How to write a really bad novel

Lovers of “illiterary” fiction no doubt will have heard of the Bulwer-Lytton competition, in which entrants have to write the most awful first line of a novel that they can possibly manage. This is in tribute to the late Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose rather dark and stormy novel, Paul Clifford, (as I’m sure you remember) began like this:

small__3459918218“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

 –Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

I understand that the competition is still going strong, so do check out the Bulwer-Lytton website to catch up on the latest pearls of awfulness in various types of fiction. [Read more…]

ChickLit that isn’t ChickenSh*t

Please welcome counsellor, psychotherapist and former journalist Rhiannon Daniel with what I hope is one of many delightful guest posts. Here she shares her typically lively views, on ChickLit … one of fiction’s most “popular” genres…

medium_4408892521Anna Karenina, which I reread earlier this year, is, technically, ChickLit.  Tolstoy, considered one of the greats of his era, often lapsed into waffle but among that stuff about trains, peasants and the intricacies of old Russian ‘society’ was a literary bodice ripper. It left everything to the imagination, yet it worked.

The Brontës were endlessly examined, interpreted and worshipped, but would have sold fewer were it not for their pulsating sexual tension.

I once thought that I might write for that flagship of modern ChickLit, Mills & Boon. They sent me twenty pages of instructions. [Read more…]

How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: the crucial Act Two

 

Welcome to Part Twenty-One of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher looks at how you should review the crucial Act Two of your story … probably the most important part of all, and the part in which the most exciting and/or critical action takes place.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Reviewing Act Two

Since we reviewed Act One of your story, you may have been speeding your way through Act Two. If you are approaching, or have reached the halfway mark – which is also the halfway point of your story – we should take a look at how it’s going. [Read more…]

How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: reviewing Act One, the beginning

 

Welcome to Part Sixteen of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy shows how important it is to go back and review “Act One,” the essence of your work of fiction, to make sure you give everything a reality check on how it’s going so far. For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Reviewing Act One: the beginning

Since we finished working through the structure of your story, we have looked at your narrative voice, getting your reader hooked early on, “showing” as opposed to “telling”, writing dialogue for your characters, and the nitty gritty of sentence and paragraph construction. During this time you might have started to write your story and put some of this into practice.

Whether you are writing a full length novel, a novella or short story – even flash fiction, in fact – all storytelling is built on a three act structure: beginning, middle and end.

So if you’ve been writing the beginning of your story, which I defined earlier as two sections: the Trigger (or inciting incident which initiates the action of the plot); and the Quest Begins (in which the hero/ine or main characters set off on their physical or emotional journey) what should you have included?

Here’s a checklist:

**You have started story with, or included very early on, a dramatic incident which grabbed the readers’ attention. This might be a time to go back and check whether you can edit out some of your opening paragraphs or pages and embed background information into later action.

**You have introduced the protagonist(s) and most of the central characters.

**You have set up the status quo of their opening position(s), from where the plot will soon move them out of their comfort zone.

**You have given the reader reasons to like, or at least engage with, the main characters.

**You have initiated the major plot line, the central “problem” or “issue”, the solving or resolving of which the story revolves around, and established how high the stakes are for the protagonist(s) of achieving their quest.

**You have got the ball rolling on one or more subplots – either directly or by foreshadowing them.

**You have established the setting of your story – including the era, country, society and ethos.

**You have introduced the “villain” or nemesis of the hero(ine).

**You have embedded your theme within the opening chapters of the story.

This could be a good time to let one or a couple of trusted readers (sometimes called beta readers), and/or a writing mentor, look at your work. Be clear about what sort of feedback you want from them: it must be honest, specific and constructive, including positive reactions as well as improvements they think you could make.

Ask them to tell you:

**Their overall reaction – and especially whether they wanted to read on to find out what was going to happen next.

**How they felt about the main character(s). Did they love, hate, engage with or feel irritated by them? Specifically why?

**What they thought the story was going to consist of (you want them to be half right, but not to guess the entire plot at the stage).

**Whether they had a clear picture of the world you have established for your story.

**If they found it easy to read – in the sense of not being distracted by poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, or hard-to-follow action (bearing in mind that this is only your first draft).

