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How taking a writing course helped my confidence grow

We’re thrilled to be launching another year of our Ultimate Novel Writing Course. It’s the most practical, hands-on course we offer, helping you go from first draft to full publishable manuscript with expert tuition and ongoing support. We chatted to Sharon Dunne, a student on the 2020-2021 course, about how the UNWC has impacted her writing journey.   JW: Hi Sharon! What stage were you at with your writing before the UNWC?   SD: I had very little experience before the course. I\'d always loved writing but it just wasn’t feasible as something to do as a career, at least not in my circle. I started writing properly about a year beforehand and, after eleven or twelve months, I realised that I needed help. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was just going with it - but if I wanted to make it a serious career, I really needed some help.   JW: What was your favourite part of the course?   SD: It’s hard to choose! Meeting my group was absolutely amazing because they were such great support. You end up building a friendship - a supportive circle where you can help each other when someone is struggling. That was one of my favourite things. I think the weekly exercises, the feedback, and the tutoring have been excellent as well. I had started with a book, but I ended up deleting a whole 96,000 words and starting again. I’d thought I needed a little bit of help, but I realised quite quickly that it just wasn’t good enough. The first tutor feedback I had was from Wes (Brown, UNWC tutor) and it was really good. He gave feedback in such a supportive way that it encouraged me to start again. Now I’ve just finished my manuscript. It’s just been sent off to Lindsey (Alexander, UNWC tutor) and it’s so much better. I basically learned from the ground up and I worked really hard at it – the whole experience was great.   JW: Amazing! Do you think starting from scratch on your MS was made a little easier because of that support?  SD: Yes, definitely! I had started writing without knowing I needed the basics, but once I’d started learning them I realised that [my original manuscript] wasn’t good enough and there was no point in trying to make a load of changes. In the end I just wanted to start again. Actually, I think I was more excited than anything. Whatever chapter I was writing, I would use that for whatever was the focus of the course each week – so I was kind of tweaking as I went, as well. The weekly tasks were really good because I performed them on my work-in-progress as I wrote.    I had started with a book, but I ended up deleting a whole 96,000 words and starting again... JW: It sounds like that corresponded really well then! Which aspect of the course did you find the most challenging?  SD: I have four small children and I work, so I suppose for me the most challenging thing really was just finding the time. But I was, and still am, very creative and I was learning very fast throughout the course. It was during that time I realised I just loved it – I really loved it. So I made sure I made the time, whether it was 9pm at night or getting up at 6am and doing a couple of hours in the morning. That was probably the most challenging aspect, but it was good to fully commit.   JW: How have you found fitting the course round your schedule?  SD: The course is great; it’s so flexible, especially for someone like me whose time is very limited. The amount of time and effort you give it is up to you and I think the more you put in, the more you’re going to get out of it. So I just decided that I was going to do the task every week no matter what, whether that was late night or early morning. I think that helped with building relationships with everyone in my group, as well. We also set up some monthly zoom calls where we could talk things through and see if anyone needed any help.   JW: It must be lovely to have that nice, supportive environment, because sometimes writing can be quite isolating. How would you rate your confidence with writing after the UNWC?  SD: I’m way more confident now! I believe that it’s possible now, and I’ve just committed to keep going.    JW: That’s brilliant! Do you feel that you have something close to being ready to submit?  SD: I’ve just submitted my work-in-progress to Lindsey (Alexander, UNWC tutor). I’m waiting for the response and then I’ll have feedback to do the next draft. I have a few drafts done – the second draft is the one that’s just gone over for critique. I would hope that I could then do another draft with Lindsey’s feedback – she’s been great as well – and hopefully then be ready to submit. Actually, last year I booked the Jericho Writers Self-Edit Your Novel Course  for this September, so I’ll do that with my new draft, and I’m hoping that after that I’ll be ready to submit.   I\'m way more confident now! I believe that it’s possible now, and I’ve just committed to keep going. JW: Amazing – I look forward to hearing about how you find the Self-Edit course as well. Lots of people have said great things about Debi [Alper] and Emma [Darwin].   SD: Yes I’ve definitely enjoyed them in webinars! I’ve also found the webinars really good – on the Jericho Website I found the ‘How to Write’ video course that Harry did, and I found that super-useful. I watched the whole thing when I first started writing.  JW: To what extent do you feel being an UNWC student has helped you find new opportunities?  SD: I think I’ve been opened up to an awful lot of opportunities because now I understand so much more about the fundamentals of writing. I have a lot more knowledge of how agents and publishers work, the different ways to get published, how difficult it is to get published and the standard your work needs to be at before you submit. Also, the importance of having a supportive team – I got to know all the other writers, knew where I could go for help, the different types of assessments and reviews you could get on your manuscript, and the whole writing world in general. I suppose that was especially good for me because I was very new to it – before I started this course, I didn’t know any other people who wrote in their spare time.   JW: I’m so glad you had that for support; having like-minded people around you is so important to keep going. In what ways do you think taking a writing course is helpful (compared to learning independently)?  SD: I think mainly it helps because of all the support. I know some people don’t like critique, but I loved it because it told me where I was going wrong. It made me want to change it - otherwise I would have never known! Obviously so much was wrong – nearly everything was wrong – and it was all revealed in the critique so maybe even from the first week it set me on the right track. Lindsey talked me through and I realised, okay, this is just not good enough. I know if I’d kept writing independently, I wouldn’t have improved. Some people perhaps are born being able to write well, but I needed to learn.   JW: You definitely do need that constructive criticism sometimes, especially in the early stages. Is there anything else you’d like to add?   SD: Generally, the tutors were all fantastic, and the group as well. I’ve found that the whole thing has been a really enjoyable experience and it’s taught me so much.   Sharon Dunne is an Irish mother of four young boys. She is a primary school teacher (who previously worked in advertising) and lives in the sunny South East, although she often questions the \'sunny\' part! Sharon is writing a novel called Phoenix Park, which follows the lives of three Irish women, two of whom are running for President. The third is a relentless reporter with the Viral Touch, who\'s covering the election. One of them is hiding a secret and when it\'s uncovered, the trajectory of all three women\'s lives are changed forever The Ultimate Novel Writing Course is now open for applications for 2021-2022. With online tutorials and mentoring sessions led by leading authors in their fields alongside in-person events, editorial assessments, literary agent inductions, and more - no other course offers this level of support as you work towards publication. Find out more: Ultimate Novel Writing Course UK / Europe (GMT time zone) Ultimate Novel Writing Course International (ET time zone)
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Character Arcs: What They Are And How To Create Them – With Template

by Dr Sharon Zink Character arcs are some of the most important tools in terms of writing compelling fiction, even if they’re played out on a smaller scale in a short story, but certainly when writing a novel.  They play a central role in not only establishing your lead’s motivations and thus narrative aims in a book and thus form the spine of the plot arc, but they are what makes the reader believe in and root for the lead which contributes hugely to how much they’ll invest in your story. In this piece, we’ll discover the different ways to develop a strong character arc, together with some examples and a template to help you create your own powerful character arc based on a lead who feels ‘real’ to the reader and who keeps them turning pages. What Is A Character Arc? Basically, in the course of a novel, or even a short story, a character needs to be pursuing a certain goal. What they want and why needs to be obvious to your audience so they can root for the lead to get their aim in the novel.  This goal is usually something noble, like finding love in women’s commercial fiction, solving a murder in a crime novel or even saving the world in action or adventure writing, although in literary fiction, the ultimate direction of the character arc might be something more subtle like seeking redemption or freedom.   However, whatever genre you’re writing in, your character arc is based upon this purpose or quest the protagonist is set on and is doggedly pursuing through the piece and your story arc will not have the poignancy or sense of purpose it needs without this being crystal clear to your audience and thus forming the backbone of your plot.  How Do You Write A Character Arc? One thing readers are looking for in a satisfying character arc is that the lead will have changed by the end of the book due to all they’ve experienced whilst fighting to get their narrative goal. Therefore, it’s key that your protagonist has grown by the end of your story arc and is not the same person as they were at the start.  First Act -- How Your Character Starts In some ways, this is the prologue work. Who is your character, on a fundamental level? Name, age, race, class, occupation -- the basics, yes, but also things like what kind of food they like, what their aspirations in life might be, if they\'re left or right-handed. (You don\'t necessarily have to know everything about them like their mother\'s maiden name or their third-grade crush or the places they want to visit before they die... but maybe those things are useful, so if you think of them, why not jot them down?) The arc begins (as does the plot of your novel or story) when the character\'s normal life is turned upside down by a trigger event or inciting incident – say, a murder in a crime novel which sets the detective on the hunt for the killer. As they do this, like any lead in any genre, they need to be proactive in going after their narrative goal, entering each scene with the intention to get their story arc aim or move nearer to it, only usually to fail or to make some progress, only to face an even bigger obstacle.  Second Act -- How Your Character Develops You\'re not the same person you were yesterday, and you\'re certainly not the same person you were last week, or last month, or last year, and so on -- and neither are your characters. As things happen to them (or because of them), their world changes and how they respond to those changes is key to developing their arc. Maybe the milquetoast office drone thrust into a plot of murderous high-stakes intrigue has discovered that she\'s actually really good in a knife fight. Maybe the fast-and-easy pirate has developed feelings for his first mate, despite saying that he\'d never settle down. Whatever the case may be, these developments and discoveries aren\'t happening in a vacuum: the character is going to have some feelings about what they\'re going through! So it isn\'t just that office drone turns out to be good with knives, but also that she\'s morally conflicted about how exciting she finds it. Authors often forget that there needs to be this emotional reaction after action to make their characters feel human to the reader, but then the planning part too, so the story arc has a causal connection and we see why one thing happens after another, this set-up ensuring the protagonist seems energetic and plucky and which keeps the story arc full of drama and an obvious forward-moving purpose.   Third Act -- How Your Character Ends Up As your plot builds to a climax or conclusion, the changes your character has undergone will be brought to the fore. How do they react to this new situation, with everything that\'s happened to them? Do they accept it? Do they fight against it? How will they attain their goal -- and how might their goals have changed, as they have changed? Bilbo Baggins is not the same hobbit when he comes home to The Shire as he was when he left. Some of that is obvious, but some of it lives in the background: he\'s traveled, he\'s seen horrible things and wondrous ones too, and now as the book comes to a close, he returns to a life that doesn\'t look familiar any longer. Your character doesn\'t have to go through such immense changes, but chances are they will whether you planned for them to or not. As your story comes to a close, your characters will have been pushed to their limits in one way or another and become someone new. It doesn\'t have to be satisfying, necessarily, but it should be real. It\'s unlikely that the knife-wielding office drone is going to be quite such a shrinking violet after everything that\'s happened to her -- and even if the pirate doesn\'t stay with his first mate, his heart might not be so freewheeling now. Conflicts – Internal And External An antagonist for your protagonist -- an opposing figure or force against your main character -- is a great way to help build out a character arc because it gives your character something to fight or push against, adding tension and strengthening the lead as the story arc progresses.  However, there can be other causes of external conflict than the villain figure, such as a confidant(e), which may be a best friend or family member, who acts as a sounding board for the protagonist and offers support, but who can also accidentally cause trouble for the lead due to well-intentioned meddling. This is something we sometimes see in chick lit, where the boozy best mate might tell the lead’s love interest they’re seeing someone else to create jealousy and supposedly add to the dreamy guy’s interest, but it just leads to a misunderstanding between the would-be couple and scares him off.   Indeed, terrible weather, a rough environment or even disasters can also be ways of preventing the lead from going after their goal, but they can also show their mettle too as often they will carry on anyway.  In terms of external conflicts, things get much more interesting when we put our leads in situations which are utterly hellish based on their past traumas or personal phobias or fears and make them face them! Say, in the simplest terms, someone hates spiders (like me!) and then our protagonist has to crawl through a web of poisonous arachnids to save the kidnapped girl which has been the goal of his or her story arc – not only will the reader be sat on the edge of their seat, wondering if the lead will finally overcome their terror for the sake of their bigger plot aim, but we’ll also be privy to the inner world of the lead and the immense inner pressure NOT to do this scary thing and this is called internal conflict.   It can feel mean to us writers, as we’re often so attached to our characters, but the best thing you can do to create a compelling character and story arc is to put your protagonist in the midst of an external situation that makes them quiver (public speaking is more scary to more people than death, believe it or not!) and ensure that you’re also showing the internal monologue of your lead as they fight against their fears.   You can even make them self-sabotage en route to their goals as humans are often wont to do. For example, a detective character could be out to make a big break in a case and then he’ll go out on an alcoholic bender which makes him lose the trail of the villain.   What If You’re Writing A Series? Generally, I tell author clients that if they’re new writers and want to write a series that they should keep this quiet in their submission package and make their first book as self-contained in terms of its character and story arc as possible so agents and editors can sell it as a standalone novel. This is because taking on a rookie is always a risk and the burden of having to sell multiple books may put some publishing personnel off.   In this case then, the character arc needs to be pretty complete by the end, with the story goal attained or near enough so, although you may want to allow a little wiggle room for a future sequel by not providing complete closure.   However, this is good advice across the board as a too sugary ending can seem unrealistic, but this also depends on the genre you’re writing in as certainly chick lit allows for more happy ever afters.  Obviously though, if you are intending to self-publish, you have carte blanche and often writing a series is a good idea as a way to develop a following, so your character and story arcs can be left more loose at the end, but with important questions left to be answered, despite the lead’s obvious growth, in order to intrigue a reader enough to buy the next book.  What Is A Flat Character Arc? Flat character arcs are exactly as they sound – they stay on a flat line, with the character neither growing in strength and awareness or falling from grace, as in Shakespearean tragedies. They mostly appear in genre fiction, like action writing – James Bond doesn’t change much for all his enemies and situational struggles, for instance – but, more and more, even genre writing is moving towards the emotionally shifting character arc of the protagonist playing a key role in the plot and the book’s overall interest.   If you think of most crime leads now, there’s often a wounded detective figure at the centre (something noted by James Frey in his books on thriller and mystery writing) who finds personal healing by solving the crime and Scandi Noir has brought the victims of the killed characters’ families to the fore so that these figures finding peace and moving on is a key part of the murder plot.   Hence whilst you can pull off a flat character arc by writing in a genre where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or add much nuance to your main figure, it often helps if there’s a sense of inner doubt about their ability to pull off the huge goal before them which adds something of Joseph Campbells’ ‘Hero’s Journey’ (which deeply influenced Star Wars) into play in which the hero hesitates in their confidence to pull off the story arc aim and this adds some important tension – even if, say, Frodo, is good at the start and good at the end of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and so, arguably, for all his struggles, a flat arc character.  How Do You Work Character Arcs Into Your Story Structure? One thing my first writing teacher, Leone Ross, taught me was to really get to learn about my main characters before I started planning my plot, let alone writing my book. She showed us how to create a template for discovering our protagonists in depth. Hence I create a list now that includes the character’s name, age, strengths and weaknesses, their goals etc. Editor’s note: we’ve compiled Sharon’s full list on this Character Arc Worksheet, free for you to download, keep and re-use as often as you need to! A Basic Example Of A Character Arc: Cinderella  Her nasty stepfamily (the opposition figures) are treating her like dirt when a handsome prince comes looking for his ideal dame (the trigger or inciting incident).  The mean girl stepsisters try to force Cinderella aside, but she’s determined to catch her man (the lead sets her story goal and her character arc flows from here).  She may be getting grubby scrubbing floors, but she schemes her way to the ball (character takes dogged action to get her goal and grows in defiance and strength).  She gets to the ball and catches the eye of the prince, only to have to return before her carriage turns into a pumpkin at 12 (darn external obstacle!).   However, she leaves her glass slipper behind and the prince is now so infatuated with Cinders that he scours town looking for its wearer – and, bam, as much as the mean stepsisters may try to force their feet in, only Cinderella’s dainty foot is a match (she gets her story goal and her character has grown from subservience to power and from loneliness and contempt to love).  Does Every Character Need An Arc? Minor players who don’t play a fundamental role like the lead, love interest, confidant(e) or opposition figure certainly don’t need a character arc as their role in your story arc is tangential.  These other key players though should have clear goals too which they pursue and which develop their character over the course of the story arc. The love interest’s aim should always be to win the lead’s love, the opposition figure fights to stop the lead getting their story goal and a confidant(e) is there to support the lead and let them talk about their main plot issues and inner turmoils, but they can also accidentally get in the way of the protagonist’s aims by causing mistaken mix ups and so on.  Hence we need to see the love interest growing as s/he strives to become the person the lead can adore and the opposition figure may grow in strength through conflict, but also face their own fears and weaknesses in this process so perhaps become changed by the end of the plot. A confidant(e) might well also develop in the process of supporting the lead through their journey, realising their own needs.   Conclusion A character’s arc or development involves their proactive pursuit of their story goal which is established when their life is changed by the inciting incident at the start. This helps create a lead readers will identify with and cheer for, but also makes a compelling plot.   The way your lead deals with external challenges, such as conflict with your opposition figure, extreme weather or terrain or natural disasters, as well as facing their inner demons, will all change them as the course of the novel goes on, usually bringing to the fore strengths they never knew they had, as well as some flaws and even possible tendencies to self-sabotage which all add realism to protagonists and make them three-dimensional.  Although some genres have flat character arcs without much, if any, development in the lead, generally it’s a good idea to show the evolution of your protagonist over the course of the book towards a positive end, such as healing grief, as well as getting their external goal, such as catching a killer.   Indeed, in most plots, there’s the main one – say, solving a murder – and a subplot perhaps involving romance, so it could be that both story arcs bring out different parts of the protagonist they didn’t know existed at the start.  However, it’s also important to remember to give character arcs and a sense of personal change to your other main players too, such as the opposition figure, love interest and confidant(e). The latter two don’t always need to be included in a story arc, but I’d argue that a lead without a villain has less chance of becoming all they can be as the enemy figure forces the protagonist to grow in strength and resourcefulness and confront their inner fears and traumas. Plus, without a concrete opposition figure, there’s less conflict, which is the lifeblood of fiction, and you risk your story arc losing drama and impact.  Get to know your lead and other key players well then, preferably by filling in a character questionnaire like the one above before you start work on your book or even short story. Keep asking yourself why, say, a character buys underwear from a certain place and on and on as this will reveal more and more of their values and beliefs and, even if you never directly use this material in your novel, it will give you a confidence as you write these characters.   After this, imagine the world through their eyes – not yours – considering the language or diction they would use as fits their education, interests and background, as this is key to establishing a convincing narrative voice and viewpoint, as well as creating distinctive dialogue – all on top of making a great character arc.  It’s worth every moment that you put into knowing your main characters and especially your lead, so you can convincingly show how they act to get their plot goal and react to the obstacles the villain and other external and internal elements which stand in the way of them getting their story arc aim.   It may be painful to see your treasured protagonist suffer as you make them face their worst fears, but it’s what will guarantee your book is gripping and up its chances of publication or be successful when you self-publish.  And, mostly, by the end, you get to give the lead their dream or a form of closure which life often doesn’t offer, so it’s not all bad news, but just being cruel to be kind to make them figures your reader never forgets.  About Sharon Dr Sharon Zink is a former English Literature academic and the author of Welcome to Sharonville (Unthank Books, 2014), which was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award.   She is also a feminist writing coach, long-term Jericho Writers editor and founder of The Feminist Writing School which has a mission to get more womxn’s books written, published and out there changing the world, hosting online courses and in-person workshops and retreats.   She lives in the UK by the sea with her cat, Muse, and a large book collection. You can receive her weekly Love Letters from the Literary Revolution with a bundle of articles on writing as a thank you for joining her community, follow her on Instagram where she is drsharonzink or join her supportive feminist writing group on Facebook as she loves getting to know her fellow authors.  
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Protagonists And Antagonists

by Dr Sharon Zink Having a strong protagonist and antagonist is key to making a novel compelling, no matter what genre you are writing in. In this piece, we’ll look at what protagonists and antagonists are and the different types of characters which can play these roles, as well as exploring the key elements which can bring them alive and give your manuscript the kick which will grab agents’ and editors’ attention from the opening page. What Is The Difference Between Protagonists And Antagonists? Sometimes also referred to as the lead or main character or a hero or heroine, an enthralling protagonist gives your work a powerful story arc as this is based on their narrative goals. However, the antagonist – which is also talked about as an opposition character or villain – creates much-needed conflict by getting in the way of the protagonist as they pursue their plot aims, usually wanting the exact opposite of the lead and doing all they can to stop them attaining their desires. Hence, whilst other factors like the protagonist’s own inner fears and turmoils, plus external factors like the environment, institutional bureaucracy and even the weather can all get in a lead’s way, the best means of really generating conflict, which is, arguably, the lifeblood of fiction, is to create a flesh and blood protagonist who matches the antagonist in strength, so there’s an exciting and equal fight played out in the pages of your book.   This gives the lead a great foil to fight against as they travel through their story arc, which, in turn, injects energy into the plot and keeps readers rooting for the main figure, whilst also allowing the protagonist to grow in a way which is vital to their character development as they face the obstacles the protagonist presents.  What Is A Protagonist? A protagonist is the central character of a novel – the one whose journey we follow as readers.   Usually, they have the lion’s share of the viewpoint in the book and their narrative aims – which might represent one goal for the main story arc and another for the subplot – dominate the novel, being the focus of the reader’s attention and what they keep turning pages to discover.   The standard plot begins with the protagonist’s world being turned upside down by an inciting incident or trigger event which sets them off on a quest to find a new ‘normal’ by the end of the novel, this journey representing the backbone of the story arc.  Hence what the protagonist wants and why – their character arc – is key to creating an intriguing plot which readers will invest in.   Types Of Protagonists Every book needs a protagonist or lead character, even if other figures are given viewpoints in the plot too, but the nature of this main player can differ according to the particular genre you are writing in. For example, in police procedural fiction, a cop usually takes centre stage, but crime novels also often feature ordinary citizens who have personal motivations to solve a murder, such as in Rosamund Lupton’s bestseller, ‘Sister,’ in which the protagonist is out to find the family member given in the title.   In chick lit or women’s commercial fiction though, the protagonist is usually a woman out to get a guy or rescue a romantic relationship and, in fantasy writing, the lead is often sent on a quest, such as Frodo in ‘Lord of the Rings’ who sets out to take the ring to Mordor and save his world from dark forces.  Indeed, action and adventure fiction often has a similarly heroic lead who combats an evil villain to stop him/her destroying civilisation (just think of James Bond).  In young adult writing, there’s often a teen who is either simply navigating the struggles of coming of age or who can also adopt the roles of an action or fantasy protagonist by engaging in a quest to free their imagined realm.  In terms of literary fiction though, the protagonist’s identity is more diverse and their goals often more subtle, but they will always be there, often involving themes such as the lead finding redemption or healing, with romance still frequently being the core of the subplot.   Whatever you write then, a strong protagonist who has clear narrative aims is crucial to creating a powerful character and story arc and so this is something to really ponder and plan before beginning work, preferably, unless you’re the kind of writer who needs to hit the keys to discover one’s plot and characters. Can The Protagonist Be A Villain? This question often pops up as we’re largely taught that our protagonist should be sympathetic and likeable so we can root for them to get their goals and there is some truth to the power of a lead having a noble aim in a novel. However, the key thing is that we understanda protagonist’s motives, even if they’re badly behaved or even overtly negative or evil, as once we comprehend whya figure is acting a certain way, we can usually find ourselves drawn into their story. Hence Satan is, arguably, the most intriguing figure in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and we’re often drawn to serial killer and Mafia stories in true crime and fiction, this perhaps revealing the shadow side of human nature. So, yes, you can create what is often called an anti-hero or heroine, so long as you’re able to convey the reasoning behind their immoral actions in a way your readers can easily follow. This can be a delicate and complex act of characterisation though, so only engage in this if you’ve got the will to really delve into the darkness of the psyche and the reasons why bad people do what they do. How To Write A Protagonist If your protagonist is so important then, no matter what kind of book you’re writing, it’s essential to ensure that you create a powerful lead with a compelling need to meet certain narrative aims by the end of the book. You need to know what they want and why and to show them doggedly going after this throughout the story arc, entering each scene attempting to get their goal, whether the main one or that of the subplot (these are interwoven throughout with the main plot getting the most narrative space), but failing or progressing, only to find themselves facing an even bigger obstacle. Their story arc could involve solving a crime, saving the world in a thriller with the clock ticking or getting a guy’s love in chick lit. Often the protagonist’s story arc in literary fiction will be somewhat less obvious, but it is commonly concerned with getting freedom from something (like oppression, war, a bad marriage and so on) or freedom to do a certain thing (travel, seek spiritual peace, justice and so forth).   If you’ve got an anti-hero or heroine in play, the story arc may involve them in murder, world domination or other evil schemes, but it will be something which to them – and thus to the reader – makes sense.   The same is true when writing magical realist or fantasy protagonists who may have special powers – so long as you can make the reader believe in the lead’s clairvoyant skills or their blue head with a hundred eyes, then all is well!  Getting into a protagonist’s inner monologue or thoughts and the physical sense of being in their particular body and really using the senses and how they perceive the world via the lens of their own specific background, education, beliefs, relationships and so on and also giving them flaws and inner conflicts, like Hamlet’s notorious indecision, is really how you can creating rich and three-dimensional leads which readers both find ‘real’ and won’t forget, much as Shakespeare’s protagonists remain vivid to us now, hundreds of years after the Renaissance.  Generally, though, it’s important to get the reader on the protagonist’s side, giving them a clear grasp of the character’s reason for wanting a certain goal for the main and subplots of the story arc from the start and showing them developing as characters as they face obstacles and conflicts as they fight for their aims in each scene, usually regularly confronting the antagonist who is the main thing standing between them and what they want most in the novel. It’s this all-important baddie figure which I will explore next.   What Is An Antagonist? As I mentioned above, an antagonist is the main figure who stands in the way of your protagonist’s story arc goals – the villain or opposition character who adds the most conflict to a narrative by doing their utmost to stop the lead getting their narrative aims, with their own character arc often focussing on obtaining the exact opposite of what the lead wants.   Types Of Antagonists In a mystery, a cop lead will want to solve a murder, but the antagonist then may be the killer who’s out to flout being captured or stopped in his bloody rampage, no matter what. In a women’s commercial or chick flick novel, the protagonist may be in love with and out to catch a certain guy, but she might find herself face-to-face with an antagonist in the form of a love rival, such as his poisonous ex, or being distracted, at least temporarily, from winning the heart of the real romantic interest by a guy who is bad news. In literary fiction, where the protagonist’s character and story arcs may be more understated, the antagonist will have to be shaped more specifically to the lead’s particular narrative aims. Hence if they want freedom from a painful marriage, the main figure’s spouse could stand in their way, suffocating their bid for personal liberty and a new life. Indeed, as much as larger obstacles, such as war, can cause huge issues for a protagonists, very much getting in the way of their goals – such as, for instance, a refugee’s attempt to escape dangerous lands with their child – it’s almost always crucial to actually embody these issues in a specific antagonist figure. Hence a refugee could be confronted by a cruel or unyieldingly bureaucratic guard at a detainment camp which thus symbolises the broader struggle the lead is facing. This allows the protagonist to face a tangible threat in the form of an antagonist figure, rather than the mere abstractions of a situation and this offers way more opportunities in the story arc then for juicy conflicts for, as much as a refugee having to trek across a hostile landscape is impactful, one-on-one fights between a lead and the opposition figure (who in this scenario could be separating the lead from their children and imprisoning them) are definitely more memorable, especially if ‘shown’ in ‘live action’, like dialogue between the two enemies. In this way then, a strong antagonist is crucial to create a powerful story arc and to make the protagonist’s journey all the more of an interesting and wild ride and, therefore, it’s key that you create a figure who’s equally matched to your lead and has as much determination to stop them getting their story goals as the lead has in terms of achieving them. Don’t start a novel then without knowing your antagonist as well as your protagonist, even though the lead will take up most of the reader’s attention, as the opposition figure is key in adding essential dramatic tension to the story arc as everyone loves bad news (just watch a soap opera to see the truth of this!). The antagonist also brings both the main character’s grit and inner issues to the fore, thus making them more three-dimensional and providing the reader with the expected sense of the protagonist’s personal growth over the course of their character arc. Hence an antagonist injects conflict into a story arc, but facing off against the opposition figure often makes the protagonist grow positively during the course of the novel by forcing them to confront their worst fears or work on their less pleasant personality traits. In this way, the baddie has the ‘side-effect’ of bringing out the best in your lead and thus performs a vitally important function. How To Write An Antagonist If it’s often, arguably, a good idea to make your lead likeable, so that readers cheer for them to get their story arc aims, with the antagonist, you can really have fun creating chaos and a figure everyone loves to hate. Look carefully at your protagonist’s story arc goals – for example, maybe they’re a woman detective looking to solve a murder in the main plot and to find love with a fellow cop in the romantic subplot – and then create a figure who’s going to make their life hell by blocking the lead’s plot aims as best they can. Basically, the development of the antagonist is the primary means by which the writer puts their protagonist up a tree and then cuts it down, as the saying goes! Hence, the antagonist in the above hypothetical cop’s story could be the murderer who’s going to fight being caught tooth and nail, but they may perhaps threaten her beloved’s life as well or even make matters personal by sending unsavoury materials from the past to her love interest in order to taunt the detective and ruin her life, as well as killing others. You can see then that the protagonist and antagonist are really mirror images of each other, wanting exactly opposite aims and being just as dogged about getting them. The antagonist’s motives for acting the way they do needs to be understandable here, though in a standard fight against a protagonist, as much as if you’re making a villain central. The reader needs to understand, even if the antagonist’s logic is warped. Hence we may see a tragic childhood which has shaped the killer’s psychopathy in a crime novel or a jealous ex’s refusal to give up on her past love which gets in the way of a couple getting together in women’s commercial fiction. In literary fiction, a toxic family member may refuse to let the lead grow up and be their own person, but only because they are insecure about being abandoned. Whatever their rationale is, it’s key to balance the book so that the protagonist’s aims in the story arc are mostly blocked by the antagonist in the plot ‘til towards the end, making the story arc, an uphill battle, and for reasons which make sense to the opposition figure and are as clear to the reader as the lead’s narrative goals. We may not agree with the antagonist’s perceptions or incentives, but we must understand what they are and what they want and why as much as with the main character. Again, the importance of face-to-face confrontations in dialogue or even physical fights, depending on the genre, cannot be overstated in terms of creating the requisite drama to really give a story arc adequate oomph. It’s possible to have an antagonist operating secretly against the lead, with the plot building up to a betrayal at the end, with the reader being privy to this hidden villain’s ill doings when the protagonist is not – a literary trope which is called dramatic irony. This can work as the reader is then on the edge of their seat as they wait for the horrible truth to hit home – just as Shakespeare shows Iago’s manipulation of Othello leads to the latter killing his wife, Desdemona, in jealous rage, although she is innocent of committing adultery, as the audience watches helplessly on, but also with a grim fascination. However, this sort of plot, without direct confrontations between the antagonist and protagonist until the very end, when the deceit and horror is revealed, is hard to pull off, so I’d encourage you to consider bringing your lead and opposition characters into each other’s immediate orbits, with verbal conflict and machinations by the antagonist which ensure the lead has to fight ever harder for their story arc goals, until we reach a crisis point in the plot where we think it’s impossible for the main character to get their narrative aims … except usually they then prevail and get their narrative aims at the end as negative conclusions are also tricky, so most shy away from them, especially as fiction offers the chance to offer positive resolutions, closure and justice which we so crave as humans, but so often, arguably, find missing in real life. Thus, the antagonist is central to making a compelling book, so I’d recommend getting to know them as well as the protagonist – who can take up all your attention if you’re not careful – as without a strong baddie, a story arc can lose its sense of drama and your lead can be seen to too seamlessly flow towards their goals, with the other characters they meet all being too pleasant, something which may wind up losing the readers’ interest as we want to see the lead facing major challenges and preferably having a particular villain to focus our wrath on as the person who’s doing all they can to mess with our treasured protagonist’s story aims. However, I’d also be wary of going over-the-top when creating an antagonist as we have to be careful not to lean on stereotypes of the moustache-twirling villain and, instead, come up with more original figures. You don’t have to recreate the wheel with genre fiction, but it’s always good to bring some freshness to writing as agents, editors and the general reader love to see angles they’ve never seen before, such as unusual and unexpected murderers or love rivals. We absolutely need then to create a protagonist who readers can get behind and to make it crystal clear what they want and why, so the reader can root for them to succeed throughout and be thrilled by their wins and sigh about their failures. However, an antagonist is a key part of developing the relationship our audience has with the main character by giving them a figure who they can see confronting and obstructing their beloved lead, being someone they can dread and loathe, but also are intrigued by and maybe they may even have some small sympathy for in all their damaged humanity. It’s crucial then to know your antagonist as well as the lead, giving them good sides as well as flaws to make them more rounded and comprehensible, even if this takes some deep thought about the past or present circumstances which make them act the way they do. Indeed, if you’re struggling to come up with an antagonist to stand in the way of your protagonist, think who is most likely to have the most power to obstruct your lead’s story goals and who represents their deepest fears – and can make them come true. In this way, sometimes creating an antagonist to fight our lead can feel rather mean to us writers, but just remember this is how you bring plots to life and, ultimately, develop your protagonist and allow them to shine. By making a powerful villain, you’re really being cruel to be kind as antagonists bring out the best in both your narrative and lead and get your manuscript one more step towards being published. About Sharon Dr Sharon Zink is a former English Literature academic and the author of ‘Welcome to Sharonville’ (Unthank Books, 2014), which was long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award.  Sharon is also a feminist writing coach, long-term Jericho Writers editor and founder of The Feminist Writing School which has a mission to get more womxn’s books written, published and out there changing the world, hosting online courses and in-person workshops and retreats.   She lives in the UK by the sea with her cat, Muse, and a large book collection. You can receive her weekly Love Letters from the Literary Revolution with a bundle of articles on writing as a thank you for joining her community, follow her on Instagram where she is drsharonzink or join her supportive feminist writing group on Facebook as she loves getting to know her fellow authors.
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NaNoWriMo: How To Write A Novel In 30 Days

By Elizabeth Haynes Ah, autumn. Crisp mornings. Brisk winds. Back to school weather, new pencil cases, pumpkin-flavoured everything, and writers all over the world preparing to take part in NaNoWriMo. They’re all a bit bonkers – right? Surely there is no sensible reason to write 50,000 words in 30 days? I beg to disagree. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and if you’re reading this then I am hoping that it’s something that you’re considering, and if you are, then let me share five good reasons why you should go for it.  5 Good Reasons to Join NaNoWriMo November is a great month to write. The weather’s dire, even when we aren\'t in a global lockdown, so why not put every moment of spare time to use and write? And if not now – when?You have nothing to lose. It’s only thirty days, and at the end of it you will potentially have 50,000 words that you didn’t have before. The key to it is letting go of the expectation of writing something GOOD. Nobody can write a perfect novel in a month. Whatever you end up with will need serious editing, if you feel like it. You’re not writing a masterpiece in a month, you’re just going to WRITE. And that is tremendously liberating.It’s great fun! Writing is by nature a solitary business, but this is an annual opportunity to be cheered along whilst you do it, to engage in competitive sprinting (writing for a given amount of time without stopping) if that’s your thing, or at least to be encouraged by a host of pep talks and discussions with fellow writers locally and around the world. And a side note: if you’re having fun while you’re writing, it will probably be better than anything you’ve written that’s felt like a chore.It’s a magic cure for Writer’s Block. No, really – it is. There is nothing like the pressure of a deadline to get you writing. If you get stuck, you can skip to the next scene, or change your story completely, or even throw in the Travelling Shovel of Death (a traditional NaNoWriMo technique). There are many suggestions on the NaNoWriMo forums to help you if you get stuck, and because there is no pressure for your writing to be good, then there is nothing stopping you bouncing off that metaphorical wall and back into the story.You never know where this might lead. There are many published novels that started life in November, Have a look here if you don’t believe me. Seven out of my eight published novels were NaNoWriMo novels. Admittedly each one took a year or more to edit, but we’re not talking about editing now, we’re talking about writing. What I’m saying is: I’m a normal person, whatever that is, and if I can do it, you can do it. How Do I Plan For NaNoWriMo? There’s plenty you can be doing now to prepare to write your novel. If you’ve already got a story idea, there are some brilliant, encouraging and comprehensive guides to planning your novel right here on the Jericho Writers website – see How To Plan A Novel and this guide on how to flesh out your ideas quickly with The Snowflake Method. Planning is just part of it, however. You’re writing a novel, you’ll need to take yourself seriously. If you tell all your friends and family that you’re going to do NaNoWrimo, then you are making yourself accountable, because you can bet they’ll all be asking you how the novel’s going during November and beyond – and as a bonus, it’s a great excuse to get you out of things you don’t want to do. Social events can wait till December – you’re writing a novel. The laundry can wait for a bit – you’ve got writing to do. Shopping? Let someone else take their turn. (On a practical level, if you celebrate Christmas, it’s a good idea to do some festive shopping and Christmas card writing now – December is going to come around mighty quickly if you’ve spent the whole of November writing.) It’s also worth pointing out (in case you’re reading this on Halloween) that you don’t need to plan at all. You can dive straight in on day one, or even several days in, if you missed the start. You can write an entire novel without planning – it’s called Pantsing, or writing by the seat of your pants. It will mean that you’ll probably have more editing to do later, but it’s no less valid a technique. In fact – hands up – I am a Pantser and proud. I never plan. I get bored if I know what’s going to happen. How Many Words Am I Going To Have To Write? To reach your goal by the end of the month, you’ll need to write 1,667 words a day. That sounds like a lot – and it IS a challenge, let’s be honest: if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they? But if you manage to turn off your inner editor, put aside the urge to fix problems as you go along, and just WRITE – you’ll be surprised how quickly your total goes up. Remember, NaNoWriMo is all about quantity, not quality – and while that might sound counter-productive, actually in the process of writing freely you’ll find that some of what you’ve written is really pretty good. As a 15-year veteran of NaNoWriMo, here are my top tips for getting it done: Try and get ahead of the game. Inevitably, there will be some days in the month when real life will intervene, and you won’t be able to write. If you’re ahead in terms of word count, it won’t feel quite such a slog to get back to the story. Aim for 2,000 words or more a day in the first week, if you can.Track your progress and celebrate milestones. The NaNoWriMo website has a helpful graph to show your progress and it’s very motivating to stay on or ahead of that target line. Every 10,000 words is a victory!Sprints are great. You might not be accustomed to writing at speed, but in fact, the only writer you are competing against is yourself. If you can write 300 words in 20 minutes, set a timer and try to do 320 words next time. How Can I Stay Motivated? Writing a novel in a month is something of a rollercoaster. There will be days when your story just flies and it’s hard to write fast enough, and then there are days when every word is painful. There is an acknowledged ‘Wall’ that most participants hit, often around Week Three – so if you’re struggling, you’re definitely not alone. This is where your writing buddies can help. Others in the Jericho Writers community will also be taking part – find a friend for a bit of mutual accountability, and maybe do some sprints together. Join your local NaNoWriMo region, too. There are no in-person events taking place this year, but every region will have its own community and online writing events throughout the month to help you with your wordcount. If you’re not feeling sociable, there are plenty of other resources to keep you going – personally, I can recommend Focusmate and Brain FM  to help maintain concentration. Tell yourself that this is only a month, and the achievement at the end will feel amazing. Give yourself rewards for sticking with it, and try to write every day – or don’t go more than a day without writing at least something, even if it’s a sentence. You’ll probably write more. If you’re stuck, the NaNoWriMo forums provide solutions to most problems. You can ask others to unravel your plot dilemmas (often the act of describing the issue to someone else will help your brain to find the solution). You’ll also find extensive lists of user-provided ‘adoptables’ – for example, ‘adopt a plot twist’, or ‘adopt a character’ – ideas for you to throw in to your story when you get stuck. They might not work, but they will keep you writing while your brain works out how to pick up your story again. Beware of procrastination, and getting in your own way! At this point I think it’s important to say it again: YOU CAN DO IT. How Much Should I Edit My Writing? Not at all. Just – don’t. It’ll interrupt your flow, cause you to doubt yourself, and takes valuable time away from driving that word count forward. November is not the time for editing – your inner editor should be locked in a virtual cupboard for the duration. I’ve made that sound very absolute, but it’s not quite that brutal. If you make a spelling mistake as you go along, by all means fix it, especially if it makes you twitchy. But what you shouldn’t do is delete anything. If what you’ve just written doesn’t make sense, type ‘FIX THIS’ or some other searchable place marker, and write the paragraph or chapter again. If your plot takes an unexpected detour that you know is horrendously waffly, leave it be. If your characters end up having a long conversation about pandemics, let them carry on and maybe encourage them to discuss Brexit while they’re at it. You know you’re making a mess. You know you’ll read this all later and wail ‘what was I thinking?’ but that doesn’t matter during November. Quantity, not quality! What Next? Whether you make 50,000 (or more!), or any amount at all, celebrate your achievement, collect your winner’s goodies from the NaNoWriMo website and have a well-deserved rest. It’s a good idea to let that novel sit undisturbed for a while, certainly at least a month. In the dark days of the new year you can revisit it, read through (and marvel at the bits you can’t even remember writing) and decide whether your story has potential. Mostly, despite the mess, it will have some really rather brilliant bits, and then the work of untangling, restructuring and developing can begin. Have I convinced you to have a go? I hope so. It’s a complete blast. In the words of Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, the world is waiting for your novel. This is your chance! About Elizabeth Elizabeth Haynes is a former police intelligence analyst who lives in Norfolk with her husband and son. Her first novel, Into the Darkest Corner, was Amazon’s Best Book of the Year 2011 and a New York Times bestseller. Now published in 37 countries, it was originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.
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Punctuation for Writers

