Thursday 23 June 2016

Kill All Adjectives: Rules of Writing No.2

The Rule
Delete all adjectives.

She had beautiful shiny blonde hair with lovely sparkling blue eyes.  She wore a pretty pink frilly dress and dainty little white slippers. Like buses, adjectives often come in threes.  They clutter up your prose without adding much information, apart from the fact that you like cliches.

When to break The Rule

Description - Well chosen adjectives create pictures: "At that very moment he was toiling in the cool dark of his study, the heavy chenille curtains closed against the summer, lost in his work, work which never came to fruition, never changed the world or made his name." (Kate Atkinson, Case Histories)
Without the adjectives the description would lack atmosphere. None of the adjectives used are elaborate or unusual but they describe the study, and his work, with great economy.

Style - A sparse, adjective-light prose style is currently fashionable.  It wasn't always - think of those heavyweights like Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope.  An adjective-heavy style might suit your personal style or genre.

Monday 20 June 2016

Feedback: Love It Or Hate It?

A while back I read Matthew Syed's book Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success. There was lots in it I found fascinating, but this quote from a head of HR in a prestigious financial institution struck me:

"When someone is given a new challenge, like giving a major presentation to clients, it is inevitable that they will be less than perfect first time around.  It takes time to build expertise, even for exceptional people.

But there are huge differences in how individuals respond.  Some love the challenge.  They elicit feedback, talk to colleagues, and seek out chances to be involved in future presentations.  Always - and I mean always - they improve.  But others are threatened by the initial 'failure'. In fact, they engage in astonishingly sophisticated avoidance strategies to ensure they are never put in that situation ever again.  They are sabotaging their progress because of their fear of messing up."

I've seen the same reaction with feedback to writing. Some love it, seek it out.  Others hate it, reject it.

I believe strongly that writing is something that should be enjoyed - it's an uncertain business if you're writing professionally, with no career guarantees - so no one should have to go through a process that they don't like or find upsetting, and especially if they're not aiming to write professionally.

The trouble is, that HR guy is right. In my many years of teaching, I can safely say that every piece of writing I've seen re-written after feedback is better.  And isn't that - regardless of whether we're doing it professionally or just for ourselves - what most of us want: for our writing to improve?

It can be hard, it can be painful, it can be threatening.  I've been upset for days (occasionally weeks) after hearing some feedback I didn't like.  And then I've rewritten. It's always better.

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed.

Thursday 16 June 2016

Treat Your Writing Like You Would A Lover

At the weekend an artist friend was bemoaning the fact that, for various reasons, he hadn't been able to get into the studio to paint and was worried about what would happen when he finally did.  "It's like a relationship," he said.  'If you don't nurture it, the magic goes."

At the beginning of a relationship, everything is exciting.  You think about them all the time.  You can't wait for the moment when you're together again.  You speculate about what they're doing, what they're thinking when you're apart.  And when you're together, the world seems brighter, the colours better.  You don't have to make and effort to spend time together - all you can think about is meeting up, so any obstacles are brushed aside as easily as cobwebs.

A while later, and you've settled into your routine together.  The magic is still there, your heart still beats faster at the thought of them, but it's no longer that sick, giddy sort of excitement.  You talk to each other every day, they're No 1 in your head, but you don't think about them every waking moment.

A bit later on, the routine is in danger of becoming a bit...well, routine.  You tell yourself the magic is still there, but sometimes you're so busy, you forget to contact each other. If there's a problem meeting up, you don't do everything you can to get there.  Other things take priority in your life. A text goes unanswered, a bunch of flowers remains unbought.

There isn't anything wrong, as such, but this relationship is on a downward spiral.

Same with writing.

You've got to keep the relationship going by putting in the time.  You've got to spend time writing, and when you can't make it to the keyboard to write, you need to be thinking about writing.  Take your writing on dates e.g. writing conferences, subscribing to writing magazines, going to classes.  Make time to write - it may not be possible to write every day, but don't let days pass before going back to writing. Nurture it.

And when you hit a rocky patch, stick with it. Don't bail at the first opportunity.  Work hard to keep the relationship together, which usually means putting more time in.  

Treat your writing like your lover and nurture a great relationship.

Monday 13 June 2016

He said, she said: Rules of Writing No. 1

The Rule:
Always use 'said' as the verb to describe the act of someone speaking.

Neutrality - 'said' is a neutral word,  it disappears to the reader so doesn't clutter the page unlike, say, expostulated.
Redundancy - "Why do you like cats?" she asked.  There's a question mark, so it's obvious he's asking a question.
Physical impossibility - "I love cats; they're so cute," he giggled.  Giggling makes a noise, but not one that forms itself into intelligible words.

When to break the Rule
Volume - you may want to indicate if someone is shouting 'he yelled' or speaking quietly 'she whispered'.
Tone - muttering is different in tone and attitude from whispering, or speaking quietly for that matter.
Information - 'I'll have another drink,' he slurred shows us his state of inebriation without spelling it out as in 'I'll have another drink,' he said drunkenly.

Thursday 9 June 2016

5 Stages of Solving Your Writer's Block Problems

I came across this fact:  the word 'solve' comes from the Latin solvere which means to loosen. It got me thinking about getting stuck with writing, aka Writer's Block.

1.   Loosen up: stop being up-tight about your stuck-ness. Relax.  The world will not come to an end just because you can't think of what to write next, or can't motivate yourself to write another word.  It simply won't.  It might be inconvenient, especially if you're under contract, but world ending?  Nope.

