Helpful Hints

Writing 101: Point of View (part 1)

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There are various types of Point of View (POV) used in conventional writing. Over a series of blog posts we will be discussing the most frequently used mechanisms, their pros and their cons. We shall begin this series with First Person.

What is First Person POV?

First Person is when the story is told from the perspective of one character, the world as viewed through their eyes. It is characterised by use of the pronoun “I”. It puts the reader directly into the head of the protagonist; you can read their thoughts and see, hear, smell and feel via their senses. Thus it is a very intimate form of writing, creating a bond through the character and the reader.

It is currently very popular in Young Adult fiction: Vampire Academy, Twilight, Virals, and present, although less frequently, in Middle Grade:Bartimaeus series,Percy Jackson. It is often portrayed as though the reader were accounting their story to the reader, although sometimes it is written as a diary, letters or other correspondence. There seems to be some dichotomy amongst readers about whether or not they like it – I remember one customer avidly declared she would NEVER read anything written in First Person. I personally enjoy it, especially in stories with a strong, easily identifiable protagonist. The success of stories like Twilight can be, at least in part, attributed to the creation of a relatively flat, under-described character in which it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves.

Writing in First Person allows the writer to play with the reader. Ultimately, the tale will be biased in favour of the narrator, and as it is seen through their eyes, told through their voice, then the truth will be filtered through their own beliefs and thought-patterns. In, for example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the narrator is a teenage boy with Autism. He sees the world in black and white, and thus it takes him longer to figure out the shades-of-grey puzzles that the reader has already picked out. The narrator can also lie to the reader, allowing for unexpected twists. However, this should be done carefully, and the foreshadowing should offer some hints to what is really going on. One of my favourites along these lines is Joanne Harris’s Gentleman and Players. Everything should tie in neatly and the narrator should not be so much telling straight-out fibs but skipping around the truth and omitting relevant details.

One issue that I have with First Person narrative, is that I generally need to LIKE the character. If they have strong antisocial views – misogynistic, racist, sociopathic, etc – then it can make me very uncomfortable and I may wind up putting the book down. This is, I imagine, the intent of the author, such as in books like Perfume andLolita, which makes them a powerful read. However, I could not finish Catcher in the Rye because being in Holden’s head was making me emotionally irritated. Likewise, with Paulina Simon’s Tully, I really could not identify with the character and gave up on the book halfway through.

First Person does have some limitations, of course. It does not easily allow for split-narratives with multiple character leads. Some authors have remedied this by switching between two first person narrators – this can be very successful (one of my favourites is Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones) but must be done with care. Jumping between two first-person narrators can be very disorientating for the readers, especially those that practice a stop-start method of reading (snatching a page or two here and there) as it can be confusing to remember whose head you are in. This can be counteracted in several ways: changing font for each narrator, applying headers to the page, or – and this is the best – by having two very distinct characters with distinct voices. Whichever method chosen, the writer should select one narrator per chapter, and stick with them from beginning to end.

Another technique is to mix a first-person narrator with a fixed-third POV (more on these later). This allows more flexibility with events, but the main narrator should always be the one written in first-person.

Another limitation with First Person is that if the protagonist is not able to see, hear or otherwise experience an event, then it is almost as though it did not happen. A series I enjoy, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows, is written entirely through the POV of one character – Rachel Mariana Morgan (she is such a memorable character, that I can remember who entire name, something of a rarity) – however, in one of the books, one of the major supporting characters dies. But Rachel is not there to witness it and thus it all happens off-screen, and thus loses something of its impact (and keeps the reader wondering if it were true).

Some tips for writing in First Person:

  • Keep the writing style true to the character. Ie: if your main character is an impulsive teenager with ADHD, keep the plot fast, and the action plentiful.
  • Brainstorm your character first. Give them a name and traits – are they impulsive? Empathic? Quick to jump to the wrong conclusion? Once you have established this, make sure their behaviour is consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Your character must be the centre of all the action.
  • Don’t get too lost in their thoughts. Introspection can be boring. If it’s important to the plot, show it through their actions.
  • There are more senses than just vision and hearing.
  • Generally speaking, your First Person narrator will be most convincing if they are human.
  • Describing your character can be difficult. Do this carefully. Mirror scenes should be avoided at all costs, and characters mentally bemoaning their hair-colour/style are likewise something of a cliché. For the most part, the reader doesn’t really need to know exactly what the character looks like – a few hints here and there will help, but most readers will create their own mental image.

