Tag Archive: writing advice


A little bit of potted “wisdom” based on my own experience of receiving edits and critiques

When confronted with edits, you invariably won’t like what the editor has suggested. They may have changed the meaning, or the tone of a sentence in a way you don’t like. But, don’t get upset or angry over it (or not for too long, anyway), because you don’t have to accept their solutions.

Instead, take a step back and look for why they thought the edit was needed. Figure out the problem they were trying to address. You might not agree there is a problem. In which case reject the change and fight your corner. You have your own reasons for wanting it that way and so long as you can justify it to yourself there are no wrong ways of writing.

More likely you’ll see where they were coming from, and while you don’t like their idea of how to fix it, you’ll agree with the need for a fix. Often, in these situations, a better solution will jump out at you. It might even be a sentence that you’d struggled with before, and seeing their suggestion will trigger something in you and you’ll suddenly figure it out.

So, when you receive edits you don’t agree with, don’t get emotional, get to work. Unpack each edit and let it guide you, one way or another, to improving your writing.

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Know about as many things as you can!

The classic advice to writers is to write what we know, or the more accurate alternative: “Write what you know, or can research.”

There’s an inference in the quote above, that information you research is inherently different from information you know. Which, I suppose, may be true, depending on your definition of knowing.

There are different types of information which feed into a book. The original advice to write what you know was never about all of that information. It was about themes. Write about ideas that you understand and identify with. That you know, intimately. The details: the characters, locations, events, back story, that’s what needs to be underpinned with a mixture of inherent and/or researched knowledge.

There are also different kinds of research. Some can bring you closer to knowing than others.

There’s a risk sometimes as a writer of experiencing everything from behind a computer screen, looking up facts, figures, descriptions and photographs. Where it’s just about factual accuracy, that’s exactly the kind of research we need. Last week I spent a few hours collating astronomical data and moon phases, and let me tell you, that is exactly the kind of task where the internet is invaluable. If you want to know when Jupiter aligned with Venus in the 18th century and what day of the week it was… no problem.

But a lot of what goes into a book isn’t about factual accuracy, it’s about perception, capturing the essence of something. Consider location for instance.

Christchurch College - Oxford

Christ Church College – Oxford – Image © 2015 Christine Harrison

There’s really no substitute for first had experience of places. I took a trip to Oxford recently, to research locations for my current novel. None of the pictures I’d seen prior conveyed the shear volume of tourists and the constant frustration over parking and vehicle access. The Oxford in my book wasn’t going to believable unless my characters were constantly shoving through crowds of people aimlessly looking up at the architecture.

If you need to describe a particular building from the outside, you might just about get away with streetview. But if you want to know what it looks like inside… well there things start to get difficult. Sometimes you get lucky. I found a conservation policy document for one of the buildings I was researching, which included pictures of all the restricted internal spaces, but even with the accompanying floor plans, it was still hard to work out how it fit together.

On my trip I visited the building and went on a guided tour, and that gave me an understanding of it that far surpassed what I could get from pictures. The pictures helped me research it, but the visit helped me know it.

Visiting the locations also created ideas. Once you can stand in a place, and visualise the scene, exciting new options suddenly begin to pop out. Previously invisible details present themselves for consideration.

The School of Natural Philosphy - Old School's Quad, The Bodlian Library, Oxford
The School of Natural Philosphy – Old School’s Quad, The Bodlian Library, Oxford – Image © 2015 Christine Harrison

Actually going there might sound like a “well, duh” suggestion for location research, but many writers skip it, if only because their location is a fictional place that doesn’t exist. But, in a way, it’s almost more important to visit your fictional places. Your imagination remixes and recycles experience and blends it with abstract ideas. If you have no experience to draw on you’ve limited your potential already.

Imagine your setting is a fictional forest on an alien world. You can’t visit it, but you can visit other forests here on Earth. Perhaps your location is a fictional factory; visit some other factories that do exist. You can find your location hidden a bit here and a bit there within the places you go. You can find it in the differences between what you imagine and what you see.

What goes for locations goes for everything else: pictures and descriptions = good, field trips = better.

That might sound daunting, but really it’s the best thing about being a writer! We get to try everything. We get to dip in, give things a go, observe, and then try to fake being an expert when we write. How renaissance.

So my philosophy is “write what you know, and get as close as you can to knowing about as many things as you can.” Not only will it make you a better writer, but it’ll be crazy good fun.

I’ve been having a think about what makes a good piece of flash fiction, and while I don’t think I can say it any better than David Gaffney does in this article – Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction (which came out just before the very first National Flash Fiction Day in 2012) – I thought I would share a few thoughts.

