Sunday, 15 April 2018
There is no golden rule that a novel can’t be written in both past tense and present tense. But there’s an unwritten rule that says you shouldn’t mix them.
So what’s the difference? Which one is right?
This unwritten rule is often confused by writers as meaning that present can’t be used with past and vice versa. But the unwritten rule refers to the writer mixing tenses within the same chapter or scene. This generally doesn’t work well and can look untidy, and it may appear confusing to the reader, unless it’s expressly a flashback and hinted to the reader.
But there is nothing stopping a writer from writing one chapter or new scene in past and others in the present, or some in present and others in the past, if done correctly. This approach keeps things tidy and allows the reader to follow the writer’s intentions.
Present stories sometimes rely on past events to show the reader certain things – we know these as reminiscences or flashbacks, and these are permissible because the past makes up the present (not the other way around). Present stories sometimes need to show things that happened in the past to provide information and backstory to the plot.
But what about past tense stories? It could be argued that if the story is being narrated from sometime within the past, then logically it can’t show things in the present. And to a degree that is true, but when we consider the wider scope on how past and present tenses work, we can actually let the present in on past tense, and this can work because we have to allow for characters that are recounting their past story – normal past tense – but may be living in the present. This means current thoughts and feelings occur at that present time.
You might have a main character whose story is past tense, mixed in with the antagonist, who observes things in the present. You may have a main character whose story is in the past but – years later – reflects about things from the present. There are all manner of ways it can be done. But as long as the writing is tight, succinct, and both voice and style are clear, then there is no reason why writers shouldn’t write from both tenses.
Many novels take this approach where the main character’s story is told in both tenses, making sure that each tense is observed correctly and that the reader immediately knows there is a change.
Careful planning is needed to make it work, so if it’s not executed properly, it may not be effective and can prove distracting or confusing to readers. The approach doesn’t always work, as not every story will benefit from this method, so sometimes writers should experiment to see where it takes them.
So, remember there is no golden rule. If writing in both past and present tense for various characters serves the story, then go with it.Next week: Writing Slumps – how to avoid them
Sunday, 8 April 2018
Ideas come in all manner of ways. Inspiration is the atom that starts it all. From inspiration we get ideas and from ideas we start to create. And when we get creative, we get productive.
Ideas often happen without us having to try. Sometimes they pop into our head fully formed, while others are but small seeds and need some nurturing and development. They might happen because of a memory or personal experience. They might form because of something seen on the TV. Or an incident. Maybe a time period inspires writers. Sometimes they feel strongly about something and they need to write about it.
Ideas can come from anything, anyone and everything. And the best ideas come when we don’t force them.
But even with the smallest of ideas, bigger things grow from it. We do this by adding more ideas, because everyone knows that ideas create even more ideas. That’s how we form plots and characters and so on.
But how do you turn that single idea into a story?
Start at the beginning, with the premise, whether that’s two people who fall in love, a story about a ghost, a group of friends on vacation, or it could be about a kid who falls through a hole in space and time. Whatever it is, that’s when writers get to be the mad professor and come up with all manner of notions and concepts and crazy ideas. In other words, it’s a good old fashioned brainstorm.
Some people go all out and draw mind maps or line graphs, or they make thorough outlines or draw sketches of scenes that they ‘see’ in their mind. Others take a simpler approach and write some notes. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as the process creates.
Then ask the following questions:
Who might the characters be? Whose story is it? Who is the bad guy? From characters we can build on their backstories and develop them into fully fledged people that we can connect with.
What are their reasons for being in the story? What motivates them? What drives them? What are their goals? What do they want to achieve? From reasons, we can find answers. When we give them motives, we also find actions and reactions and we’re able to build these into our stories.
When is the story staking place? The present? The distant past? The recent past? A sense of time or history acts like an anchor for the story. It will also dictate how characters behave and talk. This can also inspire the writer for further ideas based on the time period.
Where is the story set? An inner city estate? On board a spacecraft? An exotic beach? Or lots of locations? Again, location can give rise to lots of other ideas with the story because sometimes that story idea might actually start with a location rather than a character or an incident or memory.
Which perspective to use? First person, past or present, or third person, past or present? Each one has advantages and disadvantages, so the perspective is something to carefully consider and experiment with.
Lastly, why is the story happening? This is the question that creates the plot. Why is the question to everything.
When writers have an idea, the fun part is taking all these elements and throwing them into the cooking pot and seeing what they create. A single idea breeds more ideas. That’s when the creative juices flow, when writers get into that excited phase of creating a story.
Remember, why is the question to everything. And the best way to turn an idea into a story is to just get on and write.
Next week: Writing stories in both past and present tense
Sunday, 1 April 2018
There are few things more frightening than a blank page. One of the most difficult things to decide is where to start a story. The fear is that if you don’t know where to begin, you’re not going to be able to start a story. But starting your story isn’t something to fear. So let’s take the fear out of the equation.
Writing fiction is a complex process and can seem overwhelming, but the more writers understand these processes, the less daunting they will seem.
Part of the fear of the blank page is that writers assume they must have a fully-fledged, all singing and all dancing tale just ready to pour onto the page and they must start at the beginning. But that’s not true – it’s a myth. There are no rules here. Every writer is different, so every approach is different. In one way or another they all eventually end up at the same point – a completed story.
Normally we have a vague idea of the story we want to tell when we sit down ready to write. And that’s the most important thing – the idea, borne from inspiration, forms the building blocks to create. How we write and stitch everything together is down to each writer. Start when the starting point wants you to start. The rest can follow at the editing and rewrite stage.
Ideas come in all shapes and sizes and in all matter of ways. They’re still ideas. And that’s always how a story begins. These are starting points. A starting point is the point at which we start a story, and that isn’t necessarily at the beginning.
Those starting points might be centred on a single theme. It might be some characters have been in your head for a while and want their story told. The idea might have sprung into life watching an event. Some ideas have even popped into life as full on ‘scenes’ which the author has expanded upon.
Some writers don’t actually start at the beginning. Sometimes they begin in the middle. Others start at the end. It may sound strange, but they are still starting points from which to build the entire story. That’s why writers can start their story anywhere they feel they need to.
Some writers simply build on several scenes in their head. They may not know where the scenes fit, but there is no longer a blank page – and no longer any fear of such. Once they begin, they often find that other scenes become easier to write and soon they have the beginning of the story written without too much hassle.
Once a writer has undertaken a starting point, they’ll probably have a clearer idea of the kind of story they want to tell, and then formulate and expand on the idea to create a plot. By that point, those overwhelming fears have vanished.
Common starting points:
- Start with a theme.
- Start with a larger than life character.
- Start with the ending.
- Start in the middle.
- Start with a certain scene, or several random scenes.
Don’t let the fear of a blank page overwhelm you. Start your story whoever you want to start it – whether it’s the beginning, middle or the end, or whether you start with a scene or a larger than life character. Just write, and see where the ideas take you. You can then go back a form a plot and plan your story in more detail.
Every story starts at the beginning, but that beginning is wherever you want it to be.
Next week: Turning ideas into stories
Sunday, 25 March 2018
The first draft is the bare bones of a story. Whether you’ve done some planning or none, this first draft is probably the most important daft you’ll write – not because it lacks polished touches or finesse, confidence or the almost perfected editing. It’s because it represents the raw story and the building blocks of what is to come.
Why are first drafts important? Well, no matter your experience or skill level, every writer starts at the beginning. And no one can write a perfect novel on the first attempt. This is why the first draft encapsulates all the ideas, the inspiration, the ramblings and wild tangents of writing a story, but it is essentially all about the story – sitting down and writing, just getting it out, in whatever order or semblance it comes, developing the ideas, getting to know the characters and experimenting with the plot. The first draft will always be awful. And that’s the point of the first draft.
The rest of the writing process – the polishing and perfecting – comes afterward, in the second, third, fourth drafts and so on. Writers spend too much time worrying about cramming everything into the first draft (not realising just how much hard work follows), but it’s just not possible – there are just too many things that come after the first draft has been written for this to happen.
The first draft is the framework on which to build the whole story; the flesh on those bones, so to speak, that make the story truly complete. The first draft is all about the following
- Getting the story down
- Developing ideas
- Getting to know the characters
- Finding out how good the plot is
- Finding the right POV
- Finding your voice
Getting the story written is what every author goes for. Even if you follow an outline or plan, or you write by the seat of your pants, the result will be a bit of a tangled mess. This is absolutely normal, so writers should not be discouraged by this. Things don’t have to make sense at this stage, and they don’t. So just write.
Development of ideas comes as you write. Even if you have planned your novel in detail, sometimes an idea can occur spontaneously or they can grow organically from what you write, and so first drafts are great for cultivating and experimenting with different ideas. Just go with them.
First drafts are also the foundation for characterisation. We don’t truly know our characters until we start to write them, and as the story progresses, they grow and develop. Some characters emerge with stronger voices, others fall by the wayside. Sometimes it feels right for a character to go in a different direction than you planned, so go with it. First drafts are all about where the story takes you.
When you write the first draft, you’re also finding out just how strong your plot is. Sometimes the plot works well, sometimes if won’t. Sometimes it feels okay, but need lots of work to plug the gaping holes. Again, this is normal. It’s all part of the writing process. The story may change as you write; it might deviate wildly from what you planned – again this is not uncommon. Don’t be afraid to go with the flow.
Working with the right POV is always a sticking point with writers. First drafts are a good way to find out, because the POV will either feel comfortable, or it won’t. If it doesn’t feel comfortable, then you’re using the wrong POV. If you choose first person – the most difficult to work with – then make sure the final work is edited thoroughly by a competent editor, because you will have a novel full of tangled tenses.
Voice is something that comes through during the writing process. Is your writing voice constant? No, it’s actually quite fluid. It may be recognisable to others, but it can vary with the different genres you write. But first drafts act as voice development tools – what you write and how you express yourself – your voice and style – begins with the first draft.
Every first draft is the beginning of the entire writing process, and that’s why they’re so important.
Next week: Starting Points
Sunday, 18 March 2018
How you write is all down to how to construct your descriptive passages and how effective they are, which is why the advice to show rather than tell really does work. If you show the reader it means you involve them with senses, colour, visual imagery and provocative words. If you tell the reader, then they cannot become involved in any way.
How to Approach Description
The best way to approach it is not to be afraid of it. It’s a fundamental requirement, because without it, there is no story to ‘tell’. But the way to approach description is to understand the many functions it performs - it’s a way of involving the reader, it gives them necessary information, it helps them build up scenes and images in their mind with background and foreground detail and it helps to move the story forward.
There are moments when the writer needs to describe something to enhance the scene and the flow of the story; without which the story fails. But description is isn’t about throwing everything at the reader. It’s not about boring them to death with pages and pages of it. Effective description is delivered in easy to digest amounts – everything from a couple of paragraphs to a line. It blends with action, it shows the reader and it lures them with imagery.
How to Make it Effective
The best stories use description as an active part of the story, the way it can set the scene, set the tone, mood and atmosphere, the way it can foreshadow events, the way it characterises, the way it creates tension, drama and emotion and the way it paints a full picture so that the reader can ‘see’ into this world.
And it’s by showing the reader that makes it work so well. Don’t tell the reader the sun is shining. Show them with rising heat that shimmers, the bright colours, the colour of the sky, the beads of sweat on the brow, the hot glare, the warmth of the skin, the reactions of the characters...there are so many things that could show the reader. Showing the reader = effective description.