First Person is a powerful POV, allowing the reader to immerse themselves completely in the body and mind of a character. It is best suited to stories with a strong central character.

Second Person:

Second Person POV is rarely used in fiction. It generally only shows up in the occasional literary short story, such as when an author is being experimental or trying to be clever, in poetry, or in children’s literature in the format of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It is characterised by the use of the pronoun “you”.

In tales when you make choices – such as the case with the children’s books mentioned, it is very suitable, because you, the reader, are driving the tale. However, it can make readers feel uncomfortable: “But I wouldn’t do that!” “I don’t think that way!” I have only ever read one novel in which it was used – Iain Banks Song of Stone.

It is, perhaps, a little ironic that it is not a popular mechanic to use, yet the goal of most wish-fulfilment fiction (such as Twilight) is to make the reader feel like they ARE Bella.

Second Person is not an easy POV to write from. It would probably be best in the inspirational-type literature – stuff like Jonathan Livingstone-Seagull and The Alchemist. Although it should be noted, neither of these are in Second Person.


avatar-angAngela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer.

How to Show, Not Tell

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It has become almost a cliché – the old mantra “Show, not tell” and often you will hear it when receiving a critique. But what, you may ask, does it actually mean? Is the critiquer offering valid advice, or are they just trying to appear sophisticated and smug? And is it in fact a valid point – do you really need to show, not tell? What does it do for the story.

 

Is it important?

Well, to be honest – no, whether you show instead of telling, will not determine whether you become a popular author or not. MANY best-selling authors do not show, they just tell. Lesley Pearse, Danielle Steele, and my mother’s favourite, MC Beaton all engage in a manner of story telling that is just that, TELLing. Action fiction like Matthew Reilly is also heavy on the Tell. It has a place – and that place is generally quick and easy reads that are fast paced and mostly forgettable. When you consider how many books each of these authors has produced, you realise that they are literally, churning the stories out.

 

So why do it?

By showing, you turn your book from a forgettable, if enjoyable, read into an experience. One that the reader feels along with the characters, one that may well linger in their mind and stick with them for a considerable time. It brings the characters more fully too life – establishing them as real people instead of just characters.

And it also really does increase your word count.

Okay, but you still haven’t told us what it actually is!

This is something that is easier to demonstrate than do. To show a story instead of telling it, you have to do just that – you have to describe the happenings, the characters, the story in such a manner that the reader actually feels like they are experiencing it.

 

Take for example:

It was a cold, wet and miserable day. Jennifer felt glum. She hated the rain, she had wanted to go out and ride her new bicycle.

 

Compare that with:

Jennifer slumped by the window, staring out at the rain. It sleeted down, streaking the glass and dripping down to puddle in the garden and flooding the driveway. “Why did it have to rain today?” She moaned. “It’s saturday, and I wanted to take my new bike down to the park.”

 

In the second example, we’re not actually saying at any point what emotions Jennifer is feeling – we’re describing how she feels and encouraging the reader to make their own assumptions based on that description. Nor are we saying that it is raining – we are describing the rain. And that is the basics of showing.

You will also notice that it immediately creates a mood, and engages the reader further in the story, by using evocative words, we are creating mental images in the reader’s mind.

Telling is passive, like having the story read to you at bedtime. The reader is clearly divided from the main characters, almost as though they were watching them from afar or on television.

Showing is active, as though the story is actually happening around the reader. It is more immediate, more involving.

 

How can you tell if something is written in TELL?

 

1. Lots of adverbs.

The words in particular that end in -ly are examples of TELL. They slow down the story, making the actions of the characters less dramatic.

For example:

Get out of my room,” Jennifer said angrily.

