Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing

pencil-sharpener-390609_1280 - 2A ‘Happy Sunday’ quickie – and a chance to catch some old posts too. A few ideas on sharpening up your writing – great tips and snippets of advice I’ve received over the last four years.

  1. Learn how apostrophes work; and semi-colons.
  2. Well, it’s really rather important that you just do this. Run search and delete on every instance of the following words: really, just, quite, rather, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. Check out my post ‘One Word At A Time’ for this and other editing tips.
  3. Practise Show vs Tell the Anton Chekhov way: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  4. Take a chunk of back-story or exposition and rewrite it into a dialogue. Then repeat. Then repeat again. Dialogue is much more engaging than flat-text exposition and a page of conversation is easier to read than a thumping boulder of a paragraph.
  5. Focus on sensory detail. Not just sight, but sound, taste, touch and smell. It will enrich your reader’s experience. I blogged here about using all the senses.
  6. Every time you see two clever, descriptive adjectives side-by-side, delete at least one of them. Yes, every time. Writers can publish with excess of adjectives, but only once they’ve sold a gazillion books and are unassailable. (If you doubt me, check out J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith – but then go and delete half your adjectives, because you won’t so easily get away with it.)
  7. Review your work for any not-so-perfect tenses (past perfect, past continuous and past perfect continuous) and opt for something more immediate. I blogged about how this works here.
  8. Delete the first paragraph of every chapter. There’s no need for foreplay, dive straight to the action. Hmmm, personally, I appreciate literary foreplay, so I’m not sold on this tip – but better writers than me will endorse it.
  9. Delete the last paragraph of every chapter. Don’t hang about after the action. Get out, fast. This, I can vouch for.
  10. Clichés – avoid them like the plague… Yes, you guessed it, I blogged! This one might actually hit the mark (doh!)
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Are you trying to be a good writer?

… I mean, are you really… TRYING?…

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You know what it’s like when you’ve got an early start the next morning? Say, you’re going on holiday and need to be at the airport before dawn. You don’t want to be late and you need to be wide awake, so what do you do? You go to bed early. You squeeze your eyes tight shut even though it’s still light outside and you try to sleep. But every muscle in your body is rebelling against your attempts to relax. Your taut shoulders ache, your pulse races; you can’t get tomorrow’s to-do list out of your mind; you notice every little ring, ping and ding going on around you, the sounds of other people, engaged and connected – having fun whilst you try to sleep. The harder you try to sleep, the worse it gets.

If only you could get out of your own way.

It’s the same when you’re writing, as I learned – the hard way – when I began trying to write fiction. I’ve written business communications for my clients for decades. I know about syntax and language and I have a fair to middling mental thesaurus; so I knew I could throw sentences together. But writing fiction is a world apart from business communications. So I went on a few courses and I read books on how to write. Then I began to try to write fiction.

That’s when I learned that the harder you try, the more dreadful your writing gets.

To write, you need to stop trying and get out of your own way. Writing is communicating – and we’ve all done this since the moment we were born. We’ve learned how to use language to excite, to persuade, to apologise, to love… Stories too are nothing new to us. Stories have been the life-blood of societies and civilizations since time began.

We just need to relax and let them out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for learning the techniques of story-arc, plotting, character development, pace and tension, show-not-tell and so-on. There’s plenty to learn and those who take the time to learn it will find their writing gets more compelling.

What I’m talking about is when you’re trying to put the very best words you can down on the paper; you’re looking up words you don’t know so you can include them; you’re taking a concise moment and working it to the point of exhaustion; you don’t appreciate the simple power of your own ideas, so you overdress them. In your efforts to show what a clever, intelligent writer you are, you embellish your sentences beyond the point of decency. It’s like dressing Amal Clooney using Dame Edna Everage’s wardrobe. Somewhere things have gone horribly wrong.