Tips & advice for writers of fiction and creative non-fiction Punctuation matters. Punctuation tells the reader how to read the words you have on the page: where to put the pauses, how to make sense of your sentences. It’s not too much to say that bad punctuation will kill a book. It’ll get rejected by agents and readers alike. Trying to sell a badly punctuated manuscript is like going on a date wearing last week’s jogging pants. The underlying problem is the same in both cases. The badly punctuated manuscript and the dirty jogging bottoms both say, “I don’t care.” I don’t care about you, my hot date. I don’t care about you, my precious reader. Any sane date will just make their excuses and leave. A reader will do the same – and quite right too. So here goes with a quick guide to the major punctuation marks. In each case, we’ll talk about: The basic ruleThe most common punctuation errors that writers makeMore advanced ways to use the tool Most of you reading this will know the basic rules. Even so, it’s likely that you’ll be committing at least some of the errors some of the time. (A few of them are very common indeed.) And pretty much everyone will get at least something from thinking about how to use punctuation marks in a more sophisticated, writerly way. Oh, and the images that are scattered through this blog post? Those free-flowing floral designs are what beautifully punctuated text looks like. Fluid, but ordered. Mobile, yet tidy. That’s what we’re after. The Period, Or Full Stop (.) OK, you know when to use this little beast. You use it at the end of sentences, so long as those sentences aren’t questions or exclamations (in which case you’d use the “?” or “!” instead.) Easy, right? The Most Common Error One of the most prevalent errors in manuscripts written by first time writers is the so-called run-on sentence. It looks something like this: She was a breath of fresh air in our little town, she came into school on her first day with a bunch of garden flowers for the teacher and home-made candy for us, her schoolmates, it should have looked cheesy, but we fell in love with her on the spot. The error here is simple. The writer is using commas (“,”) where they should be using periods. The result is like someone just gabbling in your face, yadda-yadda-yadda, without giving you a chance to draw breath or reflect. The solution is simple. You chop the sentence up with periods, to produce this: She was a breath of fresh air in our little town. She came into school on her first day with a bunch of garden flowers for the teacher and home-made candy for us, her schoolmates. It should have looked cheesy, but we fell in love with her on the spot. Phew! That’s a mile better already. Notice that there’s still a comma dividing two of the sentences (“It should have looked cheesy” and “we fell in love with her.”) The grammar-reason why that comma is OK is that you have “but” – a conjunction, a connector word – joining the two sentences. In a way, though, I’d prefer you to forget about the grammar and just listen to the rhythms. Say the first snippet out loud, then the second one. If it feels right, it is right. That’s pretty much all the grammar you are ever going to need. More Advanced Ways To Use The Tool Back at school, you were probably told to avoid sentence fragments – the name given to sentences that lack a main verb. (Like this one, for example.) That’s rather old-fashioned advice in some ways, and it’s certainly unhelpful advice to offer when it comes to writing fiction or creative non-fiction. Take my own work. My narrator is jerky, tough, awkward, abrupt. Her voice is all those things too, and the consequence is that her prose makes a lot of use of sentence fragments. For instance: There’s a woman at the wheel. Forties, maybe. Blonde. Shoulder-length hair held back in a grip. Blue woollen coat worn over a dark jumper.I kick the door. Hard. I’m wearing boots and kick hard enough to dent the panel. Pretty clearly here, the periods are dividing my language up into units of meaning, not into sentences. The words Blonde and Hard are just words, after all. They’re not even attempting to be complete sentences. Equally clearly, my narrator’s language forces that kind of punctuation on the manuscript. If you wanted to follow the “period = end of sentence” rule, you’d have to rewrite the text so it looked something like this: There’s a woman at the wheel. She is in her forties, maybe. Her blonde, shoulder-length hair is held back in a grip. She wears a blue woollen coat worn over a dark jumper. [and so on] That’s not just differently punctuated. It has a different tone, a different mood. It’s perfectly fine writing … but it’s not what I wanted. The “correct” punctuation ends up destroying the voice I worked hard to create. As a rough, rough guide, literary fiction will tend to have relatively few sentence fragments, while crime thrillers and the like will have many more. But fiction is much more supple than that general rule suggests. So yes, my character is tough. Yes, she uses lots of sentences fragments in approved noir style. But she also reflects on philosophy, quotes poetry, introspects extensive, and so on. In the end, you build from the character to the voice to the punctuation. It makes no sense to try building the other way. The Exclamation Mark (!) An exclamation mark (or point) marks an exclamation, denotes shouting, or otherwise gives emphasis to a sentence. It’s like a shouty form of a period. But watch out! You think you know how to use the exclamation mark, but … The Most Common Error The most common error is to use the exclamation mark! It’s fine in emails. It’s OK-ish in blog posts. But in novels? Avoid it. As Scott Fitzgerald remarked, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” It’s like you’re trying to make your punctuation compensate for a failure of your actual writing. If you want a rough rule of thumb, you can use one or maximum two exclamation marks per 100,000 words of prose. If you have zero, that’s just fine. And never, ever have a double or treble exclamation mark in your text. What’s fine on Twitter, looks just awful on the printed page. More Advanced Ways To (Not) Use The Tool So if I (like most pro authors) hate the exclamation mark, what do you do instead? After all, there may be occasions where you feel your work actually needs the emphasis. But consider these alternatives: #1 “Go get it.”#2 “Go get it!”#3 “Go get it,” he ordered her, sharply. Those options are ranked in approximate order of shoutiness. The first option doesn’t feel especially emphatic. The addition of the exclamation mark adds a little force. The third option adds even more, via a highly coloured verb and adverb combo. But neither of the last two options is great. And the issue here is simply this: the actual bit of underlying dialogue is fairly colourless, and that’s not going to alter, no matter how many toppings you put on. In other words, if you started out with option #1 and found yourself thinking, “Hmm, this feels a little bland, so let’s get out the heavy-duty punctuation,” that should be a signal that you need to rewrite things. So a better option than either #1, #2 or #3 above would be: #4 “Go get it. Get it now. Give it to me. Never take it again.” You’re not using anything more than a common old period there, and you’re not resorting to ordering sharply, yelling loudly, yodelling wildly or exclaiming defiantly. But because your dialogue is now unmistakeably emphatic, it’s fine on its own. If the burger tastes great, you don’t need the relish. The Ellipsis (…) An ellipsis is a bit of a slippery brute. What it does is mark the fact that some words are missing. So, in dialogue, for example, people will often trail off, rather than actually complete a sentence. That much is easy – but how do you actually write it? Three dots is pretty much universal, but do you have spaces between them? Do you have a space before and after the ellipsis? And if you have the ellipsis at the start of a sentence, do you have a period (to denote the end of the previous sentence), then a space, then the ellipsis? That option sounds technically correct, but also rather fussy. The good news for you is that none of this really matters. Different style authorities advise different things, with some variation between British and American usage. And in the end, who really cares? Your editor won’t. Your agent won’t. Your reader won’t. It’s just not a big deal. I’d suggest, in general, that you use three dots without spacing in between, but with a space before and after. Like so: “Oh, Jen, if you really think that, then we should … I mean, maybe this was never meant to be.” The Most Common Error As with exclamation marks, the primary error is to overuse these little beasts. What works fine in an email, quickly looks annoying on the printed page. But whereas I’d advise you to hunt the exclamation mark almost to extinction, you can let the ellipsis breathe, just a little. One ellipsis per chapter is probably too many, but you’d have to be quite a fussy ready to object to half a dozen, or even a dozen, over the course of a full length novel. More Advanced Ways To Use The Tool As with the exclamation mark, the best way to use the ellipsis is to let it nudge you into querying your own writing. If you feel yourself wanting to use the ellipsis, just check that it’s not your writing that needs to alter. In nine out of ten cases, adjusting your text will be a better option than using the ellipsis. The Semi-Colon ( ; ) The semi-colon is a divider, the way commas and periods are dividers. The comma is the lightest of these in weight: it inserts the shortest of pauses. The period inserts the maximum pause. The semi-colon lives somewhere in between. Here’s an example of all three in action: It never normally rained, but the weather that day was awful.(comma = minimal pause)It never normally rained; my mother didn’t even own an umbrella(semi-colon = mid-weight pause)It never normally rained. That day, though, there was a deluge.(period = strongest pause) And look: you can live without the semi-colon completely. Personally, I quite like semi-colons, but my narrator, Fiona Griffiths, never uses them, so in about 750,000 words of published Fiona Griffiths’ novels, there’s only one semi-colon – and that enters the text via a direct quote from Wikipedia. Short message: if the semi-colon scares you, it’s fine to leave it well alone. The Most Common Error There are no common errors with semi-colons, except maybe overuse by people thinking they’re fancy. More Advanced Ways To Use The Tool Thinking of semi-colons as a middle-weight pause is technically correct, but it misses something, nevertheless. A better way to conceive of the mark is this: You need a semi-colon when you have two sentences, and the second one corrects or modifies the meaning of the first. So take those examples above. We used a semi-colon in this context: It never normally rained; my mother didn’t even own an umbrella. The first sentence is, in effect, adjusted by the second. The semi-colon tells us to read the second sentence as a kind of comment on the first one: “look, here’s just how much it never rained.” Or, if you want a slightly more grown-up example, here’s William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury: Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life. But you can get too hung up on these things. Arguably, sentences that speak about each other shouldn’t need any punctuation to get their point across. The text itself should handle the communication just fine. So there’ll be plenty of writers (including my narrator) who’d agree with Kurt Vonnegut’s lesson in creative writing: First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. And who cares if you’ve been to college, right? Parenthesis Brackets () | Dashes – – | Commas ,, There are three types of parenthesis you can use. They are: Commas: The comma, always a useful creature, can be used to separate one clause from the rest.Dashes: The dash – a more forceful beast – can be used in much the same way.Brackets: The bracket (perfectly fine in non-fiction) is relatively rare in fiction. But these three are not equivalent, and not equally common. I just opened up my Word document that contains the entire Fiona Griffiths series, and checked to see how many of each punctuation mark I used. In about 650,000 words of text, I used: 39,000 commas, of which, admittedly, many thousand wouldn’t be parenthetical.5,000 dashes, though most of these were actually hyphens, as in “short-tempered”. So I’m going to guess maybe only 1,000 actual dashes.100 brackets, of which many were things like “in Paragraph 22(c)”, where the use of the bracket isn’t really a parenthesis in the normal way. The Most Common Error There are two common errors when it comes to parenthesis. The first error is not to use anything to mark off a clause from the rest of a sentence resulting in (often, but not always) a sentence that is just plain hard to read. For example: The comma always a useful creature can be used to separate one clause from the rest. Tucking commas in around the useful-creature clause makes the meaning pop right out. The second error is kind of the opposite. It’s as though writers get worried that commas aren’t emphatic enough, so they start clamping their text inside brackets, like this: She couldn’t get enough of him (understandable, given her past), so she tried to find reasons why he couldn’t leave. And that feels heavy-handed. A simple rewrite releases the sentence and lets it breathe: Understandably, given her tangled past, she couldn’t get enough of him and she tried to find reasons why he couldn’t leave. There’s more flow there. Less sense of an author forcing information at you. The no-brackets alternative seems much more natural to fiction. The with-brackets version better suited to the information-delivery task of non-fiction. More Advanced Ways To Use Parenthesis The real trick with parenthesis – and with commas particularly – is to learn to feel the weight of a sentence. In most cases, commas will cover your parenthetical needs. If you need to rewrite something to make it work, then rewrite it. If you need the greater weight of dashes, then go for it, but recognise that you are, in a small way, pulling on the handbrake mid-sentence. If that’s what you want, fine. In many cases, there’ll be better options. Oh, and though I personally never read my text out loud, lots of authors swear by it – and any hiccups or awkwardness as you read is a huge clue that your punctuation or your text (or both) are at fault. Hyphens And Dashes The hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash We can’t quite leave a post about punctuation without talking about the various dashes available to you. Specifics in one second, but first, a public annoucement: The specifics don’t really matter. Yes, a lot of writers (especially those college-educated brutes that got Vonnegut all riled up) care a lot about their en dashes and their em dashes. But if you’ve never spent a moment caring about them in the past, you don’t have to worry that you’ve been doing something very wrong. You haven’t. Any “errors” on this scale will bother almost nobody – neither readers, nor agents. So, here’s what hyphens and dashes are and how to use them. The Hyphen The hyphen is on your keyboard as a minus sign. You use it to connect words, as for example: The hot-headed wood-cutter tip-toed past the one-eyed she-wolf. Apart from a slight anxiety about whether a hyphen is needed in a particular context (is it woodcutter or wood-cutter?), it’s hard to get these little fellows wrong. Oh, and although everyone will have a house-style defining when to use hyphens, everyone’s style guide will be a bit different, so there’s often not a clear right and wrong here anyway. The En Dash The en dash is so called because it is a dash approximately the same width as the letter N. And it doesn’t live on your keyboard anywhere: you have to give it life and breath all by yourself. You do this by hitting Ctrl and the minus sign at the same time, to give yourself something that looks like this: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) As that example suggests, it’s used mostly for dates, or for things that feel much the same, for example: Washington–New York (in the context of a flight timetable, for example.) The Em Dash The em dash is so called because … well, you’re going to have to guess which letter-width it’s named after. You create this little critter in Word by hitting Ctrl-Alt-minus. And the em dash performs the following functions: It marks an interruption in dialogue.“The buried treasure,” he said, as he lay dying, “the treasure can be found just to the right of the old—”It marks a parenthesis in the middle of a sentence.The em dash—more forceful than commas—marks out a parenthesis in the middle of a sentence.But it can also mark out a parenthesis at the end of a sentence.He was allergic to fruit, sunshine, exercise and soap—or so he always insisted.(The “so he always insisted” part is the parenthesis here. If you were using brackets, that whole end chunk would be enclosed in brackets.)It can be used as a slightly informal colon.The result of that informal colon—often a little hint of comedy, or something of a “ta-daa” quality.It marks deleted or redacted words.The accuser, Ms — —, struck a defiant tone in court. Best practice is generally to use the em dash without a space before or after, but that’s one of those things that doesn’t actually matter. Newspapers tend to use spaces and British usage is much more tolerant of spacing and lots of people just don’t know the rules anyway. That’s it from me. Beautiful punctuation is often a sign of careful writing and a beautifully readable book. If you’re new to the site, don’t forget to check out the Garden of Delights that is a Jericho Writers membership. If you’re serious about writing, we’d love to have you join us. More here. About The Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. More about us.
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How To Revise A First Draft

A checklist for your novel or manuscript rewriting process In this blog post, pro novelist and writing tutor, Emma Darwin (full bio below) gives you her advice on how to revise a first draft of your writing. So you’ve written your first draft novel (or other manuscript). That’s great. Congratulations. It’s a big moment. But now you need to make sure that your novel draft works on other readers as you want it to. Maybe you’ve just about managed to tame your novel, but now you’re facing A Big Revision or Rewriting of your first draft – so where on earth do you start? Before you edit, revise or rewrite anything, here are some pointers. Step 1: Read Through Your Book First, I suggest, you need to do your own appraisal, trying to read your first draft novel straight through, and as much like a reader as you can. I call this “problem-finding”, and by far the best way to do this it on paper, with a pen in your hand. Using track-changes and comment balloons on screen is a poor second, but possible; either way, you’re trying to record your reactions, as a reader, to the story, not start problem-solving: that comes later. Also note any wider thoughts that this reading throws up, but don’t then just dive into the most urgent or least frightening job. Because so many decisions and changes will affect all sorts of other things, it’s terribly easy to lose track, get diverted, lapse into fiddling and tinkering, and generally get into a worse muddle than you started in. Step Two: Organise Your Thoughts So, first bring all the different feedback you’ve had together, make an enormous pot of coffee or your working-drink of choice, and start sorting it out into rough categories. Problems that run all through the story: the order you’re telling the story in doesn’t work; a character is cardboard, or vanishes, a lost-letter plot’s in a muddle; the narrative voice is dull.Problems with particular sections: a saggy middle; that scene where the dialogue is flat as a pancake; the too-confusing opening; the crucial but oh-so-difficult sex, or battle, scene.Problems of continuity and consistency, such as paragraphing, how dialogue is punctuated, or how you represent dialect.What I call “bits”: individual corrections and tweaks, from typos, to one-off clunky paragraphs, to missing research. Once you have the overall picture, you can sort it out into a to-do list, and decide on the order to tackle your rewrite. The temptation here is to plunge straight into the revision process . . . but you need to resist that. Before you start to edit, revise and rewrite like crazy, you have a little more organising to do. Step 3: Work From Big To Small One possibility is to look at p.1, do everything it needs, then move on p.2, but that’s probably not the best way to tackle it. As with totally renovating a house (only this one you don’t have to live in at the same time), it’s not wise to do the whole of one room, from damp-course to top-coat, before you start the next. You neeed to make sure the structure is solid and the roof waterproof, only then get the electrician in to move lights and install heating, and only when all that’s done, do you paint the walls and lay carpets. Whichever order you do things in, any major change probably has ramifications elsewhere. Get into the habit of not galloping off to follow up now, but make a note on your To Do list to tackle it at a logical point. And although every writer is different, this I suggest, would be a good order in which to tackle things: Big structural changes. Don’t worry about the close-detail of stitching the sections into their new places, just do the rough carpentry.Any all-through-the-story things which need shrinking, changing or enhancing.Individual work on scenes and sections, now that they’re all in the (probably) right place.Consistency and continuity things which are most easily done when you put on the right glasses and deal with that issue all together: a character’s taste in clothes, say, or the punctuation and paragraphing of dialogue.Just work through from the beginning of your manuscript, and any other mark-up by your readers. Step Four: Work In Layers As much as you possibly can, tackle any particular problem working forwards in the story, so that you stay in touch with how the reader reads. It’s super-important for plots which depend on who-knows-what, about what, when. But it also matters for things like characterisation and setting, because the reader is encountering this person or place in stages, through time: make sure you’re in control of how that knowledge develops. If it helps you, work through the novel focusing on just one layer: Aunt Anita’s character arc, let’s say, or the way you build a picture of 1940s Manhattan. Ignore anything else (good or bad) if it doesn’t pertain to those exact issues. I know it feels inefficient to “go through the book” so many times, but believe me, you save far more trouble than you spend, because you don’t get in a muddle, duplicate work or cause muddles elsewhere without realising. Step 5: Re-read The Entire Text If you follow the advice above, you’ll have far less work to do once you get to the last stage: Do another straight read-through-like-a-reader, in print or on screen. Use this to pick up any darning-in of the big structural changes that’s still needed, and anything else you might have missed. This also is a very good moment to read it aloud, pen in hand, if you haven’t already: it’s brilliant for picking up typos, and more generally getting outside the novel to read it as if you didn’t write it. Just have a big jug of water to hand. Step 6: Stay Positive If all this sounds as if it’s more work than writing the first draft was – you’d be right. All authors know that writing is rewriting. Revising the first draft of a novel isn’t easy. True, some rewrite each page or even line, until it’s perfect, then move on, while others hurl a whole first draft down on the page, spelling-mistakes and all, and only then go back and start to hammer it into shape. Still, most would say that they spend perhaps three or four times as long on that rewriting of a page or novel as they did on putting the first version of those words on paper. Guest Post By: Emma Darwin Emma Darwin’s debut novel was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year awards, and she is the author of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. Her blog is used for writing courses around the world. For more on these and a host of other writerly topics, click through to resources via my blog.
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Opening Lines For A Story (Great, Effective & Bad Examples)

What’s great & effective? What’s downright bad?Real Examples From Real Writers. Recently, we ran a competition solicited opening lines or sentences from real writers, with a small prize available for the winner. We’re going to look at some examples drawn from that competition . . . along with my own (hyper-picky) comments about what’s really good, and really effective. And what’s just a bit . . . not so good. Before we plunge into our sentence surgery, three quick comments. First, the examples that follow are drawn from writers writing real novels (or short stories). They are, like you, serious aspiring writers, but not yet published. For the most part, we were looking at works-in-progress, so these examples were all subject to change anyway. Second, opening sentences don’t matter all that much. The opening paragraph of the novel I’ve just handed to my publisher ran, in its entirety, as follows: Rain. Was that a good opening line for a novel? Well, no one asked me to change it, but does that sentence hook a reader in? And hook them into a story set in Wales, where the presence of rain hardly merits much discussion? I don’t think so. The fact is that the process of hooking a reader usually takes longer than a sentence and writers shouldn’t obsess unduly about the stuff above and to the left of the manuscript’s first full stop. There’ll be plenty more full stops to come. And last: I’m horrible. I mean, yes, I’m nice to widows, orphans and stray dogs, but I’m horrible to slightly iffy sentences. I’m very picky and my standards are high. So if some of my could-do-better commentary below depresses you – well, forget it. It’s not you. It’s me. But if you want to learn how to write opening sentences, then you probably want to look at what follows … How To Write A Good Opening Line: Full stops are your friends. Short, clear sentences will grab your readers’ attention.Use language that will add weight to your sentences.Use your verbs correctly, and your adjectives sparingly.Opening lines don’t have to be loud, subtlety is just as effective. Opening Lines To Novels / Short Stories: Examples So much for the preamble. Now for the sentences. (No authors are named because very few of the sentences I had had named authors on the page.) Example #1There were just three things that Samine was certain of in her life; first she was dangerous; second, she was never allowed to leave her room and, third, the spirit of a dragon lived inside her. Not bad, though it’s a little too close to Stephenie Meyer’s now famed three-part quote from Bella Swan in Twilight. Still, you can see what the author is wanting to do and the idea itself is fine. Here’s one way of tweaking things without altering anything too much (though it brings it still closer to Stephenie Meyer’s phrasing): There were just three things that Samine knew for certain. First she was dangerous. Second, she was never allowed to leave her room. Third, a dragon lived inside her. That’s shorter, clearer. It’s also better weighted. The key word in the first part of the writer’s sentence is “certain”. The addition of “in her life” doesn’t add much meaning but it does de-emphasise “certain”. My formulation is that bit clearer about where the interest of the sentence lies. One other thing, I’m not sure if this is the place to reveal that Samine can’t leave her room. The middle of one of the three certainties doesn’t tie obviously to the other two and feels a bit different. (#1 and #3 feel like existential statements; #2 feels like a simple, known fact.) But if the middle of those three statements goes, then the whole opening needs reconsideration. Example #2The most ironic thing about your first impression of me – I looked like butter wouldn’t melt. Interesting. I almost like this. My only real worry is that “the most ironic thing” bit. It feels a bit like a teenage use of ironic, which is perhaps not correct given the context, but in any case, I do wonder if there aren’t simpler, less laboured ways of doing the same thing. Suppose, for example, we just said this: Your first impression of me: I looked like butter wouldn’t melt. That is surely strongly suggesting that that first impression might be way off base, yet it conveys that impression by making the reader do most of the work. As a rough guide, the more the reader feels they’ve made a deduction, the more powerful that conclusion will feel. Example #3He’s stalking behind the disused factory, waiting for the flapping of wings to alert him to where you are. You remember when I said I’m pedantic? To stalk is a transitive verb, that is, it requires an object. I stalk you, etc., I don’t just stalk in the abstract. So that first clause feels a bit uncomfortable. And “alert him to where you are” also feels a little bit strained. Wouldn’t “alert him to your position” read better? And the double participle (waiting for the flapping) seems a bit needless here. But you only need a little tweaking and this is a strong, engaging opening: He’s searching you out behind the disused factory, waiting for a sudden flap of wings to reveal your position. That’s better. (Oh, you want to delete the word “sudden” from that? Yes, that’s probably better.”) Example #4The house had something American Gothic about it, though nothing it was minded to share. Excellent! Nothing to pick at, except that me personally I’d probably sooner say “had something of the American Gothic …”. But it’s a great, subtle opening. I like it a lot. Example #5What do you pack when you have four minutes to leave your husband? Again, that’s great opening line. Oh, and you want to know why that sentence works as well as it does? It’s because it makes you do a double-take. The first part of the sentence makes you think, “oh, this is a question about packing . . .” The second part makes you go, “whaaaaaat?!” It’s that mid-sentence pivot that gives it wellie. It’s also nice, because it instantly launches the reader into two important story-questions. Not just “why is this woman leaving her husband?”, but “why does she only have four minutes?” Of those two questions, it’s the second one that has the greater bite. Marriages collapsing are (unfortunately) a rather everyday occurrence. Marriages that collapse and give the wife just one minute to get away – well! We want to know more. Example #6My mother’s shroud was a grubby net curtain and her coffin was a gun case. You like that, don’t you? Yes, and it’s almost terrific. But I don’t like that word “grubby”, at all. It pulls attention away from “net curtain” and the use of a net curtain for a shroud is quite striking enough irrespective of whether it’s grubby. Just delete the adjective. The sentence gets instantly stronger Also, I hope this writers is about to tell us how come the gun case was big enough to fit a mother. I mean, that’s a very large case, or a remarkably small mother. So long as the author explains that niggle sometime soon, that’s fine, and (once you’ve deleted that “grubby”) it’s a good opening line. Example #7It was not a good day to bury a child, let alone ‘The Chosen One’, and the more Thomas Cowper tried to console his mother the more she sobbed, ‘Fear not, Mary … Blessed art thou amongst women.’ Hmm. I’m afraid I don’t rate this as an opening line. It’s almost good, but gets itself into a tangle, then trips over itself. And the thing is, the best bit of this sentence is the very opening and the longer it goes on the more the writer overwrites that clean and striking opening. Some full stops would help: It was not a good day to bury a child, let alone ‘The Chosen One’. The more Thomas Cowper tried to console his mother the more she sobbed. ‘Fear not, Mary … Blessed art thou amongst women.’ That’s already a lot better. Even so, I’m not completely happy. That opening line now has real merit and launches plenty of story questions (why is this a bad day? Why is a child being buried? Why is this child The Chosen One?) So if it were me, I’d leave the reader dangling a bit more, before starting to answer the questions they really cared about. So I’d run with the first question (why is this a bad day?), and just answer it with a description of winds and rain. Mourners getting soaked. Rain on the preacher’s Bible. That kind of thing. And this approach would work because I’m pretending to answer the questions I opened up with my first sentence . . . but not the ones the reader really cares about. It’s like the reader is yelling at me, WHY ARE YOU BURYING THIS CHILD? and all I’m doing is explaining why the day is a bad one. I’ve basically created suspense already, and my description of the weather is just keeeping that suspense going for longer. Example #8Deano’s hair was still wet from the pool and he swept his palm over his scalp trying to chase off the cold. ‘Come on, cock-snot. Pick up. Please.’ Okay, I very much like the dialogue. I like the contrast with the more formal opening line. The writing itself is fine. Just … I don’t quite believe the gesture you’re telling us about. When people get out of the pool their hair is normally already very flat and smoothed from the water. You definitely can’t chase cold away by palming your already flat hair and it’s not even a gesture most of us feel tempted to make. If he’s cold, he grabs a towel, or moves into the sun, or does something other than what you tell us he’s done. Picky? Yes. But getting those kinds of details utterly convincing from the off is part of what gets a reader into the story. Here, you do get the reader in, but you’ve done so with a tiny – and needless – stutter upfront. Example #9The hands on the clock didn’t seem to move, unlike mine as I drummed and fidgeted on the table. Hmm, this is okay, but it’s not quite good. The hands-not-moving-on-the-clock isn’t a cliche exactly, but it is a very familiar idea. Likewise fidgeting hands: also a very standard way of conveying impatience. Further into a novel, those kind of issues dissolve a little bit. Sometimes it’s just quicker and cleaner to reach for the familiar, so the novel can hurry onto wherever it’s heading. But in an opening sentence, I think any whiff of cliche threatens a reader’s trust, and you need to extirpate it completely. As I say, there isn’t an out-and-out cliche here, but I do think you’re cycling a little too close to the edge. My verdict? Rethink this sentence from scratch. Example #10The cat barked. Everyone will want to read on to see what follows. Purrfect. That’s a terrific opening line. Example #11The fucking train is cancelled. Again. Yep, good – cancelled trains as a sign of commuter distress is well-used, however, so I hope the writer has an interesting way to develop the incident. I would be disappointed in an opening page that just rehearsed the various woes of the commuter – but we’re on sentences here, not pages, and the sentence itself is fine. And finally: Example #12I had not been awake long, when I heard the knock on the door, I opened it and saw Sheriff Dennis Munroe on the porch, he stood a little over five foot six, but gave the appearance of being almost cubic he weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds and had arms like a bear, thick, powerful and covered in coarse black hair. Here’s one of those ‘sentences’ which is begging to be carved up. A few full stops instantly make this a mile better: I had not been awake long, when I heard the knock on the door. I opened it and saw Sheriff Dennis Munroe on the porch. He stood a little over five foot six, but gave the appearance of being almost cubic. He weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds and had arms like a bear, thick, powerful and covered in coarse black hair. That’s a relief already, only a few remaining niggles really. Using Munroe’s full name doesn’t seem right, since the narrator clearly knows the guy, and we don’t think of people as know as Title Firstname Lastname. Yes, you may want to give us Munroe’s full name in due course, but you don’t have to do it here. Secondly, that last sentence has four ands in it. That feels awkward, especially so early in the book. Third, how does the narrator know what Munroe weighs? I mean, the sheriff is clearly a fellow who likes his meat and potatoes, but that’s different from knowing someone’s measured weight. I’m not convinced. And finally, a minor thing, I have a hesitation about ‘I opened it’: it’s just that you’re narrating every tiny incident, even those we take for granted. Better to take a slightly less blow-by-blow approach. Something like this, maybe: It was early, when Sheriff Munroe came calling. He stood at my door, five feet six and almost cubic. He must weigh close to two hundred and fifty pounds, and he has the arms of a bear: thick, powerful and profusely hairy. I know that last sentence still has three ands, but the restructuring helps the rhythm, at least to my ear. And it’s so much shorter! It has the exact same content as the first sentence, but compresses it into a much shorter space. Result: much more energy per pound – and a much more compelling story. Do you want more help with your sentences?Did you know that Jericho Writers is a club. We’re here to help writers just like you. Membership of the club is low cost and can be cancelled any time (there are no lock-ins.) And what you get is extraordinary. A huge, premium video course on how to write. Loads on how to get published. Opportunities to put your work in front of literary agents and get their feedback direct. And so much more. We created our club for writers like you and we’d love it if you joined! Find out more. Best Opening Lines: The Winner There, we’re all done. If I must pick a winner, I’ll go for: What do you pack when you have four minutes to leave your husband? Or: The house had something [of the] American Gothic about it, though nothing it was minded to share. I like both of those. The second is a bit more literary; the first is a terrific opening line for a psychological thriller, or something of that sort. They’re both excellent. And One Last Comment On Story Openings The thing to remember? That your opening line it doesn’t really matter. The opening sentences for my five Fiona Griffiths novels are: #1: Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park. #2: It’s a Friday afternoon. #3: I like the police force. #4: Rain. #5: ‘Well?’ None of those are good opening sentences (though none of them are terrible). And, in most cases, it doesn’t take long to get something that puts a scrap of meat on the reader’s dish. The opening paragraph to my second Fi Griffiths novel, for example, goes like this: Example: Love Story, with MurdersIt’s a Friday afternoon. October, but you wouldn’t think so. High clouds scudding in from the west and plenty of sunshine. The last shreds of summer and never mind the falling leaves. That last sentence already advertises a certain strength and confidence. The reader feels immediately placed in the mood of the story. Because the writing has that confident tone, the reader trusts me. It’s as though they’re thinking, “OK, this is supposed to be a crime story. Nothing much seems to be happening yet, but I can tell this author knows what he’s doing, so I’ll stick with him and see what develops.” An opening paragraph can do more if it wants to, but it really doesn’t have to. Notice that this opening para sets up nothing interesting about the character, the situation, or, indeed, even the weather. It just sets a scene and does so with confidence. If your manuscript does that then, no matter how unshowy that opening sentence, you’re doing just fine. Oh, and if you need a little more inspiration for your opening lines, check these out. Happy writing – and happy editing! About the author: Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 
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Diversity in genre fiction

Guest author and blogger Rhoda Baxter studied molecular biology at Oxford, which is why her pen name takes after her favourite bacterium. She writes contemporary romantic comedies in whatever spare time she has. Here are her thoughts on diversity in fiction. When Is A Book ‘Not Asian Enough’? There’s been a lot of recent discussion about diversity in publishing. A lot of people lament the fact that there aren’t enough diverse characters in fiction. There is diversity in the people who live in the UK and diversity in the subsection of those people who write books, so why the mismatch? As part of this discussion someone brought up the fact that books with BAME protagonists are judged by a different set of criteria – one of which is is this book Asian enough/black enough? This question winds me up. What is the benchmark for a book being Asian enough? Who sets it? How often is it reviewed? What is the point of it? I write romance, arguably the biggest selling genre in fiction. I’m British/Sri Lankan. Asian is part of who I am. It’s not something I consciously work at. If you asked me to list the things that define me, my Sri Lankan background would not make it into the top five. As a kid, I lived in a regular house, went to a regular school, read the same books, watched the same TV shows and listened to the chart show every week, just like the rest of my classmates. Of course, there was the odd Goodness Gracious Me moment, but mostly, my life wasn’t vastly different to my friends’. It wasn’t as though as soon as I shut the front door I was transported into another world of sari’s and spices. Yet, if you read mainstream fiction featuring Asian characters you’d think that was the case. No wonder everyone was so astounded that Nadiya Hussein chose to flavour her cheesecakes with fizzy pop (or that she even baked in the first place!). My first book featured middle class Sri Lankan characters. I wrote about people who were, basically, a bit like the Asian people I know. I submitted to agents and small publishers, I had a few notes back, a few requests for the full manuscript. ‘Asian Lit’ was popular at the time; White Teeth and Brick Lane were still riding high. The most useful feedback I got back was “I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it”. It wasn’t Asian enough for literary fiction and not white enough for genre fiction. Being the pragmatic sort, I wrote the next book with white main characters. Given that I write about middle-class people, the things that worry white characters would be pretty much the same as the things that bother Asian characters – job security, sexism, bullying, the quest for love. Besides, people are people, regardless of what shade they are, and white characters have the same range of feelings as brown ones. I placed this book with a small publisher relatively easily. If you want fiction to represent the experiences of a wide range of people, you need accept those experiences as they are presented – even if they don’t fit into your preconceived notions. Rich people face different challenges to poor ones. First generation immigrants face different challenges to their children. No two Asian homes are the same, because no two families could be the same. So perhaps we should stop trying to pretend that they are. How can fiction show the reading public any variety in the Asian experience of life if the publishing industry insists that very variety does not exist (or, more accurately, that the reading public won’t buy it). ‘Diversity’ isn’t about showing Asian characters doing things in an Asian way, or gay characters doing things in a gay way or disabled characters doing things in a disability adapted way. That’s just pandering to stereotype. Diversity is achieved by showing characters of different backgrounds doing things in their own way and telling their unique stories. If it makes minority characters look less different than the majority expect them to be, that might even be a good thing. In case you hadn’t guessed, I write under a pen name since my real name is difficult to spell, and it helps to keep my writing career distinct from my day job – but I have always submitted my work to publishers and agents under my real name. I think (although I have no data to back this up) that the ‘is it Asian enough’ question arises not from racism as such, but from a skewed assumption of what readers can stomach. As a point of principle, I always have at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each book. In my latest book (Please Release Me) the heroine is mixed race. I’m sneaking minority characters into mainstream genre fiction one book at a time. Interestingly, readers don’t seem bothered at all.
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How to write according to Myers-Briggs personality type

Guest author and blogger Lauren Sapala is a writing coach, the author of The INFJ Writer, and writes about writing, creativity, and personality theory on her blog. She currently lives in San Francisco. It’s often empowering to understand what helps you as a writer, but types only take us so far. First and foremost, you’re you. What builds your own creativity and what holds you back? If you’re struggling to make headway on a writing project, think how you best work, how maybe a “weakness” could be a strength, and what’ll most help you finish – will it be a deadline? Or a designated day of the week to write? For more on the MBTI system, the Myers & Briggs Foundation website is a great place to start. However, I’d urge every writer to experiment with many different methods of writing to find what works best for them. There can be great variation, even among the same type. Every artist is an individual. All artists should give themselves the permission to do whatever works best for them. Are You An Intuitive Writer? I struggled for years as a writer. I wanted desperately to write a novel, but I couldn’t even write the first page. Then, when I finally worked up the courage to take a creative writing course in college, I failed miserably. I stopped writing altogether for seven years. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I discovered my Myers-Briggs personality type that I began to shine as a writer. Finding out that I was an intuitive personality was just the information I needed to finally move forward. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a system of 16 personality types that divides people along a spectrum of traits that determine how an individual interprets and reacts to the world. The MBTI system focuses on such tendencies as introversion versus extroversion, and intuition versus sensing (i.e. relying primarily on concrete information gleaned from one’s five physical senses). The complexity of the MBTI system is too vast to be addressed fully in this article, so if you don’t already know your type or you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating area of psychology, I recommend you make use of the wealth of helpful resources that can be found online. If you do already know your type, and you want to know a bit more about how this affects your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, look at my selection of “writers by type” below, to discover how you can start using your type as a creative advantage. These below are intuitive personalities on the MBTI system – ones I seem to work oftenest with, encouraging their ideas and intuitive talent. Tips For INFJ Writers I’m an INFJ writer myself, and so I’m intimately acquainted with many of the most common obstacles INFJ writers face. The number one challenge I see INFJ writers struggle with is perfectionism. INFJs have a rich, all-consuming inner life, and they excel brilliantly at seeing the big picture and imagining the ideal version of how something could take shape in the future. Because INFJs are such amazing abstract thinkers, it’s easy for us to bring together different elements in our mind to form a perfect whole. It’s when we try to make this “perfect whole” a physical reality that we’re confronted with the real world and all the messiness, pitfalls, snags, and less-than-perfect elements it contains. INFJ writers who are unconscious of their own perfectionistic tendencies will get stuck at this stage, always dreaming and never making any of their dreams a reality. It’s only when INFJ writers realize that the real world is never perfect, and anything they create will necessarily be bound to this real-world truth, that they can begin to accept their writing for what it is, flaws and all. Tips For INFP Writers INFP writers suffer the most from too many ideas, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by all the choices and different creative paths they could take. I’ve written on my site on the non-linear way I’ve often seen INFP writers work. This can be a strength, though – a means to connect patterns between scenes, images, characters, and ideas. It’s also not uncommon to see an INFP writer working on several writing projects at once, but the problem is not that INFPs work on too many things at the same time. Instead, the problem is that they tend to judge themselves harshly and resist their natural tendency at every turn. INFPs need a lot of variety. They also need a sense of flexibility and the freedom to be spontaneous and fluid in their artistic pursuits. Out of all the types, INFPs are most likely to work in circles. This means that the INFP writer usually works on one story, then moves onto painting for a few days, then moves onto writing a poem, and finally circles back to the story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach and, in fact, it can work quite well for INFPs who have accepted their nature and embrace this circular way of working. INFP writers run into trouble though, when they compare their creative processes to others and try to force themselves to work in a linear manner. Tips For ENJF Writers Out of the four intuitive feeling types (INFJ, INFP, ENFJ and ENFP) the ENFJ is the type that is most likely to fall prey to an extremely harsh inner critic. ENFJs are almost preternaturally aware of the relationship dynamics surrounding them, and that includes a thorough assessment of how others view them and how they measure up in the larger order of any community of which they happen to be a part. This leads many of them to easily play the comparison game, and many times feel like they’re coming out on the losing end. ENFJs also have a strong need for connection and community. If they feel isolated in their writing pursuits, or like no one understands them or “gets” what they’re attempting to do with their writing, they can quickly shut down and then begin isolating themselves even further. ENFJs must feel emotionally supported by a group of peers they love and respect. This is when they will do their best work. Tips For ENFP Writers ENFPs are similar to INFPs in that they suffer from the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many ideas, but with ENFPs this includes an outer world component that can contribute to even more overwhelm. Simply put, ENFPs are unabashed extroverts. They love people and they love getting out and having adventures with people. A healthy ENFP might work two jobs, have a family, and still take up demanding hobbies such as snowboarding or Spanish classes in their spare time. This kind of schedule usually leaves little time for writing. The number one problem most ENFPs struggle with is finishing things. They begin novels, plays, and short stories full of enthusiasm for the project, but then a sparkly, too-interesting-to-resist person or cause comes along and immediately distracts them. The best method for ENFPs is to devote one day a week to a certain piece of work (maybe the novel they’ve always dreamed of writing) and keep firm boundaries in place around that day so that the project gets a guaranteed slice of their creative energy on a regular basis. Never feel boxed in, though. Find your best writing habits. Always do what works for you. Learn about Lauren’s journey and read more at her site. Learn more about all different MBTI types and writing styles – and check out more free writing advice on us.
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Vivid Verbs – The Easy Way to Spice up Your Writing ׀ Jericho Writers

The ultimate guide to using verbs in your writing. Includes list of 333+ strong verbs. Sometimes you write something and it just feels … dead. So you go to work on it, juicing it up with adjectives and adverbs. Trying to put a sparkle into your writing. Only then you take a step back and look again. And what you have is actually worse. It’s still flat, but somehow trying too hard at the same time. Like playing canned laughter at your own bad party. So let’s pare back and go back to basics. Here’s what authors Strunk and White advised in their little writers’ Bible, The Elements of Style: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” And there are lots of others who agree. Here’s Stephen King: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.” You can also read similar comments by Elmore Leonard and Mark Twain. So what’s the problem that all these authors are getting riled up about? And what’s the fix? (Oh yes, and I’ve got a list of 300+ strong verbs for you to get your teeth into. If that’s all you want, just scroll on down.) Weak Verb + Adverb Versus Strong Verb Take a look at these sentences: “No, Thomas,” she said very quietly.He ran as quickly as he possibly could to the station.She jumped as high as she knew how off the diving platform. The words in italics are either adverbs or (same basic idea) adverbial phrases. And don’t you feel how cluttered they are? Don’t you feel like there are a lot of words being used there to communicate not so much? Here’s how we could have done it: “No, Thomas,” she whispered.He raced to the station.She leaped off the diving platform. Fewer words. No adverbs. And a simple, effective communication. Doing more with less. And that’s the basic idea about vivid verbs. If you use the right verb, you will communicate more swiftly and effectively than if you choose the wrong one to start with – then try to patch the damage with yet more verbiage. OK. So that’s a win. But there’s more to explore here – because, yes, there’s another way to go wrong with verbs, and it’s this. State Of Being Verbs Take a look at these sentences: Jerry was a great believer in the virtues of cold water.Jemima was never out of bed before midday. Notice that both those sentences use a state-of-being verb (in this case, “was”) to link a person with something about that person. And, OK, there are plenty of times when that’s a perfectly fine approach. None of the issues raised in this blog post are rules; they’re more guidelines, or at least useful things to think about. But in this case, both sentences could be made better by using a more active verb – a vivid verb – in place of that state of being one. Here’s how those sentences could have gone: Jerry believed passionately in the virtues of cold water.Jemima lay in bed well beyond midday. Better right? Jerry is now doing something, not just being something. And in Jemima’s case, we’ve removed that negative / state of being approach, and made a positive statement about her indolence. Both sentences seem somehow more active, more emphatic. Oh yes: and you probably noticed that, in the sentence about Jerry, I slipped the word passionately in there. That’s optional, but if you want to strengthen the verb, you can. There’s no neat one-word way to say “believed passionately”, so using an adverb there is certainly a legitimate choice. There Is / There Are Another perfectly valid construction in English is to start a sentence with “there is” or “there are”. For example: There were countless trees in that forest and only one of them …There are many opportunities at this company … Those sentences are not grammatically wrong. You won’t get shot if you use them. But … Well, we could do better right? For example: Countless trees peopled that forest and only one of them …This company offers many opportunities … Boom! In the first case, we’ve got rid of a horrible empty construction (“there were”), we’ve used a good strong verb (“peopled”), and the whole sentence has got better. It feels like that forest is more alive, more exciting. That’s a perfect demonstration of how a good vivid verb can help fix an underpowered sentence. Same thing with the next sentence too. In the first version, the “company” features only as an afterthought. In the second version, it is actively offering something – it’s the subject of its own sentence and its generosity seems now like a positive act. And note the role of the verb here. The act of generosity is encapsulated in that verb, “offers”. We’ve killed a weak verb, added a vivid one – and our sentence has improved. Better right? And so damn easy. Passive Verbs Vs Active Verbs Let’s take a look at two more sentences. The cake was made by my grandma.The fender was bent out of shape by a fallen branch. And yes: you spotted the issue there. In both cases, the sentences use the passive voice, not the active voice. So the person who actually made the cake was grandma. The thing that actually bent that fender was that damn branch. (Need more help remembering the difference between active versus passive? Check out this easy guide.) So in effect, both sentences shoved the real subject to the back of the sentence, almost as though shoving them out of sight. Here’s how to rewrite those sentences and make them better: My grandma made the cake.A fallen branch bent the fender. (Yes, you could say “out of shape” but doesn’t the word bent already convey exactly that? I think it does.) But again, I want to remind you that we’re dealing with guidelines not rules here. Which of these is better: Detective Jonas arrested and charged the suspect.The suspect was arrested and charged. The first sentence is all about the admirable Detective Jonas. But what if we don’t care about him? What if this story is all about the suspect, and what happens to him? In that case, the second sentence is better. In fact, the use of the passive voice here almost emphasises the suspect’s powerlessness. As always in writing, you need to use your judgement. And if in doubt, you can find extra help here, here and here! Sometimes Weak Verbs Are Ok And while we’re on the issue of judgement, let’s just remember that sometimes weak verbs are really OK. For example, you can’t get a much blander verb than say / said. So you might think that your dialogue should be littered with words like trumpeted, shouted, asserted, called, whispered, muttered, declaimed, hollered, and so on. But can you imagine how ridiculous that would get how quickly? And what do you want people to pay attention to? The dialogue itself, or your comments about it? There’s no contest. In other words: weak / dull / lifeless verbs are fine when you don’t especially want to call attention to that part of your writing. Let the dialogue shine. The rest of it can just go quietly about its job. The Ultimate List Of 333+ Strong Verbs OK. That’s a lot of preamble. But you want some vivid verbs? You got em. Here goes, grouped by the kind of word they might replace: Instead of say: Ask, enquire, reply, answer, state, hiss, whisper, mumble, mutter, comment, bark, assert, shout, yell, holler, roar, rage, argue, implore, plead, exclaim, gasp, drawl, giggle, whimper, snort, growl, scream, sing, stammer Instead of run: Sprint, dart, bolt, canter, gallop, trot, zoom, hurry, speed, jog, saunter, scamper, hurtle, rush, scramble, spring, swing, swoop, dive, careen Instead of walk: Stroll, hike, promenade, saunter, march, amble, stride, tread, pace, toddle, totter, stagger, perambulate Instead of look: Observe, glance, stare, examine, peek, study, notice, see, glare Instead of go: Leave, depart, shift, take off, move on, quit, exit, take a hike, travel, drive, proceed, progress, run, walk away Instead of eat: Pick at, nibble, munch, chew, gobble, devour, consume, demolish, gulp, swallow, scarf, wolf Instead of hold: Grip, clench, grasp, seize, reach, embrace, clamp, clench, clasp, grab Instead of give: Provide, offer, present, hand over, deliver, contribute, furnish, donate, bequeath, pass over, pass to, extend, assign, allow, lend, bestow, grant, award, confer Instead of let: Allow, permit, authorise, agree to, consent to, accede to, give permission for Instead of put: Place, set, lay, position, settle, leave, situate, locate, plant, deposit, plonk, plunk Instead of pull: Yank, heave, haul, draw, cart, lug, hump, drag, tow, jerk, attract, pluck, wrench Instead of move: Progress, transfer, shift, topple, change, redeploy, refocus, relocate, prod, nudge, induce, cause, budge, stir, lead, encourage, propose, induce, slink, scamper, careen, zip, ram, drift, droop, heave, edge, stalk, tiptoe, creep, crawl, plod, waddle, drag, stagger Sensory verbs / quiet: Sigh, murmur, rustle, hum, patter, clink, tinkle, chime, whir, swish, snap, twitter, hiss, crackle, peep, bleat, buzz Sensory verbs / noisy: Crash, thunder, clap, stomp, beat, squawk, shout, yell, explode, smash, detonate, boom, echo, bark, bawl, clash, smash, jangle, thump, grate, screech, bang, thud, blare Instead of tell: Order, command, instruct, dictate, require, insist, warn, caution, decree, mandate, charge, direct, dominate, lead, rule Instead of like: Love, adore, yearn, treasure, worship, prefer, idolise, cherish, admire, enjoy, be fond of, be keen on, be partial to, fancy, care for, appreciate, hold dear Instead of want: Desire, crave, covet, yearn for, aspire to, envy, fancy, require, wish for, hanker after, need, lack, miss, aim for, choose Instead of cover: Bury, wrap, conceal, mask, veil, hide, cloak, shroud envelope, obscure, blanket, curtain Instead of throw: Toss, lob, chuck, heave, fling, pitch, shy, hurl, propel, bowl, cast, drop, project Instead of surprise: Confuse, puzzle, bewilder, baffle, bamboozle, disconcert, flummox, perplex Have fun, my friends, and happy writing! About The Author  Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)  (You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here).  More On How To Write Link to: How to Write a Book (10 Doable Steps for New Writers) How To Write A step-by-step guide
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6 tips for writing really bad villains

By C M Taylor Ever wondered what goes in to writing a nasty villain? Guest author C M Taylor has put together 6 top tips for writing really bad villains, plus everything else you need to build a well-rounded bad guy. Featured In This Article Thematically develop your villain– a crucial stepCreate a compelling backstory– the richer the betterBuild emotional logic– and learn why this mattersShow physical and mental scarsAdd in super human giftsMake your villain unbeatableWriting well-rounded bad guys and villainsDoes every story need a villain?How to create a likeable villainWhat if your protagonist is a villain?11 examples of evil villains and bad guys The term ‘villain’ defines a character who personifies the forces which thwart the progress of the main character. Now, while it is feasible that the villain is the main character – and we will come on to that less usual and more nuanced situation later on – in the vast majority of cases, the villain is villainous in relation to opposing the needs and desires of the main character. This structural role of antagonising the main character is the reason the villain is often described as the antagonist. They are a character who stands in negative relation to the spiritual, emotional, moral or financial progress of the main character, a character who is often described as the protagonist. Thematically Develop Your Villain A writer can usefully begin their creation of a villain via an understanding of theme. Are you writing about loyalty, for example? In which case, your protagonist has issues with loyalty which they must overcome, via the obstacles of the plot, to achieve a healthy, positive attitude to loyalty. Hence the role of the villain is to embody and prosecute a version of loyalty which is negative but tempting, which is corrupt but seductive, which might derail the heroic character’s attempt to achieve a healthy version of the theme. It is the villain’s job to oppose the progress of the hero, and so, knowing the specific thematic nature of the progress which the hero must make, that necessarily takes you some way to defining the nature of your villain. Your villain must be suitable and specifically adept at preventing the thematic success of your hero, hence must embody a negative version of that theme. Create A Compelling Backstory So, once you have understood your theme and decided which negative version of the theme is embodied by your villain, you next ask yourself why they are like this. For an example, let’s stick with the theme of loyalty. Your villain might espouse a version of loyalty which states you must have only loyalty to yourself, or loyalty to chaos, or loyalty to crime, or loyalty to the dead. Any unhealthy version of the theme will do. Let’s pick they have loyalty to chaos and want to bring disorder and anarchy to the whole world. Why are they like this? Their parents were unbelievably controlling and up-tight and rational and crushed the villain with their excessive punctiliousness maybe. Or the villain and their brother were in some youth cadet force which was all about order and discipline and the brother died in an accident born of excessive following of the rules. You see, one you have your thematic relation, you move to explain it via the backstory. Build Emotional Logic Our thematically-driven excavation and development of the villain’s backstory allows us to take an emotionally logical approach and explain why the villain is like they are. Continuing with our theme of loyalty, our rule-following cadet was eager and good to start with, tragic events having turned them on to a negative chaotic version of loyalty. Or our young child started off good but was hounded by neurotically rule-bound parents to crave the release of chaos. If you show the reader that it is emotionally logical for the villain to have passed from a state of health to their current corrupted self as a consequence of events, you humanise the villain. You make the reader think that they themselves might plausibly have reacted the same way in the same circumstances. You give the villain an emotional plausibility and a gravitas. And a decent villain needs gravitas, needs the emotional plausibility and heft to pull the villain into their version of the theme, into their version of reality. A good villain is like a moral centrifuge. What they pull towards them and put in peril is the hero’s self, their morality, the hero’s version of the theme. Showing it was entirely reasonable for the villain to arrive at the moral place they are in shows that the hero might arrive their too, and so puts a huge amount of jeopardy in play for the hero. Show Physical And Mental Scars The clichéd villain is often physically disfigured, right? There being a suggestion of a relationship between moral and physical disfigurement. I would however caution against this simple equation, quite apart from it perpetuating discrimination against people who are unfortunate enough to be physically disfigured, it has been done to death. Why not mix it up? The hero is trying to overcome prejudice against their physical disfigurement while the gorgeous villain is prone to the ravages of narcissism. Add In Super Human Gifts Your protagonist has to be special. In some genres like fantasy or science fiction they can be ‘the one’ level of special. In genres such as crime or thriller they can ‘exceptional human being’ levels of special. In genres such as romance or realism, they can ‘normal person pushed to the edge behaves heroically’ levels of special. And if your protagonist is special well, given that it is the job of the villain to oppose the protagonist, then in order to seem anything like able to compete with the hero, the villain needs to be special too. Make Your Villain Unbeatable Every villain needs to seem unbeatable to start with. The obstacles they place in the way of the protagonist must seem insurmountable. If the hero can beat the villain at the beginning, then there are no struggles needed. It is the insurmountable villain that causes the hero to develop and grow. It may be that your story is a tragic and the hero fails to beat the villain in the end. However it ends, in the beginning there must be no way that the hero – in their current state – can compete. Writing Well-rounded Bad Guys And Villains Why do villains matter to fiction?  Answering this involves taking this question right back to ask ourselves: what is a story? The crux of a story is concerned with how the main character changes, or fails to change, over time, in contact with internal, external and relationship pressures. A story is a map of this change over time, or this failure to change over time. The change is both an internal, emotional journey and an external, physical journey. Now if the journey comes easily, then there will be no drama, because drama requires struggle. The journey which the protagonist goes on needs to be ripe with struggle – with obstacles, tests, high stakes. The most common and identifiable way to manifest struggle is to have it between people. Between the antagonist (or villain) and the protagonist (or heroic character). It is the antagonist who provides the obstacles standing in the way of the protagonist’s need to consummate their change. It is the test of wills between the antagonist and the protagonist that generates the struggle. On a very simple level, in terms of the mechanics of plot, it is the villain who sets the test and the heroic character who sits the test. It is the villain whose actions provoke the need for the hero to act. Batman without The Joker would have no need to act. The villain is a dark twin to the hero. The villain embodies the shadow qualities of the hero. The villain is what the hero might have been, what the hero might be, should they make the wrong choices, which is what gives rise to the clichéd piece of film dialogue, ‘We are not so different you and I, Mr Bond.’ If the heroic character struggles to embody the positive possibilities in a work of fiction, the villain convincingly embodies the negative aspects. The villain personifies the specific forces of antagonism which aim to prevent the protagonist from completing their internal and external journey. Does Every Story Need A Villain? The short answer to this question is no – in terms of the villain being a physical personification of antagonism, not every story has or needs this. A story needs antagonism, yes, and most usually this antagonism takes the form of a human being standing in opposition to the progress of the heroic character, but it is not necessary to do this. Antagonism can be generated in other variations than the single, embodied villain. The antagonism might be within the heroic character themselves. It might be a mistaken belief about life which leads them astray or into repeated unhealthy actions; or it might be an addiction. Note that choosing to centre the antagonistic force internal to the main character influences what type of story you are telling. It would be hard to make this choice and write an action story, for example. The choice to situate the main antagonistic force internally, as an aspect of the heroic character, is more associated with character-led stories – literary or dramatic works, or sometimes the psychological thriller. Whereas the more traditional human villain personification of antagonistic force is more usual within crime or fantasy or action stories. There are other forms of antagonism too. It might be centred around a group of people. It might be the family that a young person needs to escape to ‘become’ whole. Or it might be the pain still felt when a parent abandoned a child. Or it might be a best friend who continually leads the main character into activities which are against their best interests. Basically, antagonistic forces can be anything as long as they are the main obstacle in the way of the protagonist achieving what they most need. Traditionally this force has been embodied via the personification of a villain, but the villainous function can be performed within a story by other forces. How To Create A Likeable Villain As I write above, the villain stands or falls on the plausibility of their world view – the villain is the hero in their own eyes. If you can show why the villain has ventured from the path of moral health to become the creature they are today then you have created the route by which the reader can empathise with the villain. And if they can empathise then – in the current parlance – they can possess relatability. All the best characters are layered, multidimensional and above all, unique. So, if your bad guy can have some redeeming qualities, or a journey that the reader can connect with, then that could definitely make for an interesting read. What If Your Protagonist Is A Villain? Your protagonist can be both hero and villain – look at Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Or your protagonist can be a criminal – look at The Godfather, at Breaking Bad, at The Sopranos, at Crime and Punishment. Or your protagonist can be an anti-hero – look at Mr Robot.  They can be any of those things. As long as they are subject to thematically congruent antagonistic forces, the rules are the same. As long as we know why they are like they are – In The Godfather, Michael Corleone gets pulled back into the family business of murder and extortion through love of his threatened father. Walter White sells meth – initially at least – to protect his ill family in Breaking Bad. Elliot from Mr Robot illegally hacks computers to out greater criminals. This is a common strategy – outflanking your villains with even greater villains to make your villain comparatively empathetic. Look at Dexter. Yes, he is a serial killer, but he only kills people who are themselves worse than him. He performs bad acts for a comprehensible and relatable reason. 11 Examples Of Evil Villains And Bad Guys Tricking Othello into murdering his own wife makes Iago a pretty good start to our collection.Another trickster, in Treasure Island, Long John Silver tricks Jim Hawkins, disguising his own role as leader of the mutiny.Why do we care for and want the sociopathic murder Tom Ripley to escape throughout Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley novels? Because he feels love and we feel his vulnerability and inadequacy.And why do we admire Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ novels? Because he is brilliant and stylish and logical.Only somebody as prodigiously gifted as Moriarty could aspire to being a villain worthy of Sherlock Holmes special powers.Anne Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery turns out to the fan no writer wants.Xan may seem like the villain in P D James’ The Children of Men but isn’t the broader antagonistic force that of infertility itself.No mistaking that it’s a shark who is the villain of Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws.Isn’t narcissism the antagonistic force in play in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey?Are dinosaurs the antagonistic force of Jurassic Park? Rather I would say it was the human vanity and over-reaching that lead to the recreation of dinosaurs in the first place. Same with Dr Frankenstein – it’s the Dr not the monster who sets the test.Isn’t the entire Republic of Gilead the antagonist force in The Handmaid’s Tale? Have Your Say So, there we have it, a foolproof method to build your very own villainous bad guy. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think. About The Articles Author C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). Craig has also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which was filmed in 2014 and premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival, and he continues to be commissioned to write scripts for TV and film. C M Taylor is also a sought-after editor, working with a well-known publisher as well as working with Jericho Writers as a book editor.
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Points of View in Fiction Writing (with Plenty of Examples)

