What I’ve learnt so far about how to write fiction

A friend just told me she’s started writing and asked for any advice, and I thought: HELL, YEAH, I have advice! When I took this up as a serious hobby, I thought there wouldn’t be much to learn as I was confident in my grammar (>10 years teaching English). What else could there be?

It’s around three years since I started, and I have learnt a lot. A few of these have been grammar/language-use related, but the vast majority have been on how to make stories more compelling, how to plan and the dynamics of sentence/paragraph construction.

I thought I’d (attempt to) list these here.

  1. Plan your damned stories! If you don’t, they’ll turn on you.
    I’m still so far from having got the hang of this. I plan, but then when I write, I veer desperately away from what I’m supposed to be doing, and just can’t steer it back, despite watching the desired route branch off and disappear.
    Also, it is fun and often successful to write without a plan, but I tend to find I only manage a bit, and that gives me the material that I then need to go back and plan round and then start again.
    A blog post I wrote on planning, including a really excellent short book about it: How to plan your story–book review
  2. Don’t worry about quality with the first draft: just smash the b@5t@rd down as fast as possible. The rest you do with editing. Editing is a whole nuther skill, but it’s really enjoyable (and also really unenjoyable!), and you can massively change what you did to add themes, etc.
  3. Submit submit submit. Write something, edit it, then submit it to places. You’ll get rejected loads, but it gets you producing more. Try to select places that give feedback–that’ll be where you really improve. Also, select places that accept simultaneous submissions. Here’s a good site to help you find places to submit and track your submissions: https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/
  4. Conflict: every story needs it (apparently). It could be two people fighting to get the same thing, or one person trying to fight against the odds to survive alone stranded on Mars.
    I’ve ended up writing a load of stories that have no conflict. I think some are really good, with fascinating ideas, but while they’re interesting, they are also not compelling reads. I currently have a goal to go back and rework a few to somehow add conflict–probably a major rewrite in most cases.
  5. Keep your characters in motion. So many times I’ve ended up writing a conversation between two characters in a room. Other than what they say, this makes it really hard to describe what they do: “she raised her eyebrows; she sighed; she smiled… erm… she raised her eyebrows again, and sighed”. If possible, have the same conversation happen as the characters are walking to or from somewhere (or some other interesting actions). This gives you the chance to make the things they notice on the street relevant to what they are thinking.
  6. Show it, don’t say it. Try to avoid ever telling the reader what the character is experiencing. Instead, try to demonstrate it through the characters reactions, just as is the case when interacting with people in the real world.
  7. Describe characters by their weird bits. “brown, curly hair, a long nose, pale skin, tall”: all of this is boring. “He had a face like a Volkswagen Beetle” may not be as prescriptively descriptive, but it makes the reader picture that character, and think more deeply about why they would look like that.
    I made this list of how to plan a character:

    1. 10 adjectives to describe their character:
    2. Main goal:
    3. Worst regret:
    4. First love:
    5. Main physical feature that reveals character:
    6. Description using verbs rather than adjectives: (info here: https://screenplayreaders.com/write-better-characters-with-verbs/)
    7. 5 metaphors: 
  8. Don’t use passive, past perfect, or verb to be unless you have no other option.
    Active voice is more compelling, past perfect is just hard work to read, verb to be makes for boring sentences.
  9. Don’t start a story with background info. This ties in to number 6. I did a blog roughly about this here: A column of story. It boils down to this: start in the action, then keep moving forward through the story, but drop little hints here and there about the background.
  10. Use interesting verbs (and other words). The typical example is ‘make’: get rid of it! Don’t worry during your first draft, but when you edit, change every boring word for something more interesting. You’ll usually find boring words just creep in as turns of speech, and if you think about it, another word will be far more particular to what you’re trying to say.
    I blogged a couple of times on this: Simple edits, ‘make’ing it better.
    Also, it’s worth running a few of the things you write through the Hemmingway editor app.
  11. Read the marketplace advice of a selection of markets. A few links here: Style tips from a target magazine

As with every such list, I have to finish by saying this list only scratches the surface, but I’m sure you can no more be arsed to read more than I can to write more!