**If there were any obvious plot holes or inconsistencies.

**What they enjoyed most.

**What they would most like you to change.

In summary, Act One is a preparation for the reader. In it, the world of the story should be established and the protagonist should meet most of the characters, especially their enemy/ies. It is where the reader must understand what the main problem or issue of the story is going to be, engage emotionally with the hero/ine(s) and become aware, even subliminally, of the theme of your book.

The most important aspect of the Beginning two sections is to draw the reader in and ensure they want to know how the story is going to turn out.

Next week we’ll look at coping with Writers’ Block. (I’m really looking forward to that one, in particular … Sz.)

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy

Managing Editor, Rethink Press.
www.rethinkpress.com
www.facebook.com/RethinkPress
www.twitter.com/RethinkPress

 

Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

 

How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: paragraphs

 

Welcome to Part Fifteen of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at paragraphs – important writing elements that apply not only to fiction, but to all good writing, so take careful note! For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Paragraphs (and more punctuation)

We’ve talked about different kinds of sentence structure, and how to punctuate a sentence. Now we’re going to look at combining sentences to form paragraphs – and a little more punctuation.

If sentences are the building blocks of prose writing, paragraphs are the panels, doors and windows in the walls of your narrative edifice.

So, what is a paragraph?

A paragraph is a group of one or more sentences, separated from other paragraphs by starting on a new line and finishing at the end of a final sentence, often in mid-line. Like a sentence, therefore, a paragraph can end with a fullstop/period, question or exclamation mark, closed inverted commas, a dash or ellipsis (three – exactly – dots)…

(It could also finish with a closing bracket, but brackets rarely have a place in fiction writing.)

In a printed fiction book, paragraphs are typically indented on the first line (except at the start of a chapter or section), have ‘trailing spaces’ after the end of the last sentence (ie, the last line is not justified to the right), but are not separated from the the paragraph above or below by a line space.

When formatting paragraphs in your manuscript, however, bear in mind that, for technical reasons, most editors and publishers prefer authors not to indent the first line of a paragraph (though if you do indent, use the tab key and not the space bar); and to insert a line spaces between paragraphs – in the same way as this web page is laid out.

What are paragraphs for?

Paragraphs have a physical purpose: they act as a visual break for readers, separating the text into distinct and variable-sized blocks, which help a reader keep their place on the page and also within the action of the story. Pages of solid text, or very long paragraphs, are intimidating, tiring to read and don’t draw the eye forwards through the story; too many short paragraphs, though, can make for a jerky and disrupted reading experience.

Just as sentences of differing lengths create changing rhythms for your narrative, so do varying-sized paragraphs. Longer paragraphs usually indicate extended action, detailed description or complex thought processes, so the story becomes slower and more measured as readers work their way through them.

Shorter paragraphs happen around quick exchanges of dialogue, rapid action and the introduction of vital information.

An occasional paragraph of a single sentence, or even one word, whether dialogue or narrative, can have a more immediate and powerful effect than several longer paragraphs. They can be used to shock the reader or to make a sharp or sudden point, but should be used sparingly so as not to dissipate their potency.

A good mix of paragraphs of different lengths keeps the reader engaged and varies the speed and tone of plot development. Look at this post and see where your eye is attracted to short, punchy paragraphs in the first instance and how, while you are reading longer ones, you are drawn in into more complex ideas and concepts.

When should you start a new paragraph?

  • medium_2288915125When you are writing dialogue. Every time a new character starts to speak, their dialogue should start on a new line and create an individual paragraph. (The word paragraph  comes from the Greek word paragraphos – para  ‘beside’ and graphein  ‘to write’ – meaning a marginal note used to indicate a change of speaker in drama.) While a single character continues to speak, even if there is action, internal thought or description alternating with their dialogue, it can all stay within one paragraph. As soon as new person starts to speak, their dialogue begins on a new line and paragraph.
  • When one piece of action, narration or thought finishes, the new subject matter should start with a new paragraph. If you are covering a protracted event or exposition, use an introductory paragraph; an ending, or summary, paragraph; and as many paragraphs as you need to delineate the stages between.
  • When the focus of your narrative changes from one character to another – especially if you are changing from one person’s point of view to someone else’s – begin a new paragraph.
  • When none of the above apply and you are in the middle of a long section, but you need to give your reader some incentives to get through it.

