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Category Archives: New Writer Tips

Tips and tools for new and established writers

Jane Wenham-Jones is a novelist, journalist and presenter and the author of the Wannabe Books – two how-to manuals on getting published and becoming well-known. Below is an extract from Wannabe a Writer? available on Amazon or through all good bookshops. For more on Jane see http://www.janewenham-jones.com
Research — Do You or Don’t You?
Frederick Forsyth carries out what he calls “relentless research,” spending an entire year at it. Minette Walters is also extremely thorough and painstaking — consulting forensic scientists and attending post-mortems as well as the usual background reading.
While I’m writing this, Jilly Cooper is working on a new racing book. “I have about a hundred books to read,” she told me. “Biographies of jockeys and autobiographies of trainers and biographies of horses…”
I, on the other hand, err on the idle side when it comes to research and tend to proceed on a need-to-know basis rather than mugging up for months in advance.
Lynne Barrett-Lees works in similar way. “It’s all too easy to spend precious writing time jotting down facts, facts, facts, and to put off the hard bit,” she says. Research for her “happens organically as a by-product of writing, definitely not the other way around.” She says: “I don’t allow myself to sweat the small stuff until I reach a point where I need to. As long as I’ve established there’s a patient soul or two who’ll fill me in on any detail I need, I simply call them, as and when, while I’m writing.”
All of which shows that there is no right or wrong answer to how much research you should do as long as, whether it takes six months holed up in the British Library or six minutes on the phone to a friend, you do enough.
Even if you are writing “what you know” you’re still bound to have to check something, and check it you must for as we’ve said already, your novel will only work if it rings true and you won’t achieve that if your facts are wonky.
It is also worth remembering that what we know can only ever be just that — what WE know. By talking to others we can gain different insights or whole new angles on what we thought was familiar territory. Hilary Lloyd, the author of A Necessary Killing (UKA Press), is an ex-farmer who drew on her own experiences of living through the foot and mouth crisis for her novel.
Despite her first-hand knowledge, there were still things she needed to investigate. She says: “My experience of the epidemic was traumatic but a novel demands much more than reminiscences and feelings. I needed facts, and details of procedures employed by government and other official departments. I also needed to confirm that my own trauma wasn’t unique so I read through dozens of bewildered, distraught or angry messages on internet forums used by rural people at the time, and downloaded enough articles and comment from newspapers to wallpaper the whole of the house! The reading and absorbing of this material gave me a much wider view and helped flesh the bones of my plot.”
I did a similar thing when I was writing my second novel, Perfect Alibis, by talking to lots of different women who’d had affairs — or as many I could find who would admit to it!
Interestingly, for the same book I asked several friends who’d had appendicitis what it felt like, and was surprised by just how different their accounts were, and how entirely varied their symptoms.
It was a lesson on the importance of getting more than one version of anything one’s not been through oneself. Make sure you’ve got the majority experience down rather than a one-off.
For if you are asking a reader to suspend their disbelief and get totally absorbed in the world you’ve created, then you owe it to them to make sure that world is as authentic as possible.
I usually do this in one of two simple ways — go on Google or ask someone who might know.
Google is a wonderful tool. There isn’t much you can’t find out on the internet these days though a word of warning: do always check more than one source.
I have just spent a sobering half hour trying to find out how many grams of carbohydrate are in a large glass of wine (hoping to shed ten pounds on a crash Atkins-type diet while still getting pissed every night). The answers have been variously 3g, 1.8g, 5g, and almost 7g (with the only consensus the dispiriting news that to lose weight you have to give up the booze).
Asking an expert on the given subject is usually a safe bet — although again, two is better than one. During the writing of my last book, I checked facts with a GP, a gynecologist, a dog-owner, two wine-writers (who contradicted each other), an ex-policeman, a nurse, and a solicitor.
I also pored over the London A-Z, studied different models of answer-machines, and, since the novel is entitled One Glass Is Never Enough — suffered several near-terminal hangovers.
And I still missed something. I never want my husband to read anything until after it’s published but this time I wished he had. He instantly spotted an irregularity that I had totally overlooked (a bottle of champagne to the first reader to write and tell me what it is. Clue: it will help to be a gardener) and which I’ve been kicking myself for ever since.
I always think that if you have a scene that is heavily dependent on some specialist knowledge — let’s say a scene in the operating theatre in a hospital — then it is a good idea to let someone with first-hand experience — say a surgeon or a nurse – to have a quick read through and check for any dodgy bits.
Even if you have that sort of experience yourself make sure your knowledge is up-to-date. Police procedures, for example, have changed a lot over the years, as have the job-descriptions of teachers. Find someone who is doing the job right now rather than speaking to the old duffer next door who retired in 1976.
If you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal the copy editor will pick up things that need checking, too, but be professional and make sure everything in your manuscript is as accurate as you can make it before you submit it. There’s an old adage about keeping going through a first draft, that says: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” It’s excellent advice. As long as once you have got it written, you make sure you’ve also got it right.
Buy links:
Amazon UK (paperback)
Amazon UK (Kindle)
Amazon US (paperback)
Amazon US (Kindle)
The Book Depository
Writers are not born
Forty years ago, I enrolled in a report-writing class in our Adult Education system and found it cancelled by lack of numbers. I was offered instead, a fiction writing class conducted by a writer of pulp detective stories and my sense of humor prompted me to accept the alternative. Other than it leading to my first published story in a long defunct men’s magazine, I remember only a few highlights of the course, none of which I use today.
It did prompt me to write my first novel, using a portable typewriter perched on my knee during engine room watches at sea, and led to me using fiction writing as a form of stress relief from a twenty-four/seven technical career in the offshore oil industry some years afterwards. I still have some of my early manuscripts and they are, quite frankly, atrocious.