Get out of my room,” Jennifer roared.

 

Which of these two sounds more dramatic?

Or,

Jennifer walked slowly down the garden path.

Jennifer ambled along the garden path.

 

Essentially, if you feel tempted to modify an action with an adverb, look instead for one word that will say the same thing.

OR, one thing I do is to read over the sentence, omit the -ly word and see if the sentence still seems to carry the same meaning.

I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert said sadly.

I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert said.

 

Does it really need to be said that he is sad? Does it add anything to the narrative?

Alternatively, you could just say “I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert apologised.

 

2. Avoid the so called “to be” words:

am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, to (verb)

Jennifer was staring at her bike. It was a mess. The kea had destroyed it.

Jennifer stared at her bike, aghast; The back tyre buckled, spokes sticking out at weird angles. All of the rubber torn and lying in a tangled heap on the ground. The banana shaped seat ripped open, its innards spilling out onto the pavement. From the fence, the guilty party watched her, his olive green head cocked to one side as though saying to her, “well, you should have put it inside.”

 

3. Do not start sentences with As or When words.

… Or verbs that end in “-ing”

Leaping down the stairs, Jennifer rushed to fetch her bike in before dark.”

could become

Jennifer hurtled down the stairs, taking two steps at a time, almost stumbling in her haste to reach the bottom. Outside, daylight had given way to the ever-deepening twilight and with it the creatures of the night – the possums and thieves that lurked out there, waiting to steal her brand new bicycle.

 

4. Don’t just Look and Feel

Whilst these words do have their purpose, they are not very powerful nor involving. Instead of saying “Robert looked ashamed at his foolish behaviour” you might like to write, “Robert stared at the ground, shuffling from one foot to the other. He refused to look up and meet her gaze.”

OR

Jennifer felt sad at the state of her bike. If only she had taken better care of it.”

A great tear leaked from Jennifer’s eye, and she wiped it away, leaving a smear of oil on her cheek. Regret and anger – at herself, warred within her, churning her stomach into an uneasy mess. One action, just one action, and her bike could have been saved from extermination by kea.”

Realised” is another bad one.

Tip:

Study movies. In movies, they can’t TELL you anything. Everything is visual, thus, shown. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is the best way to learn how to SHOW emotion instead of telling it.

Exercise:

Take this sentence and rewrite it without using the words “felt” or “angry.”

Jennifer was angry at her brother for leaving her bike outside.

 

Jennifer stomped up the stairs and stormed into her brother’s room, ripping the computer console from his hand. He looked up at her, eyes wide.

You little rat,” she bellowed. “You borrowed my bike again!”

How to Show, not Tell:

 

1. Abstract VS Concrete:

Use specific details instead of abstract ones. Instead of saying that it is a car, describe the make of it. Keep this relevant to the POV character’s personality – if they are interested in cars – they will know the make and model; if they are not then they will likely just note the colour and type (hatchback, CRV, etc). The more detailed you are, the better the reader’s mental image will be. But don’t go too over the top – we don’t need too many sentences describing every single item. Restrict it to the important ones, ie: recurring ones in the plot, ones that are relevant to the plot or to the character you are trying to create.

Abstract:

Jennifer stopped to admire the bike in the store window. It was wonderful and would be an excellent replacement for her own, battered wreck. She could imagine sitting on it, riding it to school. If only she could afford it.

Concrete:

Jennifer stood before through the store window, face pressed close to the finger-smeared glass. Shading her eyes with her hands, she peered into the gloomy interior. Her eyes caressed the smooth red lines of the bike’s body; the low racing bars, the padded “comfort saddle”. She closed her eyes, imaging for a moment sitting astride it, peddling it down the hill to school, the other students watching in admiration. It would be like flying. Pulling out her empty wallet, she sighed. “One day, it will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.”

 

2. Use all FIVE senses.

Sight is the easiest one, but the more you use, the more evocative your descriptions will be.

Don’t use “could see” or “The sound of”.

EXERCISE:

You are walking onto the beach, use all five senses to write a short scene.

The sand is hot and crumbling beneath my feet, making my footing unstable and slowing me from a jog into a more sedate walk. Fragmented, ephemeral clouds trail across the azure sky. Gulls wheel and cry, their voices like forlorn sirens above the gentle sussuration of waves tasting the shore, tickling my toes. A gentle breeze brings with it the strong, somewhat nauseating, scent of deep fried fish; a scent so thick and cloying that I can taste it on my tongue.

 

3. Avoid cliches like the plague

Metaphors are very useful – but using a cliche is just laziness, and portrays you as being unimaginative. If you wish to use a metaphor or simile, try to avoid one that has been overused before. Make up your own! One thing I like to do, is take into consideration who my narrator is – my narrators are usually not human and would not think in human terms.

For example – take this cliché:

Her skin was as wrinkled as a prune…”

Now, consider your narrator – have they ever seen a prune? Do they even know what a prune is?

In my case, my narrator was a bird – an omnivorous bird, and she may have eaten a prune at some point in the past, for sure, but would she know what it was? Not necessarily.

So, it became: “Her skin was as wrinkled as sundried roadkill.”

EXERCISE:

Here are some cliches for you to rewrite:

Her eyes were as blue as the sky.

He looked as old as the hills.

Her hands were as rough as sandpaper.

Note: Metaphors count as Show, but similies are Tell.

 

4. Vary Sentence Structure

Shorter sharper sentences build tension, and are great for action scenes.

Longer, more complicated sentences will slow the prose and can be great for drawing out the suspense.

Try not to start all sentences with the same word, this is a sure sign of Telling:

The new bike was a thing of beauty. It was painted electric blue, with silver highlights. Its handle bars were low, perfect for picking up speeds on the long smooth roads. Its seat was curved and ergonomically designed for comfort. Its wheels narrow, built for speed. It was, in its entirety, an impressive machine.

 

EXERCISE:

Write a short action scene – something that swells to a climax, then has a slower aftermath.

Use sentence structure to help this.

Be aware you may be reading this aloud, so it is probably best to keep it PG rated.

As an added challenge – try to write it without actually saying what your narrator is doing, but concentrating instead on how they are feeling.

 

5. Use specific actions to make a point:

Don’t just say “Jennifer loved to cycle hard and fast on her new bike” – describe her cycling hard and fast- racing down a hill, the wind tugging at her hair, making her feel like she is flying…

You get my point.

 

6. Dialogue

Dialogue is a great way to introduce immediacy and include the reader. Large percentages of books should be written in dialogue and you can do a lot of things in them – you can establish characters’ personalities, share information, and advance the plot.

For example – you have a character who has a rather rough past – they’ve done things they’e regretted. Instead of explaining all this to the reader, why not have them discuss it with someone in a conversation – a psychologist, perhaps, or some friend they are now confiding in.

[Be careful how you do this – as you do not want to do it like an info dump – it needs to appear as though it is a natural consequence of the conversation.]

One thing you should do when writing dialogue, is keep the characters a part of it – we don’t just want to hear the talking heads – we want to see what we’re doing as well. This can go a long way in developing the character’s personalities.

For example:

You little brat,” Jennifer snarled, stamping her foot and glaring at her brother; eyes narrowed and sharp as razors. “The one thing, the only thing, I asked you to do was to never, ever, ever borrow my bike. But you did, and you left it outside.” She gestured, flinging her arm with such abandon that she almost struck Robert in the nose. He ducked, glancing at the mangled, battered mess that had once been her pride and joy.

I’m sorry,” he whimpered; one foot drawing circles in the carpet, unable to meet her gaze. “I didn’t think… I’ll pay you back. For the damage, I mean.”

Pay me back?” Jennifer laughed, but it was a dark, nasty laugh, not the funny kind. “Do you realise how much that bike cost me? How many newspapers I had to deliver just to afford it? Pay me back indeed.” She turned her pale, fierce eyes upon him. “You’ll be paying me back until you turn forty.”

 

EXERCISE:

Choose two people from this list and write a (short) conversation between them:

(you can make them family, friends, strangers, whatever – and determine their personalities yourself – for this exercise, cliches are fine).