1. Get It All Out First

Or as David Gaffney says in his article, “write long, then go short.” This is actually common sense in a way. When you draft your brain is creating as it goes. It’s natural to repeat yourself as you think of better ways to say what you want to say, on the fly.  You need to repeat yourself because the second or third way you brain comes up with to say something might better than the first.

It’s also natural to explore as you write, which creates tangents, distractions and irrelevancies as often as it discovers vital details. You won’t ultimately want half of what you uncover in a short piece, but you have to dig through rocks to find diamonds.

2. Find What’s Important

I recently took a 400 words first draft I really liked and cut it down to 150 words which I liked even more. I started by critically looking at my draft and highlighting the phrases and words which did the work; the ones which conveyed the story, rather than those that enriched, or worse, obscured it. There were actually very few of them.

3. Be in the Moment

For me, the best flash fiction pieces are scenes. This is a matter of taste, true. But there is a reason behind it: constraining a story to a scene constrains it to one moment.

Long fiction contains lots of moments but in flash fiction you only have a moment to create a moment. It could be the start of something, the end, or a change. It could be a moment of connection, realisation, or enlightenment.

Find the one moment you want to share and make the story about that, however you choose to write it.

4. Let the Reader Work for You

In flash fiction, you have to let the reader be an active participant in the realisation of the vision. I say let because writers can be control freaks about getting across their vision.

You don’t have the luxury to spend words and time on description in flash fiction. Trust that your reader will do this for you. Don’t worry about describing characters and settings, let the action show something of their nature and let the reader make up the rest however they want.

5. It Need Not End Here

Most flash fiction pieces will, by definition, be very open ended. They are short stories, moments, within the unspoken wider narrative of your characters’ lives. Let the idea of that wider narrative be there in the background and don’t stress over explaining it or tying up loose ends.

 

So that’s my top five thoughts on writing flash fiction. If you write something you’re proud of, be brave, share it with someone, or submit it to a publisher!

And on that related note…

The Great Escape Flash Fiction Competiton 2015

The site where I act as fiction editor is running a Flash Fiction Competition this month, in celebration of National Flash Fiction Day on Saturday 27th June.

It’s an open competition with fairly loose criteria, so why not share something you’ve written. Your story might get featured on our site and we could even offer you a spot in one of our anthologies. Visit thegreatesc.com/competitions for all the details.

The Great Escape's Flash Fiction Competition

 

Notebook and Pencil

Image courtesy of winnond

I recently started writing a book review and found myself thinking that I have no idea whether I am doing it “right?”

What makes a good book review? What elements are essential? Is there a specific structure I should be following? I realised that I’d never studied the matter and there was an opportunity for me to learn something about writing here. So I did some reading and thought I’d share what I came up with here.

 

1. Dear potential reader

What is the purpose of a review? Seems like an obvious question, but I hadn’t given it direct thought before. Here’s some of the answers I came up with:

  • To inform a potential reader about what to expect from a book
  • To guide potential readers choices about what to read
  • To create or participate in discussion about a book by sharing your opinions with other readers or potential readers

The common theme is other readers, and you should bear that audience in mind when you are writing a review. You’re not writing to show you understood a book, or learned from it, or enjoyed it (okay, depending on context, maybe you are a bit). You might use those points in pursuit of your goal, but they are not the purpose in their own right.

2. 50 words to 5000

Book reviews come in many sizes, from a few sentences to a whole essay, but all of them are striving towards the same reader centric goals. Longer pieces will analyse the book in more depth, but short pieces can still achieve those goals by sticking to the bare bones.

3. The bare bones

While I was reading up on this I kept coming across the same formula for a winning review:

  1. Summarise the book (avoiding spoilers)
  2. What did you like about it / What was good about it?
  3. What didn’t you like about it / What was bad about it?
  4. Give an overall verdict/recommendation

Other common, basic, advice included: stay impartial, find something both positive and negative, give a rating if you want to, support your opinions with examples, and so on. Not so tough, right?

4. But is it any “good”?

I was really worried that this basic format I kept coming across left no room for analysis of the writer’s technique or choices (my favourite part of reviewing). Such analysis is, perhaps, of more interest to fellow writers than readers, granted. Then I came across this definition of a book review:

“A book review summarizes the book’s content, examines the author’s intent in writing it, and expresses the reviewer’s opinion about to what extent the author succeeded in conveying the intent or communicating a message.”

Mark Nichol, How to Write a Book Review

In essence, this challenges the reviewer to give their opinion on the quality of the writing, and its effect on their reading experience. So there is a place for it.

