By Michael Hunt
by Michael Hunt, with extracts from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, acknowledged where applicable, plus a piece about Synopses from Robert Blevins of Adventure Books. Exercises included after the worksheets.
For those of you who use these worksheets (i.e. not just browse but use them purposefully) please record the fact by commenting and give some feedback! (You can post comments on the main Bibliophilia.org website or as a reply in the fora.) These are the worksheets and exercise sheets that I use in my course on fiction-writing. I developed them with novice novel writers in mind, so you might find some fairly basic stuff in there. On the other hand there might be some information that's new to you, and you might disagree with some of my opinions, in which case we could have a lively debate. I ask that you give me feedback on any of these worksheets/ exercise sheets that you use: What did you use? How did you use them? What was clear/unclear? What do you wish had been included/excluded?
These worksheets are neither comprehensive nor are they the last word; they merely indicate some important areas for consideration while you create your book. Further reading is essential if you want to achieve mainstream publishing standard.
My workshops aren’t academic; they’re to help you by exposing parts of your book for discussion and by offering some practical hints for self-improvement.
Be your own manager
So, you’re writing a novel; this means that you’re self-employed (even if you haven’t given up the day-job). No boss to please, no need to get up in the morning, break when you like, pop into the shops/hairdressers/friends down the street/etc whenever you like. Yes? NO!
Think again: You are the boss. Don’t accept slip-shod work, unpunctuality, unexplained absences. You wouldn’t if you were employing someone, would you?
You might have developed self-discipline during your regular employment; if you did, put it to use in your writing.
Targets? Some writers set a words target; some don’t.
Some set an hours worked target; some don’t.
Some write only in the mornings; some only in the afternoons.
Some write only at night; and some not at all - writers’ block!
Some are inflexible; some aren’t.
When successful writers are interviewed, most reveal their own self-discipline. Some write facing a blank wall, some prefer a beautiful view; others like to overlook a busy street. Some write in a library, some join a commune. Some love solitude, some hate it. Some listen to music, some must have silence. The variations seem limitless, but every writer has a favoured way of writing. The common ground, however, is that they all get the job done, one way or another.
Most writers have an obsessive streak. Ask yourself: Are you obsessive? If the answer is yes, ask: Are you over-obsessive? If it’s yes to this, too, ask: Are you neglecting the family/ dog/ cat/ your health?
Try to find the balance that suits you. When you hit it, try to stick with it.
The notes that follow are subject to debate, so feel free to disagree with them, or add to my definitions. What suits one writer (i.e. me) might not suit the next (i.e. you).
If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.
Worksheet 1: Genre
If you’re already into your first book – or even your second – forget I even mentioned genre. If you’re determined to write about China in the 3rd Century BCE, or life on a lonely planet in the galaxy Andromeda, or a Chick-Lit set in Liverpool in 2004, forget I mentioned it, too.
However, if you plan to write a best-seller that will have publishers gagging for more, then you really have to do some research into what is currently popular. However, you might receive differing opinions about what’s in or out of fashion. Whatever you decide, don’t write about something you don’t have a serious interest in; if you do, you’ll waste a huge amount of time and, maybe, decide to take up bowling or knitting instead – that would be a shame (unless you become a champion at them, in which case you’ll have made a wise choice).
If what you want to write about corresponds to some publisher’s view regarding what’s in fashion, then that’s a happy omen. But it isn’t a guarantee that the same publisher, who believes the public wants to read about 3rd Century China this year, will buy your book when you finish writing it next year.
Of all subjects in writing, then, choice of genre is the most paradoxical. The truth is that no-one, not even the most respected publisher in the business, is equipped with a crystal ball.
The one great exception to this is Romance. It always has been, and probably (the ‘probably’ because I don’t have a crystal ball, either!) always will be. The most purchased genre on the market, Mills and Boon romances, sell better than any other, and they’re translated into many languages. However, M & B writers don’t get rich.
Summary: Write what you want to write, i.e. what really interests you. Write for yourself in the first instance, and take a chance on it being attractive to a publisher when you’ve finished it.
Worksheet 2: Research
Research should be the backbone of whatever you write, whether it’s fact or fiction. A novel has to be set somewhere and in some era. This is your choice. After you’ve made the choice, certain limitations come into play: for instance, if you choose London in the early 1940s, it would be unthinkable to ignore the Blitz. If your story is about Liverpool in the fifties and sixties, you might or might not mention the Beatles, but you wouldn’t mention them if your story is set in the forties.
If your story has to maintain credibility, you must pay attention to period and geographical detail, and the only way you can do this is by research. If yours is a contemporary novel set in Liverpool, it should be easy enough for you to visit the city and do some first-hand research. If it’s set in Manchuria, you’re going to have to depend on second-hand research, unless you can afford to go there. Even then, you’ll need material gleaned from encyclopaedias, newspapers, libraries, and the Internet.
For my African novels I used a variety of sources: my memories, the books I’ve accumulated, and National Geographic magazines (a wonderful resource for writers). I didn’t need to visit the library or use the Internet. I wrote about Africa because it interested me and I had a lot of research material to hand.
If you’re writing a murder story where the villain uses poison, you’d better do your research or your mistakes will find you out. If you invent a poison, make sure you sign-post that it’s an invention, rather than lead your reader to believe it actually exists. Your readers will expect integrity, so don’t disappoint them.
You can either do your research as you discover the need – a ‘plot-led’ story – or do the research and then devise the plot – a ‘research-led’ story. I prefer the former because the research is more focussed, whereas the latter can waste time (although you might learn a lot more about the subject). As with all variants, it’s a matter of personal choice.
But if it’s fiction, you can make things up, can’t you? After all, you ‘make-up’ your characters and your plot, so why not make up the history and geography as well? OK, try doing it, but be prepared for complaints (if your editor doesn’t blow the whistle first) some of your readers will have experienced the Blitz, or know all about the Beatles, or are familiar with what street intersects which road in Liverpool. They won’t mind if you make up your characters – they expect that – but they mind like hell if you muck around with their city or its history.
Summary: There’s only one rule: ‘if you want to be taken seriously as a novelist, don’t neglect your research’.
Worksheet 3: Theme
The theme is the essence of your novel. This might appear obvious, but theme can be a very serious sticking point for the writer who’s chosen the genre and has a story in mind, but is still undecided how to tell it. For some writers, theme (or themes) is a ‘jumping off’ point. Suppose you want to write a crime novel. What’s the theme going to be? Well, obviously, if it’s a crime novel, then it’s about crime, stupid.
But hang on, you can write about crime, throw in a few Home Office statistics, results of surveys and quotes from policemen and politicians, and conclude that we need more prisons (or fewer) or more police (or fewer). But that doesn’t constitute a novel, even though the subject is ‘crime’. For a crime novel a) you need characters and b) they must be involved in a crime in a sufficiently interesting way in order to grip your reader (the story).
So the theme is hugely important. Will your story have a moral – crime doesn’t pay? Or are you looking for something more informative – the depiction of drug-based gangs in Birmingham? Or something subtle, like the psychology of the criminal?
Will your policeman be the viewpoint character? Or will it be the criminal, or a bystander, or the victim? Whichever you choose, you’ll develop a different theme.
When I wrote my books, I don’t think I consciously thought in terms of theme. Oh, yes, I did, as I write this and think back, I did have a theme in my head. It was a ‘what if’ theme. What if I took a fictional character and put him in a certain place at a certain time, for which there’s a recorded history? And, what if he meets characters whose histories have also been recorded? And what if he takes part in the real events of those times? So, I did have a theme. This is not ‘plot’ or ‘story’, although all three overlap, and plot and story are almost synonymous.
