Keeping it simple

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.

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J is for … Journal

penThere’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.

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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.

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I is for … Improper use (in this case, me, myself, and I)

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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!

 

 

 

H is for Hook

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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.

monstrousThis 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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

G is for Groups – writing groups

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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).

Critters

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.

Dargonzine

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.

Youwriteon

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.

Northwrite SF

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?

F is for … Foreshadowing

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!).

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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?

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Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to this week’s post.

Foreshadowing

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.

Examples

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.

What are your favourite foreshadowing moments?

 

 

 

 

Out of the Blue – Giveaway!

Out of the BlueMy short story collection is free to download on Amazon Kindle right now, until Sunday, so feel free to grab a copy here.

I’m putting together another collection to be released over the next couple of months, of work that’s been in other publications, and some that hasn’t previously been published. I’ll let you know when that goes live.

E is for … Editing

online-editing-proofreading-300x124Editing is my favourite part of the writing process, because it means I’ve written something and now I can work on shaping it into something better.

I’ve learned not to edit as I write, whether it’s a short story or a novel length piece of work. Instead, I try to get the first draft down without looking back. I may re-read the last few paragraphs from a previous session, to get me back into the story, but I try hard not to mess with them.

Why? There are several reasons but the first and foremost is that there is nothing sacred in a first draft. I may change or rewrite huge pieces of the story and those words I spent so much time getting ‘just right’ may be deleted altogether. So why waste my precious writing time trying to perfect something I may not even keep?

Secondly, it stops the flow. I go from writing mode into editing mode and lose my writing momentum. It’s better that I continue to write and then go back and fix things than to keep rewriting the first few chapters. That was something I did a great deal when I first started writing and it wasn’t until I stopped that I managed to finish a first draft of a novel.

Stage 1 – revision – making sure it all fits together

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I tend to write scenes and build from there. Once I have a completed piece of work, I read it through from end to end and make notes of anything that needs to be changed. I’m still not trying to perfect the wording at this stage. That comes later. This first pass is looking at ‘big picture’ problems; I’m looking for dead ends, missing information, continuity issues, contradictions and other glitches that affect the novel as a whole.

For example, I may have a character in chapter one who has something important to say to my main character and then they never appear again. I’ll look at that character and decide whether they need to be there, or whether that important piece of information can come from one of the other characters.

Or perhaps there’s an event that happens mid-way through the novel, but I don’t follow up on it because my story went in another direction. I have to make a decision on whether that scene is necessary and – if it is – I need to follow it up and link it to the rest of the story rather than leave it as a loose end.

Stage 2 – editing – making the words work

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After I’ve done the first editing pass and I’m happy with the changes, I’ll start to work on the words themselves. My early drafts are quite bare and mostly consist of action and dialogue, with just enough description to give me a sense of where we are and who’s who.

So, in this next pass, I’ll add in the detail that brings the world and the characters to life. I’ll also work on sentence and paragraph structure. In this editing pass, this:

Her thoughts drifted back to earlier, and her conversation with the doctor. When she had tried to concentrate on his words, her gaze had wandered to search the face of the nurse who sat beside her. The nurse had been as kind as anyone could but been unable to offer anything more than empathy.

Brain stem glioma, they called it. The doctor had said surgery was too risky. They might be able to give her a couple more years, with radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but death was her ultimate prognosis.

Becomes this:

Her thoughts drifted back to earlier, and her conversation with Doctor Reece. When she had tried to concentrate on his words, delivered in kindly, muted tones, her gaze had wandered to search the face of the young nurse who sat beside her, holding her hand.

Megan. That was her name. Megan had been as supportive and kind as anyone could but ultimately, like the doctor, had been unable to offer anything more than empathy.

Brain stem glioma. That’s what they’d called the monster that was going to kill her.

Inoperable.

The doctor had said surgery was too risky, the brain stem too delicate to withstand damage from even the most delicate of surgical tools.

Inevitable.

They might be able to give her a couple more years, with radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but death was her only prognosis.

Intolerable.

Stage 3 – Proofreading

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Once I’m happy with the words and the sentence structure, the final stage is a line edit or proofread. Whatever your writing and editing process, this stage is essential. This is where I look for typos, spelling mistakes, punctuation issues and other errors. I also look for repeated words. Finally, I run a search and replace to change all the double spaces to single spaces, because I learned to type when two spaces were the norm and muscle memory is hard to shake off.

To help with the line edit, I convert the document to a different font. It makes the writing less familiar and I’m likely to pick up any anomalies more easily.

And that’s it. Or at least until something makes me go back and look at it again.

I’m currently doing a complete rework of The Lost Weaver, after some useful feedback from a publishing house. The process is somewhere between a first draft and a first edit. I’m completely rewriting some scenes, and reworking others to fit with the new ones. Once that’s done I will do a complete re-read and start the editing process on stage 2, unless I pick up continuity errors on the re-read.

