Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Tag: writing: tips for new authors

Writing Ambitious Stories and my YA Novel

An excellent blog article that resonated with me is Writers and Ambition, by David B. Coe over at the sadly now defunct Magical Worlds. David writes succinctly about writing ambitious stories, and recently I’ve had to consider this issue myself.

“Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing: deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming. In other words, it forces us to stretch as artists, to challenge ourselves, to risk failure by reaching for greatness.”

I’m reworking a near-future sci-fi YA novel that I originally drafted three years ago. I checked back through my folders and found that I wrote the short story the novel is based on in 2012. Six years ago! I had a small freakout, just for a moment. I’m back in the room now.

The reason I put the novel aside once the first draft was complete was because it didn’t feel quite there. The characters were (and still are) interesting and have motivation, but the plot had holes. Great gaping maws that I could not figure out how to fill. For a while I wondered if the story just wasn’t meant to be. Often, writing involves hard choices, and sometimes it involves walking away from a story permanently if it won’t come together. But that wasn’t it. I never wanted to fully give up on this novel. The idea is strong, and I’m confident that a lot of my themes (social media over-saturation, celebrity culture, technology) would interest a young adult and adult audience. Author Theodora Goss said something years ago that stuck with me:

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

Honestly? I don’t think the story was ready to be written. Or I wasn’t ready to write it three years ago. Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the novel with non-writer friends and colleagues, describing it as on hiatus, and in the process of thinking about it again I’ve changed some key elements of the main plot thread, which leads me to believing it’s time to give it another bash.

The changes I plan to make are more complex and ambitious than the original. All I had to do was give the book some breathing room and give myself enough distance so that I could look at it objectively. That, and discuss it with people I might not have normally discussed it with (non-writers), which helps to approach it from a new angle.

I have no idea if this will work smoothly the second time around. I do believe it will work better than the first time.

Writers don’t have to pull silly tricks to push their creative boats out. You must still write the story you want to write, something you can put your energy behind in good faith. But you can switch things up in small ways. You can weave in a sub-genre you haven’t tried before. You can change one of the bigger elements of the main plot. Or you can write a character who inhibits traits you have yet to explore. If you keep nudging into new territory with every story you write, you will find your plots more ambitious and interesting, and yourself a stronger writer.

Student Writing Workshop – Other Worlds

Back in 2013 I hosted a Creative Writing Workshop with a group of twenty-five Year 10 students at a local school. Year 10, for those of you outside the UK, consists of ages 14-15, though this workshop can be applied to all ages (even adults, depending on your stage in the creative process). The theme of the workshop was Other Worlds.

EXERCISE #1: Come up with examples of Other Worlds you could write about. (10 minutes)

  • Fantasy worlds, set on planets, continents, or in cities that you have created.
  • Fantasy worlds, set on our planet but in a different time (eg. Dark Ages, the Victorian era, in the future).
  • Space. Planets in other solar systems, or set on spaceships.
  • Worlds that exist on a layer beneath our own, such as alternative realities. Think: underground fae worlds, heaven/hell, parallel universes.
  • Dreamscapes.
  • Micro-biology. Worlds that exist in nature, beneath the ocean, etc.
  • Other countries, where you explore cultures that are different to your own.

There were some superb ideas and suggestions from the students in my workshop, with a lot of fantasy world suggestions. Popular ideas were fairies and mythical creatures, but we also came up with some silly ones (“One Direction World” I was half-expecting already. There was an “Ed Sheeran World” as well).

Once the students had chosen one of their Other Worlds I asked them to consider some of the rules those worlds would need to stop things getting unruly. 

EXAMPLE: In the Harry Potter series, magic exists, but it is governed by the Ministry of Magic, which regulates who uses it, what type of magic they use, and when and where they can use it. If there were no magic laws, we would have a big problem and things would quickly fall apart.

Consequences are massively important to how believable your worlds are. As above, if everyone could run around doing whatever they wanted, society would fall apart fast. Everything you invent, every action your character takes, will have consequences. You don’t need to get hung up on this, but just be aware, even if only at the back of your mind, that actions lead to consequences and you can’t just ignore them. Consequences can also bring a great sense of tension to a story, so never be afraid to explore them or let them unfold and take the story in new directions.

