Category Archives: Point of View

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!

http://sharonzink.com/writing-tips/all-first-drafts-are-sht-so-heres-a-masterclass-on-self-editing/

 

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Style versus Voice in Writing

Today when I looked at the flashing cursor I reached for one of my many writing books for inspiration and flicked the pages imagining some invisible person said: STOP.

The book I picked up was: Larry Brooks  Story Engineering Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. I STOPPED on page 221.

Two expressions  that jumped out at me were writing style and writing voice — both of these often get confused and I do discuss them separately when I critique work professionally. Even when I Googled it the two words are used interchangeably. I guess it’s down to pedantics.

I  see the Writing Style  as separate from Voice. 

Writing style, Brooks claims, in akin to the literary uniform that you — the writer– dons. It’s how you compose your narratives: long or short sentences. laden with similes and metaphors or simple sentences, poetic or more direct, descriptive or not — and so on.

I would also suggest that you could extend this to encompass how you build those sentences into creating your structures, hence how you move your plots: i.e. use  of flashbacks, exposition, where you switch narrators as you follow your story arc to its resolution and denouement.  So in other words what devices you use in your story telling to tell your story effectively. For the purposes of critique, I tend to talk about use of phrasing, clunky words, overuse of adverbs, dialogue, description, even formatting (if they do it wrong for dialogue for example) here, as well as how they use flashback, back story — all of these general overall points under the heading style, looking for the things they commonly get wrong or don’t do as well. 

I tend to look at structure more in my discussion of plot but in reality it’s all part of  overall style.

Voice on the other hand is how  the story is told and you might think that also includes the things talked about above. And again it’s down to pedantics, labels. But I prefer to discuss voice with viewpoint. It’s WHO YOU HEAR. In the modern age where we shift away from the more old-fashioned, more prone to ‘telling’  voice of the omniscient narrator, the focus is a lot more on character viewpoint narrators. While it is your voice strictly speaking talking for your characters — it’s their voice we  hear.  So again, voice is who  the reader hears. So it could be you as the omniscient all-seeing narrator but more than likely it’s a character or in multiple viewpoint novels a succession of characters (but no head-hopping mid scene — new character narrators for chapter or  if needed scene but clearly formatted!). And as I have said before, even in a third person where we imagine it’s let’s say the author telling the reader Flo’s story — she thought —  the closer you get to her, the more intimate the connection and in essence it’s not really the author we hear — it’s Flo. We hear her dialect, her way of rambling in her own head i.e.  it’s her jumbled thoughts we’re privy to, no one else’s!  People struggle with that claiming the third person who’s narrating is you the author watching her and listening to her thoughts and therefore you organising those thoughts and translating them for the reader.  So your voice not theirs? Again partly true but have a look at how closely a Stephen King third person character is to first person? How invisible is the third person so all we really hear is the character? So you wouldn’t have the character even in third person say how they’ve gone pale or look tired unless they’re seeing themselves.  That’s what I’m talking about!

So for the purposes of a critique I would look at how the character narrates, quirks, odd phrases, first or third person, tense, their body language even — and this is why I tend to discuss with viewpoint.

So in a nutshell I would say Voice is how the character speaks (through you) and style is the technical stuff in terms of what words you choose and how you structure that.

It might be a game of labels, but so long as the author takes on board what works in their own writing and is receptive to improving weaknesses and working on both their style and their voice then that’s what matters.

I’ve found the more I read and the more I experiment with voice and technique my own distinctive signature style of writing and the voices I use, develop. After all, we are all unique — aren’t we?

Or are we?

More musings on all things writerly tomorrow. Got any nagging questions? Anything you want me to discuss — just ask away! I like a challenge — to stretch my writing muscle!

Writing 1

Happy Thursday!