Another sort of theme is a thread that you can weave throughout the story. In Matabele Gold, I used a wooden lion. My hero buys it on his journey home; he leaves it on his office desk and develops a habit of handling it for inspiration. Finally, it’s carried by the heroine as a lucky talisman, and she presents it to him after the final harrowing scene. I also used a shell-blasted tree in the ‘trenches’ part of the story, and mirrored it with a lightning-struck tree in the African narrative. This device, even when not consciously recognised by the reader, gives the story a pleasing continuity.
Summary: You can have one story, but you can handle it in different ways, depending on whose viewpoint you are using. Theoretically, you could write four different books based on the one story. The outcome would be the same, but the themes would be different. (I think I just about understand that myself!)
Worksheet 4: Plot/Story/Setting
Where to begin: The chicken or the egg?
While mulling over this part of the Workshop, I realised how intertwined plot, story, theme and setting are. Every novel must have all four, but it’s not worth spending too much time trying to unravel them unless you want to be academic about it – and that’s not the purpose of these handouts. Also, it’s an exercise that could possibly delay your sitting down to write those crucial but possibly dispensable first few paragraphs (see ýWorksheet 5: Beginnings). Here’s an interesting game you can play that’s designed to help with plotting, as well as with story, setting and theme.
The Catalyst Game: Pick a novel with a clearly defined plot at random, or look up a review of a recently published novel (it’s best if you haven’t read it). For this example I’ve chosen When the Eagle Hunts by Simon Scarrow. It has the tag-line: ‘Is the unflinching courage of the Roman army a match for the ruthless barbarity of the British tribes?’ This gives a clue to the setting and the theme, if not the plot or the story. Set in early first century Britain, with the heroes coming from the Roman army (the tag-line ignores the reality that the Roman army was equally ruthless and barbarous!) the ‘blurb’ describes Roman troops ‘anxiously awaiting the arrival of Spring so the campaign to conquer the Brits can be resumed.’ The Brits are growing ‘more cunning in their resistance, constantly snapping at the heels of the army’ (as you probably would if you’d just been invaded!). The ‘evil’ Druids kidnap the family of a Roman General, and two volunteers are called for (presumably these will be the heroes of the piece) to rescue the family before they’re sacrificed, by venturing ‘deep into hostile territory. Can they outwit the cunning and barbarous Brits?’ Now, change the setting to meet your fancy: it could be 1930s Chicago, 2004 Chechnya, 1940s France or Third Century BCE China. You have the theme, now all you need do is write the novel! Obviously, if you don’t wish to write a boy’s own adventure story, but a Regency historical, or a modern romance, then choose another book. Voila. A plot, and (possibly) story line and theme. No chance of being accused of plagiarism, because you haven’t even read the book.
Sub-Plots: A good story, like a life, consists of a number of experiences and a wide range of emotions, not all relating directly to the plot. However, when you develop sub-plots in fiction you need to exercise restraint, otherwise you might lose the main plot; they must be woven into the fabric of your story with care. Keep them concise and make sure they don’t detract from the story-line. Remember, pace is of the essence, so if a sub-plot becomes extended, you risk slowing things down.
Sub-plots can be used to highlight inner conflict or to explore the past; they may also be used to relieve tension – a novel that has an unremitting pace will exhaust the reader – so you need to build in ‘restful’ periods (also see 13: Flash-backs and 14: Interior monologues). But be careful not to use a sub-plot that doesn’t involve any of your main characters, or one that runs counter to the story. Finally, take as much care over your sub-plots as you would over your main plot, and don’t over-do them.
Worksheet 5: Beginnings
Start when the water is about to boil, not with the filling of the kettle.
If you find the beginning difficult, don’t fight it. Wait until your book is under way, or even finished, before you spend time on it. The ideal beginning can emerge at any time – it might be a line, a paragraph, an idea, or a piece of action. Or it might be more introspective, as with L.P. Hartley’s immortal: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there, in The Go Between.
My own beginnings were both very different. The starting point of Matabele Gold was a transplant from the second chapter. I’d written an overlong prologue, which I later slipped in as a flashback. This was to become a chronological beginning which I was so confident about that I barely touched it in editing. The beginning of my second book, although also strictly chronological, might have broken a world record for re-writes. I just couldn’t get it right and I spent dozens of hours over many years working on it. The scene was exactly the same, it was the words, and the order of the words, that I kept changing. I was amazed – and mightily relieved – when I looked at it just before it went to the printers and concluded that I didn’t need to adjust it ever again.
A beginning that attracts attention is often a favourite; but you’d better make sure that the rest of the chapter (and the whole book) lives up to its drama. This sort of beginning can be out of sequence; it could conceivably be from the middle or even the end of the book (I did this with my third book). If you choose this approach, then you’ll probably have finished the book before you settle on its starting point.
The scene-setting beginning offers an oblique way into your book. Picture your book as a film. How would you like it to start? With a journey? With an idyllic landscape? With a close-up of a murder? A good exercise is to pick a number of books at random, preferably books you’ve never read, take the opening sentence from each (don’t read the rest) then follow up with your own words. See where that takes you. You can then compare them with what the author actually wrote.
Summary: Don’t sweat the hard stuff over your beginning, at least until the book is ready to be sent to the publishers. Rough it out and get the rest of the book written. Ask the person who reads your first manuscript whether the beginning is effective (and the ending), then listen to what they say because you’re bound to be too close to it to trust your own judgement alone.
Worksheet 6: Characterisation
Characterisation stands head and shoulders in importance over any other sub-section of novel writing – character affects all the others. Without well drawn characters your novel will seem contrived, your plot limp and your writing lifeless.
There are three basic types of character: functional, minor, and major. A functional character performs a single task – say, a taxi driver who brings your hero home from the airport. It’s unnecessary to describe or name him unless he later plays some active part in the plot, i.e. he finds a dead body in the boot of his cab, in which case he will become a minor character. Minor characters should have a single defining attribute that makes them memorable; they may have motivation, but not a mission (see below). He/she must be defined and recognisable, however, in contrast to a major character, this definition should be superficial. Don’t make them boring. Establish the minor character quickly; if it takes too long, he might be thought to be a major character, and this can be irritating for the reader.
How do you make your character ‘tick’? The keys are: mission, motivation, obstacles and change. Your major character should have a mission – which will run alongside your story-line – and he/she must be highly motivated – love, hate, greed, integrity, anxiety, despair, or a combination of two of these – but don’t try to add more unless you deliberately want a confused story-line.
Obstacles are introduced to test your characters in their endeavours to achieve their missions. Action follows. Action will demonstrate your character’s nature and motivation. Obstacles also must have a beginning, middle and end; the number of obstacles you place in your hero’s path will dictate the novel’s length. Don’t make your obstacles too similar. In fact, beware of any repetition – of language, action, speech or habits – for fear of becoming boring. Some repetition can be deliberate – perhaps a thread that runs through the story (see ýWorksheet 3: Theme).
Change: your reader will expect your hero to change during the course of the story, either from being hesitant or unsure of him/herself, unclear about his/her ability to surmount the obstacles, or simply to mature and prove/redeem him/herself.
Don’t describe your hero’s physical characteristics (see ýWorksheet 7: Show, don’t tell). He was a tall, ruggedly handsome, dark haired man with an athletic build and piercingly blue eyes, or similar, must appear in every other romantic novel. Unless you’re writing such a novel, strike it out. O.K. he might be as described, but don’t tell your reader that; let that be either assumed, or have another character comment on one of those features. Don’t let description appear contrived. Let your character run, or jump, to show his athleticism, or reach a high shelf to show that he’s tall (see ýWorksheet 10: Viewpoint).
