Writing can be a lonely old business, with little cause for celebration – especially for us self-published authors – so when I found out that the first of November was National Author Day, I thought it was time to do something about that. But what, you ask?
Since moving to Leeds I’ve been very aware that the British Library has a facility thirty minutes down the road from me, in Boston Spa. It’s where they keep the national archive, the collection of everything published in the UK which each publisher is required to add to whenever they put anything into print (more on the Legal Deposit scheme later).
It’s where I sent Dexter & Sinister when it came out, and, being a library, it is open to the public, meaning I could go visit my little book baby in person. So I did, but not without seeing if anyone else wanted to come with me first.
Now, unsurprisingly, giving people just a month’s notice of an event in one of the lesser-known parts of the world on a weekday during a pandemic, the response was modest, but I did manage to rustle up a few willing participants. Sadly, thanks to said pandemic, that number dwindled on the day to just myself and one other, a chap called Mark Weaver. Still, not to be deterred, I set out that Monday morning in full steampunk get-up to go visit my little book baby in person.
It’s strange to think that most people don’t know about the Legal Deposit scheme. If it’s published in the UK, be it book, newspaper, or magazine, the publisher has a legal responsibility to send a copy to the British Library to be stored for future generations. Many people also don’t realise that if you use Amazon KDP, Smashwords, etc., then YOU are the publisher, and it is YOUR responsibility to send in your own work. Amazon may print the books, but you’re the one publishing them.
What the Legal Deposit scheme means is that the British Library holds a copy of literally everything. Every book you’ve ever read, if it was printed in the UK, should be somewhere in their archives. And that meant that not only could I visit my own little opus, but I could visit something by an author that inspired me as well. And so I did.
Can you guess which of the books below was my bonus prize?
Before going to the library I reached out to David Clayforth, who runs the Reading Rooms there, to see if he could help arrange things for what I thought at the time would be a much larger group (always plan for the best!). David came through wonderfully, sorting out a room within the Reading Rooms for us to use, checking that we would all be able to get reading passes for the event, and, most importantly, arranging for the books we required to be available. I cannot thank him enough for his help in this.
David also arranged for us to meet with Angie Jude, who runs the Legal Deposit scheme. Angie was very generous in discussing the scheme with us, how it works, what it’s for, and how important it is not just now, but for the future as well.
This is Mark and I meeting with David and Angie. Authors on the left, librarians on the right.
We also got to learn a lot about the library itself. How the site is where it is because it’s at a mid-way point between Scotland and the south of England, how it was a munitions factory during the war, and how it is entirely staffed by inmates from a nearby prison (okay, that last one isn’t true, although that is was a group of foreign dignitaries thought when they came to visit apparently, lol).
After Mark got to hand over his latest novel in person (quite possibly a first for Angie, as Legal Deposit Manager),
we then got to spend some time with our little book babies.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I chose to say hello to The Colour Of Magic. Terry Pratchett has been such a strong influence on me it’s safe to say that, without him, and his Discworld novels, I wouldn’t have come as far as I have. I often tell people that Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) is the author that showed me how I write, but Terry Pratchett is the one who showed me how I wanted to write, so to be able to pay tribute to that by holding a copy of the book that started it all, and sticking it next to my own published first novel (possibly the one and only time it will happen) was quite special.
Anyway, after visiting with our respective novels, Mark and I parted ways. It was lovely to meet him, and chat books and writing and all that. To share stories and insights, and yes even to moan a little about things, lol. Hopefully next year we can organise something even bigger and better, with more participants, and more aspects for everyone to enjoy.
It’s probably no (cosmic) coincidence that National Author Day is on the same day NaNoWriMo begins. Maybe we can do something in connection with that, bringing together the past and the future. Or possibly we can have some kind of Legal Deposit Amnesty, where authors who have forgotten their Legal Deposit obligations can hand over their novels without fear of arrest from the Library Police. There are so many possibilities!
So, if you’re an author, and you want to be involved next year, follow me on Twitter to be the first to know when National Author Day 2 comes around. And if not, follow me anyway. Who knows, you might like it. 😉
The Town That Never Was is a steampunk weekend run by the same group that do The Asylum steampunk festival. Held at Blists Hill Museum in the Iron Bridge Gorge it’s a lot of fun, with all kinds of exhibitions and events, as well as loads of people dressing up in their finest steampunk outfits (myself included) to really get into the swing of things. This was my second year going, but for those who have never been before here is a short summary of what to expect.
First up, the location is amazing. Blists Hill Museum is one of those living museums where you have people in period costume hanging around telling you all about life in Victorian times. I go there even when there’s no events on because why wouldn’t you!
They have a working chippy (which cooks in lard unfortunately, so no good for little old vegan me), a sweet shop (which I definitely could buy thing in), a bakery, a candle makers, a print shop, in fact all kinds of working businesses you can visit, not just ones that sell food. They alone make Blists Hill worth a visit all by itself.
Lots of steampunk creators like myself go along to events like The Town That Never Was because it’s not only a great way to meet fans of your work, but it gives you the chance to maybe entice a few more to give it a try. Everyone’s always so nice when you meet them, they love talking about the things they create, and I invariably walk away with something new and interesting in my bag.
I’m going to do a whole post highlighting some of the creatives I came across this weekend – like Hopeless Maine, Gary Nicholls’ Imaginarium, and Herr Doktor – so you’ll forgive me if I don’t go into too much detail about them here. Suffice to say that they’re doing some very interesting stuff!