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Writing a Psychological Thriller …

I have been asked to run a workshop in Bath in November with this title so I thought I would talk a little about it here. But first, and it is related, this week I’ve been looking at various potential covers for my novel and been in discussion about how covers sell books, and what they say. I have talked about this before and I was also interested in the following link about covers. http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/19-book-cover-cliches

I have been looking at lurking silhouetted figures but the one I want isn’t that!

The cover I really hope they go with is very bold and that’s what I think you want to grab your buyer’s attention but I hope it also says classy mystery/American/thriller and not just  commercial cop/crime thriller — which it’s not. We can fall into genre traps and while my novel is about a crime,  none other than the very public assassination of John F Kennedy, it’s not a conspiracy thriller per se. The main focus is really the missing child — so is that the real crime? Is the book just about solving that? Well, yes and no. It’s about a family; broken families, about love, loss, keeping your children safe and it’s set now but the key players are brought together by the events on the grassy knoll in 1963. So what I don’t want the cover to scream is gritty cop crime thriller when it’s not. Not do I want it to say literary mystery with an arty ambiguous cover. Because it’s not that either.

I’d call it a psychological thriller or mystery  but it’s more than that. I guess you could also say it has historical elements but more recent history but then 50 years is history although it’s set now but uses the past. In fact I use flashback as well as insights by the psychic to go back to 1960s Texas.

And I am thrilled to be asked to run a workshop because I feel I have learned from the greats in terms of the kind of books I read as a teenager. I loved Stephen King,  Dean Koontz and even the medical horror writers Robin Cook who wrote Coma. One of my favourites though was Mindbend where drug reps were taking doctors on cruises and implanting microchips into their brains. Says something about me perhaps! I have not revisited Robin Cook as a writer to look at his style, I’m sure there are things about it I won’t like now — but at the time I was addicted to these kinds of mind-bending thrillers. More recently I have enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep  to name a couple. I have read Sophie Hannah but not that excited about her. There are many many others.

So what exactly is a psychological thriller? 

Well any thriller needs a compelling mystery to solve so crime novels  are of course thrillers — but I like to think of psychological thrillers as tapping more into the thoughts of the characters and more importantly unnerving the reader’s own sense of immortality and vulnerability. It’s not just about finding a killer. Personally I like to put  what seem like ordinary people into situations that test them to the limit, and this can be more what’s going on in their own head than just external — psychological manipulation of the main characters by an impact character or in this case event. Like any thriller the main character is put into a situation that threatens ‘normality’ so  they can be  trapped in their own head , haunted by memories, have a ‘different’ way of seeing the world or thinking about the world or are driven by an uncontrollable compulsion or need. So it can be more internal than the classic crime thriller.

 There are cross overs and genre is just a way of saying what type of book this is and what to expect so gritty murder mystery crime thrillers need to use psychology and many of King’s novels are classified as horror but still use psychological manipulation, my favourite is the Dead Zone (if pushed to name one although I LOVE his Kennedy/time travel novel 11/22/63) and these are both more psychological than horror. But then what often scares us most, as humans is our own thoughts! Those that do really well are those that manage to tap into a universal sense of the human fear — what makes us uneasy? What scares us? What would happen if something about the world  we know changed? And that can be waking up and having to remember who we are every day to being trapped on an island where you go insane — or more frighteningly none of it’s real and you were insane the whole time.

I like to think While No One Was Watching is a psychological thriller but it’s not just that, it’s a mystery, it’s historical and it has a touch of the supernatural — in a loose sense. I use the devices of thrillers to hopefully (fingers crossed)  give it page turnability with twists and turns the reader doesn’t expect, so action is essential but there’s a great deal of the psychology of loss, do you know what your child is doing? Now that’s universal as a fear, right? And Kennedy and what happened to him, that also has universal appeal too, right? So by definition it’s commercial because it’s the kind of story that needs to be plot or action-driven, but at the same time it still taps into characters and, for me is very much about voice and the psyche. What happened to Eleanor Boone? Can finding the answer to that unearth some important questions about Kennedy? And my narrators have very distinct voices and ways of thinking as I hope you’ll see!