Build up a past for your characters from when they were children; you won’t necessarily use this information in the book, but if you ‘know’ how they responded to problems as a child, the way they deal with them as adults will come naturally to you. Give them an education, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters etc.
Summary: Characterisation is the most important element in your book. Get to ‘know’ your major characters as well as you know the members of your family, and give them a clear-cut mission and the motivation to achieve it. Build up a CV for them, as if they’re applying for the job of hero/heroine/villain. Make your minor characters memorable. Don’t waste words on functional characters.
Worksheet 7: Show, don’t tell (but not always)
Probably the most repeated advice given to writers.
Consider this: ‘The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than a simple stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mystery. In the space of no more than five minutes, I heard several different people produce their theories – all equally probable or preposterous – as to who and what he was. Each theory was argued with the kind of assurance that can only come from a lack of evidence, and it seemed that, for many of the guests, these arguments were the main reason to attend his parties.’
And now this:
“I like to come,” Lucille said. “I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last, I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address – within a week I got a package from Croiriers with a new evening gown in it.”
“Did you keep it?” asked Jordan.
“Sure I did. I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too big in the bust and had to be altered …”
“There’s something funny about a fellow that’ll do something like that,” said the other girl eagerly. “He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.”
“Who doesn’t,” I enquired.
“Gatsby. Somebody told me-”
The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.
“Somebody told me they thought he killed a man.”
A thrill passed over all of us.
“I don’t think it’s so much that,” argued Lucille sceptically, “it’s more that he was a German spy during the war.”
One of the men nodded in confirmation.
“I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany,” he assured us positively.
“Oh, no,” said the first girl, “it couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war.” As our credulity switched back to her, she leaned forward with enthusiasm. “You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him. I’ll bet he killed a man.” [From Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Browne & King]
The first is a narrative summary, with no specific setting or characters. The second is a scene. A scene shows events as they take place; it has a setting, characters, dialogue, and action, and it creates atmosphere. Scenes take up more space and are harder to write than narratives, but if you don’t write scenes, your novel is going to consist of page after page of objectivity. You need to decide which bits you’re going to show, and which bits tell. I found that I wanted to show the action laden, interesting parts, and tell the more mundane. In general, you should aim for a balance between action, dialogue and narrative, but don’t miss the opportunity to make a scene when it’s appropriate, i.e. when it’s relevant to the character or the story.
Handling the Passage of Time (telling): I struggled over these in my second novel which had to have long, dormant periods because it ran from 1814 to 1970. I needn’t have worried because, in the end, I think I more or less got them right. These are the bits you can tell. A simple: ‘For twelve happy years Theo developed his lands, building his herd into one of the finest in the country. Never again would he return to transporting or prospecting; cattle farming was what he had been brought up to do and nothing, now, would deflect him’ takes care of the years without slowing the pace of the book; the reader will accept it as long as you say how many years have passed and you don’t skip any significant action.
Inconsequential Showing: Remember the quote from Worksheet 5: Beginnings: Start when the water is about to boil, not with the filling of the kettle. Don’t load your novel with mundane, domestic actions – and watch out for unnecessary adverbs and descriptions (see ýWorksheet 8: Pleonasms).
‘Jim had just started drinking a mug of coffee and was watching ‘Count Down’ when he heard the door-bell ring stridently; he got carefully out of his chair, trying not to spill his coffee, which he placed on a small, round, coffee table, and walked deliberately across the front room, then along the corridor to the front door. He could see through the colourful stained glass window the distorted figure of a man, silhouetted starkly against the murky yellow street-light. It was his milkman, Fred Mablethorpe, a balding, stocky man in his early fifties, who, although he suffered from asthma and a stammer, always appeared to have a cheerful disposition.
“Evening, Fred,” Jim said after opening the door.
“Evening, J-Jim. It’s s-seven pounds forty p-pence this w-week,” Fred said, stutteringly, as he planted his bulky presence firmly in the doorway while wheezing asthmatically into a hanky.
Jim unhesitatingly unzipped his back pocket, took a ten-pound note out of it and handed it to Fred with a smile.
Fred took it from him with a cheery grin, then, after he’d counted out the change from his gleaming leather money pouch that was always strapped neatly around his rather protuberant waist, he said, with a cheery smile: “That’s t-two p-pounds s-sixty change. ‘N-night, J-Jim.”
“‘Night, Fred,” Jim echoed as he closed the door firmly and activated the dead-lock. Deep in thought he walked slowly back down the corridor to his chair in the front room, retrieved his mug of coffee, then continued to watch ‘Count-Down’’.
Now if this scene was integral to the plot – say, the milkman is murdered on his way back down the drive – fair enough, make a scene of it; or if you wish to portray Jim as leading a mundane life before he’s captured by aliens, OK. But unless your aim is to bore your readers silly, exercise your red editing pen – brutally (see also ýWorksheet 6: Characterisation, ýWorksheet 9: Dialogue, ýWorksheet 12: Beats and Speaker attributions).
If you have to mention the visit of the milkman, perhaps you could write: ‘Jim spent a quiet night in during ‘Count Down’, interrupted only by his paying the milkman who was doing his rounds. All right, I’ve deliberately exaggerated this passage, but I’ve seen similar in books; however, they were books I never finished.
Finally: Go through your manuscript and ask yourself whether you’ve been telling when you should have been showing (or vice versa). At the same time, pick out and delete every adverb you can find – stridently, carefully, deliberately, starkly, unhesitatingly, etc, unless it’s absolutely necessary to enhance meaning or atmosphere (and while you’re at it, look out for unwanted repetitions, and the dreaded clichés).
Worksheet 8: Pleonasms
Pleo … what? At last I’ve discovered a word for literary verbosity. This is Greek for ‘redundant words or phrases’; and the writer who indulges in them is a pleonast. Ask yourself: ‘Am I a pleonast?’ because it isn’t a good thing to be. Go through your manuscripts and remove all those words and phrases, adjectives and adverbs (literally ALL of them) that are either unnecessary, repeat what you’ve already written, or that ‘tart up’ your verbs and nouns. (Gongorist (or Euphuist) is another little heard of word – this means a writer with a highly pedantic style who often uses inverted sentences.)
Worksheet 9: Dialogue
The art of writing dialogue is the art of making the artificial seem natural. If you ‘write as you hear’, your dialogue will be full of pauses, stuttering, inconsistencies, and the occasional wrong choice of word. Also, it will often be disordered and ambiguous. Some might well have succeeded in reproducing this degree of naturalism once they’d established themselves as very good writers, but it’s unlikely that a modern-day publisher would accept it from an ‘unknown’.
Once you’ve stripped your dialogue of the above, what remains should be true to your character. It’s fine to show regional accents, however, if your major character is a Glaswegian or a Yorkshire-man, to write dialect throughout most of the book could irritate your non-Scottish or non-Yorkshire readers. A good way around this problem is to show whereabouts in the country your character comes from at the beginning, and then put the odd word of dialect into each speech. It’s very much a case of ‘sucking it and seeing’, and is one of those areas that lend themselves to obtaining other writers’ opinions.
Minor characters, who only have a few speeches, can receive the full ‘dialect’ treatment. This adds variety to your dialogue writing and eases ‘writer attribution’; it also allows you to develop memorable minor characters.
In my book Petros Amm, I had the problem of writing dialogue for my major characters to show not only what they were saying but also what language they were using and how fluent they were in those languages at a given time. One main character, depending who he was interacting with, talked in English, in Portuguese, and in Zulu. At the time I introduced my second main character, he was fluent only in Zulu, however, as his English and Dutch improved through repeated use, so too did his grammar in those languages, and I had to find a way of reflecting this while writing only in English, of course. This led to frequent reviews and a great deal of trial and error. How well I succeeded remains to be seen. Here’s an example:
Theo, my main character from the second part of the book, is talking to an English wagon driver at a time when he is just beginning to use English.
