Tag Archives: Rules

General ‘rules’ of writing

Just a peek

I know I’ve talked about this before, but I have encountered it a few times this week and I’m just stunned at the extent to which it is practiced out there. Of course I’m talking about reading the end of a book before you read the rest of the book.

My discussion about the Nook a few weeks ago prompted a friend to tell me that she also found it a bit more difficult the flip to the end to see if she liked how it all turned out. WHAT!?!?!? And she’s a writer!

This week I have been reading a book called ‘The Well of Lost Plots’ by an author I normally LOVE, and I think with this book he thought it would be funny to write the book without a plot. I got to page 121 and I could not with any confidence say what it was about –I was quickly losing interest. I bemoaned this loudly to my colleagues so one suggested I flip ahead and read the end to see if it was worth sticking it out. Then someone else piped up and said they would never read a book without looking at the end first to make sure they were going to like it.

So poor writers are out there desperately trying to set up red herrings, invested emotion, hopes, dreams and fears for their readers, yet for a big chunk of the population there is no element of surprise. Surely knowing a character is alive in the last chapter would have to diminish your concern when they get themselves into a tight scrape in chapter seven?

This got me thinking, would you ever write a book differently if you knew that the last chapter was going to be read before the first? Maybe that is why there are so many books out there with that kind of meaningless ‘tie-up’ chapter at the end where we see everyone acting relieved and conveniently tying up all the little lose ends.

I don’t think I’ll change my endings, but it is certainly something to consider. We always think, as writers, that you need to grab your reader in the first paragraph, often spending weeks on perfecting it. Maybe we need to think about putting a lot more work into that last paragraph as well!?!

Forgivable filler?

I’ve recently read two fictional novels which had huge chunks of what I would call filler. Those chunks were clever (and in one case rather funny) but they didn’t really contribute to moving the story along at all. I’ve always been told that this is the stuff you need to cut out, kill your darlings and all that.

In one novel a whole third of the book was filler dressed up as a red herring, and after much fun and mayhem we ended up back at pretty much the same point in the story where we started following the red herring. While the mayhem was amusing, I was well aware that it had nothing to do with the story while I was reading it. Did that annoy me? Mostly not, but on reflection yes.

I understand the divide between filler and character/world building can be a bit fine sometimes, but I guess a good yard stick to use is only add your anecdote if it contributes to the reader’s understanding of the story, or of your character’s motivations. There is no point going into detail about a character’s former job of cleaning gutters unless they need to call on a skill or experience they picked up from that job later in the story.

Having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy some filler parts in one of the novels, and I would hate to see them cut out. So I guess like all rules in writing, breaking it can work, so long as you know what you are doing.

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.

Chapters

When writing for children there are clear guidelines around chapter lengths according to the age of your target audience. No such guidelines exist when writing for adults. Some adult novels will have chapters which are only one sentence long, others will have no chapters at all. So how important is chapter length?

For me, when I write an adult/YA novel, I always aim for 2,000 – 2,500 word per chapter –give or take 500 words. As I get nearer to the end I’m likely to be more flexible as short chapters can speed up the action of your story, while the ‘big reveal’ chapter might be a lot longer so as not to break the flow.

If a chapter says all it needs to say in 500 words, then perhaps one should let it stand alone, instead of attaching it to the next chapter (as I would tend to do)? I wonder if an author like James Patterson (whose chapters tend to run to between 300 and 1,500 words) finds himself cutting a chapter in half just to keep consistent?

I’m actually reading a book at the moment where the chapters are nearly the exact same length. The only reason I noticed this was because the chapter length matches nicely with my daily commute into and out of work. And while I find this very convenient, it makes me wonder if sometimes the story gets a little more padded or cut short to meet the author’s target? More importantly am I guilty of doing the same thing?

I would like to think that a story will always be only as long or short as it needs to be to tell the story, and chapters as long as they need to be to show the scene or section of the story. Maybe authors cannot help but think in terms of sections of a certain length, and subconsciously we edit or embellish accordingly?

I would be really interested to know if any readers have been frustrated by obvious chapter length doctoring, or even if any readers have even been aware of such things? If it were not for the coincidence of my trip length and chapter length of the book I am reading now, I would never have suspected anything other than inspiration dictating the length of the chapters in the novel.

Fictional reality

One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing fiction is to keep it real. Regardless of if you are out jetting around in space, living in a fantasy world where magic is commonplace or falling in love in a world where vampires can walk around in the daylight, there will always be some boundaries which it is important not to cross.

I’ve just finished reading a book that regularly appears on the 100 * best ever * of all time novel lists, and while it was really good, it played the bad-luck card a little too often at the end for my liking, making the story seem unreal.

When you are reading a work of fiction you are generally not conscious of the fact that the story is made up, it is only when things go unerringly well, or frustratingly badly, that you can get pulled out of the flow and wonder why the author has chosen to make the story go this way. That is something you never want your reader to stop and think about.