What is first person? What’s third person? What’s all this about limited vs omniscient…? How you narrate a story – or what points of view you choose when writing fiction – can make all the difference to its appeal. What’s more, the choices you make now will affect every page (indeed, pretty much every sentence) of your novel. So you’d better get things right, huh? No worries. This post will tell you everything you need to know. We’ll start with some definitions and some examples, then assess the pros and cons of each possibility. Oh, and buckle up. This stuff can sound quite technical and scary, but (a) it’s simpler than it sounds, and (b) the choice you want to make instinctively is probably the right one. It’s really possible to overthink these things! First up: some definitions. All You Need To Know About Points Of View Point of view (POV) is the narrator’s position in relation to the story: First person – the narrator and protagonist are the sameSecond person – very rare and hard to pull offThird person – an ‘off-page’ narrator relates a story about your charactersMixed – combines first-and third-person passages Point Of View: Definitions The Point of View (or “POV”) is the narrator’s position in relation to the story. There are a few basic possibilities here, one of which is exceptionally rare. They are: First person narrationIn this instance the narrator speaks in the first person, (“I did this, I said that, I thought the other.”) The narrator and the novel’s protagonist are essentially one and the same.Second person narrationHere the narrator speaks in the third person (“You did this”, and so on.) It’s exceptionally rare as a technique and is definitely not advisable for beginners.Third person narrationIn this instance, the narrator speaks in the third person, (“She did this, he did that, they did the other.”) The narrator is basically an invisible storyteller, telling the reader what happens to the novel’s protagonists. Third person narration comes in two basic flavours: limited third person and the extremely grand-sounding omniscient third person. We’ll get more into the detail of those two in a moment, but the basic difference is that a limited 3rd person narrator stays very close to the character whose viewpoint is being used. An omniscient one is more inclined to wander free from the character and give a broader view of things. (Not sure you’ve got the distinction? No worries. We’ll get to more details in a moment.)Mixed narrationIf a novel combines passages told from the first person point of view with passages told from the third person point of view, it has mixed narration – or mixed first and third person point of view, if you really want to spell it out. Point Of View: Examples Examples of first person narration are legion. For example: The Sherlock Holmes stories (narrated by Dr Watson, in the first person)Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories (narrated by Philip Marlowe, of course)Bridget Jones’s Diary, narrated by … well, you’ve already guessed, right?Moby Dick, narrated by … well, put it this way, the famous first line is “Call me Ishmael.”Hunger Games, narrated by Katniss EverdeenTwilight, narrated by Bella SwanThe Kay Scarpetta novels of Patricia CornwellSome of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books (but not all) Here’s an example of first person point of view in practice: “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.”—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville Examples of second person narration are extremely rare. Famous recent examples include: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City opens with the line, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning” and then it continues from there, with the protagonist always described as “you”.Italo Calvino did much the same thing in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.There are a few other examples too, but you’ve got to me a really smart and skilled writer to do this. In short, for 99.99% of writers out there, just fuhgeddabahtit. This technique isn’t one for you. Examples of third person narration are also commonplace. For example: Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which is about Lisbeth Salander, but not narrated by herThe Da Vinci Code, about Robert Langton, but not narrated by himJane Austen’s Pride & PrejudiceJohn Grisham’s The FirmStephen King’s MiserySome of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, but not all And here’s an example of third person narration in practice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”—Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen Got that? OK. We’ll skip on to the limited / omniscient distinction, then start figuring out how to apply point of view to your novel. Third Person Pov: Limited Vs Omniscient OK, the thing that probably most confuses newer writers is the distinction between third person limited and third person omniscient. Quite honestly, though, this isn’t something to trouble with too much. If you want to write in third person, just do what’s right for your characters and your story, and you should do just fine. If you want to know more, however, what you need to know is this: Third Person Limited: Definition & Example When you use a limited form of third person narration, you stay very close to your character. So the narrator isn’t telling the reader anything that the character in question wouldn’t themselves know / see / hear / sense. Here’s a beautiful example from Anne Tyler (in Breathing Lessons): “They planned to wake up at seven, but Maggie [the point of view character in this passage] must have set the alarm wrong and so they overslept. They had to dress in a hurry and rush through breakfast, making do with faucet coffee and cold cereal. Then Ira headed off for the store on foot to leave a note for his customers, and Maggie walked to the body shop. She was wearing her best dress – blue-and-white sprigged with cape sleeves – and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled, but slowed her down some anyway.” You’ll notice that nothing at all in that passage is something that Maggie doesn’t know about. So even when the passage talks about Ira heading off to the store, that’s done from Maggie’s perspective. We know that he goes and what his purpose is there, but we know nothing at all about his walk itself – whereas we know exactly what Maggie’s wearing, and why, and why her shoes slowed her down. This is third person limited (because it’s so closely limited to Maggie’s perspective) and as you can see it delivers a kind of intimacy – even a homeliness. Third Person Omniscient: Definition And Example The omniscient version of third person is, as you’d expect, able to tell the reader things that aren’t directly knowable by any of the characters in the tale. The most famous example of this narrative voice in literature is surely this passage from Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope,it was the winter of despair, …” As you can see, this isn’t told from any character’s viewpoint. It’s almost as though a lordly, all-seeing Charles Dickens is hovering over London (or England? or the world?) and giving his kingly overview of the situation. This type of writing has become rather less common in fiction, so you’ll tend to stick with broadly limited narration, interspersed (perhaps) by something a little more omniscient in flavour. Point Of View: Which One Should You Write In? First Person Point Of View First-person narration shares action as seen through the eyes of your narrator. A narrator can therefore only narrate scenes in which he or she is present. Coming-of-age novels – Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower – work exceptionally well in first-person narration. A lot of YA books are written in first person, because their intimate, emotional narration chimes with their teenaged readership. Romances (with their emotional focus) are also often first person. So are ghost stories with a sense of claustrophobia like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. In particular, however, it’s worth thinking about Jonathan Franzen’s dictum that, “Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” In other words: (A) do you feel you have to write in that first person voice, and (B) does that first person voice really sound and feel distinctive, personal and indvidual. I’ve mostly written third person, but my recent detective novels are first person – essentially for the reasons Franzen hints at. Here’s an example from my book, The Deepest Grave. (I’ve made some short edits for length, but mostly this is as it appears in the finished book.) The narrator is Fiona Griffiths, my detective protagonist. I’m a little earlier than I said, but it’s not long before I hear the sound of approaching feet.Katie appears. Sees me up here on my bank. I raise a hand and smile welcome.She approaches.Impressively torn black jeans. Black cowboy boots, well-used. Dark vest-top worn under an almost military kahki shirt. A chunky necklace. One of those broad-brimmed Aussie-style hats with a leather band. […]The look has attitude and personality and toughness, without quite dipping into angry hippy counterculture.Also: she walks with a ski-stick, a mobility aid not a fashion statement.She comes up the bank towards me. Sits beside me.I say, ‘You hurt your ankle?’ You’ll notice that it’s not just that the observations are made by Fiona. (eg: “not long before I hear the sound of approaching feet”). It’s also that the character of those observations is shaped 100% by Fiona herself. So yes, the list of clothes that Katie is wearing is a fairly neutral list (though the very short sentences and lack of any verbs – that’s all Fiona). But that summary comment about the overall effect (“the look has attitude  . . .without quite dipping into angry hippy counterculture”) is what Fiona thinks about Katie’s look. I can’t comment myself, because this is Fiona’s narration. She’s in charge. For the same reason, if there were, let’s say, a lion in the undergrowth about to spring out on Fiona, the book couldn’t say anything about the lion, until Fiona herself had seen / heard / smelled / witnessed it in some way. Does that sound claustrophobic? Needlessly restrictive? Well, maybe. But I’m now halfway into writing novel #7 in that series, and when that book’s complete I’ll be close to 1,000,000 words published in the series. And every single one of those words, without exception, comes from Fiona’s voice. There is no other perspective anywhere in the series. In other words, the restriction of first person is real, but you can still write at length, and successfully in that style. First Person Point Of View, Pros And Cons .This is quite easy, really! The pro is the opposite of the con and vice versa. Pro: First person narration gives you intense, personal familiarity with the narrator. The reader can’t – short of putting the book down – separate from the narrator’s voice, their thoughts, their commentary, their feelings etc. Con: You lose flexibility. If there’s a lion in the undergrowth, you can’t say so, until your narrator has seen the damn thing. If a key thing happens in your plot without your narrator in the room, then tough. he or she can only talk about it when they encounter the consequences down the road. My comment:I’ve written books both ways. There’s no right or wrong here. I love both. One good tip is to use first person narration mostly when you have a distinctive narrator with a strong voice. Most thrillers are written third person (so they can flip between different points of view (eg: investigator / victim / perpetrator), but there’s no absolute rule. I write mine first person. Likewise, a lot of romance stories are written first person . . . but you can go either way there too. Third Person Point Of View Third person narration uses “he” or “she”, where a first person narrator would say, “I”. Here’s an example taken from (and this is a blast from the past for me!) my first novel, The Money Makers: They spoke of other things until it was late. They damped down the fire, cleared away the dishes, and walked upstairs. Fiona went right on into the one usable bedroom. Matthew stopped at the door, where his bag lay.‘Fiona,’ he said. ‘You remember you said you would never ever lie for me again?’‘Yes.’‘Any chance of your lying for me right now?’ He looked at the inviting double bed, heaped high with clean linen and feather quilts.She smiled. Once again, ambiguity flickered in frightened eyes, but her answer was clear. She walked right up to Matthew and stopped a few inches from him. Her long dark hair fell around her shoulders, and her face was only inches from his. This scene (and the whole chapter) is written from Matthew’s perspective. So, yes, much of the factual data here (“they spoke of other things until it was late”) was available to both Fiona and Matthew in this scene. At the same time, when they step up close and get intimate, it’s Matthew we’re with, not Fiona. (How do we know this? Because when we get to “ambiguity flickered in frightened eyes”, it’s Matthew that sees this, not Fiona. If that little bit had been written from Fiona’s perspective, it would have had to say, “she felt ambivalent and frightened”, or something like that. Limited Vs Omniscient My advice to newer writers is mostly to forget about this distinction. As a rule, you should stick close to your character – and that means adopting a generally limited point of view. How come? Well, quite simply, readers want to experience story through the eyes and ears of its characters, and that means time away from the limited perspective is time spent away from that precious character-experience. That said, if now and again, you want to dive into something a little more godlike (or omniscient), you absolutely can. Just: Make sure that your godlike voice offers something grand, the way Charles Dickens’s does in Tale of Two Cities. (The opening passage of White Teeth by Zadie Smith offers a rather more contemporary example.)Use that omniscient voice only in small doses. You want to zoom, pretty damn fast, from the omniscient view to the up-close-and-personal one. The golden rule to remember here is that readers want character – and they only get that experience from the limited perspective. Third Person Point Of View: Pros And Cons The main limitation we found with the first person narrative approach was its restrictiveness. My and my Fiona Griffiths books, with every one of those 1,000,000 words locked into one voice, one point of view. So most writers adopting the third person approach will use multiple perspectives. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is one famous example. The same goes for much of nineteenth century fiction, especially of the more epic variety: Dickens, War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Henry James, you name it. What you get from those many perspectives is the ability to see into many hearts, many minds, many souls. That multi-viewpoint narration gives your novel: Richness – all those multiple perspectivesFlexibility – you can set your movie camera up wherever the action is happening. You avoid the restrictions of narrow first person narration.Potentially something epic in scale – because all those characters and voices lend a depth and scale to your story. Also notice this: There are types of suspense you just can’t deliver in a first person novel. So Hitchcock famously distinguished between surprise and suspense. If two people are sitting in a cafe, when a bomb detonates – that’s a surprise. But let’s restructure that same episode with multiple viewpoints, and you get something completely different. So we might see (Point of View #1) a terrorist planting a bomb in the cafe, then switch perspectives to (Point of View #2) the innocent couple drinking coffee right by the ticking bomb. In that case, the simple scene of two people drinking coffee becomes laden with suspense. The reader knows the bomb is there. The couple don’t. What’s going to happen . . .? That’s a type of suspense that we first-personeers (or single perspective third personeers) just can’t deliver. Consequently, third person / multiple viewpoint novels are particularly common with: thrillers and suspense novelsanything epic in scale. We’ve mentioned some nineteenth century fiction already, but George RR Martin and his Game of Thrones series is a perfect example of modern and big. Ditto any door-stopper by Tom Clancy. Third Person Point Of View: Summary Most third person novels are written with multiple perspectives, even if (as in Harry Potter) the point of view stays mostly with a single central character. Advantages and disadvantages? Well, essentially you get the opposite of the first person pros and cons. So third person / multi-viewpoint narration: Is flexible. You can pop the camera anywhere you want. You can deliver suspense as well as surprise.Enlarges your book. It can move you from a narrow-focus/small book to a wide-focus/epic one.Loses intimacy. In particular, if your camera gets too promiscuous – if you just use too many viewpoints – you risk breaking the reader’s bond with your central character(s). If that happens, your book dies! Third Person Narration: The Golden Rules We said above that the main risk of multiple viewpoints is that you break the reader’s bond with your main character and as a result you end up losing the reader completely. Bad outcome, right? A book killer. Multiple Points Of View: Three Golden Rules Fiction is about inner worlds and inner journeys, and you need to respect that. So here are the rules: GOLDEN RULE #1Limit your number of primary characters I’d suggest that, for almost any new novelist, you should not go above three. My first book was a story about three sons, although the sister too had a significant secondary viewpoint. I’d say that count of three-and-a-half viewpoints represents the upper limit for any first novel by all but the most gifted novelists. You can go higher than that. I think of books that run to dozens of viewpoints. But as a place to start? Nope, that kind of thing is too dangerous for 99.9% of you. (And the 0.1% are talented enough, that I don’t really know why they’re reading this!) Your next rule follows from the first: GOLDEN RULE #2Never go more than 3-4 pagesbefore returning to your primary characters. We’ve all watched movies where the leading couple is so incredibly strong that the movie starts to die as soon as one of them is off-screen. Or take that great first series of Homeland, where Carrie (Claire Danes) and Nicholas Brody (Damian Green) had a mesmeric quality together. You could have scenes with both of them in (great!). Or scenes with just one of them in (very good!). But scenes with neither? They flagged very quickly. And sure: you need some filler scenes just to make sense of the story. But if you stay away from your main characters for too long, the book dies. And just because I said “3-4 pages” in the rule above doesn’t mean that you have that much space every time you take a break. You don’t. You need to keep those non-protagonist scenes as short and tight as possible. Three pages is better than four. Two pages is better than three. And our next rule follows from the first two – and from absolutely everything we know about why stories work as they do. GOLDEN RULE #3Every main character (every protagonist)needs their own fully developed story arc. If you use any Point of view repeatedly, the character needs a fully developed inner life, a fully developed arc, a full set of challenges, encounters and personal change – and relevance, too. Is this person relevant to your collective story material? So take my first book, The Money Makers, with its three (and a bit) protagonists. Every single one of those three needed: A motivationA challengeA set of external obstacles (ie: things in the world)A set of internal obstacles (ie: things in their character that blocked them from accomplishing their goals)A crisis, linked to all the things in the list so farA resolution In effect, to write a three-handed story, you have to write three stories, each perfectly structured in their own right. Phew! That sounds like a scary undertaking, and yes, I guess it is. But because a book can be only so long, if you write from three points of view, each one of the stories you are telling can afford to be quite simple – the kind of thing that would seem a bit flat if told on its own. (If you’re a bit worried about fitting it all in then you’ll probably find this blog on chapter lengths and this one on wordcount really useful.) As it happens, I love third person / multiple viewpoint narration almost as much as I love first person. There isn’t a right or a wrong in the choice; it’s only a question of how you want to write and how your story wants to be written. About the author: Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 
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Character and characterisation in novels: techniques, examples and exercises

How to write great characters in your novel.How to make them lifelike.How to make them dazzle. What makes a reader glued to a book? What makes that person come back to it again and again? As a rough guide, people turn the pages because of plot, but they remember a book because of character. Don’t believe us? Then answer this. Can you recall, in detail, the plots of: To Kill a Mockingbird?The Hound of the Baskervilles?The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? We’re going to bet not. But do you remember Scout and Atticus? Holmes and Watson? And the badass Lisbeth Salander? Of course you do. And that’s the aim of this post: helping you achieve the same level of vibrating life that these characters achieved. In effect, we’re going to tell you how to develop a character that can be used for both the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (bad guy). How to write the kind of characters that will elevate your novel to a whole different plane. And it’s not magic. It’s just the logical application of tried-and-trusted writing techniques. But let’s start by figuring out what character development is, and how it works for you. Don’t want to wait for the blah?Just download our 200+ question Character Bio Template. It’s freeGet the Ultimate Character Profile Template What Is Character Development? Understand What Character Development Is Character development is two things: Character development is the the process by which an author develops a detailed character profile. This activity is usually done in conjunction with plot development and takes place as part of the planning process, before the writer actually starts to write.Character development also refers to the way a character changes through the course of the novel, generally in response to the experiences and events gathered through the course of the story itself. This is known as the Character Arc. (Need more? Get plot structure advice here.) Those twin definitions are immediately helpful. Yes: you have to develop a character profile before starting to write, but you also have to knit your character so closely to the story you’re going to tell that the two things seemed joined at the hip. Ideally, the reader won’t be able to imagine any other character occupying your story – just like you couldn’t imagine Girl with a Dragon Tattoo without the inflammatory, exciting presence of Lisbeth Salander. So: the first question is, how do we choose the right character for the story we’re about to tell? That’s up next. Plan Your Character Arcs The two basic character types in fiction – and how to choose the one who’s right for your novel. There are two basic types of main character (or protagonist) in fiction: The first type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves.The second character type start out extraordinary – they could make things happen in an empty room. You need to be careful about identifying which character is which. You might think that Harry Potter can’t be ordinary, because he’s a wizard. But think about it. He seemed like quite an ordinary boy. And when he gets to wizard school he seems quite ordinary there too (daunted by the school, a bit scared of Hermione, and so on.) He’s an ordinary wizard who finds his inner extraordinary self over the course of seven books. Lisbeth Salander, however, never strikes the reader as ordinary. She’s a rule-breaking, computer genius with anti-social traits and a scary capacity for violence. You just know she’s going to cause waves, no matter where she goes. Here’s a quick way to figure out what kind of character yours is: Ordinary Characters Will typically refuse adventure, or accept it only reluctantlyWill typically have something of the boy next door / girl next door quality to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring (we’re all different after all), but it does mean that they can act as a kind of placeholder for the reader. “That person could be me. That adventure could have been mine.“Will typically find something heroic or extraordinary in themselves as a result of the adventure. Something that was buried becomes visible.The adventure has to echo or vibrate with whatever is distinctive about the character. So at the very start of the Harry Potter series, Harry seems like an ordinary boy, except that he’s an orphan. No wonder then that the entire series revolves around Harry completing the battles of his lost parents. Extraordinary Characters Will often leap into adventure. May even create it.Will typically seem nothing whatsoever like the nice kid next doorWill have something astonishing in them all the time. Something that probably makes them look awkwardly ill-at-ease in the ordinary world.But, as with ordinary characters, the adventure will resonate with who they are. Sherlock Holmes is a detective – so let him solve crimes! Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a CIA guy, so drop him into a thriller, not a schmalzy love story! What A Character Arc Looks Like You can already see how these three things need to intertwine: Your character’s profile at the start of the bookThe story your character plunges intoThe way your character develops through the course of that story So for one hyper-simple example, you might have: Harry Potter starts out as an ordinary boy, albeit one with natural wizarding abilityHe is plunged into a life or death battle against VoldemortHe discovers previously unseen reserves of courage and resourcefulness – he finds his inner extraordinary. Here’s another example of the same thing, this time from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Lizzy Bennet is an ordinary young woman, but somewhat prone to impulsive and immature judgementsShe is plunged into a tumultuous love story, and …Discovers new wisdom and maturity. These things are beautifully simple when you see them – but needless to say, designing something beautifully simple ain’t so easy. (Just ask Steve Jobs!) Build Your Character Development Arc Your first task? Simple. Just do the same thing as we’ve just done for Harry Potter and Lizzy Bennet. Take a sheet of paper and write out – in a few words only – the following: Your character’s broad start positionThe nature of the storyThe way your character develops as a result of the story you are telling. Do that exercise. Make sure you’re happy with it. And when you are – congratulations. You’ve just taken your first big step in developing your character. Try Our Ultimate Character Profile Template Also called a “Character Bio Template” Figuring out who you want to lead your story is the first essential of success. But the next part – the fun one – is every bit as important. And the rule here is simple: You have to know your main character better than you know your best friend. That’s it. The simple fact is that strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The only way to write a really convincing, lifelike, vibrant protagonist is to know them inside out. If you have this knowledge, you will find yourself using it. If you don’t have it, you can’t. So the problem of writing character comes down to this: you have to know protagonist. And we’ve got a brilliant technique to help with just that. If you haven’t yet started your book, then work on the character creator exercise below before you start. Or cheat! It’s fasterWhy not download our 200+ question Character Bio Template? It’s freeGet the Ultimate Character Profile Template If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up. Do the exercise and then read back through your work, looking for places where your characters seem a little blank. So. Let’s start. Use A Character Profile / Bio To Develop Stunning Characters Begin with a blank sheet (or screen). And begin to write down everything you know about your central character. Don’t be too concerned to edit yourself at this stage. Just let rip: this will be your character profile. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write. Group your notes up later. You should cover all kinds of topics, including: Backstory Where did your protagonist come from?What was their childhood like? Happy or sad?What were relations like with their parents? Or brothers or sisters?If their father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have? If their mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect them?And what about now, where relations with others are concerned?Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped this person in a way relevant to your book’s story?What about more recent backstory? Their move to Arkansas, joining the army, their first girl/boyfriend? Sketch those things out too. Write how your protagonist’s backstory has shaped their drives, their character arc, and will shape your plot. It helps if examples are concrete, showing your protagonist via actions and choices in specific situations. (And yes: showing matters. If you need a show vs tell refresher, we’ve got it for you.) Looks And Physical Attributes Get to know how your character looks, how they inhabit their body and how they interact with the world: Is your character tall or short? What hair colour, face & body shape, what eye colour?Are they physically graceful? Or clumsy? Or what?What animal do they most remind you of?If you had to choose one image to represent this person, what would it be? [Hint: the best answers to that question often float between the physical and something a bit more spiritual. There’s often something mobile in the image, not just static. examples: “She was like a deer grazing in snow.” or “He was like an iron sword of the old type. Unbending. Strong. Prone to a sudden, flashing anger.”]How does your character sleep?How do they fiddle?Are they impatient?How do they eat? What foods do they love and hate?What do they look like from a distance? Or close up, when seen by a stranger?What is their voice like? Or their laugh? Think of an actor or actress who could play your character. If you need a visual image to work from, then look through magazines until you’ve got something you can use. Pin it up close to where you work, and work from that. Or create an inspiration board, either a real one or using a site like Pinterest, to pin images of your characters, of story aesthetic, etc Your Character’s Personality Is your character sunny and carefree, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice?Or hardened, unforgiving, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?What impression would they make on a casual observer?Are they screwed up in any way?Are they conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers?Are they sensitive or selfish lovers?How emotionally involved would they get?How does all of this feed into their character arc (ie: the way they develop through the story)?If you answered a Myers-Briggs personality test in character, what would your character’s results be? Relationships Why has your character chosen this partner?Is he or she like the partners your character normally goes for?Do they go in for cutesy baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness?What are their pet names for each other?Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side?What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so, how? How do they mend rows?What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike?What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel? Goals, Fears, Ambitions Be sure, most essentially, you know your characters’ deeper goals and motivations. What’s their deepest wish?What are they most afraid of?What would failure mean for them? What voices would they have in their head commenting on that failure? (eg: a critical parent, or a disappointed friend.)What’s the goal, the thing they most desire?Does it change? And why?What’s their motivation for wanting it. What does it say about their nature? The Ultimate Character Profile Template The very best way to get to know your characters is to do this: Write a list of 200+ questions about your characterThen answer them Do that, and before too long, you’ll know your character with utter intimacy. You’ll move beyond some mechanical character development exercise into deep, fluent, easy knowledge. Do note that you have to write the questions before you start answering them, otherwise you end up just asking questions that you already know answers to. Oh, and it’s incredibly hard to come up with a really long list of questions that really probe everything about your character – so we’ve done it for you. We’ve created the Ultimate Character Builder, and it’s yours for free. Get the Ultimate Character Bio Template. Give yourself an hour or two on that exercise and, quite honestly, your character development journey is mostly complete. Nice to know, right? Build Empathy With Your Characters Why your character’s motivation matters so much You know that thing that literary agents do? “While we liked your book a lot, we didn’t quite love it. We didn’t quite feel empathy with your main character, but wish you the best of luck in finding representation elsewhere.” Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it? And the issue is NOT that your character isn’t nice enough. It’s not that she needs to do more home-baking, or go to more church meetings, or smile more sweetly. The equation is simply this: Empathy = Character’s motivations + reader understanding. That’s it. The whole deal. If a character really wants something, and the reader really gets why that thing matters so much to that character, then the reader is committed. They’ll feel intensely involved. They will, if they’re a literary agent, want to represent your novel. In terms of your character development challenge, that means you need to: Understand your character’s motivations deeplyMake sure your character really cares (because if they don’t, the reader won’t.)Make sure your character’s motivations come through in your writing. And that’s it. Simple, right? Dialogue: Characters In Relationship While we’re on the topic of building empathy, it’s also worth remembering that your character doesn’t exist in isolation – they’re at the centre of a particular web of relationships that will be tugging at them with complex and often contradictory forces. That’s quite likely tough for the character – but great for the reader. And dialogue is where you’ll feel those emotional pulls and pushes most forcefully and in their most alive possible way. Making sure that your dialogue is sinuous and mobile will give a real kick to your character – and add whole new layers to the process of acquiring and retaining the reader’s empathy. More dialogue help right here. That’s It: Character Development – Done! If you’ve done the work on developing your character arc, and you’ve explored your character in detail via our Ultimate Character Development Sheet, then you know what? You’ve completed your character development work. Yay! Truthfully, you’ll be ahead of at least 95% of the other writers out there. Well done you. If your plot is roughly in shape, then you’re good to start writing, and your first draft (though it won’t be perfect) should be a pretty damn good platform for your final, finished book. That said, once you have written (say) 10,000 words of your first draft – STOP. Just stop writing and review what you’ve written so far. Does your character feel like a fully rounded human? Or a cliche? Do you make plenty of reference (where appropriate) to your character’s thoughts, memories, feelings and physical sensations? Does the character feel fresh or stale? Individual, or just a standard character type? If your answers are yes, this character feels fresh and individual, then your work has paid off. You’ve created a great character – and your novel is well on its way to being a damn good one. About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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How To Write Descriptions And Create A Sense Of Place

Your first job as a storyteller is a simple one, and a crucial one. You have to get your passengers into your train – your readers into your story. Only then can you hope to transport them. And that crucial first step doesn’t have much to do with characters or story or anything else. What matters first is this: your fictional world has to seem real. It has to grip the reader as intensely as real life – more intensely, even. Writing descriptions that seem vivid is therefore essential. The buildings, cities, places, rooms, trees, weather of your fictional world have to be convincing there. They have to have an emphatic, solid, believable presence. A big ask, right? But it gets harder than that. Because at the same time, people don’t want huge wodges of descriptive writing. They want to engage with characters and story, because that’s the reason they picked up your book in the first place. So your challenge becomes convincing readers that your world is real . . . but using only the lightest of touches to achieve that goal. Not so easy, huh? Start Early Set the scene early on – then nudge. It may sound obvious but plenty of writers launch out into a scene without giving us any descriptive material to place and anchor the action. Sure, a page or so into the scene, they may start to add details to it – but by that point it’s too late. They’ve already lost the reader. If the scene feels placeless at the start – like actors speaking in somee blank, white room – you won’t be able to wrestle that sense of place back later. So start early. That means telling the reader where they are in a paragraph (or so), close to the start of any new scene. That early paragraph needs to have enough detail that if you are creating a coffee shop, for example, it doesn’t just feel like A Generic Coffee Shop. It should feel like its own thing. One you could actually walk into. Something with its own mood and colour. One vivid descriptive detail will do more work for you than three worthy but colourless sentences. And once, early in your scene, you’ve created your location, don’t forget about it. Just nudge a little as you proceed. So you could have your characters talking – then they’re interrupted by a waitress. Then they talk (or argue, or fight, or kiss) some more, and then you drop in some other detail which reminds the reader, “Yep, here we still are, in this coffee shop.” That’s a simple technique, bit it works every time. One paragraph early on, then nudge, nudge, nudge. As the roughest of rough guides, those nudges need to happen at least once a page – so about every 300 words. If it’s natural to do so more often, that’s totally fine. Be Specific Details matter! They build a sense of place like nothing else. Gabriel García Márquez, opening One Hundred Years of Solitude, introduces his village like this: Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. Boom! We’re there. In his world. In his village. Already excited to see what lies ahead. And yes, he’s started early (Chapter 1, Page 1, Line 1). But it’s more than that, isn’t it? He could have written something like this: Macondo was a village of about twenty houses, built on a riverbank. I hope it’s obvious that that sentence hardly transports us anywhere. It’s too bland. Too unfocused. Too generic. There are literally thousands of villages in the world which would fit that description. In short, what makes Marquez’s description so vivid is its use of telling detail. They’re not just houses, they’re adobe houses. The river doesn’t just flow over stones, its flows over polished stones that are white and enormous, like (wow!) prehistoric eggs. The sentence works so well because Marquez has: Created something totally non-genericVia the use of highly specific detail, andUses surprising / exotic language to make those details blaze in our imagination. That basic template is one you can use again and again. It never stales. It lies at the heart of all good descriptive writing. So here, for example, is a more ‘boring’ space . . . but still one redolent with vividness and atmosphere thanks to the powerful use of atmospheric specificity. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her room with details that not only grab us but hint at something dark: A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to. Those clipped words transport us straight to Offred’s enclosed, and terrifying, space. We’re also told just enough to give us an image of that place, enough to heighten tension, enough to tease curiosity. This is just a description of a room – but we already feel powerfully impelled to read on. Be Selective With Your Descriptive Details Be selective – don’t overwhelm. It might be tempting to share every detail with us on surroundings. Don’t. Even with a setting like Hogwarts – a place readers really do want to know all the hidden details of – J.K. Rowling doesn’t share how many revolving staircases it has, how many treasures in the Room of Requirement, how many trees in the Forbidden Forest. That’s not the point. (And it would write off a little of Hogwarts’ magic and mystery.) If you’re describing a bar, don’t write: The bar was approximately twenty-eight feet long, by perhaps half of that wide. A long mahogany bar took up about one quarter of the floor space, while eight tables each with 4 wooden chairs occupied the remaining area. There were a number of tall bar stools arranged to accommodate any drinker who didn’t want to be seated at one of the tables. The ceiling height was pleasantly commodious. That’s accurate, yes. It’s informative, yes. But it’s bland as heck. The reader doesn’t want information. They want atmosphere. They want mood. Here’s an alternative way to describe a bar – the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. This description delivers a sense of intimacy and darkness in a few words: The mesto [place] was near empty … it looked strange, too, having been painted with all red mooing cows … I took the large moloko plus to one of the little cubies that were all round … there being like curtains to shut them off from the main mesto, and there I sat down in the plushy chair and sipped and sipped We’re told what we need to know, thrown into that murky Korova atmosphere and Burgess moves the action on. All we really have in terms of detail are those mooing red cows, some cubies (curtain booths?), and a plushy chair. There’s lots more author Anthony Burgess could tell us about that place. But he doesn’t. He gives us the right details, not all the details. And if that’s not enough for you, then try reading this. Write For All The Senses You have a nose? So use it. Visuals are important, but don’t neglect the other senses. Offering a full range of sensory information will enhance your descriptive writing. Herman Melville, say, describes to us the chowder for the ship’s crew in Moby Dick: ‘small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes.’ Such descriptions are deft, specific, and brilliantly atmospheric. Where else but on board a nineteenth century American whaler would you get such a meal? By picking out those details, Melville makes his setting feel vibrantly alive. Here’s another example. Joanne Harris’ opening of Chocolat plays to readers’ senses, as we’re immersed straightaway in the world of her book through scent, sound and sight: We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters. These non-visual references matter so much because sight alone can feel a little distant, a little empty. By forcing the reader’s taste buds to image Melville’s clams or Harris’s pancakes – or making the reader feel that warm February wind, the confetti ‘sleeting’ down collars – it’s almost as though the writers are hauling the readers’ entire body into their scenes. That’s good stuff: do likewise. (And one easy test: take one of your scenes and highlight anything that references a non-visual sense. If you find some good references, then great: you’re doing fine. If not, your highlighter pen remains unused, you probably want to edit that scene!) Get Place And Action Working Together That’s where the magic happens! Use the atmospheric properties of a place to add to other properties of the scene. That doesn’t mean you should always play things the obvious way: no need for cliché;. You can have declarations of love happen in idyllic meadows, as in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, but why not at a bus stop in the rain? Shouted over the barriers at a train station? Your character also brings one kind of mood to the scene, and the action that unfolds will bring other sensations. Lynda La Plante’s crime novel Above Suspicion makes a home setting frightening after it becomes obvious a stranger has been in protagonist DS Anna Travis’ flat, and she’s just been assigned to help solve her first murder case. So the place is influenced by action, once Anna notices: Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar. Here a comfy, nondescript flat becomes a frightening place, just because of what else is going on. Go for unfamiliar angles that add drama and excitement to your work. Descriptions As Active Characters You know the way that a place can turn on you? So (for example) a place that seems safe can suddenly reveal some other side, seem menacing, then almost try to harm the character. That’s an incredibly powerful way to build descriptive writing into your text – because it feels mobile, alive and with a flicker of risk. You can use plotting techniques to help structure the way a reader interacts with a place: starting with a sense of the status quo, then some inciting incident that shifts that early stability, and so on. The inciting incident can be tiny – discovering that a photo frame has been moved, for example. Having your characters voice their perceptions of a place in dialogue also adds to its dramatic impact, because now the reader sees place both through the eyes of a narrator and through the eyes of the characters themselves. Good, huh? Do you need more help?Did you know we have an entire video course on How To Write? That course has had awesome client reviews, but it’s kinda expensive to buy . . . so don’t buy it! We’ve made that course available, in full, to members of Jericho Writers. Our members don’t just get that course, they also get: an incredible course on Getting PublishedA brilliant course on Self-PublishingA ton of filmed masterclassesAccess to AgentMatch, the world’s best literary agent search toolA brilliant and supportive writers communityChances to pitch your work in front of literary agents, live online every monthAnd more We’ve made the offer as rich as we know how to – and made it incredibly affordable too. You can find out more about our club here. Remember: we were founded by writers for writers – and we created this club for you. Do find out more . . . and we’d absolutely love it if you chose to join us. Use Unfamiliar Locations And smart research ALWAYS helps. Using unfamiliar settings adds real mood and atmosphere. Stephenie Meyer, when writing Twilight, decided she needed a rainy place near a forest to fit key plot elements. Like protagonist Bella, she was raised in Arizona, but explained the process of setting Twilight in an unfamiliar setting on her blog: For my setting, I knew I needed someplace ridiculously rainy. I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs, and looked for the place with the most rainfall in the U.S. This turned out to be the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I pulled up maps of the area and studied them, looking for something small, out of the way, surrounded by forest. … In researching Forks, I discovered the La Push Reservation, home to the Quileute Tribe. The Quileute story is fascinating, and a few fictional members of the tribe quickly became intrinsic to my story. As her success has shown, it’s possible to write successfully about a place you don’t know, but you must make it your business to know as much as you can about it. (Or if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, plan your world down to its most intricate details.) And to be clear: you’re doing the research, not because you want that research to limit you. (Oh, I can’t write that, because Wikipedia tells me that the river isn’t as long / the forest isn’t as thick / or whatever else.) On the contrary: You are doing the research, because that research may inspire and stimulate a set of ideas you might not have ecountered otherwise. The key thing is to do your research to nail specifics, especially if they are unfamiliar, foreign, exotic. Just read how Tokyo is described in Ryu Murakami’s thriller In the Miso Soup: It was still early in the evening when we emerged onto a street in Tsukiji, near the fish market. … Wooden bait-and-tackle shops with disintegrating roofs and broken signs stood next to shiny new convenience stores, and futuristic highrise apartment complexes rose skyward on either side of narrow, retro streets lined with wholesalers of dried fish. There’s authenticity, grit to this description of Tokyo, as opposed to using ‘stock’ descriptions that could apply to many modern cities. Note this same thing with foods: in Japan, your protagonist could well be eating miso soup, as per Ryu Murakami. Or say if your story was set in Hong Kong, you might write in a dai pai dong (a sort of Chinese street kitchen), something very specific to that city if you’re describing a street there. Alternatively, if you are setting something in the past, get your sense of place right by doing your research right, too. In historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, set in Holland in 1664, maid Griet narrates how artist Johannes Vermeer prepares her for her secret portrait, musing, to her horror, that ‘virtuous women did not open their mouths in paintings’. That last is just a tiny detail, but Griet’s tears show us how mortified she is. Modern readers won’t (necessarily) think about seventeenth-century connotations like this, so if you’re writing a scene set in a very different era or culture to what you know, research so you’re creating a true sense of place. Use Place To Create Foreshadowing A brilliant technique – we love it! Descriptions of place are never neutral. Good writers will, in overt or gently subtle ways, introduce a place-as-character. If that character is dangerous, for example, then simply describing a place adds a layer of foreboding, foreshadowing, to the entire book. Just read how J.R.R. Tolkien describes the Morannon in The Two Towers: ‘high mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained … like an obscene graveyard.’ It’s obvious from this description trouble lies ahead for Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee. But even if you’re not writing this sort of fantasy, character psychology and plot (as we saw above) can also render seemingly harmless places suspect, too. A boring apartment in Above Suspicion becomes scary when it seems someone’s been inside. In the same sense, we thrill to the sense of a place with excitement and promise, too, like when Harry makes his first trip to Diagon Alley (in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to shop for Hogwarts equipment with Hagrid. There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon. … They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk. Just weave place and action together like this to create atmosphere, excitement, tension, foreboding. Think About Your Words – Nouns And Adjectives Specific is good. Unexpected is great! One final thought. When you’ve written a piece, go back and check nouns. A bad description will typically use boring nouns (or things) in settings, i.e. a table, chair, window, floor, bar, stool, etc. If you try to fluff up that by throwing in adjectives (i.e. a grimy table, gleaming window, wooden floor), the chances are you’ll either have (i) made the description even more boring, or (ii) made it odd. Of course, this works for that first passage we looked over from Margaret Atwood. We sense Offred counting the few things she has in the little room she calls hers, the window and chair, etc., in terse phrasing. We sense her tension, her dissociation, and we feel trapped with her. All the same, play with nouns, with taking your readers to new surroundings. Give them a Moloko. Play with surroundings, how you can make them different, how you can render the ordinary extraordinary. With the right nouns in place, you’ll need fewer adjectives to jazz things up – and when you do use them, they’ll feel right, not over the top. And if you want more on writing techniques, then check out this article on verbs – it’s a must read. Happy writing! About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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Ideas for Writing a Book (and How to Develop Them)

We once got a strange email. It was three lines long, from someone telling us he wanted to write a book. OK. That’s great. The email wasn’t written very well. The spelling wasn’t great. The punctuation – uh – had all fallen off. But none of that was the issue on his mind. His email was simply entitled “Book Ideas“, and he was writing to ask for help. In a word, he wanted us to develop his ideas for writing a book. And here was the thing. He was sure he was a good writer, which is great, but he hadn’t actually written anything. Worse still, he said he didn’t have a single idea for a story, so could we maybe give him one? Right. Yes. I’m sure that’s how Herman Melville got started too. But the fact is, all of us know what it feels like to feel uninspired and stuck in a rut when ideas just won’t come. And this post is all about solving that problem. Where do ideas for a book come from? How do you know if they’re any good? And how can you take your existing ideas and make them better? Big questions, but let’s see what we can do to help. What follows is a simple way to generate good quality ideas that work for you. We know they’re going to work for you, because the ideas come from you. In fact, you already have them in your head right now. All we’re going to do is help you find them. Let’s start. Book Ideas: How To Get Them And What To Do Next Note down your ideas – your daydreams, interests, favourite booksLearn the market by reading your genreStart developing your ideas, jotting down what you know about your future bookGive your ideas time to develop – don’t rush it!Work on your writing skills and technique How To Have Ideas: The Good News Consider this. It’s not a question of forming the idea, but of recognising one (or ones) you already have, so let’s do that. Make lists of: Things you daydream about;Your special interests (medieval churches, IT security, tattoos);Your areas of expertise;Your current passions (things that get you off on a rant or long-winded explanations);Things you loved as a child (amazing how often the child seems to predict the adult, so look back, see what you loved in the past);Books you loved as a child;Books you love now. Write actual lists of these things. Not in one single half hour session, but bit by bit, over time. Let things stew, bubble up. Almost certainly, you’ll find something nagging at you. Something that stays with you after you leave your lists. That there is your idea. Good, huh? But stick with us. We’ve only just got started. How To Handle Ideas For Books (What To Expect) The trouble with inspiration is it never arrives fully formed. Writing is messy. Few novels arrive complete. Most have had to be hacked out of rock. It’s okay, though, if you decide development is easy and fun, and remember ideas take time. You don’t get from nowhere to perfect in one leap. It’s not a generator. It’s an incubator. You don’t find your idea. You grow it. We’ll talk a little more about that shortly but first, ask yourself. Is your book idea any good? Be sure your idea is strong enough to carry you to publication before you start writing. There are techniques for (a) figuring out if your idea is strong enough and (b) adding sparkle to it if it isn’t, fortunately. Learn The Market Read the area, niche, genre in which you are going to write. Read widely. Stay current. Know new names, not just old ones. It’s a massive mistake not to do this, and many new writers don’t. You should, because these are the books your ideal readership is reading. Start Developing Get a sheet of paper and write down what you know about your future book, or interests you’d like your story to make room for, to explore. That might be very little at first. It might be no more than: Antarctic settingSeismologySecret weapons testing That has no characters, no plot arc, no meaningful line of development, but it’s a start. Not just that, but it’s an exciting one. There’s a frisson of interest there already. A stew that might bubble up into something wonderful. So keep going. Whatever comes to mind. Jot down words and sentences. Note down anything that comes to mind around plot events, themes, settings, ideas for your protagonist. Keep listing, see what comes to you. An Example: First Attempt Try out things. So you might find yourself writing things like this: Ex-SAS man turned seismologist is there.Baggage from the past (a mission gone wrong?).Meets Olga, glamorous Russian geologist. How do you feel about those? Take a moment to see what your actual reactions are. Me personally, I think the ex-Special Forces seismologist could be a decent character, but the glamorous Russian Olga feels like a bit of a cliche. I feel I’ve seen her too often before. And the ‘baggage from the past / mission gone wrong’ element feels dangerously on the edge of cliche. That’s fine. Remember that this whole process is a development exercise. So you can try things out, see how they feel, and discard them as much as you like. Discarding stuff is good – that shows that you’re pruning the bad stuff and keeping only the good stuff. Just add explosions … An Example: Second Attempt So maybe we try again. We might start sketching something like this. Leila – who is ex-Special Forces – is a British seismologist.She loves extreme adventure, including climbing, sky-diving.She’s sampling ice cores to track past earth disturbances.She finds weird, inexplicable traces – too recent.A multinational team – many scientists there.Russian scientist, aloof, unnerving (will turn out a ‘good guy’). … … And so on. Maybe we haven’t yet nailed much with this list, but it’s the forward-back process of development that brings rewards, helping you make subsequent connections (e.g. perhaps you decide Leila’s the only woman on that team, perhaps she needs to prove she’s as strong as any of them, etc., etc.). The only test of whether a list like this works is whether you have a deep-ending tickle of excitement about your jottings. If that fades, you’ve gone wrong somewhere, so find out which element isn’t working, delete, and try again, following your intuition. Remember that the process of story development is one of constant experiment. You sketch something out. You see how it feels. It feels good? OK, great. You continue to add depth to your sketch. (Add a character, a possible plot point, some more about settings, some more about the challenge to be faced, etc.) It feels wrong? OK. So scratch out the thing that felt wrong. Try something else in its place. Or if you can’t find (say) the right antagonist for the moment, then leave that issue for the moment and turn to an area where you do have some good ideas. You’ll find that as you build up one area of the story (say, settings), you’ll find that other parts (say, your antagonist) suddenly flash into view. Each part of the story illuminates and supports the others. How To Give Your Story The “X-factor” And as you’re doing this, remember that readers always want something new, something unexpected. So give it to them! The way to do this is to make sure that your list of story ingredients always includes a rogue element – something that you don’t expect to be there. That rogue element will always have the effect of lifting the story and giving the reader a little thrill of excitement. What’s more the rule basically applies to ALL huge-selling novels of recent years. For example: BORING STORY: a normal American teen falls in love with a normal American boy.GREAT STORY: a normal American teen falls in love with a vampire. Two versions of the same thing. One is too dull to cross a room for. The other one (Twilight) was one of the biggest YA sensations of all time. Or how about this: BORING STORY: a journalist investigates a murder in Sweden.GREAT STORY: a journalist plus a bisexual, Aspergers, rape-surviving, computer genius combine forces to investigate a murder in Sweden. The “rogue element” of Lisbeth Salander’s kick-ass character basically gave the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy the fire it needed to conquer the world. And so on. You can look at any huge selling hit of recent years and find that unexpected ingredient that blasted the book to international success. And you can repeat that trick for yourself. If you find your story is just too expected, then throw in something to freshen it up. So, let’s go with this Arctic idea, and let’s say that your draft story looks something a bit like this. FIRST DRAFT STORY:Leila, ex-Special Forces British seismologist is sampling ice cores in the Antarctic.She finds evidence of recent blast activity – human-made.She suspects of team of Russian scientists are really testing a new type of nuclear device.She investigates.The situation escalates.It resolves itself in a dramatic shoot-out. And what are your feelings there? I’m going to guess that you thought, roughly, “Yeah, that’s OK, but it doesn’t really set my pulse racing.” And the issue is that everything is exactly what you’d expect. It’s as though we read this story plan, and already feel like we’ve read that book or something very similar. So now let’s apply our rogue element strategy and see how the story might run. STORY WITH ROGUE ELEMENTLeila, ex-Special Forces British seismologist is sampling ice cores in the Antarctic.She finds evidence of recent disturbances that make no sense.And there are thefts from the camp – unexplained>At first the Russian team is suspected, but – caught out with a Russian captain, Arkady, in a snowstorm – it looks like Leila and Arkady will both perish. But they’re saved – mysteriously – as fresh kerosene is added to their supplies.Leila and Arkady come to believe they are dealing with the ghosts of Scott’s tragic expedition to the Antarctic.They realise the souls of Scott and his men are trapped in the ice and are only seeking escape. Leila & Arkady use their knowhow and technical resources to liberate the ghosts. How’s that? Personally, I’m not yet sure about it – I literally just this minute came up with the idea – but I will say this: You were not expecting that story to emerge. You’ve never read anything like it before. Already, it has a grip over your imagination that the first version never did. In fact, if we took the bones of that story and really did some work with it, I’d say we’d have the chance to create something really extraordinary. A story that no one had ever read before, or would ever forget. The short moral of this example is obvious: Yes, the process of story development is intuitive, trial-and-error, and has plenty of dead ends. But it’s not random. Good stories follow a formula, which can be put roughly as follows: Your passions + a rogue element = a great story If you want to structure that process some more – and you should – then do use our idea generator, available on this page. It’s great, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to work. Remember To Give Yourself Time Give yourself time to muse over your book. If all this takes a week, it’s taken you too little time. Three months would be good, but if it takes six months, that’s fine, too. Jack Kerouac, famed for writing his draft for On the Road in twenty-one days, pondered his ideas for years. My most successful novel (Harry Bingham writing) was two years in development, then written within two months – so development matters. Real inspiration takes time, care, effort, and thought. Technique Matters, Too Often, new writers can give up on a project by starting in a rush, noticing things aren’t quite working. They don’t quite know how to analyse what isn’t working, though, so give up – probably convinced that they don’t have the talent. And that’s not just untrue, but a shame. Writing books takes time and needs patience. It is also tough, and some new writers spend no time learning how to do it. The best solution? Simple: Get expert helpHang out with supportive writer-friendsImprove your technique And you know what? Jericho Writers is a club for writers like you and was set up to help writers like you. Here are a few blog posts that’ll help you on your way: how to write seven basic plots, beating writer’s block, and top tips for debut writers. While you’re there you should also check out our range of creative writing courses and the editorial services we offer – both of which are designed to support you and the writing process. We’ve helped loads of people write books, get agents, and get published (or, very successfully, self-published), and that includes loads of people who started out without having tons of education / knowing people in the industry / being a super-genius / spending 20 years on retreat in the Canadian wilderness, or anything else. You can find out what Jericho Writers can offer its members right here. We’d absolutely love it if you joined us, and look forward to welcoming you. About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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How To Start Writing A Novel: 10 Things To Do Right Away

A super-simple step-by-step guide for new writersIncludes free plot worksheet Are you writing a book? Maybe you’re starting out for the first time? Twenty years ago, I was in your exact position. My wife was seriously unwell. I’d quit work to look after her. And yes, a lot of my time was spent caring for her . . . but that still left a whole lot of hours in the day. I didn’t want to do nothing with that time. And I’d always wanted to write a book. (I’ve still got a little home-movie film clip of me, age 9, being asked what I wanted to me when I was grown up. I answered, “I want to be an author.”) So, sitting at home, and often quite literally at my wife’s bedside, I opened my laptop and started to write. That book grew into a 190,000 word monster. I slaved at that damn thing too. Worked really hard. Was perfectionist about every detail. And I got an agent And I got a six-figure book deal with HarperColins, one of the world’s largest publishers. And the book went on to become a bestseller that sold in a load of foreign territories too. And best of all? I got a career I loved. I’ve been in print continuously ever since, bringing out about a book a year in that time, and I’ve basically loved every second of it. (Oh, and my wife? Yeah, she’s got a long term condition that will never leave her, but she’s about a million times better than she was back in those days. It’s been an up-down ride, but we’ve been a lot more lucky than not.) But you’re not reading this because you want to know about me. You’ve got a big empty screen to deal with. A headful of ideas, a desire to write . . . but no structure for putting those ideas into practice. You want to know: what next? Well, that’s a good question.  (One I didn’t think about too hard when I started out, but then again I did end up deleting a 60,000 word chunk of my first draft because it was just no damn good.) So what do you need to do next?  Well, you do this: If you want to start writing a book, take the following steps, in the following order … Write A Book In 10 Steps Take one fabulous ideaBuild a blistering plotAdd unforgettable charactersGive your characters inner lifeAdd drama by showing it unfolding on the pageWrite with clarity, economy and precisionWriting for children? Same rules apply!Be disciplinedRevise your draftGet feedback Take One Fabulous Idea If you want to know how to write a novel, there is only one sensible place to start, and that’s with the very idea of your book – the thing you want to write about. Concept matters massively. It’s almost impossible to overstate its importance. Stephenie Meyer writes competent prose, but it’s her concept that turned Twilight into a cultural phenomenon. Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, Stephen King are similar. They’re decent writers blessed with stunning ideas. Agents know this, and – no matter what your genre – a strong premise is essential to selling a book. Given any two broadly similar manuscripts, agents will almost always pick the one with the strongest central concept. How, then, do you get your amazing book ideas? The answer is that you probably already have them. Your killer idea may be germinating in your head right now. It may arise from a passion of yours; it may come out of a book you love. It’s not about the seed of the idea. It’s how you develop it that counts. The key here is (A) picking material that excites you, (B) picking enough material (so you want several ideas for possible settings, several ideas for possible heroes, several ideas for basic challenge/premise, etc. You want to be able to make choices from a place of abundance.) (C) – and this is the genius bit – you need to start combining those ingredients in a way that ensures you have at least one rogue ingredient, one unexpected flavour in your concoction. So let’s say that you just wanted to write a 1940s, film-noir style, private-eye detective story – an homage to Raymond Chandler and that great generation of writers. If you just replicated all those ingredients, you’d have an unsaleable book. Why? Because they’re too familiar. If people want those things, they’d just buy Chandler’s own work, or others of that era. So throw in – a ghost. A German secret agent. Or set the story in a black community in Alabama. Or . . . whatever. Just make sure there’s one discordant ingredient to make readers sit up and take notice. Need more help? Then go watch this 10 minute video I put together that walks you through the exact process. Expert tip:It also helps to know really early on what kind of word count you should be looking at. The gold-standard way to figure this out is to get hold of five or six recently published novels in your exact area. Then count the words on a typical page and multiply up to get an approximate total. If that sounds like too much work, then just use our handy guide. The gold-standard approach is better though! Build A Blistering Plot The next essential for any novelist is a story that simply forces the reader to keep turning pages. Fortunately, there are definite rules about how to achieve this. Here are the rules you need to know: Work with a very small number of protagonists (ie: main characters in your story. These are the ones who propel the action and whose stories the readers invest in.) You probably only have one protagonist, and that’s fine. If you have two or three, that’s fine too. More than that? Not for a first book, please! They’ll make your job too hard.Start your story by unsettling the status quo very early on – first page possibly, but certainly within the first chapter. The incident that gets the story rolling is called the Inciting Incident, and it’s the catalyst for everything that follows. Read more about how to make your Inciting Incident work really well here.Give your protagonist a major life challenge very early in the book and don’t resolve things till the very end. The reader basically read the book to see whether your protagonist gets the thing they’re seeking. Does the gal get the guy? Does James Bond save the world?Over the course of the book, make sure that jeopardy increases. That doesn’t have to be an even progression, by any means. But by the final quarter or third of your novel, your protagonist needs to feel that everything hinges on the outcome of what follows.End your book with a crisis and resolution. So the crisis part is when everything seems lost. But then your hero or heroine summons up one last effort and saves the day in the end. In general, in most novels, the crisis wants to seem really bad, and the resolution wants to seem really triumphant. It’s achieving the swing from maximum light to maximum dark that will really give the reader a sense of a satisfying book. (More on plot structure here.)And finally, one more crucial tip: if a chapter doesn’t advance the story in a specific way, you must delete that chapter. How come? Because all the reader really wants is to know whether your protagonist achieves the thing they’re seeking. If that basic balance between protagonist and goal doesn’t alter in the course of a chapter, you’ve given your reader no reason to read it. So vape backstory. Ignore minor characters. Care about your protagonist with a passion. Sounds simple? Well, the principles aren’t that hard to understand, although executing the advice can a wee bit trickier. So we’ve built you a free plotting worksheet to take you through your plot construction challenge in a really organised and systematic  way. Just grab it by clicking that big friendly blue box below. Easy! Expert tip:Use our plotting worksheet (below) together with a “snowflake method” to building your structure. The heart of this concept is the idea that you should start with an incredibly bare-bones summary of your narrative – one sentence is fine. Then you add something about character. Then you build that sentence out into a paragraph. And so on. It’s a great way of allowing your plot to emerge somewhat naturally. More help on that technique here – but don’t ask my why it’s called the snowflake method. It’s nothing like a snowflake. Add Unforgettable Characters Long after a reader has forgotten details of a plot, the chances are they’ll remember the character who impelled it. The two things you absolutely must bear in mind when constructing your characters are: Make sure that the character and the story bounce off one another in interesting ways. If, to take a stupid example, your character has a fear of spiders, the chances are that your story needs to force your character to confront those fears. You must bring your character into their zone of greatest discomfort.Make sure you really, really know your character. It’s so often little things, subtleties that make characters seem human (e.g. Amy has a passion for Manhattan in winter; she collects a shell from every beach she’s ever visited.) If you want to check if you know your character well enough, we suggest you use our ultimate character builder. Oh yes, and one great tip (albeit one that won’t work for every novel) is this: if in doubt, add juice to your character. Here’s an example of what I mean: Stieg Larsson could have just written a book about a genius computer hacker. But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers. But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers and a hostile attitude towards society. But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers, a hostile attitude towards society, and who was also a rape victim. But he didn’t. He also tossed in a complex parental background, bisexuality, a motorbike, years spent in the Swedish care system, and an aptitude for violence. It was the intoxicating brew of all those elements combined that created one of the world’s most successful recent fictional creations. Short moral: if in doubt, do more. Expert tip:Our character development page has got a free downloadable character profile questionnaire that asks you 200+ questions about your character. Those questions basically challenge you to know your character better than you know your best friend. It’ll only take you an hour or two to complete the worksheet – and your character knowledge will be propelled to a whole new dimension of awesome. Honestly? It might be the single most useful hour you can spend right now. Uh, unless you are on a burning ship in a storm. In which case, reading this paragraph is not a good use of your time. Give Your Characters Inner Life One of the commonest problems we see is when a character does and says all the right stuff, but the reader never really knows what he or she thinks or feels. If you don’t create that insight into the character’s inner world, the book will fail to engage your reader, because that insight is the reason why people read. After all, if you just want to watch explosions, you’ll go to a Bond or Bourne movie. If you want to feel what it’s like to be James Bond or Jason Bourne, you have no alternative but to read Ian Fleming’s or Robert Ludlum’s original novels. This character insight is one of the simplest things for a novelist to do. You just need to remember that your protagonist has a rich inner world, and then you need to tell us about it. So we want to know about: What the character thinksWhat her emotions areWhat she remembersWhat her physical sensations areAnd so on It’s OK to use fairly bland language at times (“she was hungry”, “she felt tired”), but you’ll only start to get real depth into your characters if you get individual and specific too. See for example how much richer this passage feels, and how full of its character it seems to be: seeing the meat, she felt a sudden revulsion. The last time she’d seen mutton roasting like this on an open fire, it had been when [blah, blah – something to do with the character’s past]. As the memories came back, her throat tightened and her stomach was clenched as though ready to vomit. Because the character has thoughts, feeling, memories and physical sensations all combining here, the moment is richly endowed with personality. A simple “She felt revolted” wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact. Expert tip:Once you’ve written 20-30,000 words or so, it’s worth pausing to check that your characters seem alive on the page. So just print off four or five random pages from your manuscript and circle any statements that indicate your character’s inner life (physical sensations, memories, thoughts, feelings, and so on.)If you find nothing at all, you have written a book about a robot and you may need to rethink. If you do find indicators of inner life, but they’re all bland and unengaging (“I was hungry”, “I remembered a barn like that when I was a kid.”), you may want to juice up your character. If you find a rich inner life, then you’re doing great. Just keep at it. Add Drama Your job as a novelist is to show action unfolding on the page. Readers don’t just want a third-hand report of what has just happened. That means you need to tell things moment-by-moment, as if you were witnessing the event. Consider the difference between this: Ulfor saw the descending sword in a blur of silver. He twisted to escape, but the swordsman above, a swarthy troll with yellow teeth, was too fast, and swung hard. (This form of narration is “showing”.) And this: Ulfor was badly injured in a swordfight. (This form of narration is known as “telling”.) The first snippet sounds like an actual story. The second sounds like a news report. Obviously, you will need to use the second mode of storytelling from time to time. Telling can be a simple way to convey facts and speed things up, but for the most part, your tale needs to consist of scenes of dramatic action, glued together with bits of sparse narration. If in doubt, look up our free tips on the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Expert tip:One of the real drivers of drama on the page – and one of the real pleasures of fiction – is intense, alive, surprising dialogue. Writing dialogue competently is pretty easy – you can probably do it already.But writing really great dialogue (think Elmore Leonard, for example) is not so simple. That said there are rules you can follow which just make your writing better. For more advice on all this, just check out our page on dialogue. Write Well It sounds obvious, but it’s no good having a glowing idea and a fabulous plot if you can’t write. Your book is made up of sentences, after all, and if those sentences don’t convey your meaning succinctly and clearly, your book just won’t work. Almost everyone has the capacity to write well. You just need to focus on the challenge. So think about the three building blocks of good writing: Clarity. You need to express your meaning clearly. Of course YOU know what you’re meaning to say, but would a reader understand as clearly? One good way to check yourself here is to read your own work aloud. If you stumble when reading, that’s a big clue that readers will stumble too.Economy. Never use ten words when eight would do. That means checking every sentence to see if a word or two could be lost. It means checking every paragraph for sentences that you don’t need. Every page for surplus paragraphs. If that sounds pedantic, just think about this. If you tried to sell a 100,000 book that had 20,000 surplus words in it, you shouldn’t be surprised if agents rejected it, because it was just too boring and too baggy. But that’s the exact same difference as a 10 word sentence and an 8 word one. In a word: pedantry matters. It’s your friend!Precision. Be as precise as possible. This normally means you need to see the scene in your head before you can describe it clearly to a reader. So it’s easy to write “a bird flew around the tree”, but that’s dull and imprecise. Just think how much better this is: “A pair of swallows flew, chirrupping, around the old apple tree.” The difference in the two sentences is basically one of precise seeing, precise description. Need more help? Then you’ll find this article really useful! If you can manage those three things – and you can; it’s just a question of making the effort – then you can write well enough to write a novel. That’s nice to know, huh? Expert tip:Descriptive writing sounds like it ought to be boring, right? Everyone knows what a coffee shop looks like, so isn’t it just wasting words to tell the reader?Except that’s not how it works. The reason why writing descriptions matters so much is that the reader has to feel utterly present in your fictional world. It has to feel more real than the world of boring old reality. That’s where great descriptive writing comes into its own. If you can – economically, vividly – set a scene, then all your character interactions and plot twists will come into their own. They’ll feel more dramatic, more alive. And again: there are simple repeatable techniques for strong descriptive writing. Read more about them right here. What If I’m Writing For Children? Same rules apply, no matter the age or genre you’re writing for, but we’ve put together a collection of our best tips for children’s authors, including help on how to get a literary agent who’s right for you and your work. Whatever else, write clearly and economically. If your style isn’t immediate and precise, children won’t have the patience to keep with you. If a chapter doesn’t drive the story forwards, you’ll lose them. If in doubt, keep it simple. Write vivid characters to an inventive plot. Write with humour and a bit of mischief. But really: if you’re writing for kids, then follow ALL the rules in this blog post, but do the whole thing on a smaller scale. The only really crucial issue that distinguishes children’s fiction from adult work is word count. You just have to know the right kind of length for the specific market you are writing for. That means: Figure out what age range you are aiming atFigure out what kind of books you are writing (books about unicorns for 6-7 year olds? Adventure stories for young teens? Contemporary issue-driven books for mid-teens?)Get hold of some books in the right nicheTake a typical page in those booksCount the wordsMultiply number of words by number of pages. Done! Oh, and don’t rely on internet searches to give you the right answer. Because there is so much age-dependent variability in kids fiction, criss-crossed by a good bit of format and genre variability, the only safe route to follow is the one we’ve just given. Expert tip:The commonest mistake made by aspiring children’s authors has to do with writing down to children. And that’s wrong. Children don’t want to be lectured or patronised. They want their world to be taken as seriously by you as they take it themselves. One of the reasons Roald Dahl was so successful was that he wrote about stuff that adults (in the real world, outside fiction) would have disapproved of. A giant who spoke funny? Adult twits who behaved badly? A lethally dangerous chocolate factory? Dahl’s willingness to be subversive put him clearly on the side of kids, not adults. Authors such as Susanne Collins, Veronica Roth, JK Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer all use the same basic trick. Copy them! Set Up Some Good Writing Disciplines First rule of writing is this: Good writers write. They don’t want to write. They don’t think about writing. They don’t blog about writing. They write. Sure you can do those other things too, but they’re not what counts. What counts is bum-on-seat hours and that document wordcount ticking ever upwards. Now the truth is that different writers approach their work differently. There’s no one set of rules that works for everyone. But here are some rules that may work for you. If they do, great. If they don’t, adapt them as you need. Either way, if the rules help you write, great. If they don’t, discard them. So. The rules: Set up your writing space so it appeals. Lose the distractions. Make sure you have a computer, pens, and notebooks that you like using. Get a comfortable chair.Eliminate distractions. Got a TV in your writing room? Then lose the TV. Or change rooms. Get rid of the distractions that most bother you.Determine when and how often you will write. If you have a busy life, it’s OK if that’s a bit ramshackle (“Tuesday morning, alternate Wednesdays, and Saturday if I get a chance.”) But the minimum here is that you set a weekly allowance of hours, and stick to it come hell or high water. Pair that up with:A weekly target wordcount. Hit that target every week, no excuses.Make some kind of outcome commitment. For example: When I have finished this book, I will get an external editor to give me comments. Or: I will share this with my book group. You just need to have in mind that this book will be read. That knowledge keeps you honest!Commit to a deadline. Don’t make that too tough on yourself, but do make it real. Almost anyone should be able to manage 2,000 words a week, even with a busy lift. And most adult novels are 70-100,000 words long, so in less than a year, you have yourself a book, my friend. With practice, you’ll get faster.Work to an outline. I said you needed to sketch your plot, right? (You can get that plotting worksheet by navigating to the top of the sidebar on this page.) Use that outline as your story-compass. If you need to tweak it as you go, that’s fine – but no radical changes, please!Always prioritise the reader’s perspective. Don’t write to please yourself. Write to please the reader. If you need to imagine an actual Ideal Reader, then do so. Write for her.Don’t worry if your first draft is lousy. It’s meant to be! That’s what first drafts are for. Jane Smiley said, “All first drafts are perfect, because all they have to do is exist.” Same goes for you, buddy.Take breaks. If you’re a fidgety writer (as I am), you’ll want to take a lot of breaks. If you concentrate fiercely for twenty minutes and take a break for five or ten, that’s fine. Just keep going that way.Warm up each day. I always edit my work of the day before as a way to warm myself up for the chapter I’m about to begin. If you like to warm up differently, then go for it. Just remember you may not be able to just start writing fresh text at 9.01 am precisely. Most of us need to warm the engine a little first. And that’s it. Do those things, and you should be fine. Revise Your First Draft Nearly all first drafts will have problems, some of them profound. That’s okay. A first draft is just your opportunity to get stuck in on the real business: which is refining and perfecting the story you’ve just told yourself. That means checking your story, checking your characters, checking your writing style. Then doing all those things again. You’ll find new issues, new niggles every time you go back to your work (at least to start with), and every time you fix those things, your book will get better. It’s a repetitive process, but one you should come to enjoy. Don’t get alarmed by the repetitions: think of this rewriting task as climbing a spiral staircase. Yes, you are going round in circles, but you are rising higher all the time. We’ve seen hundreds of new manuscripts every year, and we’re pretty good at recognising common problems. We’ve even got a checklist of recurring issues we find. Most are fixable, so you don’t need to worry too much if some of those apply to you. The thing is simply to figure out what the issue is, then sit down to address it. Remember that all successful novelists started the same way as you did: with a lousy manuscript. Expert tip:Editing your own work can be a challenging and somewhat mysterious process. So we’ve removed the mystery. We’ve put some actual edits to an actual book (by me, as it happens) up on the blog, so you can see how the selfv-editing process works for an experienced pro author. You can find more about all that over here. While you’re at it, you may want to take a look at the various different types of editing that are available. But don’t jump into paid editing until a very late stage. For now, self-editing will improve your manuscript and build your skills. Make Friends, Get Feedback Writing a book is hard work. It’s lonely. Those around you are seldom equipped to offer expert feedback and advice – and, of course, this is a difficult road. Most first novels do not get published. So please don’t try to go it alone. Here are some things you can and probably should do: Join a writing group or online writing community. See our expert tip below.Go public with some of your writing goals / achievements. That could just mean updating your Facebook page, or talking with your friends at the office. The main thing is to avoid your book feeling like a dark secret you’re not able to share.Get friendly peer feedback when you think you’re ready. When you’re book is finished and roughly edited, it can be useful to seek supportive feedback, of the “Wow, you can really do this!” variety. You’ll need to get tougher in due course, but that early support can work wonders.Build your skills. That could mean doing an online creative writing class, or taking a course, or working with a mentor, or attending an event. Whatever you choose to do, you will improve as a writer and writing & editing your next book will come easier than it did this first time round.Get professional feedback once you’ve done as much self-editing as you can manage. There is absolutely no better way to improve a manuscript than to get a rigorous set of comments from an experienced third-party editor. Watch this video for tips on how to process and make best use of that feedback. Remember, you don’t have to do all of this at once. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So go easy with yourself when setting out your goals. Under-commit and over-deliver, right? Expert tip:Meet friends in a free and knowledgeable community of writers. I blog there every week and thousands of writers like you meet to share peer-to-peer critiques, gossip, advice and support. And also – friendship. Passion makes friends like nothing else and our community is all about passion. Sign up is totally free. And fast. And easy. Just go here and do what you gotta do. Bonus Tip: Get A Literary Agent Literary agents only take about one book in a thousand, so before you take this final step, we do suggest that you’ve completed numbers 1 to 9 properly. You should also take a look at our advice on manuscript presentation to make sure you’re really prepared for the next stage. That said, if your novel is good enough, you will find it easy enough to secure representation. Just follow these steps. A) Select your target agents. We have a complete list of literary agents and you can filter all data by genre, agent experience and more. It’s the most complete source of its kind. B) Choose about 8-12 names. You’re looking for agents keen to take on new writers. If they happen to represent authors you love, so much the better. (More advice on how to start your agent search.) C) Write a fabulous covering letter, using this advice and this sample letter. D) Write a good, clear synopsis. A process that terrifies most writers, but this is easier than you might think. Just follow these tips. E) Get your stuff out there. And there you have it: 10 steps to get you started writing that novel. Happy writing, Good luck. And keep going! About the Author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books). As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)
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How to Plot a Novel (Using our Easy Plot Template Technique)

All stories share a simple common structure, right? So the simplest way to outline your novel (or any type of story) is to use that universal template by way of scaffolding. And you do need to use some kind of novel outline before you start writing. Plotting a novel from scratch? Imagining the whole thing in your head before you start? That’s hard. Or, scratch that, it’s pretty much impossible. So don’t do it. Cheat. Use a simple, dependable template to build an outline of your novel, then slowly fill out the detail. Yes, filling in the detail can be a slow and tricky process. But you don’t care. Because if your basic outline is strong (and the idea that lies behind it is strong), you can’t really go wrong. And figuring out that template and how best to use it is exactly what we’re going to do in this post. (Or – full disclosure – it’s what you’re going to do. We’ll just help a little on the way . . .) Novel Outline Template In A Nutshell You just need to figure out: Main character (who leads the story)Status Quo (situation at the start)Motivation (what your character wants)Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo)Developments (what happens next)Crisis (how things come to a head)Resolution (how things resolve) What A Story Template Looks Like Use a simple plot outline to get your ideas straight Let’s start simple. And that means, yep, that YOU need to start simple. Get a sheet of paper or notebook and have it by you as you work your way through this post. Ready? Pencil sharp and ready to go? So do this: Write down the following headings: Main characters Status Quo Motivation Initiating Incident Developments Crisis Resolution Simple right? And now sketch in your answers in as few words as possible. That means a maximum of 1-2 sentence for each heading there. If that seems a little harsh, then I’ll allow you 3 sentences for the “Developments” section: that’s where the bulk of your book is going to lie. But that’s all. At this stage, we don’t want complex. Complex is our enemy. We’ll get there soon enough, but for now just think, Structure-structure-structure. Too much complexity – all that intricate plot detail – just gets in the way of finding the actual bones of your novel. (Oh, and I don’t want to digress too much, but that same basic template works if you want to build a scene, or write a synopsis, or structure a key piece of dialogue. In fact, it’s just like this universal unlocking device for pretty much any structural challenge in fiction. Good to know, huh?) The Novel Template: An Example You probably want an example of what your outline should look like, right? OK. So let’s say your name was Jane Austen and you had a great idea for a story about a prideful guy and a charming but somewhat prejudiced girl. Your story outline might look something like this: CharacterElizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet, one of five daughters in Regency England. Status QuoLizzy and her sisters will be plunged into poverty if her father dies, so they need to marry (and marry well) MotivationLizzy wants to marry for love. Initiating IncidentTwo wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive. DevelopmentsLizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems. CrisisLizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone. ResolutionMr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all. Now that’s easy, right? That’s the whole of Pride and Prejudice in a nutshell, and it was easy. You just need to do the same with your book or your idea, and keep it really simple. In fact, if you struggle to know everything that goes in the ‘developments’ section, you can even drop in some placeholder type comments. If you were Jane Austen you might, for example, start out by saying something like “Lizzy breaks with Wickham, because it turns out he’s a bad guy. He killed someone? Stole money? Something else? Something to think about.” And that’s fine. Don’t worry about any blanks. It’s like you’re building a tower and you’re missing one of the girders. But by getting everything else in place and putting a “girder needs to go here” sign up, the structure is still brilliantly clear. That’s all you need (for now.) Oh, and don’t bother separating those down into chapters just yet, you can worry about that later – but when you do, read this, it’s really useful! Finally, don’t complicate things if you don’t want to, but if you find it helpful to add a “character development” heading, then you should do that as well. Effectively, you’re extending your novel outline template to cover not just plot movements, but character development too – a brilliant all-in-one tool. Developing Your Story Outline Taking your template on to the next level Now, OK, you might feel that our template so far is just a little too basic. Which it is. So let’s develop the structure another notch, and what we’re going to do now is to add in anything we know about subplots – or basically any story action that you DO know about, which doesn’t fit neatly into the above plot structure. So if you were Jane Austen, and had a good handle on your story, you might put together something like this. (Oh, and we’ve called them sub-plots, but you can call them story strands, or story elements, or anything that feels right to you.) Subplot 1Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry. Subplot 2Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy. Subplot 3Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes. Notice that we’re not yet trying to mesh those things together. In fact, the way we’ve done it here Subplot 3 (which happens in the middle of the book) comes after Subplot 2 (which comes at the end). But again: don’t worry. Sketch your additional story material down as swiftly as neatly as Miss Austen has just done it. The meshing together – the whole business of getting things in the right order, getting the character motivations perfectly aligned and all that – that’ll do your brain in. Yes, you have to get to it at some stage. But not now. Keep it simple, and build up. And that actually brings us to another point. How To Use Subplots If you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know perfectly well that our outline so far still misses out masses of stuff. There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on. And that’s fine to start with. It’s actually good. What does matter, however is your character’s motivation. Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book. Now that’s interesting stuff, but if a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised. Luckily, though, our story structure template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place. In fact, here are two rules that you should obey religiously: If you’re outlining a plot for the first time. Pin down your basics, then build up subplots and so on.If you have already started your manuscript and you think you’re uncertain of your plot structure, stop – and follow the exercises in this post, exactly as you would if you hadn’t yet written a word. And do actually do this. As in pen-and-paper do it, not just “think about it for a minute or two then go on Twitter.” The act of writing things out will be helpful just in itself. The act of writing always is. Plotting Your Novel: The Template Remember as well that every subplot (or story strand, or whatever you want to call them) has its own little journey. Maybe a very simple one, but it’ll have its own beginning, middle and end. Its own structure of Initiating Incident / Developments / Crisis / Resolution. So you may as well drop everything you have into the grid below. (If you want to adapt that grid a little, then do, but don’t mess around with it toooo much. The basic idea there is golden.) MAIN PLOTSUBPLOT 1SUBPLOT 2SUBPLOT 3INITIATING INCIDENTMAIN PLOTCRISISRESOLUTION If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after. What would your story look like, if you did this? How To Further Develop Your Plot Outline Advanced techniques for writing ninjas What happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid? If you give that exercise your very best go and just draw a blank? Well, no worries. The basic problems here are twofold: You don’t yet understand your plot well enough, orYou just don’t have enough plot to sustain a full-length novel. Two different problems. Two different solutions. If you don’t yet understand your own plot in enough detail, you want to use … Plot-building Tool: The Snowflake Method Seeing your own plot in detail, before you write the book, is really hard, because it’s like you’re standing on the seashore trying to jump onto Mount Everest. In one bound. Not gonna work. So get there in stages, Base Camp. Camp 1, and so on up. What that means for you, is that you use our basic template in sketch form to start with – a sentence or two per section. Then you go at it again, and give each section its own paragraph. Then you go at it again, expanding to 2-3 paragraphs, or whole pages if you want to. The same basic exercise, but getting into deeper levels of detail each time. If you want more about the “snowflake” approach you can find it right here. OK. But what if your plot outline just feels a little bit thin once you sketch it out? Answer you fix it – and you fix it NOW before you start hurtling into the task of actually writing. Here are the techniques you’ll need to do just that: Method 1: Mirroring This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces – characters shouting at each other for effect, etc. – but add depth and subplots, developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story. (Remember: if it’s not contributing to your protagonist’s journey, it doesn’t matter and you need to delete it.) To take another novel – supposing your name is Harper Lee, and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout – let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it. One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. (Harper Lee herself was daughter of a small-town lawyer.) He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done. A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout? It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird. Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature. Method 2: Ram Your Genre Into Something Different Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime. So take The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Looked at one way, that’s a pretty much standard issue romantic story, which, yes, could have sold, but could never have made the huge sales it actually racked up. But then ram that into a story of time-travel, and you have something shimmeringly new and exciting. What you had was still a romantic story at its heart – it certainly wouldn’t appeal to hardcore fans of SF/fantasy – but the novel element gave it a totally new birth. Or take Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters. A picaresque Victorian historical novel . . . that kind of thing always had its audience – but that audience had never encountered a frankly told lesbian coming-of-age story in that context, and the result of that shock collision was to produce a literary sensation. Method 3: Take Your Character And Max Her Out Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe? It wasn’t the quality of Stieg Larsson’s writing, which was never more than competent and which was quite baggy, to say the least. And the actual plot? Well, on the face of it, he delivered a fairly standard issue crime story. Nothing so unusual there in terms of actual narrative. But Stieg Larsson rammed that basic story with an exotic character: Lisbeth Salander. That woman had Aspergers, she was a bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor . . .and boom – vast worldwide sales resulted. Method 4: Add Edge – A Glint Of Steel A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness. (here) The basic plot was strong. The mystery element was good. There was at least one quite unusual element. The climax was rip-roaring (set on a trawler at sea in a force 10 gale.) But . . . The book wasn’t quite working. It was long. And it was just a long, long way from the set-up phase of the book to the denouement. My solution? A glint of steel. I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist. That addition made a long book even longer . . . but it made the book. It’s not just that the sequence itself was exciting, it’s that its shadow extended over everything else too. Whereas before the book had felt a bit like, “yep, gotta solve the mystery, because that’s what these books have to do.” Now it was: “We HAVE TO solve that mystery, because these bastards abducted our protagonist.” Steel. Edge. Sex or violence. Those things work in crime novels , but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died? How To Write A Plot From Multiple Perspectives If you’re eager to write about multiple protagonists, you need a plot outline, along the lines of the template above, for each one. George R.R. Martin took this to new levels in A Song of Ice and Fire, each protagonist having his or her own richly developed plot and character arc. John Fowles’ The Collector, for example, is narrated by a kidnapper and the girl he’s kidnapped. Sullen, menacing Fred justifies all he does. Miranda chronicles her fear and pity. The result is taut, terrifying. We’re engrossed in their shared experience to the end. Multiple protagonists can work in romance novels, too, even ones told in third-person narration, such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. This said, managing multiple points of view, even from minor characters, can work well for thrillers, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release (though these things depend on story, as much as genre). The key thing to bear in mind here is that you need a mini version of your novel outline template for each of your main characters. Each one of those guys needs a complete little story of their own – and those little stories need to interweave to create one great and compelling one.
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Write your Novel with the Snowflake Method (Simple Example)

When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea the project was hard. I didn’t write a plot outline. I didn’t sit down to plan my story. I didn’t actually do anything by of preparation at all. I just sat down, and wrote a book. As it happened, that book worked out well. It sold for plenty of money and went on to become a bestseller. I thought, “Yep, I can do this. I’m a great writer. Of course I don’t need to plan my next novel. I’ll just figure it out as I go.” Mistake. My second book was so bad that my editor basically called me in and told me that it was completely unpublishable in its current form. My editor was right. I knew he was. So I went home, opened up the file on my computer. Hit Ctrl-A for “select all”. And hit delete. My second novel – gone. I rewrote that novel and this time it did fine. It got entered into one of the UK’s biggest summer book promotions. It aroused some film interest. (We got an offer actually, and accepted it, but the company went down in flames before I got any cash.) And I date my writing career – my real writing career – from there. Not from my first novel, which did fine, but which just landed in my head and on the page thanks to some benevolent higher power. But from my second novel, which I had to wrestle into existence. Which I had to figure out and plan from scratch. You’re reading this post because you’re smarter than I was back then. You’ve figured out not just that you want to start writing a novel, but that you want to plan it too. You’ve realised that: If you have an outline of your novel – a structure in fact –you’re much less likely to go wrong as you write it. Yes, I know that’s obvious. I was just dumb. So this post is going to tell you how NOT to write a novel the way I tried to do it that second time. We’re going to plan out an entire structure for a novel – a complete story outline, in fact – and we’re going to do it easily. And well. We don’t want an easy way to write a bad story. We want an easy way to write a good one. Are you with me? You are? Then let’s go. How To Plot A Novel Using The Snowflake Method: Write your story in one sentenceDecide on your protagonistWrite a paragraph on settingsAdd a beginning, middle and end to your story descriptionWrite short character summariesExpand your story description to 2 pagesKeep adding details until you’re ready to write What’s The Snowflake Method, And Why Use It? So this post is going to tell you how to build up a novel outline, piece by piece. (For a reminder of plot basics, go here.) The idea of the “Snowflake” method is that it’s circular and incremental. So you don’t build your outline like this: Chapter 1: X happens, then Y happensChapter 2: Something else happensChapter 3: and then something elseetc That way is really hard to pull off. I’ve written a lot of books and I’ve never once succeeded by attempting this technique. What you’re likely to find is a mess of a first draft. Yes, you can fix it, but it’s much easier to do things right in the first place. The way the Snowflake Method works is much cleverer. It’s a much simpler way to structure your story . . . and will give you a much better story as well. (The idea, by the way, was first developed by Randy Ingermanson – so, thanks, Randy.) Here’s the basic idea. You build your outline like this: What’s the idea of your novel? Write it down in one sentence.Who’s the protagonist (hero or heroine) of your story. Write that down in one sentence.What’s the setting of your story? One sentence there, pleaseThen you go back to the idea of your story. This time you tease it out into five segments with 1 sentence (or so) for each one.And  so on The reason this method works is that it works the way the human brain works. It doesn’t ask for a ton of detail upfront before it’s settled in your mind. It uses the actual process of working to generate more thoughts and more detail . . . so you only ever need to make incremental changes to what you did before. How To Plan Out Your Novel: Approach And Mindset We’re writing creatively, right? That means two things: It’s going to be slow and jumpy.It’s not like writing a report at work, where you just need to put in enough hours and the job will get done. Sure, you need to put some hours in front of a keyboard . . . but maybe you also need to go walk the dogs, listen to some music, have a swim. It’s often enough when you’re musing but not actually working that you get the breakthroughs you need. So sure, sit at a keyboard: that part is essential. But give yourself the space to do other things too. Make space for those breakthroughs.You’ll make mistakes.And that’s good! Mistakes are good! The imagination has to be able to try stuff out. When you go clothes shopping, you see something you like,then try it on. When you look at yourself in the mirror, more often than not, you’ll think, “Nope, not  quite right.” But if you don’t try stuff on, you won’t find what is right. So let yourself try out ideas. That’s what a first draft novel outline is for. Give those ideas space and time to show you what they’re made of. And don’t get upset if you throw things away. You’ll only get to the great stuff by sifting plenty of just-not-good-enough ideas first Use The Snowflake Method: Getting Started Before you start writing your novel, make sure you have something worth writing about! The idea of the Snowflake Method is that you pen first the heart or core of your novel, so the rest can expand from here. From here, you flesh out, building out to key milestones in plot, profiling how each main character views the story, and so on, and so on – until you’re ready to start. Take a piece of paper or fire up a new document. This is how it’s done. 1 Write A One-sentence Description For Your Novel An easy starting point. This is the sum of your story, your protagonist’s journey. Where will they go, what will they achieve, how will they grow? See if you can condense all that succinctly in a single sentence or two. That sentence is the whole point of the Snowflake Method. So let’s say, you want to write a private eye type story set in 1940s Los Angeles. You love writers like Raymond Chandler, but you want to offer something new as well. So maybe you throw in one unexpected ingredient – you want to do something that Chandler himself would never have done. So, in this example, you’ve chosen to add a ghost story element to your novel. Sure, that’s just an example, but we’ll work with that idea as we develop the way the Snowflake Method actually works. Example: 1 sentence story description A private eye (Bernie Brandon) is trying to track down the killer of beautiful murder victim Amy Adderley . . . but Amy’s ghost is stalking Bernie. Does that work for you? It works for me, I think. I’d like to know more about that story. 2 Who’s The Protagonist (Hero Or Heroine) Of Your Novel? Now write down something – a sentence or two – about your protagonist. Don’t push yourself to write more here than you want, and remember that anything you do write can be scrubbed out and changed later. Changing your mind isn’t bad, remember. It shows that you’re approaching this task in a flexible and imaginative way. But, OK, for now, let’s try something like this: Example: Protagonist description in 1 sentence Bernie Brandon is an ex-cop. Lives alone. Is a problem drinker. Has a soft spot for any beautiful woman, but can’t manage long term relationships. Somewhat lonely. Is an excellent cello player, and plays the cello when he’s feeling blue. Did I say one sentence? I did. Was that one sentence? It was not. But if it comes, it comes. Don’t hold yourself back. The purpose of the Snowflake Method is to build incrementally from a simple starting point. It’s meant to remove the mental block of being asked to build too much scaffolding before you’re ready. But if you’re ready, then let yourself rip. We need to build up your main characters at some point anyway. Oh, and I originally thought that my protagonist was just going to be Bernie Brandon, only I realise I have an impulse to bring the victim / ghost more into the story as well. Maybe this story is going to be a two-hander, where Bernie and Amy both take turns to narrate? I don’t yet know the answer to that, but if you want to write something additional down about your characters here, then do. Example: 1 sentence about another major character Amy Adderley is a rich girl, dead before the start of the story. She is (or was) a singer. I didn’t find myself having more to say about Amy, so we’ll leave her there for now. 3 Write A Paragraph Or So About Your Major Setting Or Settings OK, we know what we’re doing here, right? We’re working with a 1940s Los Angeles noir. We want to evoke all that Bogart / Bacall smart-talking, hard-drinking era. So: Example: Paragraph about settings Los Angeles in the 1940s. The place is seedy, post-Prohibition, and most of the big money is dirty money. We’re thinking about big oceanfront homes, with  glossy sedan cars outside. We’re thinking about squalid little diners up in the hills where lonely souls, like Brandon, can get meals after midnight and avoid going home. This is an LA where the girls are pretty, but fallen, and the cops can be bought. And you know what? As I wrote that paragraph Click! Something clicked for me about Amy Adderley. I wasn’t looking for that to happen, but that’s how this outlining method works. You go round the various different elements of your novel (Story, Protagonists, Settings), step by step, adding detail as you go. And pop! Working one one thing, you get an insight into another thing. Those insights are what this outline process is all about. They’re why we use this method in the first place. So I’m going to jump back to my description of Amy Adderley and add this: Example: 1 sentence about another main character Amy Adderley is a rich girl, dead before the start of the story. She is (or was) a singer – but classical. She loves Schubert lieder and opera. her father, however, is a brute. A nightclub guy who made his money dirtily during Prohibition. The father’s type of singing is strictly nightclub fare – and a lot of his girls will do more than just sing for the customers . . . if the customers pay enough. Boom! You like it? We have to have a reason for why Amy is killed, and her father’s background already provides more than half an answer. And also, we gave Bernie the cello to play, just because he’s a lonely but talented guy and we had to give him something to do in his hours at home. But now Amy is a singer, a classical one. So there’s this lovely link between them. Almost like they could be lovers, right? Except that she’s dead already . . . but that feels just right for the mood of this novel. Notice that we haven’t yet said anything much about our actual story yet, but now that we have an outline of our major ingredients, we’re going to hurtle back with interest to the story itself. So, round we go again. We’re hitting the same basic targets – story, character, settings – but this time we already know more about our ingredients, so we can add layers of detail that weren’t available to us before. Using The Snowflake To Build Your Story Outline We’ve got the ingredients for our novel now. So now we need to add layers of detail. OK, so here we go again. And we’ll start by jumping back to the story that we started to create before. 4 Flesh Out Your Story Description, So It Contains A Beginning, Middle And End Our first draft story idea didn’t say a whole lot more than, “Let’s write a Raymond Chandler style novel . . . but include a ghost.” As we started to build the other elements of our novel outline, though, the story itself jumped into view a little more. (We got data on Amy’s father, and possible reasons why his daughter might have got herself killed.) So now we’re going to try to write a version of the story – still maybe only a single paragraph – but this time we’re going to give that story its basic structure: a beginning, middle and end. Already you can feel that first draft idea starting to wriggle into life. Exciting, right? So we might go with something like this. Example: Very short story outline, with beginning, middle and end Beginning: Amy’s father (Dorcan Adderley) sends a henchman to hire Bernie Brandon to investigate the death of his daughter. Bernie rejects the henchman, but meets one to one with Dorcan, and agrees to take the job.Middle: Bernie investigates. Keeps encountering / being pursued by Amy’s ghost. Bernie discovers that Amy had a fling with the son of some big wheel in the LA underworld. [Let’s call the son, Patrick Prettyboy – probably not a name that will end up in the final novel!] Bernie realises he’s meant to think Prettyboy killed Amy. He almost goes to the police with the news.End. Amy’s actual killer was her father. The whole private investigation thing was just a way to throw the blame elsewhere (and win a turf war at the same time.) Bernie doesn’t have enough evidence to take Dorcan before a court, but he confronts him and there is a struggle, which results in Dorcan’s death. Amy & Bernie, by now ‘lovers’ across the ghostly divide, play music into the small hours. How’s that? It’s not a finished story outline, by any means – but doesn’t this already feel like something that could have legs? And I’ll tell you the truth: when I began this blog post, I had no idea what story example I was going to choose. I just made it up as I went along. And presto: we already have the bones of a decent story here! That’s how easy the Snowflake Method can be. So now we cycle back to our characters again. 5 Write A Short Summary Sheet For Your Main Characters OK, I think we now have three or four characters to play with: Bernie Brandon, our PIAmy Adderley, our ghostDorcan Adderley, our bad guyMaybe Paul Prettyboy, though he’s certainly lesser than these other three. So now we’d give them each a whole sheet of paper. We’d start to ask questions about them, and start to sketch out our answers. This is a trial and error process. So maybe we start off by giving Paul Prettyboy his own nightclub to run, a gift from daddy. Except maybe that makes the whole story a little bit too nightclubby in tone. So how about we jump to the other end of things? Maybe Paul Prettyboy runs an upmarket art gallery, somewhere nice in Pasadena. He looks sauve, and sounds suave, but under it all, he’s still just a thug. A mini-me of his father. If you want to get an idea of what questions to ask about your character, you can get a great starting list here. Because we’re beginning to get more detailed – and because this is only a blog post! – I’m not going to give examples of everything from here on. *** A Word Of Warning *** We’ll go on to develop the Snowflake Method as a tool for templating out your story or novel, but first let me make one thing clear. I’m just writing a blog post, and I don’t want that post to splurge to some ridiculous length. But you are writing a book, not a blog post, so you can’t mess around. In fact, for the avoidance of doubt: You have to do this exercise in full. So, you’re going to write one page on each of your major characters, plus notes on whatever other ones pop into your brain. And here’s one more guideline that you just have to follow as you go through this novel outline process. This rule is not optional and it takes precedence over all the others: If you get an idea, write it down. Until you have actually written it (handwritten or on screen, whichever),you haven’t captured it. And you have to capture it:that’s what releases your brain to go on to the next stage. That, in a nutshell, is why most of the people who want to write a novel, don’t write a novel. They think that dreaming around with characters and stories and scenes will produce a novel. It won’t. It doesn’t. What produces a novel is: work. You write stuff down. You start thinking of the next thing. You write that down. You move on. Yes, sure, at times you’ll go back and undo some of the stuff you did before. (So first we had Paul Prettyboy as a nightclub owner. Then we realised we weren’t satisfied with that and changed it to art dealer. But we had to specify ‘nightclub owner’ in order to get to the insight that produced ‘art gallery owner’. Even mistakes are rich in insight.) Right. Lecture over. Back to the Story Outline process. 6 Expand Your Story To About Two Pages Stick with those Beginning / Middle / End sections. They’re a helpful tool for organising your novel structure. But now you want to get more detailed. So in our early attempt at sketching the story, we wrote: Beginning: Amy’s father (Dorcan Adderley) sends a henchman to hire Bernie Brandon to investigate the death of his daughter. Bernie rejects the henchman, but meets one to one with Dorcan, and agrees to take the job. And that was fine, for back then, but now we want to know more. So that little beginning description might expand to something like this. Example: Story beginning in more detail Beginning: Bernie Brandon is in his office. No work, nothing to do. There is whisky in his desk drawer and he is trying not to drink it.A big scary guy – suit, colourful – comes to hire him. Plonks down a roll of dollar bills. Too much money  for the job. There’s some wise-cracking interchange. Brandon refuses the job. Big scary guy leaves. Brandon gets the guys registration plate, phones it through to the cops – his former colleagues – and gets an ID.Brandon finds the henchman’s car that evening, tails it to a nightclub. Realises henchman guy is working for Dorcan Adderley – with whom he, Brandon, has some history. Brandon barges his way into Adderley’s office and says, in effect, “I don’t work for the staff. If I work for anyone, I work for the boss.”Adderley laughs and gets him a drink. [and so on.] Oh, and you know I said that thing about writing stuff down? That just thinking about it isn’t good enough? Well, I’m right, and here’s the proof. As I was writing that little section above, I thought, “Hey, where’s Amy ghost in this? She needs to make an early entry.” So I almost edited the example above to make room for her, but then realised that this post is meant to give you an example of the  Snowflake Method in action, and that means that I need to show you the bits I missed, the new insertions, the second thoughts . . . all the changes of direction that the Snowflake Method is there to permit. So for that reason, here’s my second shot at that beginning section: Beginning: Bernie Brandon is in his office – blah, blah, blah – all the same as before, right down to Brandon getting an ID for the henchperson.Brandon finds the henchman’s car that evening, and waits outside. As he’s waiting, he hears music – classical singing. Schubert Lieder. Strangely, the (female) singer is singing the exact song that Brandon had been playing on the piano shortly before coming out. He tries to find the source of the music, but it proves elusive. He has a constant sense of being watched.When Henchperson leaves the for the evening, Brandon tails him to a nightclub. [Then all as previously, except I think that ghostly presence has to vanish, almost petulantly, as she/Brandon get close to Dorcan Adderley.] Yeah. That’s better, right? We’ve got a lovely double note coming into the start of that book. A contemporary reader would think, “Yep, this feels a little like Raymond Chandler, but with a subtle , strange different element that I can’t yet place. I like it.” 7 Keep Going Until You’re Ready To Stop Planning, And Starting Writing Your Novel The guy who popularised the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson, has a pretty fixed bunch of guidelines on how you’re meant to do this. So you’re meant to go from a one paragraph description of the story, to a one page / four paragraph description of the story / then onto a full four page description of the story. Something similar applies to the other elements of your novel. If that works for you, then go for it! But really there are no fixed rules here, and no set end-goal. Or rather the only two fixed rules are: You have to write stuff down You have to circle round between story / characters / themes / settings,adding detail on every go round. And the only end-goal that matters is this: When you feel super-ready to start writing your novel –and not just ready, but actually impatient –then you can start writing your book. Personally, I’m not much of a planner, so I tend to jump into my books sooner rather than later (and, I’ll admit, sometimes regret my decision.) The mere fact that you’re reading this post suggests to me that you’ve got a good bit of planner in you (or you’re just procrastinating quite badly), in which case I think a reasonable stopping point would be as follows. You will have: Several pages of notes / ideas about your major charactersAt least a page on your most important secondary charactersSeveral pages talking about settings, locations, themes, time of year, etc. All the background stuff that will make your novel live and breathe.3-4 pages of notes on your story, and those pages will include . . .A full page (or more) on the beginning / set-up phase of your book. That’ll include the Initiating Incident (in our example, that’s the henchman/Brandon meeting but, even more so, the Brandon/Dorcan Adderley one), but you’ll probably also find yourself describing the immediate consequences of that incident. The Set-Up Phase will probably account for about 25% of your actual final finished novel.You will probably also have a page or so on the Climax and Resolution of your novel. In our example, it would involve the the denouement of the mystery (“Who killed Amy Adderley?”), the physical showdown between Dorcan Adderley and Brandon, and the romantic climax too (the ghost and the PI playing sad classical music into the small hours.) This Climax & Resolution Material will cover the final 25% of the novelThen you’ll also have something on that awkward middle section – the middle 50% – that we just label ‘Developments’. You want to know the truth here? Most authors – including pro authors with multiple books, and even perhaps multiple bestsellers under their belts – will tend to struggle with that ‘Developments’ section. When writers complain about their work (and we mostly love it), the mos tly love it), the most frequent reason is that they’re encountering the rocks and white water that mark the transition from Set-up to Developments. So, my own personal guidance (which you should tailor to suit your own personality and your own experience with your particular story) would be to make a decent shot at guessing what your developments section would look like. So I certainly wouldn’t advise that you just ignore it completely. But when you start writing your novel, be aware that you may need to pause once the book is about 25% written, so you can come back to a version of this exercise and redo it. Why redo it? Because you’ll be returning to your story outline process with much greater feel for your characters, your settings, all the richness of that set-up material, and so on. That richness will give you a ton of insight into how to navigate the rocks that lie ahead. If you’re a planner, then you may want to synopsise the entire novel at that point. You might even find that you can do it chapter by chapter. I can’t do it that way – never have, never will – but I do still take a moment at the 25% mark to rethink where I’m going. (Oh, and when I say “take a moment”, what I actually mean is “Spend two weeks grumbling around the house and looking for excuses to do anything else other than sit in front of my laptop and work.” I LOVE writing, and I love being a writer. But that part of the planning process? I do not love.) Ready To Start Writing Your Novel? Get help. It may make the difference between success or failure. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t write much of an outline. I didn’t plan anything very much. I just sat and wrote. And yes, that novel got published and did well. But yes, I also ended up doing a ton more work than I would have done if I’d planned properly from the start. And my second novel? Well, it was just a total car crash, because I thought I knew how to write novels, when I really, really didn’t. We’ve talked through a lot of the technique you’re going to bring to bear in your own writing journey, and – believe me – that technique is going to reward you a million times over. But wouldn’t you like more help than that? Of course you would! Writing is a pretty lonely business, and wouldn’t it be great if you could: Get comments and feedback on your work from like-minded writers?Get the benefit of a massive super-premium video course on How To Write?Watch filmed masterclasses from top tutors teaching specific examples of writing technique?Meet literary agents and editors online, so you can get a feel for the industry you want to be a part of?Get an entire video course on Getting Published from a bunch of people who have helped hundreds of people like you get published?Watch films & videos especially created for writers like you and focusing on the questions and issues that writers like you are interested in?Have a kind of “Agony Aunt” for writers service, where you could just bring your questions and have them answered with tact and expertise? That sounds good, doesn’t it . . . but surely not for real? Surely nothing like that actually exists? Well, yes, it does. And you’re right here on the site that can make all that happen. Jericho Writers is a club for writers like you and we welcome new members. Once you take out a membership, everything that we can provide digitally comes to you for free. Every course, every video, the entire community, everything. Membership is cheap and you can cancel any time. There are no restrictions at all on how much of our content you can access during the course of your membership. The Snowflake Method is a truly great way to develop and plan your novel outline. But Jericho Writers can help with absolutely everything: writing, publishing, self-publishing, everything. You can learn more about us here, or just join us today. We look forward to welcoming you!
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A Question of Timing: When to Release Information in Your Plot