Buying things is one of the main reasons to go to a convention like this. Whether it’s something new to read or something nice to wear, events like this are the best places to get the more unusual stuff you don’t get on somewhere like Amazon.
I managed to get myself a new, light-weight vintage waistcoat, from the lovely couple in the image above, and let me tell you, I needed it! It was so damn hot all weekend I couldn’t face two days in the heavy woolen waistcoat I normally wear.
One of the joys of something like The Town That Never Was is that there’s always something going on. Whether it’s steampunk cowboys robbing the post office, a troop of burlesque belly dancers, or a Victorian R2-D2 rolling about the place, the fact that you can walk into something around any corner really helps immerse you in the whole experience.
People love dressing up, and none more so than the steampunk community. I saw some amazing outfits at Blists Hill, which must have taken hours to put together. So many in fact that they too deserve a whole post of their own.
If you can’t wait you can see all the photos I took on my Instagram feed right now, but for the moment here’s a choice selection of some of the best to be getting on with.
Simply put, whether you’re into steampunk or not (and there were plenty there who had just gone along for the museum alone) a visit to The Town That Never Was at Blists Hill is well worth it. It’s once a year, round about July, and whilst £29 per person isn’t cheap, the fact that you can visit any of the other museums in Iron Bridge for a full year afterwards makes it a good deal in my book.
I’ll be going along next year, hopefully as an exhibitor if all goes to plan. Maybe I’ll see you there?
The hardest part of any creative endeavour, after finding the courage to show it to someone, is being brave enough to hear what they think of it. Not all readers are created equal, and sometimes their thoughts or “suggestions” can sting a little. With that in mind, here are my suggestions on how to take literary feedback like a champ.
NB: What follows is a mix of advice from other writers combined with what I’ve found works for me, and whilst I will be talking about the written word throughout, most of what I am about to say will apply to art, music, cooking, in fact anything where you have had to bare your soul even a little bit.
Lock Up Your Heart
If you’re anything like me you’re about to have a big emotional reaction, so prepare yourself. I find it best to detach myself from the whole process by remembering that everything that is about to happen does not require an immediate response. It’s perfectly fine to simply accept the notes as they are given and take them away for further study later on. In fact, where possible, this is the preferred choice. Every note needs time to be given its due consideration.
Don’t Take It Personally
It’s perfectly understandable, when faced with someone telling you in great detail how hideous your precious little book baby is, to want to rip their head off. Don’t. Believe it or not it’s not personal, even though it feels that way. And whilst it may seem like this “so-called friend” is taking the opportunity to give you and your work a merciless bashing, quite the opposite is true. The vast majority of notes come from a place of love. The person giving you feedback only wants what’s best for you. They want to help you improve your writing in hopes of one day getting it published. That’s worth bearing in mind.
Remember Who You’re Dealing With
Is the person giving you feedback a professional, or simply a friend or family member? Do they create, or are they a consumer? Can they tell you what doesn’t work overall, or just what doesn’t work for them? These are all important things to consider when trying to weigh up how much importance to give to someone’s feedback.
It’s also worth considering how well you know them, how well they know you, and how well they know the genre/market you are aiming for? Will they get your jokes? Will they get your references? Will they understand the memes and tropes synonymous with your specific genre? Do they know what the reader will expect, and can they convey that in a clear and concise manner? (NB: They don’t have to, it’s not their job to provide you with notes that are “correct” in some way, but it does colour how you will interpret said notes when they arrive.)
Let Us Begin
Assuming that your feedback comes in the form of physical notes that accompany your original document in some way, the first thing to do is just read them from beginning to end. Don’t attach your mind to any one note, don’t obsess over them, don’t get caught up in the emotional roller coaster that’s about to happen, simply read them from beginning to end, set them to one side, do a little dance, scream into a pillow, then go make yourself a cup of tea.
Give It Time For Things To Settle
Depending on how many and how critical your notes are, you may need to take some time for the dust to settle. That’s okay. You do what you gotta do before coming back to look at the notes a second time.
It’s important to note that in this gestation period some notes will linger in your mind. They will be either obviously brilliant or obviously awful, and both are worthy of careful attention when you come back for that all important second reading.
So What Are We Dealing With?
The notes that you receive come in many forms, but in general they will fit into one of the following six categories:
Compliments – These are the easiest notes to deal with, for obvious reasons. They are also the ones you will see fewest of, simply because people think their job in providing feedback is to highlight what doesn’t work, not what does. A good professional reader will always remember to say nice things. Your average amateur reader won’t. They assume that not saying anything means you’ll understand that they think everything else is fine. That’s something worth bearing in mind.
Simple Fixes – As the name suggests these will be things like a typo, a sudden name change, a switch in tense, that are easy enough to fix once someone else has pointed them out to you, but you do need someone to point them out to you. (These notes generally involve the physical text itself rather than the characters or story line.)
Good Points – These will be logical inconsistencies regarding character and plot which, when considered, make perfect sense. They might involve someone suddenly wearing different clothes without having changed, a character travelling hundreds of miles in a few minutes, the family dog leaping about like a puppy when it is in fact over a hundred in human years, or any number of plot points that used to make sense but have since gotten lost in the murky mists of countless rewrites. Whilst these notes may be a little embarrassing they are very helpful indeed. Cherish them.
