Sunday, 20 May 2018

He Said/She Said - How Do You Make Dialogue Compelling – Part 1

It’s every writer’s wish to create compelling and realistic dialogue. It adds to the enjoyment of a story; great dialogue gives it depth and structure, and more importantly for the writer, it accomplishes more than showing the reader conversations.
Dialogue doesn’t just tell half of the story – or further the plot – it can move the story forward, it develops relationships, it can create tension, conflict an atmosphere and it can reveal character. It’s one of those things that can show the reader how skilled you are – it’s the difference between great dialogue and bad dialogue, and the latter is a sign that the writer hasn’t yet got to grips with how dialogue works.
So, how can you make your dialogue compelling? Well, thankfully, there are multiple ways a writer can do this.
He Said/She Said
Let’s start with probably the most contentious element – dialogue tags and how they should be used. A dialogue tag is the ‘he said’ or ‘she replied’ etc., tagged on the end of the dialogue.
There is a lot of advice on the use of tags, but most writers agree that balanced use of ‘he said/she said’ is perfectly fine. That’s because the reader is conditioned to see ‘said’ and so it almost becomes invisible. They hardly notice it.
The idea is not to rely on it so that every single tag is a ‘he said/she said’. There is nothing wrong with using a different tag from time to time. ‘Replied/answered’ or the odd ‘muttered’ won’t hurt. Just don’t overuse them, otherwise they can become distracting.
Well-crafted dialogue doesn’t always need the dialogue tags, because we often use narrative to break up the dialogue or we use action before dialogue, so the reader already knows who’s talking, for example:
Amy turned from the colourless scene outside and looked at David. ‘What if we can’t sell this house?’
Here, there is no need to put ‘she said’, since it’s clear from the action before the dialogue that Amy is speaking.
Cut Redundancies
To create interesting dialogue, it’s best to get rid of redundancies.  This is where the writer repeats what he or she has already told the reader, by adding actions after a line of dialogue, for example:
‘Ouch!’ he yelped.
‘Ouch’ already tells the reader that the person is in pain or discomfort, so ‘yelped’ makes the dialogue redundant, as it’s simply telling the reader the same thing twice. Many writers make this mistake. It could, therefore, be left simply as ‘Ouch!’, or action can be placed before the dialogue:
Jimmy sucked in a breath. ‘Ouch!’
Writers can’t help themselves sometimes. They feel the need to explain everything, just so the reader understands, for example:
‘At last we can sell the house!’ Amy whooped happily.
This example is telling the reader about the character’s feelings twice.  It’s clear from what Amy says that she’s excited, so there is no need to use the adverb ‘happily’.  This is another mistake writers make – they go overboard with the adverbial dialogue tags, such as:
...‘he said excitedly’, ‘she said shyly’, ‘John replied bashfully’...
Adverbs weaken sentence structures, so instead of telling the reader, it’s much better to show. That way, there is no need for any adverbs, for instance:
‘At last we can sell the house!’ Amy said, and her eyes glimmered.
Make it Effective
Dialogue is effective when it is delivered in small amounts, especially during fast paced scenes. Dialogue tends to be short and snappy, interspersed with snippets of narrative and description. So unless absolutely necessary, don’t have your characters talk for too long, otherwise it will bore the reader and become distracting.
Longer conversations/speeches are generally a way of slowing the pace and make the narrative more reflective and should be used sparingly.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more ways to achieve compelling dialogue, including the use of narrative beats, action before dialogue, punctuation and more.
Next week: He said/she said - How do you make dialogue compelling – Part 2


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Part 2 - Does Your First Chapter Work?

