My previous posts about writing have proved very popular, so I have asked Morgen Bailey – blogger extraordinaire and talented author – to offer some words of wisdom on the craft of writing.
American science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournell is reported to have said “I think it takes about a million words to make a writer. I mean that you’re going to throw away.” I started writing for fun seven years ago and more seriously four years ago and with three NaNoWriMo novels, one-and-a-half novels in between, three NaNoWriMo story collections (a cheat on doing a novel November 2011 but I still made the 50,000-word minimum), part of a script, some poetry and loads of short stories under my belt, including one and a bit 31-story collections for Story A Day May, I’m pretty sure I’ve reached that target. How much of them I’ve thrown away I couldn’t tell you but it’s only a fraction, and if like me, you’ve dabbled before really knuckling down, you’ll feel better for it. It’s all about practice. If someone sat you in front of a piano, would they expect you to play a concerto? Would you expect that of yourself?
In my experience too many novice writers worry about finding their ‘voice’ and understanding their ‘craft’ early on. It can be a long journey, perhaps not as long as a million words, but providing you write regularly (daily is the ideal but when does life afford that luxury, although 300 words equates to 100,000 words a year so a great incentive) you’ll get there… and here are a few basics to put in your suitcase:
- Probably the most used phrase when teaching writing is ‘show don’t tell’. If you have a character who is angry for some reason, saying ‘Andy was angry’ is a classic example of ‘tell’. Simply put, you’re not showing us how. If you wrote ‘Andy slammed his fist onto the table’ you are.
- Dialogue tags – it’s recommended that you can only go up to six pieces of dialogue (between no more than two people) without attributing it to someone. And there’s nothing wrong with ‘said’. Don’t be tempted to look at your thesaurus and say ‘Andy postulated’. You could also avoid tags by another character saying “Oh Andy, that’s…” or in the description; ‘Andy laughed. “That’s…”
- Character names are important as we often get a sense of their personality by what they’re called. A Mavis is likely to be older than a Britney and would, usually, act differently. Avoid having names starting with the same letter; if you have a Todd talking to a Ted, the reader can easily get confused. Bill and Ted would be fine and as we know, they had a wonderful time back in the late 1980s.
- I’m a big fan of repetition… of not doing it. Unless it’s ‘the’, ‘and’ etc, a word should only be repeated if the second instance is to emphasise or clarify the first. For example, ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn of the car.’ You don’t need ‘of the car’ because we already know he’s in the car. If you said ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn and the car shook’ that would be fine because you’re clarifying that it’s the car and not the horn (because it’s the last object you mentioned) that’s shaking.
- Stephen King’s writing guide / autobiography ‘On writing’ has been the most suggested book in the interviews I’ve conducted. Amongst other things he’s notoriously against adverbs (‘ly’) and fair enough – in ‘completely dead’ you wouldn’t need the completely because dead says it all, and a character doesn’t need to be ‘sighing wearily’ because the sighing tells us enough, but adverbs are necessary in the right context. Again it’s all about clarification and fine-tuning.
- Every word has to count; does it move the story along or tell us about your characters? If not, the chances are it can be chopped.
- If you’re having trouble with a passage move on or leave it and return later with ‘fresh eyes’.
- Read. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your genre or not (one of my Monday nighters writes amazing sci-fi but has never read a word of it) but reading will help you see how a story is structured and balanced between dialogue and description; short sentences speed the pace, long passages slow it down.
- Join a writing group, get your work critiqued. Read your work out loud. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up when you hear it outside your head.
- Subscribe to writing magazines, go to workshops, literary festivals. If you really want to write immerse yourself in all things literary.
There are many more examples I could give you but all you need to remember is that it’s not about clever words (because that ends up becoming ‘purple prose’) but just getting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard and having fun. When your characters take over (and they will) you’ll have the time of your life!
Morgen Bailey biography
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog. Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List.
31 men in 31 days – what could possibly go wrong?
Isobel MacFarlane is a recently-turned-40 journalist who usually writes a technology column for a newspaper based in Northampton, England, but her somewhat-intimidating boss, William, has set her the task of meeting 31 men, via a local internet dating site, all within a month. Having an active, though fruitless, social life with her friend and ‘Health & Beauty’ colleague Donna, she knows what she wants in a man, so creates a shopping list of dos and don’ts, and starts ticking them off as she meets Mr Could Be Right Except For, Mr Not Bad, Mr Oh My Goodness and Mr Oh So Very Wrong. Follow the ups (there are a few) and downs (there are many) of the dating process and intertwined with her experiences, get to know her colleague and family, including her niece Lola who, apart from being an amazing storyteller, can eat ambidextrously whilst wearing a Princess glove puppet on her right hand, and Baby, William’s non-too-healthy African Grey parrot.