Wrong Points – Not all notes are good. Some of them are just stupid and wrong, and that’s okay. Every note has value, and if someone has felt the need to bring up something you feel is wrong (and obviously so) you need to ask why? What did you do, or didn’t you do, to make that question come about, and do you need to do something about it? Quite often a bit of clarification elsewhere in your manuscript will make something somewhere else that much clearer. And as with all writing, clarity is key.
Thinkers – Readers often see stuff in our work that we cannot. This leads to a certain class of note that bears some consideration. It might be regarding what someone says or does, what they could say or do, their motivations behind doing something, things not happening the way they expect them to, or it could even be the fact that two characters actually quite fancy each other and they, the reader, kinda ship that idea. Notes such as this may lead to big changes, or they may simply be amusing asides that ultimately lead nowhere, but either way they are worth giving your due consideration as they could easily lead to some properly satisfying story gold.
The Annoying Ones – Annoying notes are Thinkers that involve a lot of work which simply won’t go away. They feel Wrong, you want them to be Wrong, but deep down in your heart of hearts you know that they’re not. You know they will take you somewhere special if you let them, elevating your story to the heights of greatness. All you’ve got to do is rewrite the entire last half of you manuscript to get there. Annoying notes are right no matter how much you wish they weren’t. They should be looked at in great detail, and they should definitely not be ignored.
You Have To Choose
You don’t have to take all, or indeed any, of the notes that are given to you. Each set of notes, no matter where they’re coming from, represents one person’s opinion. Whether you listen to that person or not is up to you. As a rule though you’re likely to accept some, discard others, and struggle with the rest. That’s just the way it goes.
You can also play about with an idea before getting rid of it. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that. The important thing is to give each note its due consideration before letting it go. Sift that sand with a fine-toothed comb. You don’t want to miss out on any gold nuggets lurking at the bottom of the pan.
Say Thank You
No matter who is giving you notes, no matter how numerous or detailed they are, always, always, ALWAYS smile and say thank you afterwards. This person has taken time out of their busy schedule to trawl through what may very well be a dumpster fire of a manuscript in order to to provide you with their thoughts and opinions, all so that you can make your story that little bit better. It’s a very kind and generous thing that they have done, and they deserve our admiration and respect. Say thank you, buy them dinner, and for God’s sake remember to put their name in the acknowledgements when its publication time. It’s the least you can do.
Final Thoughts On The Whole Process
There are a few things to bear in mind when going through this whole process.
First, you need feedback from multiple sources. You need to compare and contrast different notes so that you can look for the consistent inconsistencies. If one person loves something and another hates it that’s a wash, and you can probably leave it be. But if everyone tells you there’s a problem then there probably is.
Second, if someone tells you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they’re probably wrong. If they have a vague idea that something isn’t right but they don’t know what to do about it, they’re probably right. It’s the difference between someone helping you write your story and someone trying to get you to write their story for them. One is good for you and one isn’t. I received so many notes on a short story once I ended up disregarding them all, because it was obvious they weren’t commenting on the story I had written but the story they thought I should have written, and that wasn’t a story I was interested in telling.
And third, writers, perversely enough, do not always give the best feedback. They quite often slip into “this is how I would have done it” mode (I myself am guilty of this). The best notes, the notes that are most helpful, the notes you get from professional readers, ask questions. Why did so-and-so do that? Where did he get that from? Are these two in love? These are the notes that can take your story from good to great, and from great to special. They are the gold among the sand, and they should be treated as such. A handful of good questions from the right person at the right time and your story will really start going places.
Don’t fear the feedback process. It may involve more blood, sweat, and tears than you were expecting after writing the words, The End, but it’s all about making your manuscript the best it can be, and anything that does that can only be a good thing.
With thanks to Stephen King, William Goldman, Neil Gaiman, and that geordie art teacher I had at college whose name escapes me right now. Without your sage advice I wouldn’t know any of this.
I recently finished writing my next book, The Dragonfly Delivery Company. It’s a sequel, which is not something I’ve ever written before. Sure, I’ve had ideas for trilogies and series in the past, but I’ve never actually written one, which made writing The Dragonfly Delivery Company something of a unique experience. As such there are a number of things I’ve learnt along the way that I think you might find of interest.
Sequels Are Easier
Now you might think having to write a story as good or better than the first would put a lot of pressure on you as a writer, and whilst I can see that being true, it wasn’t something I experienced. Quite the opposite in fact.
Writing book two was easier because everything was so familiar. I knew the characters, the landscape, the type of story I wanted to tell. I had fewer decisions to make on style and substance because I’d made them all before. It was more like visiting an old friend than it was meeting someone new, and that was a lovely position to be in.
Fractured Timelines Work
I grew up with chapters being like scenes in a play. You arrive somewhere, you watch what happens, and you depart. But more and more I’m finding that treating my book more like a movie than a play works best for me.
It’s perfectly acceptable to leap from one scene to the next and back again, doling out little bits of information along the way. It’s preferable even, as it allows you to keep the whole thing fresh and interesting. It also stops you getting bogged down in unnecessary fluff and waffle, which brings me to…
It’s Okay To Just Stop
I am cursed with the need to wrap up each section of my writing. To put in a sentence or paragraph at the end that ties everything up with a neat little bow. But guess what, you don’t have to do that! If you’ve said what you needed to say you can just… stop.
Once you’ve got across the necessary information it’s perfectly fine to move on to the next bit. You don’t have to explain everything away, to make everything all nice and neat. Life isn’t nice and neat, so why should your writing be.
