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Archive for the ‘Advice & Suggestions’ Category


Rowenna of Rowenna, Writing has made a couple of interesting posts over the past week about that age-old writing adage of ‘writing what you know’.  She asks whether we should write what we know and get to know that thing if we don’t already and in her second post on the subject, she discusses how we can write out about something we simply cannot experience by, rather like in job applications, using our transferable knowledge and experience.

Go over and read her posts, they’re  interesting and she touches upon some ideas that are really important to writers, but which we don’t often stop to think about after the new writer initiation:

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Write what you know.

New Writer: But I don’t know about aliens!

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Well, what that really means is know what you write.

New Writer: Oh right, so I research the subject, then?

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Er, yeah, pretty much.

New Writer: Cool, I’ll get going to the library, then.  Cheers!

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Hmm … I was sure there was more to it than that …

So, Rowenna got me thinking and I wrote an unreasonably long comment on her post (sorry!), which I thought I’d expand into a proper blog post, since it’s so important for writing, particularly if you write fantasy, sci-fi or historical fiction.

Many, many years ago, I read that writers should ‘write what you know’, and felt confused and disappointed: did that mean I should only write about the life of a not-quite teenage girl?  Did that mean my only setting would be a boring little suburb of London?  Did that mean all my characters had to, essentially, be people I knew?  What about the elves and magic and saving the world that I wanted to write about?!  What about all those fantasy books I read – I was fairly sure no authors actually lived in rip-offs of Middle Earth…

And then, in another book on writing (I’m afraid I don’t remember which one, as I said, this was long ago, in the mists of history!) I saw a response to that adage that said you need to ‘know what you write’.  So, if you want to write about something you don’t know of through your life, you need to find out about it.  Hit the library (this was in the infancy of ‘teh interwebz’), take a course, pay attention in history class, and you, too, can ‘know what you write’ and are, thereafter, allowed by the writing Gods to write about life in a keep because you’ve read a book about their inner workings.

What about me?

But that’s still not the whole story.  What about those elves?  I can’t find out about them in a history book!  And that’s where the bane of fantasy and sci-fi writers comes in: maps!  Or, rather, own world research.  You might be inspired by mythology, you can find out about that with book learning, but your elves might be different.  What’s your world like?  Look at real world examples, think about your cultures, write notes to keep it all straight in your head.

Yep, we all know this stuff, and yet that’s still not it.

We also need experiential research: reading a book on 18th century homes won’t necessarily tell you what they smell like, that sort of detail often comes with experience.  Then there are, as Rowenna covers in one of her posts, transferable experiences.

Having said that, I think you can ‘blag it’ and write without experience to an extent, but I wager that the scene won’t be as gripping and real as it would have been if you had found some way to ‘know’ that experience.  If it is, then I suspect you’ve drawn upon some transferable experience without even realising.

For example, I’ve never been in any sort of battle, yet I’ve received a lot of praise for a battle scene in A Thief & A Gentlewoman. Sounds a bit bonkers, but bear with me – it involves an enraged elephant attacking, while our heroine, Quin, must battle it riding a sabre tooth cat. Needless to say, I definitely don’t have experience of (a) being attacked by an elephant or (b) riding a sabre cat! I don’t even have experience of being in a real fight.

So how the heck did I write a scene that’s apparently so vivid and gripping? Reflecting upon it, I must have drawn upon various experiences:

  • I’ve ridden horses so I know how it feels to move so quickly on the back of another creature.
  • I’ve been in big crowds in the rush of London and the buffeting of gigs and nightclubs, so I’ve experienced that chaos.
  • I’ve sparred in karate and wrestled with my dad when I was younger, so I know what it’s like to react and rely on instinct and reflexes.  When I’ve not done so well, I’ve also experienced tumbling across the floor, not knowing which way is up!
  • And, a skill I think a lot of avid readers and writers have, is to be able to read or watch a scene and vividly imagine it, placing themselves in the place of that character, feeling every tumble and strain of the fight in some swashbuckling adventure.  Novels and films can inform us and, if we have that imagination and empathy, can vicariously give us experience to some extent.

So, I think all of those things must have informed my writing of that scene, and I think it’s exactly this sort of approach that enables us as writers to write what we don’t know while knowing what we write.

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A de-motivational poster, but it could be a motivation for your character.

I love a good bit of synchronicity …  I’ve been reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy recently, having already read and loved The Liveship Traders.  One of the things I love most about her work is how damn real the characters are.  They make the wrong, slightly illogical choices because of their emotions; they hurt others because of their own flaws; they don’t have an easy time because they know what they want, but they don’t always know what they need.  Robin Hobb doesn’t let them off easily.

So I’ve been thinking about character flaws, when what should appear on my blog feed, but a short’n’sweet article by Rachelle Garner on Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws.

