Rules… What Rules?

 

Strange times we’re living through. As with many writers, lockdown reduced my imagination to pulp, so it’s been hard going with the WIP in a period when I have so much free time I don’t know what to do with it. However, whilst the imagination might be on a break of its own, I find I’m drawn to instructions.  Recipes, board games, knitting patterns, flat-pack furniture… it’s all rather therapeutic.

Personally, I’ve always been an inveterate follower of rules, risk averse, all that baloney. I like to know where I am, what’s expected. It’s comfortable. The government says stay indoors… I stay indoors. But the beneficial nature of sticking to the script got me thinking about other rules, specifically the plethora of instructions, guidelines and strategies available to the aspiring writer.

Like the Bible, writing advice has a lot of contradictions. And lots of it gets into print, to the confusion of the novice writer.  My own reading reveals some interesting anomalies, where even best-selling authors seem to have ignored the most basic advice. Should you worry that you’ve broken some of writing’s cardinal sins?

You want to improve, so you check everything out, see what the current thinking is. It’s always useful to be aware of the rules of engagement before proceeding in any endeavour. Then you find there’s actually a bigger problem.  As if writing that novel wasn’t difficult enough for the beginner, the huge amount of conflicting information doesn’t make things easier.

I have a collection of how-to-write books. You probably have a similar pile, all of them dispensing good, sometimes great, advice. But they aren’t all consistent. One advises us to use simple, plain words – the first word we think of will probably do the job. The next encourages us to expand our readers’ vocabulary by using lesser-known words, because the wider our vocabulary the more effective our writing will be.

Grammar used to be dependable. You knew where you were with grammar. Its rules were firm and unbreakable. Not any more. I’ve recently finished a psychological thriller, which was a great read, apart from the constant use of the past tense rather than the past continuous, as in She was stood in the kitchen… She was sat at the table… Surely that should read standing, and sitting? Maybe I’m too old-school; it doesn’t even sound right. But on the plus side, at least the author was consistent.

I’ve come across many rookie mistakes in bestselling novels from established writers, which makes me wonder if they’re really mistakes at all. Are you guilty of:

  • Head-hopping rather than sticking to one point of view per scene?
  • Dumping large chunks of background information into dialogue because you’ve done the research and don’t want to waste it?
  • Introducing a huge cast of characters in the first couple of pages, then leaving most of them behind?
  • Using a fluke or a chance encounter in the last chapter to wrap up a storyline because it’s easier than working harder on the plot?
  • Writing sentences that run on for 35 lines?

I’ve seen all of these in recent fiction. These novels fly in the face of the received wisdom:

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Introduce characters over several chapters
  • Don’t dump big chunks of information or back story
  • Keep the reader invested in the story by judicious use of foreshadowing, rather than relying on a fatuous coincidence
  • Use short and snappy sentences, not ones that are 35 lines long, however well- punctuated

Confusing, isn’t it? So what’s the advice?

Douglas Bader famously said that rules were for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men. That seems about right to me. Write for your readers. They won’t all be working for the grammar police. If the story’s good enough readers will forgive the odd faux pas. See what works for you. Rules are useful guides at the outset of your writing journey, but it still feels good to flout them occasionally.

Who’s Telling This Story?

If you’re about to begin writing a novel, you will have definitely thought about which point of view you’re going to use.

Whether you’re writing a short story or a full-length novel, you have to decide:   

  • What is the best point of view for your story?
  • Whose point of view will engage the reader most effectively?

In the olden days, when things were so much easier, we’re told, novels were often written from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, hopping from head to head to get everyone’s perspective. This strategy gave the reader access to all the characters’ thoughts and feelings as the story progressed, and allowed them to be in on the action from inside the heads of all the characters.