Haydn Middleton edited books for Oxford University Press before becoming a full-time writer. (Haydn’s Goodreads page shows a selection of his titles.) He has published seven novels for adults and an eighth is forthcoming in October 2018. This piece of writing is going to be about 1,200 words in length, and around the 900-word mark I’m going to tell you something that will blow your head off. Getting The Reader ‘in The Vehicle’ That’s a fairly crude way to open a blog post.If you’re a reader of refined sensibilities, it may well have put you off. (Another kind of reader again will go straight to the 900-word mark and check out whatever may be in store !) On the other hand, it may just have tickled your curiosity and made you think, ‘Whatever this showman has up his sleeve, it could be worth me hanging around until the 900-word mark, just in case his reveal is as big as he says.’ And that works for books, too. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events warns children away, but only makes them curious to read on . It’s a fine art, withholding information. So you will see at once that what I’m talking about here is – well – not talking about things. Or rather, making it clear to the reader that in due course you, the writer, will be delivering something rather tasty, but not quite yet. Because it’s not just about what twists your book can deliver – it’s how you, the author, will get us there.It’s the fine old writerly art of withholding information, and it can be classified within the box of technique tricks of known as ‘Getting the Reader in the Vehicle’. Jump In And Snap On Your Seatbelt I took that phrase about the Vehicle from the brilliant contemporary novelist and short-story writer, Haruki Murakami. He once wrote: “For me, a story is a vehicle that takes a reader somewhere. Whatever information you may try to convey, whatever you may try to open the reader’s emotions to, the first thing you have to do is get that reader into the vehicle.” It’s a sad but true fact that if you don’t fairly soon get that reader comfortably seated and belted in, then she probably isn’t going to go on the journey with you. And offering the “bait” of some juicy information that will be delivered a little further down the line can be a good way to encourage your reader to suspend her disbelief. But there are hazards in this approach, too. You can’t share too much, too soon, yet you need to share enough at once to engage interest. In writing your story, you might not choose to address your reader as directly as I did at the start of this piece.You might instead kick off with a scenario which is intriguing but inexplicable (an envelope which arrives in the post one morning, say, containing a human thumb and a pine cone). The implication is that by the end of the tale, the reader will at least have a clearer idea of what’s going on.If the recipient of that envelope himself doesn’t initially understand why he has been sent those things, that can be useful. Because while he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, so too will the reader. Matters get more complicated if the recipient does know why he’s been sent the package and this is made clear to the reader (e.g. the recipient shows no shock, placing the envelope in a drawer with fifteen others of exactly the same shape and size). Then it is up to the narrator – first-person or third-person – whether he explains at once to the reader what is going on, or else he withholds the information till a later stage. Deftly handled, either approach might work. But ideally, the reader will want to feel that there is a damned good reason why she is not yet being let in on the secret. And what might such a reason be? I guess the main one is that the reader will have happily made a tacit agreement with the author that what he is presenting to her is a glorified joke, and no one wants to be told the punchline half way through a joke, or indeed at its very beginning. That can make for a rattling good read, especially in the case of works like the better short stories which Roald Dahl wrote for adult readers. There’sBut other kinds of fiction set out to pull off something a little more complicated, to present life in all its unmanageable and distinctly non-punchline-type glory. And it’s with regard to these other genres – which many Jericho Writers clients describe as broadly ‘more literary’ in submitting their scripts – that I’d like to talk from here on in. Smelling Rats And Driving Off Cliffs In telling a serious story about a serious subject (which, as The Catcher in the Rye triumphantly demonstrates, doesn’t mean there can’t also be plenty of humour along the way), it’s inadvisable to hold back key information about a character or situation merely in order to keep the reader reading. She will almost certainly smell a rat, lose faith in you as her driver (you’re taking her on a journey, remember), and jump out at the next set of traffic lights. I’d say this particularly holds true with third-person narratives. If a first-person narrator fails to mention that he is actually married with three children until just before the end of a memoir in which he has been describing his recent courtship of a foreign princess, he can at least claim to have been in denial.‘Unreliable narrators’, such individuals are called.* Amnesiac protagonists, like Christine in Before I Go To Sleep. Or protagonists who rationalise horror, like Fred Clegg in The Collector. Which leads me to the knotty issue of using multiple perspectives in a story, and by that I mean any number of points of view greater than one. I’ve lost count of the number of otherwise promising scripts I’ve read where things start to wobble, fatally, when an author forgets that Character A hasn’t yet found out what Character B has always known about Character C, who in turn has some dirt on Character A. In such cases, the author is not just having to withhold information from the reader, but also from the respective characters. Too much withholding, already! In my world, especially for new writers, there must be an irresistibly good reason ever to use more than a single narrative perspective, not least because then the author can often save himself the bother of writing about the same event twice over – which outside of courtroom dramas seldom makes for the most riveting read. But finally, don’t go away from this post imagining that you should declare absolutely everything about a character or a situation right up front. That can be just as much of a turn-off as keeping stuff concealed. How To Release Plot Information (Without Driving Off Cliffs) As in all things, there’s a happy medium to be found. Share with your readers just enough to keep them intrigued and reasonably informed, but not so much that they’ll be bored. Remembering this helps you time and control release of information for any plot. It might be an idea to think of this reader as an actual friend or acquaintance – use this as a litmus test as to how much you say at any given moment about the passing scenery. If you know that the road after the next bend will lead you straight over a cliff, you really ought to tell. If you feel compelled to share with them every fact you know about every tree you leave in your slipstream, ask yourself whether they would really want to have her ear bent about it. Now with all that advice under your bonnet, off you go. And happy motoring! *That was around the 900-word mark. You don’t have to believe everything you’re told in an opening paragraph. ‘Unreliable narrators’, we’re called. Haydn Middleton is a published author and editor at Jericho Writers. His next novel is to be published by Propolis Books in Autumn 2018. Find out more about Haydn over on our website or on his personal website.
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How to write themes in novels

If characters form the heart of a novel, the plot its musculoskeletal system, then the theme is a book’s soul. These might be personal or social issues, like emotional heartbreak or betrayal, or racial hatred or injustice, which sound all the way through the novel. What Is A Theme? These themes are not likely to be prominent. Lectures are to be avoided: these are no good. But if a book reverberates in the memory long after it’s been put down, rather like the way a trumpet note sustains itself after the instrument has left the lips, then that’s because of the book’s theme. A book with a theme is a book with soul. Write A Memorable Book It’s that easy. Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? The appalling shock of racial prejudice in the old American South, the burning sense of justice, the desire to put things right. That’s why the book sold. That’s why readers still remember it today, even if it was a decade or three since they read it. Perhaps you’ve read Pride & Prejudice. Its plot and lead characters, Lizzy and Darcy, are vivid, memorable, but what about the title? Does that just possibly suggest to you that Jane Austen had a certain theme in mind when she wrote it? (Its first working title, also, was First Impressions.) You can write a bestseller without having a theme, but you can’t write a good book without one. You certainly can’t write a book that lasts. How To Find The Theme Of Your Book You can’t just plug a theme into a book. Other things can be planned, crafted and worked at. But if you approach your theme front ways on, it’ll sound crass and didactic, so what do you do? Well, the most important thing is to write well. If your stories, characters and prose are superbly knitted together, you’ll start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens. (That may sound rather fluid, we know, though it’s true for all that.) Secondly, it’s fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though. Stories must be told through character and action, and it’s these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they’ll wriggle their way into your work. Trust us on this, too, that you’ll often enough be surprised by themes. Things will pop up in your work that you never intended to put there. Welcome all such strangers. Great authors always do. Last, as you revise your text, you can shape, nudge, tweak things, so that those themes become a little more prominent. Subtlety is the hallmark. And they don’t have to know that they’re reading a book with soul, intelligence, etc. You needn’t lecture or tell anyone anything. If the soul is there, the reader will find it, whether they know it or not.
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How to write a short story in 10 steps – with examples

by Dan Brotzel In this article, Dan Brotzel shares 10 simple steps and practical pointers to get you up and writing shorter fiction! For about 30 years, I slogged away trying to write a novel. But I just never had the plotting smarts or the emotional stamina, and I became like a madman running again and again at a brick wall, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Then, one day, and only a couple of decades overdue, I had a rather marvellous thought. You’re used to writing short things – articles, web pages and the like. You’re a sprinter, not a marathon runner. Why don’t you have a go at short fiction?  As a journalist and content writer in my day job, I like a deadline. Deadlines concentrate the mind, deadlines force you to finish things. So I googled ‘short story competitions’ and found that, surprise surprise, there were actually quite a few out there, and all with a deadline. One of my very first attempts won a modest prize (£40, I think) in a competition run by a small press. This was encouraging. I didn’t get anywhere with a story for over a year after that, but that small crumb of validation was enough to tide me over. I started writing more and more stories, and I’ve never really stopped since. I must have written over 100 by now. In 2019, a couple were nominated for the Pushcart anthology in the US. And best of all, in 2020 I published my debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack. I love writing short fiction, and I always have several stories on the go. But I’m still interested in getting novels published too, and my first, Kitten on a Fatberg, a co-authored comic novel, comes out from Unbound in 2021. I’m also putting the finishing touches to another full-length MS, working title The Wolf in the Woods. You may have noticed that I went from failing to finish novels to writing short stories… to finishing novels. And that, I believe, is no accident. Starting on short stories is a great way to build up your writing muscles. You get the satisfaction of structuring, shaping and, above all, completing things. At first, you may find you can’t write anything over 200 or 500 words. But after a while, you suddenly realise that your stories are getting longer and more complex, as you start to experiment with ideas and forms and voices. A short story is often not so different in length and shape from a scene in a novel, or even several scenes strung together. And one day you may find you have a different, chunkier sort of idea, one that requires more than a few thousand words to really do it justice. And maybe that day is the day you start on a novel – which you’ll now have a much better chance of finishing, with all the craft and experience that you’ve developed by completing a slew of shorter pieces. So: in a matter of months, I went from being able to finish nothing fictional to writing scores of stories and regularly getting them featured in competitions and magazines. If you’re looking to get your short-story writing off the ground, I hope these tips and ideas of mine will help you too… How To Write A Short Story In 10 Easy Steps Read widelyGet a great ideaExperiment with techniquesTake inspiration from everyday lifeStart writingAdd more levels to your writingEdit, rework, revise, repeatFocus on your beginning……and your endingRecruit beta readers Short Story: What Is It And Why Is It Special? I’ve always loved short stories. I remember my dad reading me the stories of O’Henry when I was little, studying Maupassant’s contes of the Franco-Prussian war for A level, discovering the (now deeply unfashionable) tales of Updike, marvelling at ‘The Language of Men’ by Norman Mailer and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party.’ ‘Cat Woman,’ Chekhov, the ‘murdered lady’ series of Cathy Ulrich (now collected as Ghosts of You), Aimee Bender, Salinger, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Jonson, Zadie Smith, David Vann… Oh, I could go on. Sometimes I think short fiction is closer to poetry than it is to the novel. The best short stories are little universes of compressed perfection, where every paragraph, every word, every punctuation mark has to earn its place. Short stories can be intricately plotted or they can relate little more than the movements of a mind in conversation with itself on a small domestic topic. They can be all showing or – whisper it – all telling. They can range over years or take place in a lunchtime, relating the end of a friendship or the decline of a civilisation (though the former, if we are honest, is more common). They seem, for some reason, to talk a great deal about death. Short stories can take one tool from the fictional toolkit – voice, character, dialogue, structure, point of view, idea – and major on that, almost to the exclusion of all others. They can talk of boring or obvious topics in fresh ways, or they can deliver great weirdnesses and wild thought experiments. In short, they can do whatever they like. They just have to be true to themselves, and make us believe in them, and not go on too long. For length, mind, we will need our piece of string. Short stories can be 30 pages long, or they can just be a few paragraphs. If we include flash fiction here – and why wouldn’t we, though it’s almost a whole separate article – we are looking at stories that can be as short as 100 words (technically known as drabbles). There are those who look down on flash fiction, but this I’m afraid is mere ignorance (I can say this with confidence, as I languished in this sort of ignorance myself till not so long ago). Not convinced? Try reading this or this or this or this or this or some of these. Flash is a distinctive sub-genre of short fiction. It is much harder than it looks, very much not just the offcuts of longer stuff, and the best exponents are very fine writers indeed. How Do You Structure A Short Story? There are many ways to structure a short story. You could have a beginning, a middle and an end. You could have a mini-version of the classic novel structure or one of the seven basic plots. You could have a classic sting in the tale – think of the stories of Roald Dahl or O’Henry or Saki. Or you could just start writing – and see what shape starts to emerge. Often voice or idea is far more important than structure in a short story, and you can often retro-fix the shape once you’ve nailed those essential components first. Because short stories are, well, short, you can sometimes even plan and draft them at the same time. Some stories read almost like anecdotes or well-crafted jokes; others appear to have no obvious plot in a novelistic sense, but are more like tableaux vivants which, like an interesting painting, reveal more meaning and information with every look. In some, like Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ nothing really appears to happen; there is talk of ‘an operation’ in a tense conversation between a couple, but the reader has to look between the lines to intuit what’s happening. All this, again, points to the wonderful fluidity and flexibility of the form. One classic way to tell a story is what I call the Pivot structure, where you set one non-human element against another, usually human, event or relationship. Over the course of the story, the non-human element starts to tick away like a metaphor engine for the human element of the story, resonating with different meanings as the narrative develops. For example, I’ve just read ‘Little Tiger’ by JR McMenemie, a beautiful story told from the point of view of two children who have just lost their gran. Their Mum is upset at having lost her Mum, and Dad is trying to comfort her. The kids have never been to a funeral before, and returning to their house in the aftermath is clearly a very unsettling experience for all. Mum engages in some aggressive tidying up, while Dad – who is struggling to juggle the competing claims of his children and his wife – starts laying a little heavily into the booze. Then, all of a sudden, the kids find a butterfly, sitting on top of a picture of a beach where they all spent many holidays with gran. This is odd, as in the story it’s February, in northern England. The children feed the butterfly some banana, and are keen to make a pet of it. All of a sudden, Mum announces that the butterfly is her Mum, come back to say goodbye. In the morning, however, the kids wake to discover that the butterfly is gone; Dad explains that they couldn’t really keep it. Do you really think the butterfly was Nan? they ask. The story ends with Dad’s reply: ‘I don’t know, son. It could have been. Your mum says some funny things sometimes. All I’m saying is that your grandma didn’t like bananas.’ This crude, simplified summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the patient, emotionally intelligent storytelling of the piece, but you can see that the butterfly acts as a pivot on which the whole story can keep turning. It is, by turns, a distraction, a projection of grief, potential proof of an afterlife, an emblem of marital devotion and, in its release, a key to the processing of loss and the attainment of a certain understated resilience. Do we live on after we die? Dad is doubtful, but he loves his wife and sees no value in challenging her theory. And she, in her turn, aching with love for her absent mum, can be forgiven a little magical thinking. If, indeed, it is magical: who, after all, can be certain that she is wrong? 10 Steps To Writing A Short Story, With Examples 1. Forage The World For Story Starters One of the attractive things about writing short stories, as opposed to longer stuff, is that you don’t need to work out a fully-fleshed outline, snowflake-style or otherwise, in order to get started. Nor do you need oodles of background words about characters, stakes, setting, timeframe and so on. You just need an idea. And that idea doesn’t even need to be an idea in the grand sense either; it can just be a prompt. It might just be a chance remark you overheard on a bus, a funny ornament in a front garden you pass every day, an odd-looking chap you spot on a holiday beach, a sudden childhood memory. It might be a smell or a view or a colour; it might be a thought triggered by a film or a radio programme or a children’s book. Of course, it might also be a break-up you’ve never got over, a terrible act of cruelty you once witnessed, or a historical event that has always had a special resonance for you. When you start, you won’t necessarily know what’s a story-worthy idea and what isn’t. So the first thing to do is to cultivate the habit of looking and listening, both to the outside world and to the things that bubble up in your mind. Now this might sound easy, but often it defeats people because they can’t believe it will ever get them to a finished story. We sometimes envision creativity as this wonderfully crazed, instinctive outpouring, whereas this note-taking business feels like something rather dull and premeditated. But your notebook, whatever form it takes, is where all the raw data of your stories will start to emerge. No data: no stories. So you have to get into the habit of jotting things down, and trusting that this is a worthwhile thing to do, and just repeatedly doing it even if you don’t really believe that yet, even when your first efforts are just dreadful callow things like So here I am writing in this book or Milk, wipes, olive oil. Post office! As with a half-used tube of toothpaste, you sometimes have to squeeze the crud out to get to the good stuff. For inspiration, try Morning Pages – as popularised by Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and others. Basically, you sit down at the start of your writing session – it doesn’t even have to be morning! – and you just write down whatever comes into your head for 10 minutes. Don’t censor what pops up – just record your thoughts. You might be amazed what occurs – shopping lists, dreams, the fag-end of a row with your partner, a glimpse of a first crush, childhood memories, strange bits of wordplay, spiritual reflections, a person in your life you haven’t thought about for ages… It’s all good, and it could all get used somewhere in your fiction. Just as the stand-up sees the world as a bunch of set-ups waiting for a punchline, so the short-fiction writer sees the world as a bunch of prompts waiting for a good story. 2. Go With The Idea That Tingles My Dad always said that he could tell a really good piece of cheese because it gave him a funny tingly feeling behind the ears. I spent much of my childhood trying (and failing) to experience this elusive dairy-led sensation. But I do at least get the tingle when it comes to stories. Over time, you’ll start to look at the bits of mental flotsam in your notebook, and you may find there’s a phrase or an anecdote or an image that you keep coming back to. When that happens, you may well have the first tinglings of a story on your hands. From time to time I go back through my notebooks and highlight bits of scribble that I think I might be able to use. Sometimes it’s a setting. My story ‘The Beach Shop’ in Hotel du Jack, for example, about a heartbroken man stalking his ex-wife on her holiday, was inspired by my early-morning stops at a cafe on a French campsite. I loved the locale, and just started writing about it till a story came. Sometimes – often in my case – it’s a bit of anecdotal autobiography. My story ‘Plane-spotting‘ was inspired by reading a story to my young son about an airport where all the planes are animals. I thought it would be funny if the Dad was a real aviation nerd, increasingly infuriated by the inaccuracy of the drawings, and it just went from there. With the flash ‘Eau de l’avenir,’ the inspiration was a smell – or rather, a scent. To give one more example of how ideas turn into stories, George Saunders says his flash fiction ‘Sticks’ came from something he saw from his car every day. ‘For two years I’d been driving past a house like the one in the story, imagining the owner as a man more joyful and self-possessed and less self-conscious than myself. Then one day I got sick of him and invented his opposite, and there was the story.’ When you note down stuff, you don’t know if you’ll ever use it, or if you’ll end up using it several times. You may use it in a way that’s a complete betrayal of the original memory. You may dredge it up again, years later, and forget you ever jotted it down in the first place. It doesn’t matter: you’ve got it down now, and it’s adding to your imaginative store. It’s all good. 3. Try A Thought Experiment Another way to approach a story is to ask yourself: What if…? What if supermarket shelf-fillers and nurses were the most celebrated and best-paid members of society, and celebrities and lawyers were considered the lowest of the low? What if an epidemic of kindness broke out in the world – Agapia-117, let’s call it – and threatened the stranglehold of capitalism, with its built-in systemic reliance on rabid self-interest? (Just riffing here, obvs.) These kinds of story offer you a rich counterfactual challenge. Depending on the challenge, you might offer the reader the pleasure of watching an unexpected idea play out, or you might challenge yourself to pull off a narrative feat that the reader doesn’t know about until the end: What if (to cite a notorious example) you could tell me a whole story that turns out in the end to have been narrated by a cat? What if you wrote an alien contact story, only for us to realise at the end that the narrator lives on another planet, and the ‘aliens’ are actually humans from earth? The idea for my story, ‘Nothing So Blue,’ came to me when I asked my son for ideas of what I could write about. ‘Write about becoming invisible,’ he said. Now sci-fi isn’t really my thing, but then I thought: ‘What if you were granted a superpower, and it turned out to be a bit rubbish?’ Now that, I thought, was very much more my thing. A great example of the thought-experiment approach is ‘The Rememberer’, by Aimee Bender: ‘My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.’ 4. Borrow A Form From Everyday Life Structure doesn’t come naturally to us all (guilty), but an easy way to get round that is to give yourself a nice constrained timeframe, such as the hours of a day or the seven days of a week. I use this structure in a few of my stories, notably the title track of Hotel du Jack, because it offers a natural scale of narrative progression. On Monday, we meet the cast of the story and get a sense of what’s at stake. On Tuesday the first signs of conflict emerge. Wednesday sees problems escalate, Thursday brings a false dawn, and on Friday things really kick off. Saturday is the day the crisis resolves and the loose ends are tied up, and Sunday has that nice sort of epilogue feel to it. It is the day, as Craig David tells it, on which one chills; the day one rests after creating a world. You might choose a lunch-hour, or a night, as Helen Simpson does with her insomniac narrator in ‘Erewhon’ (collected in Constitutional), a man in a roles-reversed world who stays up worrying about kids and money and sexism while his high-powered wife lies snoring indifferently next to him. It could be a date or a work meeting or a conversation between dads at the side of a junior football match, where the competitive nature of the chat echoes the changing fortunes of their kids’ respective teams and the climax of the story coincides with the final whistle.Paris Mon AmourYou might choose a lunch-hour, or a night, as Helen Simpson does with her insomniac narrator in ‘Erewhon’ (collected in Constitutional), a man in a roles-reversed world who stays up worrying about kids and money and sexism while his high-powered wife lies snoring indifferently next to him. It could be a date or a work meeting or a conversation between dads at the side of a junior football match, where the competitive nature of the chat echoes the changing fortunes of their kids’ respective teams and the climax of the story coincides with the final whistle. Taking this idea a step further, hermit-crab fictions – also known as borrowed forms – are stories that are made out of everyday verbal templates. The more banal the form, the better – think product reviews, missing-person reports, recipes, maths problems, listicles, top tips, user instructions…Paris Mon AmourTaking this idea a step further, hermit-crab fictions – also known as borrowed forms – are stories that are made out of everyday verbal templates. The more banal the form, the better – think product reviews, missing-person reports, recipes, maths problems, listicles, top tips, user instructions… The trick is to try to stick quite closely to the structure you’re stealing, so that the story you tell will seem even wilder or more heartbreaking by contrast with its dull container. As you go through your day, you’ll come across thousands of these dead bits of copy – from insurance letters to FAQs to parish newsletters. Choose one, and make it your own. I’ve written hermit-crab stories in the form of a shopping list, board game rules, FAQs and even a penalty charge notice. In Hotel du Jack, you’ll also find a ghost story told as a neighbourhood forum thread, a reflection on #metoo in the form of board meeting minutes, a meditation on grief in the form of a dishwasher glossary, and a product recall notification. Another story, ‘Active and passive voice’, dissects a flawed relationship through the structure of a grammar lesson. Meanwhile ‘My Mummy is…‘ was written – out of a sense of profound inadequacy – just after I’d read a book with my 5-year-old son at school entitled My Daddy is a Firefighter. One of my favourites pieces of flash fiction, LIFECOLOR INDOOR LATEX PAINTS® – WHITES AND REDS by Kristen Ploetz, manages to condense an entire life into a trio of paint palettes. George Saunders has a lot of fun with this response to a customer complaint. Here’s a story of long-term love that’s also a 5-star blender review. And this story is just receipts. If you’d like to read more hermit-crab narratives, here’s a couple of great anthologies to inspire you: Fakes by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, and The Shell Game, edited by Kim Adrian. 5. Start Writing If you’ve got a prompt that feels rich and interesting – whether it’s a vague memory or a thought experiment or a borrowed form – the next thing is just to get something down. My process at this point is crude: just bang a first draft out. If you have an idea that feels like a start, get it down and start playing around with what happens next. If you have an idea that feels like an ending, get it down and think about how your story might get you there. But do the thinking by actual writing. This is not a drill! And this is not a novel. Just write. As you go along, the idea will start to build and coalesce, especially as, remember, you chose something that’s already glowing and tingling for you. As the juices start flowing, you will start to see possibilities open out for you – structural bridges, snippets of dialogue, observations that you sense suddenly belong somewhere within the fabric of your story’s world. You can start to put in little headers too, little pegs to mark out future sections. Jot all these extra thoughts at the bottom of your doc, keep typing, and fold them in as you go. Sometimes, as the story starts to flow, you may get stuck on one bit but can start to see how a later section would work. Go with the flow, and start filling in that later section instead – just leave yourself some meta-notes for the bits you need to come back to later e.g. insert scene where elephant appears for first time or add in funeral-home bit here to explain why Moira’s always hated lilies. The same process also works at a micro-level, too. Often your ideas for the story run ahead of how quickly you can phrase things. Thinking about the broad contours of your story and fine-tuning phraseology are different creative tasks, and it’s not always easy or efficient to flit between the two. Don’t waste time waiting for the mot juste to arrive – just put in a bit placeholder copy or add some “xxxxxxxxxxxs,” and move on. Just get the broad brushstrokes down, and then you can go back and finesse the detail later. I guess the approach I’m advocating here is a bit like ‘writing by the lights,’ a phrase that inevitably takes us back to a line from EL Doctorow: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Sometimes the idea you have is a perfect little synopsis, and all (!) you have to do now to flesh it out in a way that does justice to the conception. Sometimes you just have an opening scene, or an image, or a character to work with, and you have to build the rest of the world around them. But the remedy is the same in every case: get that first draft down. The more stories you write, the more you get a sense of the optimum length for a particular piece. Some short stories are almost like extended gags; they go out and back in a simple anecdotal arc that culminates in a snappy zinger. Others require patience and stamina to deliver their potential. Their form might be much more complex: a spiral, a mosaic, a musical symphony of contrasting and resolving themes. But the best way to build up to writing complex stories is to start by completing simpler ones. And the best way to complete a story is get a first draft down fast. Then the real work can begin. 6. Work In Another Level A satisfying story can usually be read on more than one level. There is the surface level, and then there is a sense of an underlying meaning. If your story is to feel like more than a mere skit or vignette, we want to have a sense that there is another perspective, a subtext, a theme that’s whirring away in the background as we read. I’m not suggesting that you start with a grand theme and try and mould a story to it; that will usually lead you somewhere strained and leaden. I just mean that when you write your story, you want to have an eye on how others will find it interesting or meaningful. You don’t have to have a pat answer to this question, quite the opposite in fact. Where novels often build up to an accumulated truth, the best stories often have an inconclusive, open-ended quality. Often in life, when you think about it, we are working through familiar challenges and conflicts in a variety of different guises and permutations: freedom versus commitment, future hopes versus mortality, child versus parent, addiction versus abstention, ego versus altruism – the list is endless. What short stories often do is replay one of these central conflicts for us in a way that is both very specific – involving particular individuals in detailed interactions – but also has a timeless, universalising feel to it. Life is ambiguity, and things rarely get resolved. So, as your story takes shape, ask yourself: which pattern am I enacting here? This might sound a bit complex, but really it’s very simple, because every story we tell inevitably has the potential to speak beyond its own obvious remit; the trick is just to polish your words in the light of their wider applicability. As you start to get your story down, have an eye on the meanings and themes that emerge with it, and shape your material accordingly. You don’t have to be able to say what the story is really about; you just need to leave enough space and enough interesting glimmers for the reader to want to fill in the blanks. Take, for example, Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer.‘ This rich and subtle tale is full of nautical detail and has the feel of being based on a true incident, lightly fictionalised. But Conrad is careful throughout to dial up the elements we can all relate to: the fear of not being good enough, the loneliness of command, the terror of being brave, and so on. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ – as well as being a pair of beautifully observed little scenes – speaks to us about bereavement, and the agony of a loss which can no longer even find expression. And in retrospect, we see that JD Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ – for all its enjoyable elements of comedy and social satire – speaks also to the corrosive effects of trauma and the inadequacy of our responses to it. 7. Edit. Revise. Rework. Repeat. Writing, as so many have said, is re-writing. Now that you have a rough draft down, the real work can begin, as you hone and polish and finesse your story into the best story it can be, and remove in the process all avoidable friction from the reading process. A few pointers: Look hard at the movement and logic of the story. Read the story out loud to yourself, and see if it makes good narrative sense. Is the middle soggy? Are there any tedious info dumps? Is there too much telling at the expense of showing? Is there a good balance between different sections and viewpoints (if you have more than one)? Is the story long enough, or do you rush to the conclusion and throw the ending away?Look out for redundancies. Strip away phrases, sentences and even sections that don’t add anything to the mood or voice or development of the story. Murder your darlings – all those bits (phrases, plot points, devices etc) that you’re really fond of but don’t really fit into the texture of the story you have developed.Add in clarifications and bridges. Editing isn’t just taking things away. Sometimes it’s about adding things too. If a transition between two sections isn’t clear, or your intro throws up a commonsensical question that you don’t ever answer, the reader will be too busy scratching their head to fully appreciate your story. Sometimes just a clarifying phrase here or a subtle time or place reference there can be all it takes.Look for words and phrases that you know you over-use. I’m a sucker for ‘suddenly,’ ‘seemed,’ ‘now’ and ‘screenwash’. I have certain pet thoughts and jokes that, if left to my own devices, I will happily try and shoehorn into everything I write. Watch out for ‘had’ too – if half your story is in the form of a past-perfect flashback, that’s probably going to be a problem. See more tips on self-editing here. 8. Look Extra Hard at Your Start… The start of your story needs to work hard to lure us into the world of your narrative. It must intrigue us from the off. We want to feel instantly that we are in an interesting place, where interesting things may happen, and that we can trust and enjoy the person who is telling us about them. Ambiguity, cliche, long-windedness, unnecessary cleverness – these can all spell death to a good intro. You might start with an intriguing hook (‘In the beginning, Sanford Carter was ashamed of becoming an Army cook’ – ‘The Language of Men’, by Norman Mailer.) You might set the scene with a sweep of historical backdrop (‘Paris was blockaded, starved, in its death agony’ – ‘Deux Amis’, by Maupassant.) Or you might start by setting the rules of the world, as in ‘By the Waters of Babylon’ by Stephen Vincent Benét, in a way that has the reader wondering from the very start what will happen if one is broken: ‘The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest.’ Naturally I am instantly curious about what happens if I head east. And the Dead Places? These are things I need to know about. For more on this topic, see my 10 examples of how to start a short story. 9. …And Look Extra Hard at Your Ending You need to bring your story to a conclusion in a satisfying way that is of a piece with the style and mood of the narrative that you have created. If you have written a taut, sting-in-the-tale mystery, the ending should close things off with a satisfying snap that tells us the case is closed and justice – consistent in some way or other with the internal logic of your piece – has been served. A story that is more reflective and interior in tone, on the other hand, will ideally finish with a line that adds a new perspective or dimension to our understanding of the whole, and keeps rippling and resonating in the reader’s mind long after they have finished reading. The ending can be a shock to the system that makes sense of everything that’s gone before; ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is an obvious and powerful example of this. Or it can zoom away from the action, just as a camera takes leave of its subject. Or it can inject a twist that calls into doubt everything you’ve read so far. It can sometimes be read two different ways, leaving the reader to work out their own ending. And it can of course just show that the world keeps on turning. My ‘Ella G in a Country Churchyard’, for example, brings a story of an uncomfortable parent-child conversation about mortality to a close with the Dad asking: ‘Ready for some sausages?’ This could be seen as an evasion, but then again there are no adequate answers to the girl’s impossible questions about what happens when we die. Life goes on, and it is almost teatime. 10. Get Another View Don’t send out the story to any magazine or competition until someone else has read it and fed back to you. And not just anyone, but someone whose judgement you respect, and who can give a candid take on what’s working and what isn’t. You may have a trusted beta reader – perhaps your partner, or a relative or friend – who always reads your stuff, or you may get feedback from a Facebook group. And of course there’s the Townhouse. These are great resources, but in my experience nothing beats being part of a real-life writers’ group. In a writers’ group, you’ll have the experience of reading your words to others – itself often very instructive, as you can often sense where the story is working and where it’s dragging just from the quality of attention in the room. And you’ll get constructive, practical feedback from people who are dealing with the same challenges, albeit from different perspectives and genres. Short stories lend themselves particularly well to group critique, because they are often just the right length to read in full. No doubt there will be feedback – from yourself as well as from others – and you will need to decide which bits you want to act on and which, not: learning the difference is a lifetime’s work. Inevitably you will find yourself returning to step 7, and perhaps steps 8 and 9 too, but that’s no bad thing. Writing is re-writing, remember. How Do You Write A Short Story in One Day? Can you Write A Short Story in One Day? Yes! It’s perfectly possible to write a story in a day, or less. Sometimes, when you get a great idea, the piece – especially it’s a flash or shorter fiction – may emerge fully formed. That’s not to say you’ve only been working on it that day – in my case, a story might get drafted in a couple of hours that I’ve been turning over in the back of my mind for a couple of years. And that’s not to say it’ll be the final version either. While you might be able to complete the draft in a day, it’s always wise to sleep on it and come back to it next day, to review and revise, and to get some other people’s feedback too. Publishing Your Short Story So, you’ve written your short story, but what next? There are loads of litmags and competitions out there. Many of the editors and organisers are aspiring writers themselves, and can be wonderfully supportive with feedback even when they’re not able to accept your story. You can find useful lists here, here and here. Sometimes there’s a prompt or a theme, which can be a great help when you’re stuck for an idea. With magazines, take some time to read a few stories and get a feel for what they like, and whether you’d be a good fit. Simultaneous submissions are generally acceptable, especially as it can take months to get a response (just make sure you let them know if you get accepted elsewhere). Before you enter, always read the requirements carefully, and get the formatting and labelling right. Have lots of stories on the go, so you move on when you get stuck. ‘At any given moment, I have a half-dozen story ideas shelved in my mind,’ says Benjamin Percy, author of the collections The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh. ‘I always choose to write the one that glows brightest.’ Above all, don’t be afraid to keep submitting. For most of us, rejection is the norm and an acceptance is the exception. The more you submit, the luckier you’ll get, and the less those rejections will sting. You can do this! About Dan Dan Brotzel’s debut short story collection, Hotel du Jack, was published in 2020 by Sandstone. He is also co-author of Work in Progress(Unbound, forthcoming), a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers group. His short stories have featured widely in litmags and competitions, and two have recently received Pushcart Prize nominations. You can keep up to date with Dan’s writing on twitter and Medium Don’t forget to head on over to our Community to share your advice for writing short stories too!
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Dealing with Writer’s Block

Guest author and blogger Jane Struthers is the author of over twenty non-fiction books on a range of subjects, including Red Sky at Night: The Book of Lost Countryside Wisdom and Beside the Seaside: A Celebration of the Place We Like To Be. She lives in a rural corner of East Sussex. You know how it is. You’ve spent ages thinking about what you’re going to write, anticipating it, feeling frustrated because other things are getting in the way of it. Finally, you clear a couple of hours from your busy schedule, switch on your computer or get out your pen and paper and … nothing. The words won’t come, or they seem laughably trite or clichéd or flaccid. You’re gripped by the urgent need to wash the kitchen floor, track down a sock that’s been missing for the past five years or surf a favourite website. Hey, maybe you could call that research. Or maybe you could call it procrastination. Or writer’s block. It’s an insidious business because the more you allow it to happen, the more often it will happen. So how do you stop it? Here are some of my favorite tips. 9 Tips To Conquer Writers’ Block 1) Sit Down and Show Up As Mark Twain so famously said (and as other writers have echoed since), writing is all about application: the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Don’t give in to those internal urgings to tidy up, sow some lettuce seeds or do anything else that will curtail the agony of sitting there and not writing. You’ll never make any progress if you don’t get those words down. Sit it out! 2) Cut Out the Internet If you find that you’ve spent two hours at your desk but most of that time has involved writing emails or surfing the web, then the only answer is to switch off your Internet connection at its source before you start work. If you don’t, you’ll be drawn to the icon of your chosen browser sooner or later. Don’t give yourself that temptation. 3) Write Something Else Instead If the words really won’t come, write something else instead. Write about how you’re feeling. Write a letter to your dog. It doesn’t really matter what you write, as long as you write something. (But don’t write anything self-defeating, such as telling yourself how pathetic you are. That won’t help.) Write for ten minutes and stop. Switch to your current project and start writing that. Don’t think about it. Just do it. (Julia Cameron created a whole creative practice built on this called \"Morning Pages\" and it can work really well even beyond breaking writers\' block.) 4) Embrace the Mess Writing is an untidy business, but published books rarely reflect that. If they’ve been edited and produced in a professional manner, the prose is seamless. It flows in a way that may make you tear your hair on a bad day. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by this. The raw manuscript of your favourite novel was probably just as messy as yours is right now. That’s OK. No one is going to see it. You aren’t completing an exam paper. 5) It Doesn\'t Have to Be Perfect If you want every sentence to be perfect as soon as you’ve written it, or you fret that your grasp of apostrophes isn’t all it could be, you will probably agonize over every word so much that the flow will soon dry up. Right now, you need to get the words down. The editing stage can come later. And if there really is room for improvement, maybe you could start teaching yourself grammar, spelling and syntax in your spare time. 6) Take Notes for Later If you aren’t happy about a word or a sentence when you write it, and you keep coming back to it instead of moving ahead, highlight it so you can come back to it later and keep the flow going in the meantime. If you use Microsoft Word, get into the habit of using Track Changes. This allows you to insert a comment into your text at the relevant point, so you can flag whatever is necessary. Track Changes also remembers your editing in case you have second thoughts about it and want to revert to your original text. 7) Set an Achievable Goal If you’ve only got half an hour of writing time, there’s no point in telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words. It’s unlikely to happen, which will be discouraging. If you are really struggling, aim to write a single paragraph. Then, if you’ve got time, write the next one. 8) Give Yourself a Stopping Point Some writers like to stop work when they reach the end of a chapter. Others always stop mid-chapter or even mid-sentence, so they can plunge straight back into what they were writing because they’re excited about what happens next. Figure out where it feels good to stop, when you know that you\'ll have something exciting to come back to -- because you\'ll be setting yourself up for success tomorrow. 9) Write at the Same Time Ideally, try to write at the same time each day. This makes it part of your daily routine, so it becomes a habit. If you show up every day for the muse, the muse is more likely to show up for you.
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How To Make The Most Of The Festival Of Writing

Guest author and blogger Mari Griffith is a bestselling author of historical fiction. For fans of Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, Mari’s debut novel Root of the Tudor Rose has been internationally acclaimed. Read her top tips on making the most of our annual Festival of Writing. I’d kept trying various writers’ advisory groups, but nothing really opened any windows of understanding for me. I had a knowledge of writing after thirty eclectic years in broadcasting, churning out scripts for documentaries, concerts, children’s programmes, the Schools Broadcasting service, even on-air programme promotions. But a novel? That was something very different. Then I came across some publicity for a writers’ weekend conference in York. Coming to my very first Festival of Writing, I found myself among like-minded people there for the same three reasons – to hone craft, to meet other writers and to relish the whole experience. Motivating workshops and one-to-ones provided insights I needed to get me into good habits. I saw the sense of crafting my novel, of getting to know my characters. I learned about scene setting, plot development, pace, character arcs, convincing dialogue, evocative prose … suddenly, there was so much to think about. My 2B pencil was working overtime! Home again, I realised the need to keep up the momentum. I junked my Prologue and twenty thousand words of my current draft and promptly enrolled on the Writers’ Workshop online course with Debi Alper and Emma Darwin. I never regretted it. They were unfailingly focussed, practical and pleasant in their teaching. Emma guided my footsteps as a writer of historical fiction and Debi offered flashes of pure inspiration. I’ll always be grateful for her thoughts on ‘psychic distance’! My association with the Writers’ Workshop has been enormously beneficial. It has given me confidence in my work and the ability to be my own best critic. That’s important for a writer because it means that your book will be as good as you can possibly make it before you show it to anyone else. Anything that can be enhanced thereafter by editors or book doctors becomes a valuable bonus. Chances are that your work will eventually be good enough to publish, if you can find an agent – and you might manage to do that in York, too. It has been known! Ultimately, everything depends on you, what you make of this golden opportunity. Having thought long and hard about it, I’ve drawn on my own experience to come up with six bullet points to help you make the best possible use of everything the Festival of Writing offers: Pick the workshops that best suit your writing to find out how you can improve and market it.Make notes: then write them up when you get home. Don’t trust to memory, otherwise you’ll never remember all the stuff you’re going to learn.Target your Agents and Book Doctors with care: they tend to specialise. Someone who’s looking for Crime Fiction isn’t likely to help you much with quirky chick-lit.Arm yourself with business cards, which give your basic contact details – you’ll be amazed how many you dish out.Don’t be pushy – not everyone wants your opinion on Kafka.And don’t be shy, either. If you spot a spare seat at the breakfast table next to a bunch of Book Doctors, just ask politely if you can join them. They’ll make room for you. Honestly! These days, I’m a veteran delegate at the Festival. I keep coming back because there’s always something new to learn. It’s fun, too, and that’s not just the craic in the bar of an evening. What’s also special is that since delegates, agents, book doctors and workshop leaders are all on campus for the whole weekend, you’re likely to enjoy useful conversations over lunch, while browsing in the book shop or even in the queue for the loo. I once shared a taxi from York station with Julie Cohen and had a fascinating chat. Another time, I chose Andrew Wille as my book doctor and he remains an encouraging friend to this day. Now I’ve had two books published and my third is a work in progress. I’m delighted to say that I know how it feels to have written a bestselling book (marvellous, in case you were wondering!), and I have the satisfaction of knowing that people do read and enjoy what I write. That’s very special. And the downside of all this? Well, there isn’t one. True, it’s not a cheap weekend, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than the membership fee at the local golf club. And you need to weigh the cost against the result – which is invaluable.
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Taking emotional possession of your characters

