorm in my notebook on what I want the shape of the story to be, and then I’ll start to write it. Again, this doesn’t mean that the story is set in stone – it just means it has a little structure to start with. If it doesn’t work, I can change it as I go, but having a goal to work towards helps me keep going.
Outlining has been a life-saver for a procrastinator like me. It helps me to stay on track and finish a piece of work. I know it’s not for everyone, but for someone who’s easily distracted, has helped me a great deal.
What’s your favourite way of writing? Are you an outliner or a pantser, or – like me – do you use both to your advantage?
When we speak of a narrator, we’re talking about the person, or entity, telling the story. Depending on the type of story, there are different types of narrator.
There’s no one narrator, or narrative voice that’s better than the others. They all have their good and bad points and they all have their techniques. It’s a matter of finding out what fits the story, and what you as a writer find most useful.
And, sometimes, it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and try something new. I’m going to go over some of the more common types below. If you do decide to try them, hopefully this will help!
First Person Narrator
With a first person narrator, the story is told from the point of view of the main, or central character – although it has been used from an ‘observer’ point of view, of someone watching events unfold, such as the story of a hero knight, told from the point of view of their squire. It can also be from the point of view of someone telling the story, after the fact, of a story they’ve heard. Mostly, however, it’s the story of the main viewpoint character.
We know when we’re reading a first person narrative when we see ‘I said,‘ instead of ‘he/she said’. This is a very close point of view. The reader is right inside the mind of the narrator, seeing their thoughts and knowing everything that’s going on in their observation. However, it is limited to that one character and we can only know what they know.
“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.” – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The first person narrator, can also be an Unreliable Narrator. Because we can only know what the character knows and sees, if they jump to a wrong conclusion, then so does the reader.
Or perhaps the narrator sees the situation in a particular way, that’s at odds with the way everyone else might see it. In this case, you’re still only getting one point of view, but it’s twisted because the narrator isn’t necessarily telling the truth. They aren’t keeping anything from the reader – they can’t, because the reader is in their mind, watching the story unfold – but what they see as the truth, isn’t necessarily the actual truth.
In The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, the unreliable narrator is believes something about himself that isn’t true, and tells the story from that point of view. It’s not until later in the novel, when the narrator makes a discovery, that we and the narrator discover that the opposite is true. I won’t give out spoilers, because it’s a good, dark read. But here’s a quote from the novel:
“My greatest enemies are Women and the Sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men and are nothing compared to them, and the Sea because it has always frustrated me, destroying what I have built, washing away what I have left, wiping clean the marks I have made.”
– The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Second Person Narrator
This is a less-often used narrative voice, where the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, putting them into the story. It’s not easy to pull off, and while I’ve attempted stories in second person, I’ve never been happy enough with them to submit them for publication. I’m going to keep trying though. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of a novel told in second person.
” Four P.M.
The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the worst day of your life. Or so you think. It isn’t the worst day of your life, but you think it is. And when you give voice to that thought, it is with conviction and a minimum of rhetorical embellishment.” Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas – Tom Robbins.
Third Person Limited Narrator
If the first person narrator is looking out from the viewpoint character’s eyes, and therefore is the voice of the character, then the third person limited narrator is looking over the viewpoint character’s shoulder. They know what the character is thinking, they can see what the character is seeing, and the narrative has all the nuances of the character’s voice, but it is not the character. In this narrative, the writer is acting as a conduit for the reader to see the character, rather than relating the story as the character. We know this because they use ‘he/she said/says.’
Here’s the opening of a short story I’m working on, in third person limited. The narrator in this case is Edie. Hopefully, I get close enough to her to let her personality come through in her internal narrative.
“It began with a bird house.
“Miss Edie, come and see!” Vani called her into the garden, beaming all over her face. Something she seldom did these days.
“What have I told you about calling me miss?” The scolding was half-hearted, futile: no matter how many times Edie had told Vani she despised titles, the woman insisted.
“But miss is what you are, is it not? It is what we both are.”
