Thursday, October 29, 2015
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Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Quick reminder that my new video course on writing short stories that sell is again available at a discount.
The first batch of 100 discount places ran out on the 31st of last month.
I have therefore released a second batch of discount places that are now available - but only until the 30th of October.
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Your Success Is My Concern
Finding Your Unique Voice
A writer friend recently said to me, "When I read, I find I'm influenced by other authors. Depending on who I'm reading, my writing style is either playful, deep sounding or whatever. How can I stop writing like other writers and find my own voice?"
(She also added that I might want to write an article based on my response - hence what you're reading right now!)
Before we get on to practical tips, we should cover some basic preconceptions about voice.
First of all, your voice should never be some affectation you acquire or work on. I think you know what I mean. When we're at school or in the office, we're told there's a certain way to say things - a style we must adopt to conform to the medium.
Many novice writers think the same applies to fiction - that there is perhaps some predetermined mental attitude and/or demeanour one should adopt - usually a 'superior, more learned' version of ourselves - to sound more authoritative when telling stories.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You should always write in the style that is most natural to you. It may well be different from your speaking voice but should always reflect the way your mind works.
Secondly, your voice doesn't have to be 'original'. You can waste years of your time wondering what 'originality' is and trying to define and acquire it.
When critics, publishers and agents say they want 'originality', I believe they have no idea what they mean. They merely confuse writers by demanding something so nebulous and indefinable. I think what they should really be asking for is 'honesty'.
The simple truth is you already possess all the originality you need. You are already unique. No-one else thinks and writes like you do - trying to undo your own originality by constantly striving to be anything less than yourself is counter productive. Trust yourself.
Trusting yourself is probably the hardest trick you'll have to learn as a writer - but it is absolutely essential to your growth. Because it's only when you trust your ability to say what you mean with honesty and integrity, that your voice will start to come through.
The real test of a good authorial voice is consistency - it is as strong and recognizable at the beginning of a story as it is at the end.
So how do you achieve this consistency? How do 'get' your voice?
It's a process, of course - and here are some practical tips to strengthen and consolidate your own:
Consciously practice different styles and categorize them. Write using different voices - some that are deliberately difficult to sustain. This will attune your mind to noting differences in style. Try writing highbrow essays and then lowbrow articles, egocentric columns, little plays, short dispassionate biographies - anything that stretches you. These pieces don't have to be publishable - they are designed to help you 'play' with the writing medium.
Try to write without thinking for short bursts. If this sounds too hard, try writing for ten minutes just after you've woken in the morning - before you can think straight, just write anything.
Later, try looking up a word in the dictionary at random and write for ten minutes without stopping, using the word as inspiration. Force yourself to write, whether you're inspired or not - this is a great technique for getting in touch with your subconscious voice (i.e. your true voice.)
During writing spells, especially first drafts, don't read anything - no books, newspapers, magazines, cereal packets, nothing. Starve yourself of influences so that you can concentrate on just your voice and, not only the things you want to say but, how you want to say them.
When you've written sections you're convinced are beginning to reflect your most natural and compelling voice, read them into a tape recorder and play them back. The very process will help because you'll probably find your best passages easiest to read. If not, delete the clumsy words, the extra adverbs, the overlong sentences and try again.
Try writing two different versions of pieces - like short stories. Write one with all the literary might you can summon and write another with just a little casual indifference. Post out both to magazine publishers or read them to your friends to see what they think.
Consciously remind yourself everyday that you are a writer, that you are thinking a writer's thoughts and your are determined that your writing will truly and accurately reflect those thoughts. Do not hide behind fear of honesty or the thought that exposing your inner psyche is in any way bad. It's not.
The real you is what your readers want, respect and deserve.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
As I often do, I'm responding to a subscriber query recently about the type of writing advice I offer in my courses and Kindle books.
First of all I should state - again - for the record, that I believe the most surefire way of improving your writing is simply to write.
Studying is one thing.
I try my hardest to offer good advice on genre requirements and writing style to make it easier for the writer to compete in the marketplace and get published.
What I don't do is force you to study other writers and how they go about what they do.
I think to focus too heavily on how a particular author or three get their results is to slightly misunderstand the point of studying writing.