“My meal is finished, but come and drink coffee with me, sir,” Theo offered in his halting English, pleased to have unexpected company.
“Don’t look as though that storm’s comin’ now.”
“No, it has moved south.”
“My cousin tells me you’re from Zululand way.” The trader hitched himself closer to the fire and stared into the flames. “Never did get myself into those parts.”
“I live near to Zululand.” Theo poured two mugs of the rich wagoner’s brew from the can over the fire. “Is good trading country; easy for travel.”
“Aye, but dangerous I reckon, for lonesters such as me, what with these wild Zulus you hear about …”
“Is not dangerous now; new king is more peaceful than Shaka and Dingane. He wants traders to come in his country.”
‘Beats’ and ‘Speaker attributions’ (see later) are also demonstrated here. Even though the dialogue demonstrates Theo’s level of understanding of the language, I’ve also told the reader that this is not his first language. (It could be argued that this was unnecessary, and I wouldn’t disagree, however, at some point I had to move on with the story, and I could have prevaricated endlessly. The point is, does the telling and the showing jar? If it does, I was wrong to leave it in.) When Theo is speaking to his African colleagues I use ‘flawless’ English, because he’s speaking in a Zulu dialect – his first language – then, after he’s been working in a primarily English speaking environment, his language improves to the point where I can show this improvement in his speech.
Close attention to this form of dialogue also fulfils another requirement, which is for you to show how your character changes through the story (see ýWorksheet 6: Characterisation).
Worksheet 10: Viewpoint (or Point of View – ‘PoV’)
There are three principle viewpoints in novel writing: First Person, Third Person and Omniscient.
The first person is the ‘I’ voice where the narrator is speaking directly to the reader. Here the narrator is one of the characters, not the author (as is the case in the omniscient point of view). The first person has a number of advantages: it creates intimacy with your viewpoint character where he ‘invites’ the reader inside his head, showing his world through his own eyes. Another advantage is that you can write from the points of view of a number of your characters. The problem here is that, unless you have a very clearly defined hero/heroine, your reader might find it difficult to identify him/her. Also, remember that in first person viewpoint writing you can only incorporate what your character can see, think and feel. If he/she is absent from a scene, they can’t report it first hand, so what you gain in intimacy you lose in perspective (hence the need for multiple viewpoints in most novels where first person is used, but beware of Promiscuous Viewpoint).
Consider the following: First Person:
I’d been so relieved to get away from the cottage that day. It was going to be a wonderful climb and I couldn’t wait to get to the east cliffs once more. Jane, of course, had to go through her, ‘You’re not going bloody climbing again, are you?’ litany, and I couldn’t help feeling guilty. I always do – but it didn’t last long. As I swung the car out of the drive and headed for the coast, I caught a glimpse of her, sitting in that awful tall-backed chair in the living-room, staring venomously after me.
‘If looks could kill,’ I thought, ‘I wouldn’t need to fall off a hundred foot cliff.’ Then I perked up. This was going to be the autumn of my private content; the weather was bliss and the forecast sounded promising for the rest of the holiday. I patted the ruck-sack, which contained my trusty equipment, as if it were an old friend, and I experienced that delicious rush of adrenaline that had been so noticeably absent during the long, boring summer months.
Third Person: This is a compromise between first person and omniscient in that it’s a mixture of intimacy and objectivity (or perspective).
‘James Crane mopped his brow and looked up at the cliff rearing above him. This was the Grade Two cliff he had keenly anticipated for so long, and he looked forward to a solitary, demanding climb. He felt a momentary twinge of guilt before selecting his first pitch, for he knew that Jane, his wife, would, as ever, be fretting at home. Jane hated him climbing and was fearful of the seemingly vertical walls that he took such joy in scaling. Every time he left home with his climbing equipment, he knew that she would sit for hours, as if frozen, waiting for the phone call from the police to inform her of a terrible accident. A phone call, he assured her, that would never be made.’
And now Omniscient, the ‘all-seeing’ viewpoint:
Near the small town of Blatchley in Yorkshire, there is a series of cliffs that fall vertically from the Wolds directly into the North Sea. On one unseasonably warm, autumn day, James Crane, Bank Manager and amateur rock climber, stands on a sliver of sand beneath the highest of these cliffs, methodically planning his route. Before he starts the climb he casts his mind back to earlier that morning, and the argument with Jane, his wife, who always objected to his climbing. He knows that she will spend hours moping around the house, worrying that he will come to grief, but no assurances from him seem to make the slightest difference with her. He focuses once again on the job in hand, and the anticipation of an exhilarating climb quickly blots out such unwelcome thoughts.
Jane was in the sitting room of their rented cottage, glaring out of the window as she watched him drive away. She was thinking that he never gives a damn; never considers just how much she worries about his climbing on his own. She picked up a magazine, but couldn’t focus. ‘That’s it,’ she said to herself, ‘I’ve had enough; something’s got to be done.’
Decide for yourself which version you prefer. Each has its positives and negatives. The first is more intimate, the second has a mixture of intimacy and objectivity and the third is more informative (after all, James Crane would not know what his wife was thinking and doing in his absence), however, it perhaps lacks intimacy.
Promiscuous ViewPoint: This subject has probably started more flame-wars than any other, apart, perhaps, from how to use the comma. Consider this:
“Want some ground-nut stew?” Fred shouted from the kitchen.
“Yuk!” Jane hated ground-nut stew, but Fred liked it, so he always asked her. It had become a joke between them and she was quite happy to go along with it.
“You ask her that every time you make the stuff,” Ethel yelled from the conservatory. It irritated her how Fred could be so insensitive, always asking the same question. “Let her make her own ground-nut stew if she wants it. It’s been two months now you started asking, and she still doesn’t want it.”
She spoke with such emotion that it took Fred by surprise. Ethel could get angry about almost anything, and he was only kidding. ‘Ah well,’ he thought, ‘we’ll soon have our own place.’
Jane was also cross with Ethel. ‘Why must mum always interfere between Fred and me?’ she thought. ‘One day I’m going to tell her.’
While the purpose of the piece is clear and the dialogue realistic, in the second paragraph we’re inside Jane’s head, then in the third we’re in Ethel’s, then in the fourth, in Fred’s, and in the final paragraph we’re back in Jane’s. If this viewpoint shift continues for the whole of the book the writing will appear disjointed and the reader will find it difficult to relate to the main characters.
As a general rule, stick for a whole passage with the same viewpoint character – this can be just a few sentences or a whole chapter. If the narrative requires a change, then leave a double-line space as a signal. You’ll still be able to retain your predominant viewpoint character – your hero or heroine – for the bulk of the book.
Worksheet 11: Voice
Voice is closely linked to Dialogue and Characterisation. This is the narrative in which the dialogue of your viewpoint character is set, therefore it requires writing that reflects the level of intelligence, class and other characteristics of your viewpoint character. Here’s an example from my book Matabele Gold:
Matthias woke when it was getting light and dropped down to the river to drink. He could walk back to the farm in two days. Finding food would be easy, he would eat bush fruit, fish and animals. But first he must try to catch up with the others.
Then he heard noises coming from the bridge. Might be kudu coming to the river to drink; or even wild pig. If it was pig he must be careful. They had sharp tusks and would always attack. He climbed a large munhondo and hid in its thick leaves. The noise grew louder. But before he saw what it was he knew that it was not kudu – and it was not pig.
Matthias watched as an old man came slashing through the thorns with a machete. This was a man of the bush. This was no green village constable afraid of his own shadow and the dark outside the kraal. This man was used to being in wild places. He held his breath because he knew that such men not only look ahead and to right and left, they also look up. One time Matthias had escaped from a leopard by seeing its tail hanging from a branch. But the munhondo gave him good cover and the old man passed by below.
Then, twenty paces behind the bush-man came the white policeman, a rifle in his hand and a bag over his shoulder. He was not as clever in the bush as the old man; he tripped and swore even though he was following a cut path. But it was the man’s eyes that bothered Matthias. They were blue, searching eyes, and they held something more than the sky. He felt cold. This man might not be good in the bush, but he would be a clever hunter.
Matthias, my viewpoint character in this short piece, is a Zulu cattleman, therefore I produced the narrative as he might have expressed it. Compare it to the narrative from my major viewpoint character, an educated mining engineer:
After spending an extra night in Johannesburg, and picking up two punctures, it wasn’t until the early hours of the morning that Daniel arrived back in Bulawayo. Tired after the long drive, he climbed the stairs to his office, sleep being the only thing on his mind. On reaching the angle of the stairs, he became aware of a sliver of light shining under his door. He removed his boots, then eased the door open, thankful that he’d recently oiled its hinges.
The light was coming from a miniature oil lamp perched on the window ledge. His office had been transformed. Instead of the familiar clutter of papers and miscellaneous junk, it was now a tidy, habitable room. In the corner, where his camp bed had been, was a screen – the sort used by doctors in their surgeries. Utterly mystified, he thought that old Pop Strydom, his landlord, must have thrown him out; but he’d paid three months rent in advance only the previous week. The cheeky old beggar. Is he going to get what for on Monday?
But nothing had been taken from his desk; the papers were his – tidied up, perhaps, but his, nevertheless – and the wooden lion was still standing its perpetual guard. Putting his head over the screen, he saw that someone was in his bed. Even though her face was in shadow, and she’d pulled a blanket up to her chin, the blonde hair that brushed the floor was unmistakably Helen Wilmott’s.’
Worksheet 12: Beats and Speaker attributions
Beats: You probably have never heard of this term before. I certainly hadn’t until I read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (Harper Perennial) a book that I can thoroughly recommend. ‘Beats’ comes from screen writing and denotes those little personal actions that enhance dialogue. ‘He lit his pipe and leaned back into his chair’; ‘She flashed a warning glance at Jim’; ‘He steepled his fingers and peered over them into the far distance’. A good beat can break up a longish speech without resorting to another ‘he said’, or ‘she continued’. It will also add more meat to the description of your character, and it can enhance the atmosphere by building up tension. However, beats must never detract from those elements; they must appear natural and be used sparingly, so don’t add them with a scatter-gun. You need balance – as with the book as a whole, so too with each little burst of dialogue – so your finely crafted dialogue should never be swamped by beats. Don’t ignore the possibility of using beats to show your character doing something unusual while he’s engaged in conversation, such as chopping down a tree (this action must be consistent with the plot and performed ‘within character’). Finally, beware of repetitive beats – a couple of pipe-lightings, or dish-washings or looking-up/looking downs, and, particularly, smilings, will be sufficient, any more and you’ll become plain boring (see also ýWorksheet 9: Dialogue).
Speaker Attribution: You only need speaker attribution in order to tell your reader who is saying what to whom. ‘Said’ is all that’s necessary.
“Put it back,” she said.
“No,” he said.
“I mean it,” she said.
But that’s too repetitious. How about:
“Put it back again,” she demanded.
“No,” he rejoined.
“I mean it,” she continued.
No. Definitely not.
“Put it back,” she grimaced.
“No,” he chuckled.
“I mean it,” she sneered.
Worse. How can you grimace/sneer/chuckle a sentence?
“Put it back,” she said.
“I mean it.”
Got it. If there are only two people in the scene, once you’ve indicated the order of speech, your readers can work it out for themselves, with just occasional reminders. If there are more than two, you need to work much harder to avoid sounding awkward. One way of dealing with multiple actor scenes is to give characters individual idiosyncrasies of speech to avoid repeating ‘Geoff said’, or ‘Helen said’, however you have to be careful to avoid tedious repetition.
Summary: Use attributions only when we need to be reminded who’s speaking.
Worksheet 13: Flash-backs, Time-slips, Action and Sex
Flash-backs: These can be overdone. If you have too many, your main character’s present situation could become obscured and the pace of your story slowed. Try as far as possible to write your story in present tense. I used a flash-back in my book Petros Amm, where a character is lost in thick bush during a tropical storm. Isolated, and without food or shelter for over three days, she is pursued (or so she thinks) by guerrillas. Because she’s very afraid, in order not to go to pieces she reverts to reviewing her life. I think this works because the flash-backs are firmly anchored in her present plight. If I’d included them elsewhere in the narrative simply to give the reader information about her past, the flash-backs would have slowed the plot.
Time-slips: Unlike flash-backs, which are preferably brief and serve to illuminate the on-going plot with information from the past, time-slips can be used to tell two or more separate stories that occur in different periods. In my book Petros Amm, which consists of three distinctive stories split into two equal parts (father’s story and son’s story), the modern story – the search for their missing journals – is woven equally into both parts. Some readers dislike this chopping and changing, especially when stories are left hanging at moments of tension, while others take it in stride.
Action or ‘Write the good fight’: There are two main schools. There’s the ‘keep it brief and realistic’ school, and there’s the ‘stretch it out as far as possible’ school. I belong to the former because I prefer to read (and see, when it’s on film) realistic action. The James Bond type hero who can take a dozen baddies out without losing breath is not for me. However, if your books are based on larger than life characters and issues like Ian Fleming’s, then this is perfectly O.K. As always, it’s ‘horses for courses’.
When you run into a piece of action, close your eyes and visualise it. Picture where your characters are standing and the surrounding territory. If there’s a fight, it has to be plausible. Your hero can’t plant a fist on the villain’s jaw if five seconds earlier the hero was lying prone, unless you ‘show’ him getting back on his feet, in which case the villain has to be unable to prevent him from doing so. You don’t want your reader laughing at you when he should be riveted by the action.
In general, keep your sentences and words as short as possible during an action scene. This suggests breathlessness. And don’t, no matter how beautiful the view might be from the window out of which your hero is about to be pushed, try to describe it unless you’re writing a parody. Don’t forget research. If the villain has a pistol and it’s that sort of book, say what make it is, how many shots it fires, what calibre of bullet it takes, and what effect it has when someone is shot by it. If, however, you’re not dwelling on makes of pistol, car, or underwear, etc, it’s quite all right to say the villain has a pistol, and leave it at that, your readers will fill in the detail from their imagination (this holds good generally).
Sex: Some of the action techniques, especially plausibility, might also be applied to your sex scenes. Again, there are two major schools of thought. One is the old ‘one foot on the floor, Hollywood rule’, school, with the camera moving tastefully to the ceiling followed by a cut to the next scene. The other is a ‘bare it all, full-frontal, biologically accurate’ school. You can pitch your own descriptions of sexual encounters along that continuum, but watch out for mismatches. If you’ve created a chaste heroine, and your writing is lyrical, to have a raunchy bedroom scene would disorientate your reader, therefore due consideration needs to be paid to voice.
I prefer the subtle approach, but if you’re writing ‘that sort of book’ feel free to be as descriptive as you like.
Worksheet 14: Interior Monologue
Interior Monologue is what sets literature apart from film-making. When you watch a film you can’t see what a character is thinking (unless there’s a ‘voice-over’).
However, like so much else in good writing, it mustn’t be overdone. Within dialogue, constantly interrupting with internal thoughts can be irritating. This is also true if you add ‘he/she thought’ each time you move into interior monologue: because every scene will be written from the perspective of only one viewpoint character (see Worksheet 10: Viewpoint), there is no need to attribute thoughts. Neither is it necessary to put thoughts into quotes each time. Look at this:
He wondered why he was always late for important meetings.
To avoid overusing ‘he/she wondered’, simply use a question:
Why am I always late for important meetings?
This is what Browne and King call the ‘Q trick’.
Using italics for interior monologue is fine if kept to a minimum: Why am I always late for important meetings? Best used after a long piece of narration or dialogue.
How Interior Monologue works:
I’d been in the water for what seemed an age, when, pulling myself around an awkward boulder, my shoulder seized up and the current swept me back. I was now almost back to where I’d started. I began to think I’d made a terrible mistake and cursed myself for misjudging my strength and the distance to the promontory.
Can’t swim; I’ll have to climb.
Taking a deep breath, and using the current to lift me, I threw myself, like a salmon, towards a shallow cleft, and scrabbled for a foothold. My first jump was six inches short. The next, I actually touched it, but I slid back down. On my third, I gripped a rough edge, jammed my right foot into a joint between the boulders, and pulled myself up. Just when I thought I’d done the hardest bit and flopped over the top, my guts lurched; there was another boulder, isolated from the promontory, about four metres away. Beneath it, the river swirled erratically.
Edging down the far side, to a point where the rocks bulged closer together, I reckoned the gap to be about two and a half metres. I’d have to jump it, then, somehow, attach myself on landing. Would it be possible? The surface looked smooth … and steep.
It’s the only way. Botch it and I won’t have the strength to climb out again.
After resting for a few moments, I transferred my weight onto my aching toes and fingers, then, whispering a prayer, I hurled myself across the gap, hitting the rock with a resounding slap – no concessions for my shoulder. There I clung, suspended like a damp spider, anchored … only just … by gravity.
But, when I dared move my head, it was obvious that I was in full view of anyone climbing the promontory.
If I move too slowly, they’ll spot me; if I rush, I’ll be in the river again.
To add to my fears, the guerrillas were shouting and clattering on the other side of my rock. Shortly, a black, tousled head bobbed over the skyline, but he was further away than I’d thought; perhaps they hadn’t finished searching the far side yet.
Half a minute later, and just fifteen metres to my right, the other man made an appearance and proceeded to prod a gully suspiciously with his rifle. Terrified lest he turn and see me, I let go and slid down the far side of the rock … straight back into the river. I was just about at the end of my strength and as I went under, I had a dreadful sense of drowning. Surfacing, I choked on a stew of slimy green scum, and could have wept with relief. I’d landed in the very place I’d been searching for – the calm water that slurped and swished between the boulders – the floating tracery of stagnant vegetation I’d seen at the promontory on my first visit to the island.
By now, the first of the guerrillas was about ten metres away. Although he hadn’t yet climbed the overshadowing boulder, he would be sure to – it had been an easy climb for me on my first visit to the island.
When he gets up there he can’t possibly miss me.
I’d once seen a war film about soldiers stranded behind Japanese lines. They had hidden in a flooded paddy field and breathed through hollow reeds – which just happened to be growing there – while the enemy walked by. I remember being sceptical at the time. This would be a good opportunity to test the theory.
But there were no hollow reeds in the cleft. I discovered that papyrus wasn’t hollow, that clumps of sud had no stalks and that what straw and grasses there were had been matted into a useless felt-like wodge. By the noise they were making, I knew the guerrillas were racing each other to the top of the last boulder.
My head filled with morbid thoughts. Was violent death to be our family's destiny? My great uncles, both killed on the same dreadful day at Passchaendale. My parents, victims of an aircraft design fault that sent them plummeting into the Mediterranean. Now, I, the last of the Mannions, killed in a part of the world I’d never even heard of before, in someone else’s war.
If I can keep my head under water for a short while, they won't see me. But, how? If I was writing a book about it, I bet I’d find a way.
It sounds unlikely, now, but that inane thought probably saved my life.
Book – notebook – pen – ballpoint!
How amazing the mind is. From the random thoughts of panic, the solution had popped out, like a rabbit from a hat. The irritating pen, whose ink cartridge kept slipping out, would be my hollow reed. It had been in my pocket all the time.
The water closed over my head. It was so dark – a greeny, soup-like dark – that I didn’t even see the searchers. The ‘hollow reed’ really does work – tested personally in a life and death situation. True, I couldn’t get much air in, but by cupping a hand over my lips and holding it like a cigarette and keeping my mouth tightly shut, I was able to stay out of sight.
When, after what seemed an age, my head, festooned with sud and scum, broke the surface, I could see no one. All was quiet. A fish eagle had even perched on top of the sentinel boulder; if anyone approached, it was certain to fly. I began to feel a little more secure.
I dragged myself out of the river for a second time, wet, cold and shaking with released tension. Squelching with water, I crawled up the boulder, leaving a damp imprint on the light grey granite like the track of a giant slug. Then fatigue caught up with me, and my imagination had me in bed at the house, with the early morning sun streaming through the stained glass to begin its colourful journey around my wall. How nice to be safe … warm … asleep …
“Wake up, Mannion. Stop thinking backwards,” I shouted at myself, alarmed at how my mind was wandering and how exposed I still was. “Concentrate. Must make an effort … now.”
Worksheet 15: Using Italics
In general, keep italics to a minimum, especially as an emphasis on a particular word, since this suggests your writing requires bolstering. According to Browne and King, long sections in italics are not easy on the eye. In my first book I used one long flash-back which lasted for several pages; my second book had a dream sequence which was much shorter, and so far I haven’t had any adverse comments. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t give rise to some mild irritation.
In text books, of course, italics can be used to separate different strands, or to draw attention to important information, as in these handouts, so the italics ‘rule’ doesn’t apply.
You can jump into the plot without any exposition whatsoever.
When readers pick up a book in a bookshop, they commonly read the first couple of paragraphs, or even pages. If they read 'flat' exposition, they'll probably put it back and look for another. The same applies to publisher's readers, only more so, and you won't get as far as a bookshelf. Other readers will open the book at random, and 'flat' exposition won't impress them; so be ruthless, even if you have to lose a few of your gems (you can always use them somewhere else).
First words are very important; if you dig into your plot and pick an exciting, or intriguing, section and give that your full attention, you're much more likely to keep a reader interested until the end of the book. One idea is to decide on your beginning after you've finished the book. Alternatively, you can work on it as you move the plot forward, but it will probably need to be changed as the book expands (be careful not to 'give anything away'). Sometimes, however, there's an obvious place to begin, and it could be chronological. If that's the case, fine, but you should work on it until you're absolutely certain that you can't improve it.
It's possible, then, to pluck any event from beginning, middle or (even) end of the book and to use that as your hook and bait (a flash-forward, if you like). The next section or chapter can then start at the beginning. You can experiment with this, and you won't do any damage.
Worksheet 16: Writing Elegantly
We all probably would like our writing to be described as elegant or sophisticated. However, do we recognise elegance when we see it? Also, how do we achieve it? (see ýWorksheet 8: Pleonasms)
The ‘as & …ing’ construction:
In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King state that this construction weakens the writing by placing a piece of action into a subordinate clause (don’t worry if you don’t understand this thoroughly, we’re not grammarians). Suffice to say that such writing is weak; it can also give rise to physical impossibilities, e.g: ‘As I disappeared (or Disappearing) into my tent I changed into a pair of fresh jeans’ (these two actions cannot be performed at the same time). This construction can also become repetitive (as can be seen from the edited example below) so check your writing, and if you see more than one of them per page, look for alternatives:
As she walked towards the kitchen, Heather was peeling off various items of clothing. The image she projected of neatness was just that – an image. She was a slob at heart.
Stopping at the entrance to the kitchen, she leaned against the kitchen door and peeled off her tights. As she tossed them onto the fridge, she breathed a sigh of relief. She was still hot, but at least she was free of the confines of her clothes. Now for something to eat, she thought, as she stood in front of the fridge.
Ripping off several large chunks of burrito, she pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and took a large bite. As she chewed, she wondered who she was most annoyed with. Clarke, she decided.
The doorbell rang. “Heather, it’s me.’ It was Clarke. Think of the devil, she thought.
Spotting her favourite red kimono lying crumpled on the floor, she stooped and picked it up. As she pulled the kimono over her shoulders, she said a prayer of thanks that the crumpled look was in.
As her fingers unfastened the chain lock, she wondered how Clarke had obtained her address. It wasn’t listed in the phone book. [201 words]
First Edited version:
Heather walked towards the kitchen, stripping off her clothes as she went. She knew she was a slob. The image she projected of neatness was just that – an image.
She was still hot, but at least she felt more liberated. She leaned against the kitchen door, peeled off her tights, tossed them onto the fridge, opened it and sighed with relief in its cooling air. Now for something to eat.
She ripped off several large chunks of burrito and took a large bite from one then pulled up a chair to the kitchen table. Who am I most annoyed with?
The doorbell rang.
“Heather, it’s me, Clarke.”
Think of the devil.
She picked up her favourite red kimono from the floor, pulled it over her shoulders thanking God that the crumpled look was in, and headed for the door.
She unfastened the chain lock. How did he find my address; it’s not in the phone book.’ [156 words]
Second Edited version:
Heather walked towards the kitchen whilst stripping off her clothes. My image of neatness is just that – an image.
She leaned against the door-frame, peeled off her tights and threw them on top of the fridge; then she opened its door. Phew! That’s better. Now for something to eat. She dragged a chair to the kitchen table and took a large bite from the burrito she’d found in the fridge behind two milk cartons. Who am I most annoyed with?
The doorbell rang.
“Heather, it’s me, Clarke.”
Think of the devil. How did he get my address? It’s not in the phone book.
She sighed, picked up her red kimono, pulled it on, whispered a prayer of thanks that the crumpled look was in, and went to unfasten the chain lock. [132 words]
(A few editing points: this version is more subtle, the hotness being only hinted at. It’s also more economical, the repetitions have been ironed out and the ‘as … ing’ constructions eliminated.)
Worksheet 17: Endings
You might already have planned an ending either on paper or in your head at any time during the creation of your novel, so the ending is not necessarily the last thing you write. However, you might arrive at a satisfactory ending and not realise it – this is where you could use the objective advice of an editor, writing friend or discerning reader. Don’t assume that you’ll automatically know when the end point arrives. Alternatively, if you’re a bit like me, you might come to the end and know, instinctively, that it is the end, that there’s nowhere else for your characters to go, and that there’s no need for the plot to continue. Endings are almost – but not quite – as important as the beginning. However, some people I know read the last page of a book to see if it has a happy ending before they decide to buy it (no, I didn’t believe such people existed either!).
One thing that you must be very careful not to do with an ending is to let the reader down. The end has to be as credible as the rest of the book; it mustn’t appear forced or contrived. Also, if you’re going to leave some minor strand unexplained, be sure to refer to it so that your reader can see that it wasn’t an oversight.
By the way: a story doesn’t have to have a happy end. You might want to reserve the right to surprise your reader, however, you need to be ever so careful how you do this so that your reader doesn’t put your book down with a feeling of disappointment (i.e. it would be out of character if an uplifting book has an unhappy end, especially if you spring this on your reader without some indication during the narrative that all might not come out well).
Again, this doesn’t mean that you can’t break the mould, but if you do, you’d better have written a damn good book to carry it off. The convention, I suppose, is that if you’ve written a romance, your main character wouldn’t be expected to die of cancer or gun-shot wounds in the last chapter.
You could, of course, write an unhappy end to a thriller, spy or war story, and your argument with any disgruntled reader would be something like: “Knowing it was a war/murder book, you shouldn’t have started it if you wanted a happy end.” This I call ‘writing outside the comfort zone’.
Finally, do trust the discerning reader of your manuscript, whether that reader is a friend or an editor (that doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with your editor!). When I write the piece on ‘self-editing’ my remarks will always assume that you take your editor’s comments seriously, even if you disagree with and decide not to abide by some of his/her advice. It’s a rare luxury for a writer to actually have an editor these days, so don’t get too precious about your book being exclusively ‘all your own work’. Remember, your editor has the advantage of being able to view your book objectively, unaffected by however many corrections, self-edits and re-writes you’ve made for yourself. Like it or not, there’s no way you can have as good an overview of your book than an editor has – you’ll be too close to it by half!
Worksheet 18: Self-editing
If I was stranded on a desert island and had to choose only one of all the topics I’ve produced for presentation at my workshops, it would be Self-Editing. Why this and not Characterisation or Plot? Because you can create the most beautifully formed characters and the most subtly intricate plot in the most exotic surroundings, but if you don’t pay an infinite amount of attention to your own editing, chances are your manuscript will be ignored by publishers, and the publisher is the one person, above all, whom you need to impress.
But why self-editing? Because it’s almost certainly going to be the only editing your book will receive. I was exceedingly lucky to find a publisher who still believes in a close relationship between writer and editor. This, I understand, is not necessarily the case nowadays. Here’s a slightly amended quote from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, published by HarperPerennial:
Not too many years ago, an author would sell a novel to a publishing house and then would revise it under the guidance of the editor who signed the book up. Gifted editors routinely spent enormous amounts of creative energy and blue-pencil lead to bring the manuscript to its fullest potential.
That was then. What about today?
If the plot is strong enough or topical (and) the characters engaging enough, the manuscript is signed up and put into print (note: no editing!).
If the technique seems amateurish, or the plot doesn’t hold the reader from page one to the end, or the characters don’t stay in the mind after the book is closed, the manuscript is rejected – potential be damned.
My first recommendation is that you buy that book. My second is that you read it thoroughly. My third is that you put its suggestions into practice on behalf of the characters and plot of your novel. It’s as simple as that. You don’t really need to come into fiction writing courses. It’s all there in ISBN 0-06-272046-5. Order it from the Barnes and Noble or Amazon web-sites, or through your local bookshop. Order it now.
In all seriousness, I hope I haven’t put you off joining a workshop, because there’s no substitute for talking about and listening to others talking about your craft, in spite of what I said about the Browne and King book in the previous paragraph. I hope you’ll want to enhance or re-kindle your enthusiasm for your novel because you want it to be as good as you can possibly get it before you submit it to a publisher for scrutiny.
Worksheet 19: Synopsis writing
(With thanks to Robert M. Blevins of Adventure Books of Seattle)
Forget what you may have heard, a good synopsis is tough to write. You’ll have to edit it and treat it like a newborn until you get it right. Each word must be considered for its value and contribution to the final product.
Too much work? No. A good synopsis does two things. It gives a complete account of your book from start to finish and leaves no mystery for the editor. Basically, you’re reducing your entire book into a package of more or less 1,000 words.
‘Pro synopses are always 1,000 words or less, otherwise they lose the editor's interest’- quote from Sheree Bykovsky and Jennifer Basye Sander, authors of The Idiot's Guide to Getting Published.
Set up the story, the motivations of the main characters, and the entire plot from beginning to end. A good synopsis should hold no mystery for an editor; it shows you’re a serious writer, and you’ll usually get a better and more helpful response.
Many authors mistake a 'blurb' for a synopsis. A blurb is what you read on the front inside jacket or back cover of a book. It's designed to garner reader interest in the book to create an air of mystery, but it isn’t a synopsis. If you send it in as a synopsis, the editor will know right away you just dropped in for Amateur Night.
