I was asked to do a piece on the craft of writing and it got me thinking about how much can be taught and how much comes from within. Can Jo or Joe Bloggs wake up one morning and say: ‘I want to be rich; I’m going to make a million by writing a best seller!’ Without that innate desire to write, can they really go on a creative writing course or delve into the thousands of ‘how to’ write books out there, then put pen to paper, write and write again, polish and edit, then go back to the start? Perhaps they could, but for me that would be the equivalent of saying: ‘I want to be rich; I’m going to make a million by becoming an offshore trust and tax planning lawyer!’ Admittedly there would be more chance of earning that elusive million, but dull, dull, dull! I just couldn’t do it.
I’m an author who hasn’t been on a creative writing course, studied language or literature at any level higher than school. I haven’t even opened a book on the subject! So I’m no expert on the ‘official’ rules of writing. But I love to read novels, I have been a member of two very different writing groups, and I pay close attention to feedback and advice given by those in the know!
So, for what it’s worth, my top tips were these:
Show, not tell:
This one is tricky as most of us don’t know when we’re doing it. We know telling is less involving for the reader as it slows down the pace and takes away action, and that showing is more active and vivid. How to do it is the thing! Study films, is one answer. Unless there’s a narrator, you aren’t told anything in movies. Instead you are shown by facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures and, of course, dialogue. Say to yourself, ‘What does it look like, sound like, feel like, taste like, smell like?’
Get into your character’s head:
This depends on your style of writing, but I personally like close third person narration. This way the reader gets more emotionally involved as they see through the viewpoint of that character’s eyes and hear some of their thoughts. Not all of them, obviously, you don’t want to give everything away!
Open each chapter with an intriguing line. End each chapter with a sentence so powerful that your reader can’t turn off the light but has to read on. Then off course continue to construct the compulsion until the very end.
Have realistic dialogue:
Novels can’t quite ape real life speech as a whole sentence without interruption would never be written! But people do cut in each others chatter, half comments are said. Similarly, when someone is speaking for a long time, things are usually happening around them. It breaks up a long section and makes it more interesting to the reader if, for example, the boiling kettle or barking dog is mentioned mid monologue.
Each author has his or her own ‘voice’, so it’s all too easy to slip into your characters sounding too similar. It’s important, therefore, to make them distinctive by their style of speech, phrases used and mannerisms.
Use humour, if possible:
My writing tends to veer to the dark side, but I love to use humour where I can. It cheers my day when I make someone from my writing group laugh (for all the right reasons, I hope!). The same applies to other emotions. If you can make your reader’s buttocks clench, or make him or her cry, then you’re doing a great job!
Mix up your sentences:
Make your writing more interesting my mixing up long and short sentences. Don’t repeat the same words near to each other on the page. Using a thesaurus might help! Don’t over use a persons name or start each sentence with ‘he’ or ‘she’. Don’t say ‘his eyes were glued to hers’ (not a nice image!) Bear in mind the five senses.
Read your work aloud:
This makes such a difference to the quality of your writing. In many writing groups, this is done, but do it at home anyway. It helps tremendously with the self-editing process, especially spotting too long sentences, lack of punctuation and repeated words.
And finally, desire!
A while back, I attended a graduate creative writing conference and when it came to questions, I bravely lifted my hand.
‘Do you have any pearls of wisdom to offer those of us who aren’t on a creative writing course, but who have been bitten by the writing bug?’ I asked the keynote speaker.
‘Get over the delirium,’ he flatly replied.
Harsh! But also, in my view, the wrong answer. I think one has to have the delirium and the desire to be a good writer. As well as learning the craft in some way, of course. So, I guess, like most things, it’s both nurture and nature.
But maybe don’t hold your breath for that million!