Wednesday, 30 July 2014

10 Questions to Ask of Every Single Chapter You Write…

1. Are the Opening Paragraphs Slowing it Down
Chapter divisions are a necessary part of a book, helping to pace the whole, but this doesn’t mean you have to give them too much respect and spend endless paragraphs at the beginning of the chapter re-introducing the setting, plot or characters. The very best chapter openings are those that take the readers straight into the action, resisting the temptation to recap an overview of the story so far or simply take a literary breath, where nothing is actually happening, but somehow you’ve kept the pen moving. Whatever’s happening in your chapter, get to the point as quickly as you can to keep the book moving forward.  

2. What Do We Know Now About the Plot that We Didn’t Know in the Last Chapter?
This question could be rephrased to ask ‘what is the point of this chapter’? This is something that it is useful for you to know before you start writing to keep you on track. As an editor, I often read chapters where it seems that nothing in particular happens. One reason for this is that the author has forgotten their creative licence and taken a linear pathway through the story rather than simply picking and choosing a tightly plotted route where something is always happening to take us ever onwards. That’s the beauty of being a writer; you really don’t have to include all the boring bits that happen in life in order to get the interesting bit. Be succinct in your writing and make sure that every single chapter moves your reader forward in some way. Remember, ours is such a disposable culture that it only takes one slow or ‘bad’ chapter where nothing much is happen for a reader to potentially pass you over for another read.

3. How Has Your Lead Character (Other Characters) Developed?
Again this is about making every chapter count. Use your plot development and the interaction between characters to show us exactly what makes your characters tick. Ideally they will be constantly affected by the events of your novel, so take the time to ask what this particular chunk of story is going to do to them. If your characters remain essentially unchanged throughout then something has gone wrong.

4. Is Any Part of the Chapter Unnecessary?
There are a range of reasons why parts of the chapter may be unnecessary, two of which are outlined in the preceding questions (not progressing plot or character). The ideal is for you to keep moving forward, and cutting unnecessary passages will help this, whether it’s that you are spending a little too long hammering a point home that you nailed in a few paragraphs, or you’ve written a killer description that you love, but it really is slowing the narrative down. It could be that you have chunks that are a little repetitive because you want to feel confident that you have got your point across. Have faith in your readers and your own writing ability that they will understand what you are writing immediately without dead, repetitive passages. Be ruthless in your cutting to create the best possible read.

5. What is there for Your Readers to Wonder About?
This is a huge question, responding directly to the reasons that readers choose to read at all. Whatever you are writing, you need to be one step ahead of the reader because readers want to be challenged. Mystery is not simply the domain of the crime writer; whatever you are writing, you need to leave your readers guessing. If you are asking what there is for your readers to wonder about with every chapter you write, you stand a good chance of creating a book that will deeply satisfy even the most skilled, plot-unravelling mind.

6. What is there for Your Readers to Care About?
Another reason that readers read is pure escapism and it is your responsibility to create an island for their imaginary vacation. The only way that this can happen is for you to get your readers emotionally involved, so you have to continually ask what you have created that your readers will care about. This is an extremely loose question because there are a number of ways to care and it is up to you to decide which is appropriate for you and your story. Empathy is the key here; if readers are able to relate to the characters you are creating and the situations that you put them in then you have a jumpstart.

7. Has Any Opportunity for Action Been Missed?
This is an interesting point to make and not one that is always apparent to the writer unless they make a point of adding it to a chapter checklist. Again this has become apparent to me as an editor, reading fiction of all kinds, and relates to how you choose to tell your story. Of course, there are many ways to plot events in a novel and quite simply, the most exciting route is a wrecking ball through the middle of the drama as it happens. This is how truly exciting fiction emerges. Let me qualify this by giving you an example of the alternative: picture a thriller, perhaps a detective novel, where the protagonist spends most of his or her time thinking, going over evidence, talking to people, cracking on with the clues and then eventually solving the case. It sounds good, but how much better would it be if the same protagonist always arrived at times of danger and has to put his or her life on the line to get to the truth and the clues put him or her under further private peril and he or she barely scrapes it to the end of the book in one piece? Just as mystery isn’t just the domain of the mystery writer, thriller writers don’t have the monopoly on action. Even if you are writing a non-genre, literary thinker, a love story or a comedy, you need to keep your readers engaged by keeping the stakes as high as you can.

8. Has Any Opportunity for Originality Been Missed?
While we’re making sure that you haven’t missed any opportunities, take a moment to do an originality check. Have you read or seen anything you have written in this chapter before? Worse, have you bought into any clichés that are dominating this chapter? One of the most wonderful things about being a writer is being able to present a unique view of the world to readers. This should be presented on many levels throughout the book, from the overall vision that you want to achieve and the characters and plot that gets you there, to the way events are presented throughout each chapter, right down to language level, where you are being inventing and using your personal voice to create a unique reading experience. Taking the time to check that you haven’t sloped off into a world that’s just too familiar will help you as you write each chapter.

9. Is Everything Right?
This will seem like a ridiculously broad question to ask of your chapter, but accuracy is important. I have read books where Mr Smith began as a blonde teacher and ended as a ginger accountant. I have read books where he started as Mr Smith and somehow became Mr Schmitt by the end. She grew up in Suffolk but somehow now has a Geordie accent? We’re told in the first chapter that he always calls her lollypop because of the size of her head, but then we never actually see him call her it. It’s all about consistency and accuracy. Some writers keep notes as they write to make sure that they aren’t having crises of continuity. Chapter by chapter, it may just be an idea to have a read through what you’ve already written so that you are avoiding glaring errors and equally usefully, creating a consistent reading experience in terms of your style. This is also a great time to mention SHOW don’t TELL, which I’m hoping needs no further explanation.