2. Loosen up about what you're writing.  It's easy to get stuck because you're worried about getting it wrong.  Forget it.  One of the first things I tell people is to write rubbish.  Writing rubbish is a brilliant idea.  Everyone can write rubbish! Write lots of rubbish, and free yourself from the burden of perfection.  When you've done lots of rubbish writing, put it aside.  When you come back to read it, I bet it won't be so rubbishy after all.  Free and easy writing has a lot of energy behind it.

3. Loosen up about finding the right solution.  ANY solution is the right solution.  As Goethe wrote, "action has magic and power in it", so write down any old solution.  If you can think of three possible directions your writing could take, and you're frozen with the enormity of choosing which one is the the right one, then have a bash at writing all three.  The action of writing will reveal which is the right one.

4.  Loosen up about what is 'right'.  What's right for you may not be right for me, or it might not be right for me right now.  Loosen up about rightness.  There's no such thing as 'right' when it comes to writing. You may have a former English teacher/your mother/your father perched on your shoulder saying you're wrong but there is no 'wrong', just the same as there's no 'right'.

5.  Loosen up about your process.  You don't get extra reader Brownie points for the first draft being correctly spelt or punctuated. Sure, the final draft needs to be as grammatically correct as you (and an outside editor) can make it, but the road to that final draft is littered with spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical slip-ups, horrible characterisation, ghastly plot errors, boring stuff where you literally lost the plot.   And you know what - no one need ever see them!

The blank page IS scary.  But once you've made that first mark, it stops being blank.  Loosen up, and give it a scribble.

Monday 6 June 2016

Genre Rules: Why Bother?

Following on from my post about being aware of the market, I was sorting through some of my boxes of papers and came across some handwritten notes about what makes crime cosy.  I suspect they're from a talk attended long ago as they're torn from a notebook, but as I didn't note the source I can't give a credit.  Sorry. But before chucking the notes away, I thought I'd write them down here in case they're of use to someone:

Amateur sleuth, probably female.  Very likeable.
Characters are "normal", relatable - they could be your neighbours.
Victim - not likeable.  They "deserved" it.
Village/small town setting.
Supporting characters - funny, eccentric.  Want to visit them.
Crime takes place off stage.
No violence, sex, profanity.
Connections between everybody.
Sex - always off stage.
Sidekick who is in police (for access to confidential stuff).
Fast paced, several twists and turns.
Emphasis on plot and development.

When I wrote my first novel, Adultery for Beginners, I sent it to a book doctor, and later changed several elements according to what was in effect  a list of rules/commandments.  They included:

Rural setting less popular than urban setting - I changed the setting from a village to a small city (Salisbury mixed with Andover in my head).
Characters relatable, not too well off - I changed this, dropping the main characters down the pay scale.
Strong character arc - I moved from 4 viewpoint characters to a single viewpoint because the other 3 viewpoint character arcs were weak. (The book doctor recommended beefing up the other 3 viewpoints.  Same problem, different solution.)
Male protagonist someone the reader could fall in love with - I didn't change him for the UK edition, but he was softer and more romantic for the US edition.

The change that taught me the most, however, came from my writing group.  They had identified most with a character who is a newcomer, whose first action in the story was to go into a room full of people she doesn't know, who all know each other. That one action made an unlikeable character into everybody's favourite (much to my annoyance and dismay).

Guess what?  In the next draft, the newcomer who goes into that room full of strangers was the main character.  That version sold. A lot.

Sometimes these lists of rules work.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Why Being Aware Of The Market Is Not the Same As Chasing It

Chasing the market is spotting that, say, lots of books have recently been published featuring unreliable narrators and deciding to write a book featuring an unreliable narrator.

What's wrong with that, you might think.

Well, several reasons.  First, and perhaps most importantly, is the speed of publishing. It usually takes at least a year, and sometimes as long as two years, from a publisher buying a manuscript to seeing it on the shelves.  So why you're seeing now doing well now was bought at least a year ago.  It doesn't mean that publishers aren't buying unreliable narrator books right now, because the market might not yet be saturated, but it will have moved on a bit.

Ah, you might think.  But I'm going to publish it myself, and skip the time delay of conventional publishing.  Which is great and, if you can write quickly, you'll might hit the market at the right moment.'s one thing seeing a trend and deciding to capitalise on it, it's quite another doing it.  Writing a book is hard enough, you have to have an inner certainty that what you're doing is the only thing you can be doing.  So if you deep down really want to write a book featuring an unreliable narrator then now may be your moment.  But if what you really want to write is, say, about wild ponies on the savannah then that's what you should be writing.

So don't chase the market.  The lack of a deep down drive to write will make a book hard to write, and - if you manage to finish - hard to find a readership because readers can tell if a book is written without that inner passion.

Being aware of the market is something else.

That means spotting that unreliable narrators are currently in, and thinking about going back to the manuscript you wrote some time ago featuring an unreliable narrator.  Perhaps the time delay will give you enough distance to revise it.

Being aware of the market also means being aware of wider trends.  Some years ago I advised a family friend that their novel would not succeed because no one would want to read about a main character going about his work as a specialist in intestinal worms in dogs.  It may be an important job, it may be even an essential job but I'd give the same advice now (and forever, I suspect).  It's just not the sort of job a hero should do.

Other trends have shifted - length, for example.  Ten years ago and no one was interested in novella-length fiction.  That's changed.  Overall, books generally are shorter - if I had a 120,000 word novel, I'd definitely start sharpening my axe with a view to getting it down to around 90,000 words. And I can remember about fifteen years ago being told that erotica didn't sell.

Each genre will have trends, and you should be aware of the trends in your genre.  If, for example, you observed that crime fiction seems to be getting less violent perhaps it would be a good idea to rein back the the violence in your WIP (perhaps I should stop sharpening that axe...).

So pay attention to the market, be aware of the trends, but never chase it and always write from the heart.