So recently I’ve decided to get more active in the online writing community. I think the internet provides so much opportunity for writers to connect, to share knowledge and help each other improve, more so than writers in the past have ever had. It’s a resource I’m determined to make the most out of. The writers forums and sites I’m currently part of are incredibly supportive; they include a mix of professional authors and beginner writers and provide a safe space, free of judgement, for people to have open and honest conversations about their writing. It’s something a younger, pre-University version of me would have killed for.
As part of this new resolution I applied to be part of the The Literary Consultancy’s ‘free read’ scheme which is a merit-based scheme offered to low-income writers who they see as having potential. I was accepted into the scheme and quickly paired up with YA author C.J flood, author of ‘Infinite sky’, who wrote me a detailed report on the 20k words I submitted to her of my current WIP.
As promised, a few weeks later I received a 7 page pdf with some very insightful comments on my storyline, character development and general writing technique. I’m super happy with the quality and the clarity of the report: sure, it wasn’t a glowing review of what I’ve convinced myself is my best book yet (I convince myself that every novel I write is going to be ‘the one’ until I get disillusioned and decide to start all over, so this is nothing new) but what I have learnt are some invaluable, personalised tips that I’ll be thinking about the next time I sit down to write. So for anyone who wants to improve as a writer, I would highly recommend applying for the TLC scheme.
Though the report was specific to my current novel, I decided that Flood’s insights were too good to be kept to myself and I’ve compiled a short list in my own words of some of her best general writing tips.
1. Clarify your characters’ motives: characters drive a story. But before rendering a character in text, it’s important that you understand who that character is, what drives them, what motivates them to make the decisions they do. If you’re not completely sure about your character’s motives, then you can’t expect the reader to know either, and it will weaken every aspect of the story. People want to read about characters they can relate to, and relating is based on some form of understanding. Don’t just imply a motive, be very clear about what your character wants and why they want it. I think the mistake I made is that I spent too long on the ‘how’ and not enough on the ‘why.’ Especially with fast-paced, plot-centric stories, it’s an easy trap to fall into. One thing I recommend to help with this is to write up character profiles or biographies that includes background, family history, unique traits/habits etc…
2. Avoid the manic pixie dream girl/boy: Clarifying motives and building character shouldn’t only be all about the protagonist. Does the protagonist have a best friend, side-kick, love interest? Do they have their own storyline or is it all about backing up the protagonist? Make sure you spend time building their character too. Give them a history, a personality, a whole other life that exists outside of their relationship to your protagonist. A couple of strange quirks does not make them a realistic, 3-dimensional character; giving them independent goals does. Why are they so invested in helping your MC? What do they get out of it? Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s money or power or something else entirely. Something is driving them to act the way they do. Explore it in subtle ways. Maybe you’ll find that it changes more in your story than you thought it would.
3. The ‘Cut and Pace’ approach: Even pacing in a story keeps the plot flowing nicely and gives it a sense of rhythm, like a calm river flowing down a one-way channel with no blockages in sight. You don’t want blockages. You don’t want a great big dam in the middle of your story, or even worse every few pages. Best way to fix this? Cut and pace, cut and pace. Usually it’s best to write out the story you want to tell first, then go back and cut all the necessary stuff, i.e the slow bits that don’t move the plot along or build character. Be ruthless with your cutting. I know it hurts, and sometimes I can’t bring myself to take out passages because I get attached to them, but do you really need that extra metaphor? Does that bit of dialogue really add anything? Don’t let your dramatic tension be diluted. Cut it out, go back and read it again, see if the pacing is any better. Rinse and repeat.
4. Show don’t tell: This is something we were told repeatedly in my screenwriting classes. But it rings true for prose as well: too often I see, even in acclaimed published books, the tell-tale signs of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ particularly when it comes to character’s backstories. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and sometimes it can be a stylistic thing, but if there’s a better way of bringing a scene to life then do that instead. I’m going to quote Flood here when she says: ‘sometimes when we write we are really telling ourselves the story.’ I thought it was a very profound statement. So don’t get too hung up on this in the first draft. Write what comes naturally, even if that is just to clarify certain things to yourself, and when you go back to edit you’ll have a much better idea of how you can turn that big block of backstory into something more engaging.
5. Don’t withhold too much information: It’s funny because often in creative writing classes you’re told to make sure you don’t spill all your secrets right away. However the opposite is also true: withholding too much information in your first few chapters frustrates your reader and causes them to lose interest. Crafting a good hook is probably one of the hardest elements in writing and it takes years and years of practice. You’re interested because you know all about this world you’re creating, but remember that your reader is starting from nothing. You have to start from the basics and world-build all over again except inside their heads this time. I would suggest taking some time out, reading other books written in your genre, and seeing how they handle it. Read like an English student would i.e read critically. Analyse how those books create dramatic tension and whether or not it’s working. Then go back to your own work and edit it line by line, making sure you’re saturating each sentence with as much detail about setting, character and plot as you can without it sounding like a lecture or an info-dump.
6. Raising the stakes: As the story progresses, make sure to keep the reader hooked by gradually raising the stakes, eventually resulting in some sort of climax where everything is resolved (or not resolved, I guess). This is generally quite a linear story structure and not every good book follows it in that order, but there is that whole saying that you should know the rules first before breaking them. Link the stakes to your character’s motives and use that to create conflict: MC wants something, but there’s an obstacle in her way, how does she overcome it? Something that threatens the MC’s wellbeing, the attainment of her goals or both usually works best. There should also be some sort of emotional pull to it, as this is what keeps readers feeling engaged.
7. Make your dialogue work harder for you: Dialogue is built on the bones of real-life, authentic conversation, but then artificially constructed to give away details of plot development, character, setting, socio-economic class, relationships, power-relations and pretty much everything in between. If you’re not comfortable writing dialogue, trying some basic exercises like eavesdropping on a conversation and transcribing everything they say. Read it back to yourself. It will sound strange. The way we speak is actually incredibly disjointed, to the point where it makes you wonder how we manage to communicate at all. Of course dialogue in prose isn’t like this, but still, pay attention to the differences between how people talk and try to manifest those differences in the way your characters interact. Give them a voice, a tone. Does one of them come from a very posh background? Think about the sort of words they’d use, the way they might relate to the people around them and how this can be conveyed through dialogue. They might appear haughty, superior, patronising, or they might use long multi-syllabled words and less common phrases. What about their age, is the way they’re speaking appropriate for their maturity level?
8. Build a sense of place: Creating a setting for your story to play out and transporting your readers into that setting is incredibly important. You don’t have to go through the 5 senses every single time you’re describing somewhere, but at least try to keep them in mind and drop them in when it feels appropriate. Sometimes a particularly unusual and vivid metaphor or simile can bring a place to life and give it a certain feel: make sure to use figurative language to create the right atmosphere you want, something that fits the characters and the general tone of the novel.
That’s it! I’m sure for all you seasoned writers out there what I’ve said is nothing new, but if nothing else I hope it reminds you of some of the main things to keep in mind when drafting and editing. And for any beginner writers, or anyone thinking about writing for the first time, go for it! Despite my long wordy list writing isn’t all about the technical stuff. It’s a craft, yes, but one that’s supposed to be rewarding and fun. So while I’d suggest keeping in mind some of these points, it’s also important that you enjoy the process of writing itself and don’t let it turn into a chore.