tips

How to Slay the Blank-Page Beast

I came across a thread about the hardest thing about writing. For me, editing is probably the thing I find hardest. Having created something, tearing into it, criticizing it, breaking it down into little pieces is very hard, even if the end result is so much stronger. But for other people, the hardest bit was getting started.

The blank-page is a monster. It stares up at us, preening and immaculate, daring us to defile it with our words. It’s a mirror of our own insecurities – will the words I put down justify despoiling the perfect image in front of me? Can I be worthy? You get caught up, trying to find the important scene, the most compelling hook. Do I start in media res, or is getting to know the character more important? If you let it, the blank-page beast will get you so tied up that nothing quite seems right and after writing and deleting sentences, you give up.

You can try a not-quite blank page. I always begin with a pre-formatted template that has chapter title and page numbers in place. The beast is weakened, because you know it’s waiting for words now. But that’s not always enough. Here’s my tip for defeating the monster:

You don’t have to start at the beginning.

You don’t need to worry about that hook, or what’s the best opening sentence. You could write something that occurs in the middle, or something that’s near the beginning but not quite. You don’t even need to write something that’s going to be in  the book at all. If you want to write a page of exposition or the history of your world, or your main character’s first date with someone who’s going to be married with three kids by the time the book starts, it’s all good. As long as you write something, that page is no longer blank. It’s yours now. You have bound the beast to your will and it will now work for you.

It’s okay to be mediocre. That’s a very hard lesson to learn. Whatever reason a person has for writing, I’ve never met one who wrote simply because it was the least worst thing to do. Everyone who writes out of choice has a passion, a drive to become better and do their best. But that is never going to come instantly. If you polish every sentence as soon as it is on the page, you’ll struggle to finish. Worse, you might give in to the lies of the blank-page beast and never start. I’ve found the first draft is the most fun, and that’s because I’ve learned to stop worrying if it’s shit. The first drive is for meeting characters, throwing them into situations, and watching to see if they can pull themselves out and recover. The hook, the best opening paragraph, the pacing, and the plot holes can all wait. Don’t worry about them.

For now, just wrap your characters in the skins of the blank-page beasts and watch your creations sweat and bleed onto their hides.

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Learning to Love a New Story

When inspiration strikes, there’s a wonderful sense of being drawn into something new and exciting. It’s unexplored territory, like waking up in a foreign country or finding that all your favourite cereal has been swapped for something in a language you can’t read.

But sometimes, when you’ve just started to look around or had a few mouthfuls, you find it’s not quite what you expected. Sometimes bonding with a story isn’t instant. A story that the writer doesn’t love is hard sell, so what to do?

Don’t start at the beginning:

Especially if your inspiration came from a scene or event later in the story, try writing out of chronological order. Beginnings are important, and sometimes their weight can press down too much if you’re unsure about the story. Find a section you’re dying to write, and get it on paper. Get invested in that moment, and it will be easier to carry on that feeling as you build up around it.

Make notes

Even if you’re a pantser rather than a planner, doodling some ideas down on paper can help get into the world. You might come across that perfect scene to jump into, or hit upon another idea that builds up on the original one.

Draw

No good for me, as even my stick figures look at me in shame, but I know not everyone was cursed with the artistic ability of a dead newt. Drawing characters, mapping out the world, sketching the streets or you lead’s house can get you invested in a way that words are unable to do.

Spend some time with your characters

Often, the stories we love most are the ones where we had the strongest emotional reaction to the characters. Get to know your new ones: who are they? What do they like for breakfast? How would they react if someone broke in and swapped all their cereal?

Make a soundtrack

What sort of feeling do you get from the book? What sort of things happen? Have a hunt for music that reminds you of these things and build up a list of them. Close your eyes and think of your world, your plot and your characters while you listen. The music can get you into the mindset of the story when you carry on writing it.

I Wrote a Book. What Next?

I came across someone asking this question on Figment, and its a good question. Where do you go once you’ve typed The End? This was my response, hopefully it will help others as well.

