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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Improving on your own unique style of writing

It’s one thing to sit and silently read your work to yourself, and another to read it out loud. Reading aloud highlights awkward phrasing, superfluous words, boring or long-winded passages, incorrect punctuation, mistakes with grammar, head hopping – and many other errors and imperfections.

Always read your work aloud and listen to the poetry or euphony of each sentence. Pause only where your punctuation indicates it. If your sentences sound awkward or ugly, then re-write them, it might only be a matter of a slight re-arrangement, or the addition or deletion of a word or comma, but it may make all the difference to how your work sounds.

In any piece of writing it’s important to cut away any superfluous words and reading aloud will quickly let you know if something is becoming tedious and needs to be made more succinct – snappier in other words! Getting into the habit of reading your work aloud will certainly improve your style.

Drawing on your own unique experiences

What helps to make our style unique is that we all have different experiences in life and different opinions. As we write, we draw on our experiences, weaving those memories and emotions into the thoughts and actions of our characters – sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously.

Our knowledge of the world and its inhabitants reveals every possible human trait: anger, jealousy, love, hate, friendships, betrayal and so on. What we haven’t experienced personally, we will have seen on TV, read about in newspapers and witnessed through other people’s actions. Our take on all these things can be portrayed through the way we write our stories.

So, whatever your style, make sure you produce smoothly written work, which is easy to read, without spelling and grammatical errors. You can have metaphors and similes, if you wish – but as mentioned earlier, make them your unique metaphors and similes, not old clichéd ones.

Your plotting has a lot to do with style too, taking the reader on a journey with your characters, adjusting the pace so that there is only enough let up for the reader to catch their breath before moving on.

Your style should feel natural to you, rather than trying to emulate your favourite author. Your style shouldn’t come across as trying to impress with the vocabulary you use. I’m not saying a thesaurus doesn’t come in handy at times, but words searched for from a thesaurus rather than taken from your own stock of words in your head, will probably stick out a mile.

You style is in the dialogue and how you blend dialogue with thoughts and narrative. And your descriptions – the length or brevity you go to in the way you describe characters, places and mood.

Remember, no one can create that style for you. It’s individual – unique to you. And the more you write, the more your style develops. 

  • If you did yesterday’s exercise, take another look at it and read it aloud, or select any piece of your writing. Check your punctuation and see if you have created an easy to read passage. Read it aloud to yourself, pausing only where you have put a punctuation mark – not when you need to take a breath. Listen to the poetry or euphony of each sentence and adjust so that each sentence flows.
  • Here’s an opening line, see where it takes you: I’ll never forget that smile… Write for 10 minutes, and then read it aloud as suggested above. Are you pleased with the way your writing flows or could you improve upon it?

Tomorrow:  Bring in your characters.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Developing your own unique style

If you look at the great writers of the past, names which spring to mind might be William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, J.R.R.Tolkien, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, George Eliot or any of the other classic writers from long ago. There is no doubt that these writers were great, their work has withstood the test of time. But as they picked up their pens – or quills in some cases, they probably never imagined their stories would still be being read centuries on. I imagine, as they sat down to write they were feeling just as apprehensive and uncertain about getting their thoughts and ideas down on paper, as any novice or experienced writer of today.

Of course, these days, with more opportunity to know what’s going on in a writer’s head through social media, blogs, articles etc., we learn that even the most famous, experienced writers have their off days and writing hang-ups. Nevertheless, writers whose work we know and admire have all persevered and eventually completed their work, surmounted their difficulties and got it published.

Think about your favourite authors. If you analysed why you enjoy their books so much, what would you say?

  • They write a cracking good tale. 
  • The plot is always believable yet full of unexpected twists and turns. 
  • The characters seem like real people who you become involved with.
  • Stories are full of suspense, impossible to put down.
  • Their writing is beautiful – simply a joy to read. 
  • Their descriptions paint vivid scenes in your mind.
  • The stories are full of emotion, making you laugh and cry.
  • The stories are thought provoking.

Whatever it is about the way an author has captured your interest, it is unlikely that you would say: “I liked this book because it reminded me of a book by so-and-so.”

Stories you enjoy have all been written in that author’s own style, their own voice. They have written it in the way that was natural to them.

Reading is important to writers. Analysing the way certain authors write their stories can be a useful lesson in creativity, but to try and imitate their style is pointless. However, the public could be waiting for your book or story, written as only you can – in your own inimitable style.

So, when considering your style don’t fret because you’ll never be able to write like Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, J K Rowling or any other famous name – because no one expects you to, and no one wants you to.  Your style will come from you, and only you. It will be your unique style.

Publishers say they are looking for originality – therefore you have what they need. We are all unique in our own way. There is no one else quite like you. No one thinks or acts or writes like you. So, if you write in your own style, being true to yourself, that originality will shine through.