Numbers: how to write them in fiction

How do you write numbers in a story?

In most of the stories I write, this isn’t a massive issue: I apply the old rule of using words for one to nine and digits for anything higher, but, as with everything, this simple rule isn’t always enough.

I’m currently working on a story which is heavily dependent on numbers, so have had to do a bit of Googling to find the generally accepted rules. I’ve used this site, but their explanations are long, so for brevity and my own future reference, here’s an abbreviated list, along with a few additions of my own.

  1. Cut off: Small numbers are written as words, large ones as digits. The commonly-known rule is one to nine as words and 10 and above as digits, though there is variability in the cut off.
  2. Normalisation: If you have two or more related numbers in 1(!) sentence, write them in the same way, even if this breaks your cut-off rule.
    EXAMPLE: “The two women joined the party of nineteen.” OR “The 2 women joined the party of 19.”
  3. Not normalisation: If you have two or more unrelated numbers in one sentence, don’t apply the normalisation rule (follow the cut-off rule).
    EXAMPLE: “The two women had 19 cats between them.”
  4. Distinctive neighbours: When two numbers appear adjacent in a sentence, write one as digits and one as words.
    EXAMPLE: “The two 2-year olds…” OR “The 2 two-year olds…”
  5. First word: When the first word in a sentence is a number, write it using words.
    ~However, if the number is awkwardly long (93,467), rejiggle your sentence so it doesn’t appear first.
  6. Dialogue: In dialogue, write numbers as words, as far as possible (unless their length makes them ridiculous).
  7. Percent: Use digits for percentages (but remember the first-word rule). This applies whether using the symbol (%) or the word (percent/per cent).
  8. Units of measurement: Use the full word, not the abbreviation.
    EXAMPLE: Don’t use ‘m’ for ‘metre’ (or ‘mile’); don’t use ‘lb’ for ‘pound’.
  9. Abbreviations of units of measurement: When using the abbreviated forms of the units of measurement (though you shouldn’t–see above), put a space between the number and the unit (as you would if you used the full word).
    EXAMPLE: The robot was 170 cm tall. NOT: The robot was 170cm tall.
  10. Decimals: For decimals, use numbers. If the number is between zero and one, make sure you put the zero before the point.
    EXAMPLE: 0.1 not .1.

 

Simple edits

I wrote a 12,000-word story over the summer and I’m coming back to edit now. I tend to do one edit immediately after finishing, then leave it for a few weeks before doing a fresh-eyes edit. I had thought I was managing to remove a lot of the fluffy or superfluous phrasing in the immediate edit, but am noticing a lot I’d missed.  Thought I’d give some examples.

Word changes to make the language more interesting:

  1. Elle sat numb… in the chair → Elle lay numb… in the chair
    (she is, actually, sitting, but very much reclined and drained, so I think the less standard word works)
  2. … let out a long sigh → … let out a nasal sigh
    (It was this, or just remove ‘long’–such a boring adjective)
  3. …with full lips pursing round every word → … with full lips pouting every word
    (quicker, easier to read, more evocative)
  4. Imaging you want to kill him. How would you do it? → … How do you do it?
    (This one isn’t to make the language more interesting, but to make it more real and immediate… suggestive of what comes later)

Striking out verbs/phrases that do nothing:

  1. “Anyway,” Elle continued with a grin, “you would… → “Anyway,” Elle grinned, “you would…
    (The list of words to (almost) always delete: really, very, still, just, only… I’m adding ‘continue’ to this.)
  2. Such thoughts made Charly wonder… → Charly wondered…
    (I’ve read somewhere that you should try to remove every ‘make’ from your writing. From my English teaching days, I know just how many different meanings ‘make’ can have (a few here). I tend to agree.)
  3. Charly knew not why, but Jeremy had become distant →Jeremy had become distant
    (It’s Charly doing the thinking here, but the focus is on Jeremy.)
  4. the big thick-rimmed plastic shades that swallowed a full third of her face → (‘big’ is both pointless and boring, considering that relative clause)
  5. it did give her satisfaction to… → it did satisfy her to …
    (‘give’ is maybe a bit like ‘make’. I’ll have to keep an eye on this.)