Edie held her tongue. Vani was technically correct. She had never married, but that didn’t mean she should wear the title like a badge of shame, a declaration to the world that no man had ever found her worthy. Why couldn’t she be known simply as Edie? Not that she should be laying the blame for society’s insistence on labels at Vani’s feet. The poor dear couldn’t help taking everything so literally; it was just the way her brain worked.”
A third person limited narator, like first person, can also be unreliable. Because we’re so close to the character and we can only see from their point of view, the character can make incorrect assumptions and the reader won’t know the assumption is incorrect until the character does. This is especially useful if you want to add a twist to your story. For instance, if you wanted make your reader think that a particular character was an antagonist, you’d let your viewpoint character see that other character do something suspicious, like stealing shoes from the door of a hotel room. Then, later, you might reveal that the character was actually taking the shoes to be mended.
Third Person Multiple Narrators
This is similar to the third person limited narrator, in that the writer brings us close to a particular character, except that throughout the novel the viewpoint changes to different characters, from scene to scene, or chapter to chapter. A good example of this is George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and other novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin uses quite a few narrators to tell an epic story.
Third Person Omniscient Narrator
This narrator is the storyteller, a specific entity, unrelated to the main, or central characters, and has a distinctive voice. They know everything that’s going on in a story and will likely adopt a conversational tone, because they are telling you a story. A third person omniscient narrator is usefull to allow the reader to see the way different characters percieve the same event. It’s the most distant viewpoint of all, however, and doesn’t allow the reader to see the characters’ direct thoughts. Terry Pratchett employs the omniscient narrator well.
“It was a moonless night, which was good for the purposes of Solid Jackson.
He fished for Curious Squid, so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious. That is to say, their curiosity was the curious thing about them.
Shortly after they got curious about the lantern that Solid had hung over the stern of his boat, they started to become curious about the way in which various of their number suddenly vanished skywards with a splash.” – Jingo by Terry Pratchett
In the above example, the narrator takes us from Solid to the squid and gives us a general idea of how they feel. For Solid, the moonless night is a good thing, but for the squid, their curiosity is not so good. Much of Pratchett’s storytelling starts this way and then moves closer, especially when he’s focusing on a particular character. Then, he’ll move into a more limited narration. Imagine a camera that opens on a wide panorama and them moves closer and closer until it focuses on one person. A writer can change the narration in that way, to suit the needs of the story.
What third person omnisicent doesn’t do, is head hop. This is where the narrator gets close enough to a character to be in third person limited viewpoint, and then jumps to the thoughts of the next character. This can be confusing because the reader doesn’t know who they’re supposed to be following.
If you’re writing in third person ominiscient, you use the voice of the narrator and tell the reader what the character is thinking; if you’re writing in third person limited you’ll use the character’s voice and let the reader see what the character is thinking.
If you are going to write a third person limited narrative, it’s probably best to stick to one character per scene, or at least have a definite break, where you switch. It could be something as simple as having the viewpoint character hand something to another character, who then becomes the viewpoint.
I try to experiment with different narrators, and voices, until I find the one that suits the story best, but I do find that third person limited, or multiple is where I’m most at home. What about you? What’s your favourite narrative style?
I’m a day late updating the blog this week. An idea for a story caught hold of me and wouldn’t leave me alone all weekend until I had completed the first draft. It’s rare that they come to me like that, so I had to comply. It’s quite a long story, and has themes of motherhood and empowerment, along with strong mythological influences. It still needs a lot of work before Ican start sending it out on submission, but I’m pleased with the shape it has taken.
Which brings me to this week’s subject: how to prepare your writing for submission to publications, agents or publishers. While most have their own submission guidelines, they will nearly always ask for submissions to be in standard manuscript format.
So, what is that?
If you google the subject, you’ll find lots of answers to that question, including William Shunn’s excellent advice, which hasn’t much changed. But you won’t go far wrong if you use at least the following:
Standard font: Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, etc, set at 12 pt.
A4 size paper (letter in the US)
Double line spacing.
2.5 cm (1 inch) margins all round.
If you’re in the UK, you’ll need a cover page, with your name, address and contact details in the top left corner and the word count in the top right. In the middle of the page, you’ll want the title of your story, and underneath, your name, or nom de plume.