 

Remember to incorporate actions within the dialogue!

 

– An elderly man

– A young mother with a preschooler in tow

– A teenage boy

– A 10 year old girl

– A sales clerk

– A four-year old child

– A business man/woman

– A retired woman

– Someone who really, really loves dogs

– A homemaker (male or female)

 

7. Do not overdo the padding

Don’t get so bogged down in writing detailed descriptions that you lose track of the plot. This should be especially noted in tense scenes – the protagonist not going to be admiring the sand while they’re racing across the beach, being pursued by angry dobermans, nor will they be paying much attention to the salt scent in the air, although they might be able to taste it as they gasp for air.

 

8. Sometimes it’s okay to Tell

Which brings us to our next point:

 

When to Tell NOT Show

  • If it is not really important to the plot (although that also brings the question – does it need to be there at all?).

  • For the slow, boring bits. You do not need to describe, in great detail, how your character makes coffee, prefers her breakfast and pads around the house for two hours in slippers and a dressing gown before going out to save the world.

  • If you need to get a lot of information across, and fast, so it doesn’t detract from the main plot.

  • Most telling not showing will happen at the beginning or end of a scene, this lets the reader know what time has shifted or what has changed.

 

The idea is BALANCE – Showing evokes emotions and experience, whereas Telling just informs the reader what is going on. Both have their time and place – it is up to you to decide how that might best be done.

 

Grammar and Punctuation Tips: Modifying Phrases

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Without modifying phrases, our writing would be very sparse – possibly bland.  Modifying phrases are those parts of a sentence that ‘modify’ or describe the basic sense.  Pretty much everybody uses them.  But how to convey them on paper with the appropriate punctuation?

Two common mistakes are made with modifying phrases:

  1. A full-stop is used instead of a comma
  2. A semi-colon is used instead of a comma

In other words, modifying phrases need commas!  They need to be closely attached to the main part of the sentence they are modifying.

Here are some examples of mistakes with modifying phrases:

  1. Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood, with his black and white fur.  His pink tongue and wagging tail.
  2. The house was tidy; its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away.

Remember the rules for full-stops and semi-colons?

A sentence following a full-stop or a semi-colon has to make sense by itself – it has to have a verb.

  1. ‘His pink tongue and wagging tail’ doesn’t tell us anything – we have to ask what about these things?  A verb for sense is missing (don’t be confused by the presence of ‘wagging’!  Yes, it’s a ‘doing word’ and tells us what his tail is doing but it doesn’t create sense for the combined subject of tongue and tail).
  2. In the second sentence, ‘its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away’ also lacks any sense – because this is a modifying phrase:  it’s meant to modify the subject, verb and object ‘the house was tidy’.  Without this statement in front of it, the phrase about carpets and toys makes no sense.  Therefore it doesn’t stand alone and it can’t follow a semi-colon.

Properly written, modifying phrases are always attached by commas to the sense they are modifying:

  1. Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood, with his black and white fur, his pink tongue and wagging tail. [This sentence has two modifying phrases, both modifying the statement ‘Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood’]
  2. The house was tidy, its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away. [The modifying phrase in this sentence modifies the statement ‘the house was tidy’.]

Do you think you’ve got the hang of modifying phrases?  Post a question if you’re not sure!

The Misunderstood Semi-Colon

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The semi-colon stakes a claim as the most misunderstood punctuation mark in the English language.  That’s probably because it is the one that people see the least.  And when they do see it, it’s often not being used correctly.

What to know about the semi-colon:

1. It looks like a comma and so is often mistakenly used to fill in for one.  Part of the problem is that semi-colons can actually be used to fill in for commas – but only in a list.

2. The rest of the time, semi-colons are more closely related to colons:  ‘semi’ apparently comes from the Latin term ‘half’, and means ‘partially’, ‘somewhat’, or ‘having some of the characteristics of’ whatever it is referring to.  So the semi-colon is a little bit like a colon.  Keep this in mind and you might have some luck with it – if you’re not writing a list, a semi-colon cannot be used an alternative to a comma.