Guest author and blogger Julia Hamilton is the author of six novels, most recently Forbidden Fruits and Other People’s Rules, both from HarperCollins. Before those, Julia published with Penguin (A Pillar of Society, The Good Catholic, and After Flora) and Collins / Flamingo (The Idle Hill of Summer). I’ve recently read a couple of submissions as an editor where the author is writing about someone they knew, in one case a brave, soldier father, in another an interesting aunt. Our biographies are often submerged in our novels: the idea of a roman a clef was precisely this: thinly veiled characters whose identity could be guessed at by the reader. Many authors find this a useful device from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is the Night or even Violet Trefusis in Broderie Anglaise. It’s not so much why authors write about their own families and people they know, it’s how they go about it. Do you stick to facts or do you muck about with them? My first novel was based on the life of a cousin of my great-grandfather’s, a soldier in the Great War who kept some (rather dull) war diaries that were published after his death in 1918 and are often quoted by military historians because of the pinpoint accuracy of his observations of the landscape and his obsession (very necessary) with the ranging of his guns as an artillery officer. But what interested me was what he was really thinking on the inside. I’d found draft diaries in one of those tin boxes with his name in white paint on the side and the top that hinted at a much more interesting interior life: he was a Catholic convert and obsessed by his religion, he had a tender but slightly tentative relationship with his wife and was enjoying the war enormously, although he writes about his suffering, too. Even more interesting was the fact that all the (to me) interesting bits had been scored out with blue pencil before they were published. Here was my subject, I felt. But this was my first novel, how the hell did I go about taking emotional possession of someone who had really existed? The facts of his life daunted me to start with: they seemed so final and definitive, how could I change them and what would I change them into? And not only that, but the detail of the Great War almost crushed me to death. It’s a huge subject about which I knew not very much. I mentioned what I was doing to someone (a great mistake, never mention tender subjects like this at a dinner party as you run the risk of exposing yourself to the highly contagious disease of doubt, rife amongst authors), and he said, ‘Oh, but hasn’t the First World War been done to death?’ Well, yes, it had. But not by me, I decided, after a bad day or two. I proceeded with my task. My hero, Gerard (his middle name, in fact), died in real life in 1918. Did that mean I had to somehow write about four whole years of the most written about war in history? After about a year, I realized that I could do whatever I liked. For fictional purposes, I killed him off sometime in early 1915, but I used the text of the real (and indescribably moving) letter written by the priest who buried him to his wife in the actual novel, a letter that afterwards appeared in The Faber Book of Letters, adding another twist to the whole roman a clef business. When the book was reviewed in the TLS, the reviewer knew of my character’s real identity and mentioned his quite famous war diaries in the review. So what was true and what wasn’t? By the end I couldn’t remember and quite frequently confused my own fiction with fact, so successful had I become at my task of ‘playing God’. In fact, immersing myself in the First World War changed my life for good. As a result, I took my then young children every Remembrance Sunday to the ravishingly beautiful service in Westminster Abbey, something they remember now with great intensity. We visit the real Gerard’s grave whenever we go that way through the haunted battlefields of the Somme, too – and I always weep. If you want to take emotional possession of your characters, let them take the same of you.
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Diversity in genre fiction

Guest author and blogger Rhoda Baxter studied molecular biology at Oxford, which is why her pen name takes after her favourite bacterium. She writes contemporary romantic comedies in whatever spare time she has. Here are her thoughts on diversity in fiction. When Is A Book ‘Not Asian Enough’? There’s been a lot of recent discussion about diversity in publishing. A lot of people lament the fact that there aren’t enough diverse characters in fiction. There is diversity in the people who live in the UK and diversity in the subsection of those people who write books, so why the mismatch? As part of this discussion someone brought up the fact that books with BAME protagonists are judged by a different set of criteria – one of which is is this book Asian enough/black enough? This question winds me up. What is the benchmark for a book being Asian enough? Who sets it? How often is it reviewed? What is the point of it? I write romance, arguably the biggest selling genre in fiction. I’m British/Sri Lankan. Asian is part of who I am. It’s not something I consciously work at. If you asked me to list the things that define me, my Sri Lankan background would not make it into the top five. As a kid, I lived in a regular house, went to a regular school, read the same books, watched the same TV shows and listened to the chart show every week, just like the rest of my classmates. Of course, there was the odd Goodness Gracious Me moment, but mostly, my life wasn’t vastly different to my friends’. It wasn’t as though as soon as I shut the front door I was transported into another world of sari’s and spices. Yet, if you read mainstream fiction featuring Asian characters you’d think that was the case. No wonder everyone was so astounded that Nadiya Hussein chose to flavour her cheesecakes with fizzy pop (or that she even baked in the first place!). My first book featured middle class Sri Lankan characters. I wrote about people who were, basically, a bit like the Asian people I know. I submitted to agents and small publishers, I had a few notes back, a few requests for the full manuscript. ‘Asian Lit’ was popular at the time; White Teeth and Brick Lane were still riding high. The most useful feedback I got back was “I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it”. It wasn’t Asian enough for literary fiction and not white enough for genre fiction. Being the pragmatic sort, I wrote the next book with white main characters. Given that I write about middle-class people, the things that worry white characters would be pretty much the same as the things that bother Asian characters – job security, sexism, bullying, the quest for love. Besides, people are people, regardless of what shade they are, and white characters have the same range of feelings as brown ones. I placed this book with a small publisher relatively easily. If you want fiction to represent the experiences of a wide range of people, you need accept those experiences as they are presented – even if they don’t fit into your preconceived notions. Rich people face different challenges to poor ones. First generation immigrants face different challenges to their children. No two Asian homes are the same, because no two families could be the same. So perhaps we should stop trying to pretend that they are. How can fiction show the reading public any variety in the Asian experience of life if the publishing industry insists that very variety does not exist (or, more accurately, that the reading public won’t buy it). ‘Diversity’ isn’t about showing Asian characters doing things in an Asian way, or gay characters doing things in a gay way or disabled characters doing things in a disability adapted way. That’s just pandering to stereotype. Diversity is achieved by showing characters of different backgrounds doing things in their own way and telling their unique stories. If it makes minority characters look less different than the majority expect them to be, that might even be a good thing. In case you hadn’t guessed, I write under a pen name since my real name is difficult to spell, and it helps to keep my writing career distinct from my day job – but I have always submitted my work to publishers and agents under my real name. I think (although I have no data to back this up) that the ‘is it Asian enough’ question arises not from racism as such, but from a skewed assumption of what readers can stomach. As a point of principle, I always have at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each book. In my latest book (Please Release Me) the heroine is mixed race. I’m sneaking minority characters into mainstream genre fiction one book at a time. Interestingly, readers don’t seem bothered at all.
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How to learn the market for YA fiction

Something to be conscious of as a fiction writer is the market for which you write. Young Adult (or YA) fiction isn’t a genre, but it’s a defined label in publishing, typically considered for readers aged 12-18, though this too is fluid. Since the publication of titles like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, YA is a term you need to know if you’d like to write for a teenage audience, as well as convince literary agents and publishers that you can. The most important thing is to always read debuts in your genre, and for the age you’d like to write for. These are the books publishers are looking for. Whilst it’s true publishing trends will always shift, books read by your ideal ‘audience’ are evidently the books they enjoy, so it pays (literally) to be conscious of them. Read on for our top tips on how to learn about the YA market and write for this age group. Step 1: Write Your Own Trendsetter It pays to be aware of trends and the market, if only so you can buck them a little. This is a balance, however. Readers of The Bookseller can see regular updates on new UK book deals, and every spring, may espy annual coverage of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, with ample talk and speculation of what’s hot and selling as foreign printing rights are bought and sold. There will always guaranteed be a sentence or two on trends, on what publishers of Middle Grade or Young Adult books are hunting for. It’s as well to be conscious of trends, but what’s trendy will soon be outdated. If you’re still writing, a hot topic now could be obsolete by the time you’ve finished your novel. Trends move fast, and a single book can also change things. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight happened to be a YA phenomenon, but the ensuing paranormal romances ‘competing’ for attention with Twilight blurred a little into one another, even as the tide continued and anticipated the rise of dystopian fiction, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and so on. The lesson of all this is to try and present an idea (even an old idea) authentically. Vampires have been written about before and Bram Stoker’s titular Dracula preying upon Lucy Westenra laid the founding of an established trope. Twilight just happened to hit a certain chord for its readership and this at once predicated and, in so doing, slightly nullified its trend. So be careful and cautious of trends, since these can be a double-edged sword. Trends are transient, they escalate and subsist again. Whilst it pays to know your audience and what’s in the bookshops, to be conscious of the books teenagers are drawn to and reflect on why this is the case, bear in mind trendsetter-novels aren’t necessarily the books you want to compete with. Satiated trends mean a saturated book market (for the time being). Even if you’re ahead of the bookshops, trying to keep up with publishing news and new book deals, what you know now won’t be the thing your writing can keep up with. You’ll need to write your own trendsetter. Step 2: Read, Read, Read Ya Fiction That said, read around and shop as much as you can for YA fiction, obvious or intuitive as this may sound. Your novel can’t exist in a vacuum. It’s no good disregarding what your audience is reading now, so know YA books to know your audience. You’ll need to write in this subtle tension, conscious of taste in YA, of past commercial successes, making your novel similar enough and yet entirely original.  You must create a book that fits into the market. Read around the sort of thing already out there you’d like to write, too. It’s not that vampire-human romances hadn’t been written about before Stephenie Meyer’s Bella and Edward. It’s not that Greek gods hadn’t been written about before Percy Jackson and the Olympians from Rick Riordan. It’s been observed how similar J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a Wallflower are, etc. You’ll want your book to fit with a canon of similar stories, without just writing ‘copies’ of things done before. YA novels like Beauty by Robin McKinley, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas or Uprooted by Naomi Novik share links to Beauty and the Beast, but each of those books is still unique. The same is true of books like Ash by Malinda Lo or Cinder by Marissa Meyer, with ties to Cinderella. It’s just that an old idea was reworked by an author in new ways. So learn what teenagers like, then read what they like. (If you’re not sure, look up book blogs like The Mile-Long Bookshelf.) How does your novel compare to the YA books you’ve found? How do you feel your own work will be judged? It’s also worth noting that it pays to read contemporary YA fiction. Classical lyricism and verbosity needn’t concern you so much as writing a resonant, gripping story to hook modern readers. There have been various game-changers in fiction-publishing for young people. Melvin Burgess’ Junk (or Smack in the US) was one. The book won the Carnegie Prize and Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in the UK in 1996. Whilst its subject (heroin addiction) caused ripples of shock, Junk paved the way to an increasingly mandatory style of authentic, honest, raw writing that’s now commonplace in YA publishing. The success of Junk among its readers, with its prize-winning status, changed perceptions and sent publishers a message. What’s needed in successful YA fiction is resonant, emotional experience teenage readers can connect with. Step 3: Know Your Subject (And Write Sensitively About It) If you’re also thinking of writing on a possibly more controversial topic, explore sensitively and with all due research. Don’t just write to shock. Write to be poignant, and so to connect. The Fault in our Stars by John Green caused a stir when it was accused of being ‘sick lit’ (a pair of terminally ill teenagers fall in love). Whilst its subject seemed to ‘shock’ some adults, its poignancy that so stirred readers nullifies these sorts of ‘grown-up’ objections. Who cares? The Fault in our Stars isn’t a shocking novel. It’s a moving one. It’s been adapted for film, its catch-lines passing into contemporary language via its readership. (‘Okay?’ ‘Okay.’) Melvin Burgess has shared how his novel Junk, about teenage drug addiction, has been life-changing for some teenage readers, but it’s important to note Melvin Burgess knew his setting. He knew these emotional landscapes. More recently, Lisa Williamson wrote a resonant transgender protagonist in her YA novel The Art of Being Normal, though she herself is cisgender, but she’s spent time working for the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service. She brought her experiences to her writing. Bear in mind, though, LGBT+ is not its own separate genre or subgenre, nor should fiction be defined by country or ethnicity, as still per some bookstores. Patrick Ness’ novel More than This features protagonist Seth, who is gay, but this is incidental to its main plot and it’s okay for this to be the case. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a high-school love story between a Korean boy and an American girl, and sometimes it need only be this simple. You needn’t write clunkily to make a point. As Rainbow Rowell herself has said: “Why is Park Korean?” The first time I was asked that question, three or four months ago, I had a pretty short answer: “Because Park is Korean.” … Because Park was always Korean. Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.) Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them. Only by writing sensitively and incidentally can writers help make sure all sorts of characters become unquestioned players of mainstream fiction, not sectioned by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or anything else. Everyone, everything, should be mainstream, especially in YA publishing. Teenagers, who will be faster than adults to question norms and pick up on injustices, should be catered to in the novels they read and not be defrauded in this respect. Appreciate and accommodate for diversity in your own YA writing. It’s good also to have first-hand experience of what you’re writing, but if not, the importance of empathy and careful research to create an authentic emotional experience can’t be stressed enough. Step 4: Know Your Audience (And Keep Prose Authentic) This is important. You must know your audience. You can’t write about living in a teenage character’s shoes unless you know teenagers well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write about and to. YA readers will be looking for experiences outside their own, looking for ways to challenge and break rules, and will be (strongly) averse to feeling patronised or educated in fiction. Write about being a teenager, and never write to educate. Again – to best do this, read and read up on YA novels that are doing well. Respecting ‘voice’, too, author Joan Aiken has also observed adolescents are ‘lightning-quick to spot hypocrisy or artificiality’. Never patronise and never attempt a ‘coolness’ that can’t sound organic, at home and natural in your first-person narratives. An inauthentic teenage voice will destroy your book before it ever reaches a literary agent. This offers a good reason YA fiction should be taken seriously. A manuscript assessment can also certainly give you invaluable editorial feedback with insights into the commercial perspective that drives YA publishing, and to harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in YA fiction. Happy writing!
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30 best books on writing and getting published

30 Best Books On Writing And Getting Published I was recently asked to recommend some books on how to write and on any related topics. I started to trot out the obvious suggestions, then realised there was a real trove of material out there. So, with some short comments, here are my top suggestions. 1. Getting Published by Harry Bingham 2. How To Write by Harry Bingham Let’s get the two most obvious ones out of the way to start! How To Write gets excellent reader-feedback. It doesn’t pick out one single aspect of technique or pretend that you can learn how to write in a couple of months. It’s a big, meaty, book on every part of a writer’s toolkit. Getting Published is a reliable guide to traditional publishing and finding an agent. 3. On writing: A memoir of the craft by Stephen King You needn’t be a fan of Stephen King’s to enjoy this honest, compelling tome – and I know it has legions of fans. For me, the most striking part was King’s list of the books he read in any given year. That list is intelligent and eclectic and goes to show that good writers simply can’t read too much or too well. 4. Story by Robert McKee A book for screenwriters, but still one of the best analyses around. This book belongs in the pantheon, no question. 5. Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran 6. Write. Publish. Repeat. by Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt Both key texts for the new generation of self-published authors. David’s book should be read in conjunction with his Let’s Get Visible. The strategies in the Write. Publish. Repeat book won’t work for most writers. Those authors’ basic mantra is to write heaps and heaps of material and build a career as much from the volume of output as from its quality. I can’t, as something of a purist myself, really get excited about that approach, but you still need to read the book. It’s got a lot to say, and it’s usually right. 7. Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster 8. 10 Rules of writing by Elmore Leonard 9. The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler 10. The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera 11. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov These aren’t quite how-to guides. The Chandler essay (and it’s an essay, not a book) is a vastly important milestone in the development of crime fiction: a manifesto for a new age, and a manifesto that has echoed well beyond the walls of that genre. The Elmore Leonard piece is a brief (and somewhat tongue in cheek) list of suggestions. You could probably break all of Leonard’s rules and do just fine – and indeed, I do quite often break them. But it’s important to read what writers have to say about writing – and a variety of writers at that. (Hence the Kundera, Nabokov and the EM Forster.) You won’t always agree, and you don’t have to. The important thing is that you run the arguments in your head. 12. How Fiction Works by James Wood Wood is arguably today’s most influential critic – and he writes beautifully. My comment above that you need to run the arguments in your head applies here too. Wood’s book offers a personal and partial view. (He loves sentences and doesn’t, astonishingly, even mention story.) But he’s so good that his partial is worth most people’s everything. 13. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss Not really the how-to book that most people think it is. But it’s still fun and still worth a look. 14. Imagine by Jonah Lehrer 15. Wired for Story by Lisa Cron Both books are part of a new wave of popular neuroscience. I prefer the Lehrer book, which is not specifically about writing but which is, for my money, very illuminating indeed about the creative process. But if you like something with more how-to-ish ambition, you’ll certainly get more from Cron’s book. 16. The Elements of Style William Strunk Jr. 17. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose 18. Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan 19. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron 20. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein Then, in a cluster, some other favourite books of mine. Sol Stein was a very respected editor (as well as being a novelist himself). Stein on Writing is his attempt to set down the rules by which he’s lived. It was the first how-to book of this sort that I read, and I still have a soft spot for it, although the tone can be a little self-important at times. Julia Cameron’s is an approach to creativity more than, directly, a how-to-write-a-bestseller type book. But it’s great, heartfelt. The same sort of comments go for Word Painting and Reading like a Writer. Both well-written, thoughtful, gently inspiring. Elmore Leonard would presumably want to kill Rebecca McClanahan, but I’d be on Rebecca’s side. As for Strunk – well, you need it on a list like this. And finally, some other books that have, at the very least, been thought-provoking and helpful ones for me: 21. Plot & Structur, by James Scott Bell 22. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon 23. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler 24. Outlining your Novel by KM Weiland 25. Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by Fred White 26. From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler 27. A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman 28. The 4 a.m. Breakthrough by Brian Kitely 29. Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris 30. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp Need more writing advice? Or if you need more recommendations, then try popping your favourite book into a book recommendation tool and see what other users are raving about. Good luck, and have fun.
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Clarity in Writing

by guest author, Hayley Milliman In this article, guest author Hayley Milliman takes us through four ways to improve the clarity of your writing. Clarity is key in getting our point across as writers. When our writing is clear, our meaning is clear. When our writing is unclear, our meaning is muddled. And when our meaning is muddled, our readers can’t properly engage with our work. Fortunately, you can improve the clarity of your writing by brushing up on a few key fundamentals.  How To Improve The Clarity Of Your Writing Clarity starts at the sentence level. Think about your sentences as mini movies that your readers play in their heads. They need to know the actors and the actions of these mini movies to correctly picture what’s going on. If your writing is unclear at the sentence level, your readers won’t understand what’s happening in your work. Worse yet, they may disengage from your writing because they can’t understand it. We start by thinking about clarity at the sentence level because if your sentences aren’t clear, your paragraphs won’t be clear. If your paragraphs aren’t clear, the rest of your work won’t be clear.  Unsure about how to ensure your sentences are clear and easy to read? Not to worry. Let’s take a look at four easy ways to improve sentence level clarity. 1. Reduce Sticky Sentences There are two types of words in sentences: working words, which convey meaning to the reader and are essential to the purpose of the sentence, and glue words, which are the extra words that hold sentences together.  Glue words aren’t essential to the meaning of your sentence. They’re not the actors or the actions. If you remove or rewrite your sentence to eliminate these glue words, the sentence will have the same meaning. It may even be more clear for your readers to understand.  Sticky sentences are sentences that contain too many glue words. They should be rewritten to improve clarity for your readers. While glue words are important to make your sentence coherent, when you have too many in a sentence, it becomes hard to read. By removing unnecessary glue words, your sentence becomes clearer. Consider the following:  It doesn’t matter what kind of coffee I buy, where it’s from, or if it’s organic or not—I need to have cream because I really don’t like how the bitterness makes me feel.I add cream to my coffee because the bitter taste makes me feel unwell. Each sentence has the same main idea: that the narrator can’t drink coffee because it makes him or her feel sick. However, the second sentence is clearer and easier to read than the first because it has fewer glue words. The meaning isn’t obscured by extra words. You should aim for an average of less than 40% glue words in your sentences. That doesn’t mean that all of your sentences have less than 40% glue words. Some may have 50%, some may have 30%. As long as your document averages at 40% glue words, your work will be clear. You can read up on how to write a great opening sentence for your novel, here. 2. Avoid Clichés Clichés are phrases like actions speak louder than words, love is blind, and the grass is always greener on the other side. Many writers use clichés when they’re trying to sound relatable or to make their writing more accessible. Unfortunately, clichés often do the opposite: alienate readers that aren’t familiar with the phrase or do not understand it. Even though these expressions are older than dirt (see what I did there?), when isolated, their meaning isn’t clear. This reduces the chance that your audience will engage with your work, especially if your audience is made up of non-native speakers.  When editing, aim to remove phrases that aren’t universal or don’t translate well into a different language. That way, your work is accessible to everyone. 3. Make Your Subjects and Verbs Shine with Active Voice When your sentence is in the active voice, your subjects and verbs are clear. When it’s in passive voice, your subject is unclear. Here’s an example of passive voice: The sample was selected. Who is selecting the sample? We’re not sure, because the sentence doesn’t say so. Passive voice leaves your sentence open for interpretation by the reader, especially when it’s uncertain who or what is performing the action in the sentence. Consider the same sentence in active voice: Researchers selected the sample. Now, the subject is clear. Readers won’t need to think very hard to understand this sentence. There are a few types of writing where passive voice has its place, but typically, active voice is better. While passive voice isn’t technically wrong, it can make your writing harder to understand, which, in turn, makes it less engaging.  4. Use Precise Words Adverbs are words that add colour or style to your adjectives and verbs. Like passive voice, adverbs aren’t grammatically incorrect, but they can reduce clarity because they prop up boring, imprecise verbs. For instance:  Scarlett ran really fast.Scarlett sprinted. In the first example, the word “really” is an adverb that modifies “fast,” which is itself an adverb that modifies the verb “ran.” The word choice in the second sentence, “sprinted,” is more precise. Replacing adverb + verb constructions with a precise strong verb will paint a clear picture for your reader. Common adverbs that are guilty of propping up weak word choices include: reallyjustveryactuallyin order todefinitelyabsolutely If you see these words in your writing, you can likely improve your clarity by cutting them and choosing a more specific verb or adjective in your sentence. Do You Want Help From Prowritingaid? Wondering how you can easily improve the clarity of your writing? An editing tool can help. ProWritingAid’s 20 reports identify clarity issues in your writing and make suggestions for fixing them. Here’s just a taste of what ProWritingAid can do: The Writing Style Report at ProWritingAid can help you find and fix instances of passive voice in your writing. The Writing Style Report at ProWritingAid can help you identify unwanted adverbs and use precise verbs in their place. The Clichés and Redundancies Report at ProWritingAid highlights these phrases so you can brainstorm new and better ways to say the same thing. The Sticky Sentences Report at ProWritingAid highlights sticky sentences and identifies the glue words so you know what to change or remove to improve your sentences. Clarity In Writing: Final Thoughts You can have the best idea in the world, but if your writing isn’t clear, readers won’t know it.  To make your writing clearer, you have to start with your sentences: the fundamental building blocks of your writing. By eliminating adverbs, making passive verbs active, forgoing clichés, and removing extra words in your sentences, you’ll ensure your writing effectively communicates your ideas. About the author Hayley Milliman is thrilled to be ProWritingAid’s Content Lead, as it gives her an excuse to think deeply about words every single day. Prior to joining ProWritingAid, Hayley spent a number of years as an elementary school teacher, which was a crash course in learning how to entertain an indifferent audience. These days, she puts her storytelling skills to use writing blog articles and working on her first novel.
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Tips on travel writing from Robin Lloyd-Jones

Travel writing is a popular but challenging market segment. You’ve moved to France and want to tell people about it? Unless you’ve got magical writing gifts, you’re almost certain to find that ground has already been overcultivated, and a literary agent is likely to reject your manuscript on that basis alone. Any exotic location or (really) any genuinely original way of exploring those locations will stand out from the pack. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one great example, as is Along the Enchanted Way by William Blackler. Novelty and comedy can also work: pogoing round Ireland, or riding a goat to Kandahar are all hooks on which to tell a tale. Even a simple bus journey can make a riveting read. It’s how you write about it that matters. Seven Tips For A Successful Travel Book 1. Do your research – pre-travel research enriches the whole experience; post-travel research adds depth and accuracy to what you write. While travelling keep notes or you will forget. Take photographs to illustrate your words. 2. Be curious – about everything and everybody. What makes many travel books enjoyable is the people encountered along the way. Talk to everyone and never stop asking questions. Listen with a sympathetic ear. Look behind the glossy exterior, delve beneath the surface. 3. Have a sense of wonder – Colours seemed so much brighter when we were children. Try to see the world with that same freshness of vision. 4. Use all your senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Develop a feeling for the culture and history of a place. And a sense of humour allied to keen observation can make the most ordinary of experiences entertaining. 5. Don’t neglect your inner journey – Many of the most successful travel books are as much about the emotional journey the author makes as they are about the physical journey. The resolution of a personal issue or a change in attitude adds interest and brings the reader closer to the author. 6. Write with passion – To fully engage the reader (or indeed, a literary agent) your book must have something in it that you care about strongly. An issue, a cause, the pursuit of a lifelong ambition. Without this, your writing is in danger of seeming flat. 7. Be an open door, be receptive. Travel with open eyes, ears, mind and heart.
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How to write supporting characters in fiction

Guest author and blogger William Ryan is author of the Captain Korolev Novels, shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the Ellis Peters and John Creasey Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice). He teaches on the Crime Writing Masters at City University in London and shared with us this excerpt, expanded and adapted, from the book he co-wrote with M.R. Hall, Writing Crime Fiction, on writing great supporting characters. Whatever your genre, enjoy these words of wisdom. Who is a Supporting Character? When you’re writing a mystery novel, or any novel for that matter, you need a protagonist who works for the novel. That means, in my view anyway, that they have to be intriguing enough that the reader wants to spend time in their company, that they are the character whose eyes this story must be told through and that they are the character who makes all the key decisions that take the story from the beginning to the end. Let’s presume you have just such a character, filled with multiple layers and tempting internal contradictions. Now you need to populate the rest of the novel. So you need some subsidiary characters. Subsidiary characters don’t have the same functions as the detective in a mystery novel – they don’t drive the story in the way that the central character does, although they may be key to how it progresses. In general, they exist for one of the following four purposes: To be the victim of a crime, either directly or indirectly.To prevent or obstruct the detective from solving a crime.To assist the detective in solving a crime.To tell us something about the detective or the setting. For example, a child may set out to mislead a detective by lying to them but actually end up assisting their investigation by inadvertently revealing a key piece of information. This unintentional assistance might result in the child’s murder, making them a victim, and the discovery of their body may reveal a more sensitive side to the detective’s personality that hasn’t been apparent until then. That character is earning their place on the page. There are always exceptions, of course, but if a secondary character doesn’t fulfil at least one of the four roles outlined above, you probably need to reconsider their inclusion. You may still have a valid reason for keeping them, but it’s probably a good idea to work out what it is. If the reason you come up with isn’t related to pushing the story forward then you may well want to kill them off. It’s seldom the case that a character gets a free ride in a good crime novel – they have to work for you, and for the central character, or they have to go. Aside from asking what their role in the novel is, it’s always a good initial question to ask of each of your secondary characters: ‘who do you appear to be, and who are you underneath?’ By hiding something about a character at the outset, you will, almost effortlessly, make them interesting and potentially surprising. Also, because you know that you’ll have to reveal the truth about them later on, you’ll begin to foreshadow that truth and, because you’re going to be straight with your reader, except when you’re misleading them, you’ll be circumspect about confirming the appearance the character maintains at the outset – and the reader will pick up on that. You will also need to understand why each of your subsidiary characters behaves the way they do in the novel. Even an insane serial killer will generally have a reason for their murder spree – no matter how bizarre it might be – and discovering the reason why a murder has been committed is often to discover the killer. Not every character in the novel is a murderer but that doesn’t mean their motivation shouldn’t be explored. If the detective’s spouse leaves them half way through the book then your readers will want to know why. Likewise the senior officer to whom a police detective reports may well have valid reasons for interfering in their investigation and trying to rein them in, and it will help if you, and the reader, understand their concerns. Often the motivation for the subsidiary character’s behaviour will have something to do with the central character. Conflict is, after all, going to help drive your plot forward. In Ian Rankin’s The Black Book, Rebus is in conflict, of one sort or another, with every one of the major subsidiary characters, and most of the minor ones as well. The more conflicts you can establish, the more challenges and obstacles your detective is likely to have to overcome. Sometimes the conflicts may be subtle – your detective may be attracted to another character that may, at least initially, not feel the same way about them. This relationship may be only a sub-plot in the novel, but it might tell the reader something of the detective’s character and, hopefully, make the reader warm to him or her. All of the central character’s conflicts with other characters will have a trajectory over the course of the novel and will, generally, be resolved by its end even if, with a series, only in an uneasy truce until the confrontation resumes in the next book. As with the central character, you are going to have to name your subsidiary characters, decide what they look like, where they’ve come from and fill in the details of their personality. With the more minor characters, you may not have to do this – a taxi driver who follows a suspect at the detective’s request isn’t going to have enough time allocated to them in the novel to allow for much more than the briefest of sketches. However, that said, the more time you spend thinking about a character, even if they only make the briefest of appearances, the more vivid they’ll be on the page. It’s a bit like the research you’re going to do for your novel – much of your work won’t make it onto the page. Instead it forms a hidden structure that gives the novel its authenticity. The reader believes in the world you’ve recreated for them, because you’ve done the research and speak with authority on everything you describe. It’s the same with characters – because you know all of this information about them, they acquire a depth on the page. Although there are no absolute rules about the number of secondary characters in a crime mystery, remember that the reader will struggle to get to know more than a dozen with any degree of intimacy (you can discount minor characters who appear for less than a page in coming to this number). Obviously each novel is different and some, by their very nature, will be more heavily populated than others but it’s generally a good idea to be wary of extended casts, especially when their role in the story might be easily combined into another character’s. This brief overview of how to write subsidiary characters has been set in the context of crime fiction, specifically the mystery novel, but it equally applies to most other genres and most literary fiction. If you think of the solution of the crime as being the objective of the detective, then the points discussed above relate to any novel where the protagonist has to overcome challenges, whether external or internal, and conflicts to achieve their objective. For example, romantic fiction tends to work exactly the same way – the lover’s objective, which they may not necessarily be aware of, is to find love in the arms of another character. Most of the other characters are going to either be rivals for the affection of one of the two characters, or exist to provide conflict, assistance or obstruction in relation to the final goal, or be in the novel to give insights into the character of the lover or the loved one. You can certainly include other characters, perhaps for humour or even tragedy, but making sure the characters justify their place in the novel, behave logically, have hidden depths and interact properly with the central character is going to make your novel stronger and, ultimately, better.
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The Power of Story and Discourse

By Allie Spencer Hi! I’m Allie Spencer and will be teaching at this year’s Festival of Writing along with many other fantastic writers, agents and publishers. As tutors, our aim is not just to get you thinking about your writing but thinking differently. Sometimes it’s that extra piece of information or a fresh approach that can make all the difference. This year, one of the things I will be talking about is story and discourse and how you can harness it to see your work in a completely new way. One of the concepts often mentioned in creative writing tutorials is that of ‘showing not telling’. For those of you who have yet to encounter it, ‘show not tell’ means that instead of an author passing information on directly to the reader (‘John felt angry’), that information is instead conveyed indirectly (‘John could not speak; the blood pounded in his head and he felt his fists clench’). This does not mean that one should never ‘tell’ – there are times when that is essential – but it moves the emphasis from what happens in a text, to how the reader can best experience and engage with what is happening. Thinking in terms of story and discourse takes this one step further. It allows an author to separate out action from meaning and therefore focus on creating multi-layered narratives rich in interest and nuance. To begin with, we need to be clear about the terminology. ‘Story’ is the stuff that happens: it is the pure events, the actions, the ‘she got off her chair and walked to the other side of the room’ part. To look back at our show/tell example: ‘he shouted’ is story; ‘he was angry’ is not. However, the story often forms only a small part of the text. The rest is made up of ‘discourses’: the unspoken conversations we as authors have with our readers in order to create atmosphere, implicitly pass on information or suggest ideas that add to the understanding of the ‘story’. Sometimes the ‘story’ and the ‘discourse’ will be one and the same (for example, when an action or event has symbolic or ironic overtones) but, for the most part, they exist independently of one another. So, why should we as writers be particularly interested in discourse?  Isn’t it the same as creating atmosphere or description? Well, not exactly. One of the reasons why we need to be aware of it is because, as authors, our job is to create believable imaginary worlds. Now, our lived experience of the world is not purely a series of consciously-perceived events but instead a mishmash of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, connections, ideas and half-realisations. Sometimes these are entirely subconscious. For example, researchers at the University of Colorado have found that people holding a hot drink, even for a few seconds, judge others around them to have ‘warmer’ personalities than when the same person holds a cup containing an iced liquid. These half-conscious or subconscious thoughts are the real-life equivalents of discourses. By being aware of the power of discourses and how they operate within our writing, we can help make our imagined worlds, and our characters’ reactions to them, as real as possible for our readers. To explore this further, I’d like you to watch the following clip on YouTube. Even though this is a screenplay rather than a piece of prose, the basic divide between story and discourse remains the same. It’s the closing scenes from the pilot episode of ‘Endeavour’, the series about the young Morse set in the1960s: Watch Clip Here A little background for those who do not know either the ‘Endeavour’ series or the older ‘Inspector Morse’ programme: the young detective in this clip (Endeavour Morse) does not leave Oxford or resume his degree, as the dialogue suggests. Instead, he stays in the city and progresses up the police ranks until he becomes an inspector. Watch the clip through a couple of times, just to get an idea of what is happening. Then play it again and try to separate out the ‘story’ (action; factual information given to the viewer through dialogue; physical setting etc.) from ‘discourse’ (atmosphere; allusions; emotion; suggestions). Remember that sometimes the ‘story’ will also be ‘discourse’ – be aware of this and try to spot it when it happens. What did you notice? One thing which quickly becomes apparent is the lack of actual ‘story’: a young man walks down some stairs carrying two suitcases and exits a house; he is met by another man (DI Fred Thursday, although this is not mentioned in the clip) standing next to a black Jaguar car, who asks him what time his train is. The older man then tells the younger not to worry about a mistake he has made. The younger man asks if he can drive and they make their way through city streets in the car. They have a conversation about the young man’s future and the older man offers to mentor him. The younger man looks in the rear-view mirror and the face of a third, much older, man appears there. Some music plays. The younger man continues to look in the mirror while the traffic lights change to green. To get his attention, the older man says his surname (‘Morse’), followed by his first name (‘Endeavour’). They drive away and the screen fades to black. It is left to the discourses to transform this sequence of events into a powerful and evocative piece of drama. Right at the start of the clip we are made aware of the emptiness of the house as Endeavour leaves: the fact that no one is there to say farewell indicates the loneliness of the young man’s situation. The ticking clock emphasises the silence in the house and also suggests the theme of passing time which will be key to our understanding of the next few scenes. The subsequent interactions between the two men are laden with symbolism: Endeavour asking to drive and receiving the keys from Thursday suggests he is taking control of his own destiny, for example. Also apparent is the indication that DI Thursday is, in many respects, the man young Endeavour will eventually become: he will reach the same rank in the police force and drive the same make and model of car. The most powerful example of discourse, though, happens at the end, when the face of Morse as a much older man appears in the rear-view mirror: Endeavour is, quite literally, looking at his future. In fact, he appears to see it too because he continues to stare at the mirror and doesn’t pull away when the lights change – the camera shot used to show the green light is from Thursday’s viewpoint, not Endeavour’s. The use of the iconic ‘Inspector Morse’ theme tune at this moment further underlines the connection that has been made between Endeavour’s present and his future: we, the audience, know which road he will take and we have already seen his destination. Of course, there are many other discourses at work in this clip and you are welcome to try and find as many as possible; it is a great example of how writers can use suggestion, prefiguring, metaphor and irony to enrich and add layers of meaning to a narrative. Good writing (whether prose, screenplay or poetry) should always work on more than one level. Being aware of story, discourse and the difference between them will help you to look objectively at your own writing and, if you need to, add in that little bit extra. Your readers will love you for it! Allie has a jam-packed weekend at the Festival of Writing 2018. You can catch her on Friday where she will be hosting a mini-course on How to Write a novel in 3 Hours, her Session 2 workshop on Four Act Structure or her Sunday workshop ‘Telling Tales – What Makes a Story Come Alive’ in session 6. We know you won’t want to miss her amazing tips and tricks for writing bestselling novels! Get your tickets to the Festival of Writing 2018 here. We’ll see you there! <img src="https://images.jerichowriters.com/JUvjrMo-1kUGKzNl/w:auto/h:auto/q:75/
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Tips on writing women’s fiction

Women’s fiction is a broad category – too broad, really, since women’s interests are as varied as women themselves. (We don’t have ‘men’s fiction’, after all.) Teasing out the heart of fiction women may enjoy lies, possibly, in relationship – and these can be romantic, but also historical or contemporary, comic or serious, commercial or literary. A rollercoaster plot alone may seem insubstantial without heart and drama, stemming from character and relational dynamism. Without reverting to sweeping generalisation (since we all need light and serious fiction), reading women need and often demand similarly thoughtful reading material. We’ve asked one expert – Julia Hamilton, author of Forbidden Fruits and other acclaimed novels – to have her say on what works, what doesn’t and what literary agents are after. Julia Hamilton Shares Her Thoughts What exactly is ‘women’s fiction’? And what differentiates it from ‘romance’? Statistics tell us that women read more than men and they buy more books than men, thus the concerns of women’s lives are very important to today’s market. Women’s fiction includes romance – a big, serious market producing big serious revenues – but women’s fiction, just like the women who read it, has evolved to include subjects and themes that range beyond the constraints of romance. Literary agents will respond especially to work taking old genres and reworking them in new ways. Women’s fiction is a growing market that includes many facets of other genres: it can be literary, it can be commercial, it can be contemporary or it can be a multi-generational saga, witness the success of Rosamund Pilcher. In all cases, however, the woman is the star of the story and her changes and emotional development are the subject.. The heart of the story may include romance but it is invariably a novel driven by a relationship at the very core of the plot. Women’s fiction tends to be longer, about 100,000 words or more, but it can be as short as 50,000 words plus. Longer women’s fiction allows the development of multi-layered, multi-charactered subplots. There’ll be more introspection and description and buckets of backstory. A man may be waiting for the heroine of these novels, but he’s not the centre of events. You have stories of sisters or women’s friendships. Every major publisher knows relationships are all and there is almost always a life-affirming resolution, even if the story is a sad one. If you’re interested in writing women’s fiction, then you must read it in all its glorious diversity. If you’re not reading it, you probably won’t be writing it. Don’t worry about where the story will take you – just do it.
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How to write a fantasy novel

Fantasy fiction is a difficult area – and many fantasy first-time writers can neglect the basics. For more, see Geraldine Pinch’s words of wisdom below. How To Write Fantasy: Author Geraldine Pinch Shares Tips Writing fantasy is not an easy option or a quick way to make money, but if you have the imagination to see wonders and the skill to describe them, if you have things to say that can only be said with dragons, then fantasy may be your genre. The best preparation for writing fantasy is to read myths and legends from lots of different cultures. Many fantasy classics are longer than the average novel, but you don’t have to write a multi-volume epic to break into the fantasy market. Anything from 90,000 to 200,000 words is an acceptable length. Ideally, your novel should be satisfying as a standalone work, but perhaps have the potential to be the first of a series. Literary agents see hundreds of manuscripts set in vaguely medieval worlds, in which magic works. There will need to be something distinctive and compelling about your manuscript to make it truly stand out. Don’t base your book on a role-playing game. Don’t feel that you must use the standard cast list of warriors, wizards, dragons, elves, etc. Only write about elves if you are passionately inspired by elves, if you have something new to say about them. Creating new worlds is one of the most enjoyable challenges in fiction. Readers (and that includes literary agents!) should feel that you know everything about your invented world and its history. Getting to that stage may take years of thought, planning and research. Then, be ruthlessly selective. Most of your beloved background material should stay in your notes. Genre novels are expected to be fast-moving, so don’t start with pages of scene-setting and explanation. Plunge into the story as quickly as possible and only tell your readers what they need to know when they need to know it. Your basic plot doesn’t have to be completely original. You might choose to tell an old story with a new twist or from an unusual viewpoint. There will always be a market for classic quest stories and battles between good and evil, but if you don’t genuinely care about how and why the ‘good guys’ win, neither will your readers. If you give your heroes unlimited magical powers, it will be hard to get enough tension and conflict into your plot. Try to restrict the number of ‘voices’ you use to tell your story. If your main viewpoint character is an outsider of some kind, this will make it easier for your readers to identify with her or him. Your characters don’t have to speak in pseudo-archaic language, but they shouldn’t all sound like American teenagers, either. Finally, remember that what works in a fantasy film or comic won’t necessarily work in a novel. Blow-by-blow accounts of sword fights can be boring to read and huge battle scenes just confusing. In a novel, action scenes need to be personalized. Show what an individual warrior is thinking and feeling as he fights, and take your readers right inside the world of your imagination. Then get your manuscript to a literary agent … and best of luck!
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How to finish a novel and schedule writing time

How to schedule your writiing time, and get your novel finished One of the hardest things about finishing a novel – before you think about ideas, characters, or plotting – is finding time and confidence with all those words to write. Maybe writing a novel seems like a mammoth task, a distant dream. Read on for tips in writing productivity, how to get organised with your writing, and how to finish a novel. A massive spoiler: you can do it. How To Schedule Your Writing Time (By The Hour) How can you be sure to finish a book you start? Lots of writers prefer spontaneity to planning out writing times. If vagueness hasn’t been helping, though, setting goals could help make a novel seem less imposing. Goals may adapt as you go on, too (perhaps by the day, if you’ve written something one day that negates what you were planning to do the next day, and so on). This shouldn’t be an inflexible process. Just decide on your writing days per week, how much time you know you’ll roughly have to dedicate to writing on each day. Some days, you may have an hour or two. On others, you know you may just have twenty minutes. Twenty minutes can still count. If you want your novel written, you’ll need determination – and Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope even paid someone to get him up and bring coffee, so he could write in the few hours before he went to work. Even if your designated writing times aren’t every day, they should still be fixed (as much as you can make them). Show up for your writing, keep it habitual. If you’ve been struggling to make time for writing on a more fluid basis, see if actively planning your writing like this makes a difference. How To Set Your Writing Goals (And Achieve Them) Let’s explore this idea of hours more, how you’ll make the time productive, once you’ve scheduled it into your day. Perhaps you’ll allot in your diary (or mobile calendar) an hour of each weekday to writing your novel. List its ideal outcome. Does Chapter 1 need starting? If you’re further on than that, does a scene need revising? Does a ‘filler’ or ‘bridge’ section need getting down on paper, before you go back and figure out how to make it better later? Maybe there’s a weeknight you know you’ll have limited time, so take out just twenty minutes for research, editing or mind-mapping ideas for a scene. Maybe there’s a weekend you know you’ll have lots more time, so set yourself a bigger task. Try giving one ideal outcome to each time you write, to help turn your novel into a manageable project (so if you do more than that, wonderful). Few people can find long stints of time to write as they’d like. The only agreed solution (between the ‘planners’ and the ‘pantsters’) is to carve writing hours into a schedule, then stick to them, making them useful. You can always break up your writing time with something called the Pomodoro technique, too – 25 minutes of work, then 5 minutes to break – rewarding yourself as you go. Bring your close family and friends along, too. Your desire to write is a part of you, so having support and understanding from others will help. How To Protect Your Writing Space (And Headspace) Whilst it’s possible to write anywhere, your headspace and surrounding environment can help you keep up a writing discipline. Surround yourself with writerly comforts. Some need black coffee, others need green tea. Some need quiet, others need jazzy playlists. Some need cushions, others need a wrist support. Some need scattered notes, others need filing systems. Make your writing spot a place you’ll literally love coming to. If it’s just not possible to create a makeshift writing space at home, settle yourself where you’ll feel comfortable, even if it’s just in bed with a laptop. (And why not?) Respecting your physical space, the bustle of a café could be less taxing than the bustle of home in terms of productivity. If you need to remove yourself from home distractions for a bit, why not take yourself to a coffee or lunch? Treat yourself to whatever feeds your writer’s brain. Perhaps during a lunch break at work, you’ll be able to take yourself and your laptop to a café somewhere. Also, any space (and anyone’s headspace) nowadays is easy to infiltrate with wi-fi. Protect focus by turning off the wi-fi. (You can always ‘reward’ yourself with the Internet later.) Keep things fun, just keep yourself to task, too. How To Keep Going And Finish Your Novel First, start now. There’s never going to be a time when you’re readier to write than the present. Start writing, then keep it habitual, even between projects. Carry a notebook and pen with you. Try jotting ideas on the go. If you’re a first time writer, try checking out this page for extra advice and inspiration! Second, release some pressure. Allow yourself to be carried along, to enjoy and let loose. Allow your first draft to be imperfect because otherwise it can’t get written. You’ll have time to edit once it’s out on a page, but you can’t edit from nothing (editing, by-the-by, we can help with once you’re ready). Third, you can do it. If you’ve set yourself a word count of 10,000 words every month (as an example, aiming for between 2,000-3,000 words per weekend), you could have a first working draft in less than a year before all your structural editing and revisions go in. Fourth, remind yourself how much you want this. If you want to be published, you’ll need to be resilient, as well as kind to yourself. Getting a first draft out is hard, and a first draft is allowed to be flawed before you go back and edit. Oh, and fifth? Get some damn help! Our editorial services are there for your assistance, as well as an incredible self-editing course that will help you on your way to finishing your novel. Most importantly, hang around in a supportive writing community, crammed with expert resources, that will help you achieve what you want to achieve. But where is such a wonderful community to be found, you cry? Well, let’s see. Jericho Writers is a club for writers. And it’s low cost, and cancel-any-time. And it has an eat-all-you-want approach to a gazillion writing resources. And it’s full of people like you. And those people seem to go on to get published. And you can find out more about that club right here, right now. We really hope you sign up with us. We’d love it if you did! More On How To Write A Book Link to: How to Write a Book (10 Doable Steps for New Writers) How To Write A step-by-step guide
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The unreliable narrator: All you need to know

