5 X 5 Writing Tips: Plotting

  1. Contemporary wisdom tells us that there are two approaches to writing fiction: the plotter and the pantster. The plotter makes meticulous notes before beginning a story. The pantster (flying by the seat of their pants) makes it up as they go along. This divisive categorisation is little more than horseshit and I know writers who use both approaches for different types of work. I also know writers who use a blend with some plotter-esque note-making to begin, and then a lot of pantster making-it-up-as-they-go-along stuff before the conclusion. Don’t pigeonhole yourself as plotter or pantster: just do whatever works for that project.
  2. When you are plotting, start off with broad brush strokes. What’s the genre? What’s the story for the hero? How does the main character get from start to finish? Deal with these ‘big’ areas first and finesse your way to the more detailed and nuanced areas.
  3. Don’t lose sight of reader needs: If you’re writing a horror story, your readers want to be horrified. If you’re writing erotic fiction, your readers want to be aroused. Whether it’s a thriller or a romance, your readers will want to be thrilled or romanced, respectively. Plot for these elements to occur and incorporate them as part of your story’s structure.
  4. Don’t overplot – this can sometimes lead to a feeling of ‘why bother?’ amongst writers when they realise they know how a story will conclude. What’s the point of working your way to the end when you know how it’s going to finish? Leave a little mystery so you’ve got your own interest in the project.
  5. Don’t rely too much on pantsing.  Pantsing works fine for many authors but it can also lead others down a blind alley where the story is jest reacting to its own content and not telling the story you’d originally wanted to convey. 

It’s a fine line between point 4 and point 5, but it’s worth keeping it in mind if you want your longer-form project to be a success from its inception to its completion.

Horror Convention

This week, I spent all Saturday at the Comic Con World Horror convention in Blackpool. 

I was sharing a table with the superb writer, artist and all round genius: Colin Davies. We had a wonderful day chatting with each other and some of the hundreds of horror aficionados who visited the convention. I have to say, by the end of the day, my wrist was aching from all the books I’d signed and I’m genuinely humbled by all the people who took time to spend their hard-earned money on my little books.  I genuinely hope they give you all the pleasure you deserve. 

Given the current passion for all things ‘serial killer’, it came as no surprise that I sold my entire stock of Conversations with Dead Serial Killers. Also, given the fact that it’s a story about a killer clown patrolling a theme park, (and Blackpool is famous for its theme park and not averse to clowns, as can be seen from the photograph below) I was not surprised to see Payback Week come second in my day’s book sales.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Description

Description is the key factor that lets your reader understand the world you’re building for them. Consequently it needs to be sufficiently detailed without being laboriously overwritten.  Consequently, the first tip here is:

  1. Find the balance between too much description and too little.  Read other titles in similar genres to yours. Use the writing of others to gauge as to whether or not you’ve got it right. Also rely on your gut. If you’re getting bored with the description, your reader is going to feel the same.
  2. Be aware that a lot of the description is going to come at the front of the story. If you tell me on page 300 that the main character is wearing glasses, I’m going to have to reimagine quite a lot of the scenes I’ve already read, whilst restructuring the protagonist as a bespectacled character. It’s not a great inconvenience – but it’s like going to drag me out of the fictional world you’ve created.
  3. Where possible, use all of the traditional FIVE senses to describe a scene. As writers we tend to rely on sight and sound and everything else gets overlooked in the passionate heat of creating a good story. Try to include taste, smell and touch and your reader will be thrilled by the unexpected sensory bonus.
  4. Remember – aside from describing to illustrate, you can also describe to influence.  For example, a big, burly bear of a man is likely to seem more friendly than a huge, hulking giant. If you want to subtly influence your readers’ opinions, description is the place to do it.
  5. Readers appreciate specificity. If your character is walking down a road lined with yellow flowers, tell us what those flowers are so we can picture it more accurately. Are they daffodils, buttercups, roses or ragwort? The addition of a specific label make it substantially easier for your reader to picture the image you want to share.

Tuesday Book Review: Dead Men Can’t Complain

I adore short stories.  My PhD involve my reading many short stories. I try to write chapters of novels as though they’re complete short stories. And I regularly record a podcast with my pal Colin Davies where we look at classic pieces of short fiction.

Which is probably why I found this collection so engaging.

Peter Clines knows how to write, as evidenced by his lengthy back catalogue. He also knows how to write short fiction, as is proved by this collection.  The stories have a wonderful sense of science-fiction, mixed with the ring of potential horror and the authenticity that comes from a good storyteller.

The collection starts with a police officer interrogating a suspect who’s wearing a lizard costume; a very convincing lizard costume. There is humour, intellect, pathos and surprises, all of which show a writer who is skilled at his craft and capable of entertaining readers on many levels. 

I listened to the audiobook version of this one which runs at a little under 5 hours. It’s not a complaint – because the stories were each so well crafted – but it did leave me wanting more. 