D is for Dialogue

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Dialogue is essential to most fiction. Unless you’re writing a monologue, your characters are going to speak to one another, because – let’s face it – without dialogue to break it up, you’ll end up with pages and pages of narrative, which can be a daunting prospect.

Dialogue needs to carry the story forward just as narrative does, however. Readers won’t stay interestested in people who are just passing the time of day, unless there’s a reason for them doing that. Showing conflict through dialogue is a good way to show the reader who your characters are without spelling it all out in the narrative.

First and foremost, dialogue needs to be easy to follow. So, how do we do that?

Without attributes, your reader isn’t going to know who’s speaking.

“You’re just like your mother.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Of all the rotten things to say.”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

“Oh, well that’s all right then.”

We have no idea who’s speaking, or how many speakers there are. To attribute the dialogue to a particular speaker, we use tags.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

“What?” Bill said.

“You heard me,” Jenny said.

“Of all the rotten things to say,” Bill said.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.” Jenny said.

“Oh, well that’s all right then.” Bill said.

What do you think? It seems a bit repetitive, doesn’t it? That’s because we’re using the same tag for every line of speech. As with every other tool in the writing box, repeated use of ‘he said, she said.’ is noticeable and becomes monotonous.

One mistake that beginner writers often make (I know I did it, a lot, when I first started writing), is to use descriptive tags like ‘screeched’ or ‘bellowed’, or adverbs to qualify how something was said. Again, like all writing tools, they are fine when used sparingly but shouldn’t be peppered in to vary speech.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said, cheerfully.

“What?” Bill said, defensively.”

“You heard me,” Jenny quipped.

“Of all the rotten things to say!” Bill snapped.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely,” Jenny said, facetiously.

“Oh, that’s all right then.” Bill said, amiably.

What do you think? Did that make you cringe? It did for me. While none of it is technically wrong, it’s not great, either. It’s far better to show the reader how the characters are acting or feeling through what they do and say, rather than using adverbs or descriptive tags.

Let’s change it up a bit and add in some actions.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

Bill put down his newspaper and folded his arms across his chest. “What?”

“You heard me.” She began rummaging through the desk drawers so that he wouldn’t see the smile on her face.

“Of all the rotten things to say!”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

Bill grinned and let his arms drop to his sides. “Oh,” he said. “Well that’s all right then.”

As you can see, the mixture of actions and speech tags stop it from becoming a page of ‘he said, she said.’ Also, if you notice, I switched the tags around, using them at the beginning or the end of a line of dialogue, which also helped to break up the repetition.

I also varied the length of the sentences. This is something I try to do in narrative and dialogue. If you consistently use the same length of sentence, it becomes noticeable and uniform, which grows tedious to read.

There were two lines where I didn’t use any tags at all, because I’d established whose mother they were discussing. It was easy to tell who spoke in those instances, so no tags were needed.

We can see Bill getting defensive and then relaxing when he realises Jenny is teasing and means it as a compliment. Using action tags helps to create more of a visual sense of the scene in the reader’s mind than simply saying ‘Bill snapped’ or ‘Bill said, amiably’.

The exchange lets us see the relationship between Jenny and Bill. She is playful and he, while going straight on the defensive, is quick to relax when he realises she’s teasing. They obviously know each other well.

The nuts and bolts

As well as being able to write convincing dialogue, we also need to be able to punctuate it correctly.  Here are a few hard and fast rules.

Always keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks

“Of course, I’m not going to tell you,” he said.

She regarded him from under her lashes. “Well then, I hope you enjoy last night’s cold pizza. Because I’m not making your dinner.”

“Then you’ll eat cold pizza too.” He shrugged.

She laughed, picking up her car keys. “Wrong again. I’m meeting Mary for dinner and drinks in town. Don’t wait up.”

Always start a new line when a different person speaks

Jane and Tania both shopped at the same supermarket. On one occasion, they both arrived at the same time.

Jane held open the door. “After you.”

“Thank you!” Tania said, hurrying through.

“Sucker.” Jane stuck out her foot between Tania’s, sending the other woman tumbling to the floor. “Maybe that’ll teach you not to spread nasty rumours about my mother.”

Tania scrambled to her feet. “You’re Heather’s daughter?” She took a step towards Jane and then appeared to think better of it. “I should have known, you’re just as obnoxious as her.”

“And just as protective of the ones I love. Leave her alone, or next time I won’t go so easy on you.”

Dashes and ellipses

When we’re speaking, we don’t always finish a sentence. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been interrupted, or maybe we’ve trailed off because we can’t remember what we were going to say, or because we realise something as we’re speaking.

To show this in dialogue, we use dashes or ellipses.  Dashes are for when something stops us from speaking, like someone interrupting, or something happening.

Lucy picked up a pillow and hugged it against her.

Danny said, “why do you always have to be so bloody argumentative? I only asked—”

The pillow hit him on the side of the head.