That little bunch certainly isn’t the whole lot from the story, but all I can be bothered with now.

If this is interesting to you, you might care to try out the Hemingway editor site. It’s a free website that you paste a lump of writing into and it suggests improvements for conciseness and clarity.

Naming your babies

Image result for nameless faceless

We have a baby on the way (6 weeks & counting) and so have recently put a lot of effort into name choosing. We were sure (no particular reason)  it would be a girl, and had a list of around five we both liked. The second scan revealed it to be a him and threw us right off. It’s a lot harder to choose for boys, we’ve found. (Perhaps too many males are Dicks?)

I’ve just finished the first draft of a 10k-word story with a fair few characters in, and it tickled me that despite it just being a bit of fiction I’m hacking together, I still anxiously labour over name choices. I thought I’d share a few naming considerations I toy with and a few resources I’ve uncovered.

First up, I am shamefully dreadful at remembering character names in books or films. Books: I just about manage to remember the main character, sometimes their adversary. However, I can comfortably remember any number of first letters. This leads to flummoxations if two characters have identical initials. Action point: I decided all characters in my stories should be unique in the first letter of their names. I’d even tried breaking this rule in the book I’m working on, and finally, at around 50k words in, changed one character’s name because I just kept mixing (Kiyoshi and Kazafumi–Japanese names, just to make things needlessly difficult!) the two up whilst writing.

Rhyming names, too, can bother me when reading. Bobby and Robby, or even Bobby and Toby… I would confuse these. However, rhyming names could suit brothers or even similar characters striving for the same goals. Bobby the Brave and Robby the Rotten, perhaps. If you like this idea, there are plenty of lists of rhyming names online.

Similarly, syllables can come into consideration. Todd and Tex–no no no, but Todd and Tyler… hmmm, still a no for me, but possibly passable. Todd and Timothy, though… I think I could deal with those (as long as Timothy never becomes Timmy or Tim (and Todd never becomes Toddothy)).

Enough of what not to do. What to do? When we failed to come up with any boys’ names we liked, we scrolled every single name on this list of 1000 names, managing to narrow it down to fewer than 10 maybes. I’ve done similar for Indian characters, as I’m not all that familiar with Indian names.

Every time you write a story, you have to come up with (hopefully) more than one name. And you (hopefully) have some intended meaning/theme/lesson/fable for your story. So why not name the characters with some deeper meaning? Simple anagrams can be fun. Curtains rise and we meet Hose Earl (or maybe Rosa Heel)… what do you think of my main character so far?

Another fun and useful site generates a bunch of names for you based upon selected input criteria? (Top names for our son based on this: Danica (sounds like female porn star), Kyle (Minogue?), Ellis (Elephant?),  Scout (not even a name), Shannon (er, boys’ name?), Jack (booooring), Oliver (knew an arse named Oliver when I was young (women seem to like this name, though)), Alfred (ditto the arse thing), Elias (best of the bunch, but still a bit off), Louis (half loo, half piss). (Here’s another similar site)

Giving your characters names that means something appropriate to their role or personality can make you feel like a terribly clever writer. There are even a lot of common names that have really bad meanings. Getting a bit sillier, how about slapping rude name on a sub-character? Here’s a long list of dirty names, from Eric Shun to Fonda Cox.

