Thursday, October 17, 2013

Outlining versus Pantsing

This Writers Digest article on the merits of not outlining when writing a novel appealed to me, given I am a pantser myself. Author, Steven James, has some interesting things to say on the subject and there are some useful links at the end of the article too. His website is worth a look too.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Con about conmen. And thieves. And especially murderers ...

I love going to conventions! I won't miss an SF con if I can possibly be there - but twice now I've been to a con with a different slant - Crimescene. This excellent small convention looks set to become a regular feature of Perth’s readers and writers convention scene. It’s quite possible that it might eventually put the SF cons in the shade, because many, many more people are interested in reading and writing crime novels than spaceships and dragons.

A new Tara Sharp book by Crimescene guest Marianne Delacourt (alter ego of SF writer Marianne de Pierres)
With editing colleague Marisa Wikramanayake, I spent last Saturday at Rydges Hotel in Perth, a very nice venue that has a cosy setup for small conventions. We were there to run a panel on editing for newbie authors, and were delighted to find that we had a bright, interested audience who asked questions and shared their own experiences. I hope they all write best sellers!

I spoke about the mistakes beginners of all genres make in their writing - as a freelance editor, my speciality is doing what I call ‘mini-assessments’ for new writers. A mini-assessment is based on a synopsis and the first twenty pages of the writer’s manuscript. I’ve been doing these for several years now. It didn’t take me long to realise that a new writer’s problems all show up within a few pages – and I quickly learnt that almost all beginning writers show the same faults. They don’t all have all of them, but some do – and I’ve yet to have a newbie client who didn’t show at least three of them! I believe the first two are inexcusable, but you’d be amazed at how often I see them!

1.    The first one is not reading enough. A writer learns the basics of the craft by reading work by experienced authors and emulating them. You need to read widely, not just in your preferred genre, but in other genres as well. And it’s important that you read not just modern works, but the classics of past years, too. If a client writes but doesn’t read it’s screamingly obvious to me, and it will be to an editor at a publishing house, too. So make sure you read extensively – non-fiction as well as fiction – and read other genres as well the one you write in. And when choosing books to read, be sure to at least sample the work of authors from days gone by. In any job, the historical perspective is important. If we can’t see where we’ve come from, we’ve got Buckley’s chance of knowing where we are going! But we need to read the modern writers too, so we can start to recognise trends.

2.    You learn a lot by reading, but it’s not enough to turn you into a writer. The second problem of beginning writers is not bothering to learn the craft of writing. I don’t know why it is, but many people seem to think that because they know how to write words and sentences, they will automatically know how to write stories, too. Sadly this isn’t true. It takes at least 10 years to train as a concert pianist, and it takes about the same amount of time to learn to write well. Just as if you were learning a musical instrument, you need to practise and take tuition, so I hope you wannabe writers out there are doing a bit of writing every day and also going to classes and workshops as often as you can. It’s also useful to join writers critiquing groups, and go to conventions like Crimescene. There are national conventions for Romance and  Speculative Fiction every year in Australia, and perhaps Crimescene will set the ball rolling for crime, suspense and mystery as well. Also, you can learn a lot about the industry as well as the craft of writing by reading blogs by writers, editors and agents.

Still on the craft of writing; do make sure you have a good grasp of the basics, the stuff you learnt in school. Without a good understanding of grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation you are going to find it impossible to find an agent or a publisher, and if you self-publish a badly written book it simply won’t sell. There are so many self-published books out there that you have to be as good as traditionally-published authors if your work is going to attract readers. Learning to lay out your MS like a professional – with wide margins, double-spacing and so on is also important if you don’t want your submissions to look amateurish.

These two faults are inexcusable because all these things can be learnt online. All you have to do is Google! 

The other four faults are excusable, and will be overcome with time, patience and practice. Here they are:

3.    A problem shared by most beginners is not knowing where to start the story. In genre fiction, it’s essential to start in media res – right in the thick of things. Beginners tend to load the first few pages with back story, and that is a sure mark of an amateur. Start with something exciting that leads us to the precipitating incident – the event that gets the story rolling.