Improving your style

You won’t find your own style by thinking about it too much – you find it by writing. The more you write, the more your style will develop. You may not even notice that you have a particular style, but others will. However, your style must constantly be worked at and improved upon by learning the craft, writing and re-writing.

If your style is to simply write the first thing that comes into your head and leave it that way, then it will be your own style, but it probably won’t be anything special. Re-writing and editing your work is as important as getting it down in the first place. If you don’t work at getting the very best from your writing, then you aren’t being true to yourself, and success will be a long time coming.

To write good fiction, it is essential to understand basic grammar and punctuation. Reading your work aloud will help you to identify any incorrect grammar so that you can rectify it.

Incorrect punctuation is annoying to readers and editors alike. Although a story should get a thorough line-edit before being published, the writer should ensure their writing is up to an acceptable standard in the first place. Don’t take it for granted that someone else will correct your mistakes. Writing is a professional business, so give yourself the very best chance by presenting your work as professionally as possible. And that means getting your punctuation correct.

Also, remember that how you punctuate your writing will either make it flow beautifully or not. It will either become a joy to read or a jerky, uncomfortable experience for the reader. The correct punctuation will also ensure you achieve the desired pace and mood that you want. Incorrect punctuation can also change the meaning. These examples will make you smile:

A woman without her man is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

“Let’s eat Grandpa!”
“Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Be particularly careful with punctuation around dialogue. Remember ALL punctuation goes inside the speech marks.
“Are you sure about that?” he asked.
“Yes, absolutely!”
“Hey, shouldn’t that be a capital h on the word he? It does follow a question mark.”
“Nope! If you’re adding a speech tag it’s lower case if following any punctuation mark except a full stop. If you end the dialogue with a full stop, you wouldn’t add a speech tag. Your next piece of narrative would start a new sentence with a capital letter.” With a sigh, she read what she’d written and moved on.

There are no hard and fast rules as to the length of a paragraph. Basically, just as a sentence centres around one statement, then a paragraph elaborates on that idea. Once that has been dealt with a new paragraph begins. Of course, when writing fiction and you have characters talking to one another, start a new paragraph every time you write a new piece of dialogue from a different character. (More on dialogue later).

Also, vary those paragraphs. If your page is a continuation of short paragraphs, it could become irritating to the reader. Or if it is one big chunk of words without a break, it could become boring and unappealing to the eye.

Be aware that fiction is usually set out differently to non-fiction. Study published fictional stories to see how new paragraphs are usually indented.

Be careful that familiar expressions and clichés don’t creep into your narrative. Things like: It was as black as night; it was as old as the hills; she was no spring chicken. If you find yourself using expressions that you’re heard many times before, delete them and come up with a new way of describing something. Your style will not benefit from churning out old clichés. If you want to use similes and metaphors, create your own unique ones.

Be careful with adjectives. Too many, too frequently, can be irritating and seem amateurish – select them with care. Look for ways of narrating your story without littering it with adjectives. The result will be far more alive and colourful than you would ever have imagined.

While you might think adding adverbs to enhance your dialogue will improve your work, the opposite is often the truth. Use adverbs sparingly. It’s too easy to add an adverb to a speech tag, thinking you’re adding to the effect. But this could be making your work appear amateurish. E.g. John said happily; Mary answered angrily. Let the dialogue speak for itself without having to tell the reader how it was said.

When looking for the correct word to use, choose the most natural sounding word that comes instantly to mind. Avoid searching for pompous or obscure alternatives – they won’t impress anyone. But on the other hand, if a long or obscure word is the correct word to use in the circumstances, then use it with confidence.

Today’s Exercise
  • Free write for the next five minutes, without any pre-thought, on one of these topics: your pet; your job, your hobby; your house or your garden.                                                                                  
  • Read what you have just written and save for future reference. Now re-write, looking to re-phrase or bring in more colour, life and emotion. Having made a start, could you write more on the subject? Keep writing and see where it leads you.

Tomorrow: More tips on improving your own unique style of writing.

 Thank you Rob Tysall, Tysall's Photography for the photos.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Stories need conflict

Your story needs conflict. If you don’t have conflict, then you don’t have a story. There must be problems for the protagonist to overcome. However, conflict does not mean all guns blazing and people at war with one another. Conflict comes in all different forms. Even the gentlest of stories needs conflict, including children’s stories. Glance at picture books and you’ll find the main character is trying to do or achieve something, even if it’s just a teddy looking for their lost ear or a cute steam train that's come off its tracks.

There is inner and outer conflict – or emotional and physical. Inner (emotional) comes from a character’s own moral standing, their beliefs, background, upbringing, personality, etc. For example, your main character could be doing battle with their conscience over something. The conflict may revolve around unrequited love, or a family dispute. Maybe your protagonist is anxious about a forthcoming event. It’s those inner emotional traits that can cause conflict inside the character, so they are fighting against themselves in a way.