EXAMPLE: Consider a world where people never grow old. What are the consequences to this type of society? What sorts of rules might you need to set in place to deal with them? (e.g. Birth regulations, culling the population, harsher death sentences for crime, etc.)

Other things to consider:

  • Climate
  • Technology
  • Language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Natural resources (fuel, etc.)
  • Social structure (class systems, governments, etc.)

The moral roles your protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters take will often blur. This isn’t something you should shy away from–sometimes your hero will make a bad choice. This is when you can take advantage and show your character learning a valuable lesson. This is the pure essence of character development. Much as we learn and grow as people through our choices and mistakes, so should your characters. Similarly, your antagonist will not always be evil. They must have something about them that readers can sympathise with, even if only logically. Otherwise they will read flat and predictable.

During the workshop we had a go at coming up with some first lines to stories the students hadn’t written yet. I didn’t know how well this exercise would go down as I didn’t take any examples of opening lines with me, mostly because I didn’t want to influence their own creativity. 

EXERCISE #2: Come up with three opening lines to a story you’ve never written. This can be anything. The point is to get started—making that first leap. Generally one good first line will lead to a second line, and that will lead to a third line. Ultimately, this is what stories are: a series of lines that connect up and paint a picture in a coherent way. (10 minutes)

We covered mind mapping to keep a story organised. I have blogged about Mind Mapping for Fiction Writers before.

We also considered writing what you know and how a lot of new authors take this advice too literally. I used my zombie story Shuffle as an example of writing about an important theme that affects most people while still being free to explore a fantastical setting.

We generated characters using a Character Questionnaire. The most important thing is to figure out what your character wants most in the world, above everything else. This makes up the tension and goal of your story and creates boundaries and clear landmarks while writing forward.

I am available to do creative writing workshops, tailor-made for your writing class. Contact me to enquire.

The (Vast) Difference Between A Critique and An Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help an author see where a story might still need work when they edit.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1. How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2. Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

Social Networking for Writers

Today I have a big blog for you about social networking, content generation, and how it can benefit new or up-coming writers. Discussions are welcome and if you have any questions or comments about this post feel free to drop them below.

The Importance of Networking

Reaching out to your readers and potential readers both offline and online is majorly important if you want to draw in the crowds. With an ever-widening market for e-books as well as print books, it’s easy to sink beneath the ocean of other writers struggling to be seen and heard, and most importantly—read. A good place to start building your author presence is online, particularly if you’re a busy writer or can’t afford to attend book and writing conventions.

To someone unused to social networking, the sheer amount of websites, blogs and forums can seem daunting. The key thing to remember is you really only need to pick one or two to visit regularly, at least at first. It’s about cultivating a presence in your niche, not spreading yourself too thin. When you’re relatively unknown, it might be tempting to create accounts on every social site you find, but realistically it’ll be difficult keeping on top of everything.

Choosing the right social networking sites for you is a little bit down to personal preference, although there are a couple of biggies that you should be aware of. These are generally the best places to create accounts due to their immeasurable popularity and how current they are.

Facebook has always predominantly been about friends and family, although their Fan Page function can provide businesses with a platform and they are worth looking into.

Twitter is back in favour, after a strange drop in interest a few years back. It seems popular again as a venue for writers to network and share advice, so I’d say this one is a must.

Getting Started

Social networking doesn’t have to be a stressful endeavour. You can put in as much effort as you want. But bear in mind that you’ll probably get out of it about as much as you put in, sometimes less. This is why it’s advisable to log in at least once a week and drop a note to update friends and connections on what you’re up to (read on for advice about content creation).

Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre. Try to find a balance of both self-promotion and supporting your peers. If you rarely post and never comment on anyone else’s page, you might find people will stop commenting on yours. The secret is in the name: social networking. Give and take. Communication. These are the things you’ll need to build up a solid network—and hopefully a solid fanbase.