Make Description Visual
‘Visual’ simply means a way of showing the reader vivid imagery which brings the descriptions alive. It’s about making the ordinary extraordinary – but it’s all down to how you write. Description, and how it’s constructed, is a stylistic aspect individual to each writer, so the type of words, the strength of those words and how they’re put together is what makes description visual, for example:
The snow fell and covered the ground very quickly. It was cold and he shivered in response and blew into his hands to warm them up.
This tells the reader, but it doesn’t show them, and therefore doesn’t engage them. There is nothing in the description that stands out. It’s flat and boring. Now compare it to the same passage, which shows the reader:
The snow drifted down with silent discord and covered the ground like tinselled dust. Frozen breath lingered like a fog and the cold gnawed at his flesh, right down to his bones. Reddened fingers cupped his mouth and he blew hard to warm them...
This example uses stronger words like discord, tinselled, fog, gnawed, flesh, bones and reddened. These nouns and verbs work well to help the description (rather than too many adjectives and adverbs). Not only that, the description is inviting the reader to interpret the intention rather than tell them. The ‘silent discord’ of the falling snow hints at the inharmonious atmosphere. ‘Tinselled dust’ is showing the reader the fresh snow with a simile, as does ‘lingered like fog’. The cold that ‘gnawed’ at his flesh shows the reader just how icy cold it is; they can imagine this feeling. ‘Reddened’ fingers also show the reader how cold it is, because our fingers go red before turning blue in extreme temperatures.
From four or five lines of effective description, readers can build up a picture of the scene, they can imagine being there, they can imagine the atmosphere and how cold it is and so they become involved, because the description is visual. It didn’t need any more than that. And description works more effectively when it’s interspersed with the narrative and dialogue in small amounts.
A lot of writers don’t make use of the senses. Description relies on them – a character’s senses and the reader’s senses. Sometimes the reader needs to see through the character’s eyes. Sometimes they need to feel what the character touches. They need to hear what the character hears. They need to smell what the character smells. And sometimes it’s also possible to show the reader what your characters can taste – blood in the mouth tastes like iron. Rain can taste bitter. Foods...well, they can be anything you describe to the reader.
You don’t have to include every single sense in one description. The point here is to try to include one or two in order to show the reader, so they can at least feel part of it.
How do you write? That depends on what you want to show your reader, how you want them to feel and the story you want to tell. Besides, the sheer beauty of language is, ultimately, what every writer wants to show their readers.
Next week: The importance of first drafts.
Sunday, 11 March 2018
Every writer has a unique style of writing. The way a writer constructs a story is an individual thing, but how do you write?
Do you focus more on the dialogue and less of the description? Do you put more into the characters than you do the story? Do you fill your pages will beautiful description and not much else? These are all examples of what writers do, without ever maintaining a balance.
How you write is important. It’s the difference between the reader becoming fully immersed in the story and enjoying every page, to throwing it aside because it’s so terrible. It comes back to that word ‘balance’ again. The best stories always have a good balance of dialogue, narrative and description.
But what makes some writing so amazing? The way a writer constructs his or her descriptions is what makes stories stand out. How you write is all about choosing the correct words to convey the story, in the right way that brings the scene to life and makes it easier for the reader to visualise and understand.
Description shouldn’t ‘tell’ the readers, it should ‘show’ them. It should be visual, but should also be rhythmic and have a sense of alliteration. It should appeal to the reader’s senses, so that on an emotional level, certain words will invoke certain associations, memories or emotions. The idea is to seduce and lure the reader into your fictional world with your carefully chosen words, so much so they almost get wrapped up in it.
Sensory description can be powerful, emotional and visual. New writers wrongly assume that description isn’t an essential requirement for their masterpiece, but that’s like trying to make tomato soup without the tomatoes. Perhaps some writers find it hard to do, while others just don’t bother. There are some writers that insist that their books are perfectly fine without all that descriptive stuff. But the quality of description is what makes writing work, and this might be why so many self-published novels are so unreadable, awful and not worthy of being written in the first place. Sometimes they force the description and it’s dull and flat or they forget the description altogether. If there is little effective description, then you’re not telling your story.