The semi-colon is rare because there are only two circumstances in which it should be used:

1. When you are joining two independent sentences.

The semi-colon is not like a comma because commas are never used for joining independent sentences.  If they are, what is created is called a ‘run-on sentence’ or ‘comma splice’.

Independent sentences (clauses that make sense by themselves and contain a subject and verb) should be separated with a full-stop or joined with a conjunction.  However, sometimes you can join them with a semi-colon instead of a full-stop.  The time to do that is when the sentences are linked by their content in some close way.  This is how the semi-colon acts as a sort of colon – if the first sentence was followed by a colon, the second sentence would explain the first in some way.  With a semi-colon between them, two sentences are also closely linked contextually, but not at that specific explanatory level.

Here are some examples:

  • I walk to the park every Sunday morning; the gates open at ten.
  • She looked at me as though I was a monster; I felt my stomach sink.

The test for using a semi-colon in sentence structure is – could you replace it with a full-stop?  If the answer is yes, then it is ok to use it.  If the answer is no, then please don’t use it!

2. When you are listing something

I think most people know that when you are about to list a whole bunch of stuff, you signal that with a colon.  Normally, things in a list are separated by commas.  But, sometimes, it is appropriate to use semi-colons instead.  This is the only time when a semi-colon can stand in for a comma.  And it is only used this way when the items in the list could become confused (or confusing) due to the use of commas for additional phrases.  For example:

  • She gave me her shopping list: apples, pears, bread, milk, chocolate, and biscuits. [commas are fine; a semi-colon isn’t needed!]
  • She gave me her shopping list: apples to give to Joseph and make pies for Saturday; pears for Aunty Flo and the baking contest; bread for sandwiches for the picnic; milk, even though she knows Toby can’t drink it and Stephanie doesn’t like it; chocolate for me, because she knows I can’t live without it, although she’s been trying to get me to stop eating it for several weeks; and biscuits, which we have to stock up on, because when Nana visits she goes ballistic if she can’t have something to dunk in her tea. [without the semi-colons to separate list items, the reader could easily become confused]

Feeling more confident about semi-colons now?  Want a second opinion about some sentences you have in mind?  Don’t hesitate to post here for some help!

Grammar and Punctuation Tips: Writing Dialogue

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Having dialogue in a story is great.  Dialogue allows characters to speak in their own voices and can quicken the story’s pace.  To some of you, the following tips will seem obvious, but to others they may be something you need to remind yourself of when you proofread your work:

1) Each new speaker needs to start on a new line.  For example:

“Where did you leave it?” John asked.

“In the shed.”

“Did anyone see you?”

2) Use double OR single quotation marks.  When writing for yourself, doing one or the other is simply about consistency.  Using one type allows you to reserve the other type for internal quotation marks (see below).  However, different publishers may prefer you to use a particular type of quotation mark – check what they want before sending anything off.

3) Put all sentence punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks)inside the quotation marks:

“I don’t think so,” Mary whispered.

“What do you mean, ‘you don’t think so’?”

“I couldn’t be sure.”

4) If you are adding a descriptor after the quotation marks, the final punctuation mark can never be a period, semi-colon or colon.  This is because what comes after the quotation marks should be considered part of the overall sentence (unless you are starting a new sentence).

A good practice is to read it out loud to yourself.  There shouldn’t be a long pause if you are describing what was said; a long pause only comes into play if you have started a new sentence (which is a sentence that, if you isolated it, doesn’t beg you to answer what?):

“What do you mean?!” he repeated.

“There was a man walking his dog, but I don’t know…” She swallowed.  “He might have seen me, but-” She cut herself off.

John picked up his keys.

“I’m going to collect it now then,” he said.

Here, ‘he repeated’ and ‘he said’ make you wonder – what did he repeat?  He said what?  Both are descriptors, not new sentences.  In comparison, ‘She swallowed’ and ‘She cut herself off’ make sense by themselves.  These are new sentences so require capitalisation and can come after a dash, an ellipsis – or a full stop.