If you fear your writing may be in Dame Edna territory, here are three stylistic bloopers to look out for. If you spot these in your own writing, it probably means you’re trying too hard. I’m embarrassed to say, these examples are all my own, from early drafts of Singled Out:

Purple prose:

  • …In that moment she reached into his world-weary heart and lit a flame.
  • Her compliance, at once submissive and potent, raised his hopes and heightened his desires.

Ugh… just, ugh.

Overworked reflection:

  • Why had she brought this up? Why could she never resist prodding away at things? … It seemed distinctly possible that something untoward might have happened; but if it had… There was nothing to be gained from letting this idea gain traction; it would only frighten … blah blah…

And this is an edited version of the angsty original. I cringe… I cringe. In most instances, one or two notes of self-reflection are quite sufficient. Then, just get out of the way.

Overblown writing:

  • …She appreciated his overpowering physical form from a womanly perspective.
  • The more she struggled against the quicksand of niggling worries, the further it dragged her down.
  • The sun began its languid descent towards the gently undulating hills…

Classic ‘clever-arse writer’ syndrome. When I rediscovered these clunkers I nearly had to go find a sick-bag. Learn to recognise when you’re puffing up your sentences like this. If they make it into print, you may never forgive yourself.

I was fortunate to be mentored for a few months by the author of several respected novels. She worked over my early draft, ripping into the purple prose, angsty reflection and overblown turns of phrase – amongst many other things. I pared my writing down and down again and I learned to head these pompous clangers off at the pass.

Good writing comes from the heart. You don’t have to try and make it better. Invariably those purple moments detract from the power of your story. They ruffle the reader and interrupt the flow. Except for one or two notably pretentious literary writers, being a novelist isn’t about showing the world how clever you are.

You have to learn to let-go, relax and get out of your own way – and let your story do the hard work.

*** This post first appeared as a guest post on the Blondewritemore blog. ***

Top Ten Takeaways: Self-Publishing in the Digital Age Seminar

fountain-pen-447575_1280I spent a fascinating day last weekend crammed into an airless room with 100 other would-be self-publishers. It was time (and money) well spent.

Bloomsbury Publishing’s Writers & Artists brand does a nice line in help and advice for would-be writers, whether we want to try our luck in the traditional publishing environment (as in W&A’s seminar How to Hook an Agent which I attended a few months ago – and blogged about here) or take the independent route.

The first half of the event ranged through editing and cover design to publishing via Amazon and alternative ‘assisted’ routes to self-publishing and marketing. The afternoon centred around the real-life experiences of several self-published authors and their varied approaches to the business of getting their words out there and noticed.

I’m not going to brain-dump the whole event. I don’t suppose W&A would thank me for that since if they’ve got an eye on what the market is looking for, they will doubtless be running and re-running this excellent seminar in the future. Instead, I’m offering you what I felt were my Top Ten Takeaways in terms of information, insight and advice for the would-be independent author.

(1)          Hope for the Future

The landscape has changed rapidly in the last couple of years with the stigma previously associated with self-publishing in its various forms now disappearing into the distance. Self-publishing is no longer traditional publishing’s embarrassing poor relation. It is, in the words of Dr Alison Baverstock, ‘part of publishing’.

(2)          Proof of Concept

Self-publishing is now regarded as a feeder to traditional publishing. Instead of wading through what is often branded the slush pile, agents and publishers are increasingly seeking talent amongst the self-published charts. If a book sells and if the author seems to understand what’s required to market it – then they’re an attractive proposition for the traditional publishing space (IF, that is, they can be persuaded to cross the trad/indie divide…).

(3)          The Professionals

Rapid change and the shifting fortunes of publishing houses has led to many skilled former employees now offering their services freelance to independent authors. The indie author now has access to skilled professionals – editors, illustrators, cover designers and more – to help them elevate the quality of their self-published books.

