Once my toes had uncurled, I decided: mortification = progress, so I thought I'd outline some writing tips that I've picked up along the way. Some of these come from my MA Writing degree, and the workshops I participated in, others from working as a slush reader/editor at Shimmer magazine, and others from my interactions with my agent/other literary professionals. I've also included links to articles I've found helpful.
The first few are related to what to do/not to do when writing, where the latter section is a more general overview. So, here we go:
Get to the story.
A common complaint in the slush pile, where the story submitted often starts with tons of scene-setting and explaining. Short stories generally work better begin in medias res, with the other information- and only what's absolutely essential to the plot- filled in from there. "Mary had a cup of tea and went for a walk to the post office and called her friend and baked a cake," is not immediately engaging. Well, unless there's an undercurrent of something else; a sense of growing menace before she finds the tarantula in her biscuit-tin.
Related to this, another thing that often seems of occur alongside the over-explaining is the lack of concrete information. There's both too much information up front (what the morning sun looked like, how often the character got the bus to work etc), and too much kept back (the character's name, what's actually happening, what the core concern of the story is), for fear of ruining the mystery…often when none of it needs to be a mystery.
"She ran through the forest, searching for what she'd lost, that thing given to her by her father…"
"Sarah ran through the forest, looking for her necklace."
Even if it transpires that the missing jewel is a time-turning-dragon-saving-device, and Sarah is a reincarnated princess, and we don't know both facts until the big reveal, being too vague at the beginning (and I've seen page after page go on like this) isn't pulling anybody in. 'Sarah' click. 'Necklace'. Click. Solid. Something to work with.
The excess scene-setting goes for longer works, too, and feedback on my current novel, both during my MA, and after, has pretty much been: "lose the first few chapters and get to it."
It does feel like chucking your reader in at the deep end, before you even know they can doggy-paddle, but trust is essential. They will get it. Waffling on too much before the action is akin to ordering a new gin cocktail, and then having the bartender tell you about the distilling process and the ingredients and about how much the silver cocktail shaker cost, all before you get that first, glorious sip of it.
- (Article by Cat Valente, on getting to the ghost pigs.)
Don't over-explain/info-dump/tell too much.
"Show don't tell." The writerly adage that gets bandied about all the time, without anybody really knowing what it means. It baffled me for a while as I'd state a fact- "Rex the dog"- then become assailed with anxiety that I should have shown it instead: "Rex jumped on his hind legs, his paws on the table, the paws on his other two legs..." Ok, it was never quite that bad, but you get my point.
There is a place for telling. Sometimes it's needed to condense the info/move the story along, but there's a big difference between saying "Bob was angry" to "Bob stomped across the lawn, the front door slamming behind him as he made his way upstairs."
Info-dumping leaves little room for the reader to get into the story and interpret it for themselves, so it's hard to really engage. Readers are Sherlockian sleuths. We like clues and hints, delivered through tone and mood. We like to put it together for ourselves. Explaining too much takes away the pleasure.
- Emma Darwin on the basics of Showing versus Telling.
Do your research, but don't beat people over the head with it.
If you're enthusiastic about the habits of moles, and you've chosen the subject to explore themes of obsession and…err, suppressed, subterranean guilt…then great, but the reader doesn't need the equivalent of the Wiki page interposed into every paragraph. Some of the bits that I was saddest about losing from my novel were the 'research' bits, as 1) it took time 2) I wanted to show that I knew the (Victorian) era well 3)I was hoping to impart authenticity.
All good aims, but if it doesn't serve the plot, then it needs to go. Pile on your knowledge and you come across like CJ from the Eggheads/other infuriating smug pedant.
Readers can pick up subtexts and themes and meaning without you beating them over the head with it. I've fallen into this territory many times (usual targets: religion/patriarchy/mayonnaise), so by all means subvert those didactic tales of lore to your own advantage, and subtlety press home your meaning, but when there's an obvious agenda it's like being screamed at by those wild-eyed shopping-centre preachers who tell you you're damned as you pop into Primark.