This device gradually lost favour as ‘head hopping’ was deemed confusing, and the novels that followed used either the 1st person pov, where the reader is inside the head of the main character –the ‘I’ of the story – and all the action is seen through their eyes, or the close, or limited, 3rd person, where the story is told from the perspective of one character – usually the ‘he’ or ‘she’ of the story. In practice, this means that the reader only sees and hears what that character experiences. We can’t solve the problem or guess the ending ahead of time because we don’t have all the story. It can only unfold as the character discovers each element.

Unlike TV and movies, where the camera can focus on secondary characters and convey an enormous amount with a single facial expression or gesture, the narrative in a novel will only concentrate on the character who is telling the story. 

However, I’ve noticed in my reading that many modern novels are bucking this trend. They aren’t going back to the old omniscience per se, but they are presenting the story from various directions, moving between the various characters’ heads through the chapters. The reader is kept abreast of the action as it develops within the lives of the main protagonists, though the characters themselves are kept in the dark about the way the rest of the story is unfolding until everything dovetails in the last pages.

They say that trends resurface every seven years and this is a way of reinventing a good idea. The technique avoids the use of clunky, revelatory dialogue and awkward chunks of flashback to fill in the backstory and when used skillfully it can be a satisfying method of working through a complicated, many-stranded plot. It also gives the writer the opportunity to tell several stories that would have been almost impossible to explore using a more traditional one character point of view.

This leapfrogging is a very effective device but it needs careful handling to maintain tension and keep the reader guessing (and drawing the wrong conclusions). Reveal too much, too soon and the suspense is diluted, or dissipated entirely. It makes for a very satisfying ending for the reader as they disregard the red-herrings and put all the pieces together successfully.        

I wonder if the omniscient narrator is making a comeback, albeit in disguise.

Allsorts of Alchemy

Like a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, your writing will contain little tastes of the unexpected as well as some familiar elements. So, when you’re sitting there, scribbling or tapping away, do you ever wonder if your marvellous, utterly inspired plot has been written before? The unpalatable answer is: it probably has.

Does it matter? Probably not.

If you’re a writer, and also an avid reader like me, borrowing piles of books from the library each week, bingeing in bookshops and charity shops, or filling up your e-reader, it can be disconcerting to find that you’ve chosen several books with related themes. To the new and aspiring novelist, it can be gutting to read a summary of your entire storyline on the back of a newly published paperback. Dispiriting to think the plot you’ve been worrying at for years has already been done.  

Honestly, how many completely original stories have you read, ever?

In recent weeks I’ve picked up novels dealing with eerily similar subject matter. No spoilers, but plots have included: heroines who are morticians (but not in crime novels); husbands or wives who mysteriously disappear; recalcitrant teenage daughters who have problems and/or secrets; husbands who reveal a second family; and almost interchangeable crime scenes The choice has been completely unintentional, as the blurb doesn’t always betray all the details of the story.

Just last week, I read a new release with definite echoes of my own WIP, which I’ve been working on for the past two years. Great minds, eh?

Fiction is awash with adaptions and reinventions of familiar tales. They say there are only seven basic plots anyway, so good luck trying to invent one that hasn’t already been covered by someone, somewhere.  Besides, no one can read everything; life’s too short. Denying yourself the pleasure of exploring a delicious subplot because you’ve read something similar, and worrying that your readers will notice a resemblance, is to invite even more uncertainty and doubt into your writing life. And you’ve got enough of that already, right?

So what if the plot has been used before? Not by you, it hasn’t. 

There are always aspects that will be different. Imagine baking a chocolate cake. The recipe calls for certain ingredients in particular amounts. The result is a sort of alchemy. Change the method or the ingredients only slightly and the cake will be different: denser, lighter, more luscious, less calorific.

The same goes for writing. The love story you’re considering may have been told many times before – it’s the human condition, after all – but not in your voice, with your expertise in telling an old story in a new and distinctive way. Even in a familiar girl meets boy scenario, there’s lots of scope for originality. Unusual settings and exotic locations create interesting situations almost by themselves. A mental or physical problem could add a new dimension to an otherwise ordinary situation (make sure you do your research first). Consider the dynamics of the couple: how they respond to each other, to outside influences, things they can and can’t control – there’s a huge range of emotions, undercurrents and subtleties to be explored, in your own inimitable way.  

