The Official Blog of Iain Rob Wright: Tips for the aspiring writer...

Friday, 27 March 2015

Tips for the aspiring writer...

When it comes to fiction, there are no hard and fast rules, only choices. However, informed choices are better than ignorant ones. Below are a few tips and observations that I personally find useful. Perhaps you will too.

1.The first draft is shit. - Ernest Hemmingway
One of the hardest things, and probably THE hardest for an aspiring writer, is getting that first draft finished - a rough, yet completed story. What used to hold me back in the early days was constantly going back to what I had written and re-editing it. It was lack of confidence in my own work that caused me to do this and I now know that the best way to get a book out is to just go for it. When writing the first draft, create a brief chapter-by-chapter guideline so you know where you are going, then just write the damn thing. Don't stop or go back for anything until you have written that final word. Let the story write itself so that it comes into being as an entity instead of merely an idea. Once you have the 1st draft you can then focus on the boring bit - the editing. As soon as you finish the 1st draft, start the 2nd by adding to the story, characters, etc, as well as deleting anything unnecessary and addressing any concerns you had while writing the 1st draft. Then, when you have done that, edit a 3rd time for mistakes and errors. Then pass it on to your proof readers or editor and move onto something else. A couple weeks later, go back and make the changes you get back from your readers/editor and search one last time for any mistakes. In my opinion, this is the minimum required to publish a decent book. 4 drafts including at least 1 other set of eyes.

"Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly." – Joshua Wolf Shenk

2. Use action instead of speech tags.
- "Get away!" the boy shouted." - Is not as good as:

- The boy threw his arms out and growled. "Get away." -

You can use action to let the reader know who is speaking and, in doing so, you remove the need for 'he said, she said'. You also empower the dialogue by describing the speaker's actions in relation to what they are saying. It is far more economical to say:

"I can't stand this." Sarah ground her teeth. "It's too much."

Than to say:

"I can't stand this," Sarah said while grinding her teeth. "It's too much."

Both of the above are fine, but shorter is better and more impactful.

3.She said, he said, is fine.
Be consistent and pick either "Said Michael" or "Michael said." Either way is fine but don't chop and change unnecessarily. Also stick to simple tags like "he said" as much as possible as they are invisible to the reader. It is better to describe emotion through action than by adding an adverb to the end of your speech tag. For example:

"Goddamn it!" Mike said angrily.

Is sloppier than saying.

Mike stamped his foot. "Goddamn it."

In the second example, Mike's anger is visible though him stamping his foot. This is describing to the reader (showing) instead of telling (Mike said angrily). "Show don't tell" is one of those rules everyone harps on about and this is an example of it.

4.Don't use jargon
If your character is a doctor then he may say the word "influenza", but if he is not, he will just say "flu". Don't use jargon unless necessary. Readers get annoyed with big words when something less showy will do. Don't refer to an elephant as a pachyderm unless your protagonist is named Attenborough.

5.Read a lot
I actually know an author who says he never reads. That is insane to me because I am constantly learning to write better by reading other people's work. It would be like a carpenter trying to make a cabinet without having ever seen one. The more you read (especially within your chosen genre) the wider your understanding and skill will become. Reading is the practise and training that writers do to get better and it will serve them better than any English degree. Degrees are for editors. Imagination is for writers.

6. Use killer words
Killer words are words that do the duty of several (and so kill words by reducing sentence length). Words like little, big, small, fast, large, hard, soft, are all single-meaning words (i.e. they don't qualify themselves with detail). There are no specifics to the word small and little, but there is a difference between words like minute, petite, minuscule, microscopic, meager, paltry, trifling, petty, miniature. These words mean "small" but they also qualify HOW and in WHAT WAY the thing is small. Take the following sentences and how their meanings are more concise and different with killer words.

Original sentence: "The little, dark brown dog barked in a high-pitched tone."

Killer word version: "The chocolate poodle yapped."

"Chocolate" replaces "Dark brown" (and thus kills 1 word) and "yapped" replaces "barked in a high-pitched tone" (and thus kills 4 or 5 words). The meanings of the two sentences are the same but the Killer words make things far more precise and evocative. You could even change the entire scene by changing the killer words.

Killer word version two: "The grimy spaniel howled."

Both of these killer version could be said to describe the original sentence, but they are very different. That's because the words used were precise.

Let's try another sentence.

Original Sentence: "The large bird of prey flew over to the roof and landed on the edge of the chimney."

Killer words: "The kestrel swooped down and perched on the chimney."

Killer words version 2: "The barn owl plummeted and struck the chimney."

Totally different images right? But both were just more precise variations of the original sentence. This proves that the original sentence is left open to interpretation and thus harder for the reader to imagine in firm detail.

Look at your sentences and see if there are specific words that will both increase detail and decrease sentence length. These are killer words. Instead of saying "very big" you can say "huge, monolithic, gigantic." Instead of saying "blue-green", be specific and say turquoise. "Rusty truck" is better than "old car", and instead of saying "The bright light shone off the beautiful diamonds in all directions," say "The exquisite diamonds shimmered." You get the idea I hope.

7. Show characters through their actions
Instead of saying "Margaret was a very moody person", you could show that through action. For example:

Margaret rolled her eyes and huffed. The washing up needed doing, but she flung her coffee mug in the sink and stomped out of the kitchen instead. When she reached the living room, she dumped herself down on the sofa and shouted at her husband to change the channel. He didn't argue and did so immediately.

Do you see?

8. Transform your characters
With your main character especially, the reader wants to see some kind of change. If your main character is a coward then end the story with him having proven himself brave - and have them do it as a result of the plot forcing him to make this change. You should outline the changes you want to see in your characters before you even write the first word.

Anyway, I'm not a particularly good teacher and there are too many rules to go over in one post, but below are a few links I found with even more tips for writing good! The biggest tip I can really give an aspiring author is to make like Jon Snow and realise you know nothing. Always be open to improving and always learn from others.






Anyway, I just wanted to post this before I take a short break. Since Kindle Unlimited struck and rocked the boat, I have been working no-stop since New Years. I am going to take off the next 2 weeks and perhaps a 3rd, but I won't everyone to know how much I love them and how much I love being able to do what I do. I have so many things I am excited about and I can't wait to give my readers more books.

Happy Festivus everybody.


Mark Tilbury said...

Hi Iain,

This is an extremely useful post. I am currently editing my first book and although I have an editor I have found things that were missed thanks to Maggie James offering to look over for me.
I sometimes use more words than necessary and I'm working on the show, not tell, aspect of dialogue. The examples you give here illustrate better ways of writing speech perfectly.

Again, great post. Will share it elsewhere.

All the best,


Iain Rob Wright said...

Thanks, Mark. I hope things are going well for you. We can never get our writing perfect and no one expects it. We just have to give it the best shot we can :-)