The Secret to Networking Consistently

Time for the big reveals. A lot of authors are doing this already, and if you’re struggling to stay on top of your social networking, or you’re just starting out with new accounts, here are my top two pieces of advice for generating content and posting regularly:

1. Soundbites! If you only have one post on your author blog, you can mine it for soundbites to share on your social feeds. I do it. In fact, I will do it for this very blog post you’re currently reading. I have a chunky post here which is focused on writing and content. I can legitimately mine it for three or four tweets linking back here. This is what my tweets might look like:

[#writing blog post] How Social Media Can Help Authors – [Link] “Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre.” #amwriting #writingtips

In two or three weeks I will create another tweet, and choose a different quote from this post, then share that for the people who missed the first one. The trick is not to post too many and too close together. But three or four links back to the same post over the course of a few weeks is perfectly reasonable.

2. Schedule posts! If you invest in anything to help you manage your social networking, make it either Buffer or Hootsuite. Both have free versions where you can link a handful of your accounts. You can load posts in advance and set a date and time for them to be posted. Load 10 tweets / Facebook posts into Buffer to cover the next fortnight and you don’t have to think about it again for two weeks. Perfect.

Additional handy links

Social Neworkingfor Writers – These are all writer-specific, rather than the more general (and often busier) venues like Facebook and Twitter.

Social Networking and Message Boards for Writers – Similar to the above, though this one covers the lesser-known boards and forums.

Goodreads – One of the more popular books and writing websites. Goodreads is a cunning amalgamation of different things: a virtual library, book club, discussion board, blogging platform, and a place where authors can connect personally with their readers and hold competitions/giveaways.

Shelfari – Similar to Goodreads, this site is dedicated to books and reading. It also gives authors the opportunity to reach out to readers and vice-versa.

Dadaism and Letting Go of Authorial Control

A few years ago my writing group experimented with Dadaism, a cultural movement that started during WWI. We attempted to let go of our authorial control and generate story ideas. First, a little about Dadaism, from Wikipedia:

Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

Our own Dada exercise focused less on politics and more on creativity. It’s easy to do at home or work: simply pick a magazine or book, and then chop out words and short sentences. Mix them up and reassemble them without thinking too hard about it. If you’re worried about destroying books you can scan or photocopy the pages too. One key thing and one of the things I found most difficult to start with is allowing word order to be totally random. I wanted to put certain words next to each other to form coherence, but this is not what Dadaism is about.

We used excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I don’t know if I’d call it a poem as even that suggests some kind of order. Let’s just say it is what it is:

Patriarch’s Ponds. Associations, dressed in a Berlioz, an awe horn-rimmed glasses my utterance / And and with who called Massolit / broad-shouldered drag drink deep and by thee, O torments me. Hair, eternal my.

And these are my semi-Dada pieces, where I’d not quite let go of control and there was a little conscious placement:

The lips should utterance. One of you pseudonym of Homeless. And his conduct and vengeance

I must excited quickly dark-haired. Plump, bald. Destroy him by perish. The spirits their murderer. The poet feel, poet agony; this shall feel the dead over

Sharing our results was most of the fun. Some of them were hilarious, others a little eerie. All contained interesting concepts or prompts that could be expanded into longer pieces.

Developing Fictional Characters, Part II

I’d like to go into more depth on developing fictional characters, particularly character voice. I can only speak for the way I do it; some of these methods might not work for others.

Years ago when I was trying to strengthen my character voices, I watched, read, and listened to stories that had solid, distinctive characters. I took note of the rhythms and phrases those characters used—not only in their speech, but also in their internal monologues. There are subtle differences between “Please make me a cup of tea” and “So are you gonna make me some tea, or am I gonna have to do it myself?” The latter is wordier, yes, but the voice is more distinctive. Voice, be it dialogue or thoughts, doesn’t need to be spectacular in early drafts. But how characters talk and think should be considered during later drafts and editing.

Here’s a trick to see how distinctive characters are: take a scene or chapter where there’s interaction, and select only the dialogue. Paste the dialogue into a fresh document without any speech tags, names, or other identifying descriptions. Read through it, or have someone else read it, and check where the voices merge or sound too similar. Is there confusion as to who’s speaking? If yes, either try loosening up one of the voices or make it more formal. Give one of the characters a verbal tick (like the tendency to say ‘you know?’ at the end of some of their sentences), or a light accent (though use accent carefully) and then re-read it. Better? It should be.

