Douglas Burcham continues his series: How to write fiction – Part two.
Back to writing and reading for pleasure. I cannot put off the content of this writing for pleasure post any longer. The nitty-gritty technical aspects have to be faced.
In the previous posts in this series I have urged readers thinking about being a writer – to make a start. Find out for yourself what you want to write by action. Set yourself a realistic aim between writing for pleasure or going the whole way to being a bestselling author. Write what you enjoy writing and what you enjoy reading if you are able to do so, and because one cannot do everything oneself, get some good help. This post covered who – me myself and I. Where – home and nice places and when to write. This post was light-hearted diversion about a book buying shopping spree.
Elizabeth George in her book Write Away adds weight to my view about making a start on a writing project.
Remember this. Not everyone can write a novel. In fact, VERY FEW PEOPLE CAN do it. But YOU might be one of them. There’s only one way to find out. MAKE A START.
Over the past 54 months I have read many lists of writing and publishing advice from other authors. I have also read a lot of books. In this age of information overload I have tried hard to follow the advice my mother gave me which I ignored for so long. “Do find time to listen and consider what others say and write to sieve out good advice because they have often travelled the same road before you.” I said to my children: “I will have my ten pence worth and tell you what I think – it is then up to you what you do.”
Deciding on a number of thoughts about what works for me for the end of 2014 is whether this should be eight (like the discs on a desert island) to ten or to a baker’s dozen. Perhaps the easiest way is to follow my own advice and make a start and see how many accrue, but when I do a thought occurs to me… Should I let seasonal Advent be my guide?
An Advent calendar is a special calendar used to count or celebrate the days in anticipation of Christmas. The days usually overlap with the Christian season of Advent, which can be as early as November 27 and as late as December 3. Many take the form of a card with 24 doors or windows: one for each day of December leading up to Christmas Day. Consecutive doors are opened every day leading up to Christmas to reveal an image, poem, a portion of a story or a small gift. Some calendars are strictly religious, whereas others are secular in content.
Well, this post provides a secular door of my thoughts about my direction of travel as a writer for 2015 (but without gifts!) to be printed off and read or opened, one a day, until the 24th December to close off my posts for the year. Since finishing my million draft words in January 2014, I have thought much and consolidated many items of advice about the future direction of my writing. There is almost inevitably repetition of some points mentioned in earlier posts because the essentials keep coming around.
I like to say a big thank you Mick for letting me loose on TIPM during 2014.
Monday December 1st – Keep it short
It being the length of a book, emails (and in the immediate) writing this web post!
I find my attention span on reading electronically is much shorter than a nice, large, printed hardback. E-book reading is to me clinical. I like to flick back to previous pages when reading and book mark sections. I find hard copy is so much better for this.
Writing short stories is something I have liked doing since the summer of 2010 when I started writing. Recently I have realised the draft books in my million words are made up of some 500 short stories each with its beginning, middle and end. A good short story – I am told – should tell the ending near the beginning. I have stated before that I find writing beginnings and endings easy so minimising the middles and the ‘filling in’ between has attractions for me as a writer. I note William Shakespeare wrote less than a million words but he sold more books than I am ever likely to do. I am also advised short stories do not sell well. A shame!
As a newcomer to the literary world in 2010, I thought then e-books would drive books to become shorter. I thought the average book might be about 300 to 400 pages and 100,000 words. There appears to have been a confused trend in both directions with some books such as the recent 800 page The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (the New Zealand Man Booker prize winner) and Hilary Mantel writing longer books. Two authors I like – Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan – have produced shorter books: Sense of an Ending and The Children Act respectively. Ken Follett’s’ latest book is 1000 pages long. Yawn! His book will make a good door stop!
While at work I recall a Local Authority Chief Executive writing many pages of memoranda to his Chief Education Officer. He used to reply, much to the Chief Executive’s annoyance, “yes” or “no” or “maybe”.
My books will be short based on a novella module of 18,000 words. This is about my limit of easy word management for plotting, structuring, self-editing and copy editing. I am going to have fun with lots of them. Many of these books are interlinked with my main character Henry Cross, his cousin Henrietta Jones and his Aunt Florence.
Tuesday December 2nd – start with a bang to hook readers in
The first page or pages of any book should allow the writer to demonstrate the old job interview adage that one has “One chance to make a good first impression”. This is especially so now with the Amazon Kindle Look inside facility. The first page now vies with the synopsis on the back cover as the attractor for sales of printed books. In discussion with Duncan Beal of YPS, the importance of an eye-catching cover, spine, back cover blurb, and then the first two pages were considered by him to be powerful steps to a printed book purchase.
The following catch line sold me her book:
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again until you finally got it right?
Then, the first scene set in November 1930. Read it on – look inside.
