Tag Archives: Technique

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.

Rejection

This year one of my NY resolutions was to submit a new piece of writing for publication each month. It has to be a new piece that I send off, so if a previous month’s submission gets rejected, when I next send it out it doesn’t count toward my sub for the month. So at the moment I have three pieces doing the rounds (yes, I have had one accepted, yay, but more on that closer to the publication date).

This means for the first time in a long time I’m getting lots of rejections again. The funny thing is that I’m not taking the rejections personally anymore. I just tick it off on my spreadsheet and move on (well, if I’m honest there are about five parameters collected on my spreadsheet and there may be some auto-graphing, but that’s just my Excel OCD).

I think one of the reasons I’m better able to cope with the rejection is the thick skin my writers group has calloused upon me. In my current group we each submit every month. This means a) I must write something every month, and b) I’m used to people giving me feedback on my stuff, not all of it good!

I’ve heard stories of people who fall apart when they get a critique of their story because the reader didn’t love every word. They completely blank the positive feedback and focus on the bad bits (these really are opportunities to make your story the best it can be and should be embraced). I hate to think how they must react when they get a form rejection with no explanation.

There is so much about being a writer that has nothing to do with writing, and I think accepting rejection and criticism is a big part of it. After all, even if you get a publisher who LOVES your story, there will always be people who read your stuff and write horrible reviews, or feel the need to tell the world why they think you should go back to your day job.

I don’t know if I’m ready to embrace the level of rejection and criticism that published novelists get, but thanks to my writers group I know I’m a lot closer to being ready.

It works! So far…

I’m loving the working day of writing, or eight-hour week. Twice I’ve sat down to do an hour of writing and ended up doing over two. Amazingly my editing has also improved significantly because on the days when I have commitments in the evening I print off stuff to edit in little blocks of time around my social life.

I think part of the reason for my success so far is that I seem to be planning much better than I have for my other ‘methods’ of writing. Because my definition of writing has expanded to editing I’m actually giving my editing the recognition it deserves and therefore getting more done.

When you just have word targets editing can fall down in the priority list, but there is no point writing 5,000 words a day if you don’t edit them. So now, not only am I starting to finish some stories to first draft status, but I’m actually dragging some of them through to a second draft so I can show them to my beta readers.

So the eight hours across the week compared to one whole day dedicated to writing. Well there is no comparison; I was four times more productive spreading my writing over a full working week than I was with a single day of ‘dedicated’ writing. I think I might be onto something here!

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.

Names

I know no less than 5 Scotts. Not people of Scottish descent, men called Scott. I have two good friends called Kirsty, 3 Georgies and an Ela and an Ella. I could probably go on, but hopefully by now you are collecting your own groups of names of friends. You see my point.

Yet that never works in a novel. The cold, hard reality that we don’t actually see the characters with our eyes, and we don’t want to be reading “raven-haired Bruce” did this, “Bruce with the black hair” did that, and “Bruce, with his dark looks…” every time we need to read about the Bruce with the dark hair as compared to Bruce with the blond hair.

I can definitely see the practicalities of that, and I can see why authors avoid it, but now I feel like the gauntlet is thrown down. I’m going to put two people with the same first name into my next story, just to see if I can get away with it.

Which brings me to another name thing I’ve noticed, with the exception of Paul Haines (who used this to great effect), you never see characters with the same first name as the author. I don’t think I could ever put a Natalie into my books, even if I was writing under a pseudonym, it would just be too weird. As a reader, you can’t help but wonder if the writer has the same traits as their name-sake (which Paul Haines loved to play with, creeping out the more delicate of us in the crit group).

Thinking about it now, it would feel like I was doing a little cameo in the book, like Clive Cussler likes to do. But to have a completely unrelated-to-me character called Natalie, I don’t know if I could do it. I guess the gauntlet is down on that one too. Now I have a pair. I’ll try to inject a Natalie into my next story without making her a) me, b) fantasy me, or c) the exact opposite of me. In fact, I’ll try to make her no relation to me at all.

I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime these gauntlets might come in handy for some gardening…

Flash fiction -setting the scene

Given how few words you have, when you are writing flash, you tend to go with the familiar. Whether that is a contemporary setting, or a science fiction or fantasy world so full of tropes the reader is clear on where they are as soon as the story opens.

If you are writing fantasy there will be some swords, possibly dragons and magic in the first couple of paragraphs. Equally, science fiction flash will refer to the space ship, planet or alternate reality upon which your characters find themselves; ‘Gee it’s cold here on planet X’ sort of thing.

The other thing you might do is use familiar tags on your characters; the geek has glasses, the action heroine looks like Lara Croft, the bad guy has dark hair and a patch on his eye. I don’t advocate that sort of thing, but it can save you a lot of words when you are trying to build your story but keep it under 1,000 words.

Flash also lets you use big aspects of the story scene, such as the speculative element, to actually be the punch-line. Because it is so short the reader can hold all of the story in their short term memory, so you could do your big reveal at the end and have the reader reflect back on the story with an a-ha, recognising all your carefully hidden foreshadowing when you finally reveal they are in space/ underwater/ on an island made out of marshmallows/ the story is being told from the perspective of a dog.

I don’t tend to do that kind of reveal in my stories, but my story Random Impulses is probably the closest that I do get to doing this. This was actually my first ever flash fiction story, and it was my first published-by-someone-I-don’t-know story back in 2001.

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.

Writing books

I was thinking of giving a book about writing to a friend who often tells me she would like to write. The only book on the topic of writing that I can really remember enjoying was Stephen King’s On Writing. So I read it again just to make sure it was as good as my memory had built it up to be, and it was, but it was not really the right book for a writer who is only starting out.

I know there are a lot of books out there on grammar and correct prose, such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, but I’m trying to find something that will take her to that next step in an entertaining way. A book that will warn her about the issues of point of view slips, too many ing words, fear of said etc. But one which will do so without sounding condescending or boring.  

And while we are talking about great writing books, there is another one I would like to give a plug to, and that’s Give ‘Em What They Want by Camenson & Cook –but that is around the business of selling books, so again it is probably a bit premature for that yet.

So please give me some suggestions about writing books that you have found both interesting and useful. I should also take this chance to say a big thank you to those in my two writing groups; because of you I’ve managed to learn a lot of these tricks directly from some very talented and imaginative people.