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.