Sunday, 26 March 2017

Writing for Beginners (26)

Don’t run out of puff.

It’s amazing what a difference a couple of decades makes. In a second-hand bookshop recently, I found a couple of novels I hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years. (Neither of them mine, I hasten to add). One of the first things that struck me (apart from the wonderful, musty smell – try getting that out of an electronic reader) was how breathless I became while reading.
 
No, it was nothing to do with decades of dust invading my respiratory tract. What I found was that most of the sentences seemed to run on for line after line, broken only by the occasional comma, until I began looking for the full stop rather than enjoying the story. Mentally, at least, I was rather like a musician, lunging for the end of the piece before running out of puff, or a driver going faster to reach a service area before running out of petrol. (You’ve never done that? Sheesh, you haven’t lived.)
 
This type of extended sentence was clearly something I hadn’t really noticed first time round, most likely because the style of much writing years ago was for longer, all-embracing passages, with a few asides along the way to impart important ancillary information and additional comments thrown in as the writer felt fit, to give colour, depth and background, like this one, dear and no doubt by now, equally breathless reader. (See what I mean?)
 
Since then, thank goodness, there has been something of a change. How this came about, I’m not sure. But most fiction now goes for a shorter, punchier style of sentence, perhaps suiting modern communication means and speech patterns.
 
This discovery coincided with me being on a panel of judges for a short fiction competition. The theme was open, so the entrants were varied. Many had adopted the current style, using shorter sentences sprinkled with current expressions and references, or the odd throwaway comment by the narrator. But a few used a more literary style, with florid language and longer sentences.
 
This seemed to work well when the subject matter or setting was of a historical or ‘serious’ nature. However, I found myself having to re-read a couple with a more contemporary setting, because it seemed to jar a little. It wasn’t simply that the words used seemed out of context, or that the flowery description sometimes got in the way of the basic story; it was that the sentences seemed longer than I was accustomed to, and littered with extraneous bits of information like sheep’s wool on a barbed-wire fence. With some, this spoiled the tension of the storytelling, killing what might have been an interesting or captivating passage. Had it been a book, it would have been less noticeable, given the greater space available for expansion of a theme or descriptive narrative. But in a short story, where getting to the point is paramount, it was all too visible.
 
Equally, I suppose, telling a story with a period setting, but using modern colloquialisms - ‘Why,’ pon my soul, Mr Darcy, innit.’ – would be just as jarring. (Unless it were a deliberate parody, of course. Sadly, there were none of these, which might have been fun, and likely to have carried away a prize for originality).
 
A series of shorter sentences with full stops is quite useful if you wish to convey tension. Where describing a dynamic action scene, for example, you might need to make the style punchier, to reflect the kind of event being portrayed.
 
This is also useful in a more reflective piece where you may have a first-person narrator under some emotional, physical or mental strain, and you wish to convey this as if his or her thoughts and conclusions are being ripped out of them in a series of sharp, painful tugs, rather than as if it were a carefully worded discussion over a pleasant glass of sherry and one elbow on the mantelpiece. (And if anyone out there below a certain age wants to know what the heck a mantelpiece is, you either live in a modern house or you need to read some older books – they’re peppered with them).
 
Dialogue is another example where shorter can be better. Most people speak in short bursts, interspersed with pauses, ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ rather than long, fluid speech. I’m not suggesting you include all these exclamations in your writing, because that would be intensely irritating and might lead to severe book abuse. But using brevity in an exchange of dialogue is certainly more true-to-life, and allows you to move the action along while giving a sense of the often rapid ebb and flow of characters’ intentions and reactions as they speak.
 
This is particularly evident where an argument is raging. Most writers instinctively allow each character to take their turn, whereas in real life, there are interruptions, pauses and overlapping speech. Again, to include all this in a passage would be detrimental, but the occasional interruption or flare-up would show verisimilitude and allow movement down the page in a series of shorter, sharper sentences with, perhaps, movement and action to break up the speech.

TOP TIPS

·       Match the style of language and delivery to the setting.
·       Reflect tension by the use of punchier sentences.
·       Would two short sentences be more effective than one long one?
·       Be wary of monologues – alternate dialogue is more interesting to read.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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Monday, 13 March 2017

Drone wars - and things you just can't make up.

It's a fact that whatever gizmos we writers come up with on paper or screen, it's either been done, about to be done or will undoubtedly be done in the future. In short there's nothing much that we write about that stretches the imagination too far. Well, apart from portals into other dimensions, that is. (And yes, I'm just fooling - it will pop up one day, if it hasn't already).

I began playing with the idea of 'The Bid' - the 2nd Gonzales & Vaslik thriller/mystery, back in 2015. The plot is about terrorists using small drones or UAVs to make a strike at the US president.

I researched the subject and got a pretty good idea of the capabilities and limits of the kind of drones available then used as a leisure pursuit, and other, more commercial uses, for land and pipeline surveys, traffic monitoring, big game watching and film footage. It was and is a fascinating subject.

But the thing I was very quickly reminded about was that technology never stands still. And the limits I had written about soon got busted wide open.

You can read a piece I wrote on this issue for Shots Magazine right here: http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/feature_view.aspx?FEATURE_ID=334

'The Bid' - Midnight Ink Books - available in p/b and ebook.