Don’t patronise your audience by treating them like children. They get what’s going on. You don’t have to explain it all. Plus, a little ambiguity goes a long way. Nothing make a reader want to move on more than mild uncertainty about what just happened.
I Am An Under-Writer
Book two has ended up sixty-three thousand words long. This is much less than the one hundred and three thousand words of book one. I’m not too worried about this because, unlike most writers, I’ve realised that I am an under-writer. I add words later to make my stories good, not take them away.
I can’t tell you how freeing this revelation has been. It has allowed me to be the writer I am, instead of the writer I thought I should be. I no longer worry about my work being boring, because I know I’ll fix it later. This has allowed me to finish my first draft in just nine months, instead of the usual God knows how long.
Yes it means more work further down the line, but that’s fine. At least I have a first draft to be getting on with. And whether you’re adding words or taking them away, all good books are made in the edit anyway.
I hope you’ve found these realisations of interest. Normally I would write a nice wrap up paragraph here to conclude this post, but because of my third point above, and in recognition of the fact that I’ve said what needed to be said, I’m going to just stop instead.
Ever wondered what authors talk about behind closed doors? What about themselves and their work makes them cringe? What secret sins they whisper of in the dark? Well wonder no more!
Asking Authors Awkward Questions is a new series where I ask some of my author friends the sorts of questions you don’t get asked in your average interview. Questions designed to make them squirm, make them blush, and to maybe, just maybe, get to the heart of what it means to be a writer.
First up on the chopping block is Tiffany Christina Lewis. Tiffany is the author of six books and has been published more than a dozen times in anthologies and magazines. She is also a publisher at Rebellion LIT, where she very kindly published an interview with yours truly a little while back.
What was the first novel you ever sat down to write? How old were you at the time?
The first full length novel I ever wrote was completed around 2009 and I was a fresh, young 24 years old. It was a Romantic Crime Fiction, very Urban and it wasn’t for me. It had kind of a Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah feel. Basically, a girl falls in love with a drug dealer. I now know that was not really my style, lol.
How old were you when you finally got published? How many novels had you written by then? Which one got published first?
My first book, Inside Out, was published in 2014 with Steamy Trails Publishing and I was 29. I think by then I’d written 2-3 other novels. The other novels weren’t even an option for publishing, in my opinion, so I didn’t share them with my publisher, lol. Back then I was heavy into short stories because I was in a group that used prompts and writing challenges. A few of those shorts were published between 2009 and 2014.
What are your crutch words? Which words do you most overuse?
Aww man, you name it, lol. Recently my editor had to trim down “towards” but I definitely make people “smile” a lot. I have a list of words to trim from my writing but they are more like “was”, “that”, “just” and “like” lol. They are all words that are considered filler or words that “tell” rather than “show”. I’m not obsessed with eliminating “telling” but whenever I can, I like to remove words that don’t improve the story.
Which character of yours is your favourite, and why? (And why is it never the main character?)
I’m lucky to have a ton of characters to pick from more recently. My new release has 8 stories with many different characters. Overall though, my favorite characters are always those who I would love to hang out with. Positive role models who represent my culture best and have fun hobbies. For instance, in my new book Helpless: A Short Story Collection, my favorite character is Gia. She’s an African-American career minded woman like myself. More specifically though, my favorite character is Azlynn Matthews from my Michael Taylor series. She’s caring, smart, funny, but also tough. She’s the kind of person I would want to be my friend.
I think our favorites are never our mains because as humans we crave support. Our support characters are made to cradle and care for our main characters and we would love to have someone rock solid like that by our sides too, if we don’t already.
How’s your grammar, spelling, and punctuation? What mistakes do you make most often?
Commas are my enemy and my friend. They are definitely the ones I screw up most of all. I try very hard to spell correctly, but dictionaries are always at my right hand. Grammar is not even real. I just try to write good English whenever I can, lol.
How disciplined are you as an author? Do you have set goals? How often do you fail to meet those goals?
I am as disciplined as a human who is very determined to be a full time author. Humans can be very undisciplined sometimes and I have that in me. I think my lack of discipline can occasionally come from overworking because again, I want to be a full time author. I also don’t want to work for anyone else so this forces me into pushing myself hard. This creates those “undisciplined” days where I watch four movies in one day and never touch my laptop.
I don’t do “goals” because they upset my anxiety. It’s not realistic to think I have no goals, but I keep my goals and dreams a little more lofty, this gives me the opportunity to instead set easy to manage tasks which will automatically help me achieve those goals. For instance, if I have a sales goal, I’ll set it for the year. This gives me 12 months to achieve it. I then make tiny tasks that are more tailored to getting my book in reader’s hands as opposed to torturing myself with how much money I made each week.
With this method, I don’t feel like I fail often. My bigger goals may fall short, but I’m constantly moving towards those goals because my tasks are being met and I’m really trying my best every single day. It makes me feel good, despite my long-term goal not being met.
What’s something you hate in other people’s writing that you try to avoid doing in your own but often end up doing anyway because words are hard?
Repetition. I detest repetition. I think it’s the kind of thing that bothers readers (not every reader) and I don’t wanna see it ever! Yet, I still find repetition in my work. For instance, I don’t want to see the same word in close proximity to another (outside of and, the, but, etc.). For instance, if two characters smile at one another after dialogue, I do not want to see the word smile in each of their dialogue tags. I want the author to vary their word usage.
While I was in editing for my May release, I was finishing the eBook in March and sure enough, I had people smiling and smiling and smiling, all in the same paragraph. It’s annoying to me because it distracts from the story and I don’t want that for my readers.