If you’re in the US, you’ll need all that on the top half of the page, and start your story half way down.
At the top of every page after the first or cover page, you’ll need to have your last name, the title and the page number:
This is so that if any pages come loose, they can be matched up to the right manuscript. On a UK manuscript, this would start on page 1 because the cover page is not counted. On a US manuscript, this would be page 2 as the story starts halfway down the first page.
If a publication calls for blind submissions, it means they don’t want any information that reveals your identity. Some do this because then they are not biased by the writer and can judge the story on its merits. When submitting blind, you still use standard manuscript format, but your submission will only have the word count, title and page numbers from the above examples, and none of the identifying information.
It used to be the case that two spaces were required after a full stop (period), but most places these days will ask for one. As someone who learned to type when two spaces were the norm, I find it difficult to train my thumb to hit the spacebar only once so I don’t try. Instead, when I’m editing, I use ‘find and replace’ to change all the double spaces to single ones.
There was also a rule that italics must be underlined, but these days most places will accept manuscripts wth italics. It’s always best to check their submission guidelines to make sure, though.
Paragraphs should always be set so that the first line is a half inch, or 1.27 centimeters indented. In Word, you can set the formatting to do this automatically every time you hit the enter key.
I can’t stress enough that you should always read the submission guidelines. It will save your story from being rejected without being read. It might still get rejected (I’ve had far more rejections than acceptances), but at least you’ve given it every chance to succeed.
If you haven’t submitted before, I hope this helps. Now get those stories out there!
When you’re writing a character who isn’t from where you are, one of the best ways to convey their origin is the language they use. Since I’m writing in English, my characters will always speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t add a little flavour, and within English there are many different dialects and accents.
So how do you let the reader know that someone in a story is from a particular place, without doing the obvious and telling them, ‘hey, this character is from London,’ or, ‘this person is from Mexico?’
One way to do this is to mostly use English, but throw in the odd dialect word, or a word from another language. Use dialect, but don’t overdo the accent or it will be hard to understand.
‘E were nowt burra big babby. I telt ‘im ta sling ‘is ‘ook burre wunt. ‘E just kept on whingeing about not gettin’ enough respect.
Being from south Yorkshire, I can understand that, but others who aren’t used to the accent might have difficulty. Let’s try it with dialect but lose some of the glottal stops and dropped h and g sounds.
He was such a baby. I told him to sling his hook but he wouldn’t leave. He just kept on whingeing about not getting enough respect.
The second version is a bit easier to read, but I’ve kept the dialect words such as ‘sling his hook’ and ‘whingeing’. I also gave context for the meaning of ‘sling his hook’ by saying ‘he wouldn’t leave.
Ear mate, wotcha fink abart goin’ darn the pub forra bevy?
The above seems a bit ‘Dick van Dyke’, if you get my meaning. If we take away the exaggerated accent, it becomes:
Fancy going down the pub for a bevy?
We’ve kept the speech pattern of ‘going down the pub’ and ‘bevy’ (which, since we’re going to a pub is – by context – obviously a drink).
So now we’ve got a couple of British accents, how about someone from another country? Here’s my take on someone from Mexico.
I waved to get the flight attendant’s attention. She smiled and held up her hand, and said, “Momentito.”
I waited until she finished helping the other passenger. When she turned to me, I asked, “do you speak English?”
She held up her forefinger and thumb pinched together. “Un poquito.” She grinned.
We can see that she means ‘a little bit’ by the action she makes for ‘un poquito’ and the same goes for her putting up a hand as if to say, ‘wait a moment’ when she says, ‘momentito’. Plus, the word sounds similar to ‘moment’. It’s enough to show she’s not English without going into too much detail or dwelling on an accent.
How about German?
Some people might make a big deal of writing every ‘w’ sound as a ‘v’, or every ‘th’ as a ‘z’ but it comes out quite stereotypical if we do that.
I gave her the moeny we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “Zis is vonderful!” she said, hugging me. “Zank you! Zank you my friend!”
I gave her the money we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “This is wonderful!” she said, hugging me. “Danke! Danke mein freund.”