Lee Child – Killing Floor
The book, Lee Child’s first and best, was supposedly written when he was angry. It had a great ending when all the earlier neat little clues about the central technical heart of the book crystallised at the warehouse.
Nick Roteman – Auburn
This book had an explosive first few pages. It’s not available in e-book so you will have buy to read.
Geoff Dyer – The Search.
The search began when Walker met Rachel.
The search also includes this great sex scene, economical with words, leaving all to the imagination:
Nadine emerged a few minutes later, wrapped in a towel, her hair streaming wet. He kissed her on the neck and she let the towel drop to the floor. He left early in the grey half light.
It’s very old fashioned, even for a book published in 1993.
Wednesday December 3rd – Pacing and Flow
My writing background is writing business reports (the ‘best fiction’ I have ever written) and writing letters of complaint and letters to the editors of the national press. When eyes closed and heads used to nod in one’s audience while presenting financial information, I decided the answer was fast pacing, the unexpected and excitement to keep people awake. The latter is also useful to wake listeners up. A third of the way through my ocean sailing experiences presentation, I asked the audience to rise and sing a verse of ‘Eternal father strong to save…’ which seemed to do the trick. Later, I asked two of my audience to stand and pace the floor for the dimensions of the yacht or the height of the mast. Most people like watching rather than doing.
Since 2010 I have taken pages of bestselling authors and examined them to try and ascertain what makes the text good enough to sell well. Starting with a bang and hooking the reader in is one key, but despite bestselling fiction authors breaking many creative writing class rules, the one constant appears to me to be readability, and part of this is pacing.
Thursday December 4th – Include a good Technical Background
I believe it is no accident warfare and crime – either between nations or individuals – forms such a large part of the content of fiction. In Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, army activity and dealing in people, guns, or other criminal activity forms a backbone to all his books. I suspect other readers also like an educational element in their reading. So a chance to learn about cars, guns, fighting and political technique in male fiction and sexual techniques, personal and psychological elements of relationships in female fiction are powerful marketing aids. I am not a great fan of the legal profession but I found the court background and application of precedent and logic in reaching legal decisions in Ian McEwan’s recent book The Children Act very interesting. Perhaps far more interesting than the personal aspects of the plot.
Friday December 5th – Write well (whatever this means)
One can see great athletes, footballers and cricketers make participation in their chosen game look easy. Perhaps writers should do the same. My parents always kept on at me about various matters in life being ‘common sense’ to such an extent the use of the expression raises my stress levels. I suggest what is one person’s ‘common sense’ is another’s nonsense. Since 2010, the mantra about showing and not telling has done the same for me. Maybe the answer is in my mother’s saying about ‘everything in moderation’. The wide variation expressed in book reviews, detailed in my earlier third post in this series, sets the scene. One person’s great book is another’s awful book. No absolute answer.
I read about books being very well written and overhear my English teacher’s friends and writing group members saying so, and when I read these books myself, I am often unimpressed. Indeed, books that they say are not very well written often appeal to me. Even if they do not, I cannot see what is actually badly written. I have some real frustration here because I have insufficient technical knowledge of the English Language and little interest in spending much time of my limited grim reaper life sentence remaining to change or perhaps to be conditioned by this. What I do know is when I think a book is well written through my reading of it. My frustration comes about at not knowing necessarily why this is so. I do acknowledge all too much of my own writing has so far failed to reach and go over my own imprecise bar for me to be satisfied. For me, examples of well written fiction books are:
- The Silkworm – J K Rowling
- The Children Act – Ian McEwan
- The Gift of rain – Tan Twan Eng
- Regeneration – Pat Barker
I liked reading these books too. Many books I considered well written were not books I liked!
Saturday December 6th – Use devices
On 1st April 2011, I read a web post which I thought was an April Fools’ Day joke, listing many words one should not over use including ‘was’ and ‘that’. All my novels exclude ‘was’ and ‘that’ – easy to do by using the replace facility in MS Word and exposing weaknesses like The Wash and Washington are casualties! Using Autocrit and Prowriter supports this course of action and this earns me a commendation of well done. I believe the technical reason is because it makes my writing more active. “You are showing not telling,” I hear someone say and I chuckle. Another device in my books is to highlight the use of the verb LOOK as my books are about LOOKING despite Karl Voss’s advice in Robert Wilson’s Company of Strangers about this not being useful.
Sunday December 7th – Take a break when writing to refresh
No writing or reading today. It is not November and you do not have the challenge of writing 50,000 words this month under the National Novel Writing Month. My writing desk contact Tony Riches did write over 50,000 words again. He also published The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham (about her imprisonment for Witchcraft) during the month of November.
We will resume in the next post later this week from December 8th.
Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes.