Tag Archives: Rules

General ‘rules’ of writing

Reading age

My project this week has been to read a range of kid’s book where the protagonists are all approximately the same age. I got all the books from recommendations from ‘kids’ of all ages. As a result some books were written in the 50’s, some in the 80’s, some in the 90’s and some hot off the press.

Wow, what a spectrum. All my pre-conceived ideas about language, complexity and length were completely destroyed. There was no formula that you could apply to all of the books, despite the supposed common target audience. I found some terribly boring due to their simplicity, while others were totally captivating thanks to the depth of character and story.

But all these books have been loved, that’s why I only read recommended books. The fondness for the book was remembered (sometimes) decades after the storyline had been lost to memory. Many of these older books have never been out of print, such is their popularity.

I know that publishers have ‘rules’ which mean they will probably reject most non-conforming manuscripts before they even open them, but Harry Potter got picked up eventually. That story broke loads of rules not least of which was story length and complexity given Harry was only 10 when the novel opened. Thank goodness J.K. didn’t listen to all the advice out there that would tell her to cut, cut, cut!

This brings me back to the same conclusion I keep butting up against; just write the book you want to read. Each book will find its audience, it might be an audience of two, or two million, but the most important audience is that of the writer. If publication is not your driving force, then be true to your story, you may just be onto something.

Cover story

I do most of my reading on the bus. Recently I read a historical fiction novel, the cover of which had a lovely painting of a woman by some little known renaissance artist of the era. I pulled said novel out on the bus and was greeted with a shocked reaction by one of my fellow commuters. At first glance the only thing to really stand out on the cover was the woman’s exposed boobs (I confirmed this with a test book-cover-flash on my work colleagues when I got in).

It was not a boob novel.

Now I’m reading one of the Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum novels, which has a ridiculous-looking scantily dressed bimbo on the cover. I got another odd glance from the guy sitting next to me on the bus on Friday night when I brought this out. I nearly said to him that it was much funnier than the cover made it out to appear. The truth is, if I hadn’t read previous novels in the series there is no way I would have picked this book up.

I think the old adage of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is just too hard to live by. A book cover does something to communicate to the world what the book is about. With so many books out there to choose from, there has to be something quick that we can use to filter which book we want to pick up to find out more about it.

There are ‘tropes’ of book covers – hooded people for fantasy, brightly coloured cartoon style ladies (usually with large handbags) for chick lit, fuzzy-edged couples for romances etc.

It almost makes you want to put out a book which is all black with a basic grey font title. Or does that make it horror?

The other senses

I’m a very visual person. As a result my writing is pretty skewed toward visual descriptions of people and places. In fact I’d go so far as to say that unless something must be smelled, touched, heard or tasted by a character, I never inject those senses into the story.

I have just finished reading Perfume by Patrick Suskind. This book is an absolute feast of odours and aromas. The protagonist has a heightened sense of smell and describes everything by smell. I found myself becoming aware of the scents of my surrounds in a way I never have been before. I started to see my day to day activities in a whole new light, and it was fascinating.

Then in a rather serendipitous move onto the next Top 100 book on the list, I started reading Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. In this book the main character has a heightened sense of hearing. Again, the focus on the description was all the little sounds we naturally dismiss (if we hear them at all).

Both these books have been really enjoyable and I’m sure a large part of that is the immersion in my other senses. I have been picked up a few times by my writers group about not having enough non-visual descriptions in my stories and now I understand exactly what they mean.

I guess awareness is the first step, now I just need to find the right words to get these senses across. I’m sure my writing will only benefit from making the story a more complete experience for the reader.

Flashbacks

I’ve often been told to use flashbacks sparingly and have always put it in the pile of rules that can be completely ignored if they get in the way of telling your story. That was until I came across a story peppered with flashbacks.

The first third of the story played out in chronological order, though you did have the feeling that you had come in part way through something. Then suddenly we flashed back to the week before the part we had just read. Then six months, then five weeks, then four months… for the next third of the novel. Then the last part played out in (mostly) chronological order from where we had left off before the flashbacks started.

It was confusing and a bit annoying. I could understand why we couldn’t know what had happened before when we came in, or else the suspense would have been ruined, but after that it was a case of trying to fool us again and again by only providing the information in the order the author wanted us to see it in. This did not help the story as you lost track of where you were in the timeline.

Despite what I’m saying, I did enjoy the book, but I think it would have been a much better story if at the point of the flashback it went right back to the beginning and then played out in chronological order up to the point where the character starts the flashbacks. I also think the story would have benefitted from the first third and last third being cut back so the historical portion had more room to shine.

It has definitely illustrated the pitfalls of playing with time. When you are the author and  you know the entire story, the flip flops in the timeline are fine, but when you are a reader (especially one who just reads for short bursts on the bus) it is hard to remember if the chapter was set five days ago or five months.