You must add...subtract...study...and develop. Sometimes writing a synopsis seems almost as hard as writing the damn book. Do a good one and you’ll have better success and a much faster response from editors. Editors are not out to steal your ideas, so reduce that book from start to finish … and see what happens...
Worksheet 20: CONSIDER THIS
You are going on a long, overseas journey – not just a holiday.
What preparations do you have to make?
Before you set out you’ll need to decide:
• Will it be an exciting journey? Thriller, Murder, Mystery, Adventure, Sci Fi or is it going to be quiet and thoughtful – Literary? Genre
• What planning do you need to do? Research
• Where will you start from? …………………………………………… Beginning
• Where are you going to? Place
• When are you going? Time
• Who will you take with you? Characters
• What route will you take? (Not necessarily mapping it out, more a general direction.)
• How will you travel? Viewpoint/Tense
• Where do you plan to end up? (Not necessarily a prerequisite.) Ending
Remember to brush up your languages Dialogue/Accents
Finally - make sure your Passport is up-to-date Enthusiasm and Commitment
Writing a book is like making a journey
Exercise 1: Do this Exercise after reviewing the sections on 9: Dialogue and 12: Beats and Speaker attribution, etc.
Write a piece of dialogue either utilising a scene from the novel you’ve written or are writing, OR produce a completely new scene, incorporating one major character, one minor character, and, if you wish, one functional character, that you have already created for your book.
Incorporate speaker attributions, ‘beats’ and, if appropriate, dialect.
Use whatever viewpoint or tense fits your work.
Time allotted: fifteen minutes
Exercise 2: Do this Exercise after reviewing sections 7: Show, don’t tell and 13: Action
Write an ACTION PIECE (SHOWING) either utilising a scene from the novel you have written or are writing, OR produce a completely new scene incorporating a character/characters that you have already developed.
Use either present or past tense and whatever viewpoint suits you.
Time allotted: fifteen minutes
Exercise 3: Complete during the workshop
Describe the reactions of one of your book’s characters during a critical moment (for instance being in a motor-car/train/aeroplane crash, being shot at, drowning, or being told that ‘the relationship is over,’ etc.).
Time allotted: ten minutes
Exercise 4: Complete after reviewing the section 5: Beginnings
Each of the following sheets duplicates the opening sentence of a published book. Your task is to write the first paragraph (or two if you have time) following on from the first line.
You can write it as if it’s the book you’re working on, or one you’ve finished, or something completely new.
Time allotted: 5 minutes
1) When Jonty Jack pushed open the door of his cottage in the gorge above the little town of Yearsonend one morning, and the smell of damp ferns and old wood shavings rose in his nostrils, he found …
2) When I was fifteen I got hepatitis. It started in the autumn and lasted until spring. As the old year darkened and turned colder, I got weaker and weaker …
3) “Come on now, Kate. Y’re no’ really tryin’,” said the midwife. “Pull on the towel and push!”
4) True story. Last winter, three men from a village in West Yorkshire went fishing off the coast near Scarborough, and hauled in an unexploded mine from the Second World War. A crowd gathered to look at the bomb, and a reporter from local television turned up to interview the men on the beach. When the reporter asked one of them if they’d been frightened, he said …
5) Head down, pedalling, pumping hard, a lot of the time getting along faster than the nose-to-tail mass of Wehrmacht trucks, transports and cars pounding towards the Seine. Maybe they’d get over it, maybe not – depending on bridges, whether any were standing. She’d heard bombing …
6) The music room in the Governor’s house at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet. The players …
7) Jonathan Blair awoke tangled in damp sheets and shivering to the rain, gas fumes and soot that pressed against his lodging’s single window. He wished he could slip back into his dream, but it was gone like smoke. The Africa in his bloodstream, though, that was forever.
He suspected he had typhoid. His bedclothes were dank from
sweat. The week before …
8) I was in my room, reading a book.
I turned a page. The curved shadow of one candle-lit white surface fell over another and the action made a small sharp rustling noise in the silence. Suddenly …
9) Imagine then a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of standing where a lane ended and cultivation began; a different landscape …
10) He lay flat on the brown, pine-needle floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it …
accents See dialogue
action 8, 22, 28
keep it brief 22
sentence length 22
stretch it out 22
Adventure Books 1, 32
adverbs 11, 12, 13
all-seeing See point of view
'as ... ing' construction 28
Basye Sander, Jennifer 32
be your own manager 1
beats 14, 20
beginnings 7, 27
Blevins, Robert 1, 32
Browne, Renni 1, 10, 20, 24, 27, 28, 31
Bykovsky, Sheree 32
Catalyst Game, the 6
change See character
change 8, 15
characterisation 8, 9
functional 8, 9
major 8, 9, 14
minor 8, 9, 14
past 8, 14
choosing a subject/genre See genre
chronological story line See story line
comfort zone 30
crime novel, elements of 5
promiscuous viewpoint 17
dialect See dialogue
dialogue 14, 18
what language 14
double-line space 17
elegant writing 28
euphuist See pleonasms
exercise 1 34
exercise 2 35
exercise 3 36
exercise 4 37
first person See point of view
flat exposition 27
four elements of a novel 6
functional character See character
choosing a subject/genre 3
romance 3, 8, 30
gongorist See pleonasms
Hartley, L.P. 7
inconsequential showing 11
interior monologue 24
Q trick 24
intimacy See point of view
King, Dave 1, 10, 20, 24, 27, 28, 31
literary verbosity See pleonasms
major character See character
Matabele Gold 5, 7, 18
Mills and Boon romances 3
minor character See character
mission 8, 9
motivated See motivation
motivation 8, 9, 32
multiple actor scenes 21
multiple viewpoints See point of view
narrative summary 10
National Geographic magazines 4
objectivity See point of view
omniscient See point of view
pace 6, 11, 22
past See character past
perspective See point of view
Petros Amm 14, 22
physical characteristics 8
physical description See physical characteristics
physical impossibilities 22, 28
pleonasms 11, 13
pleonast See pleonasms
plot 5, 6
plot-led story 4
point of view 16
first person 16
multiple viewpoints 16
objectivity 10, 16
promiscuous 16, 17
third person 16
PoV See point of view
promiscuous viewpoint See point of view
Q trick See interior monologue
redundancy See pleonasms
regional accents See dialogue
repetitions 8, 12, 20, 21, 28
research 3, 4, 22
research-led story 4
romantic novel See genre
said See speaker attributions
Scarrow, Simon 6
components of 10
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 1, 10, 20, 28, 31
sentence length See action
setting 6, 7
show, don't tell 8, 12, 22
sophisticated writing See elegant writing
speaker attributions 14, 20
story 5, 6
story line 6, 30
chronological 7, 27
synopsis writing 32
targets See self-discipline
The Go Between 7
The Idiot's Guide to Getting Published 32
passage of time 11
theme 5, 6
'what if' theme 5
third person See point of view
viewpoint See point of view
voice 18, Also see dialogue
'what if' theme See theme
what language See dialogue
When the Eagle Hunts 6
Why do research? 4
how to use 1
worksheet 1 3
worksheet 10 16
worksheet 11 18
worksheet 12 20
worksheet 13 22
worksheet 14 24
worksheet 15 27
worksheet 16 28
worksheet 17 30
worksheet 18 31
worksheet 19 32
worksheet 2 4
worksheet 20 33
worksheet 3 5
worksheet 4 6
worksheet 5 7
worksheet 6 8
worksheet 7 10
worksheet 8 13
worksheet 9 14
writers as obsessive 2
writing outside the comfort zone See comfort zone