Firstly, make sure you’re really ready to be published. Finishing a book is great and you should be very proud, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to be published. Lots of first novels feel great when we write them, but when we look back in a few years, we can see the gaps in our skills. It took three books before I was ready to publish. Remember, you are going to expect people to pay money for it. Is it something you would be happy to pay for, if you found it in a book shop?

Lets assume it is. Okay. The next step is to decide how you want to publish it. You have two options, really. Self publish or traditional. I’d recommend self-publishing if you either have a lot of experience with marketing and self-promotion, or you don’t really care about writing as a career or making sure as many people read it as you can. That’s fine. Not everyone wants to be an author as a career. That’s why I self-published my first.

If you want to go down the traditional route, your best bet is to try and get an agent. The first thing I’d do is look for agents on twitter, and follow hastags like #500queries, #tenqueries etc. These are where agents tweet about their queries and whether they wanted more or not. It gives you a good idea of the basic mistakes people make, like querying agents who don’t rep their genre, not following submission rules, or sending in queries that don’t sell the book.

Once you have a handle on that sort of thing, start researching the right agents for you. Then build up your query letter. It should be three parts – a hook or log line (single line that sells your book); short synopsis that again makes your book sound interesting; and a bio that includes any publishing credits you have and tries to explain why you are the right author for the book. Always include word count, genre, and the age group you are aiming the book at (MG, YA, NA, Adult). Try and

Then you send it off. Most agents work on email these days. Make sure:
– they are the right agent. They rep your book and they have a good record of sales
– that you email them in a professional manner, but you use their name
– that you spell their name right
– that you read their submission guide and send them what they want. Some people want just a query, some want chapters. Some want those chapters as an attachment, some in the body of the email
– that you put your contact details on the query. Name, address, phone number, email etc.

Then you wait, and you expect to get rejections. Trust me, no matter how good you are, you will get rejections. Build yourself up for them, because they hurt, but you have to accept them in good grace. Never reply to a rejection in a negative manner. Agents talk and they will talk about you if they do. At most, send them a polite thank you for your consideration message.

Hopefully someone will pick you up. Be prepared to send dozens of queries though. Let say, sadly, no one does. Don’t give up on the book yet. Now, look at publishers. Big publishers generally won’t accept unagented authors, but many smaller ones will. And if you sell to a smaller publisher, it gives you credits to go to an agent with for the next book. Again, research, research, research! Submit only to ones who might be interested. If they are a romance imprint, don’t send a sci-fi novel and vice versa.

Watch out for scammers. Avoid any publisher who charges (you’re better off going self-published); any that says you have to make a number of sales or buy the books yourself (again, can get very expensive); anyone who says they are in the business of making dreams come true (publishers are in the business of selling books); anyone who advertises direct to authors (publishers customers are readers); anyone who markets themselves as looking for young authors (publishers are in the business of making money. They won’t do that on just young authors.)

And if all that fails? (Again, be prepared. Hope for the best, plan for the worst). Write another book. Keep writing and writing and believing in yourself and you will get there. Publication isn’t a race; there’s not right age to publish by. Just love your words and people will love them back.

Can Your Characters pass the Cabbage Test?

Picture a room. The walls are bare sheet metal. The floor is blank and rubbery, and the ceiling is just out of reach. There’s a light source somewhere, but you’re not entirely sure where. In the centre of the room is a red button on the floor. There is nothing else present. What do you do?

If you pushed the button, (or did anything other than sit around and mope), then congratulations. You have done more that a head of cabbage placed in the same situation. I can’t claim credit for the metaphor, as that belongs to a friend of mine, but it is an important one to consider.

Characters need to be active; they need to do things, even if those things end up having negative consequences. If they sit around waiting for the plot to happen to them, then you might as well replace them with a head of cabbage. They’re boring, passive, and their victories feel hollow because they haven’t done enough to achieve them. Having characters saved by outside forces feels less satisfying that when they save themselves.  This is a particular problem for female characters, (see my post on the Passive Princess), but every character should be looking at their situation and doing more to solve it than the average root vegetable.