There is a place for the everything-that-can-go-wrong-does-go-wrong story, but for me that place is in comedy, or where there is a conspiracy that the main protagonist is unaware of (which can explain the run of ill fortune). Anything else reads like it is made up.

You also have to wonder at the purpose of all the bad luck. When all the ends of the story are nearly tied up, and then out of the blue some bad turn of events takes us on another brief ride for thirty pages only to bring us back to where we were before, you have wonder if it really is contributing to the story? Or maybe the author just had a word limit they wanted to hit and this misadventure helped them to get there?!

Footnotes in fiction

I recently read a book by a very popular writer who had been recommended to me numerous times. While his style and imagination were great, he had a very annoying habit of footnoting pieces with completely unrelated micro-stories.  

The thing that I found particularly strange was sometimes the author would add these little side comments bracketed within the text (with which I had no problem) but as soon as it was a footnote it bugged me*. Eventually I stopped reading them altogether, which I hated doing because I was sure the author had put a lot of thought into those footnotes, but they were ruining my enjoyment of the story.

The thing about footnotes is they very literally pull you out of the story, which I’ve always been taught is a big no-no. You might put your finger on the random footnote symbol which is placed somewhere in the body of the paragraph so that you can then go down and read the footnote. Or you might just abandon the main text, go down and read the footnote and then come back and end up scanning over several sentences you have already read to get to the point where you left off. Why would you do that to your reader?

In a non-fiction book I’m completely forgiving, not only do I tend to read these more slowly anyway, so don’t mind a bit of finger placing on the text or re-scanning, but usually the footnote just gives you more detail about a study or something so you can elect to not worry about reading (or wait until you get to the bottom of the page). You are never sure in fiction if it is safe to ignore the footnote, maybe that’s where I find out that Darth is Luke’s father?

I think footnotes can have a place in fiction, but only when used sparingly. If you are footnoting every second or third page then I really think you need to consider if you are really telling the story you want to tell**?

But I’m intrigued, am I alone in my dislike of the footnote in fiction, or do some people like this distraction?

* Have you lost your place in the text now if you came down to read this? I bet you did!
** Or following the character you want to follow. See, this would have read so much more clearly if I had just put this after the sentence I footnoted instead of putting it down here.

Writing for writers?

I’m going to tie a couple of recent blog posts together today. I’m reading a great non-fiction book called ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell. It explores the quick decision making process we all employ every day, and more importantly when we decide to act on them or ignore them.

Among many interesting case studies and research anecdotes, it talks of two people who are professional tasters. Not only are they able to easily distinguish the difference between Coke and Pepsi with the same ease as if comparing wine and water, but they are able to pick up on the nuances between batches of the exact same product!

This got me thinking about my previous post about phenomenon books. Generally writers don’t like phenomenon books (and it’s not just jealousy). But these phenomenons are not pushed along by writers, they are driven by readers. In much the same way as a bag of Smiths salt and vinegar chips will always taste the same to me, but have glaring seasonal variations for the professional taster, readers do not always know the rules of writing, so when those rules are broken they don’t let it impact on their enjoyment of the book.

I read the Da Vinci Code before I joined my Melbourne writers group, and therefore before I learned many of the skills of good writing that I now know, and I loved the Da Vinci Code as much as anyone else.

Two years ago I picked it up again with the intention of reverse engineering it to try and work out what made it so popular. This time I really struggled with it. Point of view slips left me confused in some places and as you know Bob’s* were sprinkled all the way through it –how had I missed all this before?

Just like a taster can probably no longer eat mass-market brie and enjoy it, I (and many of you who comment here) have got to the point where we can no longer enjoy writing which breaks the rules unintentionally.

In some ways I am grateful for all the rules I still don’t know or haven’t mastered because I think that maybe that lack of knowledge allows me to read and enjoy a lot of popular books that many of my writer friends dismiss or dislike.

This does kind of beg the question… Who are we writing for then? Readers, or writers? I guess the answer always comes back to that same truth in writing fiction, a rule one could almost say; always write for yourself, if nothing else your rule breaking is set at the perfect level for your enjoyment.

*As you know Bob refers to the act of a character telling another character something that both of them know, purely for the purpose of letting the reader know. “As you know, Bob, we have never successfully herded the cats into a pen, but this time might be different.” Bob already knows that.

Why you are not the every-man

I feel I need to explain something a bit further that I said last week. I mentioned that unless you had been through an extraordinary experience you were too normal to be of interest to the average reader. Then I went on to say you are also NOT the every-man (or woman). These ideas seem to be in opposition to each other, so let me explain…

The every-man is completely normal; there is nothing special that makes him stand out from the crowd. You, on the other hand, look at yourself as someone special, at least I hope you do! I’m the only me I’ve got, so that makes me special to me. As a result of this exalted position in your life, you have a greater sympathy for your motivations and are somewhat blinded to your faults. The every-man abounds with faults, that’s why we like them.

Let me give you an example:
About a decade ago I went on a drive with a group of friends. One of them had gone out on a blind date the night before with a girl called Rose and it had gone very well. He was terribly shy, and didn’t volunteer any information about the night to us, but when he was out of the room, before we took off, his flatmate filled us all in.