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Latest Articles in Writing Magazine

April's edition of Writing Magazine includes my latest Beginners feature, 'Choose Your Battles', along with a New Author profile.

As in most fields of activity, writing is one where it's wise not to try doing too many things at once. Whether creating characters, scenes or plots, doing necessary research, editing - or even finding the time and space in which to write, there's a temptation to cram all these activities into one's day.

It's called task-hopping, which takes time, effort and concentration, and doesn't help with the main creative. And I haven't even mentioned social media... oh, so I have.

The thing is, take each one of these at a time, not the whole smorgasbord. Stretch yourself too thin and you'll take the whole fun out of writing.
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My New Author profile this month is Joseph Knox, with his debut novel, 'Sirens' pub'd by Doubleday. The first in a series set in Manchester, it features a young detective, Aidan Waits, in disgrace after stealing drugs from the evidence room, and the nightmare in which he finds himself when he's blackmailed into an undercover operation tracking down an MP's runaway daughter.

One interesting aspect of Knox's journey to publication is that although he's a crime and fiction buyer for a major bookseller chain here in the UK, it took him eight long years to get published. The message there is two-fold; one is, if you really have a book inside you, don't give up and, two, it doesn't matter if you're in the industry, you won't necessarily get there any quicker!

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Saturday, 4 March 2017

Writing for Beginners (25)

Work in progress.

It’s tempting to think that these three words should be on a notice pinned to your door in big, bold letters so that your nearest and dearest can see when you DON’T want to walk the dog, collect the kids from school, paint the Sistine Chapel or run a couple of marathons backwards with a candelabra balanced on your head.

However, work in progress (or WIP as it’s known in the manufacturing industry) is something all writers are involved in, consciously or otherwise, all the time.

Like most scribes, I have an ‘Ideas’ folder, where I place all my back-of-the-envelope scribblings until they’re needed. These can range from thoughts about follow-on books in a series, to vague jottings about characters, names, plots or scenes which I might use in the future. Whatever they are - and this is largely psychological, I admit - I prefer to think of them as works in progress, no matter how vague or unformed they might appear at the time - especially to an outsider. (And looking at one just recently, if the notes had fallen into the hands of a zealous policeman, I’d have probably been introduced to some rubber hose treatment, such was the wording: kill street youth – body of woman – bogus church group – kidnap teenager – blackmail parents.)

Not, as one might think, the ravings of a would-be psychopath planning his next evening out, but a working writer’s ideas being jotted down for later use ( which, incidentally, became my third book).

And this is how most writing begins: as a seemingly random collection of words, on the way to becoming something more concrete. But for it to become that, the ideas have to be continually reviewed to see if anything sparks off into a workable story, otherwise they shrivel and die.

A way of not letting such valuable thoughts moulder is to immediately add a few words, allowing your instincts to kick in, and sketching out how you think the idea might grow and which direction it could take. Thus, in the heat of the moment, use that flash of inspiration, garnered through seeing something, hearing a snatch of conversation, reading a headline or whatever, and take it one stage further by jotting down a few extra words to make it more than just a passing thought. This way, you’re setting up a chain of ideas for the future, even if you change it completely later.

In the case above, I’d been reading about the death of a rough sleeper in London’s west end, and started thinking about what might have caused it other than drugs, disease or malnutrition (it’s always worth trying to find an alternative to the obvious, if only to make you think harder about something fresher and less tried).

At the time, there had also been a story running in the US about a bogus church charity preying on vulnerable runaways, and this gave me the idea of marrying the two events and combining them into a single story. The rest fell into place bit by bit.

Of course, my initial idea might have easily fallen by the wayside or become something else entirely. But by thinking of it as a work in progress, I was committing myself to looking at it seriously and trying to build it into something solid.

The important thing is, never let a good idea go to waste.

My WIP folder contains all manner of oddments like this, and I regularly trawl through them to see if anything gives me that spark which will set me off onto a new project. It may be a short story, it could be an idea for a novel. But whatever it is destined to be, I see that WIP folder as being full of workable nuggets which I will get round to one day. And whenever I dip into it, I usually find myself adding a thought or two to one of the documents, like bricks in a wall, until one begins to take on an energy of its own.

Eventually, that document will ‘go critical’ until I can’t leave it alone any longer and it becomes a tangible piece of work with a deadline or a market in mind.

Occasionally, one of these ideas may be used subconsciously elsewhere, either in total or cannibalised to fit another work. It’s therefore essential to cull them on a regular basis and leave only the fresher ones to work on.

The other aspect of my WIP folder is that anything in it stays there until it’s completed and submitted. Only then do I transfer it into a different folder for finished work which is out in the market place. Why? Because by definition, anything in the WIP folder is still being worked on, polished, buffed up, amended – all those things we writers do until we’re satisfied we’ve done a good job and can submit it with a clear conscience.

TOP TIPS
  • Ideas need fleshing out, without which they remain undeveloped. 
  • Review your WIP folder on a regular basis and weed out any dead wood or add thoughts to others where you can. 
  • A WIP folder means you are never in the position of not having something to work on. 
  • A work in progress is merely that until it’s submitted or sold.
  • Your WIP folder is your breeding ground for the future.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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