4.    And that brings me to Structure – another bugbear for beginners. Structure is complex and this isn't the place to go into depth with it. Just bear in mind that for a novel to work you must be able to answer the following four questions:

a.    Who is your main character?
b.    What does s/he want?
c.    What is stopping him/her from getting it?
d.    How does s/he deal with the opposition?
These are the four essentials of a good story. If what’s written can’t be summed up in this way, it’s not a story. It might be a lovely descriptive piece, a dissertation, or a clever bit of propaganda, but it’s not a story.

Expanding on this idea, a novel needs three acts, like a classic play. The precipitating (or inciting) incident comes early in the piece, certainly not more than ten per cent of the way in. At about the thirty per cent mark should come the protagonist's first setback, which marks the end of Act One. (All major characters should have been introduced by the end of Act One, by the way!) Act Two is the longest act, and it can take up to 60 per cent of the novel. About half way through the total length we should have a second setback, and at the end of Act Two – 90 per cent of the way through the novel – we have the third and biggest setback. There will have been minor disasters in between, of course, both in the main plot and in the subplot, but the one at the end of Act Two should show us the main character hitting an all-time low from which he or she has to turn things around. In most novels, this will be where the protagonist’s fortunes turn: the battle is won, the throne is gained, the princess is rescued - or your detective solves the case and confronts the criminal. The in true Henri Poirot style, we should see the main character clear up loose ends. This denouement should use up no more than ten per cent of the total word count.

That’s a very brief look at structure, but once again, you only have to Google to find articles that will clarify what I’ve just rushed through.

5.    The fifth problem of beginners is not having sufficient grasp of ‘show, don’t tell’. This is the most widely touted rule in writing, so I’m sure you’ve heard it before. When we go to a new place, we learn about it by finding our way around and listening to what the locals have to say. So too, in reading fiction, we learn about the author's world by becoming immersed in the sights, sounds and senses of the inhabitants, who are brought to life through dialogue. This is especially important today because modern readers expect an immersion experience. Writers today have to compete with many other forms of entertainment, and most of those are visual. We cannot give our reader visuals in a straight novel, but we can give them something better. We can get right inside the mind and body of our main character, showing how anger affects his body rather than telling reader he is angry; showing how he interacts with his world rather describing the scenery or telling us it’s a fine sunny day. Done skilfully, this not only drags the reader into your characters’ world, but also gives the reader information about the characters and the plot. It’s a very subtle thing, this show-don’t-tell. Chekov put it very nicely when he said, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass’. Can you see how that single phrase shows us that it’s night time, the moon is shining, and that the presence of broken glass means there must be a building or some other human artefact nearby, and that there has been an accident or violence of some sort. In that one little phrase ‘the glint of moonlight on broken glass’ - there lies a world of writerly wisdom. 

There are lots of subtleties in show-don’t-tell, and it’s closely bound up with worldbuilding and point of view. Fellow Egobooer Carol Ryles says that it’s useful to think of worldbuilding as a picture painted on glass. You smash that glass picture and insert shards of it – tiny shards, no more than slivers – into your story where appropriate, and always by showing, not telling, and through the viewpoint of the characters.

6.    This strong connection that binds show-don’t-tell to worldbuilding and point-of-view brings me to the last problem of beginning writers – and that’s not having a good enough grasp of point of view. I’m assuming you all know the difference between first and third point-of view. First is easier than third in some ways, and harder in others. Easier because you are forced to write from within the headspace of the main character, and harder because you are limited to that one viewpoint. First person makes it easier also to give readers the immersion experience they want. That’s harder to do in third person. What many authors today do is write from a close third viewpoint, which involves getting inside the character’s head just as you would with first person, so you are limited by what that one character thinks, feels, senses and experiences. But in third person you are at liberty to include more than one view point. Do make sure, though, that you only use one POV per scene. ‘Head-hopping’ – skipping about from one character’s head to another – is not only confusing for your readers: it also prevents you from giving them the full immersion experience of the tight third POV. In a really close third, you write everything, even the narrative, from within the character’s head. You avoid using dialogue tags as much as possible, and you slip information about the characters and their world in where appropriate, always from within the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the POV character, so narrative, setting and point-of-view become a kind of holy trinity, each one different manifestation of ‘show-don’t-tell’.

Marisa then went into more detail about what an editor looks for in crime stories and the kinds of stereotyped characters and situations that writers tend to use. You can read about her take on these topics at  Lee Battersby has blogged about the con in more detail at