Why catch the bus?

When writing fiction there are certain expectations your readers will have, even if they are not aware of them, and you need to keep these in mind when writing. This relates to my last post where I had my character say something, purely for the comic value, but my readers decided there was going to be a side story that never eventuated. If you focus too much on one character, or one thing, your reader expects that to be significant to the story.

After all, fiction is something the author makes up, so anything that happens in a story is only there because the author has put it there. This is even more the case in film…

** Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen ‘The 6th Sense’ in next paragraph**

In one scene the two main characters catch a bus to a funeral. The moment I saw them on the bus I knew Bruce Willis’ character was dead. At no point beforehand had we been told he didn’t have a car, or he was particularly environmentally friendly, and they were heading out to a suburb with plenty of parking. There was no reason to catch the bus UNLESS he couldn’t drive. In real life I wouldn’t have questioned it, in a movie I knew they had to get a bus, put actors on it, rig the cameras to be able to film smoothly, in other words it would have been much harder to organise than a scene in a car, so there had to be a reason to put them on a bus.

Your readers will constantly have this little radar operating, so if your character notices a dog every day they walk along a certain street, if that dog doesn’t attack them, die, turn into a robot, something, then the reader will feel cheated. You can notice the dog once, but don’t labour the point.

The only time this doesn’t apply is when you are trying to throw in a red herring. If you are suggesting someone is going to be attacked, and your character notices the dog, your reader expects the dog to be the villain. So when the tiger jumps out from behind the garbage bins the reader gets shocked by the turn of events.

The key is to not inadvertently throw in the red herrings just because you thought you could get a bit poetic about how to describe the hanky on the clothes line. Unless of course you are writing literature, then I guess anything goes.

TomTom readers

I recently did a fleeting trip to Melbourne and decided to take my car over so I could catch up with a bunch of friends (apologies if you are reading this and you were not one of the visited friends). I knew I was going to be covering a few kilometres (turned out to be nearly 1900) so I decided to borrow my parent’s TomTom GPS navigator.

Things were probably not helped by the over 40 degree temperatures and 7 years out of date maps, but TomTom and I had some major disagreements. I yelled some colourful words at him and questioned his skills as a navigator, while he tersely kept replying ‘take the next left’ no matter how many times I ignored him.

It was only on reflection that I realised driving with TomTom is like reading a novel. As you drive you only get shown a little piece of road at a time, never getting the big picture. You know where you have been, but what you are seeing at the moment may not make sense. Why would you turn down this road leading into an industrial estate?

As authors I think we sometimes forget that others are reading our books with a TomTom, not an A3 map. We know where the characters are travelling, we have seen the whole journey (even if only from a great distance and we don’t yet know the road names), so we know what is important to the story and what is not. Our readers do not have such insight.

I submitted a novel chapter to my writers group and they all picked up on a throwaway line I had my character saying, they said they were intrigued about how this would factor into the story later. Short answer; it wouldn’t. It had no double-meaning, I just put it in because it was funny. I knew this, I have the map, but they just have the TomTom and thought that green icon might actually mean something.

I wonder how often I do this? In an attempt to make my world building more vivid, do I plant red herrings? In banter between characters do I forget to show their ages, dress or gender because I’m seeing it all in my own mind, when these facts are key to understanding? I have the map, I see the terrain, the hazards, the roadblocks, do I make sure the TomTom drives within viewing distance of these things?

I guess this shows again the importance of beta readers. No matter how much of a seat-of-the-pants writer you are, you always have more information than the reader. The key is working out how much of this you can and must give them.

A marathon, not a sprint

Writing is such a slow process that you can’t help but want to speed things up a bit sometimes. Earlier in my writing career I made the mistake of sending out my stories too soon. After bleeding over them to get them finished, the moment I typed ‘the end’ I was so flushed with relief and excitement that I wanted to send them out straight away. Which is what I did, over and over again.

I have a soft spot for my first novel Paragon, but when I finished it the closest I got to editing it was converting some of the hand written pages into Word files. Then I systematically sent it off to some of the biggest publishing houses in Australia. They all said no.

Eventually I realised something might be wrong with the magnum opus, so I thought an edit might be necessary. I was shocked at the number of typos, incorrect words and even transposed names that were in the manuscript. And I had sent this out!?!

After the first edit I sent it off again, and amazingly got some interest from the last remaining big publishing house that I had not already burned with my typo-laden manuscript. After some time, and a breathtakingly close call, they passed on it and Paragon went to the bottom drawer.