Instead of using stereotypical accents, we use the language itself. The words are commonly known, and sound similar enough to their English counterparts that we can see what she means, especially alongside the actions. Again, it’s all about the context.
This is an especially useful method to use when writing fantasy, especially if your fantasy is set in another world. Rather than make up new words for everything, it’s probably best to choose a few important words and put them in a context where it’s obvious what they mean.
I’ll leave you with a partial scene from something I’m working on. Can you tell what’s going on here? What do you think the word ‘hekesha’ means?
“I loved her, yes.” Laera hung her head. “But that isn’t why I ran away.”
“Hekesha!” Her father shrieked.
Still she did not look at him, not even at the sound of tearing cloth. She did not need to look to know that he had torn off his sleeve and cast it at her feet. The ultimate in rejection. He had disowned her in front of the entire court.
I see the advice ‘keep it simple’ a lot, and it’s good advice, mostly.
It’s also often misinterpreted, or misused, when it relates to writing.
Some people say it means using only small words, to be more easily understood. Others recommend small sentences, to avoid losing the reader in rambling prose. Others still, insist that it means to write without embellishment or much description, like Hemingway.
In all honesty, all of the above might work, or it might not. It’s more simple than that. When we say, ‘keep it simple’, all we mean is ‘make it easily understood’.
There’s nothing worse than being pulled out of a story by a writer’s failure to communicate clearly. Re-reading a sentence or paragraph, trying to work out what’s going on, is one of the number one reasons I will put a story down and probably not pick it up again.
It’s not always about vocabulary. You can expect the average reader to know what most commonly used words mean, and if they come across a less commonly used word, you can expect them to look up the meaning. It’s how I expanded my vocabulary, at least. Of course, using a lot of big, or unusual words, where the reader has to resort to the dictionary too many times, might become an annoyance. My advice would always be to use the right word for the job. That word could be ‘noise’ or it could be ‘cacophony’, depending on what you’re trying to convey.
It’s not always about sentence length, either. In fact, varying sentence length is a good idea – it stops the prose from becoming monotonous. Don’t believe me?
This paragraph is made up of sentences of ten words. Not nine words, or eleven words, but exactly ten words. Count them if you don’t think I’m telling the truth. Tell me, have you noticed anything about the sentences yet. They’re all starting to become a little boring, aren’t they?
If we use sentences of a uniform length in an effort to keep them short, they start to sound the same and it’s harder to keep our attention focused. If we vary the length, it’s less noticeable. We can keep focus for longer. We follow the story instead of noticing the writing.
Sentence length can also be used as a narrative tool. If you want a relaxed, calm atmosphere, you can use longer sentences to convey a sense of tranquility, or of lingering in a moment. Your characters aren’t in a hurry if they’re stopping to admire the scenery and noticing small things like initials carved into a tree, or the way the tips of a willow’s branches brush the surface of the pond, like a caress. If your character is in danger, or angry, then short, terse sentences are key. They carry the action. They set the tone. Fragments work too. Especially. Just. One. Word.
Keeping it simple is not about using less description, either. How much description to use depends a great deal on the story itself and the mood you want to set. If you want to create a picture of a stark room, you’ll use language that conveys that picture. White, unadorned walls. A couple of bare wooden chairs. A cold tiled floor. No curtains, bare bulb, etc. If you want to create a picture of opulence, you’d probably go into more detail and talk about how the rich fabric of the curtains hung, or the sparkling chandeliers, polished marble, lavish upholstery.
Perhaps we mean the plot? Well, yes and no. Some plots are quite linear, some twist and turn all over the place. Both are enjoyable and both have their good and bad points. What all kinds of plots have to do, however, is make sense. Don’t show the character having a fear of deep water in act one and then have them swim across a river in act two, unless there’s a good reason for doing so (like their arch nemesis has chased them to a river bank and they have nowhere else to go).
So, how do we ‘keep it simple’?
We use the right tools for the job. The right words to paint the picture you want the reader to see. The right amount of description to set the scene, the right sentence length to set the pace. Make it understandable. Read the sentence aloud – if you trip over it, your reader is going to trip over it. Make sure the punctuation is correct. Make sure the word you use conveys the exact meaning you want to give. Make sure that you, the writer, don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell.
