Category Archives: Structure

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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The Glorious City of Bath

Winning the Bath Short Story Award (BSSA) this year has to be one of the big highlights. It knocked my socks off to actually win something and with a story  that had some very personal meaning. It seemed other people got it, it resonated on some level and isn’t that what being a writer is all about? So this is a great feeling when you make that connection. Thanks BSSA for choosing Learning to Fly –– read it here! LINK

Jude, one of the BSSA ladies, also wears another hat, that for Writing Events Bath, so when she knew I work with developing writers and my novel was out this month, she invited me to run a workshop on writing a psychological thriller at the wonderful Mr B’s Bookshop. And I love psychological thrillers, and while While No One Was Watching isn’t exactly that, it is kind of and I call it that if I have to pigeon-hole it and of course it uses many of those devices that tap into the psyche. I  grew up reading and being influenced by such books! So I loved putting this workshop together — a pig in literary mud!

And so last week Mum and I did something we never do, we left Dad in charge of the pooch and took a little trip to Bath, and the Hilton Hotel. And what a treat we had!

This time last week in fact we were  getting ready to set off to the station, although sadly it seems like ages ago now! Want to do it again! Want to do it at lots of hotels and places! Anyone else want to hire me? He he …

The hotel, although not quite as aesthetic to look at as the other Bath buildings, is lovely and central and a very short walk to Mr B’s although we did take a rather convoluted route because the girl at the hotel wasn’t sure! But we found it and around the corner at 3,30 we also found Halls and Woodhouse, the cafe where we were kindly treated to afternoon tea by the lovely ladies from BSSA. So nice to finally put faces to names, I met Jude, Anna and Jane and from Writing Events Bath also Alex.

We had a lovely chat about all things writing and enjoyed the delights of an afternoon tea. Then we relaxed on the sofas before it was time to go to Mr B’s ready for the workshop.

 

Writing Events Bath

Jane (BSSA), Debz (some writer apparently) and Jude (BSSA and Writing Events, Bath)

I had not run this particular workshop before, with a specific genre, but as I pointed out good writing is good writing and many of the things we talked about relate to any genre — good characterisation, motivation for action, sharp narrative etc. However I did focus it on what a psychological thriller is, where it fits in the context of other thrillers and the premise of many of these novels. I will do a blog post about this as I think many would find this interesting.

We had a couple of writing exercises, one writing an opening scene or blurb to see if we could capture the essence of a good psychological thriller. And after the break we wrote a scene with tension, after a discussion of narrative devices.

We finished with a Q&A and I even signed copies of my novel, in fact we ran out of books.

People were lovely and many said it had been very helpful 🙂 I hope that what I showed was that it can be done, we can get published if we work at the craft.

I have sat through many workshops and so I did what I thought I would want from a good workshop, it needs to be two-way, interactive and they needed to know I do know what I’m talking about (most of the time!).  So it helps that I work with lots of writers and I know the common errors! And that my novel was published of course!

I had a lovely time! And am so pleased some of the writers that took part have have found me on Twitter and said they’re enjoying the novel and loved the workshop! Phew!

The following day we did a spot of sightseeing in Bath, the tour bus, the Jane Austen Centre and of course some shopping! Although I bought very little.

A nice meal in the hotel that evening, and  then we relaxed in the room.

The following morning at breakfast, who should walk in but Ade Edmondson, who had been performing with his band in Bath that night. I didn’t disturb his breakfast but I was tempted to ask him if he wanted a copy of my book! I didn’t of course!

So here are some pics guys! I wish I was still there now!

 

Bath Abbey (1)

 

 

Bath Abbey (2)

 

That writer person again, who does she think she is?

That writer person again, who does she think she is?

 

Off to talk to the lovely writing group at Canvey Library this afternoon and you can hear me on Sarah Banham’s show on local radio Saint FM from 7pm, here’s the link: SAINT FM

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What an editor does …

I love getting up close and personal to other people’s writing — but what I love the most is seeing how suggestions and comments are put into practice and when the final version comes back it is so much better. I feel then that my role is justified.

New writers often ask  what to expect from an editor. Do they change your work? What if you don’t agree? Can you keep it your way?

In simple terms, an editor doesn’t just change your work and write a whole other story the way they’d do it! If they do — sack them! They do offer constructive and useful comments. I would change grammar errors where there is a hard and fast rule ,and I would remove run-on or words I feel are redundant but ONLY in track changes so the author can reverse the change if they disagree. And occasionally, if I think it’s the best way to show it, I will change a sentence to demonstrate  a point — see how this sharpens it, for example — a more hands on approach if I think the writer needs that and more often for a critique than a copy-edit. I tend to favour making suggestions — this is overwritten, consider sharpening — and I might suggest what could be better but leave it to them.

By marking your MS and highlighting the weaknesses it really is the best and fastest way to identify weaknesses in style, plot, narrative etc. I had read a great many books on writing but just reading that you need to show not tell and even with examples you can not always see how that applies to your own writing. So you have to let an editor into that personal creative space.

There are various tell-tale signs of the new writer, and we all do this  when we start to write — head hopping mid scene (often because the writer hasn’t even thought about it), telling rather than showing, overwriting using ‘awkward’ or ‘clunky’ phrasing, adding too much back-story and lifting the reader out of the story, overly long descriptive passages that slow the story, too many adverbs especially after dialogue (it’s telling), telling what’s already shown and use of other forms of repetition to drum home a point (tell the reader only once) and using as any different words for said as they can find!

Now these will all be ironed out as you learn and get feedback and new writers who invest in a professional critique will most certainly find this is a short cut to identifying key weaknesses so by the time they start sending work out it’s good.

If it’s good enough to be accepted or publication another editor will be appointed and you need to trust their judgement.

In my opinion there is no room for divas! Luckily for me this is incredibly rare and by this point the writers know the importance of the editorial process and have long since shed their tiara and  learned to take constructive criticism. They will already know that a good editor or critiquer  is worth their weight in gold. Because, and this is very  much my philosophy,  a critique, a copy-edit, even a proof read is a teaching aid and if you get a good editor you will learn. It’s still you writing it — but an editor makes it stronger — and we all need that guidance. At the end of the day it’s about making your writing as good as it can be. And this should be the goal of the writer and the editor and it has to be the goal of the publisher as he needs to sell the book!

So can you argue with the editor? Insist on not changing things? Of course you can — it’s only one opinion but it has to be remembered it’s a professional and experienced opinion (or it should be if you pay for it) and so you need to think carefully about the advice. But if you did something a certain way for good reason and make a good argument an editor will listen to you and wants you to be happy too.

As someone who has straddled both sides of the proverbial fence, even when I wasn’t so sure there was something wrong with something my editor had questioned —  I looked at it very closely and nearly always made some kind of change to remove any trace of ambiguity. I trusted her and she did make great suggestions.

Don’t be a diva!

Have a great weekend all — out shopping for a new tiara!

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The moment when everything changes ….

The title of this post is a line plucked randomly from one of my many writing books.

Aptly it is something I often discuss in relation to plot when I work with clients.

Of course you all know change is the most important action of any key character in terms of both the character arc but also the story arc. Without change, is there even story?

But what brings about this change and how do you get there?

One of the common weaknesses in story is not so much a lack of change, although I do see this too, but it tends to be either a lack of real motivation for change and/or a lack of credible reason at the moment when everything changes — and these are different.

Let me explain.

I have come across stories where the motivation for a character to change is lost or ill-defined but how can you have a true story if you don’t know or you don’t believe what’s at stake? The conflict needs to be established early and it needs to be believable and as we ‘cross the threshold’ into the story (to coin Christopher Vogler’s much-used expression in The Writer’s Journey) then you will also need to crank up the tension, raise the stakes just at that moment so now the character has no choice but to — take the challenge, get the bus, confront the inner demon. This is fundamental to good story telling in any form or genre — be the conflict internal or external, small or large. The reader needs to believe the character and feel there is no other action ‘they’ can now take. And now we have mapped out an arc where we know the climax will be the point where ‘that’ question to be answered, ‘that’ conflict resolved in one way or another.

Of course this sounds simplistic (and yes I have talked about this before) but it’s how you do this that makes all the difference. The reader knows what’s to come but they don’t know what curve balls will be thrown along the way or what the outcome will be at that moment of resolution. Throw in strong believable characters and I can tell you one thing — the reader does know if they’re rooting for that character or not and what outcome they want, already. And they should or at this point they’re putting down the book! Note as well that we need the conflict as early as we can, stories that take too long to set it up can lose the reader before they get started!

So make sure you the motivation for action is defined enough — something really important (life changing even) has to be at stake for ‘that’ character.

So if you get this right, what about that moment when everything changes?

Well in a story with good subtext and character development the change begins with the journey just as we start to age as soon as we become adult! So the key plot functions will not just be how the character seeks his goal and overcomes his dilemma but in the way the events of the story start to change him or her. So by the time we reach the climactic scenes we believe why the character is now able to walk in a dark room, confront the enemy etc.  We believe it but it still needs more …

The biggest change has to be the one that pushes the character to ‘their’ limits at the key moment after which we head for the resolution and of course the ending, the homecoming usually shows the effect of this change afterwards.

Again this might seem to be a simplistic interpretation of the story arc — but that’s the point, it is simple and it should be simple. It’s from that you build the intricacies of the real story. What you don’t want is a character to have an unexpected change of heart at a key moment that breaks down and is inconsistent with everything we know about him so far.We need to have seen the gradual change and then the big one at the key moment. A sudden change of heart would only work (I think) if it has also been built into the character’s development and foregrounded. A flaw of the character but one we kind of see coming?

Now some of you might think this doesn’t apply to the more subtle more character-driven ‘literary’  story and it sounds more like a plot-driven dragon slaying adventure but you’d be wrong. That’s the reason for the inverted commas today for ‘that’ character and ‘their’ conflict. The story can be Harry Potter with a huge external quest where life and death stakes are there bold and clear, we know exactly what’s at stake. Or it can be subtle, internal, psychological but it can still be life and death for that character.  Remember my OCD story I talked about in the dim and distant past (probably not!) well all she had to do was press three odd numbers on a mobile phone — call 999. Hardly life and death for Harry potter or indeed most of us — but for her, it was and ‘that’ story set out to show that and make us believe why.

Whatever the form of the story when that pivotal moment comes — we need the reason for the change that brings about the resolution to be credible. If there is a change of heart we need to see why and buy into it completely.

Have a look at the books you’re reading and see how and indeed how soon the key conflict is established. How does the plot slowly change the character and what happens at the climax of the story?

Getting to grips with story is key to writing a good one — a memorable one, one that stays with the reader. It isn’t just about how you write it and those narrative devices. You need everything to work together.

Have a good one everyone!

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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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We all fall down …

I thought I would do that looking in one of my writing books today and seeing which page I landed on and I landed on story structure.

I have talked about this before of course but it’s actually a key component to why some short stories and novels fail and why some really work. And I found not only did I have to get a real grasp of this for my own writing — but if I was to define what doesn’t work in someone else’s story I needed to really ‘get it’.

Some stories oddly, like one I looked at recently, kind of broke the rules, it moved over a large time gap in a short story, it also used an authorial voice shifting from one character to another and it’s structure was slightly skewed in terms of arc and the conflict driving it — yet it worked and so it forced me to look more closely at how it was structured. And it also proves we need to know the rules, we need to ‘get it’ before we then play around. And while we might say with something like the arts, there has to be room for subjectivity (and who’s arguing) at the same time we need to know how to build our houses  — so they don’t fall down. And there are many ways to do that right? But while there may be many types of houses, they all need the same key features — good foundations, support work, roof etc and this metaphor can be applied to how we structure our stories.

Actually when I did tease apart the structure of the story mentioned, I saw that what ran through it was something that connected each character, in different times and places and almost took on the role of the character the reader engages with even though it’s not a person, it’s not even a living thing. And here formed the skeletal backbone around which the other components assembled. And that’s why it worked. It did follow the rules!

Structure is key. Might sound obvious but trust me when I say how many stories I read that fall down, literally because not enough attention is paid to this very thing. It isn’t always enough just to tell the story in a linear way but at other times it’s exactly what’s needed to help along a limping,meandering, overcomplicated plot. So as you can see it’s no exact science.

For me it’s about making sure the basic structure is totally sound and then starting with a simple arc, a strong story and then add the complexities to it BUT never tear up the foundations (the THEME) or the joists or the walls that hold it together or it will fall down.

If you do it right you will feel it and you will measure that in the reactions to it. And if you think it was more by fluke than design take a closer look. Study the structure — do the same with books and stories you love and think how you can use that in your own work.

When I do my second bit edit on a completed first draft it’s the structure I look at before I start getting pedantic about the words and the way I develop voice and use language (also integral to the story but more interior design than stabilising walls). And since you might well lose characters and whole plot points in the ‘redesign’ then start with the structure and redecorate later.

So what you ask is structure precisely? Well it’s how is the story told? Three first person narratives at different time points? Multiple narrators chronologically? Using the past and the present in an alternating way? Time slip … etc. And again this all boils down to the question I ask my clients all the time BUT IS THIS THE BEST WAY TO TELL THIS STORY? Look at voices, who’s telling the story? Does the tense work? Do the voices sound different? Would it be better to start at the climax and work back? Do you need all the build-up, why not start in the action and then go back and build to it? Do you need all the exposition (back story) at the beginning (NO!) — you carefully drip feed on a need to know basis?

And how is your scene placement and function tied to the theme — how does it explore it since everything needs to EXPLORE THEME — and REVEAL CHARACTER AND MOVE PLOT. So does it?

There are many ways novelists and short story writers structure their work and so the only way to really grasp it is to read what other writers do well and not so well and write, write and oh er — write. And if you have a story written one way, let’s say a very articulate first person monologue of let’ say a woman talking about the loss of her child — now see if you can tell the same story in a different way. Can you use a different voice, alternating narrators to show a whole other perceptive, start at the end and move backwards and now see what works the best?

In a world of infinite possibilities, there is an exciting assortment of methods and techniques and structures out there — you won’t be reinventing the wheel, but the more you play, the more you might just hit upon a masterpiece in structural engineering. And it might feel new. I think that’s the magic agents and publishers are looking for — that thing that’s so hard to define.  But they know it when they see it and so will you. And the odd thing is when I  come across a novel like that, or its film adaptation even though it might feel new and innovative and exciting — it also feels like a story I know! And one I wish I’d written. Do you get me?

So always worth mixing up your writing and trying something new.

And won’t it be fun trying.

Books

 

One that falls down?

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