I’m not sure what prompted me to put aside the dubious pleasure of writing for myself and start writing for other readers to enjoy, but the habits of success ensured that I began by a detailed analysis of the process and a plan to succeed. Fifteen published books and several magazine shorts later, I’m still working on it.
Its central tenet lies in the understanding that my task as a writer is to disappear from the reader’s consciousness, leaving them caught up in a smoothly advancing story “now”, unaware that they are reading as they experience the story unfolding around them. Supporting this tenet are twenty-three pillars of acquired skill, none of them original, but all functional.
(1)             Punctuation: Keep it simple, tailored to the needs of your targeted readers;
(2)             Use simple words vividly rather than trying to impress with your erudition;
(3)             Imprecise words: – “He picked up something heavy and hit the man on the head” is much better as “David snatched a fist-sized rock from the pile and slammed it into the back of John’s head.”;
(4)             Unnecessary words, phrases, adjectives: – The morning sun’s silent rays burned Julia’s skin as she walked from the grassy open field into the deeply forested woods. Immediately, the late spring air felt cooler. She sat down on a grey rock, took off her Cordura nylon backpack, pulled open the sticky Velcro fastener of the side pocket and took out a plastic bottle of soda water. She opened the blue screw-type top and drank thirstily. Her green and gold speckled kerchief felt scratchy against her sweaty skin, so she loosened it. Crows cackled wickedly from somewhere in the dark woods. A small ladybug with one wing torn off was crawling on the rock’s rough surface.;
(5)             Space fillers: About; Actually; Almost; Like; Already; Appears; Approximately; Basically; Close to; Even; Eventually; Exactly; Finally; Here; Just; Just Then; Kind of; Nearly; Now; Practically; Really; Seems; Simply; Somehow; Somewhat; Somewhat like; Sort of; Suddenly; Then; There; Truly; Utterly
(6)             Overuse of adverbs; A well chosen adverb can create vivid images, but many of them are simply unnecessary. Take “she slammed the door forcibly” and ask yourself how else do you slam a door? Add to this the repeated “ly” that most of them end in creates a clickerty-clack rhythm in your writing that palls very rapidly.
(7)             Overuse of past tense: – Differentiate between the immediate past of “Harold lied” and the more distant past of “Harold had lied.”;
(8)            Overuse of participle phrases: – “This is a really boring movie,” she said, fidgeting in her seat. “You said it,” he agreed, handing her the popcorn.” Considering for a moment, she took a handful. “I really shouldn’t be doing this,” she said, her voice dropping.;
(9)             Illogical use of “as” and “while”: – “Hey, Jim. How about another drink for this guy and give me a refill of my usual,” while she said this, Anna leaned forward and dropped one leg to the floor. Jennifer’s head shot up as she looked around.  “Damn coasters,” the barman said, as one fell to the floor. ;
(10)         Run on prepositional phrases: – “He won the race in the rain, under record time, with new shoes …… etc.;
(11)         Repetitious words or phrases; These sneak into our writing like thieves.  Consider the following: “By the time he reached the party, there were a collection of his friends there before him. Now the MC was there, it was time to start. There was an air of excitement already.”
(12)         Convoluted phrasing: – “The place turned out to be a Laundromat” is better as “It was a Laundromat.”  “She launched herself forward at him.” Is better as “She jumped at him.” And “He raised himself from his chair and came to stand by the bar.” Is better as “He stood and came to the bar.”;
(13)         Weak sentence structure: – “Harold clenched his fist outside Henderson’s door” is weaker than “At Henderson’s door, Harold’s fists clenched.” because the significant action comes at the end. Just as “Harold saw Henderson in the car park when he glanced out the window.”, is weaker than “Harold glanced out the window and saw Henderson in the car park.”;
(14)         Dialogue tags: Don’t leave them hanging out to dry at the end of speech. Use alternative attributions where possible;
(15)         Over-inflated imagery: – “His doubts assailed him, a swarm of wasps buzzing around inside his head, ready to sting in an instant.”, is patently ridiculous;
(16)         Unnecessary phrases of realisation or discernment: – “He saw there were three men coming over the hill” is better as “Three men came over the hill.”  “He discovered he was not alone in the room.” is better as “He was not alone.” and “Barbara realised a sound was coming from the closet.” is better as “A sound came from the closet.”;
(17)         Too much passive voice: “Harold found himself trembling.” is both passive and weaker than “Harold trembled.”;
(18)         Over-telling: – “Harold looked at Henderson’s door.  He could storm in there, expose Henderson as incompetent, as venal, as the womanizer he was … and Ruth need never know how their future had been threatened. He was fantasizing.”
(19)         Monotonous sentence rhythm: – “Harold looked at Henderson’s office. It was three o’clock. He looked around. The rest of the office was empty. It was very quiet. He rubbed his chin. An office girl returned. He sighed, bending over his work.”
(20)         Continuity: Don’t leave gaps in the action;
(21)         Reader orientation. Keep control of the way the reader experiences the story;
(22)         Show, not tell! Don’t say that you’re angry, sad, or happy. Prove it by your choice of words, the tempo of your sentences. Let the reader experience the events: and
(23)         Use effective images: 3000 people can die in Turkey as the result of an earthquake and few take notice unless it affects them directly, while the death of a beloved pet is heart-rending.
If you want to see how these are applied, check out my last two books as Amy Gallow, “A Fair Trader” at Whiskey Creek Press and “A Soldier’s Woman” at Eternal Press, and “The First-Born” a science fiction romantic adventure will be released by Eternal Press on October 7th.
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