Outer conflict (physical) comes from difficulties arising which are beyond their control, such as other people, the weather, physical obstacles, health issues, restrictions put down by others, the world around them. Everything and anything in fact that they can't control.

Your story must have conflict. Your protagonist’s difficulties are what keeps the reader reading on. Combine emotional and physical conflict to make your story even more compelling.

Basically, give your character problems to overcome and don’t let them resolve the problems too easily. By the end of your story your character will either have got to grips/overcome their problems – or not. But even if they haven’t, try and end on a note of hope that at least they have learned something by the experience. Don’t leave your reader feeling dissatisfied by the outcome. If your story has a number of sub plots make sure these are all wrapped up. Avoid leaving lose ends.

Two quick tips
If you’re stuck for a story idea, try this: Give your character a goal – something they are trying to achieve. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Perhaps a new bride wants to cook a meal to impress her in-laws. Next, think of obstacles to spoil her plans. Maybe the cooker breaks down, or she burns everything, or she adds salt instead of sugar to the dessert. Thwart your character's plans and you have a story.

Another quick idea is to give your character a fear – something they really struggle to cope with. Now create a situation where they have no choice but to face that fear. How will they cope? As an example, let’s say your protagonist is new to the area, but has been invited to a party with her child. They are both delighted – the chance to make new friends. However, she has an irrational fear of clowns – coulrophobia. And wouldn’t you know it, a clown has been booked as entertainment for the kids. Does she face her fear or give in to it and pass up the chance to make friends? Her phobia has far reaching consequences - and you have a story.

Simple ideas but with twists and surprises these basic scenarios can be used time and again, and the stories made as in-depth as you wish. It’s just that little spark you need to get going.

Today’s exercises
·         Choose a place you know well, allocate a season of the year to it. Now place a character into that setting. They are feeling one of these emotions: sorrow, joy, fear or anger. Free write on this scenario, see if you can come up with the reason the character is feeling that way. See the situation through the character’s eyes.

·       Write for 10 minutes on something that happened to you yesterday. After 10 minutes introduce a fictional element to your story – something that takes the story off into a new direction. See where you can go with this.

Tomorrow: Developing your own unique style

Thank you Rob Tysall, Tysall's Photography for the photos.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Finding ideas for stories

Before you can start writing a story you need at least the spark of an idea.  That spark might come in the shape of a character, some real life happening, a theme, an emotion, an overheard remark, a dream, a nightmare, an object, a photograph – anything in fact. 

For me, buildings very often spark an idea – derelict buildings in particular seem to fire my imagination. At least two of my 30 plus books were inspired by the crumbling ruins of abandoned, derelict houses.

An old photo of Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight of a house on a clifftop shortly before it crumbled into the sea inspired my third children’s book, Disaster Bay. And a ramshackle old house I used to drive past on the way to Leicester inspired the house where my protagonist in Kill or Die gets held hostage.

Anything can spark an idea. The trick is to catch hold of that spark and keep hold until you can develop it into something more substantial. 

Inspiration very often comes when we aren’t looking for it. Ideas flit in and out of our heads at any time of day or night. Make sure you have ideas notebooks dotted around your home to write those ideas down before they are lost to you. Keep a box or folder where you can store cuttings and photographs which might be used in some way in your stories. And of course, have files and folders on your PC where images of people and places can be stored for later use.

Developing ideas
It only takes a spark of an idea to inspire you to write. But a spark is not a story, so how do you expand a spark into a fully-fledged story?

We all work in different ways. An idea might develop and germinate in your head over time. You might find it easier to get notes written down on paper or computer, where you can expand on them and let the imagination take over. Perhaps your idea is the ending. You visualize a scene crammed full of action and emotion, but you have no idea of the events or characters that have led up to this point.

With luck your idea might unfold itself from start to finish with a logical string of events and action that simply needs writing down.  On the other hand, (and most probably) it’s a confusing jumble of images and thoughts with no clear path in sight at all.

So basically, you have a spark of an idea which will not be ignored. From this point you need to expand on your idea. You need to develop a storyline and to do this you need to create characters. It may be that your characters have introduced themselves to you in your head already. Perhaps a character was the initial spark. Either way, spend time thinking about them and getting to know them. (More on characters later.)

Perhaps the setting for your story was your inspiration. If so, learn more about this place, research and explore, gather photographs of it. It’s fine to collect images from the internet for your own personal use.