In this second part we’ll continue our look at some of the elements that make a first chapter work. They are considered ‘key’ essentials to grab the reader, agent/publisher’s interest and lure them into reading your book and keep them reading.
Introduce Conflict
Conflict is the driving force for fiction; it’s at the very heart of every story and so it must be present in your opening chapter, but since conflict comes in all manner of guises, the conflict in question is the character’s main conflict and not the bullets and explosions and all out action kind.
In a nutshell, what’s at the heart of the story? What’s the main problem, what must the character do to achieve this and who is standing in their way? That’s the type conflict the reader needs to know, rather than large, full scale conflict that might appear later in the story, because it allows the reader to become involved – they will recognise and understand such conflicts and empathise with your character.
And once they do, well, they’re already hooked.
Set the Tone
The tone...writers tend to ignore this one, because they’re not sure what the ‘tone’ actually is. The tone depends on whether your book is dark, romantic, gothic, humorous, noir action-packed etc.  It’s the nature of the story. So if it’s set in an eerie village, set the tone. If it takes place on a star ship in the year 3000, then make sure you show the reader. If it’s set in a bleak wintry landscape in 1940, set the tone and create some atmosphere. It’s all geared to lure the reader.
By setting the tone at the beginning, you set the tone for the entire novel.
What’s at Risk?
In other words, how high are the stakes? What has to happen to for the main character to avoid dire consequences? What might the main character lose if he or she fails?
It’s wise to show the reader early on what is at stake, so that they can identify with the main character and create an immediate bond.
You don’t have to hit the reader over the head with it, but hint at what the risks are, mention them, let the reader in on what could happen if things don’t work out, and what it means to the main character. Do this and you establish immediacy and empathy, because readers do love to be emotionally attached to characters.
Make It Short
There’s a good reason why. Once you’ve grabbed the reader and you’ve interested them with all these juicy hooks, don’t overcook it – don’t let the chapter drag on and on. Keep it short, but tease the reader with enough information and hints that they’ll just have to read on.
The first chapter is the lure. The rest of the book will give them the story.
Create a Gateway to the Second Chapter
Grabbing the reader with chapter one is one thing, but keeping them is another. Your first chapter is the gateway to the next. And the next. And so on, right up until the last chapter.
Hint, tease and hook. First chapters don’t need backstory, pages of info dumps or lavish descriptions of the setting. It only requires relevant detail. That’s it.
These key essentials help establish the first chapter in your reader’s mind. It should tap into their consciousness and compel them to read on.
The more elements you give in the first chapter, the better your foundation for the rest of the story. There are no rules - but the first chapter is always the gateway to the rest of the book.

Next week: ‘He said/she said’ – How to make dialogue more compelling.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Part 1 - Does Your First Chapter Work?

That’s a question we often ask ourselves.  Does my first chapter work?  Is it interesting or intriguing enough? Would it make the reader want to read the entire book?
The first chapter – indeed the opening sentence – needs to work if you want to grab the reader’s interest. It needs to make a statement. It needs to stand out in a huge crowd of other books. In fact, the first chapter needs to establish a number of things before you can consider whether it works or not.
So you’ve done a story/chapter outline, you have a solid plot, you have your characters sketched out, you’ve chosen the POV and know the genre and who the target audience is. So now you have to make that first chapter work – regardless of whether you write your story chronologically (in order) or whether you write out of sync. You still need to make an impact and you need to keep the reader interested from the moment of the opening sentence of the first chapter.
There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s wise to include an essential list of key things to ensure the first chapter works:
Grab the Reader
The first and last chapters are the most important chapters in a novel. The first chapter is vital and instrumental in grabbing the reader and the last shows a satisfactory conclusion.  So that first chapter makes the difference between the reader instantly becoming immersed in the story or turning their nose up and moving on to another book.
The first few lines tell the reader – or the agent or publisher – the kind of writer you are and the quality of your writing. Sometimes we read the first paragraph and think ‘wow, that’s pretty amazing’ and it stimulates our interest and curiosity. We need to know more. We want to read on. And that means the writer has accomplished what he or she set out to do – they’ve grabbed the reader with their narrative style and voice and the unique way the chapter begins.
Openings can be notoriously difficult to get right and that’s because there is so much pressure to do so. You have to hook the reader, show them the main character, don’t forget the theme, and don’t use too much exposition...and on and on.  No wonder writers have a meltdown before they’ve even written anything.
Of course, there are certain things to include that help make the first chapter stand out, but it doesn’t mean you have to include absolutely every single thing. Include the things that are relevant, which is why it’s better to write down these elements first and plan the first chapter.  It takes away that unnecessary pressure. And don’t overthink it, otherwise it will feel forced.
Read the openings of lots of novels to get a feel of how they work.
The opener is as individual as the writer. And it can be written and rewritten in any order, for however long the writer wants, which is why writers spend a lot more time rewriting and tweaking the first chapter than any other part of the book.