If you take a tertiary degree in order to study writing, you will be presented with lots of theories as to how writers go about creating stories and all the options available to a writer trying to emulate them.
But to me this is counter-intuitive.
Just because you have analyzed how Dickens or Conrad or Stephen King have achieved the final draft of their manuscripts, the knowledge doesn't necessarily help you when drafting your own stories or books.
Writing is a process.
Analyzing the final product tends to leave you in awe - and intimidated - when you should realize that a lot of changes and rewriting went on in order for the final product to look and seem so effortless.
That doesn't mean it was easy for the author, or that they didn't make lots of mistakes along the way - of course they did.
Nor does it mean that you shouldn't attempt to write something just as good.
When Robyn and I write books and get them published, we're often amazed at how different - and how much better - the final drafts are to our first efforts.
This is the process.
Writing is first of all about getting your thoughts down on paper. Then it's about clarifying those thoughts into a coherent argument - whether it's fiction or non fiction.
Next it's about polishing.
Then it's about submitting to publishers (or movie producers!).
Then it's about rewriting, changing your writing to suit others and your readers.
What writing to me is NOT about is studying the greats over and over only to beat ourselves up into thinking that great writing is beyond us.
The purpose of the Easy Way to Write is to inspire you to get involved in the process of writing - and learn to enjoy it - and learn more as you progress and improve, based on feedback from the real world, not some classroom type environment.
Studying classic writers, while sometimes illuminating (once you know the terms of reference), should not be the focus of a working, or even aspiring writer.
Studying is for students. Writing is for writers.
Curiously, when certain (probably one in a thousand!) writers complain to me and say I haven't given enough in depth analysis of a particular topic, I ask to see examples of their work so that I can give them more specific, in depth advice on their own work.
Guess what happens to these students that prefer to study than to write?
They find writing too hard - and don't have anything to show me.
I don't want this to happen to writers.
I want them to come to the Easy Way to Write and feel encouraged, inspired, energized and raring to write.
That's what the Easy Way to Write is all about.
Your Success Is My Concern
Your Success Is My Concern
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Dialogue is one area in which many new writers seem to struggle.
I'm not sure why.
I think it has to do with the faulty notion that literary fiction has to be formal, which can lead to your characters having very unnatural speech patterns.
It surprises me, too, whenever I see dialogue without liberal use of contractions - as if people say 'I am going to leave this place. I bid you farewell,' as opposed to, 'I'm off. See ya.'
Convincing dialogue is about having your characters sound 'natural'. Studying dialogue in movies and TV can go a long way in helping you define what is regarded as 'natural sounding.'
Unfortunately, listening to real people talk is not going to help you.
In real life, people speak aimlessly without particular regard to sentence structure, punctuation, or even sense sometimes.
If you've ever tried to transcribe taped conversations you'll know this to be true.
People speak with lots of pauses, fractured phrases, a liberal dowsing of um and er and slang.
They use their facial expressions to denote meaning and when they're sure the other person understands them, will leave things unsaid and move on.
This is not a great technique to copy when you're writing fictional dialogue.
Reading your dialogue aloud can help.
Even better, getting someone else to read your words aloud will help you notice what sounds right.
If your reader stumbles or doesn't seem to get the sense you mean, you will have to revisit your dialogue.
But what is natural sounding?
One word: simplicity.
People don't usually speak in long compound sentences where the active propositions are very far from the front of their minds.
For instance, this is unnatural:
"I heard from a good friend of yours, Leslie, that you were considering a vacation. Is there a particular place you had in mind?'
It's more likely this person would say:
"Leslie said you're thinking about a holiday. Where are you going?"
Similarly, the other person wouldn't answer:
"I gave much thought to this issue and decided that, on balance, my preferred destination might be Bognor."
The most likely response would be:
Pare down your dialogue to the minimum - giving the most appropriate response up front. People generally speak without thinking first.
Talking is automatic.
This is the kind of dialogue you should aspire to - characters speaking spontaneously, with no time for reflection.
Here are four pet 'don'ts':
1. Don't let characters state the obvious - in real life, people (except mothers) rarely do this, as in, "It's raining," when everyone's outside getting soaked!