(4)          The Critical Role of Editing

All three phases are vital: Developmental (for help with story, structure etc), copy editing (to iron out oddities and inconsistencies, correct grammar, stylistic issues etc) and proof reading (elimination of those itty-bitty sneaky little typos). The focus is on achieving a professional finish and making your book the best it can be before you share it with the world.

(5)          Planning Ahead

Good editors are booked up well in advance. The time to start thinking about signing-up with an editor is before your manuscript is finished. Don’t expect an overnight turnaround either. Your editor will take around 6-8 weeks to review and return your manuscript.

(6)          You’ve got it Covered

Don’t underestimate the importance of a professionally designed cover. It must reflect the genre of your book (so readers know what to expect) and be eye-catching at thumbnail size. Budget anything between £90 and £350 for a professionally designed cover.

(7)          It’s all in the Brand

When you’re getting your cover designed, don’t forget to think about other marketing materials which may help to promote your book and strengthen your brand – designs for website, blog and facebook banners for example, bookmarks, flyers, business cards, promotional postcards.

(8)          Kindle is HUGE

Don’t undervalue this soft media as not being a real book (I’ve heard this a lot). Amazon sells around twice as many Kindle e-books as print books in the USA and the UK isn’t far behind. Kindle owners are adventurous and speculative readers, buying around four times as many books as non-Kindle users. This is seriously good news for the indie author who can manage to conquer the mountain of discoverability

(9)          Discoverability – the Holy Grail of Self-Publishing

More people are buying books on-line than ever before. They’re searching using keywords to find genres and subject matter that intrigues them. But with the stock of self-published material growing daily, discoverability is critical to success.  Your self-published book is but a blip, a note written in disappearing ink pinned to a tree in a vast forest, unless you can get it in front of readers. Being discoverable means getting your meta-data (all your book details) working for you on Amazon. Being discoverable means getting somewhere on the Amazon/Kindle rankings for your genre (a clue… it’s better for chart success to sell lots of books in bursts rather than steadily). Being discoverable means being active and engaged all over social media, blogging, building an e-mail list, cultivating interest and loyalty in readers, one reader at a time. Being discoverable means garnering a host of good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and a whole bunch of reader forums, genre and review sites. Being discoverable means getting creative with promotions and making use of every tool in the Amazon author toolkit.

(10)        Don’t Write Shit!

(Those, by the way, were the exact words used by the presenter!) This last point was echoed by every speaker. Everything begins with you having created a great book. None of this will do anything for you if you haven’t done the first job, which is to write a ripping good read.

So that’s simple then.

That’s it. I’m finished. (Again…)

eggs-14177_640Some time ago I wrote about completing my edits and finally having Singled Out – the finished article – ready to submit to agents. Okay, so I was wrong. But I’m really, really finished now. Honest.

Last September 2013 – over a year ago – I fancied I’d finished my book. I was happy with it, as happy as one could be with a first attempt anyway. Several passes through the text had resulted in me reducing an unwieldy 107,000 word draft down to 97,000 words, more acceptable to agents and publishers – apparently. I’d sweated blood over a synopsis and cover letter and begun to fire my story off to a succession of agents. Over the ensuing weeks there were flickers of interest here and there but nine months later, nobody had bitten my arm off for the rights to market my book.

Cut to July 2014 – and several months since I’d read more than the odd paragraph of Singled Out. Having considered the full manuscript, a couple of agents had offered me a few lines of critique. Ignore these courtesies at your peril, I thought. So I decided to take another look at my story to see if I could address the issues raised in their feedback. I passed the not-so-finished novel to two or three more beta readers too and significantly, I read it again myself from beginning to end.

Have you ever put a piece of work down and come back to it after several months? Then you’ll know what I found, and you’ll understand my crisis of confidence. So, so many surplus words, lines and whole paragraphs; description overload, formulaic chapter openers; language I thought was gritty but now just made me blush; motivations that didn’t quite add up; character clichés; pitiful pacing… I could go on.

Okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but what with the agents’ feedback and my beta readers’ comments too, it was easy to see a thorough review was required. Fortunately, with the benefit of distance came the ability to detach, to disown aspects of my narrative that I’d been so precious about, to murder those darlings and get ruthless. So I made a start.

The last three months have been, as they say, emotional.

At the outset and for several weeks I hated Singled Out. I was one small step from shoving it in a drawer and forgetting all about it. I resented the fact that as I took account of both agents’ and beta readers’ critique and began making changes, it seemed no longer to be the book I’d set out to write; it was trying to be something different. In the meantime it was a bugger’s muddle, all bent out of shape. It felt as if I were shoehorning things into the text to turn it into something it wasn’t. It felt as if I’d lost my way with it. Teeth gritted, I plodded on, resenting my mashed-up, mangled manuscript.

I was in the throes of a proper writerly temper tantrum.

I don’t know quite when it was, but a couple of weeks ago, I started to get it. Perhaps things had to get worse before they got better (you know that cliché about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette). I can’t tell you exactly what I did, because I honestly don’t know. But I started to feel better about my book. It had gone through another two end-to-end edits; I’d added four or five scenes, moved a few things around, played with a couple of the characters, injected odd moments of uncertainty and dismissed another 7,000+ words. And you know what? I actually feel quite a lot happier with it now.

The best thing is, I’m excited by Singled Out again, and excited by the decision I’ve made to self-publish early in 2015. For a start, I can’t face touting it round again when I know the chances of it gaining traction with an agent – let alone a publisher – are meagre to non-existent. Secondly, I’ve come to see self-publishing in a  different light. I want to manage my own destiny, put my story out there and see what people think of it. And… I want to get on and write the next one.

So that’s the plan. I’m doing my homework on self-publishing and aim to get to grips with all the necessaries in the coming few weeks, then publish in the New Year.

Then… I’ll just hold my breath.

Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Going Down

You thought it was finished? So did I. But the word-cull continues

scissors-editLast autumn, when I drew a line under my 6th or 7th redraft of Singled Out, I honestly thought it was finished; finished as far my neophyte novelist’s abilities would allow at least. But armed with some insightful observations and having taken a few months away from the words, things look different.

I’m around two-thirds of the way through yet another edit – the one I didn’t realise I needed. And here I am deleting not just words, but whole sentences, whole paragraphs too. Here I am turning a paragraph into a sentence and still… still… deleting adjectives and adverbs. Yes, the more you look, the more you find. It’s wordy Whack-a-Mole.

When I began submitting Singled Out to agents it stood at 97,600 words. This summer in response to feedback, I’ve added three new sections, perhaps a total of around 1,500 words. But the word-count is down to 94,000.

How did that happen?

I think, at last, I’ve begun to relinquish my grip on those favourite sections – those darlings – which have thus far had a free-pass from the editor’s pen; those (not so) clever turns of phrase that looked so… so… writerly when they went in; those extravagant why-use-one-word-when-twenty-will-do descriptive sections; and those parts of the story where I’ve failed to trust the reader to get what’s going on.

This is what you need distance for; to develop the ability – and willingness – to be dispassionate. At last I’m editing as if it wasn’t me but someone else who has written Singled Out. I can cull great chunks I couldn’t bear to part with before because, somehow, they don’t feel like mine any more.

Frustrating though it is to have not seen immediate success with submitting my manuscript, I can see why I’ve not made the cut (no pun intended). I don’t know if I’ll have done enough to see a positive outcome when I go back to agent submissions in a few weeks time – the odds are against me, after all. But I continue – in a perverse and yes, almost sadistic way – to draw satisfaction and even joy from the learning process.

At this point, I want to get Singled Out out there in one form or another – because I want to see the job finished. More than that, I’m now straining to get started on my next novel, the one where I think I can bring all my learnings into play and create something better and sharper – hopefully in somewhat less than four years.

When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.