Another way of tempting out voice is figuring out how your characters feel about what’s happening. This will inform their attitudes and moods, and consequently what they’re saying and how they say it. Have them react, let them feel, give them passion and the ability to speak up. Let them tell lies. We all do it. An angry character might speak faster in short, snappy sentences, and they might swear or exaggerate, whereas someone speaking calmly and formally might use longer, more complex sentences and have a precise thought process.

Listen to conversations on the street, in your workplace and at home. I’ve mined real people I know for turns of phrase and verbal ticks. But also remember to look for people who are more guarded, who speak neutrally and try to maintain status quo. You can have fun with a conflicting internal dialogue and thought.

I mentioned in the previous post shoving characters out of their comfort zones, and this also goes for shoving them at other characters. Bring in the type of person they despise, or someone they’re intimidated by, or someone they’re attracted to, and see how it changes what they say and how they speak. Character/character interaction drives plot and gives scenes energy. If everybody gets along all the time, dialogue can become lifeless. Even if your characters are friends, have them disagree regularly, or give them a rivalry that you can mine for little tensions.

Most importantly, you’ll only get to know your characters well by writing them. Outline and do questionnaires and mind-map them, too, but they have to act and react to really shine.

If you missed it, you can read the first part of this topic here: Developing Fictional Characters, Part I.

Developing Fictional Characters, Part I

Developing fictional characters can be tricky. A well-rounded character has both good and bad traits, much like we do. A character doesn’t have to be particularly likeable, either, but readers must be able to empathise with them in some way. This is what readers connect with (and how we keep them reading). They see a little of themselves or someone they know in a character. Yep, even in the bad guys.

When I’m trying to find a character’s unique voice, I always use their surroundings to influence how they would speak and act. I try to consider the time period, the social background, even the genre I’m writing. All these things will (and should!) affect voice. Saying that, I also think we often worry too much about finding a voice before we’ve even started, when all we really need to do is write and uncover it along the way. (Of course, it’s always nice if a character comes along with a strong voice already.)

And if they still refuse to cooperate, you can always throw them into random and difficult situations that take place outside your main story. Write some drabbles or flash pieces and toss your characters into a crisis. Dig up someone from their past and make them deal with it. As their actions and decisions take place, you should get to know them better. It will help you figure out what makes them tick.

Also, the naming process often does my head in and sucks up hours of time. Three great resources I’ve used in the past for finding names and name origins and meanings are Behind the NameBaby Names, and The Surname Database. Total nerd out when a character’s name has a hidden meaning!

Research is good, but ultimately I find the best way of developing my characters is to just write them. Write them in their own stories. Write them in side-stories. You can even shove them into other people’s stories.

I’m going to post a follow up to this post going into more depth on character voice. Watch out for Developing Fictional Characters, Part II soon.

Mind-Mapping For Fiction Writers

Today I’d like to talk about mind maps—what they are, how to use them, and where to get them—as a way of brainstorming, solving problems, keeping track of your events and timelines, and generating new ideas.

Sometimes stories are straightforward: you begin with your basic idea or outline, and then you sit down and write it from start to finish. But not all stories are that easy-going. Quite often you find they grow and become complex, unruly things, and before you know it you’re buried under a mountain of notes and plans, maps and research—and that’s before you’ve even tried to structure your plot or study your characters in depth.

This is where mind maps could come in handy.

I’m fairly new to mind maps, but so far I’ve found them helpful for keeping my novel timeline in order. They’re also an excellent “quick-reference” if you’re looking for a specific detail and you don’t have time to wade through page after page of notes.

What is a mind map? 

From Wikipedia – A diagram used to visually outline information.

How do I use a mind map? 

You start with a central theme or idea, usually placed at the centre of your map/page. This could be anything from a single word prompt to a phrase or topic, problem, character or concept. From there, you create sub-nodes and attach anything associated with the central theme. These sub-nodes grow outwards, generating more and more sub-themes and ideas, very much like a spider diagram. The best way to understand how a mind map works is to see one in action. Take a look at this hand-drawn mind map and this computer generated map (both images from Wikipedia).