If you could go back and change any of your already published work, would you? What would you change, and why?
So far, the only thing I would change would be the format of my third book. I made the book 6×9 but all my other titles are 5×8. It looks kinda cool on the shelf right now, but in the future, all my books will be 5×8, so eventually I have to change it.
As for storylines, I’m very proud of them all and I wouldn’t change anything.
Which part of the writing/publishing process do you like the least?
I hate formatting so much. Editing, I actually love because it helps me grow as an author and brings me closer to my major plan of writing full time, even though I think it’s the part of writing most hated by other authors. Lol.
Formatting my upcoming release has been a sh*t sandwich. Can I curse on your blog? Lol. Seriously, it was very challenging. I ended up buying Vellum which changed everything. I hope on my next book I’ll have a better method for working through formatting.
If you could write anything you wanted and guarantee it would get published, no questions asked, what would it be? What’s stopping you from writing it right now?
I don’t think I have anything like that… I don’t seek traditional publishing, at all, so for me I can publish anything I want and it would get published, lol. I don’t have any controversial views that I want to share (as far as I know) so no one can stop me publishing from that angle either.
Finish this sentence: Reviews are…?
Reviews are a reflection of a readers feelings related to a book and are not a personal attack against an author. Usually, lol.
There are cases where a reader adamantly disagrees with an author and will take personal attacks against them, but in most cases, reviewers are writing to let other readers know how they felt about the book and that is all they really want to do.
Written communication can be misunderstood, so I always try not to take reviews personally.
Which of your books should a new reader start on? Pitch it to us.
My 2nd book, Stitches, is the best place for a reader to start in my Crime Fiction series. This book has many story lines, including multiple murder investigations, a personal life story with my main character, Michael, and it is the book that introduces all my major characters for the continuation of the series including his new partner, a love interest and a major antagonist to the series. Book one is great, and it should be read but I’ve made a lot of permanent introductions in book two that will carry readers through the series.
But! I think if readers want to be introduced to me and my writing style, my new book does that very well. In Helpless, there are stories in five different genres. It is the best writing of my career for sure, because its recent, lol. But also, the stories are deeply personal to me because they all have female main characters.
These eight stories of women kicking ass are my opposition to the tropes of true crime. As much as I love true crime, women are often just represented as victims. The strong, smart, caring, and even wicked women in my book exemplify what women are and can be. I’m proud of it for that, but additionally, as I said it’s some of my best writing and gives a taste of what I can do in multiple genres.
Aside from book sales and big piles of cash, what does literary success look like to you?
Being known for my skills as an author. I work very hard to know and use writing rules to my advantage. I work hard to craft stories that my readers will devour without being distracted by my ineptitude, and more so than money, the best feeling is when a reader tells you how much they loved your work and why. When that happens, I know I’ve done my job.
If you want to find out more about Tiffany and her work you can do so via her website, via Goodreads, or on Twitter, where she can be found lending her support to the writing community on a daily basis.
Three types of writing? What on earth are you on about, Keith. Surely there are more than that. Hell, I can think of half a dozen genres off the top of my head. How can there be just three? Have you gone you crazy or something!
Okay, this is going to get a little fuzzy, because what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have any defined terms. This is just something I’ve come up with to help me understand what I’m doing with my writing as I’m doing it. It’s not a steadfast rule, and like all rules sometimes it has to be broken, but it goes a long way to help make my writing easier to read and hence more enjoyable.
Let me explain…
1. What is that? (Non-Action)
I have noticed, whilst reading some of my favourite authors, that the ones whose work is easiest to read have a trick they do whereby they are very specific about what they are trying to achieve. If they are describing something – a building, a person, a piece of history – they will often stop telling their story to describe that one thing, before then carrying on with their story again.
Now you can intermingle your descriptions in with your story, and often will have to for clarity, but if you have something big that you want to set solidly in the reader’s mind, just describing that one thing is the way to go.
John had always liked Chard Manor, even if it did creep him out a little. He liked the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. Years of revamps and renovations had turned a once average country house into a haphazardly stacked pile of architecture, held together by a ridiculous amount of pipework. A convoluted web of copper crawled all over the house, like out of control metal ivy, delivering the glory of steam to every room in the place. It was this that John didn’t like. Not the piping as such, but the way it would vent unexpectedly, hissing water vapour from every orifice in one big disgruntled sigh. It gave the impression not only that the building was alive, but that it was rather annoyed about the fact, too.
The local kids used to climb the walls of the estate to get a look at ‘Mr Chard’s Steam Castle’. Convinced it was haunted, they would dare each other to go and tap three times on the brickwork to see if they could wake the demons within. Few would, of course. Why risk being dragged to hell when you had your whole life ahead of you? But for those with guts enough to go for it, a lifetime of bragging rights awaited, and many an argument had been settled with the words, ‘Yeah? Well I tapped the castle when I were a kid. Has you?’ before now.
See how nothing changes in the story, but you now have a clear idea of what the manor looks like and what is feels like to be there. By doing this I never had to describe the manor again. I gave the reader a simple, solid description for them to hang their hat on, and then moved on to other, more exciting things.
NB: This is where most of your world building will happen.
2. What’s going on? (Passive Action)
Yes, I know “passive action” is a bit of a contradiction, but hear me out. It’s not the action that is passive but rather the main character.