Don’t Start at the Beginning
In other words, bring the reader to the story at the last possible, pivotal moment.
Most stories start at a beginning and take a couple of chapters of boring exposition and backstory before anything interesting happens, so it could be chapter three before the story actually means something. So don’t start at the beginning. Start at the moment of crisis, at the moment the main character’s life changes, at that moment when it all goes wrong for him or her – a moment that acts as a catalyst to kick the story off.
That’s the start of the opening chapter.
Introduce the Main Character
It’s the protagonist’s story, so it’s a priority to introduce them to the reader at the earliest possible moment, because if they don’t get that opportunity, they won’t know whose story it is, what’s happening or why and they won’t really care one way or the other when you do finally introduce the character in chapter two.
Other characters can follow any time, but make sure the star of the story appears in chapter one. That way the reader can meet the main character and they can get to know him or her and care about them, right from the start. They can follow their journey right to the end. That’s how you create immediacy.
If you create that from the start, the reader will want to keep reading to find out what happens to that character.
In the next part, we’ll look at some other elements that help make the first chapter interesting enough for the reader to want to read your book.

Next week: Part 2 - Does Your First Chapter Work?

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Should You Follow Fiction Writing Rules?

as suggested by Susan Uttendorfsky.
All writers are aware of some of the most common rules in writing – don’t use too many adjectives or adverbs, don’t rely on passive writing, use nouns and verbs for stronger narrative, don’t overuse ‘ing’ words, don’t overdo he said/she said dialogue tags and so on, but should they even be considered rules?
That all depends on why you want to write. If writing is no more than a hobby, then rules are hardly going to affect what you do. If you want to be a published writer and you want to be taken seriously, then isn’t it best to keep to some of those rules?
The best way to approach this is to remember that there are no ‘rules’ as such, other than those governing grammar and syntax. Those are rules we must not ignore. But fiction writing rules don’t really exist in the same sense. Everyone calls them rules, but instead they are more like guidelines and instructions.
Everyone knows the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra. We all know the ‘use nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives’, or the ‘don’t mix tenses’ etc. These “rules” came to be because the publishing industry uses them as quality benchmarks. It’s wise to remember that what appeals to an agent or editor isn't what appeals to the general populous (whatever demographic they might be); and it’s the agents and publisher’s opinions that really count if you want to be published.
The rules, therefore, are simply there to assist and to guide writers and despite not being set in stone, these rules really do work.
'Rules' have evolved because writers have gone before us – they’ve been there, written the book and got rejected countless times, so over the last hundred years we have found out what works and what doesn’t. We’ve found out the difference between great fiction and utter rubbish, and so those instructions have filtered down over the decades and have become the industry-accepted quality benchmarks.
The rules became a guide to help others onto the publishing ladder, to impress literary agents and publishers. They exist because no one wants to read a load of rubbish by someone who couldn't be bothered to pay some attention to those 'rules'. That’s why many writers are rejected.
Of course, with the advent of self-publishing, all those 'rules' have largely gone out of the window. That’s why a lot of self-published books are so badly written. Writers write as they please, and sometimes it shows. So, depending whether you're good enough get an agent and a publishing contract, or whether you choose the self-publishing route, it's worth considering how you want to approach your writing.
Who knows, you might fall prey to these terrible, embarrassing writers’ conditions, all of which are unavoidable:
Hanging participleosis – A painful but curable overuse of hanging participles.  Requires lots of work to overcome.
Gerundache – A severe ache from using too many gerunds (ing words).  It usually clears up over time with some help.
Adverbiolic – This is a severe addiction to adverbs. It’s treatable, with the right guidance.
Passivitis – A terrible word rash because of too much passive writing. Writers should practice their writing so that they can avoid this condition.
Descriptivitis - Inability to describe anything. This is a common illness among first time authors.
Expositionella - An embarrassing condition where writers tell rather than show. With plenty of practice, it can be cured.
Infodumparrhea – A terrible uncontrollable outpouring of backstory, leading to reader exhaustion and even apoplexy. We’ve all had it, so be careful to avoid it in future.
Okay, so these are fun fictional conditions, but they could be real if writers stopped for a moment and considered just how many of these they rely on. All of us have had these at one point or another.  But the worst two conditions a writer can suffer are ignorance and arrogance. These are the thought processes of writers who think they know it all, don’t need to be told and won’t listen, even though they’re wrong.
That’s why there are guidelines, or ‘rules’ in place. They’re there to help.
So, should you follow writing ‘rules’? If you’re serious about your writing, then yes, it’s wise to follow tried and tested guidelines to help make your writing better and stronger. There’s no reason why they can’t be broken from time to time. And we all love to bend the odd rule now and then. If do you follow them, there’s every chance they’ll help you get an agent or publisher in the future.
Think of them as not rules, but simply very good advice to make you better writers.

