Image Credits: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos. Some images directly from Pixabay.
Now this topic could easily fill a book or several so this post can only be a brief overview. I focus on a few things which I have found so useful.
Show, Don’t Tell
Writing flash fiction has helped me develop this technique. Why? Because I have to focus on what matters due to the restricted word count (1000 words maximum). Therefore, I need my characters to show you what they are doing, how they are feeling, the consequences of their actions, and not have me, as Omnipotent Author Voice, tell you all of that.
I have to remember it is my character’s story (and I am the conduit through which that story comes out). The perspective here matters because if I focus on the character, the story will pivot rightly around them. And that is how it should be. If I tell you Character A did this, then did that, thought this etc., it will be less immediate than if I get the character to show you. It will be boring too because the story is centred around the author voice and not the character.
Lizzie snatched the emerald coat, only just avoiding falling over her boots. Blast, she thought, why must my clumsiness strike now?
Lizzie snatched the emerald coat. She just avoided falling over her boots. She felt frustration at her clumsiness.
Now to me the first line here reads more naturally. Also I can pick up on Lizzie’s mood from her own thoughts (and sympathise with her too!). In the second line, I am being told about her frustration. I’m not “feeling her pain” here. I’m being told it. Lessens the impact on me and gives me less reason to care about poor Lizzie. If I don’t care enough about a character, I’m less likely to read their story through.
He Said/She Said
He said/she said are tags readers expect to see and are used to seeing. They are almost invisible. I don’t need to be told that a character exclaimed something. I should be able to pick that up from the text itself. Where I will need guidance from an author is on the tone a character uses.
I would need to know if a character is whispering something, for example, as I might not be able to pick that up from context. Where possible, I avoid even these tags altogether. It should be clear which character is saying something.
‘Lizzie, mind what you’re doing with that coat. You don’t need to snatch it like that.’
‘Sorry, Mum, bus is nearly due.’
I don’t need to tell you who is speaking here. I also don’t need to tell you that Lizzie’s Mum is feeling a tad exasperated. Her words confirm that (and can, to my mind, only be said in one way. The phrase mind what you’re doing confirms that).
It is good practice to repeat names if you have a long conversation between characters (though that conversation should be moving the story on in some way and be crucial to the story). It just reminds readers of who is speaking every so often.
You usually don’t need to say she shouted (the text itself should make that clear. It works better this way for shouting rather than whispering funnily enough. If someone is angry, then the words they use will inevitably be shouted. A reader does need to be told that a character is speaking in an angry whisper, say, because a quieter volume does not come across well in text. You do have to spell that out).
Reading Work Out Loud
Reading work out loud is (a) excellent practice for Open Prose Mic Nights and (b) a great way to pick up errors which in turn will improve your writing. Why? Because something that looks good written down does not necessarily read out loud well. If you stumble, so will a reader.
I use Zoom as a recording tool here. You set up a meeting with yourself, hit record, recite your material, and then end the meeting. Zoom then converts the file to an mp4 for you. By playing your stories back you will hear them as the reader takes the stories in.
Doing this has helped me pick up awkward phrasing, maybe the flow of the sentence would work better if I change the word order a bit, or has shown me that my sentence construction is a little clumsy so I alter it. I’m also more likely to come across missing words as I read my story out and record it.
Now this is obviously easy for flash fiction and short story writers but can this technique work for novelists too? I think so. You would record a chapter at a time and play that back at a time. You would make notes as you went through the book.
It takes time obviously but given you want your work to be as good as you can get it before submitting it to a publisher and/or agent, it makes sense to take that extra time here. You will then send your book off knowing you have done everything you can to make the work as good as possible before submission.
Researching Your Market – Where to Send the Writing
I don’t know what the exact figures are on this but I have read plenty of interviews with agents and/or publishers who point out what they do want to see and then say, usually at a writing conference, the number of examples they were sent, all of which are a world apart from what they ask for.
I don’t understand why people do this but I do know you’ve got to be a square peg in a square hole to have any chance of success. Using things like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and/or the Mslexia Indie Press Guide takes the guesswork out of approaching people. You need to know your book is in with a reasonable chance if you send it out to a publisher/agent. You need to send it to the right publisher/agent.
Mixing Up Your Reading
How does this tie in with writing techniques? Easy peasy. By ensuring you read contemporary fiction, as well as your old favourites, you will get a feel for what is being published now. That can help you work out whether your book would fit in with a particular publisher or not. You can also study their house style (while enjoying a good read). See this as market research but at least you can put your feet up with a cuppa while doing it!
Don’t Expect A Perfect First Draft
I’ve mentioned this before but it pays to just get your story down and worry about getting it right later. You can’t edit an empty page after all. Nobody writes perfectly (a) at all and (b) at their first go at a story. Does that sound depressing? I hope not. Firstly, we should seek to get better at what we do and I find that endeavour is good for the old brain and my imagination. Secondly, that first draft will often trigger ideas on how to improve the story but you need to get that draft down first.
Give Yourself Enough Editing Time
As for writing directly to screen or to paper first, the choice is yours. Just give yourself plenty of editing time. Bear in mind that it is easy to miss words when editing on screen. Your brain fills in what you could have sworn you had put in.
A good tip here is to change the font size, colour etc, knowing you will have to change this back again before you send the piece anywhere. Making your script different in some way flags up to the brain that there is something different here and that in turn will make you more alert to typos, missing worlds etc. Editing on paper doesn’t tend to have this problem, funnily enough. You do see what is on the paper. You also spot what isn’t there but should be.
There is no one perfect writing technique. Some writers will always write longhand on paper first. Others will write directly to screen. Some will get a page right before moving on to the next one. Others, like me, will get that first draft down so I can have an overall view of what works with my story and what doesn’t.
But there is plenty you can do to get your work as good as possible before sending that out anywhere. That will increase the chances of getting your work published. I’ve found all of the above thoughts have helped me improve my work considerably and hope they do the same for you.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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