How to make a mind map

You can create easy, free mind maps using paper and coloured pens or pencils (see example map above). But if hand-drawing isn’t your preference, there are also a number of programs available for the computer—some free and some paid.

Free Mind – Free Mind is a Java-based software that is free to download and use. They have a helpful website that provides instructions on installing and running the program. Works on PC and Mac.

Simple Mind – A simple, easy to use program. This is also a Mac app, but I’m linking to the desktop version as you can use it on a PC as well. You can only download a trial for free; you’ll need to buy the full version if you want to keep using it after 30 days.

Bubble.us – I’ve not tried this one, but it looks like it could be useful. You create your mind map directly in your browser. You can print it out, or download it to your computer when you’re done.

Mindomo – This is a paid program. The website states: Human thought is characterized by expansion in multiple directions.  As a mind map software, Mindomo is a perfect match to work the way your brain does reflecting your thoughts.

MindMeister – This mind-mapping tool allows you to share your mind maps with others and collaborate easily. There is a free trial, though it should be noted that you have to pay a monthly subscription for the full program.

There’s also a list of (rather pricey) paid mind map programs for Mac here, and a list of freeware programs for Mac here.

And there’s a list of free mind map programs for PC here.

About Literary Agents

There are a few misconceptions about agents–what they are, what they do, whether they cost or not, and how it all works. I thought it would be good to briefly clarify a few points in case anyone is unsure.

The number one factor you should be mindful of when searching for an agent is this:

You should not pay agents to represent you / look at your work. If an agent asks you to pay them up front to read your manuscript or represent you, run away. As fast as you can.

The agent gets paid when you sell your book to a publisher. An agent will take a cut out of your royalties that the publisher pays you. Usually this is around 15% – 20% (it can vary, depending where in the world you are and who you sign with). Again, be extremely wary of agents that ask for payment up front. They could be frauds. If you’re not sure, there are a number of excellent websites that list known fraud agencies. Writer Beware is probably the best.

So what are agents and what do they do? Jane Friedman says it clearly and concisely on her website:

In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books that the New York publishing houses acquire are sold to them by agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editor or publisher would be most likely to buy a particular work. 

Most importantly, agents negotiate the best deal for you and ensure you are paid accurately and fairly. They run interference when necessary between you and the publisher.

Ask an agent who else they represent. Or you can research this yourself online. Agents unwilling to mention any of their authors by name or any recent sales could be dodgy.

Be wary of agents who refer you to an editing service you have to pay for. As sff.net says:

There is, however, a common scam where the agent recommends an editorial service. There’s a good chance the service is paying the agent a kickback to make that recommendation.

Also be watchful for vanity presses who expect you to pay them to publish you.

You do not necessarily need an agent. It depends on what publishing route you prefer to take, as well as the type of work you’re trying to sell. Not everybody wants an agent or a traditional publisher, and there are other options available, such as self-publishing and e-publishing.

Creative Writing Retreat Advice

A few years ago I went on a writing retreat, where I frolicked, wrote, and generally had a blast. I also took notes and filed those notes away. I just re-discovered them and thought I’d post them, in case anyone finds them useful. Most of this is common sense or tips you would pick up early in a writing career, but I do think we often forget this stuff when we get caught up in the chaos of the Writing Process.

01. Getting Started

Authors discussed their favourite times to write. Many people agreed that harnessing the unconscious, open mind was probably the freest form—writing first thing in the morning before your brain has had chance to become distracted with the day’s schedule/what’s going on around you, or writing at night, when the brain is too tired to hold on to all the stressful, stuffy matter of the day (this is my favourite time to write).

A few of the writers also mentioned how difficult they found it to prioritise writing over other activities, when writing was all they really wanted to do. We get paralysed by fears, nerves and paranoia, but these are obstacles we need to overcome if we’re to make progress. Don’t overthink writing, just write.

Conversely, if writing always feels like a chore or you’re genuinely not enjoying it at all, it might be worth digging deep and asking yourself “Why am I writing in the first place?”