2. Don't use characters to tell the reader about the plot - or convey expositional info.
People don't do this in real life either - especially when your characters know all the details. of their own story.
3. Don't have a character ask two questions in a row - and then the respondent answer them in order. Nobody sane does this.
4. Don't try to write accents in dialogue.
While this practice used to be a favorite trick of bygone literary authors, it's nowadays regarded as affected. Plus it's almost impossible to read comfortably.
It's often said that you shouldn't write dialogue that doesn't move the action along.
However I've seen this 'rule' broken so many times that I no longer believe it!
While it's true you don't want to have lots of character interactions that don't go anywhere, to me there's nothing wrong with people discussing the weather, their health, offering tea and biscuits, and saying supposedly 'forbidden' words like 'hello', 'okay', 'all right', 'goodbye' and 'thankyou'.
It's more natural for a start.
The issue of dialogue is important.
Many modern novels are at least 30% dialogue - sometimes up to 70%.
So, while you want to keep your dialogue minimalist to be the most effective, remember that the key to compelling dialogue is conflict.
Having characters agreeing with each other is dull.
If you want a quick takeaway, the 'rule' is simple:
Use dialogue for character development and to add color, yes, but mostly, have your characters arguing and/or debating their emotions, actions, points of view and their agendas.
Because that's what will keep your readers reading.
You Success Is My Concern
Thursday, September 24, 2015
The great Chinese ruler, Mao Tse Tung, once said, 'In order to break the rules of a system, one must first learn and understand them.' (Okay, I paraphrase - he was actually talking about Communism.)
But so it is with POV in fiction.
Learn the rules first, then you can break them.
I get so many emails from writers asking how they should deal with point of view that I thought it might be interesting to discuss the subject here.
The truth is, there's no right or wrong way to do things - but there are guidelines that, if you adhere to them, will mark you out as a good and competent writer.
Similarly, if you ignore them (without understanding what you're doing) then you'll most likely come across as an amateur.
Before we go on, let's make sure we know the terms of reference.
For most fiction, you have 4 basic alternatives.
1. First person, where everything is told from the limited POV of the protagonist - the classic 'I' story.
Good because you can get right inside the feelings and motivations of the main character.
Bad because only the narrator can propel the plot - that is, nothing can happen that the hero is unaware of.
2. Third person, where the writer (and reader) follows the action through the actions of one protagonist.
Good because you can get inside and outside of the character, describing a rounded personality with some objectivity.
3. Omniscient, where the writer can describe the actions and inner feelings of all of the characters from any point of view that seems appropriate.
Good because of its flexibility.
Bad because it is open to abuse and mishandling.
4. A combination of all of the above.
Now, most aspiring writers have little trouble with options 1 and 2 - the limitations are relatively obvious when you use them.
It's in the 3rd option where writers start to flounder.
Consider this piece:
Jenny thought about what he'd said. He was right, she was lonely and would do anything to stop him from leaving. Finally, she said, "Do you care at all?"
"Of course." Don looked away, trying to contain his angst. Should he tell her about Debra? He wanted to but knew it would only make things worse. He chose to lie. "We've grown apart, Jen..."
Gwen entered the room. Instantly, she could tell something was wrong. She scanned the lovers' faces and decided to leave them to it. Head bowed, she left.
This is fairly typical of the kind of inexperienced writing I'm sometimes asked to comment on. The writer desperately wants the reader to know all sides of the story, thinking that this creates drama and intrigue - but simply put, it doesn't.
It creates confusion for the reader.
What's called 'head-hopping' makes a reader uneasy for one main reason:
Readers want to relate to one character at a time - it's human nature.
Therefore, it would be unnatural for a character to know what another was thinking.
Indeed, it's NOT knowing what the other character is thinking that goes a long way to creating drama!
The practice of 'head hopping' has all but been eradicated in most modern literature but is still prevalent in some romance, especially during love scenes.
Sometimes the romance writer is so keen to let the reader know that love (or whatever) is being reciprocated that they abandon the line between two points of view and merrily leap from one brain to another, sometimes, I find, to the point of nausea!
Note this: just because something is or was common practice, doesn't make it right.
