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Advice on Writing

Writing fiction is a great thing to do. You have the freedom to create whole worlds no one has ever seen before, or to hold up a mirror to the world around you. It's even possible to do both in the same book. You can explore things that have happened to yourself, whether painful or wonderful. Or you can give life to a range of characters very different from yourself and find what they will do in the situation you invent for them.

   It's even better if you can persuade someone to pay you for day-dreaming.

   As well as writing my own books, I am an editor for The Writers' Workshop: www.WritersWorkshop.co.uk. I read scripts from would-be novelists and advise them how to make their work more publishable. Here are some of the points I frequently need to deal with.

Persistence

I was at a children's literature conference when someone said to William Mayne, 'I've always wanted to write a book.' He rounded on the unfortunate woman and retorted, 'No, you haven't! If you had, you'd have written it by now.'

  Tough, but true. Nina Bawden, at a similar conference, said that the only difference between a published author and anyone else who can write a decent letter is persistent motivation.

  It's not necessarily those with the most talent who get published, but those with the most determination to succeed, and the willingness to go on improving their craft.

  I remember two very different people from a creative writing course I taught. One was a rather self-important man, nearing retirement. He assured us all that he had a winning idea for a book, and that once he had the time, he was going to write it.

   The other was a young mother. She found it impossible to write at home. Even when her child was at play school, there were too many jobs crying out to be done. So she would set off to collect her child twenty minutes early. She spent those minutes sitting in the car writing her book.

  I know which of those two I'd back to succeed.

  When they hear I am an author, some people say, 'Oh, I suppose you write when the Muse strikes you.'

  No, anyone who writes for publication will tell you it doesn't work like that. It's a discipline, like any other job. Well, all right, it is more fun than a lot of other jobs, but you still need to keep working hours.

   What those hours - or even minutes - are, depends on you and your circumstances. But once you have set them for yourself, you need to keep them. No matter how little you write each day, or even each week, if you stick to that, you will eventually finish the book. Once you start letting yourself off the hook, making excuses, you may never finish.

   You may not feel like writing when you start. Inspiration may have deserted you. If that happens, I sit there imagining, even day-dreaming, my way into the scene I need to write next. Sooner or later, it becomes so vivid that I hear in my head the words I need to write. Once I pick up my pen, the words start to flow. But if I didn't make the effort, it wouldn't happen.

Presentation

Writing for publication is a fiercely competitive business. Hundreds of scripts a week pour into publishers' and agents' offices. When an editor picks up yours, you want them to feel that you are someone who works to the highest standards. The pages should immediately look right.

   Don't leave a line between paragraphs, except to indicate a change of scene.

   Indent your paragraphs.

   If you are writing dialogue, make each person's speech a new paragraph. Keep your narrative separate from the dialogue in paragraphs of its own.

  

Key Question

There are two things which can keep the reader turning the pages. If the book is beautifully written, or extremely funny, the quality of the writing alone can provide enough enjoyment. But with most books, it's curiosity which stops the reader putting it down. They have to find out what happens.

   The key to a page-turning plot is to pose a question which the reader will really care about. Whodunnit? Will she marry him? Can they save the universe from annihilation? Will he find his teddy-bear?

   This question needs to be raised at the start. The rest of the book is the answer to it. It should only be resolved just before the end.

   The important thing is that it should not be resolved too easily. The plot will progress in a series of ups and downs. An initial crisis is resolved. Success appears in sight. Then it all goes horribly wrong again. The tension rises through a succession of increasing peaks, leading up to the climax.

   Never let the reader lose sight of the fundamental question you posed. It may throw up interesting subsidiary questions, which the characters have to deal with before they can resolve the main one. But don't get so caught up with these that you forget what your book is really about.

   This underlying rule applies, whether you are telling a gentle story about the small dramas of a year on a farm, or whether it's a spine-chilling thriller about international espionage.

Point of View

You've got an idea for a story and you've decided on the readership you are aiming at. The next important decision is the point of view from which you're going to tell it. Can't you just say what happens? I'm afraid not. A story isn't a parcel of information to be passed on; it's a living experience. The reader needs to see, hear, feel, smell, taste it. Each scene must happen in front of their eyes. Whose eyes are they to see it through?

   If you start by writing a scene as A sees it, and then switch to what it looks like to B, you'll confuse the reader. They can no longer work out where they supposed to be. (Unless it's a witty novel where you make the switch deliberately, to turn the reader's first perceptions upside down.)

   There are several choices open to you.

   1. You can adopt a god-like overview, enabling you to see everything that happens and know the thoughts in everyone's head. This is not a good idea. Novels thrive on unanswered questions. It's curiosity which keeps readers turning the page. If you tell them in a crime story what's going on in the heads of all the suspects, there's not a lot of reason for them to read on.

   2. You can be an eyewitness who is present at a number of scenes, but only knows what the characters are thinking through their appearance, words and actions. This may apper to have advantages. You can keep the reader informed about scenes at which the chief protagonist isn't present. But again, you risk giving away too much.

