Saturday, 29 June 2013

Hints for the beginning writer

If you are at the start of your writing career, these hints can be a help. If you are experienced, you will have long since devised your own methods, but all the same, it might be of interest to see how other authors do it.

I wrote a dozen full length books before ‘Not a Man,’  none of which will be published. It added up to well over two million words. The writing I’d done before that was in the form of essays for university subjects. They always had a strictly limited word count, and at the end, there had to be a bibliography.  So when I started writing fiction, it was with a sparse style, almost completely lacking in description. And when I wrote ‘the end,’  I immediately started thinking of a bibliography. It took a while to be able to relax and start filling in the structure to make a better ‘furnished’ book.

My next mistake was to get too verbose. I began to be carried away with the details of minor characters. It didn’t really matter when I was writing only for myself, but that is something I still have to beware of – one cannot become too involved with minor characters without losing your reader.

And the more concrete things that should have been obvious:

1. You will laugh, but I forgot that men have to shave. You cannot have a man an unconscious prisoner for a few weeks, and expect him to finally escape clean-shaven.

2. People get older. If someone is sixty in Book 1, twenty years later in Book 4, they will be eighty.

3. If a character has a dog that is always with him, you have to remember that where he is, the dog will be too. Pets are bit of a nuisance sometimes – they can really get in the way.


In an early story, an old lady died. Unfortunately, two chapters later, she was merely retired.

To avoid this, the obvious thing to do is to read your novel through again and again, finding the errors. But also, maintain a detailed reference list of characters, and as you write your story, make sure and note the dates. It does not have to be in the actual story, of course, but you should know. It helps with continuity, it helps that you remember it is now spring or autumn depending where you have set your novel, and it means that you do not write as if life was a never-ending weekend. School or work have to come in there somewhere (sadly.)  
It would be embarrassing to accidentally leave a date where it shouldn’t be, so I put a distinctive word before the note of the date – eg. ‘banana, Saturday, 9th October, 2010,’  and then make sure to do a search for that word before finishing off.  ‘Pizza’ is for when I’m editing and it marks where I am up to. So all bananas and pizzas removed before publication – unless they actually do figure in the storyline. 


Choice of names:

It is vitally important not to confuse people, so try and have the names of your main characters as simple as possible so they get remembered, and as different from each other as you can manage. And while in real life, there could be Anne Green, Anne Brown and Ann Black all in the same office, don’t do that in a novel. There’s no need, and again, you’ll confuse your reader. All names different. (In my opinion. You can disagree, of course, but this is my blog, so I get to say what I think.)

Be on guard against using the same names again and again. In my fourth Penwinnard novel, I had the primary character with the name ‘Lachlan,’ but then I remembered that Lachlan was an important character in Penn 2, and what is more, he is likely to become important again in Penwinnard 5. So now, my character is Steven, and I expect that he will stay Steven.

Jeremy is another important character, but he might have a name change because he is to become a good friend of Jimmy, and readers are likely to confuse the two. It is better to make sure that names are as different as they need to be to make life as easy as possible for the reader.

Devising a name that indicates something of the personality of the character:

For all of us, a particular name comes with its connotations. Some of it is due to our own past knowledge of ‘Mandys,’ for instance, or ‘Freds,’  and some is because of the depiction of people with these names in fiction or even history. Some is probably because of the sound of the name – some sounds are melodious, some abrupt.

I used to regard choosing a name that is an indication of a character's personality as something to avoid. It is not like this in real life. A ‘Skye’ sounds like she should be beautiful and maybe rich, but is quite likely to be plain and very ordinary.

I’ve changed my mind about this. Writing a story is about making the reader see what you see.  It is about communication, so no available tool should be ignored. A character in my Penwinnard stories is ‘Martin Sanders.’  He sounds a bit wishy-washy and so he is. ‘Ian MacKender’ is the boss, and to my mind, sounds more like a boss should be. (He is a very good boss.) 
In  'Not a Man',  Shuki had several names before I settled on that one.  And even then he was nearly changed again when my son peered over my shoulder and called him 'Shucky.' 
No, no, he is Shoo-kee. Shuki.


There are also names you can think of that sound like the person should be a proper idiot, but I’ll leave you to think of those names – I don’t want to insult too many people.
(Sorry all you real Martin Sanders.)

Are you writing a series? Or even a series of stories that are each supposed to be complete in itself?

Then it is not a bad idea to write the next in the series before publishing the one before. That way, if there are adjustments that need to be made, then you can still do it. For instance, I have gone back to change the age of a boy, and also, in one case, a history.


And something that almost every romance writer does, and I do not agree with.

