Tag Archives: Gold Rules

Golden rule of writing


I once got a gig on an independent short film as a continuity person. I went to great lengths to make sure the cigarette being smoked was always burnt to the right point in the conversation and that the girl’s scarf was worn consistently in each shot.

I got the job because that’s the sort of thing I pick up when I watch a movie. It’s a ‘skill’ I’ve rarely had to call on when reading a book, until now. This week I picked up a book that is full of continuity errors.

The character walks to another character’s house, and at the end of the chat he takes her downstairs to her car so she can drive home. She gets up early, describing the sunrise in detail, then goes to see a friend who comments that it is nearly 5:30pm so they’ll need to wait until the next day to go to a florist. It is as if no-one bothered to read the book after the first draft was completed.

I don’t claim to never make these mistakes, I can totally relate to changing your mind on something, going back to edit it, not remembering that you referenced the thing you changed later in the story. But that’s why you always do a read through when you think you have finished the book. That’s why you give it to your beta-readers, to pick up on all the little details you got wrong. That’s why you employ an editor if you run a publishing house before you commit the book to print.

This is not a self-published book, it is also not the first edition. I can’t see how it is possible that so many continuity errors have made it into the copy of the book I have. The story is well put together, so I want to keep reading it, but the errors really are starting to hamper my enjoyment because there are just so many of them.

It really has underscored, for me, the importance of beta-readers. I know there are a lot of writers out there who shy away from showing their work to people they know, but will gladly send it off to a publisher. I guess the writer I’m reading was like that, and she managed to get away with it. But I think in 99.99% of cases where this has happened the authors have not been so lucky. In a world where publishers are looking for a reason to say no, it is best not to hand them this mistake. I’m sure that’s why I normally see so few continuity errors in books.

Write what you know

I had an English teacher in high school who took this ‘rule’ a little too literally. As a burgeoning science fiction writer I was often met with this comment in red across the bottom of my creative writing assignments; write what you know. Having read so many novels set in other times and places where no humans had yet gone, I knew she was wrong.

The thing is this rule is actually a set-in-stone-not-to-be-broken rule when you understand it properly. Perhaps it would be better phrased as if you write something that others know, make sure you know it too.

As a writer I can put a cattle station on planet Rurak with no problems. I set the rules about Rurak, so what I say goes. However, if I name a real breed of beef cow as a milking cow, then I’ve failed my reader. The facts that exist should be known by the writer. If I can’t be bothered researching cows, then I need put a different animal on Rurak or make one up.

Just as an aside, I think it is always better to do the research on the facts. Besides giving your story verisimilitude, many readers (me included) bristle at the idea of an animal that looks like a cow, moos like a cow and gets milked like a cow, being called a Beekramp for the ease of the story. To me that feels like sloppy world building and a writer who didn’t want to research cows.

So yes, write what you know, but feel free to take what you know and put it in a fantastical world of your own creation. Just be sure to know that world you invent. The last thing you want is someone reading your story and picking up on the parts where you have broken your own world-building rules! But that’s a whole other post…

Just actually

Despite my promise to write new chapters on my novel, I’ve uncovered a big hole that needs filling. So I’ve gone back to edit the early chapters to fill in the base to shore it up before I keep constructing the novel on top.

These are raw first drafts I’m looking at, and it is amazing the number of times I repeat words. Some of the words are repeated in only one chapter, possibly written in one sitting (I sometimes do that) and for some reason that particular word was banging around in my head. Actually starred in five paragraphs in a row, with two mentions in one of those paragraphs – I deleted them all.

Another word, which sneaks into all my writing, from emails at work, to blog posts, to stories, is ‘just’. Nine times out of ten it is completely superfluous and has made me realise that one of the first things I should do when I complete any piece of writing is do a find and delete for ‘just’.

I know this affliction doesn’t only plague me, it features in enough ‘how to’ writing books, and stories I critique, that I know it is common to all of us. What I don’t understand is why.

Funnily enough (I took note in this edit) most of the time I preferred the second use of the repeated word over the first one. This immediately dispelled my theory that I had liked the first use of the word so much that my subconscious mind wanted to please me again.

I guess it is a quirk of the human mind to head back to the familiar. Or maybe this is more evidence of the subconscious having trouble distinguishing between what is real and imagined, as it is not sure that we did use the word the first time it proposed it. Who knows, but so far it is what is jumping out at me most from my edits.

And for reference; I have deleted five uses of the word just from this post (and no actually’s).