The spark for my ‘Beast trilogy’ (The Beast, The Reawakening and Rampage) came when holidaying in Scotland. Sunlight sparkling off the mountain tops kept catching my eye making me think I could see something up there. But when I looked, there was nothing. That was my spark of an idea which I began developing. Maybe there is something up there, watching…

In my head I came up with lots of ‘what ifs’. What if it’s a dangerous animal living in the mountains? What if it’s growing angrier by the second and decides to stalk some unsuspecting holidaymaker? What if… and so on. Once I had decided there was definitely something up there in the mountains which was decidedly dangerous, the actual revelation of what that creature/character was, came about when I visited a little museum on that same holiday and saw the skull of a sabre toothed tiger.  

Development of the story was then well under way. The idea excited me, but, had I not held onto the initial spark of the idea, these three books would never have been written.

So, treasure those inspirational sparks and ideas, and store them safely where they won’t get lost. Develop them into something special and enjoy the process.

Today’s writing exercise
·         Get yourself all set up with an Ideas Notebook, or an Ideas Folder on your PC.
·         If you’re buzzing with ideas, get them written down – bullet point lists will do at this stage.
·         If you’re working straight onto your computer and are on the internet, squirrel away any photographs or images which have potential for story ideas.

Tomorrow: Stories need Conflict.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

How organised are you?

Many people fail in their writing ambitions simply because they can’t get organised and make the time to write. People lead such busy lives that they often feel guilty about sitting down to write. There are so many other things demanding their time: family life, work, housework, shopping, gardening, cooking, DIY, socialising, holidaying, watching TV, social media and so on.

All important things of course, but if you wait until you've dealt with all the usual chores and activities before you give yourself permission to indulge in your passion for writing, you will never start. So, don’t let writing be bottom of your list of priorities.

Just as you allot time for your work, family life and social life, allocate some specific time every day to write, even if it’s only half an hour or less; even if it’s just a description of something you see around you. It doesn’t matter what you write, just so long as you write.

Writing regularly will improve your skills and help you to feel like a writer. Plus, it shows others around you how committed you are and so they will hopefully respect your ambitions. Although I say that slightly ‘tongue in cheek’.

Thinking back to when my three children were small, I would have my typewriter, papers and ‘how-to’ books scattered around the living room table. (How that table wobbled and rattled as my fingers tip-tapped away.)

I’d perhaps get five minutes at a time without an interruption, in between breaking up squabbles over toys, changing nappies, hanging out the washing and preparing meals. At dinner time, the typewriter and papers would be pushed to the middle of the table, so we ate around the clutter. The point is, no matter how busy you are, make time for your writing.

Make time for yourself
Set yourself a specific time which is your writing time and stick to it. If you're thinking there aren't enough hours in the day as it is, then make time. Try getting up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later. Allocate this time specifically for writing.

Analyse your days. Create a 24-hour timetable and see where you have the odd half hour spare. Could you spend those few minutes writing? If you take a coffee break or lunchbreak at work, why not find a quiet place to sit and write?

We all enjoy chilling in front of the TV, but wouldn’t you be better off filling that time writing your own stories? Of course, it's nice to relax with the family but would they really mind if you had a laptop or notebook on your lap and a pen in your hand?

Discover your favourite ‘thinking place’. Possibly, that might be when you’re driving or out walking. When I first started writing I seemed to have my best ideas when doing the ironing. So, a notepad on the ironing board was a necessity. And there was always lots of ironing to do! But I would get so wrapped up in my thoughts as I ironed away, I would iron absolutely everything – even socks and pants. But don't panic, you don't have to like ironing to be a writer.

If you analyse your day, you will, I'm sure, find a little pocket of free time to call your very own 'writing time'. Once you have set aside a specific time for writing, make that a priority. When you sit down to write – write. (Nappies and squabbles permitting!)

If you can find time to read your favourite magazines, newspapers and novels, why not add ‘how-to’ books and writing magazines to your home library? Invest in a good supply of ‘how to write’ books which you can dip in and out of regularly. Whether it’s how to write magazine articles, how to write romantic fiction, how to write short stories, how to write for children. Download magazine contributor’s guidelines – anything in fact that increases your knowledge about the world of writing.

Libraries usually have a good stock of books on writing. If you’ve a birthday coming up or at Christmas when you’re asked what you’d like, why not an annual subscription to your favourite writing magazine?

When reading fictional novels, as well as enjoying them, also read with the aim of learning from them. Look at the vocabulary; the sentence structure; the dialogue, the description. If a particular scene moved you to laughter or tears or made the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, read it over again and see if you can analyse how the author created this effect.

Writing exercise
Set a timer for 5 minutes. Randomly pick a word from a book and free write for 5 minutes making sure you include that word. After 5 minutes randomly choose another word and re-set the timer. Continue your train of thought with the writing, but now include the second word. Repeat with a third word.
I think you will surprise yourself. Put it aside and polish it later.

Find more writing tips, advice and writing exercise ideas in my book, Become a Writer - a step by step guide.  https://amzn.to/2un61ju