As writers, we love our characters, even the villains, but especially the heroes.  Which means it’s hard, sometimes, to give them a hard time or to let them hurt each other.  In particular, it’s difficult to find that balance between the likeability of the character and the realism of giving them actual flaws that have a negative effect on those around them – their friends, families, lovers …

Rachelle briefly discusses the difference between the real flaw and the cosmetic flaw … but fear not if you suddenly realise your characters have cosmetic flaws, because often the cosmetic flaw is but a watered down, victimless version of the real flaw and all we need to do is look at the darker side of their perfectionism or insecurity and how it makes victims of others.

Check out her article, and I’d love to know if you have any other tips or articles!

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HMS Victory, dry-docked in Portsmouth

I’m going to be away for most of next week – I’m visiting the seaside, and this first-rate ship of the line,* huzzah! – and I didn’t want to leave my lovely readers adrift, so here is some recommended reading:

For Readers (AKA everyone!)

  • Want a tip on how to maintain your 18th century love affair?  Lauren over at Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide has just the thing – a fab, fun post that looks like it might become part of a series!  (I certainly hope so!).
  • I do enjoy a bit of gender inversion and Rowenna of Hyaline Prosaic has posted a saucy 18th century print showing just that.  Be sure to read the comments, too, there are some interesting ideas going on about the symbolism of the parrot and dog in the image.

For Writers

  • Picture the scene – you’ve found yourself in a lift with a literary agent, you’re chatting, the topic of your finished manuscript comes up, you’ve got 2 minutes to wow them and get them wanting more – GO!  Does this scenario fill you with dread?  Me too.  Thankfully, help is at hand from a very successful agent: Rachelle Gardner tells us the Secrets of a Great Pitch to help us prepare for just such a moment and even has some advice for agents and editors to remember when us poor writers garble over our pitches!
  • I am as guilty of this as any other writer – saying and thinking I don’t have time to write.  Funnily enough, I read two posts relating to this over the past week or so.  First Rachelle Gardner wrote on What We Give Up, raising some hard-hitting points – us writers can’t do everything, we have to prioritise and sometimes we have to give things up.  So often modern life encourages us to ‘have everything’ that we forget that in order to have the things we really want, we have to bid farewell to the less important things.  And just today, Kim from What Women Write wrote about excuses not to write – we all make them and fool ourselves into believing them.  We all need to overcome them.  I desperately need to get over those excuses, cut down on the excess and give up some things in order to get on with the important thing: writing. 
  • Something to think about and discuss – how do you Pick your Perfect Title?  Go and join in with the writers at Let the Words Flow.

For Stitchers

And as for what I’ll be reading while I’m gone?  I’ve got half a manuscript to go over with my red pen and get back to writing.

So, I wish you adieu, my dears – when I return from Portsmouth, it’s The Boy’s Birthday and his parents are visiting, I should be back and a-posting around the 24th May.  Wishing you all happy writing, pretty stitching and fun in the sun in the meantime!

* HMS Victory is dry-docked in Portsmouth – ’tis a rather pretty ship (am I allowed to say ‘pretty’ about a ship?) launched in 1765, so it’s from the century everyone loves!

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These three things are inextricably interlinked for me.  When I am reading a story I love, I feel most inspired to write.  And, I like to think I’m aware enough that I don’t fall into that trap of writing like what I’m currently reading, which I hear/read so often from writers – ‘I don’t read anything while I’m writing a novel in case it subconsciously influences me’.  Which is fair enough, but I do think that reading is the best way to learn about writing, closely followed by writing (see below for my justification of this!).  And if you want to get published, then it’s even more vital that you know what is already out there, what is selling and what the conventions are, whether you intend to follow them or not.

Now, to qualify that off-hand comment about the best way to learn to write … This is, of course, just one woman’s opinion, but I think that reading extensively provides you with the basis for any learning you might do through writing itself.  Before I ever attempted to write myself and before I ever had any formal teaching on writing, I read.  As a child I lived in imagined worlds more than I lived in the ‘real world’ (and if I had my own way, I probably would now, too).  This meant that when I came to write and to learn about story I had an instinctive understanding of structure, character, dialogue and so on.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a basis.  It meant that I could think of examples of the kind of scene or plot I was trying to write or that someone else was trying to teach me about.  It meant that somewhere in the back of my mind a voice said that you needed tension and climaxes and resolutions long, long before I ever read about those things in ‘how to write’ books.

Reading was the underpinning for the rest of my learning about writing.  I cannot stress the importance of it enough.  (Plus, if you want to write and be published, then buying and borrowing books from the library is a great way to support your industry.)

