Sunday, 23 November 2014

A few words about pacing

You can go fast, or you can go slow. 
Barry didn't mind either way; he had the best view. 
Pacing allows you to control the (illusion of) speed of your story. I say the illusion, because there’s no evidence to suggest your reader actually reads any quicker or slower at different stages of a story.

Fast scenes convey action and excitement. They give the reader a sense or urgency. Importance. Quick bursts of necessary information interspersed with longer sentences quicken the pace, and then slow it back down. (But avoid repeating patterns if you don’t want to irritate.) 

Slow scenes give your characters and readers a chance to relax and catch their breath; to feel the impact of your story. They take time to develop the senses, drawing on the imagination to fully engage the mind. They allow for periods of calm and quiet, and in so doing, enhance the intensity in the action scene.

Stories with no variation in pace do not reflect true life. Life is not all fast paced, or slow paced; if it were, it would either be intolerably stressful or dead dull boring. You don’t want your reader to experience either of those emotions.

Understanding how to control pace is an important skill for all authors. There are lots of ways to do it, although some are better suited for micropacing – line by line – and some are better suited for macropacing – pacing the story as a whole.

If you want to speed things consider the following:
  • More action scenes
  • Giving your reader a series of incidents in rapid succession
  • Cliff hangers and hooks
  • Dialogue
  • Telling not showing
  • Short words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters
  • Your choice of words
If you want to slow things down consider these:
  • Taking time to describe setting
  • Adding context
  • Lingering over character development
  • Switching focus to sub plots
  • Prolonged dialogue
  • Long words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters
  • Your choice of words
There are no rights and wrongs, because every story, page and paragraph will be what you make it. How fast your story moves, depends entirely on you. But you must know what you want to achieve and how to achieve it.
Originally posted on the now defunct Magic Beans blog

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Structuring a chapter

When you are daunted by the weight of revisions and re-writes ahead of you, it pays to break your edits into small chunks. (See previous post). Somewhere between points 1&2 lies the need to structure each chapter individually and be sure of its purpose in the story. It is useful to look at chapter structure in the same way as you might look at whole plot structure - in that you have setting, set-up, rising action, climax and falling action. 

Plot structure
But you also need to consider the goal of each scene, and you won’t necessarily have a resolution, unless of course this is your scene of absolute climax.
So, let’s look at an example in this story – SALLY FINDS TREASURE.
The EXTERNAL goal of the whole story (as opposed to the internal, emotional goal) is for Sally and her new friends to find hidden treasure.
Here is the scene where it looks like all this might go wrong.
THE GOAL - What is the goal of this scene?
  • To put Sally in jeopardy
SETTING – Where is this?
  • A lonely beach, West of Cumbria
SET-UP - What needs to be done to set this up?
  • All the children need to be on the beach with their buckets and spades.
RISING ACTION - the drama which puts the ultimate goal in doubt.
  • The children play in the sand – burying each other and having fun at first
  • Sally and Todd have an argument
  • Sally storms off into the nearby cave to sulk
  • The tide starts to come in to the cave
  • Sally is trapped by the incoming tide…
End of chapter - NB there is no falling action or resolution yet.
In the following chapter, the headstrong Sally will need to find a way to free herself, OR call the others to save her. But either way, it’s ultimately this act which will lead to the discovery of the hidden treasure.
Sally’s INTERNAL goal is to be accepted as part of this new peer group. Her INTERNAL conflict and emotions will give the scene even more depth.  
So, Sally will be playing happily, but when she argues with Todd this happiness turns to anger and forces an impulsive reaction, causing her to run away. Sally will experience fear, and possibly indecision – being torn between admitting she was silly to run off, and never wanting to speak to the other children again.

Both EXTERNAL and INTERNAL conflicts should be part of the overall CONFLICT within the whole story. 
If you were to go through each chapter in your novel in this way, by the time you reach the end you will have a very good sense of everything in its place, and be able to approach any rewrites with confidence, before moving on to the fine tuning.

And they all lived happily ever after ... kind of.

Small Chunk Your Edits - The 3 Point Plan

You can't eat it all in one go.
Doesn't matter if you've planned your book to the last detail or written it in one mad impulsive splurge fueled only by coffee, cake and the urge to create (think, NaNoWriMo), there are always things you can improve.