10. Will the Ending Keep the Pages Turning?
Chapter endings give readers the option of reading on or slipping their bookmark in for the night and coming back to you another day. Ideally you want the former, so approach the end of the chapter with this in mind. I have read books where every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, which was great apart from the fact that I don’t remember getting any sleep at all throughout the whole reading experience. Not every book needs to have this level of drama, but ask yourself how you can end your chapter to guarantee, at the very least, a return visit from the reader. An unresolved issue is great. What also works is a reveal – readers will always want to read on to see what happens next. Surprises and twists are great also. Basically I would just encourage you to utilize what you have with the beginnings and endings of chapters and steer clear of ‘the day begins’ and ‘the day ends’ kinds of openings and closings. Chapter divides are a great tool for you to explore and master, so take the time and see what you can do.

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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Writing Exercises

Much like an athlete, it is essential that you exercise before the marathon that is writing a novel, script or poetry/short story anthology. Even non-fiction writers need to warm up or you will find yourself exhausted with only a blank page to show for your efforts.
Writing exercises, however, not only serve to enhance discipline and stamina, they are paramount in generating ideas and improving your skills in certain areas (e.g. developing characters, writing dialogue, etc). Listed below are tried and tested writing exercises for you to dip into:
Adjective Free
Adjective free is an exercise which explores style and language choice. Write a scene or chapter, maybe just a few pages, without using adjectives. Introducing this limitation is a great demonstration of the power of word economy and the over-reliance of certain words. It will also get the cogs turning in a uniquely challenging way.
Chain Writing
This exercise is great fun for two or more writers. One person starts by writing a few paragraphs then passes it on to the next person to continue (maybe by email). This can provide a great break in a heavy writing session, introduce you to collaborative work and produce amusing results.
Character CV
The better acquainted you are with your characters, the more rich and believable they will appear to your reader. As the title of this exercise suggests, write a character CV for any character you are writing about. The CV should not simply include work and education details; include as many of the following as possible: Height, body shape, hair colour, skin colour, method of transportation, favourite saying, accommodation, typical outfit to wear, friends, pets, upbringing, favourite food, drink, book, film, moral attitude, financial situation, hobbies and anything else you can think of.
This exercise is specifically geared towards improving dialogue writing. In a public place (maybe a café), sit, listen to and record as much natural dialogue as possible. The importance here is to write it exactly as it was said. In addition to improving dialogue writing, interesting people translate into interesting characters for future writing.
Go out into the World
It is so important to take breaks from writing and this is a productive way of doing so. Go out into the world (the city, beach, forest, etc) and bring back one or more items that you find. These can be, for example, an interesting leaf, a brick, an item of rubbish, or anything that takes your fancy. Write vivid physical descriptions of the item(s) and develop a back story to how the item(s) ended up where they were. This is good as a general exercise and may generate story ideas.
This is a great exercise which encourages writers to show and not tell in dialogue. Write a scene where two characters are lying to each other without stating that this is the case. The reader must be able to figure out that both are lying through your use of language alone.
New Endings
This exercise is great for identifying writing influences in your style and distancing yourself from them. Select a favourite novel, script or short story and rewrite the ending. When completed, examine how your voice differs from the original author. As writers our voices need to be as individual and original as possible, so actively practice abandoning outside influences.
News to Fiction
This idea has been used by many writers to inspire stories and films. Select a news story of interest (local news stories are quite good for this as they are not too dramatic and leave lots of scope for embellishment) and write a fictionalised account of it. As an extension of this exercise, choose an ad from the classified section of the local paper and write the back story of the sale.
People-watching is an endless source of entertainment and, as a writer, it can also be a great source of inspiration. Spend some time in a public place and select one person to be your central character; writing a detailed physical description can be a great creative exercise. Taking this one step further, create a life story for this person and they could create the foundation of your next big idea.
Pick an Object, any Object
Starting small, chose an object and work outwards to create a scene. You may, for example, choose a chair. What does this chair look like? Who sits in it and when? What room is it in and what is it like? Make your descriptions vivid and this exercise has the potential to generate wonderful plot and character ideas.
Random Words
This is a great exercise for working with specific restrictions and will often produce zany writing. Collect words from the dictionary by opening the pages and blind-pointing. Alternatively, ask a friend to give you a list of words. Now write a story containing every one of these words. It can be challenging when you have to include hovercraft, daffodils, X-ray, Oxford, stereo, liver, ice-cream and prostitution in the same story.
There’s no I in fiction
Okay, there is an I in fiction, but this exercise will help to separate your personality from your characters’. Select a character from a story/script you are working on. Write an unrelated scene/chapter where you interact with your character. It could be that you’re having a meal together, giving a job interview or even that your cars smash into each other and you are having an argument. This exercise will highlight areas where you are using your own personality in the place of genuine character development.
Timed Free Writing
Set the clock for 10 or 20 minutes everyday and just write. Pay no attention to what you are writing; just let it flow. This will get those muscles working and will produce surprising results.
Visual Stimulation
Many great literary works began with a visual seed of inspiration, so try it for yourself. Choose a painting or image and bring it to life with words. You could write about what you see or what you feel. Who is in the picture? What is this world like? How does it make you feel? You could also select a few different images and combine them in a piece of writing.
Although not technically a writing exercise, workshopping your writing will help you to improve your technique and your critical skills. A successful way of doing this is to set up or join a small group (perhaps online). Everyone should read a piece of writing written by one of the participants and discuss their responses constructively.

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