Finally, here are a few more links that could come in useful:

 

New story–Invasive alien species

Ladybird-1200x800One of my stories was published in Little Blue Marble yesterday. The story is called Invasive aliens species and, if I remember rightly, was only around 1000 words, so the whole experience will brighten your life in fewer minutes than you can count on one hand.

There’s an interesting (to me) story behind the writing of this. Back when I’d not long been working in my current job (checking data associated with scientific articles), I had to curate the data for this article on the spread of an invasive ladybird species into and across the UK. Just the phrase ‘invasive alien species’ got me wondering how these ladybirds could be inserted into a sci-fi story.

Also, perhaps serendipitously, I had the first few lines of that nursery rhyme stuck in my head:

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly
Perhaps she’ll die

The final component was that I’d recently been attempting to shift my story writing from getting a vague idea and then writing to see what happens to planning before writing.

So, after work I wandered off the British Library and tried attempted to develop a plan for this story.

Turns out the British Library closes annoyingly early, so that didn’t last long, but over the next couple of days I did manage to lay out a complete plan for the story. The first step was somewhat unusual: I chopped up the nursery rhyme into sections so that I’d know how many story sections I had to write in between. I then built the story to suit the nursery rhyme sections, as best I could. That meant as well as the invasive alien species theme, I also had to get bigger and bigger animals consuming each other.

There’s not much more to be said about the story without giving too much away. Here’s the link again: https://littlebluemarble.ca/2019/08/09/invasive-alien-species/

And a little about the magazine in which it appears: Little Blue Marble‘s goal is “to bring greater awareness of the consequences and potential solutions to anthropogenic climate change […] by linking to great content from around the web, and publishing original articles and works of speculative fiction.” I do like the purpose of the mag, and had submitted a few other stories there before this one, but to no success. It’s nice to fail before you succeed!

How to plan your story–book review

Until recently, with most stories I wrote, I always just started writing and then let the process go wherever it would. This is called ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, or just ‘pantsing’, and it has given me a few stories I really like (this Butler robot one, this silly programmers=God one, and many more… as well as a LOT that I didn’t ever finish) .

More recently I’ve been trying to shift towards planning stories before starting writing. Published results of these are s-Perfect and the upcoming Alien Invasive Species (see Stories page for the link, when it becomes available).

Planning takes a kind of effort that is of a different flavour to just writing. It’s enjoyable and revealing to just write by the seat of your pants and see where the hidden folds of your mind take you, but I’m finding it leads to several problems: i) the endings can fall flat, because you never have a better idea of how they’ll end till you get there and have to squirm your way to something interesting; ii) whatever themes your story carries are adopted somewhere along the way, so don’t pervade the whole story as deeply as they would if you designed the story, character and scenes all with the theme in mind; iii) you’re more likely to bump against writer’s block, since you get a good enough lump of story behind you that it becomes quite scary that the unknown continuation cannot live up to what you have.

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In pursuit of better planning, I’m reading a book called ‘Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing’. It is turning out to be a great book. (A few stats about the author: She can write a 92,000 word novel in three weeks (after doing the plan); her first novel took two years to write (sans plans); she makes her money by writing many books, so that readers who like one of them will spend more on her books, which requires a large catalogue; she’s written I-don’t-know-how-many books, but it looks to be over 30). Here’s the Amazon link, in case you’re interested. I thoroughly recommend it. Below is a brief and thoroughly incomplete summary of the main points.

First up, the core of your story, and of your plan, is not the story (or plot, or whatever you call that), it’s the character arc of your central character. What hooks a reader is travelling along with your main character as they expose their dreadful flaw and then strive to correct it. To lay that out algorithmically, every story should have:

  1. A character
  2. who wants something
  3. but something (or someone) stands in the way
  4. so they struggle
  5. and ends up either getting or failing to get what they want

The above is the core of your story, but when you come to actually planning the outline of your story, you have to think about these three things:

  • Character arc
  • Theme
  • Pacing

(Notice that till now, plot has not been mentioned. Plot is defined as the events that link together to carry the reader through the story. However, plot can change rather dramatically, and still not affect character arc (your character is still trying to achieve the same goals), pacing or theme, and your story will hardly be affected)

Now down to the details of how to plan your character arc, because this if the core of your story, so determining who your main character is, what drives them, and what holds them back is central. To create your character arc, lay out seven points as such:

  1. Main character: name
  2. External goal: Defined based on the ending and the flaw (5 & 6), and something concrete a character can chase through the story.
  3. Antagonist: A person (or thing) that strives for the same external goal as your main character (but is quite possibly a polar opposite of them).
  4. The plot: (this is more than just a point, but you’ll have to read the book for more details!)
  5. End: This is defined based upon whether the character resolves their flaw or not
  • Flaw: This should be something enormous, which defines how the character changes throughout the story
  • Ally: The person who gets your main character back on track (to resolve their flaw) after they give up, or get too obsessed just following their external goal.

In the book, it’s presented in a different order. You should develop the point in this order: 1, Flaw, 5, 2, 3, Ally, 4. Each point is defined based upon the previous point (or points). For example, you work out 5 (the end) based upon whether or not your character resolves their flaw, and you work out the external goal as something that complements the ending (5).

That’s all I’m going to say for now (partly because I haven’t finished the book!). But I’ll say again that this book is well worth a read if you want to learn how to plan a satisfying story. Here’s the amazon link again, and here’s the author’s homepage, though I haven’t read any of her novels yet.

Sans Forgetica

Here, read this poem. When you’ve finished, read the stuff I’ve written below and answer the question. This is going to be goooood!The font

Earlier today, when writing that previous blog post and searching for ‘fonts for writing memories’, I came across a font called Sans Forgetica. It was absolutely in no way related to what I was looking for, but interesting nevertheless. And so, in the interests of not doing what I was supposed to be doing, I read more.

Sans Forgetica is a font ‘designed using the principles of cognitive psychology to help you to better remember your study notes’. It was designed (by scientists, no less!) to be harder to read than most fonts because that extra difficulty forces your brain to work harder to extract the meaning in the words, and that extra effort means you better remember what you read.

RMIT university have released Sans Forgetica for free and are saying it’ll help students remember more of what they study before an exam period. They have done research to back this up (though it may not be published yet–I can see any published papers on it).

More importantly, though: I am in the middle of my own experiment. Inspired by this unforgettable font, I downloaded it and wrote the poem above in Sans Forgetica. If it really works, then tell me:

What is the third word on the fourth line of the poem?

 

Punctuation & fonts for speech & thoughts

Below are some rules I have adopted as my own standard for punctuating/formatting speech and thought. I had never had problems with this while writing shorter stories, but with this book (now around 100K words), I have too much variety of narrative style to handle organically.

  1. Direct speech = ” ”
    (Speech occurring at the time of the narrative)
    This is actually opposite to the standard British style of using ‘ ‘, and more in line with North American style, but I don’t like the use of ‘ being the same as apostrophes, especially as it result in nasty sentences like:
    >  ‘Those sweets are the kids’.’
    >  ‘It’s Al’s.’.
  2. Quotations = ‘ ‘
    (When a character says or remembers what another character said)
    Worth noting that if you use ‘ ‘ rather than ” ” for direct speech, then this rule is reversed.
  3. General thoughts = standard font
    (Thoughts/opinions ascribed to a character, but not presented as ‘direct thoughts’)
    By ‘general thoughts’, I am meaning things like:
    >  Tom thought she looked tired.
    >  She looked tired, Tom thought.
    But not:
    >  She looks tired, Tom thought.
  4. Direct thoughts = italic font
    (Basically, direct speech, but in a character’s head)
    This is where it gets tricky. By ‘direct thoughts’, I mean things like:
    She looks tired, Tom thought.
    In this case, the narrative aim is to have the thought appear directly as if thought by the character, rather than the narrator reporting it. I have toyed with: i) getting rid of these entirely in favour of always using ‘general thoughts’–but there are times when direct thought feels right; ii) using standard font instead, but then you really can’t use present tense–it just looks like a mistake.
    Here’s a little article about it.
  5. Memory sections/flashbacks = italic font
    (Whole sections of the story that appear as memories ascribed to one character)
    Here’s the reason I had to think about this whole thing more formulaically. I have one chapter where various things the character does evoke memories. The structure is like: A, B, A, B…, where A=a section at the time of the story and B=a memory section. However, each of these sections includes multiple paragraphs, so I couldn’t just say ‘He thought: ‘ or ‘He remembered a time when…”.
    I have found places that say that italics are not the way to present flashbacks, and I can’t say that I disagree. But for what I’m writing now, it seems the most appropriate. That said, I agree with this piece, which says use of flashbacks is something to be avoided when possible! So, the next thing I do: no flashbacks!

Novel lengths

In a cafe finding reasons not to be productive, and I think doing a blog post could be a really good one!

After a relatively long period of relatively high writing productivity, my mind flits back to the length of what I’m writing (in blog terms, it’s not so far back I was thinking of this). Now ‘the novel’ is up to 96,000 words and I estimate I’ve got about 30% left to write, so the final, unedited first draft will probably be about 130K words. As I have, at various points, thought it would be a 1000-word flash story, a 14K-word short story, a 40K novella, and 80K shortish novel and a 100K-word novel, I’m now wondering: i) Is 130K appropriate, and ii) How much editing do I need to do to get it within acceptable bounds?

Here’s a good blog that gives the reasons why knowing and hitting the appropriate length is important (and here’s another with a similar view). In short, firstly, it’s a throwback to when all books were published on paper and had to be wide enough that the information of the spine could be seen but not so wide as to take up too much space or cost too much money to produce. More importantly, though, people judge & choose the books they buy by how long they are.

Mine is somewhere between general, mystery and science fiction, so appropriate lengths are:

  • General Fiction – 75,000 – 100,000
  • Mystery – 75,000 – 90,000
  • Science Fiction– 90,000 – 120,000

So, 75-120K is the range, but ideal should be towards the lower end of that, and, really, anything over 100K must be well justified.

Drat! I’m going to have to do some hardcore editing for length!

It interested me to see the list of lengths of well-known novels in that first blog. Here are a few that stood out to me, plus a few more I added:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 561,304 words — I read this years ago and it took AGES!
  • Ulysses by James Joyce – 262,869 words (source) — This is sitting on my shelf at home, but I haven’t read it yet… because it looks too long!
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling – 257,045 words — The longest of the Potters… though it was a breeze to read.
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King — 152,270 words — I just re-read this last month and it was so easy to read that it felt much shorter.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – 95,356 words — I’ve always thought of this as a really short book, contrasted with Brave New World, for example, which felt really long to me, but is only 65K.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 85,141 words
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 76,944 words — The first two Potter novels, both around the 80K recommended length, and, interestingly, already showing the trend of getting longer with subsequent novels.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – 64,531 words
  • Carrie by Stephen King — 60,718 words — Far shorter than is typical for King, but it was his first published one.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – 46,333 words — Gosh! So short for a sci-fi!
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell – 29,966 words — Such a surprise that this is so short. I used to recommend this to my English (as a foreign language) students because it’s easy to read but with a tremendous story.

Looking at lengths of famous books, the thing that strikes me is that some of the shorter books that I didn’t enjoy much (Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby) felt longer than longer ones I did (The Hobbit, The Dead Zone, Harry Potter). I guess it is important to write well!

I’m also surprised that my story has already gone beyond a standard first novel length. I never thought it would be a long book… there’s a lesson in brevity to be learnt here.

To conclude, I’m going to avoid concluding and leave myself a link to another page by the same blogger that provides a checklist of things to consider while editing your book.