And when first come face to face with the prospect of editing, it’s very easy to be daunted.

Don’t be!

1. My advice is to start big. Start with structure. Does the plot hold together? Is the pacing right? Do the characters have credible motivations? Are they doing things in the correct place and at the correct time, or do you need to rearrange a few scenes/signal an important plot point/get rid of irrelevant detail/iron out your continuity bumps … and so on.

If you are in any doubt about this, it pays to write a chapter by chapter synopsis of the main plot points. As you go through your manuscript doing this you get a clearer picture of the structure without getting drawn into detail. It may take several drafts to get it right, but when you finish this blow by blow account, you will have achieved some objectivity and know which bits need changing - and which bits don’t.

2. Move on to the chapters and individual scenes and repeat what you just did but in finer detail. Every chapter, every scene, needs scrutiny. You can add language to your edits here, making sure that each character has a distinguishable voice and behaves in an appropriate way. You’ll need to check pacing and make sure your beats are in the right place.  Get rid of extraneous detail and unnecessary exposition which neither adds to the plot nor enhances character. Be aware of your showing and telling

3. And when you’re through with that, it’s down to the fine tuning. Look at the words. Are the words appropriate? Would your protagonist really use that word? Does that sunset really need to shout cliché? And so on. Look for repeated words or phrases. How’s your spelling and grammar?

The reason you start with the big stuff is because this is the framework everything else hangs on. You need solid foundations before you can let loose on the paintwork and plumbing, and finally the decoration.

Now stand back and admire your work.

Monday, 17 November 2014

5 Great Rules For Writing Dialogue

Originally posted on This Craft Called Writing

Rule #1 – Dialogue should never be pointless

When your characters speak they come alive. Or at least they should do. If they are Mr or Mrs Boring and have little of relevance to say, if they are inclined to lecture, if they live in a vacuum or have no personality, then chances are your reader will not care if they live or die or dance the fandango stark naked.

The point of dialogue – as with everything else in your narrative – is to further the story. And by that I don’t mean you have to be dropping major plot points into every conversation; it’s there to enrich your fictional world by showing your reader something about character, providing texture or pace, and to build tension and drama...

"Did you do the washing up?"
"Yes, but I left the dishes to drain."
"They will be dry when we get home."
"That's what I thought too."
"This dialogue is pointless, isn't it?"
"Yes, Darling."

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Character development - out of the blue

Discovering that her mother
knew swear words, was quite
a shock for Sadie
You've put flesh on the bones of your protagonist, (let's call her Hortensia) and chances are, you've fallen in love.

But let me remind you, the first flushes of love are not necessarily the best way to get to know a girl. Good times are great, but you never completely know someone until you've been through the odd tough situation together; the testing times. That's when you see what they're really made of.

So here’s a little exercise for getting you over that hurdle. I shall assume that you’ve already done a bit of character development. Maybe you’ve got a picture of Hortensia on your wall, you know her favourite colour, star sign, credit card number; the usual kind of stuff. You probably know a bit about her family background, her motivation, hopes and dreams and  her best friend's middle name. All of this is great. It’s the stuff of first and second dates… maybe longer.

But then you run up against a problem. Maybe Hortensia's cat dies. Maybe she loses her door key and it’s raining and she has to be somewhere, in like, 10 minutes!!! Or maybe, you spill orange squash all over her brand new cream Axminster. You did what??? Do you have any idea how much it will cost to clean a rug of that quality? Like, you don’t even care? Well we’re through. Hear me? Through!!!

Yes, that’s the kind of level you need to get to with Hortensia. It’s all about being in the moment with her and seeing how she reacts. And this is how you do it...

1. Think up a series of about a dozen unexpected incidents. (EG you spill orange squash on the Axminster, a bird poops on her perm, she trips on a loose paving slab… It doesn’t have to be bad. But it can be!) 
2. Write these 'unexpected' events down on little pieces of paper, and fold each one up small so that you can’t see what’s written.
3. Start writing about a day in the life of Hortensia and after a few minutes, grab one of the pieces of paper and incorporate that event into her day. How does she react? What does she think/feel/do? What happens as a consequence?
4. Keep going with this; opening a new unexpected event every few minutes or more. You don't need to use all the events; you can save some for your next character.

By the time you've written a few pages, you'll have a much better idea about what Hortensia will do when the chips are down. 

But do you still love her?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Top 10 tips on writing for children

Children love stories.
Make sure you write them a story worth reading

  1. Your story should always be about a child, a group of children, or a creature children will relate to; for example, an animal or being from another realm.
  2. The central character should be of a similar age, or slightly older than your target audience.
  3. The plot should focus on the main character, although there may be related sub-plots which feed into it.
  4. It should always be the protagonist who solves the problem or dilemma.
  5. The setting should be in a world engaging to children.
  6. Keep the story moving.
  7. The language and content should be appropriate to your target audience.
  8. Spend time with children and soak up their world.
  9. Don't lecture.
  10. Do your homework – read children’s books

5 Reasons Why We Write Realistic Fiction For Young Adults by @ApplecoreBooks

1) Real life is what we know

We are both teachers and have both specialised in working with young people whose lives are fraught
with real life problems; the lonely and isolated, the economically disadvantaged, the emotionally unsupported, the kids whose families are falling apart through a myriad of reasons and it’s affecting their schoolwork because they can’t concentrate, can’t think, and feel powerless to act.

2) To give young people a voice 

We want to give those young people – and especially the ones who can’t express themselves (for whatever reason) – an honest voice; otherwise they might never be heard. When a young person says, “I can relate to that,” we know we are getting somewhere. When a young person says, “your book helped me,” we feel that we have done a good job.

Beyond this, giving them a voice will also help to boost their self-esteem. Just because they have to experience crap in their lives, doesn’t mean they have to feel bad or hopeless or unworthy. Our name is a metaphor; it’s the bit of the apple most people don’t want, and yet it’s the bit with all the seeds for new growth. As with apple cores, every single child has the seeds within them to grow into the person they would really love to be ... Read the rest of this post over at Bang2Write

Thursday, 13 November 2014

How to punctuate dialogue …

I first posted this over at the Magic Beans Blog, and it was by far the most popular post over there. Since I have now closed that blog (for the sake of efficiency and personal sanity), I am going to repost here!

Lucy and Charlie opted for vanilla
I receive quite a few manuscripts with poorly punctuated dialogue, and it’s a shame, especially if the rest of the writing is good. Bad punctuation shouts ‘inexperienced writer’ and really gets in the way of the reader experience. Your reader needs to be clear about who is speaking or they may just give up before the end of the first page. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so learn these simple rules and make a good impression from the start.

NB For the purposes of this post, speech marks = quotation marks = inverted commas

1. Use speech marks – “What, these?” – around spoken words. (You don’t need them around thoughts.)

2. All punctuation – full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, or comma – goes inside the closing quotation marks...

           "Do you want an ice cream?" said Charlie

Unless it is not part of the material being quoted.

            Did Lucy say, “Yes please”? Charlie wasn’t sure.

3. Every speaker should get a new line, and if a character embarks on an action before they speak, that should also go on the new line. For example:

“Would you like an ice cream, Lucy?” said Charlie.
Lucy clapped her hands and squealed. “Yes please!”

If a character speaks, continues with action or thought and then returns to speak, you can keep this all within the same paragraph.

"Which flavour would you like?" Charlie said, as he searched in his purse for the pennies. "They have strawberry or chocolate."

And you may continue with this same paragraph until another character speaks or acts.
NB - A paragraph is a sentence or group of sentences that support one main idea.

4. If you end a piece of dialogue with “she said” or any other tag, then the dialogue sentence should finish with a comma, not a full stop (unless it’s a question mark or exclamation mark). The tag should start with a lower-case letter (unless it begins with a name, obviously).

            “I want a strawberry one,” said Lucy.           

5. If the dialogue is followed by action, it should end with a full stop like any other sentence.

            “No! I want a chocolate one.” Lucy jumped up and down and clapped some more.

6. If your speech comes after tag, use a comma before the first speech marks, and a capital letter for the start of the spoken sentence.

            And then she said, “No! Strawberry. Changed my mind.”

7. Most of the time, dialogue tags or associated actions go before or after the dialogue, but sometimes you’ll want to position a dialogue tag or action in the middle of the speech.

"Quick! Make a decision,” said Charlie, “before the van goes ..."

When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas, and the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case. Usually, you do this to indicate a pause.

8. To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes:

"Shall we read ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’?" Charlie asked Lucy.

9. Only use end quotes when your character has finished speaking. If a quotation spills over into more than one paragraph, don't use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph.

I think that’s everything. But please let me know of you can think of anything else!

          “Happy writing,” said Charlie.

PS - added 6th June - You might also be interested in my guest post - 5 Great Rules for Writing Dialogue - at Lorrie Porter's Blog - This Craft Called Writing.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Gratuitous puppies by way of an apology

I was horrified to open up my blog today and see that the last time I posted anything was August.

Gratuitous puppies

As shocked as I was, I also wasn't surprised. Because the last few months have been crazy busy.

I've been finishing a book, fleshing out another one, working on a stage play (an entirely new departure for me, but it's going to have singing and dancing and a cast of thousands), critiquing, selling myself on social media, doing school visits, teaching (and you know, ugh, all the planning & preparing for that), washing, ironing (managed a whole hour in the last 2 months), cooking, cleaning, tending to the sick and the elderly, being a mum, running a hotel, taxi service and recipe information line, eating, sleeping ... Did I mention having fun? Because yes, I've even had some of that...

Awww ...
But the bottom line is, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to do everything, and something had to give. So apologies for lack of bloggery. When I can see the wood for the trees, or the blue sky above the clouds, or the pumpkin at the end of the rainbow ... or something, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed for my new baby (aka my latest book), which is right this minute out there, on its own for the first time, looking for a new home. And if you happen to come across it, please be nice ...

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Dear Author, Where do you get your ideas from?

One of my young readers contacted me this week. She had lived in foster care for several years and had ended up in a school like High Fell Hall, the school in Where Bluebirds Fly. She was very open about her own troubled life and said my book had made her feel that good things do come out of bad. She wanted to thank me, but she also wanted to know where I got the idea. 

People often ask me this difficult question. Since I write realistic contemporary fiction, my answer is usually ‘real life’. This is a quite a broad subject.

Inspiration is not a single light bulb moment,
but that moment repeated hundreds of times.
To be succinct, I told my reader how inspiration had come while I was working at a school similar to High Fell Hall. This was my initial inspiration for Where Bluebirds Fly, but it’s not the complete answer.Writers don’t just get one inspiration for one story and that’s it; we get a whole truckload of inspirations dropping on us constantly while we write, and that’s what makes it such a difficult question to answer.

The original idea was to write a story about a girl (Ruby) who carried a bag of rocks with her everywhere she went. It was supposed to be a story about how the weight of these rocks got in the way of everything she did and stopped her living the wonderful life she was born to live. The rocks were a metaphor for all the emotional baggage she carried around with her, and the story was supposed to be about how Ruby learned to let go and find her true and precious self.

My background in therapy and teaching informed me about school life and the play therapy sessions Ruby attended. The first draft was fairly faithful to the metaphor and my personal experiences, but not enough to sustain a whole book.

Subsequent drafts (of which there were many) drew inspiration from …
  • a newspaper story about two girls who grew up not knowing they shared a father
  • a theatre trip to see Wicked
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • the  dozens of bird statues and art works on Morecambe promenade
  • a conversation with a friend who told me how she had trained a robin to come to her kitchen windowsill for food
  • seeing a Kingfisher flying upstream, while I was out walking my dog
  • my own lovely grandma, who used to call me Ducky
  • my dad and his garden full of wonderful things
  • a multi coloured cloak once used in a school play but relegated to the dressing up box
  • me, when I too was a messed up kid, struggling with identity
  • the little moments -- like waking up in clean sheets and remembering the feel of a good night’s sleep, an overheard conversation on a bus, a fossil found on a beach ...
... and a hundred other things buried deep in my unconscious mind that I don’t even remember.

Because stories, just like people, are complex; they are influenced and inspired by all sorts of things you can’t put a name or a date to. In the case of a book, you reach a final definitive draft, and when people ask you “Where do you get your ideas from?” you supply them with a definitive answer.

But of course, there really isn’t one.