Next week: Does your first chapter work?

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Writing Slump – How to Avoid Them

Every now and then, all writers suffer from a writing slump. But what exactly is the slump? Is it writer’s block? Is it general apathy with writing? Is that moment when the novel stutters to a stop and you don’t know what to write next?
The slump in question refers to a period when writers seem unable to write because they’re not feeling creative, they’re not inspired or they haven’t any ideas to work on. It’s an apathy of sorts, sometimes created by life in general and sometimes by negative influences. It’s a creative dry spell.
The writing slump shouldn’t be confused with writer’s block. They’re not the same. One is the inability to write, through various things the writer has done to cause the block, while the other is a lack of motivation to write in the first place.
From time to time, writers have to refocus. Slumps occur when other things take over – social media, family, other work commitments etc. The time writers normally spend being creative and inspired is constricted by other pursuits. How many are guilty of spending too much time on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter etc.?  Writing fiction slowly takes a back seat.
How many of us get wrapped up in our day to day lives, looking after the home and the kids? Plenty of writers work normal jobs and try to write around that, and sometimes they’re just too tired to be creative.
I often have major writing slumps. But I don’t worry about this because I know, as with everything in life, it tends to balance itself. I know that I will get back into the swing of things again, when my mind and my creativity is ready to do so, because ideas and creativity work under their own steam. I know that I can’t force them into being. I also recognise why I’m in a writing slump, and so I can make adjustments to help get back on track.
In other words, it’s not something that should be forced. There’s lots of different advice that writers should write anyway – anything – just to get something written, but that just doesn’t work. Nothing works if it’s forced. They also advise to have different projects on the go, but that’s paradoxical – if you’re in a slump and not in the mindset to write, it won’t matter how many projects you have, you won’t want to write any of them in the first place.
So how can writers overcome a writing slump?
The first thing is to recognise you’re in a bit of a slump. Generally, the signs are easy to spot:

  • There have been no new ideas lately.
  • You don’t feel creative or inspired.
  • You spend too much time on social media.
  • You’re too tired to bother with writing
  • You don’t have much free time anymore because of work or family etc.
  • Your circumstances have changed, so writing is difficult.
Any one of these can cause writers to drop into ‘downtime’ with their writing. And when you can pinpoint the cause, then you can help overcome the problem and steer yourself back on course.
If you know you’re having a dry spell, don’t panic. It’s normal to experience these slumps from on and off. It will get back to normal – you have to be patient as you try to adjust.

Forcing yourself to write is counterproductive, so if possible, have a change of scenery. Go out for a while; a park, a favourite place, or take a weekend off.  Maybe even a holiday.  Go and observe the world around you. People watch.  A change of scenery sometimes helps writers to refocus, away from the noise and grind of daily life.
The same is true about ideas. Don’t force ideas into existence. They will be as convoluted as forced writing. Ideas work best when they come naturally, when you least expect. And the fun part is always expanding on those ideas, plotting and making them work.
Stay off social media for a while. It’s too addictive and is every writer’s excuse for procrastination. The time spent away from it is time better spent being creative.
Set aside some time to do some reading. Read your favourite authors. This is one of the best ways to fire up writing; reading others really does inspire and gives new fire in the belly.
Sometimes talking with other writers about what they’re doing can kick start the creative process again, and they can offer encouragement and feedback. Sometimes, just hearing about what other writers have accomplished is enough to have a metaphorical size ten up the backside to get motivated.
Recognise that everyone has busy lives, and sometimes we have to find time for ourselves. Even if it’s one hour out of the day that can be your writing time. Knowing that we have that time can often help us refocus.
Don’t make goals. This is another snippet of advice that is counterproductive.  If you make goals whilst in a productive slump, then it just adds pressure to achieve them. And when you don’t achieve them (mainly because you’re still stuck in a slump and generally not motivated), then you’ll feel even worse and that is instantly turned into negativity, which can be hard to shake.
A writer’s only goal is to write a good story.
Don’t feel bad that you’re in a slump. They can last weeks or even months. It goes eventually. Just be patient, recognise the cause and try to adjust things so that you help get that creative fire back again.
Next week: Should you follow fiction writing rules?

