My Top Writing Tips

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.

A tantalising photo of the many sheets of my timeline, all partially obscured, noted as Day One to Four, with the times down the side, and some bits of events next to them.

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…

Compression

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

*sigh*

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.)

My lovely head wearing a black newsboy's cap, like in Peaky Blinders and a pair of brass coloured goggles with black lenses that completely obscure my eyes.

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…

Go Nuts!

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…

Purpose

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Dexter & Sinister Deleted Scenes

Whenever you read something it seems obvious that that was the only way to tell that story, but of course there are a dozen ways to take a reader from A to B, and in trying to decide which is the “best” way you often end up with a lot of extra material you no longer have use for.

Whilst editing Dexter & Sinister it became clear that I needed to tighten up the start as much as possible, and the easiest way to do that was to get rid of side characters. First drafts often generate threads that don’t end up going anywhere, and Dexter & Sinister was no different.

I found two characters who made it as far as draft six, who I could do without – Becky Bates and Old Jimmy. Becky was a coat-check girl at the Scion Club, primarily there to provide John with information, and Old Jimmy was the former nightwatchman at the airship factory.

I was very fond of them both, but when I realised that everything Becky did could be achieved by two lines of text, and Old Jimmy could be cut out altogether and it not affect the story whatsoever, they had to go.

Still, it made me sad. They were good characters, with some nice writing around them. I didn’t want them to go. But that’s what they mean by “Kill all your darlings.” You don’t keep something because it’s good, it’s meant to be good, but if it doesn’t advance the plot then, bye bye.

Anyway, long story short, I thought it would be amusing to share Old Jimmy’s two appearances, since I like his moments very much indeed. See if you agree with me.


Part 1 – The original opening to the book:

Some people don’t know how lucky they are.

When Old Jimmy lost his job as night watchman down the airship factory he certainly didn’t feel all that lucky. It’d been a good job for a man like him. You didn’t need much skill or education to wander about making sure nothing happened, two things which Jimmy had never had an abundance of. It also helped to have a lack of imagination, as the factory at night was full of strange shadows and odd noises which would put the willies up a more creative man. Old Jimmy had no problem in that department either. Upon discovering there were two Jimmies at the factory he’d come up with his own nickname, Old Jimmy, and even that had taken him a while.

When they let him go a few weeks ago they hadn’t given him much of a reason. Cutbacks, that’s what the boss had said. Cutbacks, and changes. And re-or-gan-eye-zay-shun, or some-such. He wasn’t really sure. He’d stopped listening after the words “let you go.” Their reasons didn’t matter. He had a job, and then he didn’t. That was all that mattered.

What he missed most about the job was the peace and quiet. He missed the money of course, what little there was of it, but he missed the silence even more. He was home all the time now, and though he loved his wife dearly, she could talk the hind legs off a donkey. And her sister, who always seemed to be round, was even worse. She’d been there for over an hour already tonight, going on about how next-door’s dog was always trying to hump Trixie, her Teacup Pomeranian. ‘And you know how delicate little Trixie is, poor thing. Shaking all afternoon she was, after what that Great Dane did to her!’ It was enough to drive a man mad. He may not have had much of an imagination, but all Old Jimmy could think about as she banged on was what would happen if he turned round and told her to ‘Shut yer pie hole!’ Y’know, just this once, just to see the look on her face.

But he didn’t of course. No one ever does. Instead he simply sat there in the lumpy armchair, eating two day old stew, ignoring his sister-in-law as he looked forward to his bedtime and the sweet refuge of sleep.

Yes indeed, Old Jimmy had no idea how lucky he was. If he’d been at work that night the only thing he could have looked forward to was a slender blade in the rib cage, followed by a cold and lonely death on the factory floor.


Part 2 – After John’s first visit to Gravesend Bridge he goes to the sewer outlet pipes, where the body was found:

John spotted an old man over the road, sitting on a squat little stool outside his squat little house – a small, fluffy white dog at his feet – openly watching him as he drank his beer. He went over to him.

Half way across the road the little dog started yapping. ‘Shut up,’ growled the man. He took a swing at the dog but it dodged the blow, jumping around like this was a new game or something. The old man fished a small wooden ball out from under his seat and tossed it into the street. ‘Here. Go get it, you little bugger you.’ The dog shot past John, falling over its own feet as it chased the ball into the gutter.

‘Nice dog you got there,’ John said, smiling. ‘What’s he called?’

She’s called Trixie,’ said the man. ‘And she’s a pain in the arse.’

‘Right. I see. Um, listen. I was wondering if you could help me? There was a body washed up here a few days ago, and I was wondering if you knew anything about it?’

‘Oh, aye. I do at that. It were the wife’s sister that found it y’know.’

‘Really?’

‘Yup. Found ‘im on her way over Saturday morning. She usually comes round early on the weekend so she and the wife can get to the market when it opens. Turned up pitching a fit this time she did, wailin’ and sobbin’ and being all dramatic. Took us ages before we got any sense out of her. Then I was dispatched to go get the bloody coppers wan’I?’ He didn’t sound too amused about that.

‘And what time was this?’

‘Some time around six I reckon. Or maybe nearer seven. I dunno. It was too damn early for all that racket though, that’s for sure.’

‘Right. Um… I don’t suppose your sister-in-law is here is she? I’d like a quick word with her if I could.’

The little dog came trotting back – a Teacup Pomeranian by the looks of her – and dropped the slobbery ball at the man’s feet. ‘No, she’s away,’ said the man, reaching for the ball. ‘The shock were a bit much for her, so she and the missus have gone off to their mother’s for a few days to get over it, like.’ He tossed the ball down the street, and the little dog shot off after it. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but they could have taken the bloody dog with ’em. Damn thing won’t sit still. I gets no peace at all.’

‘Sounds rough,’ said John. ‘Say, I don’t suppose she said anything about the body did she? What state it was in and that?’

‘She didn’t say much of anything mate. Just a lot of Lordy Lord!s and Oh my days!es. Besides, what was there to say. I’ve seen a few bodies in the river before now, living here, and they all look the same in the end; dead. Beyond that, what does it matter? Nowt to them, I can promise you that.’

‘Right. I see. Well, nice chatting to you. I’ll see you around.’

‘Aye, right enough,’ said the man.

John wandered off down the road. The dog passed him in the opposite direction, the ball in its mouth, looking very pleased with itself. Behind him John heard, ‘I swear to God I’m gonna make you into a stew one of these days. Here, gimme that.’ followed by the pock-pock-pock of the ball bouncing off down the road again, and the flappy slap of the dog’s feet as she gave chase.


Can you see why I didn’t want to get rid of them, but at the same time how they advance the plot in no way whatsoever? Weird, eh.

Still, it’s not the end of the line for either Old Jimmy or Becky Bates. They’re good characters, so they may yet make an appearance in future novels. And when they do you can say you heard of them here first! Now that’s the kind of insider knowledge you normally pay good money for.