“You asked a question when you already knew the answer, because you knew it would provoke me into an argument,” Lucy said.

Ellipses show speech trailing off.

“Are you going to apologise for throwing that pillow at me?” Danny asked.

Lucy raised an eyebrow. “You really expect me to apologise after you provoked me?”

“Well, yes,” he said. “I could have been hurt. You could have …” He stepped back as Lucy picked up another pillow.

That’s it for this week. Remember these tips for writing effective dialogue and you’ll do just fine:

  • Mix up your tags but keep them simple
  • Vary the length of dialogue lines
  • Start a new line for each speaker
  • Use proper punctuation
  • Make the dialogue carry the story forward

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything

 

 

Commanding the comma

comma

The humble comma has to be one of the most used and abused pieces of punctuation besides the apostrophe, which I dealt with in a previous blog post, here.  If you’re having trouble figuring out where to put your commas, you’re not alone. I don’t always get it right, either.

Some people suggest placing a comma where you might naturally pause when reading a piece of writing out loud. And yes, that works a great deal of the time.  Unless you’re William Shatner

shattner

 

 

Punctuation rules, are for, people, who aren’t, William, Shatner.

 

So how do the rest of us know when to use a comma? Here are some useful rules.

In a list

Whenever you’re writing a list, you need a comma to separate each item.

At the supermarket, he picked up cat food, pizza, tonic water, and a large bottle of gin.

Or

She packed a nightshirt, toothbrush, deodorant, and a hairbrush into her overnight bag.

The last comma in the list is known as a serial, or ‘Oxford’, comma and there are strong opinions about whether the serial comma is necessary. I like to use them to avoid confusion. With the Oxford comma:

I am inspired by my parents, Terry Pratchett, and Mary Wollestonecraft.

Without the Oxford comma, this becomes:

I am inspired by my parents, Terry Pratchett and Mary Wollestonecraft.

As impressive as having Terry Pratchett and Mary Wollestonecraft for parents might be, I’m very attached to the mother I already have. It’s best to avoid that kind of ambiguity.

Independent clauses

When there are two clauses that could each stand as a complete sentence in their own right, we call these independent clauses. We only use a comma between two independent clauses if there is also a conjunction (and, if, or, but).

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep, but if I read in bed, I get too engrossed and end up staying up half the night.

If we don’t use a conjunction and if the clauses are related to one another, we use a semi-colon.

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep; if I read in bed, I get too engrossed and end up staying up half the night.

If the clauses are unrelated, we make them into two separate sentences with a full stop.

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep. The first thing she does in the morning is make a cup of tea.

We don’t use a comma on its own to separate two independent clauses.

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep, if I read in bed, I get too engrossed and end up staying up half the night.

This is known as a comma splice and should be avoided.

Separating dependent clauses

We use commas to separate dependent clauses from the main clause in compound sentences. The main clause is one that could stand alone as a sentence.

I love cats.

A dependent clause is one that can’t stand alone and needs the main clause to give it meaning.

I love cats, they are so amusing to watch.

As you can see, the comma in this case comes after the main clause. Sometimes we put the dependent clause first, but we still use a comma between them.

After the concert, we drove home.

Relative clauses

A dependent clause beginning with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘whom’, or ‘where’, is known as a relative clause. There are two kinds of relative clauses: non-restrictive and restrictive.

Non-restrictive relative clauses

When a clause can be removed from a sentence and the sentence still makes sense (usually a bit of extra information), we call it a non-restrictive relative clause. We place a comma either side of this clause.

The tall gentleman with the umbrella, who was at the front of the train, waved his newspaper to catch her attention.

We can take out the clause that sits between the commas and the sentence will still make sense. We just lose that bit of extra information.

The tall gentleman with the umbrella waved his newspaper to catch her attention.

Restrictive relative clauses

When a piece of extra information is essential to the meaning of the sentence, we call it a restrictive relative clause. In this case, we don’t use a comma either side.

People who have big heads need large hats.

If we remove the clause, the meaning is altered.

People need large hats.

Asides

An aside works in a similar way to a non-restrictive relative clause. It’s a part of the sentence that can be taken away without altering the meaning. We always use commas at each end of an aside.

My mother is, of course, a very independent woman.

Without the aside, the sentence means the same.

My mother is a very independent woman.

With direct speech

We need a comma before direct speech begins, if it’s at the end of a sentence.  The comma always comes before the quotation marks.

Sophie looked sideways at Dave and said, “My favourite part was where you interrupted, every time I spoke.”

When the speech comes at the beginning of a sentence, the end comma comes before the quotation marks.

“I think we need to take this out of the meeting, otherwise we’re going to run out of time,” Jenny said.

Of course, if the speech is a question or an exclamation, we’d use the proper punctuation mark in place of the comma.

“Do you seriously have to try to explain everything for me, Dave?” Sophie asked.

I hope this helps you to decide whether or not to use a comma. If there are any situations you think I’ve missed, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them.