So I will have great fun exploring what it is about these kinds of books that hook a reader — what gives some more universal appeal than others and how can you keep your reader second guessing, surprised even …? What techniques are used? I might also draw some of this from films in the genre. Recently I saw  Premonition with Sandra Bullock and this had that quality I love — of having to really work and think about what really happened. It’s an oldish film now but I found it on late one night and got hooked.

But even if you don’t write, read, watch psychological thrillers, in essence what makes a good story, an unnerving conflict, a question you MUST know the answer to and so the techniques and structures writers use to achieve that — can be applied to any genre. And that’s what I also hope to look at in my workshop.

And it might also be interesting to look at how we can use fact and fiction side by side in our writing for authenticity.

Anyone want to recommend any great psychological thrillers — books and/or films?

If you live near Bath and want to come to the workshop it’s taking place on November 19th in the evening and I will send more details of how to book it etc soon. This is the website: http://www.writingeventsbath.co.uk/2/Writing-Events-Bath.html

Right — still need to hone that short story of mine.

Also unusually I have a little lull while I wait for work to pop in my inbox so now is a good time if anyone wants to hire me for critiquing. Just saying! In three and a half years I have had three only occasions when my whiteboard was clear temporarily– although work is expected soon!  http://www.debzhobbs-wyatt.co.uk/Pages/default.aspx

Have a good half-way through the week day! So much to look forward to!

Novel

 

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Saying too much …

Getting a first draft down is a voyage of discovery. You are learning about your characters and their desires and conflicts as they steer you through the course of their journeys. And so there is a tendency to tell too much, to use too much back story (or exposition) and what you do is not only pause the action, but you lose any intrigue.

When we first meet someone they don’t tend to tell you their whole life story in the first five minutes (well most don’t!). We learn, we make preliminary judgements (often wrong) and we start to work them out. And that’s what you want to do in your writing. Show the reader enough and then build on that slowly. It’s much more enjoyable for the reader that way. And when you do reveal something put as much of it in the subtext as you can, shown through their actions and words, rather than tell us Mr Graham was a quiet sort; probably because his first wife never let him get a word in but now he’s remarried to a quieter woman he seems to be coming out of his shell.  All of this can be shown and woven like an invisible thread through the story.

A lot of the saying too much comes in early drafts and that’s okay if it’s your way of finding your way, getting acquainted with your character. Later you need to take it out and only show what’s needed when it’s needed (and if the above detail about Mr Graham is completely irrelevant because he’s the butcher who we only meet in the story once then not at all!). When you know the characters inside out, that is often enough to allow you to subtly write only the key features that makes a character seem real without the extraneous detail — as I always say if it doesn’t reveal character, move plot or at some level explore theme — lose it! But knowing all the background is still important to allow you to create real characters. Even Mr Graham with his two-minute cameo when the protagonist goes in to buy meat for her boyfriend (even though she’s veggie and has been since she saw a chicken beheaded on the farm she visited one summer with a friend because their family were big on farms and after the son died by choking on a peanut the family really needed a holiday and since it was her best friend whose brother choked on said peanut she wanted to be supportive but has never eaten meat since she saw that headless chicken) PAUSE for breath, where was I? Oh yeah even if Mr Graham only has a cameo you can still splash him with enough colour to  make him seem real without ANY of his back story unless you want to foreground something needed for plot. Got that? Glad someone has! And while my little back story excursion there isn’t as bad as some I see — trust me I do see them!

So get it down in a first draft if you have to, but then lose it.

The more experienced a writer you become, the less you will do this, even in a first draft.

When I see it, okay not as bad as my example, but when I do, it says amateur. Now that’s fine when I am mentoring or critiquing for a client because that’s the point, I’m teaching and learning at the same time (it’s two-way) — but when I see it in submitted work when I have my publisher hat on, I know this writer needs to work more on developing their craft.

It’s okay — we are all somewhere along that learning line. But get it right when you submit if you are hoping to be accepted for publication, that’s all I’m saying.