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Genre

  1. Genre is a ridiculously overused word that has the potential to be very confusing. Etymologically, he derives from the French word that means ‘kind’ or ‘type’. Consequently it can be applied as a superordinate term, such as when discussing the genres of poetry, prose or plays, or it can be more subordinate, such as when discussing the prose genres of fiction or non-fiction, comedy or tragedy, or when discussing categories of genre fiction such as cyberpunk, steam punk and splatter punk.
  2. Genre is simultaneously vital and unimportant. Genre is unimportant to many writers because, when we get an idea, genre is only a minor consideration as we work at telling the best version of the story we want to tell. However, genre can be vital to some readers who enjoy (for example) science-fiction, pay their hard-earned money for science-fiction, and don’t want that story to be bereft of spaceships, aliens and maybe some ray guns.
  3. Genre becomes more important to writers as they consider marketing and selling a story. You’ve written a western? Make sure it’s populated with cowboys, gunfights and wild west machismo. You’ve written a murder mystery? Make sure the clues are neatly spaced out so the reader can play the game of detection alongside the detective. Readers understand what they want from a genre and it’s a writer’s job to meet those expectations.
  4. Some genres are semantic and some are syntactic. To illustrate: a romance is a romance because the two smitten characters are introduced early on, circumstances force them apart through the majority of the text, and the story invariably concludes with them coming together and having a happy ending. This is the syntactic structure of the romance story. However, if the semantic furniture within that story shifts, it can become a different genre. Set this romantic narrative aboard a spaceship, and you’re reading science-fiction.  If the same romantic story is set aboard a pirate ship that’s about to pursue an immortal dragon, then you’re firmly in the territory of high fantasy.
  5. Genre is often treated as a dirty word, such as in the phrase, “He writes genre fiction.” Genre is only a dirty word in the mouths of those literary snobs who believe that anything done for the consumption of a broad audience is inferior to the inaccessible bollocks published outside the rubric of a specific genre. Admittedly, there has always been snobbery within writing but if you enjoy writing or reading a specific sort of material, whether that’s cosy murder mysteries, HEA romance or dinosaur erotica, I’d advise you to embrace your passions and ignore the sneering snobs. Reading and writing should only ever be about what pleases us – not someone with their own skewed agenda. 

The Ash & Col Podcast

It seems mean-spirited to describe a short story as a steaming sack of garbage. And yet, here we are, having read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s tedious and lacklustre: ‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street’.

This is not the worst story I’ve read. I’m fairly sure that honour goes to the impenetrable and over-hyped drivel that is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. But this is up there for a lack of engagement, for its loss of coherence, and for its general ability to satisfy the reader. Fair warning, I might get sweary when I talk about this one.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Character

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of character in fiction. This sounds like a trite statement but when you consider that there are people who genuinely believe Sherlock Holmes lived or that our opinion of Richard III has been shaped by Shakespeare’s play of that name, you begin to understand that fictional characters can sometimes bleed over into the real world and take on a life of their own.

When you accept that some characters such as Bond, Bilbo, Dracula and Frankenstein only need a single name for us to identify them as fully rounded individuals, you begin to realise that there are some fictional characters who have made a bigger impact on the world than many of their real world counterparts.

Which is why I will keep returning to the importance of characters.

  1. Get the name right. Names don’t just help with identity – they also help to establish relationships. I’ve previously pointed out the difference between Dirty Harry and Dirty Harold. Dirty Harry sounds like a cool anti-hero who should look like Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harold sounds like he should be on a register. But, if a young Dirty Harry is being reprimanded by his mum, he’s going to be Harold. Get the name right for the character and the character’s relationship with the person addressing them.
  2. Describe them early on in the story. Imagine the frustration of meeting Bob the hero on page one, following Bob’s adventures for two hundred pages and growing to love Bob’s attitude to every problem. And then, on page 201, you learn that Bob wears spectacles. And is only four feet tall. And is known by the other characters (who haven’t mentioned it to that point) for always wearing his hair in rainbow-coloured dreadlocks. Describe characters when they’re introduced so that readers can keep that image fixed in their mind as the story progresses.
  3. Make sure you understand your main character’s role in the story.
  4. Accept that there are flat and round characters. E M Forster made a distinction between flat and round characters, with the implication that round characters are more integral to the plot. But we also need some flat characters. For example, if my main character buys a coffee from a coffee shop, he doesn’t need to know the backstory of the person selling him the coffee. This is not to say that people who work in coffee shops aren’t important: they’re incredibly important. But the only people important in my story are those characters who have an impact on the plot. And, unless the barista in this story has decided to poison my hero, the only impact they’re having is aiding a caffeine rush.
  5. Bring them to life through their actions. You can always tell me that your hero is a good, selfless person but that’s a dull way of sharing that information. Show me the hero giving their last £5 to a homeless person, or getting their best suit ruined because they jumped into a dirty lake to rescue a drowning kitten, and I’m going to follow that character far more passionately.

Characters are the lifeblood of what we do with writing. Making sure they’re presented properly is essential to quality writing.