I can imagine that you’re reading this and thinking ‘this isn’t simple!’ and you’re right, it’s not. But that’s the trick. We, the writers, do all the hard work so that all the reader has to do is read.
There’s something satisfying about writing things down. Not typing onto a computer; the act of physically, taking a pen and writing something down. I used to do this a lot when I was younger, before I had a computer, or a typewriter (yes, I’m old enough to remember those). I would sit and write in notebooks all the time. Writing stories, or just my thoughts.
Even those terribly emo poems I wrote as a teenager, about love and death, and how miserable life was.
It wasn’t just creative writing. It was a way of taking the emotions I was feeling deep inside and examining them in the light. Why did I feel that way? Was it me? Or was my reaction to something justified? Sometimes, simply writing it all down allowed me to get it off my chest and move on. It allowed me to talk through the things I didn’t feel I could discuss with anyone. Most of the time, though, it helped me to work through my issues and realise they weren’t as bad as I thought, or simply not worth the attention I was giving them.
Somewhere along the line, I discovered that I could write more with a computer because my fingers flew over the keys and I could write as fast as I could think, and that was that. I stopped writing journals. I would write emails or forum posts to the people who made me angry, and then delete them without sending. That became my catharsis. Sometimes, I’d actually hit send, or post. This is never a good idea, because you always end up being the jerk, regardless of how justifiable your anger felt at the time. Nine times out of ten, the other person isn’t trying to wind you up, or deliberately stamp all over your feelings. They’re simply oblivious, and you having a melt down in their inbox, or on a forum, is the first clue they get that there’s a problem.
It’s the same on social media. You say exactly what you think at the time and ‘boom’, it’s out there. Often before you’ve had the opportunity to examine why you feel that way. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. In fact, once it’s out there, it’s out there forever. Even when it’s embarrassing.
Especially when it’s embarrassing.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Journals. I’ve started writing by hand again. I explained my reasoning in this Medium post but in a nutshell, I discovered that writing by hand helped me follow a conversation better while taking notes for work meetings. I then discovered that writing by hand helped my creativity while writing fiction. I’ve started writing new scenes by hand in a notebook and then transferring them to the computer to edit them there. It’s working well so far, as I plough through a major rewrite of my novel. Where I’d been struggling to keep the momentum going before, I’m writing at a good pace at the moment.
I can write anywhere with a notebook. Sometimes it’s just to jot down a thought before it’s forgotten. Others it’s to write a whole or partial scene. A character sketch. An overheard snippet of a conversation that might work well in a story (or spark a story). Anonymised, of course. Or a reminder of an idea that could turn into something bigger when I get the chance to mull it over.
I keep a notebook with me all the time now, along with a pack of those little note tags, so I can mark the spot where I wrote about a new idea, alongside a spot where I wrote a new scene for the novel.
I have a special notebook at home for writing down those things that bother me. It’s a purpose-made one that a friend bought me and it’s especially for those ‘why are people like that?’ moments. Some days I use it more than others.
I also have a notebook that I keep in my desk at work for work-related things: to-do list, upcoming things to think about, reminders to check for responses to my questions, notes from meetings.
Writing by hand is also having another beneficial effect; it’s improving my handwriting. I’ve been using fountain pens to write with instead of ball-points, and it slows me down and makes me write more carefully. After a couple of decades of typing virtually everything, my handwriting was awful. It’s still not the best but it’s improving all the time.
Being off the computer more, is also helping my peace of mind. Less social media, less procrastinating, fewer opportunities to get drawn into a futile argument with someone I don’t know over something I have no control over. I know things are awful, politically, but arguing with people on the Internet isn’t going to make any difference. I’m not going to change anyone’s political outlook with a pointed tweet, no matter how pithy I think it is. That doesn’t mean I don’t think I can do anything, just that I should focus my energies where I can achieve something.
So yes, I heartily recommend buying notebooks and journals. Take your writing with you wherever you go. Write wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. And get those negative thoughts out where they can’t fester. Examine them honestly and work through them.