If you want some more writing tips, here’s an interesting article from The Guardian – Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.  (And yes, I need for work on number 5 – me and my addiction to exclamation marks!)  I got the link via the often funny, ever enlightening Nathan Bransford.  He does a fantastic post on the week’s happenings in publishing – if you want to be published or work in the industry, you’d be well-advised to read it!  In fact, just subcribe to his blog and read it all – you’ll find something useful, I promise!

And if you were wondering where the start of this post was going – it was further praise for Robin Hobb.  I am loving Ship of Magic like a great big obsessive weirdo.  I know I am loving it that much, because I find myself thinking about it when I’m doing other things and I am constantly looking forward to the next time I get a chance to read it.  And as it’s lunchtime, that’s now. 

What I bought at the weekend!

(Though, before I go to eat and read – if you have any recommendations along the lines of ‘if you like Robin Hobb, you’ll love …’ I’d love to hear them.  Indeed, any fantasy recommendations with good female protagonists always go down well with me!)

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Cunning Plans & Fiendish Plots


A classic subject for blogs and other discussions on writing is plotting and whether one is a ‘pantser’ (someone who flies by the seat of their pants, not someone who writes pants/crap plots) or a ‘planner’.  And who am I to argue with such time-honoured traditions?  Except for when it suits me, of course, but today, dear reader, it doesn’t suit me, so we’re going to look at plotting.

A cunning plan in action.

In the past I’ve been both pantser and a planner, usually working to a very extreme form of one or the other.  In the past I’ve also been a writer who managed about 5,000-10,000 words of a would-be novel and then found it fizzling out.  I don’t think this is a coincidence. 

I think one of the most important factors in completing the first draft of a novel (which is often half the battle) is finding the way that is right for you.  Now, I may be speaking prematurely as I am only about one third of the way through A Thief & A Gentlewoman, but I think I have found the way that is right for me.  And yes, I know I have repeated that phrase, but to me “the way that is right for you” is vital to everything in life.  I don’t generally believe in absolutes and I think something as personal as writing absolutely requires the proviso of “here’s my advice/experience, but if it doesn’t work for you, then throw it out the window”.

And with that proviso firmly in place, this is the method of plotting (fiendish, cunning or otherwise) that works for me and has allowed me to get far further on a project than ever before, and hopefully it will see me over the first draft finishing line … 

I start with a vague idea of what I want to happen and I turn to one of my favourite things in life to help me set it out:

  • The
  • bullet
  • point
  • list!

Each event that I have in the story gets its own bullet point:

  • Girl meets boy. 
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy.
  • The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves. 
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

It is meant to be super basic at the moment – we’re talking vague ideas.  Eventually, however, this will become a list with a bullet-point for each scene in the story.  (OK, I know that sounds daunting, but I don’t find it so, especially as it’s written over time with scenes added and moved around as ideas evolve.)

I usually have these vague ideas floating about and then start fleshing out the characters involved before I come to this bullet-point process as this allows me to know how they will behave, but also whose eyes I want to see this particular scene through.  For really important events, I tend to overlap viewpoints, especially when it can create humour, tension or empathy by showing the different ways people can see the same incident.

From there I look at my scenes and think about what needs to happen between them, how the story will move from one scene to the next.  I also consider what will cause those events and how the cause will shape the form of the actual event – for example what is the exact form the warring family pressure that make boy and girl kill themselves?  This will give me scenes that come before as well as give me more detail for the original bullet points, so it might start to look something like this:

  • Girl meets boy.
  • Girl and boy find out they’re from warring families.
  • Girl marries boy in secret.
  • Boy argues with girl’s cousin (because cousin killed Boy’s best friend) and ends up killing him in a fight.
  • Boy gets banished for the killing.
  • Girl’s family arranges for her to marry another man, not knowing she’s already married.
  • Priest comes up with a plan to save the girl from bigamy and keep the couple together.
  • Girl takes poison and appears dead to her family.
  • Priest sends message to Boy, telling him about the plan and that Girl isn’t really dead, but just seems it.  Boy doesn’t get message.
  • Boy hears girl is dead and rushes to her tomb.  Unable to bear living without her, he kills himself.
  • Girl wakes and finds Boy dead.  Unable to bear living without him, she kills herself.
  • Families learn a lesson abut feuding (we hope!).

Still quite simplified, but you can see that we’ve fleshed things out a bit and that the original “The pressures of their warring families mean girl and boy kill themselves” bullet point has actually become two scenes as the idea has developed as we’ve worked out the specifics and the causes of the event.  That scene has also split to allow for the two viewpoints.  (Of course, this is Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, so as it’s not a novel it doesn’t have the two view-points as such, but if you were writing it as a novel with a third person narrator close to a character it would have to – Romeo is not alive when Juliet dies so the narrator can’t be near him for both events and Juliet is unconscious when Romeo dies so the narrator can’t be in her mind for both deaths.  Sorry, that’s quite a convoluted explanation, isn’t it?!) 