Writing is a craft and we, as craftspeople, should surely learn from the mistakes of the past and seek to improve our writing techniques.
Agatha Christie was famous for her head hopping - you might be in a room with Miss Marple and half a dozen others and never knows whose head you would end up in!
This gave the reader the illusion they knew the innermost thoughts of characters.
I say illusion because Christie did it to mislead - she was never totally honest with the reader - for good reason: she wanted to hold back the identity of the killer till the last page!
This kind of deliberate misdirection - the type that 'cons' the reader - is frowned upon nowadays. We modern writers have to be cleverer than that.
There's a famous scene in Carrie, which Stephen King mentions in his book On Writing.
Most of the book is told from Carrie's POV but there's one scene where Carrie leaves the room and the POV jumps, without a break, to her mother.
King says he did this deliberately - to jolt the reader into accepting a particular plot point.
This is a fine example of breaking the rules when you know them.
Despite the challenges for the aspiring writer, the modern trend is towards alternating chapters of third person omniscience and occasional forays into first person, not exclusively limited to the protagonist.
But why is the most challenging of styles now the norm?
One word: TV.
Without so much as making a framed suggestion, television and movie scripts have forced us to think in terms of objective omniscience - a state where we are privy to the actions of most of the lead characters actions and reactions in real time.
This works so well because it reflects the way we have come to view reality - a linear series of interactions that lead to a believable outcome.
It's little wonder that most modern novelists concerned with 'willing suspension of disbelief' now use the same format - where each chapter introduces new characters whom we get to know and understand before moving on to another situation or group of individuals that we implicitly expect to have something to do with the plot.
But in the actual writing, where should we place the point of view?
We should already understand that in any given scene we should identify with one character at a time - but which one?
The best advice I ever received was that scenes are most effective when told from the POV of the person with most to lose.
For example, in a love scene, the partner with most at stake emotionally should be your focus. Similarly in a thriller, the hero who's about to lose his life, his lover or his livelihood through his actions should be your focus.
In literary novels, your focus should be on the character most affected by the unfolding story.
In fantasy and science fiction too, you'll have noticed that the story is more often than not told from the POV of the hero charged with saving the world, the spaceship or the poor hapless villagers.
Follow this particular guideline and you won't go far wrong.
Then, later, when you understand the power of placing the POV in the right place, can you feel free enough to experiment - by deliberately moving the focus around.
Dickens was good at this. He would focus his attention (and thereby the readers') on unsympathetic characters from time to time to heighten the effect of returning to the protagonist.
Modern authors too - like James Patterson and Thomas Harris - will occasionally tell parts of the story from the POV of the killer.
To give us a sense of menace, madness and revulsion so that we identify more strongly with Clarice Starling and Alex Cross when we return to them.
To conclude - my advice is that you choose to write scenes, chapters, sections etc. from one POV at a time.
And if you do feel the need to change POV midstream, have the courtesy to place a blank line in the text to alert the reader to the change!
Best regards and keep writing!
Your Success Is My Concern
Thursday, September 17, 2015
(According to Google this is my most popular article - something short I wrote back in 2003. It's reproduced in over 160 places on the Net and even gets a reference on Wikipedia as a qualified information source. Cool!)
“Murder your darlings” was a phrase first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Fitzgerald or Faulkner or Nabakov or even Stephen King, depending on who you believe).
They're all referring to what you might call your “best bits.” The “bits” you should edit out of your work.
As Elmore Leonard once said, “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”
The theory is that writing you’re particularly proud of is probably self-indulgent and will stand out.
You might think this is good. Wrong.
You will most likely break the “fictive dream.”
(This is the state of consciousness reached by readers who are absorbed by a story.)
And breaking your reader out of this fictive dream is a heinous sin!
Editing out “the best bits” is the hardest thing a novice writer has to do – after all, isn’t it counterproductive to write good things down only to cut them out?
Look at it this way…
When you start out, every word you write is precious.
The words are torn from you.
You wrestle with them, forcing them to express what you’re trying to say.
When you’re done, you may have only a paragraph or a few pages – but to you the writing shines with inner radiance and significance.
That’s why criticism cuts to the core.
You can’t stand the idea of changing a single word in case the sense you’re trying to convey gets lost or distorted.
