Tag Archives: Technique

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

Trading the keyboard for a pen

Many writers like to write their first draft by hand in a much loved notebook. Having always been a writer who types, I have never been able to relate the pen/pencil writers. Those I have spoken to said they like that it is too difficult to edit text as they write, so they don’t. As a result they have a much more free-flowing writing process, unhampered by the constant checking and changing that writing on a computer allows. Also they do their first very rigorous edit when transferring the story from their notebooks to the computer, giving them the opportunity to completely re-write sentences instead of being tempted to just move things around.

These seemed like valid reasons to me, so I decided to give it a go for last Sunday’s blog post. Having no pretty notebooks, I had to settle for a dog-eared pad. I started to write. I hated my first sentence and wanted to change it, but stuck to the ‘no edit’ mantra. I didn’t like the next sentence either and I realised that the whole blog was going in the wrong direction. At this point if I was on the computer I probably would have deleted the whole thing. On paper I pressed on.

Eventually I had a full post written (not that I had any idea of how long it was because there is no word-count on a pad). I disliked it very much, but went on with part two of the process; transcribing to the computer. Now while I rarely referred to what I handwrote, and what I typed bore little resemblance to the pad version, I will say the process of writing in one fluid sitting did help to focus my attention on what I really wanted to say. The typed blog came out quickly, and surprisingly required fewer edits than usual.

So would I write a novel this way? Not a chance! But I think I will plan my novels like this, as the free-flow writing was great. All I need to do now is find the perfect notepad…

Nat

Writing full time

I once read an interview with an author who had recently given up her day job to focus on writing full time. In it she said she was amazed that she didn’t seem to be writing any more words than when she worked in another job full time. This scared me a lot and put me off the idea of quitting work to write.

Now, taking WorldCon and other commitments out of the equation, I have been writing full time for three days (so can confidently call myself an expert). I can now see how it can feel like you write less, indeed I thought I had written very little until I actually accounted for all the words and saw there were a lot more than I had realised.  

Sticking to the ‘write every day’ rule (which I think all of us have adopted since WorldCon) I have so far managed to write a full short story from start to finish and I planned out the next steps in five of my writing projects. These things alone would have taken weeks in my ‘old life’ so three days is quite a feat! And to think that it still feels like I’ve done very little just makes it that much better. Imagine what it will be like when I have a week where I feel like I have worked hard?!?

The thing is, writing full time does not mean sitting down and banging at the keyboard or scratching away on a pad from 9am – 5pm every day. It means giving yourself time to think about the plot problems and story development and then being able to write the solution as soon as you have the answer. It means writing every day, and once you hit the flow nothing breaks you out of it. But most of all, it means exploring everything you want to write, not just limiting yourself to the things you think you should finish first.

Happy writing

Nat

The cutlery of writing

In my house we have no dishwasher, or conversely you could say we have two dishwashers, and we both pay rent. When we have used up every cup and plate in the house and can go no longer without washing, it is the cutlery that is the most heartbreakingly tedious part of the task.

Self-editing is the cutlery of writing.

Many writers hate to edit their work, especially longer pieces of writing, and a lot of new writers are tempted to skip it altogether. That is a great decision to make if you are a) a genius, or b) trying to increase your collection of rejection letters. For the rest of us it is not a good tactic.

Aside from the typos and homonyms that you will leave behind, there will be superfluous words, repeated words, tense changes, point of view slips or even character name cock-ups (yes guilty, I had Brent and Brant in a story and they were actually the same person). The only way to find all these problems is to edit your work, edit it again, put it down, let it rest, mature, ferment and then… edit again.

Many writers set time limits on how long they need to wait after finishing a piece before they can send it out to ensure they have distanced themselves enough to give it a proper edit. Others actually set numbers of edits required (7 I’ve read for a lot of novel writers). When starting out you don’t need to be that regimented, but more than one edit is a must, and at least 24 hours of sitting time is also mandatory! But more on both accounts will only improve your final product.

Don’t sell yourself short, it takes a lot to finish a story, so don’t undermine all that hard work by putting it out there before it is ready. You can burn the perfect market or worse, you can have your substandard work published! It is much better to have a clean manuscript that is ready to send out a few weeks later, than a flawed one that is ready to go now!