   This broad canvas approach may work for Dickens, who can keep us entertained with vast cast of characters, all of them fun to be with. Novels have moved on since then. Readers have come to like the deeper experience of following one character more consistently. As an author, you have to work hard to get the reader to care about your central protagonist. The more scenes you spend away from that character the weaker the reader's engagement with them will become. When the character reappears, you will have to do the work all over again.

   3.  You can become a  minor character in the story, who tells the reader about the events as he/she witnessed them, using the first person 'I'. This will make the story more vivid and immediate, involving the narrator's own emotions. You can still include some scenes at which the chief character was not present, but your understanding of events will be partial. This is a good thing. It preserves some mystery as the story unfolds.

   4. You can tell the story through the eyes of the central character. Now the emotion is really heightened. The reader experiences directly fear, joy, rage, whatever.

   5. You can have two central characters, who sometimes act separately. You can alternate between their points of view, so as to cover the complete story. Writing the scenes where they act together can be tricky. Whose viewpoint are you going to take then?

   6. You can follow the experience of the central character either by writing about 'he' or 'she', or by getting even more deeply in their character and writing as 'I'. They style in which they speak will give you a rich opportunity to show further evidence of their personality.

   The important thing is that you must decide. If you mix up these methods, the book will be a mess.

Readership

Before setting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you need to decide what readers you are aiming at.

   You may say, " I just write for myself." Fine, but what picture do you have of this self? As you are now, as you were as a child, as a younger adult? And what sort of person are you? What books do you enjoy reading? The answers to these questions define your target readership.

   New writers sometimes say to me, "I'm not sure if this for children or adults." I made the same mistake myself when I was writing the prototype for the Morgan le Fay series. I couldn't decide whether to write it for teenagers or adults. I decided to go ahead with it, anyway, and see how it turned out. This was a bad mistake. As I should have foreseen, the book fell between two stools and wasn't properly suited to either readership. It didn't get published until I made up my mind to rewrite it firmly for adults.

   In the same way, you might have an idea for a romantic story, but the treatment you give it will vary according to whether you are aiming at publication by Mills & Boon or a more literary house.

   This doesn't mean that, once you have made your decision and started to write, you need to be consciously thinking about your readers and checking for language, length, emotional level, etc. It's more like a golfer getting ready to play the ball. First you look up, decide where you want the ball to go, how hard you need to hit it, at what angle. Once you have clarified the picture of the ideal shot in your mind, you then concentrate your attention on the ball at your feet, the set of your body, the swing of your arms. With luck, the ball will then follow the trajectory you hoped for.

   That sense of your readership should be there throughout, but at the back of your mind, while you get down to the business of writing the words that will woo them and wow them and keep them turning the pages.

Mood

Every writer, whether engaged in fantasy or not, needs to be a magician. You have to enchant your readers so that they fall under your spell for as long as it takes them to read the book.

   For your spell to work, you must have a clear vision of what you want it to achieve.

   First, of course, you want the readers to believe in your characters and the world in which you have set them. But there is more to writing a convincing book than that. You have to make the readers feel what you want them to feel on every page.

   Mood matters. Is this an exciting episode, when you keep the readers on the edge of their seats? Go for short sentences, a taut, sparse style. To achieve this, I sometimes write sentences without verbs. It gives a tense, staccato feel. Cut out any irrelevant detail, but do focus in on the one detail that will shock.

   You can't keep up that level of excitement throughout the book, even in a thriller. It would be counter-productive. I was scared of thunderstorms and spiders until I went to live in Zambia. There, they were so common and so big that I just couldn't maintain that level of fear. You don't want to deaden your readers with non-stop danger. Your dramatic passages will be all the more thrilling if you separate them by scenes with a different mood.

   Think of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien invents so many scary baddies that he almost empties the cupboard of ideas for those who follow him. Yet it is not just the awful orcs and the nasty Nazgul that we remember. What fans love are those magical scenes between the life-threatening dangers, when the protagonists find respite in the elven realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien.

   This calls for a different style of writing: longer, flowing sentences, more commas, fewer full stops. Conversation can be more relaxed. There is space to show aspects of the surrounding scene which are not strictly necessary to the plot, but which deepen the atmosphere and solidify the setting.

   All the same, keep an eye on the key question of the book. The sense of unfinished business should never quite leave the protagonists.

   This works for realist fiction as well. If the sun shines and people are kind, the next shock will be all the more telling.

   The use of humour depends much on the writer's personal style. Some people have the gift of being funny throughout. Others will try to enliven their pages with flashes of humour. Make sure these are appropriate. If you have worked to build up a tense scene, you don't want to ruin the effect with a joke which makes the reader feel it's not really scary after all. There is certainly a place for black humour, the breathless joke in a tight situation, as long as it leaves the reader knowing the characters are genuinely frightened. Where humour is useful is in changing the mood after a fraught passage, bringing the readers down to a gentler level before taking them back up to the next crisis.

 

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Persistance

Presentation

Key Question

Point of View

Readership

Mood