Tag Archives: Rules

General ‘rules’ of writing

Prologues?

I am a fan of the prologue. For me it is like the shorts for a film; dropping you into the action of the story before we have to worry about all that character development/ world building stuff. I think it nicely whets the appetite for what is about to come.

Others are not so taken with the prologue. Things I’ve heard about prologue use include; ‘I will put a book down if I see it has a prologue’, ‘it is a tool for weak writers’, ‘It is the author being lazy.’

I must confess, I’m a bit perplexed by these comments, they certainly don’t hold true for my beliefs, for of my six novels (either finished or on the go) only two do not have prologues. Then again, maybe that is a sign of my weak writing? 🙂 Topic for another post perhaps?

Maybe it was my early reading affair with Clive Cussler novels where whatever distant disaster the book was about always took place in the prologue, so we knew what everyone was talking about in the main guts of the novel. I do not see this as a weakness, more as an excuse to do just one flashback –because everyone knows you are not allowed to do JUST ONE flashback in the body of a novel (aren’t you glad you don’t know all these rules).  

For me a prologue can save you a bunch of clunky info-dumping later in the novel (another of those rules about things to avoid) or it can hook your reader so they get a glimpse of what will ultimately be driving the novel.

There are a couple of rules that I do respect when it comes to prologues; 1) short and sweet. You must keep your writing tight, and no more than two pages, half a page is even better! 2) If you start with a prologue, you must end with an epilogue. If your novel does not lend itself to an epilogue, try to knock the prologue on the head. They are the bookends to the novel and if you have one, you should always have the other.

I would love to know what readers think, as it is only other writers who I have heard make such denigrating comments about that snappy first chapter. I suspect most readers don’t even notice that they are reading a prologue! But I could be wrong…

Nat

Breaking the rules

A few years ago a major book retailer ran a survey of its customers asking for their favourite book. These were then collated into their ‘Top 100 books of all time.’ Clearly the marketing department did not look far enough into the future, as every other book store, including the original one involved, went on to release a ‘top 100 books’ every year after. At least they dropped the ‘of all time’ on subsequent lists.

I have slowly been making my way though that original list ever since. The most recent book I read was “A fortunate life” by A. B. Facey. This book was originally written by Albert for his family, so his story wouldn’t be forgotten. When he sent it to be printed (20 copies for his family) the publishers asked if they could publish it as a novel, and so an Australian masterpiece was born.

I say masterpiece because I loved the book. I read it with wonder, and awe and all the things you want a book to bring to you (and some you didn’t know until you got there). The thing is the book is not ‘correctly’ written. Conversations between different people are on the same line. The same word starts every paragraph on two concurrent pages and there is a lot of exposition. But it was wonderful. If you want to know what it was like to live in Australia around the turn of last century, this is a superb and entertaining way to learn about it.

This reading experience reminded me of when I was reading Cormac McCarthey’s “The Road” –where I was at least 15 pages in before I realised there were no paragraphs. For me it didn’t matter. When someone has a great story to tell, and they know how to engage you, then clearly the rules do not apply. This takes great skill.

Breaking rules for the sake of it will, I’m sure, ruin a story. But when it comes naturally, or is committed with an educated eye, then I think it can work. Having said that, I do like paragraphs, and I like separate lines for each person talking. Often rules are there for a reason, so make sure you know why you are breaking them if you decide to go down that track. If people don’t notice when they read it, then that’s a good sign that it works with your story.

Nat

But what if this happened instead…

Often when I’m reading a story I think I’ve picked where it is going, or what the twist is going to be, only to find that it doesn’t eventuate. Sometimes when that happens my idea is better than what does happen.

An example for me was when I was reading Twilight. I loved the way Stephenie Meyer was foreshadowing for the mother to have some vampire-related connection which explained Bella’s irresistible attraction. The mother was carefully kept out of the picture, only communicating by phone, and she had lived in the area where the novel is set when she was younger. Perfect set-up.

