Part 3 Of Writing Skills : Getting Started

At long last we’re comfortable in our environment, our heads are buzzing with ideas and we want to start spewing them out onto our chosen media. Pens or keyboards at the ready? Then off we go!

Not so fast! You’ll be getting sick of me putting a halt to the flow of all of those lovely creative juices, but this won’t take long. Just a few tricks that I use and we really can get started. Even if you use a keyboard, it may be better to have a pen and paper handy for the next bit, or else open a second document that you can bookmark in sections. Why? I hear you asking. i’m also hearing lots of other comments such as ‘what the f**k’s he on about now?’

No matter, the reason is simple. When you write, you might think that you are going to remember everything that you’ve already written. Maybe your memory is better than mine, but unless it’s photographic, I can assure you that you won’t. Got your notes ready? Great, let’s bash on. Here’s a typical snippet that I’ve just made up for the sake of this guide…

Faye was standing next to the window, enjoying the cool sensation of the slight draught that crept past the frames and oozed down the cold glass, to caress her bronzed bare legs and feet. She let her green eyes wander through the meadows beyond Carstead House and on into the pale, pastel-pink range of the Kalashun mountains to the North-West. Thoughts fluttered through her mind like butterflies, their fragile wings scarcely caressing her consciousness before moving on, disappearing like the early morning mist under the heat of the rising sun. She wondered about Grayson. Fort Ansenguard lay at the foothills of the distand rugged peaks. Had Elemar reached him already, with news of the forthcoming Tourney? Did Marak, her brother’s trusty cross-bred servant realise that the laws had changed so that he could participate, too?

That is just one paragraph of around 150 words. Your novel may be 50,000 to 300,000 words long. What do you notice about the paragraph? Names? Relationships? Descriptions? You’d be right, of course. All of this and more is contained in the paragraph. We also have a small insight into Faye’s character. She is perhaps inclined to daydream. She is considerate, not just of her brother, but his servant as well. You will remember some of this, because you have created Faye, but you won’t necessarily recall everything. My notes are for keeping track of all this. I write down the nam of each character as I introduce them. I add notes to each one. It doesn’t need to be much, just something to refresh your memory and keep your characters consistent. It’s no good Faye’s green eyes becoming grey halfway through the story, unless you have an explanation for the change to present to the reader. Check out how I would add to my character list.

Character List.

Faye : tanned, green eyes, lives at Carstead House. Brother Grayson

Grayson : Faye’s sister. At Fort Ansengard at start of novel

Marak : Cross-breed. Grayson’s servant. Fort Ansenguard

Elemar : messenger. Relays news of tourney to Grayson.

Also, I like to keep track of events and geography. In a story that runs fairly linearly, the events and timing aspect are not so crucial, but if you want to zap about in time (isn’t it lovely how, as writers, we can do all this?), then it’s vital. Later on, we don’t want to find that Grayson knew about the tourney, before the messenger was sent (unless for a good reason, again). Nor do we want Fort Ansenguard to be nestling in the foothills of Mount Senemac, which is in the Kalosami mountains, not Kalashun range. We don’t want the Kalashun mountains to suddenly start looking grey and barren, either. To do this I make similar notes for places and another set that I call a timeline.

Places.

Carstead House : SE of Kalashun mountains. Meadows round it

Fort Ansenguard : in foothills of Kalashun range

Kalashun : mountain range, pinkish rocks

It’s simple and takes no time to do, but saves you from a hell of a lot of embarrasing mistakes. Sometimes, even if you are writing continuously, you can cock up badly without these aids, but say dad is in hospital for a few weeks and the dog’s brought fleas into the house. Before you know it three weeks have passed and your mind has been so distracted with these more pressing, not to say distressing matters, that you can’t even remember Marak’s name, let alone who he is. It’s a case then of leafing or scrolling through pages of text, maybe several hundred, before you find him again. Even the search tools on a PC are not that much help at times like this. So you can’t think of the Kalashun name? You might try searching on the word ‘mountain’, but have never referred to the hills as anything except peaks or ‘range’. Go to your notes and a few seconds tells you everything you need to prompt total recall.

Timelines

I’ve already mentioned this concept. I write sci-fi, but even if you’re writing a story about a local village, a timeline can be useful. In my novels, the planets have days, months and years that vary in duration. I like to keep this sort of thing right. A similar thing applies to writing using international locations on Earth. You can’t describe the heat of the noon summer for Carl in Australia, then have him calling Pascale in France who’s eating their lunch and also basking in the summer sunshine. For Pascale, it’s possibly snowing and definitely the middle of the night! Equally, even if you have properly accounted for time and seasonal differences, Carl can’t be telling Pascale about his father’s death, that day,  if Simone told her about it last Tuesday!