During that drive I loudly observed a beautiful ROSE in someone’s garden, the smell of someone’s perfume had a distinct hint of ROSE and I mentioned that I had to look a long time to find a jumper in exactly in this shade of ROSE. Every mention of ROSE brought a glowing red burst to this poor boy’s cheeks. Ten years ago I thought I was being hilariously funny, not intending any harm. Now I realise I was being a bitch, causing awful embarrassment.

If I had written about that incident back then, it would have been from the point of view of how funny I was being, because my sympathies were squarely with me. A writer, however, can (with enough skill) take the wider view and let the reader in on the impact of the lead character’s actions on others, even if you are in deep first person, without your every-man character necessarily seeing their fault for themselves.

If you are writing with yourself in mind you cannot do justice to this view, in fact you probably won’t even be able to see it. Instead you are more likely to explain why your character was not being a bitch, stressing that they never meant to be one, it was just a misunderstanding.

So as much as you may be an every-man, you cannot be your every-man. You could be the motivation for someone else’s, but until you learn to completely divorce yourself from the sympathy for your own motivation, and look more at the reality of your actions, you cannot be the one to render yourself sincerely in a story.

It’s not about you

I’m reading a Scriptwriting book which I suspect is aimed at people who have randomly thought ‘I might write a script’ because it is going into the most basic of premises, such as; you must know what your story is about. I must be naive, because I thought that would be the minimum trigger for making you want to pick up the book in the first place.

But the thing that is popping up a lot is reminders that the lead character in your movie is not you. This makes me laugh as it seems to be a universal problem with writing; nearly ever writer writes their first major story with themselves in the lead. It is almost like a rite of passage and one of the many reasons why most of us write our first novel and end up putting it in a drawer so we can get started on our first publishable novel.

My first novel starred not only me as the lead character, but all my flatmates (and I had five) as main characters, as well as a few celebrities for love interests. I would stick up the new pages of the story in the bathroom so everyone could read the next instalment (I got the bathroom because two of my other flatmates had already claimed the kitchen door and the living room wall for their stories –I was very lucky to live with very creative people).

That story was a lot of fun, and reading it now I love all the references to things that were happening at the time. I actually pushed on and finished it, convinced that others would love it as much as I did. And finally, once I had 60,000 words judiciously typed out (on a typewriter no less, computers were not as available back then and printers were dot-matrix format – gosh that makes me sound old. TVs were in colour if that helps) I realised that I had that novel that I kept reading about in all the writing books; the unpublishable first novel.

We tend to start writing what we are most familiar with, us of course being head of that list. But the truth is, unless you have lived an extraordinary or tragic life other people generally don’t want to read about you. People want to read about amazing people, or they want to read about someone like themselves; the every-man character, who is not you.

So write that book or story with you in the lead. Learn how to put the sentences together so they flow, breathe life into your story arc, press on past the doubt and hurdles and get to that magical ‘The End’ – but make sure to get straight back to the keyboard and get started on the book you were practicing to write, the one for the rest of the world.

You can always start a blog if you want to write about yourself  😉

Nearly here

In the past 5-6 years I’ve read more fantasy novels than in all the previous years of my life. I think all of us could really get into fantasy novels (just look at how popular the movie equivalents are) as long as we are introduced to the genre by the right author. For me that author was Robin Hobb, followed by a heavy dose of Jennifer Fallon.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, the right fantasy author is different for every person depending on what fantasy trope you dislike most (hot tip for any new fantasy writers out there; females whose only purpose is to be rescued is not a good selling point for a book).

Now that I can see the possibilities of fantasy, I can look past the tropes that I dislike and see the rest of the story. For me it is the ‘nearly Earth’ thing. When an author throws strange food names into a sentence, without describing that food and not having it sufficiently different from, say, an apple, I get ripped out of the novel and think ‘Oh, that’s the author telling me we are not in our world’. I already know it is a fantasy novel, I know it is not real world history, I don’t need people to be eating limots and greegaws to tell me that.

Worse still is the momos running with the elephants and the description of the momos being exactly that of zebras. You either have to name all the animals the same, or all different, or make them different animals. Don’t just randomly change a cat into a pipaw if your dogs are called dogs. A pipaw has to shed its skin or something different if in all other respects it looks like a cat. If not, it’s a cat.

None of the examples I’ve given above are actually taken from the books that inspired these comments. I don’t want to identify them because other than these crazy near-world things I’ve really liked them, so I don’t want to seem to be bagging them. As I said, I’ve learned to look past it and see the promise of a great story instead.

But before you all jump on me and tell me that fantasy novels should be allowed to change names, I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree, so long as it is done well and with purpose.

I read a great book last year where people drank something called Karv, the description of it made it clear it wasn’t coffee and it wasn’t tea, and by the end of the book I desperately wanted a cup of it myself. That is a good way to introduce other worldly things without the author hitting me over the head and putting a neon sign around the words NOT EARTH. That’s the mark of good fantasy world building.