There are two types of re-reads you can do after you’ve finished your story. First, read it back as a reader, purely for pleasure, ignoring the mistakes and problems. This can help you see the bigger picture. Then, read through as a writer, looking for technical issues but also looking for things that work particularly well. This can help you get your head around the details. Observe all that you can. Be objective to begin with. Make side-notes, if it helps. And remember to take little breaks when you start to grow weary.

02. Writing Combat

This workshop didn’t apply to me so much as far as my current stories are concerned as none of my characters are engaging in physical battle (mental battle is a different story!), but it was incredibly interesting and exciting because we got to play with real swords, bows, shields, and armour (I had no idea chain mail was so damn heavy).

I learned that swords were often dug up from graves in Germanic wars. Chain mail was hand riveted and more of a rich man’s game—poorer folk would either have to dig up dead bodies and take it, or steal it from the living.

The best advice I took from this workshop: when writing battles pay attention to all five senses, not just sight, touch and sound. The smells and tastes would be vivid, too.

03. World-Building

In anything based in an alternative reality, it’s good to set up rules and laws and boundaries before you begin writing, or at least early in the story. That way you don’t write yourself into so many ruts, or have to keep backtracking to change details and fix inconsistencies.

Study other cultures and their laws in real life, and take inspiration from them. Remember, countries have different levels of technology; not all countries are the same. This also goes for your fictional universe.

Figure out how magic and technology work—or don’t work—together early on, too. ( this is the one I’ve had problems with when writing steampunk fantasy.)

04. Keep Writing

Don’t be afraid to ask your characters questions. Get to know them like you would a friend (or co-worker). Questionnaires and quizzes can be insightful, if that method of character workshopping works for you (it doesn’t for everyone).

Ask yourself what your characters want. This gives them purpose, and gives you reason to propel them and the plot forwards. Once your character(s) have a goal, you can share that goal, which should help you to keep writing.

On the Pesky Nature of Giving Creative Writing Advice

I love the writing article There Are No Rules – Just Results, by Nicola Morgan of Help! I Need a Publisher! Why? Because this is exactly how I try to approach not only my own writing, but the writing of fellow authors. It’s about creative writing advice, and how much or how little to give. To quote from the post:

Please. Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked. It will be judged only on the result. Don’t get hung up on method, or at least on other people’s methods. You will find what works for you and that’s all that matters.

This is sterling advice. There’s nothing at all wrong with reading about an author’s methods and rituals (we all have them). There’s nothing at all wrong with trying out their hints and tips. It’s often helpful finding out different places writers find inspiration and motivation. But don’t hang all your hopes on someone else’s lifestyle working for you. We should always discuss writing, the how and why and where and when; it’s healthy to be open about these things because it could help somebody out there who is struggling. The key is not to expect it to make a massive impact on your craft or output. That’s still ultimately all down to you and how you apply yourself.

I tend to steer clear of articles where authors outright tell others The Best Way to write or What Not To Do when writing. Writing is such a deeply personal and sometimes very solitary activity (unless you’re actively collaborating with others, and even then there can be stretches of solitude). I would never want to be responsible for putting a fellow author into a stressful tail-chase, just because Method A works for me. I can, however, let that author know what works for me, and then they can try it if they think it might be beneficial.

The same goes for reading. While I star books on my Goodreads account to show which ones worked for me and which didn’t, I’d never say “Don’t bother reading this.” One person’s trash is another person’s masterpiece.

So, if anyone ever asks “How do I…?” my automatic response will be, “Well, I do it like this, but you should explore all options until you find one that works for you.” It seems like the best advice I can give.

On Countersinking: Showing and Telling

This article about showing and telling is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that clog up a story. The article has sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A couple of years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn. We wanted to track our improvements, see where we made creative leaps and bounds. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors full of excitement and dreadful clichés. We lacked finesse and attention to detail but we had so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to meet the kid version of yourself. It’s also extremely eye-opening.

I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do stumble upon it when reading other people’s work—sometimes even popular published authors. It happens to everyone.

Here is an example of countersinking:

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

This is what’s happening: 

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and telling”. A writer shows something with action or dialogue and then immediately explains what it is with description, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody urged someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but like I said, some pro authors do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, it’s clunky, and it makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky show-and-tell. And if there are any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings.

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