In the same way as you punctuate a sentence to make it easy for your reader to understand, break up your prose into logical paragraphs, manageable bites, to give flow and structure to your story, and visual variation on the page.

How do you structure a paragraph?

If you think of a paragraph as a frame for a certain amount of information, how to give it the right shape and form becomes clearer. Each paragraph is acting as a boundary for the related items within it. In descriptive writing, it can open with an introductory sentence, followed by others that expand on the opening point, and close with a sentence which sums up or completes the point. Just as a picture frame should be the best size and shape to display the painting it contains, so a paragraph should neatly contain the chunk of information being conveyed to the reader.

Read the above paragraph again and note how it is shaped in this way.

A dialogue paragraph will start with a character’s first sentence of speech. They may continue speaking throughout the paragraph; you may break it up to tag the dialogue, to describe theirs, or another character’s, internal or external responses before adding more dialogue; or intersperse their dialogue with action. In most cases, the dialogue paragraph naturally ends when another character starts to speak, but if one character talks at length, you may need to divide their speech into subject- or emotion-related paragraphs.

How to order paragraphs

Dividing your story into well-formed paragraphs gives you a great opportunity to try out different ways of organising the plot. I said at the start that paragraphs represent the panels, doors and windows of your narrative: just as an architect will design a beautiful and functional house by moving these elements around until they look and work best, so a writer can order and re-order paragraphs until they tell the best possible story.

small_127555697Often the most important thing to consider, when deciding which paragraph should go where, is the logic of the plot. What information does the reader need first – and which aspects should be held back to increase tension or build the action? In most cases it is best to tell your story in sequence. If you are experimenting with flashbacks, working with multiple perspectives or using a double time scheme, make sure that each one is internally consistent; each element of the plot progresses logically within its own development. It is one thing to intentionally mislead the reader – as is often the basis of crime or thriller fiction – but to inadvertently confuse is to risk them getting bored and giving up on your story.

Place related paragraphs together and check whether they progress logically. Try changing the order and see whether this enhances the effect you are looking for. If you have written several paragraphs of description followed by another set progressing the action, might it be better to intersperse them? Test whether your dialogue is correctly paragraphed by making sure you can tell who is speaking simply from the paragraphing of each character’s speech, without tags.

It can take time to become really adept with using paragraphs to make your fiction sing, so practise forming strong and logical paragraphs, which link to each other and/or break up sections, with everything you write. Paragraphs are a vital tool for the writer and act as signposts for the reader. Learn to use them to build scenes and action, develop and reveal character, introduce your themes and settings and control the tension and progress of your plot.

Next week we’ll look at how you are getting on with writing Act One, or the Beginning section of your story.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy

Managing Editor, Rethink Press.
www.rethinkpress.com
www.facebook.com/RethinkPress
www.twitter.com/RethinkPress

 

Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

photo credit: oboulko via photopin cc
photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ via photopin cc

How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: sentence structure and punctuation

 

Welcome to Part Fourteen of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at sentence structure and punctuation – important writing elements that apply not only to fiction, but to all good writing, so take careful note! For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Sentence structure and punctuation

Whether you are “showing”, “telling” or composing dialogue, your writing should communicate your meaning to the reader with maximum ease and clarity.

‘Be kind to your reader,’ was one of the best pieces of advice once given to me by an editor. By this, she meant that making prose simple to understand and easy to follow (however complex the action or ideas) for readers is the best way to keep them engaged in your story.

To do this, it’s essential to write grammatically and use punctuation correctly – not for the sake of sticking to rules, but because grammar and punctuation are tools of good communication. They provide a window through which the reader ‘sees’ your scenes: well-written narrative gives the reader such a clear view that they are not even aware of the glass through which they are looking; mis-punctuated writing with poor grammatical construction is like a dirty window that the reader is constantly distracted by, and through which they peer with difficulty in order to ‘see’ what’s going on.

Let’s go back to basics.

The sentence is the fundamental building block of prose writing. A sentence can be short or long, but its essential components are:

  • to start with a capital letter
  • to end with a fullstop/period, and
  • to contain a subject and verb (the subject is a noun or pronoun who/that carries out the verb)

‘I go.’ or ‘I am.’ are perhaps the shortest possible, if not the most elegant, sentences in the English language.

The house was falling down.

War had started.

Amy cooked the breakfast. (this last has an object, the breakfast, as well as a subject)

These are all complete, grammatical simple sentences. They comprise a single, independent clause.

Imperative sentences, such as exclamations – ‘Hello!’ – commands – ‘Get moving!’ –  and requests – ‘Please sit down.’ – are the only exceptions to the subject/verb sentence rule.

Simple sentences, like all these above, need no further punctuation. They are ideal for punchy statements, brusque dialogue and giving a staccato feel to quick action sequences. But your readers would quickly tire of an entire story written like this; with more complex sentence structures comes the greater need to punctuate carefully for sense and readability.

Compound sentences are easy enough: they are essentially two related, simple sentences stuck together with a conjunction, such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘because’, etcetera.

Amy cooked the breakfast although war had started.

This compound sentence, composed of two independent clauses (which could each be a stand-alone sentence), doesn’t require any internal punctuation. If, though, you add a third clause –

Amy cooked the breakfast, although war had started and the house was falling down.

 – adding a comma after the main clause makes it easier for the reader to comprehend.

As a general rule (though there are exceptions, one of which is the Oxford comma), do not put a comma before an ‘and’; always put a comma before ‘but’.

How to write fictions without the fuss

Amy cooked breakfast despite
highly dramatic circumstances!
Check out Lucy’s tips on how to get
the grammar, syntax and punctuation just right…

To join two related clauses/sentences without a conjunction – and so create a more enigmatic sentence – use a semi-colon.

Amy cooked breakfast; the war had started and the house was falling down.

(The context in which you have written this compound sentence should show the reader that these three clauses are related!)

It is incorrect to use a semi-colon with a conjunction, so you would not write: Amy cooked breakfast; although the war had started.

Compound sentences are useful for connecting facts and good to mix into your narrative style, but you need more variation than simple and compound sentences to express more involved ideas and situations.

Complex sentences are the next step up the prose ladder and the most dynamic and interesting kind of sentence – to read and to write. The most basic complex sentence consists of a main clause and a dependent clause. The main clause can stand alone, but dependent clauses on their own turn into mere fragments.

Anna, ignoring the fact that the house was falling down, made the breakfast.

Here, Anna made the breakfast is the main clause, while ignoring the fact that the house was falling down is the sub-clause (and doesn’t stand alone).

The key to punctuating complex sentences is knowing where to place the commas.

This is not – as you may have been taught in school – about inserting a comma where you would pause when speaking. It is about separating the sub-clause(s) from the main clause. The sub-clause can come at the start or end of a complex sentence; in either case it only needs one comma to separate it off:

Ignoring the fact that the house was falling down, Anna made the breakfast.

Anna made the breakfast, ignoring the fact that the house was falling down.

If you place the sub-clause in the middle of the sentence, though, it must be separated by a comma on both sides:

Anna, ignoring the fact that the house was falling down, made the breakfast.

Too often, writers omit one of the commas around a central sub-clause, making a sentence hard, if not nonsensical, to read. I would rather see no commas at all than only one around a sub-clause.

Commas should be used in the same way to separate conjunctions: However, war had started. War had started, however. War, however, had started.

At the peak of sentence complexity sits the complex-compound sentence. As you might have guessed, this is a combination of compound and complex sentences. They have two or more main clauses, at least one dependent clause, and often need careful use of the full range of punctuation marks to make sense.

To engage and stimulate your reader’s imagination, use a variety of sentence structures in your narrative. You can get the most information across and develop more detailed ideas using complex or complex-compound sentences, but simple and compound sentences are good for straightforward facts, punchy dialogue and fast-moving action..

More about sentence structure and punctuation next week!

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy

Managing Editor, Rethink Press.
www.rethinkpress.com
www.facebook.com/RethinkPress
www.twitter.com/RethinkPress

 

Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

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