Of course, writers can be the complete opposite and write too much description. Readers don’t want to see large chunks of description; it will put them off and it will kill the pace. This practice is seen in a lot of books over the last 100 years, where it was common for the author to describe a scene for pages and pages. It’s better to break down descriptions into more sizable sections so that it keeps things moving and keeps the reader interested.
How do you write? should be a question every author should ask themselves. The reader needs to know where and when the story takes place, whose story it is, what the characters look like, what is around them and what they’re doing at any given moment. Without this information, the reader won’t have a clue what’s going on, nor want to be a part of it.
Description is only hard for authors because they don’t know how to write – they don’t know how to construct descriptive passages that are stimulating, visual or poetic, but that’s what writing is about – describing things, in your own stylistic way. When you describe something, it’s description. This is why so many rely so heavily on ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.
There is also the notion that some writers are too flowery with their descriptions – known as Purple Prose, but this is often down to an individual’s perception. What one person finds over the top or ornate, another will find beauty. The truth is that description is only bad when it’s written badly.
Description is such an integral part of a story and should never be ignored. If you are a writer, then carefully choosing the right words in the right order that brings the scene to life should be easy. This should be second nature.
In part 2 we’ll look at how to approach description, how to make it effective by showing rather than telling, how to make it visual and not over the top, and the kinds of things to avoid to get the best from your descriptions.
Next week: How DO you write? – Part 2
Sunday, 4 March 2018
In this last part of the things that writers can incorporate into novels to help them get noticed by agents and publishers, we’ll look at the last group of ingredients that should help this happen, the kind of things that enrich and enliven the story, those very things that lift the story from every page.
Almost all novels have a flashback of some description. That’s because what has happened in the past always shapes the way our characters are in the present.
This device allows the author to take the reader back to a previous time in a character’s life in order to show prior events/incidents that have a bearing on the present story. They are a great way to impart information, plant clues and explain character behaviours. They can be constructed however the author sees fit – i.e. they can be brief, long, obtrusive or so subtle that they’re hardly noticed.
Include at least a couple of flashbacks to deepen the story.
Pace is something that agents and publishers actively look for. They want to know how the story reads; they want to see the variation of pace between reflective, quiet scenes, the fast, action scenes and everything else in between.
Pace helps to enhance the tension and atmosphere by heightening the perception of the flow of the narrative. Long words and more description help to slow the pace, while short staccato words in small bursts quicken the pace. Narrative should naturally slow down and accelerate throughout the novel. This is what gives it a varied pace, because without it the narrative would either be too boring or slow, or it would rush along without a break.
Keep it varied = keeps the narrative interesting.
Grammar & Spelling
The one constant that every novel should have is excellent grammar and spelling, because this is a fundamental requirement. It shows potential agents and publishers your grasp of the language and your skill level.
A terrible grasp of grammar and spelling won’t earn a novel any acceptances, no matter how good the plot might seem. It will also tell the prospective agent or publisher that the author is unprofessional and obviously can’t be bothered with the basics.
Go through your work as many times as it needs to ensure that spelling and grammar in no less than 100%.
Style & Voice
This is unique to every writer. It’s what sets you apart from others. It’s your own way of writing and telling a story and your way of describing things. And if you’re lucky enough to be an experienced writer, your work is instantly recognisable to readers, because they can readily identify your style and voice as an author.
A sense of voice and style doesn’t happen overnight, however. It doesn’t happen with the first book you write, either. A sense of style and unique authorial voice is something that takes years to develop. That’s why writers should spend time writing and honing their skills, their style and their writing voice rather than rushing to self-publish the moment they’ve written a book.
Style and voice comes naturally, so don’t rush the process. Good things always come to those who wait.
Next week: How DO you write - what makes your writing so amazing?