5. Other ways to blog about books

As with every rule in writing the bare bones structure is only a suggestion or guideline. Sometimes you might want to choose a specific aspect of a book to talk about, or to link several books with a common theme together and compare them, or create a list of recommendations. The standard “review” is only one type of article about books and you don’t have to stick to it.

Here’s one blogger who’s created a whole list of ideas:

Books Speak Volumes – Bloggiesta: How to Write More Creative Book Reviews

6. Checklist

There are a few essentials you do want to include regardless, so that your readers can find the book. Make sure you check these items off your mental checklist:

  • Title of the book
  • Author’s name
  • Publisher
  • Name of a stockist (or even better a link)
  • Cover art (if practical)

Here’s a few places where you can read more:

Daily Writing Tips – How to Write a Book Review, Mark Nichol
The Writing Centre – University of North Carolina – Book review handout
Book Trust – Writing Tips for Teenagers – Tips for writing book reviews
Writing World – How to Write a Book Review, by Bill Asenjo
Wiki How – How to Write a Book Review

 

You or your muse?

On the evolution of stories and a case of unexpected philosophy.

Puppet on stringsMuse

There are those who scoff at authors when they claim they have no control over the stories that they tell, that they are a conduit through which stories are told, more like a medium than an engineer. That some external force, a muse, is directing them.

It does sound a bit artsy, doesn’t it?

I don’t believe I have no control, far from it. I have acres of axed and edited scenes which have been subjected to my control. But sometimes I do find myself surprised by the direction in which my stories evolve. And maybe that’s what all authors really mean when they claim their characters speak to them or that they found themselves dragged to a completely unexpected place. Despite your original idea or plan, you find yourself doing something completely different and sometimes it’s hard to place when you decided to deviate, why or how.

Not according to plan

I’m currently working on a romance novella called Annabelle Blue. When I first conceived of the idea I imagined the story destined to be a hot, steamy affair with just enough back story to make the characters believable. As soon as I started writing that went out the window, partially because I found myself far more interested in other aspects of the story. So now it seemed set to become a romance adventure story, with action and discovery.

The more I wrote, the more I found that even this wasn’t going to work. For one, I kept putting up barriers to my characters getting together. I’d set out to write a short, sexy liaison and now I was adding in complications at every turn. I knew I was doing it, but why? It would have been easy to claim that my characters just weren’t cooperating, and wouldn’t get together. Easier to blame it on them, perhaps.

Could it be that there was some other story that wanted to be told and was bending my will to its own ends? Spooky.

Patchy rough draft done I began picking it apart to figure out what was going on. Something really wasn’t working. I figured out that the story wasn’t about the relationship alone; it was about the protagonist changing her complete outlook on life. That realisation prompted some substantial additions to show the life she was coming from.

Unexpected philosophy

Now I was at the point where the physical events of the story formed a backdrop, even a metaphor for the mental and emotional journey of the protagonist, but now I found myself experiencing an unexpected case of philosophy. In hunting around for some interesting quotes, I stumbled upon poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and got into one of those Wikipedia loops where you lose half a day following links around the internet. Emerson was a key proponent of Transcendentalism, which is all about the power of self, fate and the relationship between the two.  I suddenly saw my protagonist’s journey as an individual example of a greater question regarding self-determinism versus conformation.

I won’t go so far as to say the result is something that could be classed as literary fiction, but I would tentatively suggest it has the legs (if not the length) to be mainstream. Whatever it is, (or will be when it’s finished) it’s a far cry from what I originally intended.

Who’s in control, then?

Doesn’t that then suggest that I am out of control? This wasn’t the story I wanted to write!

Well no, because at every point during that evolution, I was making the decisions to change tact, no matter how unconsciously.

It does however raise a question; how do you know when to go with an impulse to deviate and when to stick with your original plan? Where do those impulses come from? Those gut feelings? Sometimes it is so hard to fathom it seems believable that some external force is acting through you. Perhaps it is also easier to follow your muse unquestioningly, abdicate control and go with every impulse. If you claim the story is guiding you, then you don’t have to question why you suddenly feel the need to add a seventy-year-old hunchback called Gerald with an addiction to cheese to your sci-fi adventure. All will come clear in time, right?

It’s not a bad strategy to be honest. You gut feelings for a reason; you may not be able to put your finger on why, but most of the time your gut (or your muse, if you like) is onto something. And, at the end of the day, you’re the one with access to the delete key, not your muse (or your gut). At least if you explore every impulse you may discover the perfect solution. Gerald the cheese loving hunchback can always be surgically removed during later edits.

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