On with the book!

I don’t want to say too much about grammar and punctuation. There are some good sites out there that advise on the subject. I joined Writer’s Beat at http://www.writersbeat.com. They have a good section on this sort of thing, but I dare say that there will be others, too. I’d advise anyone to join a forum such as that. you’ll get a lot of support and encouragement, even if it’s only of the moral type, because you’ll need that sometimes.

I will say that it’s much more important than you would think. It makes a big difference when you come to read a book, if it is well constructed grammatically. Try to get into the habit of imagining yourself reading the words out loud, as you write them.This way you’ll quite naturally use commas and stops in more or less the correct places. Good and bad examples of this are given below. I don’t need to tell you which is which. You’ll all have seen both, even in published work.

Graham and Sue was in a very bad mood that day because Erica her mind on Frank, didn’t thinl that he mattered, not that she mindded Stu didn’t care either. He was beginning to despise Erica.

Graham and Sue were both in bad moods that day. For Graham, Erica was the source of his anger. Erica could only think about Frank and did not care how Graham felt, or so Graham thought. Sue was unconcerned at the problems which Erica was stirring up. Stu was equally oblivious to the situation. Graham was beginning to despise Erica.

You’ll have noticed that the second version is longer than the first. Essentially, they both contain the same information. The problems with the first draft are manifold. Not only are the spelling and grammar poor and the punctation terrible, but also there are errors that writers all too commonly make, myself included. I’ll demonstrate this by retyping the first draft, correcting only grammar and punctuation.

Graham and Sue were in very bad moods that day because Erica, her mind on Frank, didn’t think that he mattered. Not that she minded. Stu didn’t care either. He was beginning to despise Erica.

That now reads much better, but it still leaves the reader confused. Why? Because when the writer produced it, he knew the entire plot. When using personal pronouns like ‘he’ or ‘she’, the writer knew who he was referring to. We, the readers aren’t privy to that information. we are left wondering who did what? the last sentence implies that Stu was beginning to despise Erica, when that was not the case at all. Your characters have names. At the very least they have been described. By all means use ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘the man’ in your sentences. You should only do this when continuing to write about a character that you have just named or described. For instance, an entire paragraph or even a whole chapter may be devoted to one named character. At that point use of such words is not confusing. As a writer, it is all too easy to use the pronoun, because we know exactly who we are referring to.

Similarly, the writer of the first draft knows how each character feels about the situation and it is easy to forget that the reader doesn’t. That is why the second (green) draft is much better. It leaves us in no doubt as to who thinks what. It also helps to develop the character more fully. It allows the reader to build a picture of Graham, especially. It engages the reader more. We are left wondering if Erica is a total cow, that Stu and Su are inconsiderate, or is it that Graham himself is in the wrong? The use of the phrase ‘or so Graham thought’ gives a sense that Graham’s interpretation may not be wholly correct. Armed with such informed questions, the reader is more likely to want to read on, just to find out which is right.

That’s enough writing craft for us all, today.

It’s the end of a long night, scribbling away. You’ve written a chapter and it’s late. What should you do? Well, set aside your day’s work. Have a drink and watch TV or listen to a bit of music. Relax. After that, each evening I like to take what I’ve written that day and read it through in bed, when I’m less hyped up. This is good, because I can spot things I may want to alter. I can take pleasure from my work and be eager to get cracking again the next day. I find this to be motivational and it helps to set my mind at rest for the night. Sometimes this doesn’t work and I end up getting out of bed again and writing until some unearthly hour! I still think that it is useful to make these little reviews of each chapter of writing.

In the next section, I’ll continue with other writing techniques and move onto editing. You may be wondering why I have stuck to such boring things as grammar, punctuation and clarity. I’ve done this deliberately, of course. These things seem to be trivial, but make the difference between something that is easy to read and something that will make people put your book down. the rest is down to your own imagination, not mine. If I tried to detail how every last bit of your book should be written, I’d be instructing you as to how to write a novel exactly like my own. That would be bad on several levels. Firstly, you would probably fail, not because I am great and you are poor, but because you don’t think like me. This links to the other reason that i don’t want to instruct. The beauty of any art is in its identity and novelty, which stems from the individual(s) that create it. There is no wrong way or right way to produce a novel. get the basics right and use your own style.

See you next time.

Best wishes from Marcus.

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