Right, back to my new short story …

Have a great day all. Still working on some more In The Spotlights for the Autumn … so watch this space. I also saw some more potential covers for the novel yesterday, one I LOVE in particular — all I will say is it’s very bold. Watch this space as I will reveal it here first.

And the same with characters ...

And the same with characters …

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When Characters are Teachers …

How do you see your role as a writer?

I think it’s fair to say I see mine as trying to make sense of the world and by doing so offering another perspective. I think that’s why I am so in love with character narrators with really strong voices. I get to act, to be someone else and as a result, while I have my own views of the world, oddly my characters actually teach me theirs.

Of course I start with my views and there may be some facet of human nature, some flaw of personality, even some unfathomable (to me anyway) behaviour I want to explore in a story. So I start out with a character, take Lydia in While No One Was Watching, my African-American psychic. Where did she  come from? In part she came from Molly another character in another novel that I still plan to rework, but how I really met her was in the  original short story where I saw a room, a reporter and a woman sitting holding a child’s locket. What I saw of her first were her big black hands and the silver chain dripping through her fingers. I saw her lean forward in the chair and I heard her say, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.” And from that came the short story that got some amazing comments from the tutors on an Arvon course and later morphed into the novel. But what could this psychic, who in that short story I didn’t quite trust, have to teach me?

Well I tell you she taught me all sorts about what it might be like to grow up in Texas; she was sixteen when Kennedy was assassinated. She taught me there is a little town called Hamilton Park that has a large African-American community. She taught me what it was like growing up with the legacy that there was a time when black people couldn’t ride the bus with white people — or if they did, they had to ride at the back. Seems ridiculous and appalling now but it really wasn’t so long ago now, was it?

Now in the short story I had her papa as the first black magician in Texas as I wanted it to be something he was very proud of and a work ethic he tried to instil in his children. But also it allowed me to use one of my favourite lines, that sadly had to be taken out as you’ll see. Because the short story was an exploration of voice and unreliable narration, the reader wasn’t meant to know if  Lydia could be trusted, and there was a comparison with what her papa did. Now this was still used in earlier drafts of the novel where he was still a magician. I liked the whole sleight of hand thing and in fact that still applies to a little girl disappearing while no one was watching. So it had more levels than just a career I chose for him. But our astute cynical reporter, who sees asking a psychic to find a missing child as a desperate last resort, is even more cynical when he knows what job her papa did.

The reporter looks at Lydia and he says, “So your papa was a magician — is that so?”

And she says, “Is so. And real proud he was too.”

And the reporter leans back and nods and he says, “So he  made ’em disappear and you find ’em, right?”

I liked the whole idea of that, but since the character and her dead papa were explored in so much more depth in the novel, an editor at one of the big agents who worked with me for a while asked me, if her papa was so opposed to what she did, ‘necromancing’ and claims talking to the dead is against God, then — would he be a magician?

Good point.  Excellent point in fact. Worth noting lovely writer friends when you make changes or adapt short stories. The editor was right — his job didn’t fit with my new discoveries about each character so I had to rethink it. And trust me it’s not just a case of saying — oh he can be a baker then or a shoe maker. No and so began another history lesson from Lydia Collins that I reckon she was dying to teach me, I was just too blind to see it before.

So how did Lydia teach me more history?

Well let me tell you. I went back and she showed me what it was like to live in Hamilton Park — and yes it is a real place. And I found out that it was a planned town, designated for the African-Americans. There’s a whole book about it as a matter of fact — link at the end to the book and here is another link that might be of interest: http://forum.dallasmetropolis.com/archive/index.php/t-6513.html

We’ve all read about slavery and the Jim Crow era, are aware of the prejudices so I did want to move away from stereotypes and as a white person I also have to be really sensitive to this or someone will say — what right do you have to tell a story that’s not yours? And they might have a point. So great care taken. But I had a great teacher and what Lydia taught me was that first of all she had a very proud papa who was now not the first black magician in Texas but the first person in his family to own his own home — in Hamilton Park. She also showed me how many of these people got good jobs too many out at Love Field, the airport very significant to the Kennedy story. And so her papa came to do the same, working for Braniff Airlines. All the pieces were really falling into place. And while he was very proud, Lydia sat me down and she told me, “Debz, my papa was so proud ’bout the way he got through the ‘selection’, folks sayin’ good things ’bout him so he could get that mortgage. but what he never said was how roundin’ all them black folks up together and makin’ their own town was just the same as makin’ a pen for black sheep. Movin’ us to the edge of the town.”

Now what made it into the book, like the line above, evolved from what I read in real accounts. But it’s a whole part of history I knew nothing about and I am so glad that editor made that suggestion. But even happier Lydia taught me about this.

I by no means mean to cause offence to any African-Americans and I hope her voice is authentic and accepted because she is my favourite character, and yes I know you should love all your children equally, but she taught me so much and I hope she continues to as I would love to work with her again. I dare say she will wake me up some night who knows when or how long from now with another story to tell me! And I’ll be waiting.

So I guess what I’m saying is, you might, as the writer, set out with your own views and statements about the world you want to explore through your writing, but sometimes your characters — well they have whole other ideas.

So a good writer, has to also be a good listener.

And maybe my role isn’t just to force my own views onto my readers, but others’ views and really I guess it is to explore new perspectives, just some might not be mine! It’s like gaining sympathy for a character I started out hating! And there are lots of other characters all waiting in line and I guess it’s who shouts the loudest first that gets my attention.

Maybe all I really am is a vehicle for bringing characters like Lydia to you — so you better listen to her, right Lydia?

Yes, Sir. I’m comin’ soon.

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Fiction Clinic … getting up close and personal to a writer’s work …

It’s been a while since we had the clinic so I need to ask people to shout about it more, as I think this exercise is helpful for the writer of the work and those that read it … or that’s certainly the intention.

So this week we have an offering from Susan, a successful short story writer and regularly comments on my Blog. Thanks Susan … and also for allowing your work to be dissected in the public eye. And remember, we all need that other eye to look at our work, and we all make the same kinds of mistakes.

So this is what she submitted:

CHAPTER 1
Magdalene meets Timothy.

From the bushes, Timothy watched the short stocky lady with orange spiky hair. The burns stung his arms through his thin wooly jumper. He’d heard stories of a gypsy witch who lived up on the heath; now he saw for himself. Today was the day he’d run away. Even if he got into trouble, it wouldn’t be as bad as living with the Chorley’s.

The moonlight shone over the smoldering campfire and a barn- owl hooted overhead. Timothy was scared but excited at the same time. She was doing a dance and reciting poetry. The words were muffled, he leaned an inch closer.
“Aarghh, oowwch, help!”
Timothy shouted as he fell headlong into the nettles and brambles.

“What the heck?” Magdalene, startled by Timothy’s ungainly entrance marched across to where he lay buried among the thorny bushes. “You were spying?”
“No, I was just passing, I fell.”
“Just passing through a hedge?”
Timothy lifted his sleeve up to check the scratches. That’s when Magdalene noticed the blotches covering his lower arms.

“What happened to your arm?”
“Nuthink, don’t be nosey, you old witch.” He scrambled to his feet, but they were tangled so badly, he fell back down again.
“You fell through the hedge spying on me. I was doing an important spell. It’s ruined now.”
Timothy kicked at the shrubbery that was entangled around his ankles.
“Magic, do me some magic then, and get rid of two scabby foster parents who treat me like a servant.”

“You could tell me about it?” She gestured for Timothy to come and sit by the fire in her camp.
“Not really. Nobody believes me. They’re the foster parents from hell. They cover it all up, and tell people I’m a boy with special needs, only I’m not.”
Timothy eyed Magdalene with suspicion.
“Come and have some chicken casserole, it’s warmer by the fire. You should clean those cuts. The burns look painful. What happened?”
“I already told you, either him or her, depends what they want me to do. If I don’t do it straight away, or the way they want it doing they stub their cigs on my arms. I‘m not going back there, so don‘t bother trying to talk me into it.”
“No, I won’t.” Magdalene sat on her chair, and lit her white clay pipe. She puffed on the liquorice tobacco in silence.

Magdalene lived in the woods at the top of the heath in the village of Mullsey. She’d used money from the sale of her house to buy a colorful gypsy wagon. It was green, with red and yellow windows.

It hadn’t taken long to find and purchase the wagon. She knew exactly where she wanted to park it. Farmer Harry Denning had taken some convincing, but a few pints in the Flying Horse had sealed the deal. Now he’d got a resident gypsy lady complete with wagon and Brandy Snap the horse as his neighbour.

Lets look at this more closely. The opening does start right in the action with a vivid image of a woman with ‘spikey red hair’ and the sense that Timothy is the watcher. We also learn in the opening paragraph that there’s some kind of mystery, gypsies and that he has run away. So we establish the conflict earlier. and we know what this is going to be about. Good. But this could benefit from some sharpening — especially as this is your hook, and perhaps think of a really intriguing opening line. Have a think on that, one that encompasses the first scene, and the sense of voyeurism. Create  more atmosphere.

At first I wasn’t sure about the line about the burns — but I assume this is deliberately to intrigue? What burns? And there is a sense it might be from the nettles but maybe not … so it is a hook but perhaps later consider having him pull his sleeve down over his arms, or something that signals to the reader this is something more than nettle burns.

Careful with apostrophe ‘Chorley’s’ … Chorleys?

Let’s look at the next paragraph … the scene setting. Good use of fire and moonlight, the owl, you could have added more tension here, where is this place? Can you scene set more as part of the action … but this is the line that lets it down: Timothy was scared but excited at the same time. She was doing a dance and reciting poetry.

Timothy was excited is telling, so try to show him, we have no sense of his age, we assume a child but show how he crouches perhaps, hands bunched, shaking even, breathing hard … create a visual sense of him for the reader that ‘shows’ his fear without telling the reader directly — film it rather than report it. And here we see how it’s easy to confuse with pronouns … you tell us Timothy is scared and then go to she was doing a dance. It might even suggest he is a she. So use this opportunity to show ‘her’ — how is she dancing? ‘Doing a dance’ is very vague and the reader could imagine anything from a river dance to hip hop!  So show it. And rather than say she was reciting poetry, maybe let the reader hear some of what she says?

We have the dialogue next, this can all be on one line …

“Aarghh, oowwch, help!” Timothy shouted as he fell headlong into the nettles and brambles.

Now we have the interaction

“What the heck?” Magdalene, startled by Timothy’s ungainly entrance marched across to where he lay buried among the thorny bushes. “You were spying?”
“No, I was just passing, I fell.”
“Just passing through a hedge?”
Timothy lifted his sleeve up to check the scratches. That’s when Magdalene noticed the blotches covering his lower arms.

Careful with the line Magdalene, startled by Timothy’s ungainly entrance. First of all remember this is in Timothy’s viewpoint as the viewpoint narrator and this sounds like we’ve slipped into her head, same with her seeing his arms — to him she would seem to have noticed the blotches so he reacts? Pulls at his sleeve perhaps? You also you tell the reader she’s startled and since we just saw the action do we need this? Just show her reaction to him, as he sees it. And now we use her name, does he know her name? Remember it’s him narrating? The line that works best for me here is “Just passing through a hedge?” I like the humour of that. And I like the intrigue of the marks on his arm … not just from the nettles.

Take the next section:

What happened to your arm?”
“Nuthink, don’t be nosey, you old witch.” Good we get his voice here.

He scrambled to his feet, but they were tangled so badly, he fell back down again.  Show this more, how did he fall, how did it feel? As if someone thing clasping onto his ankles?