In this article, bestselling author, Holly Seddon, breaks down all you need to know about the unreliable narrator. Contains spoilers! In this guide, we’re going to figure out who the unreliable narrator is and how using one will impact your story. We’ll discuss the different types of unreliable narrators at your disposal, and how to choose which one is right for you. We’ll also dissect some real-life examples – what type of unreliable narrator was used and how did they impact the storyline? Above all: this is intended as a practical guide for writers wanting to explore one of the richest and most enjoyable writing approaches of them all. But first, the basics. A definition. What Is An Unreliable Narrator? A Definition. An unreliable narrator can be defined as any narrator who misleads readers, either deliberately or unwittingly. Many are unreliable through circumstances, character flaws or psychological difficulties. In some cases, a narrator withholds key information from readers, or they may deliberately lie or misdirect.  The term ‘unreliable narrator’ is fairly new – it was first used by literary critic Wayne C Booth in 1961 – but examples of this literary device date back hundreds of years. Medieval poet and chronicler Geoffrey Chaucer used various unreliable narrators in The Canterbury Tales, for example the bragging and exaggerating Wife of Bath.  Some Shakespearean characters could also be described as unreliable. Could we trust Hamlet, in his grief and paranoia, to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  In modern writing, unreliable narrators feature frequently in crime and thriller books, but the technique can be used to withhold information and surprise readers of any genre, as the many thousands of readers who enjoyed romantic suspense The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh can testify.  An unreliable narrator usually tells the story in first person, but there are notable exceptions to this such as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None which uses limited third person. The world’s bestselling mystery novel uses an unknown narrator who shows us the numerous points of view of the potential killers (and victims) trapped on an island.  Is An Unreliable Narrator Right For Your Story? What Is The Effect Of An Unreliable Narrator?  If an unreliable narrator is written well, the reader will experience the delight of a shocking twist or a dawning realisation that they have been misled.  When readers have been told a story from a specific point of view, we cannot help but side with the storyteller, even when they are doing dubious things or making bad decisions. This can make for complex and conflicted feelings when readers realise they have been double-crossed by someone they trusted.  If readers feel that they have been outright lied to with no possible way to sniff out the truth though, the effect can be negative. For this reason, it’s essential to balance the mistruths with some careful foreshadowing and stitching in of ‘clues’ so that when readers look back and think about the story after the reveal, they feel satisfied and impressed rather than frustrated.  What Is A Reliable And Unreliable Narrator?  A reliable narrator is the antithesis of an unreliable narrator. The reliable narrator tells readers all the pertinent information they need to know, albeit from their own point of view, and they do so as accurately as possible and in good faith.  An unreliable narrator also tells a story from their own point of view but the information they share is designed to mislead readers or obscure the truth.    In locked room mysteries, where any one in a group of people could be responsible for a crime or misdemeanour, authors can tell the story from all their points of view so a reader has to try to work out which of the narrators is unreliable and which is reliable. Sometimes, of course, there can be more than one unreliable fly in the ointment. Agatha Christie was a master of such a technique.  Why Is The Unreliable Narrator Right For Your Story?  An unreliable narrator can perform ‘sleight of hand’ by hiding clues and prompting readers to look in the wrong direction. For example, they may build up a picture of another character’s behaviour that makes you believe they are guilty of something. This is especially useful in crime and thriller writing but it can work well in any story that requires suspense and surprise.  An unreliable narrator, when he or she is one of several points of view telling the story or alone, can – to put it bluntly – mess with a reader’s mind. They can make a reader mistrust other narrators or characters or second guess their own understanding of events.  As with any literary device, it is important to think about how your use of the technique will improve your story. Would using an unreliable narrator allow you to fit an intricate plot together more effectively? Would it help to showcase a complex character? Would it drive the story along in a way that a truthful narrator telling the story would not achieve? Will it add that ‘cherry on the cake’ that is currently missing from your work in progress?  Unreliable narrators can be incredibly fun to write, but it’s important that you knowwhy you’re writing them.  Types Of Unreliable Narrators There is an argument that any first–person narrator who does not have an omniscient view of all events, is unreliable. They can only share their personal experiences and those that they have been told, they have filtered everything through their own experiences and beliefs, and even if they are not ‘baddies’ they will have their own motivations and desires which can’t help but effect their reading of events. All of which is true.  Where I believe a narrator becomes unreliable, is where their take on the situation and the way they tell their story to readers, creates in the reader’s mind a significant gap between what they’re led to believe happened, and the truth.  The Deliberately Unreliable Narrator  Those who lie, obscure and otherwise deliberately mislead. A deliberately unreliable narrator is often – but not always – a ‘baddie’. But even if someone has been deceitful for wicked reasons, their actions should still be believable. No-one is just plain evil for no reason, so make sure that even the most cruel and manipulative liars have a motive for their behaviour – even if it’s a screwed–up motive!  Gone Girlby Gillian Flynn contains one of the most famous unreliable narrators of the last decade: Amy Dunne. We first get to know Amy through her diary entries which lead up to her kidnap. At the midpoint twist, we find out that Amy is not only alive but has been meticulously writing a retrospective diary to frame her husband for her murder. The plot is complex, with multiple twists and reveals, but the basic idea of a narrator creating his or her own cover story through a diary is actually a very neat and rather simple one.  The other main character, Amy’s husband Nick, is also a deliberately unreliable narrator which makes for a very twisty book. In his case, Nick tries to paint the best picture of himself by keeping his infidelity from the reader, which is a very tame form of manipulation compared with his wife’s character.  You can find out more on how to create your own bad guy, here. The Impaired Narrator  Alcohol is an oft-used tool for enabling narrators to have holes in their story and misremembrances. Alcoholic Rachel from Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins is a prime example of this. Rachel is woven deeply into the other characters’ lives, but has memory blanks over key events. In some ways, she is openly unreliable – she doesn’t hide her drinking or her struggle to remember events from the reader – and the reader is invited to join her as she tries to uncover the crucial moments that she has forgotten.  Drug use in a narrator would also fit this role, but drinking alcohol is a more universally understood experience so it’s arguably easier for readers to both empathise and imagine themselves in the narrator’s role.  The Psychologically Unreliable Narrator  What is sometimes, rather unkindly, called the ‘madman narrator’. Patrick Bateman from Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is one such ‘mad man’ who tells a shocking tale of murder and mayhem… until it’s revealed that one of his supposed victims is still alive.   In modern books, psychological unreliability often takes the form of a narrator whose psychological issues or traumas have jumbled up their memories or made it hard for them to understand the circumstances and events in which they have found themselves.  If you would like to use a psychologically unreliable narrator, it’s essential to give them nuance and characteristics outside of their ‘issues’ or readers may balk at the use of trauma or illness to simply drive plot or mislead. Every character deserves to be well-rounded.  The Unaware Narrator  Those who are passing on information that they have been told by another unreliable character. Sometimes this is due to blindly trusting those around them, sometimes it can be due to memory or other issues which make them rely on someone else’s events.  The main character in the brilliant Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson has a rare condition that makes her forget everything that has happened that day, waking up each morning with no recollection of who she is or where she is. She only knows what those around her tell her, and what information she finds that she has left for herself on previous days.  The Naïve Narrator  The naïve narrator is a little like the unaware narrator but does not have the maturity of thought to understand the events they are describing. Child characters can be used to simplify an adult situation or express a naïve take on events. For example, Pi, the eponymous character in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, who tells a tale of survival that is both entirely unbelievable and extremely moving.  Teenager Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is unreliable through his youthful inexperience, which lead him to misunderstand the situations in which he finds himself. Although he is naïve, he is also an angry and rebellious teenager and it is through this lens that Caulfield views the world and interprets it.  The wonderful Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller contains an adult character – Barbara – whose own moral code, inexperience and loneliness make for a naïve and skewed reading of events. As readers, we begin to understand what is really happening even when she doesn’t, which is both thrilling and devastating to watch.  Tricks To Creating Unreliable Narrators As with writing twists, my approach to unreliable narrators is to write them as if they’re entirely honest, as if I – the writer – completely believe the story they are telling. I try to forget that some of what they’re saying is untrue and write it as if it’s gospel. Writing my second book, Don’t Close Your Eyes, which includes an unreliable narrator, I wrote the story as if all characters were telling the truth. Then, when I had completed the first draft, I went through carefully and changed some of those details to lies.  An unreliable narrator has maximum impact if the reader has truly bought into their story and believed them, right up until the moment where it is revealed that they are untrustworthy. To help foster your readers’ trust, keep as many details accurate as possible. If the narrator is a frequent, outright liar from the start of the novel, readers will not put any stock in their story. Whereas if we see them telling the truth, possibly even going out of their way to be honest to a fault, it will be all the more shocking when we realise that we’ve been well and truly had.  So, there we have it, the unreliable narrator. What did you think? Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know your thoughts.  About The Author:  Holly Seddon became a national and international bestseller with her debut thriller, Try Not to Breathe, in 2016 and followed it in 2017 with Don’t Close Your Eyes and in 2018 with Love Will Tear Us Apart. The Wanted is due for publication in January 2021.  You can find out more about Holly here and follow her on twitter here. Or why not head on over to Jericho Townhouse and chat with Holly there too.  
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Character motivation: All you need to know

Guest author, Philip Womack, tells us all we need to know about character motivation. Character motivation and plot are very tightly linked. They are the Little and Large of writing fiction. A strong character will have a clear motivation, which will generate the plot. In J R R Tolkien’s fantasy novel Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Frodo needs to destroy the Ring of Power to save Middle Earth. In Daphne du Maurier’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, a husband needs to protect his family from what he considers are sinister forces. Ideally speaking, the character’s development will be linked very closely to the points in the plot: each stage will have an effect on the character; but the motivation will always push the character towards achieving a goal.    Motivation is the force which pulls the reader through the story, as it creates a sense of empathy with the character. If a character’s motives are unclear or repellent, then it can cause the reader confusion or unease. And we don’t want that. Writing fiction is in part about trying to make sense of the world around us, which means trying to understand ourselves. Is A Character’s Motivation The Same As A Goal? A character’s goal is ultimately the end result of the motivation. Think of a footballer: his goal is to win a match; his motivation is more complex, linked to ambition and to the pride in his team and to his financial success. Frodo’s final goal is the destruction of the ring; his motivation is to save Middle Earth. In Don’t Look Now, the goals change: initially, the protagonist, John, wants to protect his wife from what the narrator believes are sinister forces, which means that his specific goal is to remove her from their influence. Then it’s to find his wife; then it’s to reach home. But his motivation is always to make sure that his family are safe. How Does A Character’s Motivation Affect A Story’s Plot? A character’s motivation will be the major plot driver. In Homer’s Iliad, the motivation of Achilles is his anger at being dishonoured by King Agamemnon. This means that he withdraws from fighting the Trojans, which means that the Greek forces are routed. When his best friend, Patroclus, is killed, Achilles is then motivated to take revenge on the Trojans, and thus fights and kills Hector.  Motivation is important. Without it characters are limp and lifeless. Too often I see characters are wetter than the wettest blanket. They are flat, and events happen to them, and they let things carry them along without questioning or thinking. A character must have life, and motivation is partly what brings it. It’s the electricity pouring into the assembled body parts of your creation. You are Victor Frankenstein: your character needs to be galvanised into life! Should Readers Relate? This is an eternal question: and the answer is, not necessarily. The general consensus is that a character must create empathy: that doesn’t necessarily mean sympathy. Our protagonists do not have to be saints: too much of that, and your reader will fling the book aside in disbelief. But on the other hand, if they are too cruel or unhinged, then the reader can be disgusted.  An excellent example of an artful, successful and complex character is Humbert Humbert, the hero of Nabokov’s Lolita: he’s a murderous child molestor. His voice is exceptionally compelling: but we do not need to like him. The key is to create characters that aren’t cliches. So we are instead fascinated by his language and his style, seduced by him as much as we are revolted by his desires.  (If you want to know more about writing villains, then read this.) How Do You Determine A Character’s Motivation? A character’s determination is determined by what he or she wants. When you’re writing, you will develop your own process, but it’s a good idea to begin with your setting. A setting will produce a character: a general on a spaceship hurtling towards unknown planets will want very different things from a housewife on a farm in Wyoming.  It’s a good idea to test your characters. Put them into normal situations and see what they do; then introduce an element of surprise. How does your character react? That will help you to understand what motivates them. Need and necessity are two very powerful things that produce the friction and the energy for a good story. Powerful motivations include a desire to survive; to save or to protect, or to change things for the good.  You then need to decide what your character’s goal is in relation to the plot. This is very much determined by genre: the rational motivation of a detective is to find the murderer, so his goals will be step by step movements to uncover evidence against him; the motivation of Humbert Humbert is to avoid detection and to seduce Lolita, so his goals change as he travels across America. The former is a rational motivation; the latter is more conflicting and complicated.  How Do You Write A Powerful Character? There are many techniques to develop a powerful character, and as you continue to write, you will find that you will hone your own. Different things work for different people. Some writers like to create little biographies or dossiers for each character, detailing every aspect of their life from cheese preference to first sexual encounter to number of moles on their cheek. Others prefer to go with the flow and allow the story to shape the characters.  Whichever way you choose, a character must have fully formed motivation. Ged, in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, is motivated to find a dark shadow that he himself has released; as it’s also a part of himself, the novel becomes an exploration of psychology and a movement towards a mending of a fractured psyche.  In a T C Boyle short story, The Lie, two middle class American teenagers fall in love; the girl becomes pregnant. The lovers don’t want the baby to disrupt their young lives; and so, they fall into a pattern of deception that has a tragic, terrifying consequence. Their motivation is to get through college and become successful adults; but their goal is to do so by hiding a pregnancy. And thus the complexities of character are born: we empathise with them, but we are horrified by their actions.  When all else fails, put your character in a pub, and see what he or she does. Do they go to the bar and ask for a drink? Or do they sit by the side, nervously scanning the room for a friend? You can then draw out the more general motivation. And maybe treat yourself to a glass of wine as well. Your motivation: relaxation; your goal: finish the wine. So, there we have it, a full breakdown of character motivations. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think.  About The Author Philip Womack is a published author and JWEditor. If you’d like some detailed feedback on your manuscript from Philip, then check out our editorial servicespage. Philip’s critically acclaimed children’s novels include: The Double Axe (2016), The King’s Revenge (2016), The King’s Shadow (2015), The Broken King (2014), The Liberators (2010), and The Other Book (2008). His latest novel, The Arrow of Apollo will be published by Unbound in 2020. Philip is also contributing editor with the Literary Review and writes for a range of publications, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches at the Royal Holloway University and City University. You can find more on Philip here and here, and you can follow him on twitter, here. More On Characters Link to: Character and characterisation in novels: techniques, examples and exercises Developing Character How to make them lifelike
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Using internal and external conflict in genre writing

Guest author and blogger Gary Gibson is the author of science-fiction novels for Pan Macmillan. Gary has worked as a graphic designer and magazine editor, and began writing at the age of fourteen. What is it that makes a truly exceptional genre novel? What can an author of a horror, science-fiction, fantasy or any kind of genre novel bring to their work that elevates it in some way, so that when reviewers write it up they describe it as ‘transcending its genre’? That’s a phrase that used to annoy the hell out of me until I realised the essential distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction. All fiction deals in conflict of one kind or another. It can be a moral conflict, perhaps the threat of war or the consequences of unreasoning prejudice. It might equally be the need to survive an invasion, or a plague, or the unintended consequences of an earth-shattering new technology. My concern in this article has to do with the source of that conflict. Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict. That could be fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. It’s these internal conflicts, after all, that are the cause of so many of the great tragedies that characterise humanity. Wars of religion, of power, of survival. In Greek myth, the entire Trojan War took place because Paris fell in love with Helen of Troy and stole her away from her husband. A ten-year-long conflict is thereby triggered entirely by one person’s desire for another, regardless of the consequences. Commercial fiction, on the other hand – and remember, we’re speaking broadly here – deals in externalised conflicts. It creates dramatic stories out of direct conflict with something ‘other’, other races, other religions, other cultures, classes or political orders, and so on. Fantasy at its most basic, generic level deals with the threat of a ‘dark power’ of some kind – with magic turned to evil purposes. A good deal of science fiction deals with the consequences, intended or otherwise, of sudden technological change or scientific discovery. Those consequences are external – created in a lab, or built in a workshop, rather than formed in a human mind. Once I realised this distinction between internalised and externalised conflict, the defining quality of the very best sci-fi and fantasy became clear to me. It synthesises both approaches – and most often it does so by externalising what is otherwise an internal conflict. Some of the best examples are in film as much as in literature. In Star Wars, our internal conflict between what we know is right, and our own, darker capacity for evil, is externalised in ‘the Force’. The Force can be channelled for good, but it has a seductive side – one that can ultimately lead one to commit terrible acts of genocide or injustice, should one fall prey to darker emotions. The Force, then, is our own internal dialogue between what is morally right and wrong, objectified as a physical part of the universe into which we tap. So why does this work? Because where that internal dialogue between good and bad is in the real world entirely subjective, Lucas, in his screenplay, makes it into a distinct, objective thing that can be tapped into and that can influence us. Externalising what is otherwise an entirely internal dialogue allows the reader – or in this case, the viewer – to see that internal conflict in an entirely different light. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings revolves around a journey to carry a ring of enormous power back to the mountain where it was forged, in order to destroy it. The ring is our desire for power, objectified and made external, rather than internal. It’s this externalised internal conflict that in part makes this such a strong and overwhelmingly popular story. It’s very often the case that budding fantasy writers will make the mistake of entirely externalising the conflict in their novels; the source of evil in this case is always a Rising Dark Power of some kind. The hero is always pure and true. And it’s boring. The best way to write such fiction is instead to introduce internalised conflict, to balance the external. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings struggles with his own internal desires, and the seductive power of the ring – all he must do is slip it onto his finger, to achieve power he can only dream of – and he struggles with this internal conflict (made flesh by the ring) all the way to Mount Doom. Gollum is a stand-in for the terrible price that the ring can exact on those too weak for its seductive power, and he also represents what can happen to us if we allow the worst parts of ourselves to override our conscience. This internal conflict on Frodo’s part, then, balances the external conflict with Mordor’s armies, on the march to retrieve that very ring. It also elevates the story above one of simple good and evil by reminding us these conflicts exist within us, as well as outside us. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, we at first appear to have a simple tale of a messianic figure, born to lead the Fremen to victory against an imperial occupying force. But Herbert quickly elevates the story by focusing the narrative around Paul of Atreides’ struggle with the path his life appears to be predestined to follow. By imbibing the spice of the worm, he can see the future, and his role in it; but as in the best Greek tragedies, it’s a path he rejects utterly, even while his attempts to resist fate cause the very events he foresees to take place with grim inevitability. The external conflict – between the dastardly Harkonnens and the Fremen led by Paul – is balanced by Paul’s own, equally gripping internal conflict. In Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a policeman is working undercover, living with people whose lives revolve around a drug called Substance D. He’s so deep cover, even his bosses don’t actually know his identity; he wears a futuristic ‘scramble suit’ when he meets with his superiors, so they cannot find out who he is, thereby assuring him absolute anonymity as he searches for the source of the drug. One day, he is given a new assignment; to investigate one of the people living in the same house as him. He has, in fact, been asked to investigate himself. This creates a wonderful internal conflict that balances the external – the search for the source of the drug. Increasingly schizophrenic from his own use of Substance D, Dick’s character finds himself struggling with his own identity, as to whether he is a policeman, or the addict he is investigating. If your book isn’t coming together – if your characters feel lifeless, or lack motivation, or feel wooden and two-dimensional – provide them with an internal conflict to balance the external. It’s that conflict that, when handled properly, keeps readers glued to the pages. To sum up: the best sci-fi and fantasy fiction takes internal conflicts, and re-represents them as external conflicts in a way that creates a kind of ‘useful distance’, allowing readers a degree of objectivity on their own fears and desires they might not otherwise have. But even then, that conflict must be mirrored through your protagonists’ own thoughts and actions, and their own internalised moral dialogue. More On Plotting Link to: How to Plot a Novel (Using our Easy Plot Template Technique) Plotting How to plot with ease
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How to write historical fiction

Writing historical fiction gives writers a fantastically rich background against which to write. But the old verities of fiction – character, story and prose – remain as important as ever. Here a few practitioners offer their words of wisdom on how to write historical fiction which will feel brilliantly alive – and wonderfully saleable. Tips From Emma Darwin Emma Darwin is author of acclaimed literary historical novel The Mathematics of Love It goes without saying that you’ve researched your historical facts. That includes manners and morals as well as stage-coaches and corsetry: how people behave in matters of sex or smoking must be as accurate and convincing as how they cook or bet or fight. You’ve kept a sharp eye out for things you didn’t know you had to check: don’t make your medieval peasants eat potatoes, or your Regency heroine tell her fiancé to ‘step on the gas’, and don’t forget that everyone always wears a hat outdoors. You’ve read writing of the period and found a voice for your novel that’s neither incomprehensible, nor twee pastiche, nor crashingly modern. And then you must leave it all behind, because you’re not writing history, you’re writing fiction, and fiction is all about what you can make the reader believe you know: not what you’ve learnt in a library, but what you know as naturally as you know your own house. The worst writing you’ll ever do is what you write when you’ve got a history book in the other hand. The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it, their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. And all of that must happen without you once letting the reins drop. Your readers want to live and breathe history, but they won’t keep reading if the narrative grinds to a halt on a hill of historical detail. Find it all out, get it right, and then, in a sense, forget what you’ve found and write. You’re telling stories, not histories. Susan Opie Susan has been senior editor at HarperCollins and publisher of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, among many other works of historical fiction. Before you embark upon your historical novel, ask yourself: who are you writing for? Not only must you have a clear idea of your potential readership (male, female, crossover, and how literary), but also you should bear in mind the state of the market in this area as well. The publishing industry changes, and it has certainly done so in this field within recent memory. The market demands good fiction, but also looks for a strong sense of authenticity. That’s as applicable to commercial historical novels as it is to the more literary kind. Remember, readers want to come away from the novel feeling that they have been entertained and that they’ve learnt something, as well. They might then go away and discuss the book in reading groups, so it’ll have to stand up to such scrutiny (and the scrutiny of literary agents, of course!) The biggest successes in the area have tended to evoke a period we think we know something about, and have then gone on to shine a new light on it, bringing it to life in a fresh way. It might be told through the eyes of a character not directly in the line of historical action, allowing the narrator much more freedom to move and to comment. Generally, readers are drawn in by familiar elements (if not the period, then a famous character or setting), but not so familiar that they’ve heard it all before. Keep an eye on what’s come out over the past year or two, also on what’s about to come out. If a particular character, setting or period has featured several times already, why would a literary agent or publisher take on another book of the same kind? If you receive an offer of publication, the harsh reality of the industry will mean that your publisher will ask you to produce books in quick succession. That can be hard in this genre; research takes time, and the novels themselves tend not to be short, so you’d better love the period you’ve picked. It’s much easier to write regularly in a period you know well rather than try to change eras with every new book. If all that hasn’t put you off – good luck! Harry Bingham Harry is site founder and author of historical novels Glory Boys and The Lieutenant’s Lover. First, authors of historical fiction need to write good fiction, meaning a strong plot driven by strong characters and prose, but the historical genre does make a difference to the writer, all the same. In my experience, settings drawn from history give a rich backdrop for novels. Make sure you relish the opportunities you get to use an evocative vocabulary. Pay attention to nouns. Get specific and reach for details that illuminate the period. Keep dialogue modern, with the occasional dip into the vocabulary or grammatical structures of the past. Use of the occasional, now obsolete, slang or idiom can help. One other point, for commercial novelists especially, is that you do need to be careful about the attitudes of your characters. An English gentleman born in the nineteenth century would (almost certainly) have been racist, homophobic by modern standards. You’ll still need the empathy of contemporary readers, so you will need to finesse these issues. On the whole, unless you are portraying villains, you should have old-fashioned attitudes tempered by more liberal concerns, even if these never quite wind up winning. Finally, enjoy writing. It ought to be pure joy. It certainly has been for me. Good luck!
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Creating Sympathetic Characters

Guest author and blogger William Kowalski shares his insights into creating sympathetic characters that resonate on the page. Language is a living, organic thing, and words have a habit of shifting meaning over time. This is precisely what has happened with the word sympathy. Like ouzo and democracy, sympathy comes to us from the Greeks. It’s derived from pathos, meaning “feeling”, and together with its prefix, which in English becomes “sym”, it once meant to feel along with someone, or to join a community of feeling. We have not completely lost this sense of it, but our understanding of sympathy has narrowed until it’s come to mean feeling sorry for someone, or commiserating with them. As we writers develop our characters, we would do well to spend some time pondering the original, deeper meaning of the word. Why are sympathetic characters so important? Because unless your readers have some kind of emotional investment in their outcome, they won’t care what happens to them. They will become antipathetic. As a writing mentor, I must often explain that a sympathetic character isn’t just one we feel sorry for. It’s someone in whose struggle readers have become wrapped up, the more completely the better. We feel the same range of emotion he feels. We have joined her community of feeling. We do this because we believe this character is a real, flesh-and-blood person, if the author has done his job properly. What happens to her happens to us. It’s a skilled illusion, so how do we pull it off? The answer lies in the all-important practice of strong character development. In Poetics, Aristotle tells us that characters must be “good” (she must possess some redeeming quality); “appropriate” (her qualities must make sense, based on her identity); “believable” (we have to believe that such a person could exist); and “consistent” (her character, while mutable, should also follow a pattern throughout the course of a story). I go into more detail on Aristotle’s contributions to our storytelling culture in an article available for free on my website, called “Writing Secrets of the Ancient Greeks.” But these are not the only considerations. If a character is to be sympathetic, he must be in pursuit of something. In his rules for writing, Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” In fact, the simpler your character’s goal, at least at the outset of the story, the better. As we watch him go off in pursuit of that thing, we will naturally sympathize with his struggle. All these rules can confound us if we try to follow them to the letter as we write. The best practice for me has been to revisit them periodically, in order to remember the basics. In this way, they become implanted, and eventually become second nature. Remember that we don’t have to like everything about a character. A flawed and imperfect nature makes him even more sympathetic, because we’re not perfect, either. We have a much easier time relating to a character who screws up from time to time than to someone who always gets it right on the first try. You can find out more on creating characters here and here. More On Character Development Link to: Character and characterisation in novels: techniques, examples and exercises Developing Character How to make them lifelike
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99 Quotes About Writing by the World’s Greatest Writers

By C M Taylor Have you ever wondered what advice your favourite author would give to a debut writer? Here are 99 quotes from some of the World’s most successful writers! Enjoy. The quotes and aphorisms gathered together below range across more than 2,000 years of the practice of the craft. Within these quotes you will find agreement on what constitutes good writerly practice, but you will also find a decent slice of disagreement. One writer plots it all out, right down to the finest details before embarking, while another writer could not begin to work if they knew beyond the next scene. One writer works out meticulous biographical histories of their characters, for another writer it is enough to close their eyes and picture their subject. Some of these quotes below contradict or dispute each other. That’s deliberate. That’s fine. Many ‘story gurus’ or ‘formula writers’ might wish you to believe that their approach to story is the one, that they have cracked the secret and if you follow their approach – and buy their book – your work will be bestselling. But writing is not like that. There are many ways to arrive at the same destination. If there were one single successful approach then literature would be all the poorer for it. The application of formula to practice tends to make results more formulaic. The resulting work would be samey and bland. What are offered below are tools not rules. If a quote strikes a chord with you then think about it, use it. If the quote intuitively offends how you wish to proceed with your work then you are entitled and right to discard it. It is not right for you – someone has offered you a hammer when you need a spade. Only you will know when you read something and think, ‘That’s it! That’s what I’ve been looking for.’ Each writer must collect the twigs to build their own nest and no nest is the same. Don’t feel anxiety because you disagree with Anton Chekov’s approach, or Colette’s approach. What made them Chekov and Colette will not make you into you. Rejoice in the venerable writers and quotes below, enjoy, relax and I hope you find some twigs for your nest. Good Writing Here’s a diverse collection of musings and advice on what makes good writing from many of the best practitioners who have trod the path before you. See if any ring your bell. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ― Stephen King (about) “Write quickly and you will never write well; write well, and you will soon write quickly.” ― Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (about) “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov (about) “Sooner or later every writer evolves his own definition of a story. Mine is: A reflection of life plus beginning and end (life seems not to have either) and a meaning.” ― Mary O’Hara (about) “Comparisons deplete the actuality of the things compared…” ― William S. Wilson (about) “A good story is a dream shared by the author and the reader. Anything that wakes the reader from the dream is a mortal sin.” ― Victor J. Banis (about) “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ― Mark Twain (about) “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”― William Faulkner (about) “In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.” ― C.S. Lewis (about) “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” ― E. L. Doctorow (about) “Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.” ― Robert McKee (about) “Good writing is like a windowpane.” ― George Orwell (about) “In good writing, words become one with things.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson (about) “All good writing leaves something unexpressed.” ― Christian Nestell Bovee (about) “I believe that writing is derivative. I think good writing comes from good reading.” ― Charles Kuralt (about) “It may be observed of good writing, as of good blood, that it is much easier to say what it is composed of than to compose it.” ― Charles Caleb Colton (about) “The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself… alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” ― William Faulkner (about) “Good writing can be defined as having something to say and saying it well. When one has nothing to say, one should remain silent. Silence is always beautiful at such times.” ― Edward Abbey (about) “You do an awful lot of bad writing in order to do any good writing. Incredibly bad. I think it would be very interesting to make a collection of some of the worst writing by good writers.” ―William S. Burroughs (about) “By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” ― Roald Dahl (about) “You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.”― Richard Price (about) “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”― G.K. Chesterton (about) “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”― Thomas Jefferson (about) “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” ― Ray Bradbury (about) “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne (about)  “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” ― Voltaire (about) “It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” ― T.S. Eliot (about) “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ― Stephen King (about) “Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.” ― Grace Paley (about) “What is the essence of the art of writing? Part One: Have something to say. Part Two: Say it well.” ― Edward Abbey (about) Character How can collections of words on a page approximate to the living, breathing complex ambiguities that people present in real life? Every writer knows it’s a tough job to even try, but that try we must… “Let’s face it, characters are the bedrock of your fiction. Plot is just a series of actions that happen in a sequence, and without someone to either perpetrate or suffer the consequences of those actions, you have no one for your reader to root for, or wish bad things on.” — Icy Sedgwick (about) “The one common thread in all of the books that are falling apart on my shelf? Characters—flawed ones with desires and needs who spend most of the story tripping over their weaknesses in an effort to get what they want.” — Becca Puglisi (about) “You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”― Joss Whedon (about) “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” ― Ray Bradbury (about) “The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.”― Milan Kundera (about) “In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!” ― Anton Chekhov (about) “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” ― Kurt Vonnegut (about) “Fictional characters are made of words, not flesh; they do not have free will, they do not exercise volition. They are easily born, and as easily killed off.” ― John Banville (about) “Everyone here seems to have some weird secret or other.” ― Iris Murdoch (about) “When I am writing, I’m very much on the ground, on the same ground my characters are treading.” ―Graham Swift (about) “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away. ” ― Kurt Vonnegut (about) “Action, reaction, motivation, emotion, all have to come from the characters. Writing a love scene requires the same elements from the writer as any other. ” ― Nora Roberts (about) “The real story is not the plot, but how the characters unfold by it. ” ― Vanna Bonta (about) “My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. ” ― Harold Ramis (about) “Almost all great writers have as their motif, more or less disguised, the passage from childhood to maturity, the clash between the thrill of expectation and the disillusioning knowledge of truth. ‘Lost Illusion’ is the undisclosed title of every novel.” ― Andre Maurois (about) Plotting A plot is just a string of events, sure, but if it reads like just a string of events then your book is dead in the water. Here, a range of writers offer advice about how make your events meaningful to keep readers turning the page. “A lack of narrative structure, as you know, will cause anxiety.” ― John Dufresne (about) “What I’ve learned about writing is that sometimes less is more, while often more is grander. And both are true.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich (about) “The novel cannot submit to authority.” ― Julian Gough (about) “Of course, the writer can impose control; It’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however… that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.”― Stephen King (about) “I once tried to write a novel about revenge. It’s the only book I didn’t finish. I couldn’t get into the mind of the person who was plotting vengeance.” ― Maeve Binchy (about) “Character is plot, plot is character.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald (about) “… plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” ― Grace Paley (about) “Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin (about) “What monster sleeps in the deep of your story? You need a monster. Without a monster there is no story.” ― Billy Marshall (about) “Don’t resist the urge to burn down the stronghold, kill off the main love interest or otherwise foul up the lives of your characters.” ― Patricia Hamill (about) “An author must learn the principles of good storytelling only in order to write better from the heart. ” ― Uri Shulevitz (about) “The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.”― Blaise Pascal (about) “[T]he success of every novel — if it’s a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “What are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. ”― P.G. Wodehouse (about) Editing You spend the whole first draft being delighted at getting more words down on paper, then as soon as you’ve finished you spend the next few months trying to take word out. As all writers know, editing is a tough game… “If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what’s left.” ― Alexander Mackendrick (about) “The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang.” ― Annie Dillard (about) “Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counselling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?” ― James Thurber (about) “No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.” ― J. Russell Lynes (about) “The best advice on writing was given to me by my first editor, Michael Korda, of Simon and Schuster, while writing my first book. ‘Finish your first draft and then we’ll talk,’ he said. It took me a long time to realize how good the advice was. Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix.” – ― Dominick Dunne (about) “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” ― H.G. Wells (about) “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” ― Shannon Hale (about) “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” ― Don Roff (about) “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” ― Colette (about) “Whatever in a work of art is not used, is doing harm.” ― C.S. Lewis (about) “I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.” ― George Saunders (about) “Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson (about) “It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained.” ― Diana Athill (about) “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” ― Blaise Pascal (about) “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” ― Colette (about) “No iron can pierce the human heart as chillingly as a full stop placed at the right time.” ― Isaac Babel (about) Inspiration Whoever you are, no matter how motivated or disciplined, sometimes the well is dry. Here’s a collection of quotes from other writers that might help to get the wheels turning again. “Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.” ― Philip José Farmer (about) “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ― Jack London (about) “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” ― John Steinbeck (about) “Write what should not be forgotten.” ― Isabel Allende (about) “Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” ― Alan Wilson Watts (about) “One should use common words to say uncommon things” ― Arthur Schopenhauer (about) “He asked, “What makes a man a writer?” “Well,” I said, “it’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge.” ― Charles Bukowski (about) “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ― Octavia Butler (about) “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”― Thomas Mann (about) “Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things–childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves–that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” ― Salman Rushdie (about) “The difference between real life and a story is that life has significance, while a story must have meaning. The former is not always apparent, while the latter always has to be, before the end.”  ― Vera Nazarian (about) “A good writer refuses to be socialized. He insists on his own version of things, his own consciousness. And by doing so he draws the reader’s eye from its usual groove into a new way of seeing things.” ― Bill Barich (about) “Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.”  ― George Orwell (about) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” ― Henry David Thoreau (about) Motivation Writing relies hugely on internal resources and personal fortitude and whoever you are you’ll have days when those things are in short supply. Here’s some wisdom to help keep the fires burning… “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” ― Robert Hughes (about) “Writing is about resilience and faith. Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal? They do not. They simply dig.” ― Cheryl Strayed (about) “Art is only the means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.” ― Henry Miller (about) “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”― Robert Frost (about) “There is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments—moments of sustained creation—when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.” ― E.B. White (about) “A writer who is a pro can take on almost any assignment, but if he or she doesn’t much care about the subject, I try to dissuade the writer, as in that case the book can be just plain hard labor.” ― Sterling Lord (about) “A novel takes the courage of a marathon runner, and as long as you have to run, you might as well be a winning marathon runner. Serendipity and blind faith faith in yourself won’t hurt a thing. All the bastards in the world will snicker and sneer because they haven’t the talent to zip up their flies by themselves. To hell with them, particularly the critics. Stand in there, son, no matter how badly you are battered and hurt.” ― Leon Uris (about) “Writing is a manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.” ― John Gregory Dunne (about) “Never ever forget that you enlisted in the ranks – you weren’t press ganged or drafted. Nobody owes you anything – least of all respect for your work – until you’ve earned it with what you put on the page.” ― T.F. Rigelhof (about) “Before I start a project, I always ask myself the following question. Why is this book worth a year of my life? There needs to be something about the theme, the technique, or the research that makes the time spent on it worthwhile.” ― David Morrell (about) “Work like hell! I had 122 rejection slips before I sold a story.”  ― F. Scott Fitzgerald (about) “Since I became a novelist I have discovered that I am biased. Either I think a new novel is worse than mine and I don’t like it, or I suspect it is better than my novels and I don’t like it.” ― Umberto Eco (about) “I can’t blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I’ve spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds. I did it before the Internet, and I’ll do it after the apocalypse, assuming we still have helium and weak-gripped children.” ― Colson Whitehead (about) There we have it, 99 quotes from some of the World’s most successful authors. What did you think? Have you got any memorable quotes of your own? Head over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know! About the author C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). He’s also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which was filmed in 2014 and premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival, and he continues to be commissioned to write scripts for TV and film. C M Taylor also works with Jericho Writers as a book editor.
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Distinguishing porn from erotica as fiction genre

Guest author and blogger Anastasia Parkes has an MA in English Literature from Oxford and has lived in London and Cairo. She writes erotica under the pseudonym Primula Bond with books published by HarperCollins, and works as a book editor for erotic and romantic novelists. In this guest post, Anastasia defines the difference between erotica and porn, justifying what she writes and why. If you’re an aspiring writer of this genre, this is the post for you. There was a debate by an organisation called Intelligence Squared at the Royal Institution last Tuesday 23rd April where the motion was ‘pornography is good for us: without it we would be a far more repressed society.’ I didn’t attend the debate itself, but apparently at the outset 60% of the audience supported this motion, and by the end this had only reduced to 50%. Germaine Greer opposed it, arguing that pornography doesn’t rescue us from repression, it feeds off it, because without some form of repression there would be no pornography. Either way, it looks as if we – or at least the intelligentsia sitting in a debating chamber – are still equally divided in our opinions. I wonder how such a debate would go if it was enacted by parents, teachers, therapists, criminologists and so on. We live in a society where we are lucky to have access to whatever literature or images we choose, but as an adult I choose to avoid going anywhere near the troubling modern day, dead-eyed porn in all its blatant, fleshy, garishly-lit, visual crudity. It’s starting to make Emmanuelle look like Mary Poppins and it terrifies the life out of most parents. So had I been debating this issue I would have gone further and suggested that even the word ‘repression’ is surely outmoded in this day and age in which case so should porn be, that is, why do we apparently still ‘need’ it? Far from liberating us or taking us away into fantasies, it merely takes sex, something that is beautiful, if basic, and turns it something ugly, brutish or even violent at best, and at worst is starting to damage and frighten the young, evolving minds that watch it. Some might say this is rich coming from a writer of erotica, but the two prime words I have just used are ‘watch’ and ‘writer’. One of the many tags that irritated me about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was its description as ‘mummy porn’, which, without getting too heavy, seemed to link two opposing words in an extremely unpleasant way. The writer of it happened to be a mother, and the readers were often mothers, but the only mother in the narrative is an abusive, drug-taking prostitute in the hero’s back story. Similarly, the ‘porn’ involved in the story relates to the use of domination, punishment and sex toys (albeit in a consensual relationship), but then the book is also described as erotica. So, which is it? Erotica, or porn? In my view, it can’t be both. I am not a natural debater – I tend to get heated, emotional and as you can see from this piece, opinionated – but if I am challenged on the basis that I’ve written some pretty experimental sexual practices in some of my earlier work, I prefer to simplify matters for myself and for my audience by making a stark distinction. To me, porn is immediate, unimaginative, visual, and predominantly male-orientated. Erotica seeks to arouse through the written word and imagination, and is primarily by women, for women. It’s the difference between brutality and sensuality. Insult and compliment. Relationship and encounter. Consent and imposition. Porn seeks to lower, erotica to elevate. Porn is imposed, violent, debasing. Erotica celebrates sex within an adult, and with the genre of ‘erotica romance’ catching on, increasingly intense, romantic relationships. An unlikely champion of this viewpoint was D.H. Lawrence. Recently, preparing for my erotica workshop, I re-read parts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and realised that the ‘obscenity’ in it relates more to the context, the language used, and the times in which it was written, rather than the explicit yet tender descriptions of the sex itself. I suppose in conclusion that if I was going to put my money where my mouth was, I’d have to imagine my teenage son’s reaction if he read one of my books. Mostly he’d snap the book shut as soon as he realised what was going on, but if he did read it more closely he would see that everything happening was part of an intense, loving journey between consenting adults. The worst that could happen is that he’d be deeply embarrassed, not deeply damaged.
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How to Edit Your First Draft Novel (A Checklist)

How to self-edit your book – a simple guide A while back, I completed my fourth Fiona Griffiths novel. The publisher – those nice folks at Orion – liked the book and it was published. So far, so good. Still, both my editor and I felt the book just felt a bit long. There was nothing redundant or superfluous in it, just the whole book needed to be a little shorter. It was a ship dragging a sea-anchor. Nothing needed to be rebuilt. We just had to reduce the drag. This post is about how to edit a first draft novel, but based on an actual example of an author (me) going through that process, using my manuscript by way of example. The book was 136,500 words when I delivered it, but I have just finished a process of cutting and re-editing that has taken it down to 131,000 words. Since my changes included about 750 words of additional text, that means I’ve trimmed a total of somewhat more than 6,000 words, or about 5% of the novel. (Are you thinking that’s quite long for a thriller? Well, yes, it is. You can get a guide to average novel word counts here, but suffice to say, my work does tend to live at the long end of average. I’d save a lot of work if I learned how to write shorter books!) This post will share how I did that. What kind of cuts I made, the other adjustments that ensued, the thought processes involved. Before we get into the detail (and these things are all about detail), three things. This was my ninth published novel, and my thirteenth or fourteenth book. A first draft by a new writer is often able to lose 10% quite easily. It’s not uncommon for 20-30% to be a more accurate target. New Writers Rule #1Be ambitious when it comes to cutting material.You’re not aiming to lose content, necessarily – just verbiage.A 12 word sentence could become just a 9 word sentence?That’s the same as cutting 30,000 words from a 120K word novel! Second, the draft I first delivered to my publisher had already been edited hard. Not just for length, but for flow, atmosphere, plot logic, characterisation, dialogue, beauty, everything. Although the emphasis in this post is on how to cut a novel, this post is just about one small slice of the whole process. New Writers Rule #2When it comes to the self-editing process, everything is up for grabs.Everything.Plot, characters, pacing, twists, settings. Everything.There’s nothing sacred. Every little element has to contribute – or get changed. Third, it’s worth bearing in mind the narrator in what follows is my little Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths, who has, according to one reviewer, ‘some of the most memorably staccato narration in the genre’. In other words, she likes short sentences, clipping verbs or pronouns where it would be more normal to retain them. That’s her voice. You do not have to follow suit. In other words, the decisions I make need to be taken in that Griffithsian context. Your decisions will be made in the context of your voice, your characters, your market, your story. New Writers Rule #3Don’t follow my rules.Make your own! Enough preamble. Let’s look at some cuts. Again, the examples are taken from my actual edits of my actual manuscript . . . Example Edit: Description Of Scramble To Base Of Cliff Here big chunks are dropping out. Some of it is simply about removing surplus. (We didn’t need the names of six different colours of rock or lichen, for example. We didn’t need to know exactly how far Fiona had soaked herself.) But notice how the scene becomes better as a result. All the pieces were there before, but the assembly was a bit slipshod. This tighter format makes the atmospherics work better, even though there’s actually less atmospheric language. But some of the cuts also had to do with a willingness to trust the reader. So, in the first version, my narrator has said, in effect, “Look, I’ve seen the crime scene photos and I know I’m in the right spot.” The second version just drops all that. Most readers won’t even wonder how Fiona knows where to stand. Those that do can probably be trusted to think, “Oh, I guess there’d be file photos, something like that.” And notice the tiny changes. “Just about practical” becomes “manageable”. That’s a saving of just two words, but I’d say that a full third of my cuts were probably made up of such tiny things. Here are a couple more examples of tiny cuts. There were hundreds, even thousands of such things through the new draft: Here, the sense of ‘can’t see anything’ is adequately reflected in Fiona’s question, so the sentence can go. Three words saved. Yummy. And, before we move on, just one more example of tiny: One word saved. Hooray. Overall, it was rare that I came across passages (like the first passage above) that I could really hack into. Much more common was a host of small or tiny changes that cumulated to something bigger. In total, Microsoft Word reckons I made 3400 changes between the first draft and the second. Now, you can maybe quibble about the way it counts, but the point is still good. You can cut a lot of words by making a lot of small changes. It’s hard work, but you’re a writer. And work is fun. Example Edit: Description Of Crime Photo Now peek at this: The very first passage was taken, not from an action scene exactly, but one with real vibrancy all the same: a quest to see if an accidental death might really be a suicide. The chunk above, however, comes from one of those scenes that all novels have aplenty. Ones that are necessary to the story, but which don’t have real dramatic frisson. So the cuts above were aimed at simply reducing word count. Not too far, of course: we still need to ‘meet’ Emmett and to feel the atmosphere of that meeting. If I’d cut too far, the text could have felt economical but bland. But still. We didn’t need that sentence starting, ‘I’d have preferred …’. And yes, that sentence does do something to characterise Fiona Griffiths, but her character is all over this novel, anyway. So keeping a sentence like that in a scene that wants to be shorter made no sense. Out it went. Example Edit: Prison Description The same kind of logic applied here: The deleted material is perfectly fine, but it characterises a location that isn’t used in the scene. Fiona encounters her ex-convict friend in the car park, not the waiting room, so I left in the bit that talks about the car park, cutting the rest. Truth is, I think I was writing myself into the prison scene with that stuff about the waiting area. You’re welcome to write yourself into the scene – just remember to delete fluff. And even that bit in the car park is a wee bit tightened. Example Edit: Getting The Rhythms Right You also need to realise that you’re seldom just cutting, even if cutting word count is your only mission. Here’s a small example of what I mean. (But again: this is all about detail.) Now all I’ve done there is delete the six words about sailing boats. (Not worth doing? But six words is 0.1% of my total reduction target! That’s massively worth it.) But you’ll notice that the bit about the Bay now jumps to the previous paragraph. No actual words have changed but, even for the staccato Ms Griffiths, that “Views …” sentence didn’t have the muscle to comprise a paragraph all on its own, so I cut the para break and the text flows better. You have to be alert to those rhythmical things all the time. Here’s another example: That first deletion (‘all’) is simply a tidying up thing. It makes the sentence shorter, yes, but it also makes it better. I’d have made the change, even if I weren’t on a hunt for word count. But notice the next bit. I deleted the sentence ‘Like the efficient …’ because I wanted to compress this (not-very-high-octane) scene, but then having done so, the repetition of the word ‘finish’ would have been too much. So the first instance goes. And the rhythm now works again: the staccato four word sentence (‘neat, swift, etc.’), followed by one that sets up the reaction shot – and a teeny bit of tension as to how Jackson will respond. Example Edit: Increasing Sentence Force And as you cut text, you’ll find you get sensitised to other little points of detail. Ones like this, for example: You’ll notice that that’s three words cut, but three words added. There’s no alteration in meaning, nor have I even fiddled about with the sentence’s key flavour-giving words (ie: best-known, king, obscure). So why make the change? The answer is that the starts and ends of sentences have more power than the middles. A sentence that ends ‘ … not the most obscure either’ is just a little less forceful than one that says ‘… nor is he the most obscure.’ I changed the sentence so that the weight could lie in the final word, not the penultimate one. Example Edit: Getting Your Scene / Chapter Endings Tight A similar kind of point lies behind this cut: This is the end of a chapter. The first version still leaves Fiona’s question nicely mysterious – but the last four, very short, paragraphs don’t really add any more spice than simply ending the chapter at ‘And look, there’s something else.’ Ending early and arriving late is a very good rule to remember when checking your chapter constructions. Are you getting in as close as possible to the dramatic action? Are you leaving as soon as possible thereafter? And do note that ‘dramatic action’ means anything at all which increases the story pressure in the mind of the reader. Fiona’s final question blips that pressure up a notch (what is she asking, what does she want?), so the best place to finish the scene is right there, with the reader mid-blip. What Next? Since this is a long post already, that’s probably the place to leave it. But don’t feel you have to struggle alone with your novel. We have excellent editors ready to help you identify and fix the issues in your novel. If you want help understanding the various types of editorial service available, you can find a complete (and opinionated) guide here. A useful editing resource page (via Kindlepreneur) can be found here. And as you get close to the moment of actually Getting Your Manuscript Out There, you probably want to read our guide on how to get a literary agent and our complete literary agent FAQs page here. If you want more help – we have it! We run a comprehensive self-editing course, one of the very best things we do. Did you know that one sixth of all students who have taken that course have gone on to get published? That’s an awesome stat, made more awesome by the fact that entry to the course is totally non-selective. And of course, members of Jericho Writers get tons of help and community and access to publishing professionals. We built our club to help writers exactly like you, and we’d really love it if you came and joined us. You can find out all you need to know here. We look forward to welcoming you soon. Other Areas Of Interest Link to: Types of Editing: How To Choose Types Of Editing A breakdown of the different types of editing
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How to fix your plot problems

Guest author and blogger Gary Gibson is the author of science-fiction novels for Pan Macmillan. Gary has worked as a graphic designer and magazine editor, and began writing at the age of fourteen. You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there: the one-third slump, when a manuscript runs out of steam maybe thirty-thousand words in. Something about the story simply isn’t working. So what’s gone wrong? When I first started out as a writer, I read up on the different approaches used by novelists I admired. I found that many of them, particularly Stephen King, didn’t like to plan things out. They were seat-of-the-pants writers, who liked to come up with a situation, then watch where their characters took them. For such writers, part of the pleasure of writing was the sheer unpredictability involved. All well and good, but it took me a long time to work out that this wasn’t the right approach for me. Over the next several years, I started and failed to finish a ridiculous number of stories and novels. I knew the characters, the basic story, and the conflicts. What I didn’t have was a clear enough idea where the story went after a certain point. This continued to be a concern even when I got my first book contract. Although my first two novels, Angel Stations and Against Gravity, were well-received, I was never quite satisfied with the plot in either. I became highly stressed while trying to find the direction of the story in each. And so, when it came to writing my third novel, I took a radically different approach. Whenever I pitch a book to my publishers, I’m required to provide a rough outline of the story. This time, I determined to write a much more detailed synopsis than before, but for my benefit rather than that of my publishers. I wanted to be absolutely sure not only how the book started, but exactly how it would end. I broke the story down on a chapter-by-chapter basis until I had approximately six thousand words of text. Then I started writing what later became my third novel, Stealing Light. I hit a one-third slump anyway, despite all my planning. I found what had sounded good in the synopsis wasn’t necessarily panning out in the actual manuscript. I suspect this happens even for those of you who do plan your novels. So I stopped writing and, for the next four or five weeks, did nothing but revise that synopsis. I made a point of not worrying about my deadline. By the time I finished those revisions, the synopsis had ballooned to a little over twenty-four thousand words — one quarter the length of an average novel. I had every little detail absolutely nailed down, as well as having made major revisions to some of the principal characters. It occurred to me during this that all those seats-of-the-pants writers were being a touch disingenuous about their writing process. Either they did plan out their stories, but kept it all in their head, or their offices were filled with a vast number of unfinished stories and manuscripts. Both, I think, are true. When I write editorial reports on writers’ manuscripts, time and again I find that a novel hasn’t been planned in sufficient depth, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because the author read the same interviews I did when I was young — interviews with writers like Stephen King, who can produce hundreds of thousands of words of text every year, without fail, even if much of that effort winds up in the bin. Writers like King are the exception, I believe, rather than the rule. The rest of us, in order to write a saleable story, must instead plan everything out in as much detail as possible before we start writing a novel. Think of it as building a roadmap; without the map, you become lost in the woods, but with the map, you can see not only where you came from, but where you’re going. Without the map, you might be able to find your way out of the woods eventually, but it might take you far, far longer, and the journey might be considerably more frustrating and much less fun. And what about if, like me, you find even with that map — that outline — your story still isn’t coming together in those early stages? Do what I did: stop writing the book, and rework the synopsis instead. Treat those first thirty-thousand words as a kind of testbed for your ideas. Use it to figure out what does work, and what doesn’t. Give yourself permission to play around, to develop alternate paths for the story to develop. Treat the synopsis as an end in itself, and take satisfaction in developing its twists and turns. Allow yourself as much time as necessary to do this, and don’t even think about starting work on a book unless you know how it ends. Don’t believe writers who tell you doing this can ‘kill’ the story for you: just because it’s true for them doesn’t mean it is for you, and you could save yourself weeks or months of frustration. That third novel of mine, Stealing Light, was an enormous success, and my ‘breakout’ novel. It was also my first book to be issued in hardback, and was soon followed by two sequels. I attribute this almost entirely to the care and attention I took in plotting every twist and turn. Ever since then I still stop at roughly the one-third mark in a manuscript to revise and alter the synopsis, based on what is and isn’t working. Instead of an object of frustration, let that one-third slump become an opportunity for inspiration. More On Plotting Link to: How to Plot a Novel (Using our Easy Plot Template Technique) Plotting How to plot with ease
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Tips for writing crime fiction and thrillers

