Sunday, 1 February 2015

I'm proofreading

I had a dream last night that the commissioned book I have just finished editing, went off to the printers and only then did I discover a whole rash of missing words. I woke up in a cold sweat, shook my husband awake, and declared, "I need to proofread!"
Lassie and Timmy
(before he fell down the
abandoned mint shift)

Proofreading. It’s what you do AFTER editing and BEFORE publication.  I’m talking Errors. Typos. Missed words. Misspellings. The little stuff the eye doesn't always see, especially if you’re gripped by the writing. Your writing. You get so engrossed with what’s about to happen when...

Timmy has fallen down the abandoned mine shaft,

that you forget to notice what you've actually written is...

Timmy has fallen down teh abandoned mint shift.

There is some comfort in knowing that there are always errors, (even in the best books, published by the best publishers), but it’s still annoying when these little babies reach out and grab you by the throat, AFTER publication. 

So, TOP TIP #1 - read your work backwards. Not, like, sdrawkcab… but last chapter (or paragraph) first, then the penultimate chapter and so on, through to chapter one. It does help.

TOP TIP #2 - read your text aloud. What the eye dosen't see, the ear can hear. It's much harder to miss things when you read aloud.

TOP TIP #3 - keep a checklist of mistakes you repeatedly make. I have a friend who often types CLAM instead of CALM. One of my own mental blocks is FRO instead of FOR. Anytime you notice your own repeat offenders, add them to your list. You can do a search (Ctrl + F) of your manuscript and replace these nasties wherever they appear.

TOP TIP #4 - don’t just proofread on screen; print out your text and review it on paper. Reading your work in a different format might highlight different errors.

TOP TIP #5 - use the spellchecker. Seriously. It’s not fool proof, but if you do see a red line under a word, you can’t afford to ignore it.

Top tip #6 - have a holiday from your work. Doesn't have to be a fortnight in the Bahamas, but a few hours or days away from your writing will give you fresh eyes and a fresh chance to see any problems.

TOP TIP #7 - get help. Ask a friend or pay a professional. And remember to be grateful when they point out all your mistakes. You want your work to be the best it can be, and a good clean copy might make the difference between getting read and getting binned.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

When you’re stuck …

Anyone who has ever written a novel will tell you it is easier to start than finish. I don’t think it particularly matters whether you plan meticulously or write in free fall, the beginning of a novel is always exciting and full of possibility. You write those first chapters with a head full of ideas and a heart full of optimism; of course you do, or you wouldn’t even get started.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time, thought Toby.
But then, a few chapters in, something happens; either the ideas dry up, or else they come so thick and fast you don’t know which way to turn. You probably do know how your story ends, but suddenly you have no idea how to get there. The phrase, 'I don’t where I’m going with this' is all too familiar, although what we should really be saying is, 'I don’t know where I’m going NEXT.' I’m not talking about a temporary brain freeze which can easily be resolved by a break from your computer, a cup of coffee and a little bit of mental space; I am talking about the kind of stuckness which jeopardises completion of the whole project.

If this resonates with you, my advice is to do just one (or all!) of the following…

  1. Remind yourself how your book ends. The ending – like the beginning – should be less complicated, and focusing your mind on your goal may help you to think of some ways you can get there.
  2. If you don’t have an end in mind, try brainstorming all possible scenarios (in a separate document). Writing anything is better than writing nothing and keeps those creative juices flowing in the right direction.
  3. Think about the next plot point – as opposed to the next ten or twenty plot points – and keep on writing. Subsequent plot points will fall into place as you free up your creative mind.
  4. Take some time out to focus on the main character. Write down a list of questions about their motivation, desired outcome, relationships, and actions. Try to ask open questions which lead to possibility and ideas, (for example, Where do you want your relationship to be at the end of the story?) rather than closed ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions. (Do you want to marry a prince?)
  5. Tell yourself YOU CAN DO IT. This is likely to be a confidence issue. No one is making you do this, so the motivation must come entirely from within. It’s all too easy to think you can’t do it, but the bottom line is … guess what? YOU CAN.
  6. Carry on writing – which seems like a backward piece of advice when you don’t know what to write, but it’s not. Write through the pain. Write rubbish. Write anything. Write yourself a bridge from the Land of Stuck to the way ahead. As long as you keep on writing you’ll keep on thinking, focusing, creating, and eventually you will cross that bridge.
  7. If you’re feeling brave, ask someone else for suggestions. They might not have anything useful to contribute, but on the other hand, they might have that very shiny nugget which inspires you and lights the road ahead…
Above all else, remember that all writers reach this awful moment at some point in their writing career, where they cannot see the way forward. The only thing which separates you from them, is that they carried on.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

23 things to avoid

Here's another repeat posting from the now defunct Magic Beans Blog - because I am in the throws of editing and it's always worth remembering how NOT TO do it. 