When something is happening that maybe isn’t all that interesting, but which has to happen for the story to work, or if something is happening out of view from my main character, and hence it’s not something they have any control over, that to me is passive action. It’s not something you want to use a lot of, because passive story telling is not the most satisfying, but it has its uses.
NB: It’s also useful if you need to say a lot in a short space of time, giving an overview of what’s happening without doing too much of a deep dive.
Again, here’s an example:
Outside, John checked his watch. He had time to swing by Gravesend Bridge on the way to the airship factory. He wanted another look at the scene of the crime, to see if there was anything he’d missed. He wasn’t expecting to discover a hidden suicide note or anything like that, but he hadn’t been all that thorough the first time he was there so who could say what he might find. He would go by the bridge, go pick up Dexter, drop him off at home, then go have a word with Spencer Shelby the Third. He lived not far from Chard Manor. It was about time he answered a few questions. Arrogance and ignorance only bought you so much leeway. It was time to turn the screws a bit.
With his collar turned up and his coat pulled tight around him, John headed through the fog towards Gravesend Bridge.
Over the road from the Scion Club, two men stepped from the shadows of a shop doorway. After a brief yet animated discussion – involving lots of agitated hand gestures and some obvious protestations – one of the men was dispatched at a jog down a side street, whilst the other sauntered off up the road after John.
You know John is being followed, but you don’t yet know by whom or why. In this instance, passive action is being used as foreshadowing for what’s about to come next.
3. What are they up to? (Active Action)
This is likely going to make up the bulk of your story. This is where your main character is doing whatever it is they do to make the story happen. It is action, but it is also dialogue. It is any time your main character is doing something to change the world around them, rather than the world around them changing of its own accord.
This is the most satisfying for people to read, which is why it’s where you want to spend most of your time as a writer. It’s where things are ‘happening’, not where they ‘happened’. It’s exciting, and fun, and interesting, and if done well it’s the reason your readers will describe your book as unputdownable.
For the sake of clarity I’m going to give you two examples of this. They may seem different, but they affect the reader experience in the same way.
The man spotted John staring. He looked around, trying to work out what he was staring at, until he realised it was him. Crushing out his cigarette the man made a show of standing and stretching, giving John one last look before wandering off down the road, his hands in his pockets, his pace leisurely. He whistled to himself as he walked, kicking at the pavement as he tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.
John crossed the road. Passing the omnibus stop he followed the man, taking his time so as not to spook him, but still walking fast enough to start gaining ground. The man looked over his shoulder. He saw John and sped up. John sped up, the man sped up – both still walking, but only just. They looked like two men trying to maintain their dignity as they rushed to catch the last train home.
The road ran alongside a six-foot high brick wall that belonged to the house opposite Chard Manor. It ended at a corner a hundred yards up the road. Reaching the corner the man cut right, disappearing from view. John jogged to catch up, but when he turned the corner the man was already well away, hurtling full pelt down the road, arms and legs pumping hard.
John gave chase.
Notice how that one needed a little bit of description at the start of the third paragraph to give it some extra clarity. The scene occurs within an area that is already established in the reader’s mind, but as it moves elsewhere I had to throw in extra description to keep it going, with some actual Non Action in the ensuing paragraphs when it moves somewhere completely new.
This second one may be a lot of standing around talking, but I class it as Action because it changes the story, advancing the plot (whilst also giving is a greater sense of who these two characters are).
“You see! I told you that man wasn’t to be trusted. And now we have proof. So, when do we get him? When do we go to the police?”
“Whoa. Hold your horses. We haven’t got anything yet. We’re going to need a lot more evidence before we can go to the police.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake! So what now then? What do you want to do?”
“I want to go talk to Peter Chard, tell him what we know. Y’know, shake the tree a little, see what falls out.”
Dexter looked at him funny. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Well, you’re not the biggest guy in the world. I’m not sure you could take him.”
“What do you mean? I… I’m not going to strong-arm him or anything. I’m going to talk to the man, to rattle his cage, see if he lets something slip. Shake the tree is just an expression.”
“Oh. I see,” said Dexter. If mechanical cats could blush Dexter would have been a beetroot. “Well… as long as we get him I don’t care how we do it. I just hope you’re up to the job is all.”
But why have these definitions in the first place?
Simple. When it comes to writing, or at least when it comes to my writing, clarity is key. The easier a story is to read the better. Note that I’m not saying the subject matter needs to be easy, you can have as in depth or as complex a storyline as you like, but the act of getting that story across should be as simple as a meerkat.
When I’m writing anything I try to know what each paragraph/section is doing, and then I only do that thing. If I need a lot of description I just describe. If I need to get some information across I just do that. If I’m telling the story, which is most of the time, I try to only do that (although there are, as always, exceptions to the rule).
To give you an idea of why this kind of separation is important, here’s a deliberately mixed up piece of writing, along with how it should read.
Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.
The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean.
If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain.
Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”
Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.
John tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there. “I’ll say.”
“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”
John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.
Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.
If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain. He tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there.
Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”
John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.
The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean. Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.
See how much less satisfying the first one is compared to the second. I mean it’s fine, it has all the same information presented in roughly the same order, but the flow is all wrong. It feels clunky and unfocused. The description doesn’t give a solid, single image for the reader to enjoy, and the character interaction has lost some of its charm. It leaps around too much, with a clumsy transition from corridor to morgue. In short, it lacks clarity.
So what does this all mean?