Since then I have learned all sorts of things about point of view slips, excess gerunds and exposition that I have now corrected in the story (thank you writers groups). But I cannot send this to any of the major publishing houses now. They said no to Paragon and generally, unless they invite you to resubmit, there is no second chance.

If Paragon had been in the shape it is in now when I first sent it off, instead of being my learning novel, it might have been my debut novel. I was trying to sprint to the end too soon.

So the lesson I have learned, rather painfully, over more than ten years, is that writing is not a sprint, it is a marathon. You have to be prepared to pace yourself and give things time, and you can only make it to the finish line if you take all the steps to get there.

Chapter length

Yes, I know I’ve spoken many times about chapter length, but I’m mixed up in another conundrum about them so I’m posting again. I’m working on my fantasy novel at the moment, and the chapter lengths are between 2,500 and 3,500 words. It’s just how they have worked out.

Last week I wrote a chapter that was only 900 words. 900 words, as far as I’m concerned, is not a fantasy chapter. But am I being chapter length-ist? If I have said all that I want to say, and it came out at 900 words (well, 909 to be exact) shouldn’t I just chuck in a shortie?

A couple of years ago I studied a few action adventure novels and then tried my hand at writing one. Chapters were between 400 and 1,500 words, with most being around the 800 word mark. Studying these sorts of novels I noticed they were really easy books to read. I was also amazed to discover it was a really easy book to write. I had a first draft in four months, and that was done while working full time.

Compare that with my fantasy book; it has taken me about ten years to write 12 chapters. That is only about 30,000 words. The action novel ended up at 88,000 words. So I did 30,000 words over 10 years vs. 88,000 words over 4 months.

There are many factors that play out with how long it takes to write something; the fantasy book has lots of world building, the action novel was contemporary so did not require much, I’m sure that had an impact. But is it really as complicated as that?

I wonder if knowing you can blurt out a chapter in one sitting makes it easier to sit down and do it? When you know that you only need an hour to make it to your target for the day, instead of all morning, then I think it is more likely that you will sit down and get started.

There is a way to test this. If I made 900 words the norm for my fantasy novel, would I be able to get it finished by the end of the year? Would it be the same novel? Would it be embraced by fantasy readers? Or deep down, are we all a little bit chapter length-ist?

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).

Future Proof?

How important is it to future proof your story? I don’t tend to write a lot of contemporary fiction so it isn’t much of a problem for me, but I do read a lot, particularly action stories trying to be set in the universal ‘today’, and sometimes I think the book suffers for not being edited with the future reader in mind.

Recently, when I read a description about a supposedly cool character wearing shoulder pads and torn jeans I was completely pulled out of the story. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t tend describe what a character is wearing unless it is important to the story. This year’s dashing may be next year’s try-hard.

The book I’m reading now was published in 2000 and it keeps referring to the World Wide Web as if it is something exotic and daunting. The characters also carry on highly confidential conversations on their mobile phones, despite the fact that they are being hunted by every law enforcement agency in the world.

Both these things severely date what is an otherwise contemporary book, and the author is going to great pains never to refer to a date, as if they want it to remain contemporary for years to come. If only he had done a little more research on mobile phones to learn how non-secure they really are, which is something Prince Charles and Camilla taught the whole world a few years later.

I was travelling the world in the year 2000, so I have a pretty good recollection of what technology was around then. I was regularly emailing my friends with travel updates, and internet cafes (note: internet cafes, not World Wide Web cafes) were everywhere –even the middle of Fez where many of the other buildings still didn’t have electricity!

The point to telling you this is that back in 2000 access to the net was already becoming a big priority for many people. No we didn’t tweet, post Facebook updates or blog, but we were tapping into it regularity. It clearly wasn’t going to remain a mystery to many people for much longer. So perhaps the author should not have laboured on for so long about the WWW as if using it put his character above the average Joe.

I’m not saying it is easy to predict what is going to be normal in ten years time, and I’m not saying that I never get it wrong either, but I think if you are trying to write the eternally contemporary novel you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards and do some serious research about the technology in your story. And even the best stint of research won’t keep you story current forever.

Which makes me wonder why the author does try so hard to hide the year? What is so wrong with anchoring a story in a certain year or decade? I love to read books that are unashamedly set in the 80’s or 90’s. I’d actually be tempted to write one today so that you can have some mystery without mobile phones and CCTV at every corner.

At the end of the day it is fiction, I don’t believe that the magic is diminished if we know it didn’t really happen because the year 2000 was over a decade ago and we would have heard of that virus if it had really been threatening the world. When we read old science fiction and their technology is way off the mark of what really happened, it doesn’t undermine our enjoyment of a good story, we understand it was written in a different time. If this book had mentioned the decade, instead of sending me searching on the copyright page, I’m sure it wouldn’t have annoyed me anywhere near as much as it did.