Try not to get too hung up worrying about plagiarising someone else’s work. There’s no copyright in ideas, just the way they are expressed. Avoid hackneyed phrases and clichés, which will mark your writing out as unoriginal. We are all unique and the stories we tell will be similarly individual. Approach familiar stories from a different perspective, introduce unexpected elements. Be inventive, unpredictable and ingenious.

There really is nothing new under the sun. Everyone’s recipe is different. We all have our own writing style and voice. The stories we tell, even those with similar themes, will always be different. 

Subplots: Enough is enough

I’m a novelist and an unashamed eavesdropper. This superpower has often come in useful in my short story writing, and my novels. So when an intriguing snippet of conversation drifted over the cubicles in the changing rooms at my local swimming pool, I dashed out to the car (remembering to get dressed first…) and wrote it down fast. The scenario I’d just overheard would make a great subplot.

Subplots are useful for a number of reasons. I’ve previously written about their advantages here: but the main ones are:

  • Character development, revealing the flaws and traits of a one-dimensional character
  • Adding interest to the story, bringing drama, pathos and mystery to a flat storyline
  • Bringing in a fresh set of characters to add impediments or obstacles
  • Providing an alternative ending to add a twist or complication
  • Putting the reader off the scent and delaying the outcome

They are best avoided if the only reason to add a subplot is to inflate the word count.

I was at the halfway mark with my WIP when I realised the novel was going to come up short in the word count. I needed another subplot.

Be careful what you wish for, is my advice.

The WIP was languishing, stuck in a saggy middle of my own making, when I had the flash of inspiration at the swimming pool. What if, I thought, the writer of the letters was the mysterious, absent sister, and not the character I originally had in mind? Brilliant! I am a literary genius.

I’d already written an exciting subplot concerning said sister, but I proceeded to dismantle this and write the new storyline. Trouble is, I’m telling the story from three separate points of view, so this little change had a knock-on effect on everyone. You know how it goes: if A did this, B would have to do that and C would reveal something she shouldn’t even know about.   

What started as a small tweak morphed into a major rewrite and many wasted hours trying to get my characters to fit this new narrative. It changed everything.The novel became a different story. A very complicated one.

I found myself constantly checking backwards to make sure the different elements agreed with each other. I wasn’t making much headway. This, after promising myself at the start that I would write this novel to the very end before starting any editing. But everything I wrote was coloured by this new idea, and not in a good way.

It had to go.

I’ve just finished another major rewrite, taking out this ridiculous subplot and developing my characters into more rounded and credible individuals without any deviations from my original plot. I feel much happier now. My story and I are progressing.

Subplots? Meh.

Here is my interview with Maggie Cammiss

I’m chatting about my writing journey with Fiona McVie today

authorsinterviews

Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.

Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?

Hi Fiona, thanks for inviting me. My name is Maggie Cammiss, and if a lady will tell you her age, she’ll tell you anything. Suffice to say, I’m always 30 in my head.

Fiona: Where are you from?

I was born in Pontefract, in west Yorkshire. I lived and worked in London for over 30 years, but now I live in a village in Norfolk.

Fiona: A little about yourself (ie, your education, family life, etc.).

I’m one of five children. My father was a master signwriter, a talented artist and cartoonist, but I got my love of books and writing from my mother. I trained to be a teacher, but spent all my working life in libraries of different sorts…

View original post 1,676 more words

New Shoots

Now that Spring finally seems to have arrived in the garden, my thoughts have turned to my own green shoots – those budding ideas I’ve actually turned into stories. How did I get to this point?

My writing journey (is that a cliché these days?) started several years ago. Although most of my friends and family were encouraging, I doubted I had the staying power when I set off, but I wanted to try. And here I am with two novels published and a third in progress. Wow.