Worse still, you have moments of doubt when you think you’re a bad writer - criticism will do this every time.
Sometimes you might go for months, blocked and worrying over your words and your ability.
There is only one cure for this – to write more; to get words out of your head and on to the page.
When you do that, you’re ahead, no matter how bad you think you are.
After all, words are just the tools – a collection of words is not the end result, it is only the medium through which you work. In the same way that a builder uses bricks and wood to build a house – the end result is not about the materials, it’s about creating a place to live.
As you progress in your writing career, you become less touchy about your words.
You have to.
Editors hack them around without mercy.
Agents get you to rewrite great swathes of text they don’t like.
Publishers cut out whole sections from your books as irrelevant.
All this hurts – a lot.
But after a while, you realize you’re being helped.
That it’s not the words that matter so much as what you’re trying to communicate.
Once you accept that none of the words actually matter, and have the courage to “murder your darlings,” you have the makings of the correct professional attitude to ensure your writing career.
This is a tough lesson to learn.
But, as always, the trick is… to keep writing!
Thursday, September 10, 2015
I was asked this question by an esteemed subscriber this week and thought it might make an interesting article.
In the publishing and movie industry the terms theme and premise are bandied around liberally - and it's assumed that writers know the difference, even if agents, publishers, and marketing people are not so up on the precise meanings.
Basically the premise to a story is your starting point, the idea behind it - its reason to be.
I've heard members of writer's groups ask the question: "Can you write a story without a premise?"
I would have to say you could try - but fairly soon you'd run out of things to say. You need a premise to give a story legs.
Besides which, most writers are able to sum up what their story is about - or going to be about - in a short sentence of two.
So what makes a premise?
Mostly an intriguing idea, a what-if scenario or a juxtaposition of two disparate notions fused together.
The premise is usually an 'original' idea - in that it's sufficiently different from other ideas - already written and explored - to warrant further interest.
Theme is altogether different.
The theme is the overall thrust of the story - what it explores. It's the end result and may have little to do with the premise.
Unlike the premise, your theme doesn't need to be particularly original - there are only around a dozen or so themes to explore anyway.
How about some examples - to help clarify all this rhetoric?
Take Romeo and Juliet. The premise is two young people from warring families fall in love. The theme is star crossed love leads to tragedy.
What about Harry Potter? The premise is a young boy discovers he's a wizard. The theme is anyone can become a hero.
The Da Vinci Code: the premise is that the Catholic Church has a secret agenda. The theme is that it's time to change the way we feel about organized religion.
Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.
The premise to Crime and Punishment: a young man kills an old lady for her money. The theme: sin leads to redemption.
As you can see, theme and premise are usually related but not always in a way you'd expect.
When people ask you what your story is about, they normally want you to explain the premise first, followed by your theme.
Writers have a tendency to think in themes - especially when they're working on a story - but themes are fairly dull to relate. The premise is the interesting part - the thing that excites a listener or reader.
When pitching a novel or a screenplay to a publisher or producer, focus on the premise.
Consciously write and rework a sentence or two to get the premise into a short and snappy description of your story.
If you don't have a compelling premise, chances are you won't generate much interest in your story, no matter how good it is.
That's the reality of the modern world: distillation.
Learn how to distil your story ideas into sound bytes, and you'll go far.
This practice has a downside.
Sometimes you'll be talking to a movie producer and she'll say "Got any ideas for stories?" So you pitch the premise to your most beloved story.
Time passes while she considers it.
"What else have you got?" comes the eventual reply.
This is not because the idea is bad but more to do with their personal bias or commercial expertise. You can pitch another premise and she'll like that one - and will then listen with interest to its theme.
The modern media focusses primarily on the angle - the sidelong glance at a topic that piques the interest quickly. This is not such a bad thing for the writer, so long as you understand it and use it to your advantage.
It's not unusual to end up working on a project where you pitch a premise that you haven't begun writing yet.
You're encouraged to develop the idea because the premise is compelling.
You may, like many writers, have only one or two themes that you explore in all of your work.
But the trick is to make those themes seem fresh and exciting by having a premise that makes readers want to read on.
I hope this helps your understanding of theme and premise.