  1. Weak words – got, that, stuff, really, went, was, had, things
  2. Passive sentences – EG Instead of the burger was eaten by the child, try, the child ate the burger. Instead of the boy was chased by a cow, try, a cow chased the boy.
  3. Wordy writing – EG Instead of she was eating, try, she ate. Instead of he was walking slowly, try, he dawdled.
  4. Superfluous adverbs (he said angrily, she walked quickly from the room)
  5. Vague words – seem, approximately, about, appear, look as if, roughly, more or less, give or take, almost, nearly
  6. Indistinct nouns – for example, instead of ‘flowers’ say roses, instead of ‘dog’ say spaniel, instead of ‘car’ say Ford Fiesta
  7. Adjacent sentences without connective tissue   
    Too much show...
  8. Repetition of words, sentences and ideas
  9. Over-reliance on show or tell (either can be tedious)  
  10. Blow by blow description of character movements 
  11. Failure to engage all senses, and relying on facial reactions and dialogue for effect.  
  12. Clichéd phrases, images, ideas
  13. Disorganisation on every level (sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter) 
  14. Lack of clarity
  15. No sense of place or atmosphere
  16. One dimensional, clichéd or stereotypical characters  
  17. Characters using each others names repeatedly when talking to each other
  18. Wooden, boring and/or irrelevant dialogue
  19. Reliance on dialogue to convey information to the reader
  20. Plot holes
  21. Abandoned plot threads or characters
  22. Coincidences that easily resolve tough situations
  23. Exclamation marks!!!
    ...or too much tell?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Raring to go...

Phew! Well that's another festive season over and done with... and if, like me, you are raring to get back to work, my advice is to set your alarm a couple of hours earlier than normal, get up and start writing. Don't stop to check your emails, look at your twitter feed or see what your friends did last night on facebook. Go straight to your seat of creativity (via the kettle) and write. 


Because I am reliably informed that the early morning is the best time to work. At this time you are most likely to be creative, focused and therefore productive. It is something to do with the frequency of your brain waves.  The brain has four different frequencies of brain waves:

  • Beta waves - associated with peak concentration, heightened alertness and visual acuity.
  • Alpha waves - associated with deep relaxation, and thought to be the gateway to creativity
  • Theta waves - associated with the twilight state that we experience fleetingly as we drift off to sleep and are strongly linked with creativity and intuition.
  • Delta waves - associated with deep sleep.
The most relevant of these to writers and other creatives are alpha waves, which appear when your eyes are closed and your mind is in a quiet state of relaxation. Usually this is between sleeping and waking.

When your brain is in an alpha rhythm state, the critical censoring function performed by your left brain is half asleep and the feelings and images from your creative right brain can more easily pass through the gate-keeper of your left hemisphere, unaffected by judgment, and into your conscious mind. 

Concrete thoughts, physical activity, sudden noise or light on the retina of the eye can send the brain out of alpha and into beta wave activity.

Since alpha brain wave activity is at its height when you first wake up, early morning bursts of creativity should be just what you need to kick start your new year of writing.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Bring Me Sunshine New Trailer!

The very kind Kathy Golden over at Book Trailer Services is just starting out and made this super trailer for Bring Me Sunshine.

I think it's fair to say that I am DELIGHTED!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Life is Good

I’ve been commissioned to write/compile a book for a care-leavers project which is coming to an end. I'm collecting stories, experiences, thoughts, ideas, top tips for independent living and lots of other things, and adding a few of my own. By day I’m out and about – interviewing people, talking to people, hearing their stories, finding out what’s made the difference in their lives, and how this particular project has impacted on them – and I’m doing a lot of listening; to young people, old people, support workers, mentors, outdoor ed. instructors, project leaders, cleaners, managers … everyone who’s had anything to do with the project and who would like to have their say about it now.

By night, I’m sat at my desk writing up my interview or story or bunch of top tips or the latest little piece of wonderfulness which has crossed my path …

And then I go to bed, happy.

Even though when you read the news or watch TV you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re all just on this great big downward spiral to doom … I just want to say it’s not quite like that. There is some great stuff going on in the world.

Real people. Doing real things. Changing real lives.

And frankly, that’s uplifting. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Procrastination? Bah... no problem.

Writing is hard. It’s not just a matter of typing a few thousand words. The process involves digging deep into your inner psyche to come up with a story, attaching emotion to that story (which means you have to feel that emotion at some level), making sense of it (for your readers), making it interesting and enjoyable, and turning it into something which doesn’t resemble the creative emotional regurgitation it really is.

It's no wonder we procrastinate sometimes. Here are my tips to help you get past the Big P. 

1. Remove the time pressure. What’s the hurry anyway? You don’t have to write a whole novel in one day. Allow yourself to take it easy because even 100 words a day will get you there in the end.

2. Set yourself an alarm and write until it goes off. Start with fifteen minutes, because you can do anything for fifteen minutes, and all those fifteen minutes sessions will soon add up

3. Do it in the morning before you do anything else. (Okay - coffee allowed.) Your brain waves are at their most creative when you first wake so this is the ideal time to tackle a creative project. 

4. Eat that frog. Seriously - if the worst thing you had to do all day was eat a frog, you’d know that once you ate it, everything else would be a cinch. So do it. Eat that frog and there’s nothing else to worry out.
Toby's day improved dramatically after the frog incident.
5. Ask for help. Stuck with a plot point, continuity issue or character flaw? Tell someone else and ask their opinion. They might not have the answer, but just getting it out of your system could well leave enough room for you to come up with a solution yourself.  

6. Take the phone off the hook. Block facebook, twitter and pinterest. Shut your workspace door.

7. Alternatively, write with a friend. You can keep each other on track, reassure each other, and give each other moral support.

8. Form a habit. Do something the same time every day so that it starts to become a habit. When you don’t do it, you’ll miss it.

9. Make a list of everything you need to do, and include writing on that list. Tick off everything you achieve, as you achieve it, and commit to finishing the list every day.

10. Allow yourself to reflect on the great feeling you get when you actually achieve what you set out to.

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.