I've read a lot of stories/books where the characters are so insipid/underdeveloped that I reach the end thinking 'meh'. Make the reader invest in the character. Even if it's piss-boiling rage just at the mention of them. Not all characters have to be nice to get the reader on side (too perfect could well do the opposite), but make sure they're conflicted, complex, contradictory: human. And give the reader some insight into them. If you keep the audience at arm's length then it's hard to really invest.
- 25 Things a Character Needs: Chuck Wendig.
Turn the Screw.
Without conflict, there isn't a story. Boy loses ball-is sad-finds ball-is happy is not a story. Boy loses favourite ball to a sewer-dwelling mummy who realises it's the ancient eye of a crocodile god and who wants to destroy the world with it, is. It doesn’t have to be that dramatic, but each character needs to wants something/needs to overcome something/needs to encounter obstacles. One phrase I like is 'put your main character up a tree and throw stones at them'. We like to see the struggle, and how it's overcome, or not, in some cases. I've read/wrote so many stories that don't go anywhere. Ask yourself: what's at stake, here? Emotionally or otherwise? Why should the reader care? What's pushing this story along?
- Chuck Wendig, again, on conflict, and on story stakes. I'd highly recommended Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds website in general, as it's a fantastic resource for writing tips, and all delivered with wit and wisdom (as long as you don't mind swearing.)
Use figurative language carefully.
Poetic is good. Metaphors and similes have power. But don't over-do it. Less is more, or again, the effect is diminished. Early MA feedback of mine included "do you really need two similes in one sentence?" Yes! was my answer, as I was cocky and foolhardy, but now, I concede.
I'll also stick description in here, and this seems to get people waxing lyrical and busting out the similes. Don't over-describe everything, but specific detail is essential. It brings characters to life, creates mood, enriches the story. The well-thmbed leather pocket book. The daisy-patterned plate. The greying hair around the ears of a dyed-black Elvis quiff.
- Interesting article about metaphors and the brain.
Brush up on the basics.
Grammar. Paragraphs. Sentences. Punctuation. It's easy to think that it's so basic it's beyond even worth worrying about, but it isn't. I still get tangled with my sentences, one of my biggest problems being my tendency to construct looooong rambling ones, each containing several clauses, which often weaken the impact. Perhaps like that last one. And I was oblivious to it, until my MA group pointed it out. And on sentences, vary the length. It seems to be cool now to use really short sentences. All the time. Which is odd. And annoying. Maybe it's a post-modern railing against those circuitous Victorian writers who could waffle for days, or maybe it's sentence insecurity impressing 'short is safe'. Mix it up.
- Recommended books: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
Edit, edit, edit.
Kill your darlings. Slash and hack and murder them to death. Even if you've got paragraphs of beautifulprose that's the best thing you've ever written and by god you're not going to surrender it, just do it. If it doesn't serve the plot/the wider story, then you need to be ruthless. I still balk at the thought of this, but once it's underway it really isn't so bad, and when you see the story emerging from under all the padding, it's like having Edward Scissorhands turning your overgrown hedge into a dinosaur. (And do keep the excised bits and pieces. Nothing need go to waste, and you can always recycle what's cut into a new narrative.)
- 20 Writers on the Art of Revision.
Don't be too serious.
About yourself, or your writing. A lot of my early writing is packed full of ponderous chin-stroking, and woe, to the point where it reads a little flat. Some burgeoning writers often think that good writing means being bleak as fuck and very straight-faced, and while I'm all for misery, whisk in some relief. Even if it's the blackest of black humour/just a bit of sparky dialogue. And give the reader space to breathe before battering them over the head with the next life-crushing machination. E.g "Little Elsie was an orphan whose only friend was a cat called Oscar who got run over by a pizza delivery man and then Elsie's head detonated." I have read stories like this. Many of them. If it's all dark then the darkness loses its punch. Think chiaroscuro. (A reason why, incidentally, I went off Game of Thrones. I haven't read the books but with the TV show I got to the point where I started to think, 'God, can somebody just be nice to somebody, just for a second.' Then I started to yawn.)
Find your voice.
Experiment, experiment, experiment. Write poems and flash fiction and novellas and RSI-inducing, long manuscripts. It takes time to find your own voice/style.
