Tips for Newer Writers by Neil McGowan
In the couple of weeks leadig up to Christmas, I had a sit-down (virtually, of course) with some writer friends, and we spent quite a lot of time discussing the mechanics of writing. All of us have have recently been working with new writers, trying to help them, and someone (not me, wish I could take the credit for it) thought it would be an idea to get a set of guidelines and tips together, based on things we'd seen and questions we'd had. (Yes,
the inevitable question was asked – how do you write a book? My answer
was the same as, I suspect, most authors – one word at a time, until you
have a lot of them that hopefully forms a coherent text.)
What was interesting, though, was the views of some people on the whole process. We started the process of collating this material, but the following is the top 4 things that came up:
- "I don't rewrite or edit as it spoils the creative flow." This came up several times. Quite simply, I suspect there are few writers, if any, who can write polished prose as a first draft. First drafts are meant to be a working copy, a way to get your ideas down and see if the plot hangs together. If you get to the end of a first draft, congratulate yourself, have a drink, celebrate however you wish, and then start something new. But after a few weeks, go back to the first draft and re-read it with a critical eye. I guarantee there'll be phrases you can improve, adverbs to prune, and a myriad of other ways to tighten the narrative and make the story a better, more engaging read. For example, I've just finished the fourth rewrite of my latest book, a YA novel of 57,000 words. Looking back at the first draft, I've got rid of three characters who were weak and combined them into one who is much stronger. I've also removed a couple of plot points that didn't really go anywhere, and generally gone through it page by page looking for ways to improve the writing. I'd recommend reading it aloud (and out of sequence) to see how it sounds – this is a great way to pick up stilted dialogue, for example. If you really can’t bear the thought) or lack the privacy to do so), then try using the text-to-speech function in your word processor (if it has one) or create a Kindle file and use that.
- "My way of writing makes more sense than all those rules we did at school." Yes, someone said this. No. Just…no. The rules of grammar and syntax have been developed over time in order to remove ambiguity and avoid misunderstandings. The phrase, 'let’s eat, grandma' takes on a whole new meaning if you remove the comma. Some writers do break the rules (Will Self and Irvine Walsh spring to mind) but the point is, they know the rules, and when they break them it’s with a definite purpose in mind.
- "You should use lots of ways to describe speech." When writing dialogue, the best form of attribution is none. Well-developed characters have their own voice and polishing the prose (see Tip 1 above) will allow that voice to shine through. It's normally possible to know who's speaking by the rhythm of their speech, the nuances and inflections they develop as a character, but in an extended scene, the next best option is 'said.' The words used and the context of the scene should convey the tone of voice and volume of the words. Using a multitude of dialogue tags detracts from the story and can become a form of author intrusion. Let the reader do the work – they will assign their own idea of speech that fits with their image of the character. Telling the reader 'he/she whispered/shouted' [insert the adjective of your choice] should be a last resort. Make the dialogue work. For example, if we have a scene where the protagonists are hiding from someone, then the context of the scene should allow the reader to infer that the character is speaking in a whisper:
flashlights swept the darkened floor of the warehouse, illuminating
stained patches of concrete for a moment before moving on. Crouched
behind a stack of packing crates, Tom looked at Ben and mouthed, "We
need to get out of here, now." Ben nodded, his expression grim.'
Not the greatest piece of prose written, but it does, I think, illustrate the point. It doesn't say, 'Tom whispered,' or even 'Tom said,' because there is no need. Tom and Ben are hiding and clearly being hunted; the reader can infer the words were uttered quietly. Also, it visually indicates Tom 'mouthed' the words – another indicator.
4."My story is shorter than was asked for; I'll add some padding."
This is a very bad idea and any editor will see through it immediately.
Usually, the opposite occurs – your first draft is too long, and
subsequent rewrites allow you to prune the word-count back. I once sold a
story to an anthology where the max length was 2,000 words, The first
draft came in at a shade under 3,000 words, but a couple of rewrites
later it was down to the required length and was a better story for it –
tighter, more fast-moving and definitely more engaging. Do not, under
any circumstances, pad your work just to meet a word count. If a story
isn't the right length, adding unnecessary words isn't going to help.
Remember, some stories don't need a glut of words to be told.