Realistic Vs Believable

I write mainly horror and fantasy, so my work is full of things that either don’t exist, can’t exist, or most people wouldn’t accept existing. Demons, guardian spirits, soul transference, sympathetic magic, mind reading, ghosts and were-kittens have all appeared in manuscripts I have written or I’m currently writing. In exploring these topics, there are two levels of acceptance I need to get from the reader.

Whatever genre a story falls under, it is important to get the reader to accept all aspects of it from the setting to the characters and their motivations. If the reader stops accepting what they are being presented, then they can get confused or frustrated with the book and in the worst case, they’ll put it down and not pick it up again.

But in my opinion, there’s a difference between being realistic, and being believable.

Realism applies to things that exist in the real world. Even in fantasy, realism is important. Normal people cannot just pick up a sword and become world-class fighters. Horses have limits in how much they can carry and how far they can run. Different weapons have different purposes, skills required to use them, and effects on armour. If you have no magical healing system, injury and infection are major risks to your characters. Some things will only be criticized up by the very nit-picky readers, and most will forgive a good story minor transgressions, but a bit of research can go a long way to making the story realistic.

But what if you do have a magical healing system? What if travellers watch the sky for dragons, or the undead stalk abandoned supermarkets? What if there are aspects of you book that will never be realistic? Given the number of fantasy books published, not to mention all the other genres that aren’t fully realistic, there isn’t a problem in getting readers to pick them up. If you’re anything like me, I prefer to be taken away from reality as much as possible.

It still has to be believable though. I still have to accept whatever wild wonderful ideas you throw at me in a book. Mostly it comes down to consistency. When you set up the rules of your world, you need to keep to them. If you tell me dragons need to eat a hundred sheep a day, then send your dragon riders into a desolate wasteland for a week, I’m going to expect there to be some negative effects on their mounts. If your super prototype giant robot defeats all adversaries without so much as a scratch until badly damaged by a tank simply because the plot requires it to fail at that point, I’m going to rage.

So, flying, fire-breathing lizards are not realistic. If you tell me you saw one flying over Bristol, I’m going to wonder what you’ve been smoking. But if you build the world right, I’ll happily dive into a fictional story and consider them no less believable than horses or turnips.

Things to Look Out for When Editing

On the back of the previous post, here are some things to watch out for when you are editing your own work. You don’t have to take out every adverb or cut just entirely from your manuscript. I don’t believe in blanket rules for writing, other than the grammatical ones, but they’re definitely things you should be aware of in your work. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

Adverbs:

These are often a sign that you’re using the wrong verb and could pick something stronger. If your character is currently walking slowly, perhaps instead they could be dawdling, plodding, limping, trudging etc.

Imprecision:

Words like slightly, almost, seeming all detract from presenting a strong image by introducing imprecision. There are times when you want this, but mostly you should be firm in the image you are offering to the reader.

Too many adjectives:

Focus on the important thing in a sentence. If you enhance everything with adjectives, you end up losing the strength of all of them. If the black horse thunders down the wide road towards the towering castle in the middle of the dense forest, the reader can’t determine what the focus of the sentence is and it becomes harder to picture because there is too much at once.

Pronoun confusion:

If you have more than one character of a particular gender in a scene, make sure it is always clear which one you are referring to. Does she mean the succubus or the night-hag?

Superfluous words:

Little words like just, that, is, like don’t always add anything to a sentence. If you can cut them out without changing the meaning or emphasis of sentence, then it’s probably best to do so.

Sentence structure:

Do you find you are starting your sentences the same way (using I frequently when in first person perspective for example)? Are you sentences varied or do they all run to a similar length? Try reading your work out loud to catch these sorts of issues.

Repetition

It’s very easy in the first draft to find yourself using the same word twice or more in short succession. Again, reading out loud will help to make this more obvious.

Missing words:

It’s very easy miss out words in a sentence when you are writing quickly. Go back and check you haven’t missed any like that pesky to that slipped out of the previous sentence.