“You fell through the hedge spying on me. I was doing an important spell. It’s ruined now.”
Timothy kicked at the shrubbery that was entangled around his ankles.  This repeats what we know about his ankles so either lose it to try to show it in a different way.

“Magic, do me some magic then, and get rid of two scabby foster parents who treat me like a servant.” This is intriguing. This is now showing why he ran away.

Moving on …

“You could tell me about it?” She gestured for Timothy to come and sit by the fire in her camp. Show her, how did she? What does the camp look like?
“Not really. Nobody believes me. They’re the foster parents from hell. They cover it all up, and tell people I’m a boy with special needs, only I’m not.”
Timothy eyed Magdalene with suspicion. This is an external expression so it feels like a viewpoint slip, how does he know his look is suspicious? Maybe show more of how he feels?
“Come and have some chicken casserole, it’s warmer by the fire. You should clean those cuts. The burns look painful. What happened?” Good she asked the pertinent question

“I already told you, either him or her, depends what they want me to do. If I don’t do it straight away, or the way they want it doing they stub their cigs on my arms. I‘m not going back there, so don‘t bother trying to talk me into it.” Might he be more reluctant to tell his secret, perhaps we need to see that in his body language?
“No, I won’t.” Magdalene sat on her chair, and lit her white clay pipe. She puffed on the liquorice tobacco in silence. Remember viewpoint — how does he know it’s liquorice?

 Magdalene lived in the woods at the top of the heath in the village of Mullsey. She’d used money from the sale of her house to buy a colorful gypsy wagon. It was green, with red and yellow windows.  have we changed viewpoint?

It hadn’t taken long to find and purchase the wagon. She knew exactly where she wanted to park it. Farmer Harry Denning had taken some convincing, but a few pints in the Flying Horse had sealed the deal. Now he’d got a resident gypsy lady complete with wagon and Brandy Snap the horse as his neighbour.

 This last part lifts the reader right out of the action at the point the boy reveals his secret. This is one of the problems of how you use back story or exposition. This detail would be better drip fed into the action. Do we need to know all of this?

Okay so it looks like I have really teased this apart and some of my suggestions might be me making you think, question, you might not agree with them all. But see how you need to really make the opening sharp, avoid telling, create more of a sense of place, show me her through her actions so I get a better sense of her. And make sure you are clear who is telling the story. We tend to avoid the omniscient narrator and focus action through the mind of a viewpoint character as this engages the most. So is this Timothy telling the story of her. See how we head hop in the scene and you really want to avoid that. And be careful with how you use back story. If Timothy is more reluctant to reveal this secret about his abuse, shown through his body language, it will make it more of a secret. he tells her very quickly. And since you tell us he is scared of her, what motivates this action to confide so willingly?

Now it might seem as if I am being really strict here — no, I see what you want this scene to do and there is a big premise for the story that will follow, but you can do a lot more with it by thinking about some of these questions …

I hope this has helped and I hope it’s raised some points that might be relevant to all of you.

Do be brave and send something for next month. I think keeping it at one is better so if I get a few I will choose one …

What do you mean I need to lose the commas?!!

What do you mean I need to lose the commas?!!

The clinic reopens on Friday April 26th

How brave are you?

It can be anon if you prefer!

HAPPY EASTER ONE AND ALL!

I WILL RETURN WITH IN THE SPOTLIGHT WITH THE FAMOUS ALAN GIBBONS ON TUESDAY!

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Functional Fixes to Broken Stories …

Can you Fix it?

I never really saw myself as some guru in the art of story telling. Until I studied writing as an art form I never thought about story all that much.

Sure I knew about ideas and I always had a great imagination for creating a story, but what I mean is a close look at what makes a story work, how writers craft scenes and how important function is to every scene.