Short and sweet, here are my (Harry Bingham’s) top ten tips for writing crime fiction and thrillers that will please the reader and make publishers reach for their chequebooks. 1. Know the market. Read very widely. As many authors as possible, not as many books. If you’ve read one book by Patricia Cornwell or Linwood Barclay, then move on. You know their prose, their style. Find what else is out there. That means also reading the classics, knowing genre history, and reading plenty of fiction in translation, too. It also means reading relevant non-fiction. If you’re writing political espionage thrillers, for example, you need to know the political, military and security background. If you don’t, your readers will, and you’ll be caught out. 2. Understand where the leading edge lies. The biggest names (think Coben, Rankin, Reichs) are not the most current. They built their reputations years back. Try to locate the sexiest (i.e. bestselling, most praised, most innovative, prize-winning) debut novels. That’s what editors are buying today. That’s the market you’re competing in. 3. Don’t just trot out old clichés. You’ve got a serial killer, have you? A terrorist bomb plot? Be tough with yourself. These tropes are tired. They can work if you handle them in a new or dazzling way, but the old ways are no longer enough. 4. Be complex. Your plot needs intricacy and a surprising number of well-planned, well-executed twists. Modern crime authors have become great at developing complex but plausible plots, and because modern thriller writers have become so adept at delivering endless chains of impossible-to-see-it-coming twists, you can’t afford to be less than devilishly clever yourself. With rare exceptions, simple no longer sells. 5. Stay with the darkness. Your book must be dark and tough. That’s your entry ticket to the genre. What you do there can be very varied, but cute, cosy crime is a very limited market now. 6. Don’t forget jeopardy. Crime novels now are also thrillers. It’s not fine for the detective to solve the mystery and explain it all to a hushed and respectful audience. On the contrary, he or she must live in fear of his or her life. It’s got to be thrilling, as well as intellectually satisfying. 7. Concentrate on character. Crime and thriller plots are easily forgettable, and often feel very samey anyway. Characters like Elvis Cole, Hannibal Lecter, on the other hand, never leave us. If you find a strong character, and do everything else reasonably competently, then you quite likely have fiction that’ll sell. 8. Write well. Bad writing will almost certainly kill your chances. You don’t have to be flowery. You do have to be competent. 9. Be economical. Thrillers need to be taut. Check your book for needless chapters, your chapters for needless paragraphs, your paragraphs for needless sentences, and your sentences for needless words. Then do it all over again. Twice. 10. Be perfectionist. Very good isn’t good enough. Dazzling is the target. Being tough with yourself is the essential first ingredient. Getting someone else to be tough with you is quite possibly the second. I said ten tips, didn’t I?Here’s an eleventh: 11. Don’t give up. Be persistent. You learn by doing, and the more you write, the better you’ll be. Think about building your skills, engaging with the industry, or getting editorial advice. All those things will enhance your writing, too.As ever, best of luck!
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The Omniscient Narrator: All You Need to Know

In this article, guest author, Philip Womack, discusses the omniscient narrator. When you sit down to write, with that all-important, all-consuming story bursting to get out of your mind and onto the page, you’re facing a multitude of decisions to do with technique and style. One of the very first things you’ll need to consider, and one of the most important, is which narrative voice to use. Do you want to be intimate, and employ the first person? J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a fine example of this at its most gripping and involving, as is Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Or do you want to adopt something that’s more universal?  Most contemporary novelists write in the third person limited, which means that the narrative is limited to what the protagonist knows, and everything is filtered through the protagonist’s viewpoint. Point of view is important and allows the writer to play with perspective.  With the rise of post-modernism and other theories that questioned accepted fictional structures, the omniscient narrator fell out of fashion. Novelists began to play games with perception, and the unreliable narrator came to the fore. This can be delivered in the first person or the third person. Ian McEwan’s third person Atonementpresents itself as a straightforward novel, but actually has a sting in the tail, which causes the reader to question all that has gone before; you can contrast this with Kazuo Ishiguro’s first person The Remains of the Day, where the narrator isn’t quite telling us the truth.  The omniscient narrator has been used for centuries. Homer’s Iliad, which stands at the very beginning of Western literature, is a fine example of a narrator who knows everything: the gods, the heroes, even the details of individual battles.  When you sit down to tell your story, you may find your writing naturally falls into it. It’s what we’ve been brought up on: Once upon a time, there was a little princess… Of course, the narrator / narrative voice isn’t actually omniscient (he/she isn’t God). The effect of it suggests there is a separate entity from the other characters in the book, able to see all of them and even know what’s happening in their hearts and minds. It’s a powerful tool, and if used properly, it can lend an authoritative sheen to your work. Omniscient Narrator: A Definition The omniscient narrator is (usually) in the third person singular:  “When Sebastian walked through the heavy committee room door, a group of people were already there, seated and rustling papers. The light was dim, electricity guttering, their faces obscure. The commander was tapping his fingers on the table-top. Outside, buses clattered down the road, bursting with commuters on their way to work, checking their newspapers, feeling for loose change in their pockets, staring at pigeons, little knowing that what was happening in this tiny room off Whitehall would affect each and every one of them today…”  The narrative switches from Sebastian to the people on the buses; but the voice, being omniscient, is able to convince the reader it knows what’s going on. It also allows the narrator to paint a wider picture and create suspense.  The omniscient narrative voice is totally in charge of the story: like a director, pointing you towards images and people as it sees fit, acting in the same way as a camera. The omniscient narrator feeds us information about characters and plot in a structured, orderly way to maximise atmosphere, tension and suspense.  What Is The Omniscient Point Of View And How To Use It To Your Advantage? The advantage of an omniscient point of view is that you can write about any aspect of the story you like. Ursula Le Guin, in A Wizard of Earthsea, uses it to great effect: she begins with a description of the island of Gont, rising up above the waves, and then focuses in on the island itself, and a boy, Ged, who is to be the hero of the story. The world that she creates has the texture of myth and truth, in part because of this narrative choice. The narrative voice sounds confident and traditional: it urges the reader to listen.  There are problems with the third person omniscient. When you have too many characters in a room together, a writer can start “head-hopping”: that is, switching from one character to another.  “John was angry, and said so. Sarah was sad because she wanted to go out. Henry, on the other hand, was pleased.”  Too much of this can be fragmented and unconvincing. It can be done well: D H Lawrence is always doing it, for example; and there are many passages in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast which gain their power from head-hopping; but most debut authors are advised to avoid it as much as possible. 
 You can still use third person omniscient and gain better effects: “John was angry, and said so. Sarah, turning away, continued to apply her lipstick in defiance. Henry threw his car keys onto the table, and sat down.”  The main advantage of a third person omniscient narrator is scope. The disadvantage is that you’ve got to make sure that you know everything about the story – you have to be able to understand it and its world inside out, otherwise it can come across as unconvincing.  What Is An Example Of An Omniscient Narrator? Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is a classic example of the technique. It famously begins:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair …”  These kind of general, sweeping statements are probably best avoided in your novel (unless you really know your onions). 19th century novelists also have a tendency to step in to comment on the action: George Eliot, in Middlemarch, moves seamlessly between commenting on action and going into people’s thoughts and feelings.  The following, from Celeste Ng, in her debut Everything I Never Told You (2014), deploys the omniscient narrator in a more modern fashion:  “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”  Right from the start, the narrative voice tells you things that the characters are unaware of. The effect of this is to heighten suspense. She switches from character to character, painting a picture of a family going about its business: the father in the car, the brother on the stairs, the sister eating cornflakes. It’s a haunting effect, and it’s something that a third person limited narration couldn’t achieve.  The omniscient narrator, then, can offer up plenty of exciting avenues for your writing. But you have to plan especially carefully. Avoid the portentous and the heavy, and aim for clarity, and watch your writing take off.  So, there it is. Everything we needed to know about the omniscient narrator. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think.  About The Author Philip Womack is a published author and JW Editor. If you’d like some detailed feedback on your manuscript from Philip, then check out our editorial services page.    Philip’s critically acclaimed children’s novels include: The Double Axe (2016), The King’s Revenge(2016), The King’s Shadow (2015), The Broken King(2014), The Liberators(2010), and The Other Book(2008). His latest novel, The Arrow of Apollo will be published by Unbound in 2020. Philip is also contributing editor with the Literary Review and writes for a range of publications, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Spectator,and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches at the Royal Holloway University and City University.   You can find more on Philip here and here, and you can follow him on twitter, here.   
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How to write beginnings, middles and ends

This meditation on story structure in the novel comes from William Kowalski, author of Eddie’s Bastard, The Hundred Hearts and other novels. The excerpt is taken from his ebook/PDF, Writing for First Time Novelists. The full text of that ebook can be downloaded for free here. If you’ve ever taken a class on literary theory, or read any amount of literary criticism, likely you will have heard the term “narrative arc”. It’s also likely you will have heard a large number of other literary terms as well, but you will find that I don’t concern myself with them in this book, because they are of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever. If I felt it would make me a better writer, I would do nothing but talk about literary theory all day long. But I have always felt that literary theory makes me a worse writer, in the sense that it makes me more self-conscious and worried about whether my work stands up to a set of academic standards. I think fiction began to die the day it became the property of academia, and I hope it will wriggle free one day and escape into the wild again. Until then, I just keep typing. Literary theory may describe literature, but mastering it will not make you a better writer, any more than studying Newton’s laws of motion will make you a better baseball player. I write by instinct, not by a set of rules. There are some aspects of basic literary theory that are important for any writer to know, but they needn’t be obfuscated by the sorts of complicated terms people typically use to make themselves sound more important. You really only need to know a handful of concepts. Of these, narrative arc is probably the most important, from a story-telling point of view. So what does it mean? All it means is this: Your story needs a clear beginning, middle, and ending, and each part needs to measure up to a different set of standards in order to be considered successful. In addition, there is the symbiosis that takes place when all parts are working together perfectly to create something that is far greater than their sum. This is when we say that a book comes alive in your hands. You can feel it happening, both as a reader and a writer. It’s quite miraculous, and it can’t always be planned. In fact, it is rarely accomplished on purpose. Beginnings The beginning of a book should immerse us in your world right away. Don’t be coy about it, and don’t be disingenuous, either. Tell us what we need to know to make sense of things. Use plenty of detail. We want to get a nice feel for the setting, and we want to be as impressed by your characters as we are by meeting people in real life. When I say impressed, I don’t mean we should think they are great. I mean they should literally impress themselves upon us, through all the senses (except, perhaps, taste). Your beginning should also give us the sense that we are on a journey. We don’t need to know where just yet, although we should know before page 50 or so… say, about three chapters in. This is usually the amount of pages an agent or editor will ask to read when they are trying to make up their mind about a book. The reason for this is simple: if your beginning hasn’t hooked them, it probably won’t hook other readers either, and they will put the book down and move on. Many people will tell you that you need to be even more immediate with your grasp, and that your very first paragraph needs to be arresting, amazing, startling, and unlike anything anyone has ever read before. That’s a pretty tall order. While I am all in favor of strong writing, I have to say that this particular approach to fiction strikes me as something that has evolved in order to compete with film and television. Books were never meant to do this. Novels are for people who are in it for both the journey and the destination, and they’re in no hurry; it’s not necessary to begin your tale with dramatic action in order to hook us. Hook us, certainly. But there is nothing wrong with a book that unfolds gradually, as opposed to one that begins with an explosion, and leaves us to watch the fallout for the next three or four hundred pages. Middles If the first 50 pages can be said to be the beginning of a book, then from page 51 up until about maybe thirty pages from the end can be called the middle. The middle is the longest part of any book, just like a chess game’s longest part is the mid-game. This is where all the stuff happens. Nearly everything that is memorable about a book will take place here. The worst thing that can be said about the middle of a book is that it sags or falls flat. Have you ever seen the St. Louis Arch? This is the image that always comes to my mind whenever I hear anyone talk about story arc. What if it was to sag? What would it look like then? It would fail at its most basic task, which was simply to arc. If your story sags in the middle, it means that things are not moving along at the same pace they were at the beginning. Readers are growing bored. Something went wrong somewhere. One simple rule I follow is this: something must happen on every page. Something – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – must happen always be happening. When things stop happening, that’s when your story runs into trouble. A story is not as symmetrical as the arch in the picture, of course. The apex of the arc, which we usually call the climax, is actually much closer to the end than the beginning. The whole middle builds up to that climax. Endings And then, of course, comes the last important piece: the ending. I’ve always secretly resented it that a story has to contain anything, just like it’s always annoyed me that an 80’s-era rock song has to contain a guitar solo. It feels formulaic to me, and when I was younger I really despised anything that smacked of formula. But over time, I’ve learned that stories tend to follow a certain pattern for the same reason that every other aspect of literature exists: because that is what people respond to. This is rooted not in fascism or in the desire of one group to control another group, as my hyper-sensitive teenaged self believed, but in simple human psychology, which in turn has its roots in biology. Storytelling is one of the most important things people do. To explore this, let’s take what is probably the oldest story of all: the story of a hunt. Want more? Go get William’s free, full ebook Writing for First Time Novelists, by going here. If you want more on plotting etc from this site, try our info on Plot, More about Plot, and How to Write Great Characters. More On Plotting Link to: How to Plot a Novel (Using our Easy Plot Template Technique) Plotting How to plot with ease
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How to write characters (not clichés)

Characters are what bring life and energy to your plot. You may have rich, compelling material for a dramatic story, but if we’re not interested in spending time with your protagonist, if we aren\'t invested in their journey and growth, then even the most exciting plot in the world will be in danger of ringing hollow. It’s critical to a story’s success that your characters be captivating enough to linger long after the last page. It\'s also critical that the action of the story be \'character-driven\' -- and for that to happen, your characters must have depth and autonomy.  Before you dismiss character profiling as a waste of time, or if you\'re thinking that you can wait til later because you want to get on with plotting, try reading this article first. Then, before you get going on the writing, create character profiles for your protagonist, antagonist, their sidekicks and best friends, and any other significant characters you sense need it. You\'ll be glad you did. Understanding Your Characters In Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, Michael Tierno has written: The function of the poet [i.e. the writer] is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity. Basically, you aren\'t here to dictate events -- you\'re here to write down things \'as they happen.\' Maybe that feels a little strange to say, considering that you\'re the one with the pen making these things up... but the trick is to create characters whose motivations and actions all make sense. They have to act logically within the story they\'re in, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart. Famous authors have spoken of characters taking on a life of their own, wanting to do something their plotlines hadn’t accommodated, because they have taken on life in their imagination (we assume for the better, because it’s typically characters we fall in love with, not events). How do you start to understand characters as human, though, not as chess pieces? You’ll need to know them as well as possible. You’ll need to be able to answer as many questions about your character as you can, when you begin to build a character profile. We’ve a few reasons why any conscientious writer shouldn’t skimp on this. Archetypes vs. Stereotypes How do you build characters that are human, avoiding caricature or stereotype? It\'s perfectly fine to root your characters in a classic model -- the Reluctant Hero, the Clown, the Lover -- because we instinctively understand these stories. There\'s a reason that the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck are models of archetypes: we can see ourselves and our journeys in them quite easily! The danger comes from relying too much on cliché, or an idea of how certain people should act or be. Thriller author Christopher Rice has shared the female stock characters of police procedurals he’s desperate to avoid, like the nagging wife, the ‘ice-queen bureaucrat’ or the ‘babe-assassin’ (‘on the surface she seems like an attempt at gender equality … [but] if we never get a real explanation for who she is, how she got that way, she just ends up being a cardboard character’). Fantasy writer Samantha Shannon (who created a criminal heroine with depth, in Paige Mahoney of The Bone Season) has also argued the case for complexity: Complicated women are still treated like they’re a curiosity. … We don’t keep marvelling at “strong male characters”. Male characters can fall into a version of this trap, too, if they\'re rendered as handsome romantic caricatures or burly, brusque brawlers rather than real people. So how can you avoid these things and write your characters with sensitivity and feeling? Firstly, by drawing out of your own well of human emotions and experiences. Russian director Constantin Stanislavski developed training methods still used by actors today. In his book Building a Character, he offers guidance to actors (applicable to writers) who seek to ‘build’ characters out of stereotypical ideas or images, rather than from their own bank of emotional experiences. Stanislavski shares examples of cliché in Building a Character: A professional soldier … holds himself stiffly, marches around … speaks in a loud, barking tone out of habit. … A peasant spits … wipes his mouth of the tail of his sheepskin coat. An aristocrat always carries a top hat … his speech is affected. … These are … clichés. They are taken from life. … But they do not contain the essence of [a] character. Writer Scarlett Thomas, examining Stanislavski’s writing, builds on his musings in Monkeys with Typewriters: We could equally say that the chav wears a hoody and trainers and carries a can of lager … the geek has pale skin and acne and glasses. … Stanislavski’s work represents a profound rejection of cliché, stereotype and commonplace assumptions. … Stanislavski also teaches us to look for the motivation behind the action. … Begin with the character’s desire and build up from there, otherwise characterisation will be patronising. Following this, Scarlett Thomas encourages writers to uncover what Stanislavski calls a ‘super-objective’ in characters: Examples of super-objectives are ‘I wish to be comfortable’, ‘I wish to be perfect’, ‘I wish to be in control’, ‘I wish to be loved’, ‘I wish to be a success’. … With one wish, what would your character want? During her novel The End of Mr Y, for instance, Scarlett Thomas has protagonist Ariel Manto admit her ‘wish’ to another character: she wants to know everything. This filters down into Ariel’s less significant actions, too (rendering everything significant, after all). ‘I wish to know everything’ as a super-objective accounts for Ariel buying a rare, cursed book with all the money she has left to live on (not caring that she now won’t be able to eat). Your own character needn’t be conscious of a ‘super-objective’, an overarching character motivation – and it’s better if they’re not, perhaps. We as human beings typically aren’t aware, either. We may be aware of various major goals and needs, compelling us to act. As a writer, though, you’ll need to be conscious yourself. Why does your character want something? Maybe they want money, but is this because they want to be wildly successful, to show off? Or is this because they’re poor and just want to be comfortable? Your character’s specific longings and actions should feed back into one vague but dominant, all-encompassing wish. Know the nature of that wish, and why it’s there. It’s your character’s emotional heart and heartbeat. Consider your character’s background, too, their day-to-day life now and in times past. How does this feed into desire, into their nature? In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for instance, the Mirror of Erised illustrates Stanislavski’s principles when Albus Dumbledore points out to Harry that harried, teased Ron Weasley sees himself distinguished, without his brothers and family, the best of them all. Isolated Harry, who’s lived in a cupboard for ten years, sees himself in the mirror with a loving, but lost, family. Such longings aren’t viewed in the mirror by accident. Start with your character’s desire and let this help you map out their inner nature. You’ll then be on the path to creating characters with depth, who are fully human. Avoid Common Clichés You’ll probably have encountered ‘stock’ characters or cliché characters before. The glasses-wearing nerd, the mustache-twirling villain, the damsel-in-distress who can\'t do a damn thing for herself... no human being you\'ve ever met fits so neatly into such simplistic boxes! Adding in ‘rogue’ elements to subvert clichés like this is one way of initially working against your own subconscious biases in writing characters. Fiona Griffiths, in Harry Bingham’s thriller Talking to the Dead, is a gifted, morose protagonist recovering from Cotard’s Syndrome, but this isn’t incidental. She puts herself in hazardous situations in her empathy and determination to uncover victims’ stories. In Robert Galbraith’s crime series, opening with The Cuckoo’s Calling, protagonist Cormoran Strike is an army veteran turned private detective. Strike never ‘marches’, never speaks ‘in a loud, barking tone’, as per Stanislavski’s cliché. Strike is reserved, brusque but often uncertain, and has a prosthetic limb after losing part of his leg in Afghanistan (occasionally affecting his mobility). Strike’s prosthetic limb isn’t just incidental, either. It is indicative of his past trauma, his identification with sufferers of violence, and motive for the work he does. It’s not illogical to guess past trauma feeds into Strike’s emotional reticence with on- and off-partner Charlotte (who soon marries someone else), later with deuteragonist and new romantic interest Robin, at first. All of these are examples of ways to add subversive, original elements to your characters -- without them being incidental or irrelevant to the story you\'re trying to tell, or without hijacking them and turning the story on its head in a way that feels random. Circles And Starts Should characterisation really come first in novel-plotting? Or is it the plotting itself? It\'s a little bit like asking about the chicken or the egg (although of course we all know the answer to that one...) -- because inspiration can come from anywhere! Start where your imagination wants to start, but know this: characters must ultimately drive a plot, propel it forward. If your characters don’t act in ways that are plausible (as Aristotle indicated all those years ago), your plot is in terrible danger of falling apart -- and once your reader questions a character in this sense, your narrative spell is broken. Things also become less interesting when characters aren’t decidedly at the heart of storytelling. Let’s take romance as a genre or a device in fiction (i.e. as plot or subplot) to explore that idea. Writers continue to visit and revisit romance in stories, because it resonates with us all, often transcending genre. It is the characters, though, that elevate romance as formula out of the mechanical, making a story human. Taking two classics with potential – a spirited heroine challenges her moralising hero, a selfless heroine solaces her heartbroken hero – most readers care if a certain Miss Bennet marries in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, fewer (generally) care if a certain Miss Price marries in Jane Austen’s previous novel, Mansfield Park. In Pride and Prejudice, a relationship develops in action and conversation, with resulting character growth in the span of the action. Lizzy and Darcy retain strength of character, yet soften and mature as they listen, learn from and fall in love with the other. In Mansfield Park, nothing much prompts heroine or hero to grow. We’re told, not shown, how love turns from fraternal to romantic in just a couple of passages at the novel’s end. As a result, it’s a bit harder to connect with this story. As fictional characters, the point is that Jane Austen’s characters were never just in want of a spouse but they underwent an emotional journey, and this is what makes readers connect and care. As such, a story doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘correct’, nor do protagonists need to do ‘good’ things for us to love reading about them. Your story just needs to resonate with readers – and that begins with your characters being human, or at least operating in a way that your human readers will recognize. They might be six-tentacled aliens on a planet orbiting Betelgeuse, or anti-heroes like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho -- but even the most inhuman or unlikeable characters can all astound us and move us, because we see some glimmer of our own humanity in each of them. What’s key to your storytelling is, and always will be, emotional connection. Where To Start It makes narrative and dramatic sense to create fully rounded human characters who will face story challenges, who will make active choices, and who will reflect and change as readers spend time with them. Ponder this as you start planning. If you’re wondering where to start with characters, make a list of questions for them to build a personality profile. Ideas might be: Where was your character’s childhood spent?What was your character’s favourite place as a child? Where did they feel most joy?What made your character feel safe?What subjects did your character love at school?What books did they love to read? What were their hobbies?What was their worst accident as a child? What lesson did they take from it?What would their Myers-Briggs personality be?What’s their reason to live, their all-encompassing drive? Let some of these ideas get you started. Just be sure you’ll know their innermost depths, the life-wish that drives them, too – since these will propel your plot, too. Enjoy your character-building and happy writing!
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Voice in the novel (or finding yours)

Countless agents will talk about voice, or something similar, above all other assets that an author might bring. One agent we know of, for example, offered representation for a book having read just one sentence of it. So what is a ‘voice’ in writing, and how do you get one? What Is Voice In Writing? What authorial voice is – and why you want one Voice is to writing as personality is to humans. Voice is the stylistic imprint of the individual author – their signature style, if you like. The idea is that authors with real “voice” are inimitable. That they sound like themselves and no one else. So here’s Cormac McCarthy, for example: “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.” [The Road] Here’s Raymond Chandler: I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” Here’s Gillian Flynn: Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. In each of these cases, those authors have an instantly recognisable quality. One that just drips with personality and mature stylistic confidence. What Is ‘voice’ In Writing? ‘Voice’ refers to the author’s writing style, or authorial voice. It is the stylistic imprint, or signature style, that authors leave on the page. An authorial voice should have an instantly recognisable quality, or personality, and remain present throughout the novel. It’s what will captivate your readers and hook an agent. Why Do Literary Agents Care So Much About Voice? Just imagine you were an agent looking through your slushpile – maybe 2,000 manuscripts through the course of a year. Many of those manuscripts will be perfectly fine. Competent thrillers. Decent rom-coms. Accessible literary fiction with interesting themes. But their ‘perfectly OK-ness’ is the problem. Why would an agent prefer Competent Thriller A to Competent Thriller B? What would force an editor to buy one over the other? In many cases, the answer is ‘nothing much.’ And that’s where voice comes in. If you, as a debut author, can stride into the agent’s consciousness sounding like nothing else in his/her slushpile – sounding like yourself and no one else – you force the agent to pay you attention. And in the course the editor. And in due course the reader. And that’s why voice matters. That’s why voice is golden. Achieving Voice: Aspire To Authenticity Voice is often left until later in writing courses. That’s emphatically not because the concept doesn’t matter, but because you only get to deal with matters of voice once the basics have all been properly dealt with. That certainly means that your prose style will read competently. But it goes beyond that. It would be exceptionally rare for a writer to have a wonderful voice without also having a certain minimum level of competence at matters such as plotting, handling points of view, and all those other things that go to make up a technically proficient novel. In short, if you’re uncertain whether you are yet entirely competent as a writer, you probably still need to worry at your technique as your priority. (Oh, and I should be clear that I’m not using ‘competent’ here in a dismissive sense. Rather the opposite. A professionally competent carpenter is a wonderful and skilful thing. Being able to lift a hammer or a cut a piece of wood doesn’t make you a carpenter. Likewise, many first-time novelists may struggle with aspects of technique, which is fair enough if you haven’t done this before.) Don’t Fake A Voice That’s Not Yours A lot of thriller writers, for example, knowing that Raymond Chandler is famous for his prose style and flashy images will seek to do likewise, and jam their prose full of over-the-top imagery and wild similes. This could work, yes, in principle – but by golly it seldom does. And the trouble is partly a misreading of Chandler (who was carefully selective about when to pick an over-the-top image out of his toolkit), but mostly a lack of authenticity. The typical sign is a prose style that judders from the bland to the excessive and back again. Character, Character, Character, And Story To achieve authenticity, you need to not start off by worrying about voice. If you do that, you will end up imposing some excessively designed voice over the head of your character. Really, it has to work the other way round. You find the style that suits your character and work with that. I’ve put a chunk of my own first-person prose down below (so you can look at it and laugh at me), but character can influence voice even when it’s not first person. For a remarkable exercise in third-person character determining voice, try Brooklyn by the wonderful Colm Toibin. What you notice in that book is how little the author appears to do. How much is not said. But that’s because the protagonist is herself from a limited background without much range of personal expression. The intensity of the novel arises from what Toibin called – only a little pretentiously – a system of silences. Character determining voice. And if character is mostly paramount, then story matters, too. The voice that Toibin used for Brooklyn would not work well at all for (say) my own Fiona Griffiths detective stories, and vice versa. If you start with character and story, then write as well as you can, you’re most of the way to doing what you need. Remember Imagery, Yes, But Also Everything Else When it comes to ‘fine writing’, a lot of people have a strange idea that it’s all to do with imagery or sentence structure. And sure, if you have those in your armoury, then why not? But other elements of voice abound. For example: RhythmLength of sentences and parasVocabulary (broad or narrow, both can work)Vocabulary as a palette (for example, a book might cleave very tightly to agricultural and natural images, colours and allusions)Lyricism versus stony realismHumourWarmthIronyDoes the book stick close to one or more characters, or does the narratorial voice sometimes protrude?Descriptive or terse?Minute dissection of moments, emotions, thoughts? Or very sweeping? Intimate or wide-angle?Does the writer tease the reader? Are mysteries left to linger unsolved?Present tense or past? And how are those tenses deployed?Preference for Anglo-Saxon vocabulary or Latinate, French?Smoothness or unexpectedness? Does the voice remain very consistent in tone, or does it move around to surprise the reader? I daresay if you think a few moments, you’ll be able to extend that list a good way yourself. All these things can go to make up voice. You need to pick the bits that matter to you. Remember It’s Not A Competition In Technique And, also, you don’t get points for some show-off technique like, for example, writing a novel in the first-person plural. (The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is a good example.) You get points for writing well. That can be by doing the basic things very well indeed. Don’t seek to flaunt some exotic piece of technique unless the book really demands it. And for a last hint, I think that as you start to understand your own style, it can be worth doing the same thing, but just a little more. Taking your existing ingredients and cutting out anything that doesn’t quite mesh and emphasising your signature notes a little more. It would be exceptionally easy to overdo this, of course, but it never hurts to nudge the reader, just a little, with what to look out for. My Voice (Or The One I Share With Fiona Griffiths) And there’s no use in talking about voice without showing it on the page. This is me, talking as my detective character Fiona Griffiths. Fiona is working undercover, is currently in prison, and is hoping to uncover some secrets from a fellow inmate, Anna Quintrell. Quintrell is brought to the cell when the light is dying. She looks rough. Not injured and knocked about, like me, but exhausted. Defeated. She’s still in her cutsie little summer dress, but someone has given her a grey fleece to wear over the top. We stare at each other. She sits on her bed. There are four blankets in the room and I’ve got them all. ‘What happened to you?’ ‘Resisting arrest,’ I say. ‘Except some of it happened after arrest.’ She draws her legs up on the bed. ‘Can I have my blankets?’ I give her one. ‘And another?’ I tell her to fuck off. Say I’m cold. ‘So am I.’ I shrug. Not interested. There’s a pause. A pause sealed off by steel doors and concrete walls. ‘They bugged my house. My phone. They’ve got everything.’ I shrug. Light dies in the ceiling. She tries to make herself comfortable. Twitches the fleece and blanket, trying to get warm. A losing game. There’s a call button by the door which allows prisoners to ask for help from staff. She presses it, asks for more bedclothes. Someone laughs at her and tells her to go to sleep. She stands by my bed and says plaintively. ‘You’ve got my blanket.’ I tell her again to fuck off. She’s bigger than me, but I’m scarier. She goes back to her bed. The light fades some more. I try to sleep. The aspirin has worn off and my head hurts. Quintrell starts crying. Quiet sobs, that tumble into the blanket and are smothered. Down the corridor, we can hear more suspects being brought in and processed. Doors slam through the night: church bells calling the hour. I sleep. I won’t comment much on that, except to note that my style is unusual in its attempt at combining two things. First, its clipped quality (very short sentences and paras, lots of sentence fragments or verbs missing their subject), not uncommon in thrillers, but then I try for an almost lyrical quality, also (“A pause sealed off by steel doors”, “Light dies in the ceiling”), though this is unobtrusive, even sparse, because those interjections can’t detract from the action. The combination of the two – plus that intense, up-close present tense – go to create a lot of what we experience as Fiona’s voice. She’s also an odd combination of highly intelligent (hinted at here only) and very, erm, blue-collar in her speech. It’s those dissonant ingredients that go to make our Fi. If you’re struggling for that elusive ‘voice’ in your novel, and you’re writing in the first-person, why not set aside your story for a moment, and scribble a conversation with your protagonist or a page from their diary. What does it sound like? Happy writing! About the author Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 
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How to have ideas for worldbuilding in fiction

Novelists of science-fiction or fantasy know worldbuilding is a huge part of the fun of writing, from magical medieval worlds to apocalyptic dystopias. There’s something wonderful about writing brave new worlds. As George R.R. Martin has written: We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La. They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth. What’s described here just comes down to worldbuilding. Whatever genre you’re in love with – historical fantasy, urban fantasy, hard or soft science-fiction, or something else – here are some general guidelines from us and an overview to consider. Worldbuilding: Two Methods To Choose M. John Harrison has defined worldbuilding as an ‘attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there’. There are two established methods for science-fiction and fantasy, defined in The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. These are outside-in (otherwise called top-down) or inside-out (bottom-up) – so we’ll work with these definitions to help you sense which broad approach you prefer. If you’re for outside-in, you’ll go with worldbuilding before just about anything else (i.e. plot, character) in your sci-fi or fantasy writing. You’ll want that intricately-crafted world there in your mind, detailed in notes, ready for readers to explore as much as you yourself would wish to. Maybe you’ll need it complete with histories, languages and more – because you feel fantastical worlds need a sense and structure first for a story to operate in. Perhaps you’ll want to know every nook and cranny, creating mythologies, histories, etymologies surrounding your characters, like J.K. Rowling, or as J.R.R. Tolkien did when he created Middle Earth. Tolkien, though, built The Hobbit around Bilbo Baggins – and then there came the history of Middle Earth and more. This makes Tolkien an inside-out world-builder. Bilbo, his character, came first and Middle Earth is built around Bilbo – all he must achieve, how he must grow – before Bilbo’s young cousin, Frodo, is forced to pick up Bilbo’s legacy in The Lord of the Rings and continue the journey. Similarly, the centre of J.K. Rowling’s series was always Harry himself. With an inside-out approach, you’ll build worlds around characters, exploring as you go. This way is (arguably) most useful to you, helping you not get bogged down in the fun of worldbuilding. You mustn’t ever neglect your story. Mapping A New World It’s not just a lot fun to create a world map. It’s worth doing even as a draft sketch for yourself, because the key rule to never break in worldbuilding is that your world must have an internal, underpinning logic to it. This helps convince us that no matter how fantastical your book material, it is authentic enough to feel plausible – enough for readers to buy into it all. Think as you map mountains, savannahs, deserts – what do terrains mean for the societies you’ll create? In fantasy epics, much of plot – including backstories, world histories and more – is tied up in mapping. The Iron Islands of A Song of Ice and Fire, as an example, are known for ironborn ships. Surrounded by seas, Iron Islanders depend upon their Iron Fleet. This doesn’t just sound imposing and impressive as a plot device from George R.R. Martin. It makes a certain logical sense that Iron Islanders would be dedicated to seafaring for their prosperity and survival. There must be underpinning, internal rules to your world to create a due sense of realism, and this can feed into your plot arc, character journeys and all the rest. As Jeff Vandermeer has written in Wonderbook: Approaches to setting and character should be multidirectional: organic and three-dimension, with layers and depths. Throwaway settings are like throwaway characters: a missed opportunity. These geographical elements are interconnected and worth exploring, researching carefully as a conscientious writer. Mapping A Universe If you’re building a planet for your science-fiction novel, or mapping star systems – all sorts of scientific questions begin to surface. That’s enough for a separate tome entirely. Still, a quick note here to ‘hard sci-fi’ writers on its importance. Let’s say you were creating an alien planet with rings like Jupiter or Saturn. In terms of detail, some geological knowledge and understanding could help you in your descriptive writing. Writer Stephen L. Gillett has written in his book World-Building how this planet would look: Rings would make for spectacular skies … during the day, a vast white arch, probably visibly subdivided into concentric arcs, would stretch high across the southern sky, pallid but plainly visible. … As the sun set, the arch would blaze … like a lacework with its multiple interior arcs. Shepherd moons would appear like bright pearls. … As nightfall encroached … no stars at all would appear in the black band … [then] high in the east a brilliant arc would appear where the rings first caught the sunlight, and the brilliance would spread westward until the whole arch would glow just before dawn. If you’re an enthusiast for science-fiction, learn to love the sciences, and read up on them. They could just offer new mines of inspiration. It’ll all take time, yes – and is it necessary? It just depends. Know how deep you wish to go. Know if your story (or you) may need it. It can’t hurt to consider, though. Writing World Histories Readers love exploring the histories of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire – the complex, horrific politics of King’s Landing. Readers become immersed in the stories of George R.R. Martin’s great families, forging uneasy alliances to retain positions of power. The books wouldn’t allure us if it weren’t for such details. On the other hand, part of the suspense and unease of a novel like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale stems from Offred’s patchy knowledge of her dystopia, its ambiguity. A fairy-tale retelling like Uprooted by Naomi Novik strikes a middle ground. Some history is sketched for us but there’s no extensive mapping, no comprehensive history of intrigue. There’s still much mystery surrounding the Dragon, the ‘reaping’ faced by Agnieszka and Kasia, which can work to advantage in Uprooted. A little mystery is no bad thing. However, to truly know your world, a world history or survey detailing just as much as you need to write would probably be useful. It’ll be useful material for you, yourself – no matter how much you share of it in your book. So that’s the most valid reason to create a world history – if you’ll enjoy making it, love writing it. Create notes, etchings for yourself. You needn’t create these with the intension to publish, either. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion, reams on the histories of Middle Earth, but never meant this book or others to be published. J.K. Rowling also kept detailed notes and sketches of Harry Potter’s world for years. All of it was meant for her reference and only after Harry’s success did she go on to reveal these on the website Pottermore, from supporting characters’ back stories to the intricacies and origins of wandlore, and more. Wherever stories catch on, a desire for more can often follow as George R.R. Martin also discovered before finishing his series. He published The World of Ice and Fire, an informative history ‘textbook’ for his world, detailing all that led up to events of A Game of Thrones. Still, your world history is really your backdrop for readers. In one sense, you must ‘always leave them hungry’ because a world history is not the same thing as your story – and it’s the stories themselves that grip us. Better leave readers hungry then inundate too much and risk boring anyone. This said, a world history would still bear heavily upon your plot and any world history should feel organic, not tacked on. Your world history, at least as far as readers are concerned, needs to be fleshed out just enough as far as is relevant for the here and now of your plot and characters. Writing Alternate Histories Building alternate histories (i.e. reworking the histories of this world, recreating this world with intricately changed aspects), though, is another matter. A separate branch of worldbuilding, this is trickier, because you’ll need to research extensively before you rework. If certain events didn’t happen, how would this bear on your written worlds or societies? Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an example of how to write an alternative history well. Set in Regency England with magicians thrown in, the myth of the Raven King casts a shadow over all as magic ‘returns’ to England, as London society is dazzled by spells and ladies raised from the dead. The entire novel is punctuated with long (optional) footnotes and backstories, making for a deftly and thoroughly researched world of alternative history. In this sense, you can take inspiration from real-life histories – in A Song of Ice and Fire, civil war ensues following the beheading of key protagonist Eddard Stark – but anyone who’s read The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon (on the collapse of the French Capetian Dynasty) will see some parallels in A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t be afraid of tapping into history, however extensively, to inform your own worldbuilding. Creating Magical Societies If you’re writing a fantastical society with some magic (as so often will be the case), what are your magic’s rules and limitations? Harry Potter’s magical universe is held together by rules. A curse can be met with a counter-curse. Servile creatures like house-elves have secret powers that Voldemort, who wants to be invincible, spurns to his cost. Are there cults (religious or not), guilds or secret societies, like the Order of the Phoenix created to battle Voldemort? Also, how will it affect your protagonist if he or she isn’t using magic in a magical world? Are they afraid of it? In children’s series The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce, Alanna and Thom are twins sent away from home. Protagonist Alanna is to go north and learn magic (as ladies do in her world). Thom is to become a knight, and neither wants their fate. In secret, Thom travels north – both boys and girls can learn magic – but Alanna becomes ‘Alan’ and disguises herself a boy, learns to fight. Alanna isn’t drawn to magic (synonymous with power in these stories), as her brother is. She finds she must still use her magic to help defend Tortall as she grows older. If you’re creating religions, too, will these be monotheistic or polytheistic? In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, different gods are worshipped – with consequences. Arya Stark joins a cult worshipping the ‘Many-faced God’ or ‘God of Death’ to become an assassin. Melisandre is a prophetess carrying religion to catastrophic extremes. In The Song of the Lioness, however, it is a Goddess worshipped. She’s able to appear to protagonist Alanna as a tangible being, appealing to Alanna’s inner life and journey at a deeply personal level. So how will your story’s religion affect things, if you’re writing one? This can’t be a throwaway topic, just as there can’t be throwaway settings or people. Everything, no matter how much you create, how big or small the details, should remain significant. Creating Dystopias Certain societies on trend in writing just now (arguably) are dystopias. Dystopia has long been established a ‘soft’ sci-fi subgenre. It also goes for fantasy novels. Writing dystopian societies whilst keeping details rich, and characters human despite their loathsomeness, can be tricky. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, ‘criminals’ targeted are hanged in public to control, to crush subversion. Handmaids like Offred lose their names in Gilead, so Gilead also makes the spread of information impossible. Margaret Atwood’s setup is clever and it makes revolution seem a distant dream – it’s impossible to rebel if you can’t pull together accurate enough information. As an example, Offred meets her companion, Ofglen, one day, only to find a different Ofglen waiting. Her Ofglen has been replaced. In the novel, Offred is left to believe Ofglen hanged herself before a van could arrive and take her away. Names, identities, information, are lost as another tool of this repressive society. Even in Gilead, though, nothing is black and white. Offred’s Commander helps uphold a sick regime. Yet even he is nostalgic for the past – offering Offred a secret night out, bribing her with Scrabble game matches, old magazines – outlawed under Gilead. So keep your storytelling, characters and worldbuilding complex, even (or especially) where it’s tempting to paint the world in black and world. Releasing Information If you inundate readers too much on ‘world material’, it could risk being a ‘turn-off’. So often a novel works because of a delicate control of information, i.e. you reveal more as you write, more as we read. Authors like J.R.R. Tolkien still knew this. He released information to his readers and to Frodo over time, just as J.K. Rowling does for Harry, etc., etc. Meanwhile, Samantha Shannon, author of fantastical dystopia The Bone Season, has written on building heroine Paige Mahoney’s world of clairvoyants and the Rephaim, as well as writing about releases of information. How do you reveal a complex world without launching into fully-fledged history? Samantha’s blog post reads: After several attempts at an opening, I finally decided that it was worth setting aside a few pages in the early chapters to explain some key aspects of the world – spirit combat, the London gangs, Edward VII, dreamwalking and so on – before the story got going. In the long run, I knew this would save me time and stop me having to drop in this information in later chapters. It would also, critically, allow a reader to grasp the bare bones of the world before I started fleshing it out – at the risk of making them feel like they were being ‘talked at’. It was a fairly big risk and I know it won’t work for everyone, but I’d rather a reader knew too much than too little. So just remember to bear in mind ‘story view’, as a narrator – how much do your readers need to know at this moment? Will it serve the plot? Think where and how you’ll connect the dots over your novel. An End Is Just A Beginning These are the pointers, the foundations of all you need to think about. Sketch and map out the details of your world, and if you need, create a collage (or a Pinterest board) of ideas and images to spark inspiration. Most importantly – have fun, and happy writing!
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How crime writers can research police procedure

Guest author, blogger and former police officer, Clare Mackintosh, shares how to research police procedure. Clare is an author, feature writer and columnist. She is the founder of Chipping Norton Literary Festival and spent twelve years in the police force, working on CID, in custody and as a public order commander. Claire’s novel I Let You Go is published by Sphere.Whether you’re a published crime writer or an aspiring one, you’ll need to know how to research police procedure, and the prospect can be a daunting one. Perhaps you have police officers in the family, or within your circle of friends, or maybe – just maybe – you’ve been arrested enough times to add a ring of authenticity to your writing… If, like most crime writers, your only brush with the law has been a speeding ticket, this post on how to research police procedure is for you. Watch Television It might seem counterintuitive for an author to suggest you watch television, yet there is a wealth of police procedural information on the small screen right now, most of it meticulously researched. It’s five years since The Bill slammed its cell doors for the final time, but dramas such as The Missing and The Fall give a great insight into forensic possibilities, and can be a good starting point for researching police procedure. Television shouldn’t be your only source of information, but that’s true of any research medium. Read Fiction In my experience, police-based novels tend to be less reliably accurate than television, and I’d advise a hefty pinch of salt when using these to research police procedure. I’m assuming that, as an aspiring crime author, you already read widely within the genre (and outside it), so use what you learn to inspire, rather than inform your own writing. Authors like Peter James and Val McDermid are known for their accuracy with regard to procedure, and with more than fifty books between them, they should keep you busy for a while. Read Non-fiction Michael O’Byrne’s updated 2015 The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure, for the serious crime writer, might be worth the investment. The cramming tools of the serving police officer are the Blackstones Police Manuals. As these are updated every year (making failing one’s Sergeant’s exams an expensive process), you can often pick up previous years’ editions on eBay for not much money. Use The Web There’s no excuse for inaccuracies when referring to legislation and criminal offences: it’s all right there on the web for you. The Crown Prosecution Service Legal Guidance pages list every piece of legislation – from Abuse of Process to Youth Offenders and everything in between. Bookmark it now, and use it as a checklist to make sure your case is watertight. Consulting Cops also offer a range of helpful resources too, you can find their website here – it’s definitely worth a read. Phone A Friend So you don’t have a police officer you can phone and ask questions? Are you sure? They say you’re never more than seven feet from a rat, and with more than 100,000 cops in the UK, the same is probably true of the Old Bill. Ask everyone you know. Put out a call on Facebook, speak to the neighbours, hassle Aunt Maud, and the chances are someone you know knows a police officer. For a crime writer, nothing beats having your own tame police officer to call on. Ask The Police If you really can’t find someone, it’s time to be brave. Go into your local station – or visit the force where your books are set, if this is different – and ask if someone can spare the time to speak to an author. If you’re not yet published, don’t feel you need to apologise for that: everyone starts somewhere, and most police officers are keen to encourage an accurate representation of their work. If you get a knock-back, don’t be deterred: maybe they’re just having a bad day. Try a different officer, a different station. If no one has time to sit down and chat over a cuppa – they’re busy people, after all – apply for a ride-along, where you get to shadow an officer for a few hours. It’s an amazing experience, and the best way of absorbing police culture as well as picking up investigative tips. Follow The Police Not literally. At least, not unless you want to see the inside of a custody block, which might be taking ‘method writing’ a little too far. There are hundreds of cops on Twitter nowadays, almost as many blogging (both legitimately and anonymously). This increase in transparency from Britain’s police force is a gift to crime writers. Spend some time browsing social media (yes, this is your invitation to procrastinate), bookmarking the ones you like the look of. Dip in regularly to stay up to date with how today’s cops are feeling, the cases they’re working on, and the pressures they encounter. Hire A Professional Advising writers of crime books and television dramas is a lucrative side-line for many retired police officers, but most authors don’t have a BBC-sized budget, and I’d be wary of leaping into a cash relationship with someone. In my experience, most police officers are happy to lend their expertise for free, but if you feel you’re going to need more help than just the occasional chat, make sure you do your research (yes, you need to research the police officer helping you research police procedure). That grizzled ex detective superintendent with 30 years’ experience of Major Crime will undoubtedly know his stuff, but he’s been retired for 20 years: is he likely to be up to date? And the traffic sergeant charging by the minute for his expertise may know dangerous driving from undue care, but how is he on witness protection issues? Ask for credentials, testimonials from authors he or she has helped, before getting out your cheque book. Done all that? Congratulations: you’re a master in how to research police procedure, and your crime novel should now be ringing with authenticity. As with all types of research, moderation is the key. Not everything you discover should find its way into your book, otherwise you may as well write a police manual, but your findings will add realism to your characters and settings, as well as ensuring no one can pick holes in your plot. Although this post is about how to research police procedure, I firmly believe that story should come first, accuracy afterwards. Many a good yarn would be spoiled by the intrusion of too much real life, but consider carefully which elements can be stretched. Ask your helpful police advisor not does it happen this way, but could it happen. Like grammar, you need to understand the rules before you can decide which ones to break.
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