Adelaide Writers’ Week – On Writing

I had a good time at Adelaide Writers’ Week this year, though the 35 degree days did lead to a few headaches and a bit of heat exhaustion! I discovered a few new authors and was made both richer (in experience) and poorer (in book purchases) for having been there.

A funny thing that I noticed with a number of the authors was the concept of when they started to write. A lot of them did not start writing, or even think about becoming writers until their late twenties, thirties or even forties!

Having been writing books since I was in primary school, this shocked me at first. How can you just decide to write? Just knock out a book and get it published in a couple of years? I had been slogging away my whole life and still did not have a publishing contract to show for it.

Instead of drowning in my jealousy (I may have dog-paddled in it for a while) I kept listening, and a theme emerged, both in those who, like me, had always wanted to write, and those who came later to the idea; they all wrote a story.

Yes, it is a crazy idea; to be a writer one has to write a story and finish it. Sure, I have been writing most of my life, intensely over the past 10 years, and I have hundreds of thousands of word to show for it, but how many novels have I written to completion and put through at least one editing round? How many? One.

When you look at it like that it makes perfect sense, in fact the ONLY way you can become an author is to write a story, finish it, polish it and send it off. Everything else is just practice.

I may have seven novels on the go, but until I finish them, it can only ever be a hobby. That was my big take-away from Adelaide Writers’ Week. I’ve always laboured over the fact I need to write, but it is the finishing and polishing that I really need to focus on.

Biggles never said

A friend of mine is a big Biggles fan and recently lent me a couple of books to read. The language is wonderful, and I love the way the author paints a picture, but there are some things about the writing style that really date the books.

The first thing that struck me was how long the sentences were. I was forgetting what we were talking about by the time we got to the end of them in some instances. This just shows how lazy I’ve become with my reading, so I was glad to get some practice in.

The next thing that struck me was how politically incorrect the books were, on more levels than I want to get into here. So we’ll just leave that alone.

The third thing to strike me, and strangely enough not until I was some time into the book, was how rarely the word ‘said’ was used. In the first three pages people chipped, returned, added, answered, stated, inquired, whispered, queried, ejaculated, muttered and even averred (I had to look that one up), but no one ‘said’ anything until page 12. Page 12!!!!

One of the early ‘rules’ of writing that I learned was you should try to use ‘said’ as much as possible because all the other options just get in the way of otherwise good prose, and the eye easily slips over the word ‘said’. I diligently went through all my stories and axed my answered’s and quelled my queries, replacing all with a nice soft ‘said’.

So did it irritate me when I was reading Biggles? Yes, a bit, but not as much as when I’m reading a modern story and someone does exactly the same thing. I guess it was just the style of the day to replace ‘said’ whenever possible and I was being more understanding, but when did that style change? More importantly –why?

Why was it determined that said was bad once and good later? Who decides on all of these rule?

It makes me want to break the rules,’ declared Natalie.

Wankey words

I tried to slip verisimilitude into a sentence today, and as much as I do know how to use it in a sentence, and I know what it means, it just doesn’t sound right. So if I won’t use a word in my speech, should I use it in a novel (even non-speech parts of novels)?

At what point does a big word nail the meaning, perfectly portraying the feeling you were going for, compared to when it just makes you sound like you are trying to be clever by sending the rest of us off to check the dictionary? I guess this all comes back, again, to the reader.

For me, I like it when you can gather what a word means by its usage (and I will check the dictionary just to make sure I’ve understood it correctly), which also shows if the author really does know what it means. I also think that if you haven’t collected one new word from a novel, then you have been a little cheated.

So bring on the wankey words, we need to keep them alive! But please don’t let me drown in them when I’m reading your story, or else I’ll find I’ve made my way further into the Macquarie than I have into your book!

Between a feather and a sledgehammer

Lots of us like stories that end in a twist or reveal. I love both reading and writing them, but sometimes the story doesn’t quite work, and in the worst case scenario you don’t understand the end of the story. The fault of this mystery comes down to getting the right balance of foreshadowing (or slipping hints into the earlier parts of the story).

It’s a fine line to tread, you need to pepper your story with enough clues so that if someone was re-reading it they would slap their forehead and go ahh, it all seems so obvious now, but put too many of these in and everybody guesses how the story ends before they get there. Wouldn’t you have enjoyed ‘The Sixth Sense’ a lot less if Bruce Willis had put his hand through the door handle at the beginning?