First Person Perspective or Third?

There is no right or wrong answer to this. Both options have pros and cons, and it is down to the writer to pick the one they think will work best. Sometimes we get it wrong. I wrote fifteen thousand words of Happily Ever After before I changed my mind and decided to switch from third to first. I then spent months correcting all the incorrect pronouns. Every time I thought I’d got them all, someone would point out another.

So why did I decide to swap? What made first person a better choice than third? As I said, there is no correct answer, and your view may vary, but here are my thoughts on the options.

First person:

In my opinion, this works best when combined with the present tense. It gives the reader the impression of sitting on the character’s shoulder and watching things as they unfold. It also means that, because the story is taking place in the here and now, that there is a believeable risk that the narrator won’t make it out the story alive, which can be useful for horror and other tense stories.

First person works well for stories about a person. You’re putting the reader directly in the main character’s head, so they’re going to get to know them intimately. That means that you need a character with a strong, interesting voice. They have to be able to carry the story by themselves, and tell it in a manner that not only gets across all the details the reader needs, but also in a believeable manner.

First person also works best when the story unfolds around the main character. The reader learns things at the same rate as the character, so is able to tap directly into the character’s fear, confusion, shock etc as they experience it.It means you do need a plot where the majority of things happen to the main character and they aren’t taken out of action too much. If they just hear about things, rather than experiencing them, it has less impact.

You can have multiple narrators, but you need to make sure they have very distinctive voices. A name at the start of a chapter is not good enough, because if they sound too similar, the reader will simply forget a page or so in who they are reading about.There should also be a reason for switching narrators. Just using it to provide a piece of information will almost certainly feel clumsy.

Third person:

Third person is harder to do badly in my experience. Narrating from outside the character means you don’t need to worry so much about a distinct voice, just a narrating style.Characters can be good protagonists but poor narrators and third person lets you deal with this. This isn’t to say your characters don’t need strong voices themselves, just that the voice is confined to their actions and dialogue, rather than colouring the whole story.

Third gives you the chance to show things to the readers that the characters are not aware of. Or to step away from the main character if they’re not going to be the focus of the plot and keep the attention up by following other characters. If your plot is spread around different locations and characters, third person is much easier to manage. And revealing things to the reader can create great tension when they know the characters are about to be set up, while those in the story are blissfully unaware.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of what you feel comfortable with and what works best for the story you have planned. You can even mix and match, with the majority of story first person interspered with sections of third person for example. Let me know: Do you have a preference or do you change with each story?

Start at the Beginning

The opening scene of a novel is one of the most important parts to a book. This is where you hook your readers, like reeling in a tasty fish, You’ve got to use the right bait. You need a start that’s interesting, that captures their imagination and doesn’t let go. This is all easy to say and much harder to do, of course!

Where to start the story is more than just a catchy opening, though. You need to consider what starts the story. Every story is a small portion of a much larger existence. Characters have pasts and most of them will have futures as well. What is it that changes in the character’s life that makes this the story you want to tell about them? What is the catalyst?

This is why the waking up scene so rarely works. Waking up is normal. It’s part of every-day existence. They’ll have done it from the day they were born to the day they die. This is not, in most cases, the start of their story. Stories tend to start with change, not routine. Chance encounters, serendipity or misfortune, forced or chosen opportunities. These are the things that move the character out of their day-to-day life, and down a path worth chronicling.

How are your Characters Coming Across?

It can be hard as a writer to take a step back from our stories and separate what’s on the page and what’s in our heads. After all, we know the characters like they are family members. We know their habits, motivations, and personalities off by heart. It’s obvious to me, for example, that Harry is a born optimist and hopeless romantic who is out-going in public but tends to prefer the company of a few select people, is terrified of being abandoned, and is still struggling to come to terms with the death of his twin sister. But is it obvious to you?