Do you have any pesky questions about dialogue you’d like some advice on?  Please post them here as comments – just paste in your sentence and question and we’d be happy to give advice!

Tips: Grammar and Punctuation

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We’ve all heard it said that what agents and publishers really want is someone who can write a good story.  It’s the story that matters, the story that will make or break a publishing deal.  And I’ve no doubt that is true.

But I’m sure we’ve also all heard it said that first impressions count.  And, while it might be nice to think that we can just leave all that grammar and punctuation stuff to some future editor, it pays to make as positive an impression as possible to make sure that future editor will one day be secured.  For sloppy grammar and punctuation is often a red flag for sloppy writing.  And when you’ve only got a short space in which to convince a potential agent or publisher to continue reading your work, why not make the best impression you can?

For those of us raised in a school system that didn’t teach more than the basics of grammar and punctuation, the whole concept of getting good at it seems daunting.  Many New Zealand English speakers don’t start to get a feeling for the grammar of their own language (let alone an adequate vocabulary to discuss it) until they start learning another.  So most of us simply write as we speak – instinctively.  But there are some useful tips we can learn to polish our grammar and punctuation skills.  Which is lucky for us – because if we want to catch that agent/publisher’s eye, we want our writing to shine brighter than a rough diamond.

First tip coming up!

Try something different

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One of our Guild members – Rachel – asked me recently for help with inspiration, prompted I think by Tammie’s comment that she’d caught her recent writing bug from me. Fran in turn suggested I blog up here about the crazy few weeks I’ve had writing, by hand, around 200-300 pages of my second book.

For the last year and a half, since I published book one, I have been trying to make progress on book two. When someone hasn’t seen me in a while, they often ask me ‘How’s the writing going?’ or if they enjoyed the Silver Hawk, ‘When is the next one out, I can’t wait.’

While I am so grateful to everyone for their genuine interest and support, it is a very new experience, trying to produce a story when people are waiting for it and their good opinion of you as a writer rides on whether you can pull it all off a second time.

Unsurprisingly, until the beginning of this year, my actual words-on-a-page count was pretty abysmal by my standards. I spent most of ‘writing’ time talking to people, drawing maps, planning intricate details about Houses and characters you may or may not ever meet… I was getting into obsessive levels of detail because every time I sat down to write, my brain kept saying ‘You don’t know enough yet.’

I felt like, somehow, getting to know every single character in every House… mapping the streets and writing over a thousand years of history would give me the words I was looking for. The only problem was I totally overloaded myself with information and couldn’t work out how to tie it all together.

Then the holiday break happened. I went on a road trip around the North Island and didn’t even think about Tyria or book two while I was away. Coming back, I sat at the computer thinking, “I should try and write something…” and I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was get away from the screen and hide somewhere with a pen and paper.

So I did.

I printed out everything I already had, grabbed a ring binder and started cutting and pasting whole sections as I read back through. I added bits and threw other things out. Then I got to the end of the seventeen mini scenes I’d written over the last year and a half and picked up my pen.

For three weeks, you couldn’t get me away from that folder. I took it everywhere with me, separating sections as I wrote with tiny post its and sometimes writing for hours on end until I had a sore wrist (mother and boyfriend gave me the concerned raised eyebrow for that).

Then I ran out of things to say. I got to a place where ‘I didn’t know’ anymore. I stopped and had to go back to the drawing board.

After a huge conversation with my boyfriend last night, I’ve worked out the major kinks and I’m back on track, but I think the point is sometimes inspiration strikes and when it does, grab it with both hands. The rest of the time, don’t beat yourself up. I never stopped working. I know I couldn’t have written so much if not for the year and a half of hard work I put in designing the world and social context… but I also know I wouldn’t have managed to have this breakthrough if I wasn’t willing to try something different.

I’ve never written so much by hand before, but for me, it was exactly what I needed. It could be something totally different for you. Listen to what that little voice is saying. If you feel like writing diaries from the POVs of totally insignificant characters, go with it. Maybe you’ll find something magic when you let yourself stray from the path of convention.

Good luck and lots of love,

B

Beaulah's epic folder
My epic folder