For me, understanding what each paragraph is doing makes my life a whole lot simpler. Not only does it make my story easier to read, but when it comes time to edit my story I can move paragraphs around without fear, knowing full well that moving a piece of description, or some Passive Action, to somewhere else in the book won’t affect the story. Or I can rewrite parts entirely, coming at it from a different angle (as I did with the Chard Manor description), again knowing that my main storyline will remain intact.
And, as I’ve said many times already, if you are clear in your mind about what you are doing, your reader will be clear in their mind about what is going on, which can only lead to a more pleasurable reading experience all round.
It also allows you to mess with their expectations, slipping in important information without them realising, but that is a topic for another post altogether.
I’ve been trying to think of percentages, of how much I do each of these things. Now, I’m not about to go through an entire novel to check, but for the most part I reckon you’re looking at roughly 5, 10, 85. That’s 5% just description, 10% passive storytelling (side action & world building), and 85% actual story.
These are not hard and fast amounts, and much of the active storytelling will contain elements of the other two, but as a general rule that’s the mix of styles I go for.
I’m not a writing expert, but I have been at it since I was eight years old, I study the art of writing constantly, I’ve completed three novels (one published), and I’ve tried more ways to plan and write than you can shake a stick at, so I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it.
I want to tell you about some of the things that work for me, how I go about planning a book, my own personal dos and don’ts. This won’t be a post about structure, development, editing, or where to get your ideas. This is about finishing what you start, and about making it interesting the whole way through.
It’s also highly personal to me, so if you disagree with any of it, or you’ve heard contradicting advice somewhere else, so be it. I can’t help you with that.
I Am What I Am
You hear a lot about Plotters and Pantsers, Gardeners and Architects, those who plan out their work versus those who just wing it. Within these very narrow definitions I am, what you would call, a Plotter.
NB: I actually don’t think anyone is either one or the other. I doubt there’s a single Pantser who doesn’t plot a little, even in their head. And I think that most Plotters, when a truly interesting possibility bubbles up during the writing process, are willing to investigate that possibility, even if it means restructuring their plot just a little.
But anyway, as a Plotter, I need details before I can start writing, which brings me to…
When Is It?
I’ve discovered, over the years, that I need to know what time of year it is. Seriously, until I know what the weather is like (Warm? Mild? Blowing a gale!), and what time it gets dark (Dark by 6pm? Light until 10pm?), I’m not happy.
Knowing what time of years it is informs so much for me. From what my characters are wearing, to how much time they have in the day to do a given thing. I hate those moments when characters do something impossible because it has to happen for the story to work, like teleporting around the map as if their destination isn’t three days ride away. It takes me right out of whatever I’m reading. Making sure a book’s timeline is grounded in reality is extremely important as far as I’m concerned.
Which bring me to my next point…
Make A Timeline
I’ve tried putting Post-It notes on the walls. I’ve tried writing and re-writing outlines from beginning to end. I’ve even tried detailed longhand descriptions for each chapter. But you know what works best for me? A proper timeline.
If I don’t have a timeline when I start a book, you can be damn sure I’ll have one by the end, which is why these days I’ll always start out with one. Knowing where people are, when, and how long it will take them to get where they’re going just works for me. I need to know my storyline is at least plausible, so that I can better sell it to the reader along the way. The more I am convinced, the more I can convince them
For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Dragonfly Delivery Company, I had to decide on an average airship speed, so that I could work out how long it takes the crew of the Dragonfly to fly from Hammersmyth, to Iron Bridge, to Helvellyn, to the very tip of Scotland. It’s not something I’m ever going to share with the audience, it’s just something I needed to know, for my own sake.
Timelines are especially handy when it comes to writing crime stories, to help you keep track of who was where, when, and how much they know at any one time. A murder mystery might be a “closed” story, in that the reader doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the writer needs to know (especially when the investigation impacts on the crimes being committed, as it does in Dexter & Sinister).
I do an A4 sheet for each day, with the time down one side, and columns for each thread I want to include. I usually do three threads – the Investigation (Main), the Crime (Secondary), and Other – listing all the moments I want to show and when they might occur. I then draw arrows from one to the next, showing in which order I want those moments to happen.
I’ve basically taken a leaf out of Terry Pratchett’s book in doing this. He writes multiple threads, switching between them as he sees fit, arriving when the story gets interesting, then jumping to the next one when the story gets dull. It’s a great way to keep your reader, and yourself, engaged, being a very cinematic approach to storytelling (editing between scenes to keep things interesting).
It also helps cut out the boring stuff in between, the three day rides from one place to another where nothing happens; which brings me to…
I try and make everything happen in as little time as possible. If it can all happen in the same day, great. If it takes two days, so be it. If it takes a week there needs to be a damn good reason for that.
I know this may sound contradictory, considering what I talked about above regarding realistic timings, but it’s not. It’s more about having your characters turn up at someone’s house at midnight, instead of waiting until the next morning to be polite. It’s about injecting a sense of urgency and progress, about keeping the story moving no matter what, because letting things linger is the death of a good story as far as I’m concerned.
And no, I’m not talking about sticking some artificial ‘ticking clock’ in there, as you so often see in the movies these days. I’m saying that if your main characters don’t care enough to put in a little effort, then why should anyone else?
Story waffle is a particular bugbear of mine, which brings me to…
Too Much Description
One of the things I love about steampunk is the aesthetic. I love how beautiful everything looks, the outfits people wear, and the ancient equivalents of modern inventions that you get.
(To prove my point, here’s me in a hat and goggles.)