Non?

From there you also think about what is needed in this plot, such as the introduction of the key characters and setting up the idea of the feuding families (that latter of which old Shakey does with that brilliant “I do bite my thumb, sir!” opening scene) and add those in.  This is where I weave in the ‘set up’, by which I mean things such as the clues seen early on in Poirot but not initially appreciated for their full significance (like “Ah, but you have been to Egypt, non?  And so had the killer!  Duh duh duuuuuuh!”), or the mention of that clever little weapon hidden in our heroine’s knickers that will save her life in the penultimate scene (such as Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood who “whipped a pistol from her knickers” and swiftly dispatched of poor little wolfy).  So you go back and add an early scene where the protagonist overhears a conversation but fails to appreciate its significance, and another scene where we meet the protagonist’s teacher who also gives them a gift or teaches them a technique, which of course will save them in the end. 

Which also reminds me – I try to make my scenes work hard for their place in my story.  By which I mean that scenes have to fulfil more than one role, such as the above introduction of the teacher and of the important object.  A scene that is only doing one job just isn’t pulling its weight.  Sometimes it can be hard to imagine how you can make that scene that introduces Bob do something else, but if you give it some thought and look at how other people do it, you’ll soon impress yourself with your cunning by showing the reader Bob’s relationship with protagonist Jane, showing characterisation of Jane and Bob (Jane through her thoughts, words and actions and Bob through his actions and what he says to Jane) and setting up mention of the strange spate of catnappings on page 12 of the local newspaper that Jane is using to wrap up the glass Bob just broke (because he’s clumsy which is part of the characterisation you’re showing to the reader) … and so on. 

At this stage I find the major scenes tend to become quite long in their bullet points because there are so many important details that I need to remember to include, which is great because those major scenes can be rather daunting to write and can be easy to get lost in.  This bullet-point method also allows me to tick off scenes as I write them, which gives the list-writer in me a sense of achievement and reminds the writer in me that I’m one step closer to finishing the first draft. 

It’s also a great foundation for those snippets of conversation that come to you on the bus.  By knowing that at some point Jane and Bob will have a discussion about Bob’s vegetarianism and Jane’s love of meat, my mind will have that idea on the back-burner and when I wake up with that great bit of punchy dialogue, I have somewhere I can keep it safe, rather than just writing it on a scrap of paper that gets lost or in a notebook and not being able to find it when I come to write the scene.  Because when I come to write the scene, I’ll have my bullet points (that usually get printed out and scribbled on and then re-typed and re-printed to include the scribblings when the paper’s about to fall apart) with that snappy conversation and I can decide whether I still think it’s great or whether I think “whatever was I thinking?!”

I enjoy the whole process of plotting in this way, it’s a time for getting stuck on a problem, puzzling over it, then deciding to go for a bath and having that eureka(!) moment while you cook dinner.  It’s really fun weaving and winding your webs of intrigue and inter-connectedness – Hell, it’s the only way I can think of that allows a person to spend days fiendishly plotting without being a Bond villain!  And I do like a good bit of fiendish plotting.

Kitty doesn't care about plot, so long as kitty gets to sleep.

 Now, I know some argue that this approach doesn’t allow you any space for creativity – I’ve even said it myself in the past when I’ve been pantsing and even on previous attempts at planning – but I find this particular way of working does the opposite for me.  I can always change my bullet points at any time, I can copy and paste the order of events or just delete them, or split scenes up to allow for a flash-back half way through, but having that list there actually allows me more creativity when I’m doing the fun part of actually writing the scene.  Rather than sitting down and feeling tense and stifled because I’m thinking:

oh Gods, what’s meant to happen in this scene?  How on earth did I write myself into this rut?  I know I need to get to Lord Devilish’s house for the big climax, but how the Hell do I get there from here?!  Man, I really don’t want to write this scene if I’m just going to have to delete it when it comes to editing … Angst!

I get to say to myself:

OK, I know that Jane needs to ask Bob to the dance at Lord Devilish’s in this scene, and that he’ll think he’s finally getting lucky, but that he’ll be disappointed because she’ll explain she’s only doing it because she needs a date who’s quite plain and therefore won’t draw attention to himself.

And I get the simple enjoyment of that dialogue with a bit of sulking by Bob and back-pedalling by Jane and those fun little thrilling signs for the reader that they both like each other but don’t want to say, whilst still being safe in the knowledge that I’m taking the story in the right direction. 

In short, the bullet points tell me what has to happen in the scene, but I get to enjoy seeing how the characters take me there – and sometimes they surprise me.

If you’re stuck in a plot-rut or just can’t get past chapter 5, then maybe it’s time to try something different, try pantsing or this planning method, it might just help.  And scribblers, do tell me about your own cunning planning methods – I love to hear about the different ways people work!

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