Thanks for reading. Now I’m going to go write in the sunshine.
I know the title sounds like it doesn’t make sense, but bear with me.
Something’s been bothering me for a while now – ever since I came back from living in the United States. My dear fellow Brits, there’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’m just going to put it out there.
Most of us are using ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’ incorrectly.
There, I said it. Please don’t hate me.
It’s particularly prevalent in contact centres and I’m not sure why they do that, but it drives me up the wall.
I will call my bank and the lovely, friendly person on the other end of the line will say something like:
“Hello Cheryl, what can I do for yourself today?”
And, being polite, because I know how rough it is to be on the receiving end of a rude customer, I will say:
“Hello, lovely friendly person on the other end of the line, I’d like to talk about my account please.”
On the inside, I’m screaming.
I wonder if somewhere along the line they’ve been told that saying ‘you’ and ‘me’ is bad? Or, perhaps someone heard someone else say it and thought it sounded cool and it spread through the contact centres like a plague of norovirus. Or a plague of people using ‘impact’ as a verb (don’t even).
Whatever the reason, I’d like to do a quick tutorial on when to use me, myself, and I.
The easiest way to remember for ‘me’ and ‘I’ is to use I for the subject of a sentence and me for the object.
The subject is the one who performs the action; the object is the one who has the action performed on them. So, for instance:
I walked the dog.
I am the subject because I performed the action to the dog, the object.
She threw the ball to me.
She performed the action, so she is the subject and the action is being done to me, the object.
Myself comes into all this when I (the subject) refer back to myself.
I gave myself a treat for passing the test.
I bought myself a chocolate cake.
When it comes to you and yourself, it’s much the same, except ‘you’ works for both the subject of the sentence and the object.
You ditched me.
In the above sentence, ‘you’ becomes the subject because ‘you’ did something to me, the object.
I gave you a call, after the party.
In the above sentence, ‘you’ becomes the object, because I, the subject, did something to ‘you’.
However, when the sentence tells you to do something on your own behalf, we use ‘yourself’.
Give yourself a break.
Have a word with yourself.
Ask yourself where you want to be in five years.
We do say:
I’d like to introduce myself.
We don’t say:
You can give the information to myself. (we say, you can give the information to me).
We do say:
Make yourself comfortable.
We don’t say:
We’ll get the information over to yourself this afternoon. (we say, we’ll get the informaton over to you this afternoon.)
I hope that helps you tell the difference between me, myself, I. And you and yourself, of course.
Why don’t you give yourself a pat on the back for reading this far!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, journalism, marketing copy, or an essay; if you want to claim your reader’s attention, you need a hook. The hook is what makes the reader want to continue reading and comes within the opening paragraph.
Since I mostly write fiction, I’ll be concentrating on that, but hopefully this will be helpful for writers in all fields.
Think of all the stories you’ve read, whether they’re novels or short stories. What makes you continue past that first paragraph? For me, it’s the promise made that this is going to be something I will enjoy reading. The author doesn’t always follow through (I’ve stopped reading novels and stories that had great openings because they didn’t fulfil that promise), but for the most part I can usually tell that this is going to be my kind of read from what’s in that first paragraph, or even in the opening line.
We see lots of advice on not to use certain things for openings because they have been done so often they become cliché: someone looking in a mirror, the weather, someone talking, someone waking up. And yet, a good writer can take these clichés over-done openings and make them into something new and original. Here are some examples below:
“Polly cut off her hair in front of the mirror, feeling slightly guilty about not feeling very guilty about doing so.” – Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett.
This is the opening to one of my all time favourite novels. Polly Perks is cutting off her hair, so she can pretend to be a boy and join the army to look for her lost brother. When people use mirrors, they tend to do so to describe the character’s appearance, which is a cliché, but in this case, Pratchett used it to show us something about Polly’s character rather than her appearance. Cutting her hair off is something she is expected to feel guilty about, so we can tell immediately that she’s in a world where society believes women and girls should have long hair. The fact that she doesn’t feel guilty enough tells us that she’s independent and can think for herself. I’m immediately interested in Polly.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer, William Gibson.
I like this opening because it gives me a sense of something being not quite right. The language is stark, and the image is foreboding. It’s also unusual as far as a weather description goes. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a sky that colour before, so perhaps it’s somewhere other than earth? I’m pulled in to read further so that I can find out more about this place.
“A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
This opening has someone waking up but it’s the mood organ that makes me want to read on because I immediately know we’re either not in this world, or if we are it’s somewhere in an imagined future.
“They’re made out of meat.” – Terry Bisson
“They’re Made out of Meat” is one of my favourite short stories. Not only does it open with dialogue, but the whole story is a conversation between two disembodied voices. There is no narrative, no description, no action, just dialogue. Everything about this story is a literary ‘no-no’, and yet it works perfectly.
Of course, these are all notable exceptions. I’m not saying that we should all go out and ignore the advice on not using cliched openings. These are examples of what a skilled writer can do with something that is considered a cliché.
A good opening line or paragraph sets an expectation of who or what the novel, story, article or essay will be about. It also sets the tone of the piece of writing, whether that be matter of fact, foreboding, humorous, etc. In speculative fiction, it also often gives us a glimpse into another world.
“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
This opening starts off normal enough for a seventy-five-year-old man. Then boom, Scalzi turns that impression upside down and we’re immediately asking ourselves questions because joining the army is probably the last thing we’d expect a man that age to do.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I love this opening. If you know anything about the galaxy or solar system, you immediately know that this is earth we’re talking about here. There’s a self-deprecating humour in the way it’s written that is so English and so endearing that I immediately want to read on.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
This one is so matter-of-factly talking about something so odd that it is an immediate draw. There’s no sense of panic, no terror, which creates a kind of morbid fascination. Just what has happened to Gregor? We need to know.
I’ve often found that I don’t know the opening line until I’ve written the whole story. I start at the beginning, of course, but it’s mostly just a placeholder until I’ve written the whole thing and know how it ends. Then, when I’m going back to edit, I look at the opening and fiddle with it until it becomes the hook I need for that particular story.
What was the most memorable opening line you remember reading? Or better still, give me an example of an opening line of your own. Here’s one of mine to leave you with:
“Whispers flitted across his mind. Distant voices murmuring words he could not quite grasp; like moth wings, they brushed memories he had tried for so long to forget, wafting loose the shrouds he had wrapped around them over so many years with so many empty wine-skins.” The Lost Weaver
Writing can be a lonely business. Especially early on, when it feels as though it’s impossible to know whether your writing is any good, or what you need to improve. You can share your writing, of course, and your family will give you all the encouragement and support you need to keep going. To learn writing as a craft, though, you need input from people who know the craft. This is where workshops and writing groups come in.
Sharing your writing with people other than your mum is always a daunting experience. Receiving a rejection from an unseen editor is bad enough, but having someone go through and point out all the weak spots and areas for improvement can feel like those dreams where you forget to get dressed and realise you’ve gone to work naked.
Oh, you don’t have those? Okay, moving on.
I’ve joined a few writing groups over the years and found them extremely helpful. Here are some non-profit ones I’ve taken part in (links in the titles where available).
I joined Critters way back in the late 90s, when I first started online. I thought it might help me with the writing portion of my university coursework, and it did. Through Critters, I got to know a lady who would become a great friend, and whom I’m still yet to meet in person. Hopefully, one day. I interviewed her – Elizabeth Kelley Buzbee – here on my blog, a couple of years ago about one of her novels.
Joining Critters taught me how to give and receive critiques of my writing. It also let me take that first step in sharing my writing with people for the specific purpose of receiving feedback. I’d recommend it to any writers in the SF, Fantasy or Horror genres. You are required to put in a bit of work to earn the critiques (at least one critique a week), but the reciprocity works out. Andrew Burt, the guy who runs the site, is a genuinely nice man. Not only that, but the site is completely free and relies solely on donations from good-hearted Critters.
I joined Dargonzine around the same time as Critters. It’s less a writing group and more of a shared world writing experience. It does have the same feel as a writing group, though, and all the stories are workshopped before they’re published. Again, it gave me more experience of workshopping my writing and what I learned there I could apply to my non-Dargon writing.
Beaverton Evening Writers
I joined this group when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and I was excited because they were my first face-to-face group. I was also extremely nervous! I needn’t have been, though, because they were lovely. They meet every two weeks, send writing ahead of time and give the critiques in person. This allows for a kinder, more gentle delivery of critical feedback, which I think is essential.
After I moved away from Portland, I kept in touch with the writers and we put a short story collection together for charity: Five Elements Anthology. I follow the blogs of two of the writers. Sheron Wood McCartha writes excellent Sci-Fi book reviews, and D. Wallace-Peach blogs about writing, her novels and all manner of interesting subjects. Check them out.
This is another online group, supported by the Arts Council of Great Britain. While the site looks a bit old-fashioned (it’s been around quite a few years and could probably do with some TLC), the feedback is pretty good, and if you get enough reviews there’s a chance to get feedback from people in the publishing industry. You don’t have to work as hard as some sites to get your work reviewed (critiques appear to be one for one, and they give you the first one free). They also offer a free self-publishing service on a partner site, Feed-a-read.
When I came back to the UK I missed being part of a face-to-face group and looked around for something similar to the way the Beaverton group worked. I found it in Northwrite SF, run by Jacey Bedford (you should check out her novels, she writes wonderfully engaging SF and fantasy and is published by DAW). I’ve learned a lot from this group. They’re all lovely people who read and critique with a keen eye, and give honest, constructive feedback. They meet quarterly in Yorkshire.
I also have a great critique partner, whom I also met while in Oregon but not through the Beaverton group. We swap about 3,000 words a week on our works in progress and look at the big picture stuff rather than pick over line edits. We keep each other going when the energy to write is low and one of these days I know I’m going to be introducing her debut novel, so watch this space!
As part of my coursework for my upcoming MFA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, I’ll be workshopping with my fellow students, which I’m excited about. I’m sure the experience I’ve gained through all these fab groups will help me support others through their learning progress and teach me more about my own writing at the same time.
What about you? Do you workshop your writing with others?
I’m late posting this week; things have been busy, and the blog post I thought I’d be publishing this week isn’t happening yet (but will be something to look forward to in the future, I hope!).
I’ve also had some brilliant news: I had a telephone interview yesterday with one of the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School and have been offered a place on their MFA in Creative Writing, starting September. I’m so excited! I’m also terrified I won’t measure up.
Once I submitted the application, I tortured myself for two weeks. If you write, you’ll know what I mean. From the moment I sent off the paperwork (containing a writing sample, book review, reference and personal statement), I started to doubt everything. One moment I’d think, ‘this is a good sample of my work,’ and the next I’d think, ‘Who wrote this rubbish? They’re going to laugh me out the door!’ I seriously considered asking if I could withdraw and submit again.
Luckily, I didn’t. The tutor I spoke with liked my writing, and, after a brief chat, offered me a place! Now I just have to wait for the official offer.
Did I mention I was excited?
Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to this week’s post.
You may have heard the term before. In a nutshell, foreshadowing is where you drop clues in the story about something significant that will happen later. Usually, the clues are subtle, so that the reader might not think anything of them until the important event happens and then – if you’ve done a good job – they’ll say ‘Oh yes! I should have seen that coming!’
Sometimes, the writer will try to disguise foreshadowing by misdirection. They might have the main characters dismiss something as impossible and never going to happen, but then, of course, it does.
Or they may use nature. Nothing says there’s trouble ahead like a raging storm, or animals acting oddly.
The trick is to make the foreshadowing innocuous enough for the reader to absorb it as background detail, or worldbuilding if it’s speculative fiction. Details that seem minor and vaguely interesting at the time we read them, are rendered pivotal at the novel’s climax. Or at least they should. There’s a fine line between innocuous and forgettable. Don’t make your foreshadowing too noticeable or you’ll puncture the suspense you’ve so carefully built, and don’t make it too unnoticeable or it won’t give the reader that ‘Oh, of course!’ feeling later.
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkein foreshadows the climax at Mount Doom:
‘Pity? It’s a pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’
In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee foreshadows the novel’s main story arc.
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.