Fiction Writing

Most writers have probably heard the advice ‘write what you know’. While this holds true, American Author Flannery O’Connor’s ‘start with anything you can make real’ approach is less stifling and opens the door to creative possibilities.

Many people who take up the craft of writing turn to fiction. Perhaps writers gravitate to fiction because everybody has a story to tell. You can create fiction from life or from your imagination. You can create fiction that tells a 500-page story or one that tells its story in a few pages.

Unlike other genres that fall within the non-fiction world (such as memoirs), writing fiction allows limitless imagination. You can invent worlds and create ordinary or awe-inspiring characters dealing with real issues, the supernatural or heart-stopping terror. But it takes more than just imagination.

Story Concept

It’s vital to have a concept or idea in mind first. Once you have this, it’s a good idea to plot your story. Remember to have an unexpected twist or two in the story; a basic structure of a beginning, middle, and end; and a thorough knowledge of your characters. Fiction takes dedication, so be prepared to spend a great deal of time on it.

Enjoy the Ride

When writing fiction, don’t make readers arrive after the crisis has happened, have them on the edge of their seats waiting for that big bang.

I watched Jessica disappear under the car.

Could become:

Jessica stepped back onto the road to take in the whole sunset over the mountains. A loose rock stole her footing just as a car hurtled down the gravel shoulder and headed straight for her. I leapt towards her, willing my legs to move faster. I shouted, but it was too late. I glimpsed Jessica’s wide eyes before her body disappeared under the moving vehicle. Her fading screams echoed through the deafening screech of brakes and the sickening thud of flesh mingling with metal; burnt rubber filled the air.

Now we can see it, hear it and feel the anguish and pain – we’re experiencing the action as it happens.

Give Life to a Scene

Read your work out loud. This will help to expose many grammar errors that can slip in or phrases that don’t make sense. It allows you to get a better feel of how your manuscript is flowing.

As writers, we learn how to describe a scene, but are you describing it efficiently?

The sun shone on the golden sand as the spume pulled away from the receding waves that struggled in the sand.

This certainly paints a picture, but is it doing enough? If we add the other four senses then it may become something like this:

A salted sea breeze crept towards the shore and mingled with the day’s humidity. The sun threw down unforgiving rays of fire that scorched the sandy beach. Rolling green waves crash upon the thirsty sand while hopeful seagulls cried out beneath the clear blue sky in search of food.

Not every setting will have something for each sense, but stop to notice the sounds, tastes, smells and tactile elements. Remember that these sort of descriptive passages have their place. They tend to slow the pace, so you wouldn’t have a full on descriptive passage in the middle of a scene where you want to create excitement or urgency.

Characters

Most novels and short stories are about a person or group of people with a goal. In many cases the events of the story dictate that goal. This can be as simple as a teenager deciding to take a job at the local surf shop, because he has a crush on a girl who works there. Everyone he meets and everything that happens in this village can be linked to the romance.

Develop your characters. Decide on the traits your characters will possess and give your characters experiences. If someone is a gentle and kind person then you may have that person help an elderly man with a chore or drive him to visit his grandson. A mean spirited person might stomp on a child’s favourite toy. Sticking a quick-tempered person, who is running late for an important meeting, in a traffic jam on a hot day has potential for the writer. The character could rant and rave, even kick the car if it boils over. It shows the character’s demeanour and keeps the storyline interesting. Use situations that stimulate emotion and create a fuller storyline. Emotions also help readers relate to your characters.

Dialogue

Make the characters believable.

A small feed store supplier whose customers are mostly farmers isn’t the kind of personality who’d say something like this:

I apologise for the delay with the arrival of your order. Our courier experienced a shipping displacement that should be resolved in twenty-four hours.

It would be more likely for this character to use language that would suit the clientele. If the customer were a farmer, then perhaps the employee would say something like this:

Sorry mate about your hay order. Somebody put it on the wrong truck heading the opposite direction, but it’ll be here tomorrow, you can count on it.

A person who had little education would speak differently to someone who was a scholar. A business person would talk differently to a rock musician. Think about who your characters are.