Try this as an exercise: Make a list of your characters traits, habits, motivations. Anything that makes them who they are as a person.Then go through your first couple of chapters and make a note of each line that shows these. You won’t get everything about them out early on, and of course characters change as stories progress, but it will help you see if your writing is showing them as you want.

Then get a reader to go through the text and pull out any traits they think the character shows, and the lines that gave them that impression. Hopefully they’ll pick out the same things as you did. You might need to get a couple to go through, as some people might miss things that others pick up on. But if your readers repeatedly aren’t seeing what you’re seeing, or are seeing the character in a different light, then you know you’ve got a problem with how they are being presented.

It’s More of a Guideline, Really

Writers get a lot of advice. Most of it is well meant, much of it is helpful. Sometimes there’s bad advice too. If someone’s telling you that a great way to market your book is to send out lots of identical tweets and just tag it full of irrelevant hashtags, please note that’s bad advice. But there is also advice that’s good, but needs a bit more depth or discussion than is often supplied.

Show, don’t tell

This is probably the most common. When starting out, people often want to get across the salient points of a scene. There is a dragon. It is big and red. Fred the knight is scared of it. The reader knows what’s going on, but frankly, it’s not very interesting. So, they are told to show the scene. Don’t tell us Fred is scared, show it through the way his heart is pounding, the way the sword is trembling in his hand. Letting readers come to the conclusion Fred is scared is actually more effective, and the shared experience of the effects of fear help cement the feeling in the reader.

So, good advice, right? Something you should always do? Maybe. If you find people are saying your style is dry, or they are not connecting emotionally with the characters, it’s worth checking that you’re not telling the reader too much. But you can go too far the other way. If you show everything, the writing can get convoluted. Sometimes simple and concise is better. Sometimes, showing certain pieces of information can make them stand out and stick in the reader’s mind more.

Never use anything other than said

Dialogue should stand up on its own. It should convey not only the information being said, but the emotion and the speaker without dialogue tags, ideally. If you’re used to using dialogue tags to tell the reader who is speaking, then you risk not developing the character’s voice. If you’ve always relying on them to carry the emotion, then the actual words spoken can end up feeling flat or forced, because you’re not thinking about how people naturally speak. Using said forces the dialogue to be the most important bit. Said is an easy, expected word, and readers will often register it less than other words, so said doesn’t feel as repetitive as some.

However, sometimes the dialogue can be ambiguous. Sometimes you need to use a tag to show who as speaking in scenes with lots of characters. Cutting out every other tag cuts out words that have value and meaning and can add to a scene if used well.

Write what you know

This one is just poorly phrased in my opinion. It gets misinterpreted. It is important to research. Getting the facts right makes a story believable and engaging. Silly mistakes drop them out of the narrative and distract from the story. Characters who have realistic reactions to situations are necessary to hold the suspension of disbelief necessary for fiction. But write what you know gets taken as write from your experience alone. And the truth is, most of us live fairly mundane lives. Draw on your experiences, physical and emotional, but don’t limit your writing to them. Just because you’ve never flown on the back of a dragon, doesn’t mean your characters cannot.

Cut out all adverbs

Another one that gets suggested early on to writers. Adverbs can be a path to lazy writing. There are lots of fantastic verbs, why stick to modifying a few basic ones? They can also lead to redundancy. If you’re characters are screaming loudly or running quickly, you’re wasting words. Cutting out adverbs can be a simple way of streamlining your writing and making sure you’re using the best word for the situation. Never use them? I’m not so sure about that. Can it really be good policy to cut out an entire chunk of the English language? Is it not better to learn how to use all words well, rather than just the verbs and nouns. A well placed adverb can change the context of a sentence, and heighten the atmosphere.

The lesson with all these examples is that the ideas are firm and sensible, and they are good tools, especially for novice writers to improve their craft. But they are not the same as grammar rules. The do not need to be applied rigidly and without exception. Telling, adverbs, dialogue tags and so on are not bad things in their own right. The problem is that using them badly is probably going to make the writing worse than not using them at all. But if you never learn to use them correctly, you’re cutting a large potion of language and structure out of your work.