They forget about bodily functions. How often have I read about the beautiful heroine being nurse to the handsome man who has ‘a fever.’  She gives him tender loving care, wipes the sweat from his brow, maybe even from his muscular chest, but does she ever change the stinking sheets when he’s soiled himself?

Well, no, sick people don’t do that in fiction. From the first, I decided that I would not pretend that an unconscious person never wets or dirties the sheets. Sickness is not pretty or romantic. No need to dwell on it, of course.


More hints that a beginning writer might find useful:

When using a computer, you can choose the colour of your script. I make use of different colours for different characters. It makes it easy to scan back through and find a particular place.

It is also useful in dialogue. It is easy to wind up with one character saying two things in a row,  instead of alternating with the other. So if it’s a long conversation, just start each person’s remark with a characteristic colour.

Sometimes you need to take parts out, sometimes whole scenes that you really liked. You don't want to sacrifice it. So have a place you put ‘deleted scenes’  and then, if you need it again, it is there. It  hurts a lot less than merely deleting it, even when, nine times out of ten, you never look at it again.


Examples from my own writing:

Notes as you write:

2182 words
1st Monday in September is 6th September, Steven and Jeremy arrived Monday, 2nd August, 2010, 
The wedding: 11.00 am,  Saturday, 25th September.
Banana: Monday, 27th September

Chapter 11

It was Monday evening. Ian was in his own lounge-room, watching the local news on TV. He’d known that a TV crew had been filming at the wedding, but had assumed they’d gone quite quickly. No-one had told him that they’d wandered around for nearly an hour, almost to the time the wedding party had emerged from the church. He alerted when he saw the news item, smiled when he saw the early pictures of Lionel and Katy, but frowned when the camera strayed to several of the older boys. They were in the distance, and a little fuzzy, but to any who knew them, easily identifiable. It was a good thing that he’d arranged to get Bob out of the way, but still, he was not the only boy whose whereabouts was not supposed to be known to their parents or to their abusers. He decided to give the news channel a thorough blast in the morning. This was most definitely not as agreed.
Black happens to be Ian's colour, green is Bob's, blue is Steven's.

A portion of my reference list:

Dallas Landen.   Turned 15 September 2009., arrived June 04,  aged 11.   black-haired,  small for his age,  half-starved,  very timid.   Very loud whistle.  At 14,  he is of low status among the boys,  proud to be a “Winnard’  and sometimes asked to help look after the new boys.   Father still in gaol for child abuse.  Father used to tell him that God would punish him dreadfully.  Was in a large London institution prior to Penwinnard, came when he was 11.  Mother was Philipino. Book 3, noted that he was an excellent swimmer.  At 15, he started shooting up to become tall.

In July 2009,  he met an aunt called Sue Dunne  (nee Landen)    widow.  Dallas said,  “This is only the third time I’ve had a visitor.  It’s an aunt I’d never heard of when I was young.  She didn’t like my father  -  that was her brother  -  and so she never came near.”         “They’re still in prison,  aren’t they?”   “My father is.  My mother’s out,  but Donna says she’s not allowed to come near.”  “Did you have any brothers or sisters?”             “Three,  but they all died when they were little.  I only remember one,  and then one day someone said it was cot death and it happens sometimes.  I remember Father saying it was God’s judgement,  but I think it was probably because they didn’t feed it.”  This is Aunt Sue,  aged 60,  2010,

Penn 3. ‘Dallas’s father had found his second wife in the Philippines. His first wife had left him after just three weeks.’ Tattoo, June 2010

Barry Zahedi.   Turned 15 early November, 2009,  Arabic heritage, Lebanese. born in the UK.   Arrived late August 2009, from Van Dyke Boys’ Home,  in Newcastle, three months Juvy before that. tough boy ‘Barry had a shaven head, tattoos and a ring through an eyebrow, big for his age.  Lived with his father, who was a habitual crim. mother left him when he was 12, whereabouts unknown. (murdered?)  ‘Barry Zahedi. He’s fourteen, and was in Juvenile Detention for three months after stealing a car. It was not his first offense. He was released three weeks ago to the Van Dyke Home for boys in Newcastle. He’s been in and out of homes for the last three years, a father still alive, but always in trouble, three times in prison, with a new trial coming up for assault and theft. I want to get the boy right away from him.”  Tattoo, June 2010

Leon Wippeart ,  turned 15 October 2009, arrived mid October 2009, left August 2010, to relatives, not much warning. slimy type, light-fingered, a bedwetter for a time. Spoke well, and had reasonable manners.   Has relatives living in Plymouth. Shares a room with Dallas, and have become close friends, Tattoo, June 2010

And I have no idea if anyone will find these notes of help, but I quite enjoy my blog, regardless.


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