This is where a writers group can be invaluable. My general rule of thumb is that if half the group gets it, then it works. Fewer than half, then you have been too subtle with your hints. Also, if more than a couple guess your end before they got there, then you have overdone it.

So what do you do when you don’t have a writers group? You force your story onto a bunch of readers and get their feedback! Having recently released a story where you needed to pick up the clues to understand the end I am now feeling the brunt of my subtlety. If you miss the clues in this story you can think that it is just an ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ story (which is the kiss of death for an author). This has led to more than a couple of bad reviews. I had other hints I could have put in there, but I thought that would be sledgehammer-ing my reveal.

This story was written and published before I had a writer’s group, so as the editor ‘got it’ I figured I had my foreshadowing balance right. Now that it is on line I am discovering the majority of people don’t get it. What’s worse is when I explain it to people they shake their heads and say ‘nope, didn’t see that at all’.

Golden rule about writing fiction; if you need to explain your story, it is not well written.

I’m now on the edge of either a) pulling the story so there is no evidence beyond cached pages that it ever existed, and b) re-writing it with all the foreshadowing that I pulled out of the original version. I still like the premise, and the truth is there is a major continuity error that no-one seems to have picked up that I’ve wanted to fix ever since it came to me in the middle of the night a few months ago, so I think I’m going to go for the re-write.

So as much as one of my widest-read stories is also turning out to be one of my most disliked stories, at least I have learned a major lesson (which given all the times I blab on about how wonderful writers groups are you would have thought I would already have learned); always run a story past a group of readers before you send it anywhere (another golden rule).

Happy writing!


The Golden Rule of Writing

A few weeks ago I talked about the importance of keeping your eye open for accidental homonyms, but I realised that piece of advice was really most important for those of you who want to get published. What about those of you who are just interested in getting started in writing?

Well for you I would like to pass on this piece of advice, perhaps the number one golden rule for writing; give yourself permission to write crap. Yes, you read that correctly. The most important thing about writing is… writing. So if you want to write, then you need to… (you guessed it) write. Getting words on the page is the only thing that will make you a writer, and it is the only thing that will get your story finished.

If you start editing and labouring over getting the perfect turn of phrase from line one, after several hours of ‘writing’ you might find yourself with one lovely paragraph and not much more. To make matters even worse, the next day when you look at that previously perfect paragraph, you will see that it is very overwritten, you will hate it, and spend your next night’s writing trying to fix it up.

Even if you do still love that paragraph, a perfect paragraph does not tell the story (unless you are writing flash fiction). You will still have a long way to go and will more than likely burn out before you get to the end.

If you give yourself permission to write badly, then you can concentrate on getting the story out of your head and onto the page where it belongs. Only once it is finished should you go back and start your edit, and let me stress here that you SHOULD go back and edit your work.

So I guess really there are two golden rules here; give yourself permission to write badly, and never send off a first draft! Editing can be tedious and frustrating, but it is also necessary if you are serious about making your writing the best that it can be.

By the way, my ‘fear’ that I faced this week was signing up for my new web hosting service. So now I’m committed to my new website, very exciting!


The Horrors of Homonyms

Someone recently asked me for some advice about writing and getting published. I know, get back on your chair, I was surprised too! But I wanted to take this seriously so I had a long think about what pearls I could pass on. I know I am no expert, but I have read enough books and spent enough hours with writers to have picked up a thing or two, so I tried to think about the most important ‘rules’.

The thing that kept coming back to me is every rule is there to be broken. I could tell of the pitfalls of point of view slips, the danger of dangling modifiers, the crime of clichés or even how trite it is to marry adjectives to nouns based on them sharing the same first letter. But the cold, hard fact is that I could also show you countless number-one bestselling novels that do all these things in abundance and no one gives a rat’s patooty.

But there is one error that many first time writers (myself included) make that will preclude you from the best seller list; the misplaced homonym. Here are some examples:

  • She drew an ark around them – what, a picture of a boat? That would be arc.
  • The waves crashed on the beech – unless a tree was growing on the beach you want to swap the ‘e’ for an ‘a’. 
  • He was such a boar – unless you are trying to say he was a pig, it would be bore.
  • She lifted the vile to her lips – the contents might be gross, but the receptacle itself would be a vial.

I could go on, but there are smarter people than me who have dedicated full websites to this, so I’ll leave you to explore them. The point is, spell check does not pick them up, even fancy new Word doesn’t get them all. So keep an eye out for these little devils because they can pull the reader right out of the story, and anything that pulls the reader out is working against you.

Now eye knead two go and do sum righting…


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