A lot of my really early writing is quite 'adolescent' in that there's a Palahniuk-esque nihilism or a Bukowski-esque swagger to them (odd, as I haven't read much of either), with others veering from poetic Jeanette Winterson type outpourings to Poe-esque baroque tales of terror. Some were more successful than others but by trying so many things out my own voice started to come through.
- Meg Rosoff on finding your voice.
Read, read, read.
Read everything. If you like Gothic mysteries then read a love story. If you like magic realism read a gritty, urban tale set in a café in Skegness. The MA has been interesting as it introduced me to books that I'd never think of picking up (or finishing), for various reasons, and while I haven't enjoyed all of them, they all taught me about narrative, and plotting, and structure.
- Guardian article on why writers should read.
Get over yourself.
You're probably too close to your work to see it as it really is. Of course you're not going to value every opinion, and not everybody will have a valid opinion, but sniping "well, my mate said it was good" or "your loss" or "well I never wanted to publish it anyway and traditional publishing is bollocks and I'm all avant-garde and that and you can't comprehend my genius so there" when an editor/agent/other person who sees billions of stories, offers some insight is just silly.
Just because we can all physically type or pick up a pen does not mean that good writing is a given. It takes time. I've been writing for as long as I can remember, seriously for about five years (with two books written about ten years ago, both now hidden away and collecting dust) and while I'm still not where I want to be I can see the improvement, all aided by taking criticism on the chin, and listening. You don't want to be the arsehole on Britain's Got Talent who flips the judges the finger and strops off when your saxophone rendition of "Three Times a Lady" gets panned. You nod, graciously, even though you might be grimacing inside, and go home and practise.
Judge yourself by yourself.
Don't compare yourself to other writers. Be inspired, but pitting your work against the work of others most often leads to arrogance or despair. Read a crap book/story, and you may think, 'aha! Mine is better! I am the genius!" and vice versa, a good one will bring 'Oh my god I am never going to be that good and I don't even know why I bother and now I want some vodka.' Instead, observe your own progress. Re-read that story you wrote last year, and compare it to a more recent one. Notice the small changes –better character development, tighter prose, better descriptions etc, and pat yourself on the back.
Rejection sucks. No matter how you brush it off or how many you get, or how nicely packaged the 'no' comes, there's still that niggle that you aren't quite good enough. Writers, in my experience, are generally quite sensitive, but for the most part it isn't personal.
The editor of that magazine probably acquired a sleeping beauty retelling the week before, or that agent just doesn’t feel quite passionate enough about your work to take you on, or the publisher may already have two steampunk titles and they're not looking for more.
From my experience slushing I've read around 1,400 stories, and perhaps three that I've sent over to the board have made it to print. And of lot of those we passed on were fantastically good stories, but they just didn't fit.
…but don't be foolhardy. If you're getting rejection after rejection from a magazine/agent/publisher, then don't ram your next offering at them without a little pondering in-between. Maybe your prose does need work, maybe you're not up to scratch just yet, or perhaps it's just not suited to that publication. The whole submissions process -from ezines that offer no payment to huge publishers- takes months, so research, polish, save yourself the time and stress of checking your inbox for a reply every five seconds.
- Famous writers on rejection.
A lot of my early writing is rushed. The proliferation of online literary ezines is great, as it's a boost to your confidence to get your writing published and to have people reading it, but with a lot of them there isn't too much quality control. I found that after having a few pieces published I knocked out a few more, like a demented crack-head chasing the buzz of publication, and now they're forever online with my name attached to them. I'd like to withdraw/edit some of them, but with the net being so vast and them being mere specks within, I can live with it. But take heed. Your name is your brand is your future.
I've seen quite a few slush-stories with spelling mistakes and clumsy errors –names changing, continuity etc- and it just looks unprofessional. I'm guilty in that I have rushed stories out before, some with last-minute terrible titles and others littered with mistakes, but I have learned. Ish.
Proof-read, then, and polish. I know for the most part its enthusiasm, "woo I've finished yay I like it must send it!" but you may then spend two edgy months waiting for a rejection, where a week away from your story, and a rewrite, pre-submission, could have meant an acceptance.
So, until I think of some more…happy scribbling!