I couldn’t wait for the big reveal and what it would mean for Bella, but apparently it never happened. I say apparently as I didn’t get past the second book, so I had to ask a friend who had read them all. I was just so disappointed that such a perfectly set-up twist was squandered. 

So what is the etiquette on writing a story based on an idea you got from someone else’s story? The truth is it happens all the time, and people write the stories without any issue. In fact most of the time you could read both stories and have no idea that one inspired the other.

Where it can be problematic is when you get inspired by a submission from someone in your writers group, or from ‘the slush pile’ if you are reader for a publisher. If you are in either of these situations I think you have to let the idea go. In my writers group I’ll share my twist with the author, and if they like it they can have it, if not I wave goodbye as it disappears back out into the collective unconscious to be picked up by someone else.

So will I write the vampire story with the mother twist? Of course, in fact I already have. I just need to find a short story publisher without ‘PLEASE NO MORE VAMPIRE STORIES’ on its submission page and then I’ll send it off. Looks like quite a few people have been inspired by the Twilight saga!

Nat

When to write the zombie romance

Brains Zombies Love

Something I read over and over in books about writing is the advice that you should write for your market. The suggestion is that you should read your target market and then write a story specifically for them. Or find an anthology and write a story which caters to exactly what they are looking for.

I don’t think this is always good advice.

If you have a zombie chick lit romance story bumping around in your head, and you find a chick lit zombie anthology seeking submissions, by all means write it. But if you force out a story just to get into the anthology, make sure it is up to your usual standard (assuming that standard is good, if you normally write badly then try to write a bit above your usual standard).

If you end up writing a bad (or worse, *boring*) story, and you miss out on the target market, then you may be stuck with an unsellable story. Even if you re-write it to fix all the boring bits, you might struggle to find another market that is looking for a zombie chick lit romance.  

That’s why I think it is much better to write the stories you want to write, and then find markets for them. This is not to say that you should try to squeeze your sci fi story into a fantasy magazine, or to blindly send out your stories without knowing your target markets. Both these moves are big no-no’s in the mission to get yourself published. Rather, after you have finished writing the story that wants to be written, read widely and find the publisher who can give that story a home.

Having said all that, I must confess that two weeks ago I wrote a flash fiction story specifically for 100 Stories for Queensland, and was excited to see that it has been selected for the anthology! But as I said, if the story comes, write it, if you have to force it, maybe look the other way.

Nat

Coincidences

Fiction gives writers leave to let our imaginations run wild and concoct a world of fantasy, where magic, true love and justice are as real and dependable as taxes in the non-fiction realm. However, there are some things that are acceptable in real life that cannot be sprinkled into fiction without a degree of caution; such as coincidences.

Coincidences happen every day. I was giving training where I needed to open my inbox for 30 seconds so I could show staff how to save an email. At the end of the session a girl came up to me and observed that we had both been invited to the same party by someone outside of my work life. We have been friends ever since. As if that is not coincidence enough, I sent an email to one of my friends who works in accounts when, unbeknown to me, she was training a friend of mine who had just started at her office. Both girls saw my email which broke down the degrees of separation to zero! So that coincidence has happened to me twice! TWICE! Yet I could never write it in a story because no one would believe it.

The only time that coincidences are slightly acceptable (but even here tread carefully) is if it is a bad coincidence. If it occurs at the beginning of the story and helps your main character find out her partner is cheating, or the world is about to end, or aliens are living next door, then that is acceptable. If it saves the day and prevents the tragic end to which the whole story has been geared, then you are going to find your book in the recycle bin.

One of the big rules of writing is do not pull your reader out of the story, and unfortunately, even though we have all had good turns of fortune because of them, a happy coincidence is going to rip your reader right out of your tale. So the coincidence is one facet of real life that generally can’t find a home in any genre, except maybe the memoir, and only then if it can be proven. We are a cynical bunch after all…

Happy writing,

Nat

As you know, Bob…

While we are talking about the tin rules I thought I should also touch on the ‘information dump’ which is often a stumbling block for fiction writers. This is where the author feeds a bunch of information directly to the reader so they can understand what is happing in the story. It should be said that it is best avoided at all costs, but sometime you can’t, especially in the world of speculative fiction where you encounter non-human life forms or unusual worlds that need to be explained.

So what constitutes a good vs bad info sharing?

  • “As you know, Bob, the Lexees feed off our laughter, so it is important to keep a straight face.” –BAD info dump
  • “Is it true, Bob, that the Lexees feed off laughter?” “Yes, Bertha, so it is important not to crack so much as a smile when we are near them.” – Slightly better info dump
  • ‘Bertha and Bob faced the Lexees. The twisted arms of the creatures madly spun in the air, making fart-like noises. Bertha couldn’t help herself, a small giggle slipped from her lips and instantly the Lexees fed on the sound; visibly getting larger. Bob shot Bertha a withering look and her smile faded.’ – Better (we are talking technique here, not necessarily the prose) no info dump.   

This comes back to the old ‘show don’t tell’ rule, which many writers swear by. The problem is you can see it takes a lot more words to show something rather than simply stating it. Sometimes it might take pages to ‘show’ the information, and that can really slow the pace of your story.

So I won’t say don’t do the dump, but try to be clever in how you do it; have your character look at a map and describe where the action is taking place, find an old book that details lore or magic rules, have a plausibly ignorant person ask a question. Make sure you have an excuse to state the information, that way it is more believable and might not even stand out as an information dump to your reader.

Happy Writing,

Nat

The tin rule of ing-ism

Previously I’ve written about some of the ‘golden’ rules of writing. These are the ones that you should never break. There are also some ‘silver’ rules of writing, which can be broken, but best not to. Then we get to the ‘tin’ rules –those that can be broken, but only when you know when the rule should be applied, and then make the choice not to. Don’t underestimate tin, it has value, there is a reason why they recycle it and it is not just to avoid landfill!

Ing-ism is a tin rule.

Many new writers (me included) have a habit of using an excess of ing words, particularly in descriptive prose. As children it was encouraged, but as adults we need to exorcise ourselves of it (to an extent). Take these examples;

 “… an old shutter dangling at a precarious angle…”
“Reaching in, Lee flicked out…”
Or the double-barrelled “…crouching in the doorway, he started smiling.”

In and of themselves they are not so bad, but if they are stacked one on top of the other they can read terribly! Let’s look at their ing-free versions:

 “.. an old shutter dangled at a precarious angle…”
“Lee reached in and flicked out…”
“…crouched in the doorway, he smiled.”

You can see that the ing-free sentences are much tighter and easier to read. This is particularly useful if you are trying to write fast-paced prose or build tension. Ing words soften the writing and will subtly undermine your pacing and sometimes the tone.

Obviously ing is not a sin, some ing words will need to stay (I have a couple in the paragraph above), but I can almost guarantee you that not all the ing words in your most recent ‘first draft’ need to be there. Go back and see how many you can swap for their ing-free versions.

 As I said, it is a ‘tin’ rule, you can ignore it, but make sure that you are consciously ignoring it and not just being lazy with your editing. Give it a try next time you edit, you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make to your work.

Happy writing,

Nat

Maps or road signs?

Imagine it is a beautiful, sunny day (a bit of a stretch for those of us in Melbourne) and you decide to go for a drive. You pack your picnic, a nice bottle of red and get in your zero emission cold-fusion car (let’s make this a big stretch of the imagination). Your goal is to have a nice day out in the country, but how you get there will be different for each of you.

Some will plan the entire trip using a map so they know exactly where they are going to be every step of the way. Some will look at a high-level map to get an idea of where they are going, and then just follow signs or explore anything that looks interesting along the way. Others will just get in the car and go, ready to follow any path that looks promising.

There is no ‘right’ way to go for a drive in the country (road rules aside) and writing a story is exactly the same. I have heard a number of writers debate the merits of detailed plans vs no plan vs some plan, and to me the whole thing is a moot point. When writing you should do what works for you. Explore the other methods, but if you find yourself being dragged back to your method of choice, that’s fine!

Obviously if you have a deadline, more planning is probably prudent, as ‘no plan’ will always lead to hundreds or thousands of words that take you in the wrong direction or simply just don’t get used. Back to the analogy, the person with no idea of where they are going has a much greater chance of getting lost, but they also might just discover something completely off the beaten track.

So plan if you want to plan, and don’t if you don’t. Whatever method you choose I promise you there is a well published, respected author who plans to a greater degree than you do, and an equally well published, respected author who plans less. At the end of the day, it is the final story that counts, no one cares about how you got there.

Happy writing,

Nat

Road sign pointing in many directions

When is it safe to assume?

Last night, being Saturday, I did something really exciting… I sat up in bed reading a book on the pitfalls and dangers of investing. Interestingly enough the author brought up a really good point about assumptions. If you have a contract with someone to install temporary fencing, never assume they will also take it down; make sure it is written in the contract! Also, make sure the contractor has the same understanding of what ‘install’ means as what you do –or it can be a costly assumption indeed.

This got me thinking, how much can you assume when writing? I know a big one for me is vampire lore, which made it a little difficult to read a certain popular vampire book recently where every lore law was broken. But the rumour goes that lots of people enjoyed this same book. Is this general lack of knowledge because so many people did not sneak out as kids after mum and dad had gone to bed to watch the midnight horror movie like my sister and I did? Clearly the author never did. This tells me I would need to re-state the rules if I was ever to write a vampire story.   

So when do you need to edit yourself on your assumptions, and when can you let them ride? I guess the safest thing you can do is work out from where you have drawn your assumptions. If it is something unique to your experience, like that seven months of air traffic control that you did, then you probably can’t assume it is common knowledge. On the other hand, if you have just picked it out of the zeitgeist of your memory and you can’t track it back to any one thing, then you can leave it in, unexplained.

It is important to note that no-one likes to be treated like an idiot, so you can’t explain everything, let the reader make some assumptions. And if they do end up missing something it usually won’t kill a story.

Of course this does not explore the whole issue of being able to identify when you are making an assumption in the first place. But it is an interesting thing to consider, especially if a twist or ending hinges on it, or if you are entering into a contract!

Happy writing,

Nat

Slipping on genres

I have a bad habit. Well, they tell me it’s bad. I have a tendency to slip between genres, sometimes within the same story. My stories can be spec fic chick lit, or horror-fantasy. What’s worse is that some of my stories stray completely away from spec fic genre altogether and are just plain stories.

The belief out there in writer-world is that writers, particularly new writers, are not meant to do this.

Oddly this ‘rule’ does not seem to apply as much to other artistic pursuits. It is acceptable for a movie maker like James Cameron to come up with a movie about killer robots (Terminator), followed by movie about killer aliens (Aliens) then a love story on a sinking ship (Titanic) and a spy thriller comedy (True Lies). William Goldman writes a western (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and then creates a comedy-fantasy (The Princess Bride) and no-one bats an eyelid.

Even the heaviest of the heavy metal bands have at least one ballad on their album. So why is it writers of books or short stories are told to stay within the box of their first successful publication?

Fortunately the cross-genre novel is starting to get a customer base of its own thanks to novels like ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ (literary science fiction romance) and many of Margaret Atwood‘s books (literary science fiction). However there is still the problem about which shelf to find them on in the book shop or library.

I don’t know what the answer is, but there are a couple of sessions at Aussie Con 4 (which starts this Thursday) that will be addressing this topic, along with about a million other topics. If you haven’t got your tickets or booked your time off work yet, do so now. Aussie Con 4 is the 68th WORLD science fiction convention and it will be a great place for any writer –spec fic, new or otherwise.

So if you see me at one of the sessions, be sure to come and say hello! And let me know what your opinion is of writers who slip through the genres!

Happy writing,

Nat