I play close attention to this as I write, making sure characters act ‘in character’ and their actions are not only credible but vital for story. By this I mean not ‘filler’ or ‘repetition’ but vital for moving the plot (tied into revealing character and theme too). We as the writer know our characters intimately and we know far more back story than we ever need. This is why first drafts are often laden with it — too much exposition which is undoubtedly the writer’s way of creating motivation for action and working out in their own minds why a character does what he/she does. When I see this in a manuscript I know two things; this is an early draft and if the writer hasn’t said that and thinks it’s almost ready to submit, they are probably a newish writer. The editing is where you would cut this and only drip feed in the ‘highlights’ the need to know, and only when we need to know parts. Tell a reader too much and you immediately lose the mystery. Try to use back story as a hook, set up the questions, devices like but it can’t happen again; this isn’t like last time; how can she tell him what she did? See what I mean. It’s the revealing too much and in blocks that loses the hook.

I talk about the reader a lot in my critiques but with good reason; this is how you connect. I will say it again THIS IS HOW YOU CONNECT. Sorry didn’t mean to shout! But the reader is your validation. The reader is the one that will give you the final critique in terms of will they buy the next book? Will they recommend this one? So like it or not this is who you have to think about. Reading is about entertainment 🙂

So no filler. This it not only the back story but also the scenes that repeat information. If you need another viewpoint character and you switch heads it has to be justified. If it just repeats what we know or could easily learn from the other character — why is it there?

If you show us something about a cameo character, that Mrs Green has OCD and her garden is guarded by gnomes, then while you might be adding colour, only use splashes and if it has function. You don’t draw your reader’s attention to something if you have no reason to. This is not real life. You never watch EastEnders and they show a lingering look between two characters but nothing comes of it. It always does and something always goes wrong, right?

You might have your character get away with it, say infidelity, in a novel, but have they? In soaps maybe they always get found out because they also cater to their audience expectation, a function of the medium?  But in novels and shorts maybe not, but it still has function. This is where, again, film works differently to the written word, you can invade the character’s psyche and as such if you set up a lingering glance it can’t be without function — be it what has happened (a regret), what might happen (an expectation) … but it has to be functional for plot. Our gnome lady with the perfect garden is also there for a reason. If she is nothing more than colour don’t spend too long on details. The canny writer later uses this trait about her to reveal something functional for plot. Her OCD attention to detail means she sees the mound of new earth and knows someone has buried something in the garden — see what I mean.

When I look at plot, and story, I don’t just look at the narrative and the devices the writer uses, by getting up close and personal to the words, I also look at story. And it always seems to come down to function.

So I might not be a guru of story telling, but I know when a story isn’t quite working and it’s often one of the reasons above.

When you edit a novel, try to assign one major function to a chapter — e.g. reveal protagonist is adopted. And then use the scenes as a way to focus this function. Then have just one or two lesser functions — e.g. show Mrs Green’s OCD (foreshadow fastidiousness) with her garden, show son is being evasive. That kind of thing and make sure these functions are plot-moving, character revealing and on some level tie into theme.

I use a spreadsheet and it allows me, more when I come to edit, to see what’s filler, what’s retelling and what’s essential. Usually this is where you start to fix the problem!

Ask these questions:

  • Would the character really do that? Does it need foregrounding?
  • Do I need that much back story? What are the highlights and what can I reveal where?
  • Do I need this switch in viewpoint? What does it add?
  • Have I already told the reader this?
  • What function does this scene/chapter have? Does it need to be there?
  • Is this description functional? Have you paused the action to admire the view or can you build it into the action?
  • Is this dialogue functional? Does it have too much ‘business’ in it?

It’s not just about fixing ‘broken stories’ — more like making them better quality, stronger … and we all need to think about that. Is this as good as it could be?

Right, now off to write. I hope to finish the first draft of I Am Wolf next week! Then I will rest it before I begin the big edit! Or the big fix?

Have a great weekend all!

'I Am Wolf' drawn by Colin Wyatt

‘I Am Wolf’ drawn by Colin Wyatt

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