Along the way I’ve encountered difficulties and disappointments, highs and lows, but I’ve never lacked Advice. So, in retrospective mood, here are my reflections on the huge amount of writing advice available. What’s actually been useful?

Continue reading

Should I Let My Characters Write Their Own Ending?

Who says exercise is useless? I may not be losing any weight but my brain is definitely benefiting. During my swim this morning I had a brilliant idea for a subplot in my WIP. The new story line slid easily into place, with all the attendant connections and foreshadowing (was I dreaming? This doesn’t usually happen to me) and I couldn’t wait to get out of the pool and make some notes (my memory isn’t to be relied upon these days). This is doubly important because the novel has recently hit the buffers. It’ll mean a bit of rewriting, but it’s so worth it. But I digress… Continue reading

A Knotty Problem Unravelled, or How Knitting Saved my Novel

My third novel was languishing in a bottom-drawer file on my PC. I couldn’t see the way through it, even though I had all the characters, the plot and subplots, and the ending, firmly in my mind. I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Was I being too ambitious? It’s actually a good story; I’m very proud of it, but it had become a dense, tangled muddle. I had to figure out why it wasn’t working, why the damn thing wouldn’t progress. I decided a more forensic approach was needed if it was going to be resurrected. Continue reading

Cutting Edge presents its third anthology

Anthology of Stories and Poems Volume 3 by [Writers Group, Cutting Edge]

All of us have a story to tell. This Anthology is the third volume of short stories and poetry, reflecting some of the work produced by the members of the Cutting Edge Writers Group, meeting at The Cut, Halesworth, Suffolk

You can now give ebooks as gifts – the perfect stocking filler. 

 

 

Are You Ready For Your Close Up?

I’ve just discovered how to embed a Kindle preview in my social media posts.  It’s a very useful addition to the self-publisher’s promotional arsenal, as, like the ‘Look Inside’ facility already offered by Amazon, it gives our readers a chance to sample our work before buying. This has got me thinking about those all-important first chapters and how they’ll stand up to this scrutiny, divorced, as they are, from the rest of the narrative. Is your work polished enough to withstand such a close up, critical examination?

The same rules are in operation as in the usual submission process, but how many of us who are going it alone actually apply them before hitting the ‘publish’ button?

I’ve read some pretty awful previews – bad punctuation, poor grammar, non-existent editing. You might think these things aren’t important any more, but if you’re hoping to attract a wide readership, with positive reviews, you should aim to tick as many of the boxes as possible. The professional services of editors and proofreaders might be beyond the budget of most self-publishers, but there’s still a lot we can do to help ourselves. We want to produce the best manuscript we can, which means paying attention to all the things mentioned above. Your story has the potential to be a best seller, a real page-turner, so you don’t want to turn prospective readers off before they’ve even started.

And that’s another thing – if you’re guilty of admitting, ‘the story doesn’t really get going until chapter six’, you need to take a long, hard look at the structure of your novel and consider starting it in a different place, such as a point of conflict, or where the action begins. A preview two or three chapters full of meandering, irrelevant material will not reveal your master plan or show off your story-telling skills to their best advantage. Tempt your readers in by laying a trail of tasty breadcrumbs that they can’t resist. 

I’m presuming that now you’ve reached the point of publication you’ve already got all your tenses agreeing, points of view sorted, spelling checked, punctuation and grammar perfected. But have one final read of your opening chapters with these questions in mind:

  • Do they entice the reader with a promise of a cracking good read?
  • Is there too much description? Be honest!
  • Does the reader know immediately whose story you are telling?
  • Are the characters too numerous for the reader to distinguish?
  • Are the introductions rushed, or too brief?
  • Are there too many adverbs/adjectives?
  • Is the story already too complicated? Or not interesting enough?
  • Does it start in the right place?
  • Is there too much irrelevant backstory?

It’s notoriously difficult to read your own work objectively, to look at it with new eyes and spot the problems that a dispassionate reader would notice immediately. But I promise you it will be a worthwhile exercise and result in a more engaging opening if you give those initial chapters a little more attention.