Add a Twist

Referring back to our story about the teenager working at the surf shop for the love of a girl could end with a happy ending, but what else could happen? Think about the possibilities. After several dates, the surfer realises this girl isn’t for him, but in his attempts to win her over he has become a skilled surfer. He competes against the best and wins. He gains popularity and a sponsor where he meets the sponsor’s daughter. You could even throw in another twist and have the readers reeling in their seats wondering what else was going to happen.

Revise, Rewrite and Edit

It’s more than just taking your manuscript from the seeds of imagination to having it actually written, it still has to be presented to readers (and appropriate publishers if that’s the way you want to go). Your story needs to be a saleable product. You may dream about being a professional writer with your books in stores all over the country. However, publishers care about their investment in a product and how well that product will sell. That’s why it’s up to you to present the best copy to a publisher.

Publishing Options

Once you have finished and it’s ready for publishing, you need to consider which publishing avenue you want. If you want to obtain a publisher, your focus turns to a synopsis. This gives a perspective publisher a clear understanding of what your story is about in clear concise paragraphs. Don’t be afraid to reveal the entire plotline to your publisher. They need to know your book is worth their effort and the money it takes to produce, market, and ultimately sell it. If they don’t think it will sell then they won’t accept it.

Unfortunately, not all good manuscripts are accepted. You may have written a worthy story, but if it doesn’t fit the criteria that the publisher is looking for or if they have already produced something similar then they may not present you with an offer.

If you want to self-publish, you’ll need a book blurb to help sell your book to readers. This publishing option means you will need to cover the cost of front cover and layout designers, editor and proofreader, printers, and marketing. While you’ll have complete control as to what your book will look like, you have to handle all the work, make all the decisions, and organise designers and printers. With the exception of printers, the rest of the workload and expense still applies if you opt for self-publishing an e-book. Self-publishing has improved writers’ dreams of being published, but whichever way you want to go, enjoy the journey.

 

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

The Pros and Cons of Going On and On and On …

laptop's keys

When a Pencil is Just a Pencil
It’s easy to fall into the rambling trap. Taking up an entire paragraph where a simple sentence will do the same job. There is little point, for example, describing all the uses of a pencil (its colour, its size, the smoothness or scratchiness of the lead, and so on). Even with technology taking over nearly every aspect of our lives, I think it’s safe to say we have all used a pen or pencil, so we already know these aspects without reading about it.

Re-Discovering a Pencil
Is it ever useful to describe the details of a commonplace item? Sticking with the pencil idea, we would describe it if it were new to the character. Perhaps technology has completely taken over and manual writing instruments no longer exist and haven’t done so for centuries. If a character unearthed one and the character has never seen it before, then a description would be appropriate, but the challenge would be to make it come alive for the reader, after all let’s not forget that the reader still knows what a pencil is. The writer may try to make it a bit comical until the character finally works out the pencil’s purpose and how to use it correctly. Then there’s another opportunity when the lead becomes blunt and the character has to work out how to sharpen it.

When a Pencil Reveals More
There is a reason to draw attention to the pencil without describing its purpose. How a character treats and uses a pencil can benefit a writer in developing that character. A pencil with a chewed end shows the user’s habit of gnawing on a pencil. Perhaps the user does this subconsciously while thinking about what to write, or it may be a nervous habit that surfaces during exams. It shows the reader more about that character.

Let’s call our character Jim. So what happens if Jim’s pencil is broken and he borrows a pen – is the urge to chew on the pen overwhelming even though Jim doesn’t own it? And how would the other person (we’ll call Melanie) feel when receiving the pen back with the end crushed and evidence of saliva still clinging to it? Melanie might get some satisfaction if the pen’s ink is now spread all over Jim’s lips, mouth and teeth, but what will Melanie do? Would she yell, cry or become violent because it was a gift or an expensive pen? Would she bin it in disgust or tell Jim that he can keep it vowing never to loan him anything ever again?

A chewed up pencil shows the reader more about a character, but a row of perfectly maintained pencils on a neat and organised desk will also reveal a character’s habits, nature and mindset. What if the owner of these pencils and tidy desk was Melanie? Imagine the conflict between Jim and Melanie then. It poses the question – what is their relationship? Are they merely students in the same class? Co-workers in a training session or general meeting? Are they related or have they recently started dating? Their relationship could impact Melanie’s reaction to her chewed pen.

Unleashing the Pencil
Developing characters, creating conflicts or even writing about a pencil’s description are good ways to ignite the creative flow and unlock writer’s block. It doesn’t matter what is written as long as you write. It might trigger an idea, inspire a story or help with solving a writing issue. Even if it ends in the bin, at least you’re moving forward with your writing. So, pick an object and write about it.

Put in every detail you can think of. Ask questions – who would use this object and why? You may find that you move onto other things as ideas start to form. Don’t fight it; go with it. This isn’t the time to worry about where a comma should go.

Exercising the Pencil
As a writing exercise, create a character and give that character good and bad aspects, habits, a job, family, and then put an odd object into the character’s possession. This creates more questions. Why would this character have such a thing? Does the character treasure the object, or is the person ashamed of it? Has it ever been lost before? Did the character try to get rid of it, but couldn’t for some reason.

Questions move writers forward. Never stop questioning, never stop moving forward and never stop writing.

Sharpening the Pencil
Once you have finished your draft, go back and tighten your writing. If one word can do the work of multiple drawn out words or one sentence gets to the point better then a paragraph then replace it. With the exception of the writer’s style, each word has to earn its place on the page.

Simplifying How to Plot a Story

Plotting a story can terrify even the most gifted writer. But it sounds scarier than it actually is, and it can even be fun once you embrace the challenge. Let’s simplify the process to get a better understanding of how things work.

Think about your plot as driving from your departure location (the beginning of the story, which we’ll call Point A) to your destination (the end of the story, which we’ll refer to as Point B) with a few scenic stops along the way.

Using the familiar ‘boy meets girl’ scenario, let’s look at the basic story plot. ‘Boy meets girl’ is our Point A.

One such story that comes to mind is Grease where Danny meets Sandy on a summer vacation. Of course, the first meeting could be a bumpy ride where the boy doesn’t impress the girl. Just Like Heaven is an example of this when architect David leaves a bad impression for Elizabeth who doesn’t like his carelessness when it comes to her furniture. Or another example is Elizabeth Bennett’s distaste of Mr Darcy’s behaviour in Pride and Prejudice.

No matter how the initial encounter goes, the boy has met the girl. Along the way the boy manages to peak the girl’s interest and then that’s usually when he does something to cause her to become angry, hurt or disillusioned. Other characters in the story may have initiated the problem, but the boy has allowed it to escalate. Or it can even be a series of misunderstandings that has caused the rift. That’s the ‘boy loses girl’ part of the story.

Following the pattern, it’s now up to the boy to win the girl back. This usually means he must prove his worth to her. Perhaps he makes a difficult decision or performs a heroic act to show her how much he really does care. Depending on the circumstances, the girl may make it easy for him, meet him half way, or make him work hard to win her back.

In Grease, Danny decides to lose his ‘coolness’ and jeopardise his relationship with his friends in the attempt to win Sandy back. Sandy in turn meets him half way with a symbolic gesture when she turns up in that well-known skin-tight black outfit. A song or two later, and all is well and everyone is happy.

That’s the basic idea of where we start and where we want to end up, but how do we get from Point A to Point B?

To keep the explanation simple, every story is based on a series of events (or focal points) that drive a story from Point A to Point B. These events may be things that happen to a character, or it could reveal something about a character, or a character’s actions or reactions to a situation. It’s the author’s job to know the sequence of events that establishes the story’s plot. There are a number of ways to map out your story.

You can write each focal point onto a piece of paper or card so you can move them around as you map out the entire story. Something that you thought should go early in the sequence of focal points might actually be better at a later stage, so the movability of the cards is extremely helpful.

Some people prefer to use software that has the capability to plot a story and the ability to move the focal points around until the story has been completely mapped. Pick whichever way works best for you.

Remember though, each focal point should move the story forward. While focal points are the basis of the story, it’s the author’s prose, description and uniqueness in telling the story that makes it shine. However, the plot must be sound or it won’t matter how brilliant the writing is – the story will struggle.

Happy writing (and plotting)!

Active and Passive Voice

Many writers drift into the passive voice. When this happens, teachers and other writing professionals often say, ‘You’re writing in the passive voice. Use an active voice instead. It will make your writing more interesting.’

Most likely they offered the same explanation: With the active voice, the subject undertakes the action. With the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon, (or words to that effect).

No one seems able to describe it in any other terms, which leads many writers surrounded by open books trying to understand this conundrum. It’s actually surprising how many books use this same phrasing.

Writers want a simple way to detect when they have moved from active to passive. So, for those writers who have trouble with the concept, here are a few hints to let you know when you have slipped into the passive voice.

Look for the word ‘by’. Here is an example of passive voice:

The trespasser was chased by a bull yesterday.

The bull is actually the subject and it’s the one carrying out the action. A simple rewrite changes the above example into the active voice:

A bull chased the trespasser yesterday.

Of course there are also passive sentences that don’t contain the word ‘by’. (You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?)

Have a look at this example of a passive sentence:

The matter will be looked into further and a solution will be found.

Notice that there is ambiguity with the above example. Who is looking into the problem? A sentence that is unclear who is the subject can indicate it’s written in the passive voice. Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence to transform it into the active voice, as in this example:

The mailroom personnel will check into the problem and rectify it immediately.

Now we have a clear subject – the mailroom personnel.

Not all sentences have a subject, such as fragments.

Why is the active voice more desirable than passive?

Active voice can make a sentence more exciting by speeding up the pace, and it’s especially useful when the writer wants the reader to feel anxiety or suspense. Creative writers (fiction and non-fiction) use the active voice for these reasons.

Does that mean we shouldn’t use passive voice at all?

The passive voice does have its place. It can help readers to catch their breath after an exciting, fast-paced section.

It’s also extremely useful in corporate writing and to soften the effects of blame on an individual or group, as in the following example:

The letter failed to be sent on time by the mailroom personnel.

(Did you notice the example had the word ‘by’ in it?) The example clearly blames a particular group, but is softened with the use of the passive voice. (Was the previous sentence written in passive or active voice?)

This next sentence is written in active voice and delivers a more brutal attack:

The mailroom personnel didn’t send the letter on time.

Hopefully these hints will help alert you to the passive voice and clear up the confusion about whether the subject undertakes the action or if it’s being acted upon.

As always, happy writing!

 

Habits To Avoid

Habits in speech have a tendency to creep into our writing. Things that are accepted or ignored in everyday conversations should be avoided when writing. Have you ever said, or heard, something like this?

  • The movie starts at 7.30 pm at night.
  • Her dress was the colour of blue.
  • The final score was dismal at the end of the game.
  • I’m telling the truth, he was killed to death!
  • I ride my two-wheeled bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

These are tautologies. A tautology is saying the same thing twice. Let’s look at those examples again.

The movie starts at 7.30 pm at night.

There is no need to indicate it’s at night as the ‘pm’ already tells us this.

The movie starts at 7.30 pm.

Her dress was the colour of blue.

Blue is a colour.

Her dress was blue.

The final score was dismal at the end of the game.

A final score indicates the end of the game.

The final score was dismal.

I’m telling the truth, he was killed to death!

Some times when we try to emphasise a point we can fall into the trap of over doing it. Dead is dead; there are no in-betweens.

I’m telling the truth, he was killed!

However, it is okay to say, ‘He was stabbed to death’, because people can survive a stabbing.

I ride my two-wheeled bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

Bicycle means a two-wheeled bike.

I ride my bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

Some tautologies stand out, but some are used in everyday conversations so they can go unnoticed. Keep a look out for them, and then avoid them.

What do all of the following have in common?

  • Needle in a haystack.
  • Not over until it’s over.
  • Plenty of fish in the sea.
  • A hard slog.
  • Kicked the bucket.
  • Beat a dead horse, or flog a dead horse, or whatever variation of it.

They are clichés. It’s amazing how often they manage to slip into writing. Any phrase or expression that is overused is a cliché and should be avoid. If you have a character that has a tendency to use such phrases when talking, then of course you’ll probably want to use a couple to enforce this character trait, but don’t overdo it. Usually overdone expressions annoy people, especially when reading.

There’s nothing that can ruin a story faster than cliché after cliché. It’s disappointing when they show up in published books. It’s as if the author didn’t care enough about the readers to take a couple of minutes to think of another way of saying it.

A simple rule: if you’ve heard it before, and pretty sure most other people would have heard it, then don’t use it. Be creative and think how else you can say it or describe it.