What I hate is when you read a story and the author stops everything to tell you in great detail what someone is wearing. Hat, gloves, waistcoat, jacket, pince-nez, cane, engraved pocket-watch, these are all things I don’t need to know about, especially if they’re not relevant to the story.
Now I know I may be in the minority here, but too much description kills a story for me. Not only does it stop the reader from using their own imagination, but it slows everything down to a crawl whilst the author burdens you with all the pretty/clever things they have in their head. I once read an entire paragraph on the history of a sofa that I knew would never feature in the story again. I mean, why?
Of course, if you have a major character, or what they are wearing is of great importance, then by all means describe them, but no more than you have to and not all at once. It’s Info Dumping, as far as I’m concerned, one of the cardinal sins of writing. I’ve no time for it, and neither does your reader.
NB: A timeline is a great way to avoid info dumps (burdening your reader with too information all at once, especially at the beginning of a story). If you know that you are coming back to a character or location later in the story, for an extended period, you can move that bit of exposition until then, leaving you free to get on with whatever it is your main character is meant to be doing right now. This to me is one of the main benefits of a timeline. It removes the need to say too much up front, because you know it’ll get said later on.
As an author, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. They’re generally pretty smart, and can fill in the gaps. Give them broad strokes and move on. As long as they know who someone is, they don’t need to know the intricate history of every little thing they are wearing.
But of course, just to contradict myself…
I like to describe writing a book as being like baking a cake, except that you throw in all the ingredients you have, then slowly take them out until you figure out what kind of cake you were making in the first place.
When I do a first draft I try not to self edit. I throw in everything I can think of, knowing full well that I can take it out later on. And yes, sometimes that does include unnecessary description and detail.
Quite often I’ll write something knowing full well it’ll get deleted at some point. To me it’s the same as needing to know how fast an airship flies. I need to write it for me, to get it out of my head. But I also have no compunction about getting rid of it when the time comes. Some description enhances a story, and some of it enhances a story by not being there anymore. It is the way.
I can go nuts when I’m writing because I have a timeline. Oddly enough, having a framework gives me something to explore within. If I was just making it all up off the top of my head I could end up anywhere, and indeed often have.
I once deleted three whole chapters of my second book because it had wandered too far from where I wanted it to go. I didn’t have a proper timeline then, although I did by the time it came to do the edit. Like I say, I always end up with a timeline, it’s just these days the timeline comes first.
Having a timeline doesn’t just help you understand What you should be writing, it helps you understand Why you are writing it. Or, more to the point, it gives each part of your book…
This is something I have stolen from screenwriting.
In a movie there’s no time to mess about. You can’t just have a scene do one thing. I scene should do two, or even three things, in order to be successful. It should provide us with either information we need, tell us something about the characters, or advance the plot in one way or another. And in an ideal world it would do all three.
Watch this scene from Apollo 13.
In that one scene we learn about what’s going to happen in the movie (or rather, what’s meant to happen – landing on the moon). We learn about what kind of a man Tom Hanks’s character is. We learn about his family life, what a good father he is, how he cares for those around him. We also learn about how dangerous going to outer space can be, that you could lose your life doing it, but also that he is confident that everyone at Nasa will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (Notice how he says “We fixed it”, not “They fixed it”, like they’re all in this together.)
We get all of that in one two minute scene. It’s masterful, and a great lesson in making sure that every scene you have in your writing serves a purpose.
I’ve cut entire characters before now, because they did nothing to effect the plot. I’ve cut out whole sections of story to visit locations once, rather than twice, to save time. The more you can do to tell your story as efficiently as possible, the better.
Word counts are for #nanowrimo. Tell your story as efficiently as possible and then walk away.
With that in mind, a final word on two things that many writers seem to obsess over…
Adverbs, And ‘Show Don’t Tell’
First of all, let me say up front that I hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It drives me up the wall, because whilst it can be helpful at times, it can also turn your writing into a waffley mess.
The big quote is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Now, this is all well and good, but sometimes you can get all twisted up trying to be clever, and that doesn’t help anybody.
I once had an editor try and get me to describe the action of sighing, instead of just saying, “he sighed.” It was cumbersome and unnecessary, and I chose not to work with that editor.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making things interesting. But if all that’s needed is the line, “It was a ratty old sofa held together by an array of rusty nails and hope,” don’t waste my time telling me about all the backsides it has entertained over the years.
And as for adverbs, they get a lot of hate in the writing community; unjustly so in my opinion.
Adverbs have their place. Yes, you’re probably better off not using one, they can get a bit cumbersome at times, but if they do the job then why not have one. They exist for a reason after all.
In the example mentioned previously, “he sighed heavily” was used, which the editor wanted me to change to something like”he sighed, his head falling, his shoulders slumped with the weight of the world.”
Now that’s all well and good, but imagine a story full of that, paragraph after paragraph of flowery description, the literary equivalent of wading through mud. It just doesn’t work for me. A little, yes. A lot, no. Which is why, if I want to put an adverb in, I will. (Although, that is very much a first draft thing for me.)
I will always look to remove as many adverbs as I can when editing. They aren’t as necessary as you might think. But if they do the job, or if taking them out would make the writing demonstrably worse, then in they stay.
Never throw a tool out of your toolbox. They all have their uses.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is how I write. It won’t be for everyone, and some people will no doubt disagree with some, if not all, of what I’ve said.
If you take something away from all this then fantastic. If not, then I hope you at least found it of interest. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is writing a book, some more perilous than others. This is the way that works for me, and who knows, maybe it’ll work for you too.