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Writing in Past Tense and Present Tense

There is no golden rule that a novel can’t be written in both past tense and present tense. But there’s an unwritten rule that says you shouldn’t mix them.
So what’s the difference? Which one is right?
This unwritten rule is often confused by writers as meaning that present can’t be used with past and vice versa. But the unwritten rule refers to the writer mixing tenses within the same chapter or scene. This generally doesn’t work well and can look untidy, and it may appear confusing to the reader, unless it’s expressly a flashback and hinted to the reader.
But there is nothing stopping a writer from writing one chapter or new scene in past and others in the present, or some in present and others in the past, if done correctly. This approach keeps things tidy and allows the reader to follow the writer’s intentions.
Present stories sometimes rely on past events to show the reader certain things – we know these as reminiscences or flashbacks, and these are permissible because the past makes up the present (not the other way around). Present stories sometimes need to show things that happened in the past to provide information and backstory to the plot.
But what about past tense stories? It could be argued that if the story is being narrated from sometime within the past, then logically it can’t show things in the present. And to a degree that is true, but when we consider the wider scope on how past and present tenses work, we can actually let the present in on past tense, and this can work because we have to allow for characters that are recounting their past story – normal past tense – but may be living in the present. This means current thoughts and feelings occur at that present time.
You might have a main character whose story is past tense, mixed in with the antagonist, who observes things in the present. You may have a main character whose story is in the past but – years later – reflects about things from the present. There are all manner of ways it can be done. But as long as the writing is tight, succinct, and both voice and style are clear, then there is no reason why writers shouldn’t write from both tenses.
Many novels take this approach where the main character’s story is told in both tenses, making sure that each tense is observed correctly and that the reader immediately knows there is a change.
Careful planning is needed to make it work, so if it’s not executed properly, it may not be effective and can prove distracting or confusing to readers. The approach doesn’t always work, as not every story will benefit from this method, so sometimes writers should experiment to see where it takes them.
So, remember there is no golden rule. If writing in both past and present tense for various characters serves the story, then go with it.
Next week: Writing Slumps – how to avoid them

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Turning Ideas into Stories

Ideas come in all manner of ways.  Inspiration is the atom that starts it all. From inspiration we get ideas and from ideas we start to create. And when we get creative, we get productive.
Ideas often happen without us having to try. Sometimes they pop into our head fully formed, while others are but small seeds and need some nurturing and development. They might happen because of a memory or personal experience. They might form because of something seen on the TV. Or an incident. Maybe a time period inspires writers. Sometimes they feel strongly about something and they need to write about it.
Ideas can come from anything, anyone and everything. And the best ideas come when we don’t force them.
But even with the smallest of ideas, bigger things grow from it. We do this by adding more ideas, because everyone knows that ideas create even more ideas. That’s how we form plots and characters and so on.
But how do you turn that single idea into a story?
Start at the beginning, with the premise, whether that’s two people who fall in love, a story about a ghost, a group of friends on vacation, or it could be about a kid who falls through a hole in space and time. Whatever it is, that’s when writers get to be the mad professor and come up with all manner of notions and concepts and crazy ideas. In other words, it’s a good old fashioned brainstorm.
Some people go all out and draw mind maps or line graphs, or they make thorough outlines or draw sketches of scenes that they ‘see’ in their mind. Others take a simpler approach and write some notes. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as the process creates.
Then ask the following questions:
Who might the characters be? Whose story is it? Who is the bad guy? From characters we can build on their backstories and develop them into fully fledged people that we can connect with.
What are their reasons for being in the story? What motivates them? What drives them? What are their goals? What do they want to achieve? From reasons, we can find answers. When we give them motives, we also find actions and reactions and we’re able to build these into our stories.
When is the story staking place? The present? The distant past? The recent past? A sense of time or history acts like an anchor for the story. It will also dictate how characters behave and talk. This can also inspire the writer for further ideas based on the time period.
Where is the story set? An inner city estate? On board a spacecraft? An exotic beach? Or lots of locations? Again, location can give rise to lots of other ideas with the story because sometimes that story idea might actually start with a location rather than a character or an incident or memory.
Which perspective to use?  First person, past or present, or third person, past or present? Each one has advantages and disadvantages, so the perspective is something to carefully consider and experiment with.
Lastly, why is the story happening? This is the question that creates the plot. Why is the question to everything.
When writers have an idea, the fun part is taking all these elements and throwing them into the cooking pot and seeing what they create. A single idea breeds more ideas. That’s when the creative juices flow, when writers get into that excited phase of creating a story.
Remember, why is the question to everything. And the best way to turn an idea into a story is to just get on and write.
Next week: Writing stories in both past and present tense