Happy editing (and give thanks for your dishwasher),

Nat

He said, she said

Embarrassing but true; one of the biggest mistakes we all make when we first start writing is with our speech tags. There is the tendency to make our characters cry, yell, exclaim, retort, whisper, slur, snap or beg.

The truth is said can cover all these things and many more. The action surrounding the speech, or the punctuation used should be enough to indicate if something is a question or if it is said in anger. You do not need the fluff!

We learn pretty quickly that repeated words look weird on the page, and some can “sound” weird in the reader’s mind if repeated too closely on the page (or horror of horrors, in the same paragraph), but ‘said’ is a strangely invisible word. Just like the character’s name in a story, it is one of those words that the brain will happily skip over, no matter how often it is repeated.

If you don’t believe me pick up the book you are currently reading (unless you are reading ‘The Dummy’s Guide to Mulching’ or some other non-fiction book) and turn to a page of dialogue. Pay attention to the number of saids on the page. Stand out like dogs… bowls, eh? Imagine if the writer had highlighted all those tags by using words like ‘gasped’ or ‘chortled’ it would have looked a bit clunky!

So as much as it can kill you when you are starting out, drop the superfluous speech tags and go with said. Then you will also be able to more easily see all the places where you don’t actually need any speech tags at all. Trust me, your writing will be much stronger for it.

“And that’s all I have to say on that topic,” said Nat.

iBlog

My quest to become a more tech-savvy writer has sent me in many directions this week, none of which were actually to the keyboard to write. But I have learned a lot about tweeting, blogging, commenting and following.

And this helps you how? Because now it is time to share what I have learned, to help build your online following;

  • You need to blog at least twice a week. (My Freecell game will surely suffer).
  • You need to keep posts under 500 words, unless about a technical subject where people need more in-depth information.
  • Put your blog/twitter links in your email address signature. (Yes, seems blindingly obvious now eh?)
  • Comment on other people’s blogs. (But try to make intelligent comments, you don’t want people going to your blog to see if you really are as silly as you seem)
  • Edit your blog copy, edit it again, then put it away for a while and come back to it, and then edit it again. Only then is it ready to publish.
  • Take time to write your post (at least an hour, but ideally over two).
  • Include pictures, links and videos, but only when relevant. (So don’t post your cat pictures –unless they are doing something silly, but not cute, no one is interested in cute, but funny cat photos never get old. Or is that just me?)
  • Use dot-points

I’m not sold on the last point, but I think it is wise to pay attention to those who have gone before me, so I included it. This list is just the tip of the iceberg, there is a lot of great information out there and you can be as active as you like in building your profile.

If you would like more advice on blogging specifically, or online writing in general, check out Copyblogger. While this was not my only source, I did find that I ate up huge chunks of writing time (and even a little work time) reading some of the articles.

So I guess from now on you will be seeing me mid-week. I’ll have to come up with a Wednesday theme… Any suggestions?

Happy writing!

Nat

Find me on Twitter @nataliejepotts

Shameless Self-Promotion

I don’t think there is such a thing as shameless self-promotion for anyone who is serious about selling anything to the public. In a world of tweets, Facebook updates and iEverything it is only with self-promotion that you can hope to stand out from a very noisy crowd. The days of being the reclusive writer who never ventures out are gone. Now you need to understand and leverage off media other than just books or even traditional print.

Here is a great example of what I am talking about:

YouTube Preview Image

This is a book that is being released on July 1st by Kirstyn McDermott from my writers group. I love this idea of a movie-like trailer for a book, and had already scripted one for my own book Paragon (yet to be picked up, so if you are in the market for a post-apocalyptic YA novel, please contact me). Little did I know that people had already carved out careers creating these things!

So now for a little self promotion of my own… I have just opened a twitter account, so if you would like to follow me, please just look for ‘nataliejepotts’ and I promise I won’t tell you when I’m getting myself a coffee or going to bed. It will be writing stuff only!

On the writing front; I have a short story in Aphelion (June/July edition), so read it here for free until mid next month. I also have a flash fiction piece coming out in the Short & Twisted anthology – volume 3, being launched today.

So, now all I have to do is finish building my new website, learn how to eBook my novels and create my book video for YouTube. Hmm I’d better get moving if I want to have something to show you by next week!

Happy writing,

Nat

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!

Nat