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Studying Creative Writing And Learning To Write Novels, by Steven Lochran

More than once I’ve been approached by an aspiring writer asking my opinion about studying Creative Writing at a tertiary level. Given the time and money it takes to attain a qualification, is it worth it?

I should say right off the bat that I majored in Creative Writing. Based on my experience I’d happily recommend it (no, I don’t get a kickback from my university for saying so – though if someone would like to get in touch with me, I have no qualms whatsoever about bribery).

Just because it worked for me it doesn’t mean that I see it as the only way to become a professional writer. There are plenty of authors out there who bypassed tertiary education altogether, dove straight into the business of being a writer and found tremendous success at it. It’s by no means a necessity to make it as a writer.

The benefit to formally studying Creative Writing is that it takes years and years of development and condenses it into an intensive, highly-focused period that exposes the student to multiple forms of writing and reading. The skills you develop through ten years of practice can be distilled down into three, provided you study hard enough, or you invent a time machine, but I’d probably stick with the study option.

When I was at uni, I tried my hand at feature writing, copywriting and sub-editing. I read brilliant books that I otherwise may never have given a chance, and learnt how to deconstruct a text by examining its intentions, its meaning and its execution.

In short, I was guided through the world of being a writer by people who were writers themselves and I was provided a knowledge base that serves me to this day, directly informing the writer I’ve become. But it was a costly experience (which I’m still paying off) and isn’t exactly a luxury that everyone can afford, unless, once again, you’ve invented a time machine (in which case you’re loaded and a Time Lord who doesn’t need my advice).

If you’re uncertain about studying Creative Writing at a university level, you can always look at a short-term course, but even simpler than that would be a writer’s group. They’re easier to find than ever before thanks to the internet, and can provide direction in a way you’d never benefit from on your own. It’s not always easy to hear other people’s opinions on your work, but it’s always invaluable.

If even that level of commitment is a challenge, I’d recommend simply being a student of life. Read a lot. Write a lot. Examine the stories you engage with and analyse what makes them work. Pull apart stories that don’t work and ascertain why. Don’t mindlessly consume. Enquire. Be curious. It’s only through being engaged that you yourself can become an engaging writer.

It’s only a time-flux capacitor that makes time travel possible.

…I’m sorry. I’ll stop now.

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Steven Lochran’s author website: www.stevenlochran.com

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Writing Science Fiction For Both Teens And Adults, by Janet Edwards

When I began writing my debut book, Earth Girl, my aim was to write something that would appeal to both teens and adults. Achieving that meant working out what I needed to do differently for a teen reader from an adult reader, and finding a way to successfully combine the two. This didn’t just involve general issues, such as character ages and dialogue, but some that were genre specific. I was writing science fiction. I started thinking through my story, considering what I’d have to change to make it appeal to teen readers.

Earth Girl is set on Earth over seven hundred years in the future. After the invention of interstellar portals, people live on hundreds of colony worlds scattered across space. Obviously, I had to mention interstellar portals, and refer to other future technology as well. Did I need to simplify that technology for teen readers? Of course I didn’t. Teens today have social lives that revolve around constantly changing technology.

The future Earth I was describing was very different to our world now. Did I need to simplify my world building for teen readers? Again my answer was no. Teens are as good as, or better than, adults at picturing and identifying with imaginary worlds.

My story was about a girl who was among the one in a thousand people whose immune systems couldn’t survive anywhere other than the semi-abandoned Earth. For the norms who could portal freely between other worlds, Jarra was a second class citizen, a ‘throwback’. Teens might have less experience of some things than adults, but they’d understand perfectly about someone being the one left out, rejected and called names.

I considered a whole list of things, but eventually I came down to just one key difference between my adult and teen readers. Almost every adult reading my book would have read dozens, if not hundreds, of other science fiction books. A significant number of teens reading my book would be reading science fiction for the very first time.

That was the one key point I kept in my head when writing Earth Girl. There were no limits on what I could write about, but I had to make everything clearly understandable to someone reading science fiction for the first time, while not boring others who’d been reading it for years with explanations they didn’t need. That was a challenge. I had to watch every word I used, but authors should be watching every word anyway.

I actually hit my biggest problem in my second book, Earth Star, because of one particular word: arcology. Using it would mean a great deal to some of my readers familiar with science fiction, but nothing at all to others. My main character, Jarra, was talking about a place called Ark. I needed her to use the word arcology, to show where Ark got its name, but I had to have her use it in a way that was self-explanatory. I added a few extra words in her dialogue that some readers won’t need, but which tell others that an arcology is a closed, self-sufficient habitat. In the case of Ark, it’s underground with its own recycled air and water.

I have a theory that my one key fact for writing science fiction for teens may be true for some other genres as well. All I really know is that remembering it seems to have worked for me. I’ve heard from adults who’d been reading science fiction for fifty years and enjoyed Earth Girl. I’ve also heard from teens who’d never read science fiction before and loved it.

The first science fiction and fantasy books I read will always be very special to me. One of the great things about writing for teens is that your book may become one of those very special books your readers will always remember.

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Janet Edwards’s author website: www.janetedwards.com

Janet Edwards’s bio page

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Writing What You Know, by Beth Revis

Probably the most clichéd and oft-used phrase for any writer is the old adage, “write what you know”.

So how did I end up writing a novel that takes place hundreds of years in the future, on a spaceship populated by genetically modified people heading to a planet that might not really exist? It’s definitely not something I “know”.

Typically, we don’t really “know” our stories. Or, at least, I don’t. I’ve never been the youngest person on a spaceship, but I do know what it’s like to not fit in. I’ve never had my parents cryogenically frozen, but I still remember that moment when I realized that I’d grown up and was no longer under their safe protection.

Many times, it seems that people who aspire to write teen fiction are more focused on writing teenagers than on writing characters who behave realistically. They will often do research on the outward appearances: clothing, slang, mannerisms. Very often, this is where they trip up, because that’s not the important stuff. Focus on the stuff you know – the stuff everyone knows. We have all experienced the same things every teen has experienced: first love, first heartbreak, betrayal and fear, joy, sorrow. This is what the writer must know – and if the writer knows this, then everything else: the characters, the plot, the world – will fall in place.

Find the beating heart of the story. Invention is a wonderful thing – a necessary thing when it comes to writing. You need to have invention but, somewhere beneath everything that you create, you also have to write what you know.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

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Writing Good Dialogue For Your Novel, by Lish McBride

There’s a fine line that you have to tread when you’re creating dialogue. You have to manage to write words that sound natural and normal coming out of your character’s mouths while at the same time crafting them to sound better than most conversations. I’ve been told that I write good dialogue. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m obviously biased in my own favor. I’m told that it’s witty and fun and I feel like I’m cheating, because honestly I’m surrounded by witty and fun people and I feel like I’m just reflecting that. Let’s say that you’re not lucky, though, and the people you’re surrounded by are less like Oscar Wilde and more like something that has crawled out of a cave. What then?

First, even cave-speak has it’s place. Not all of your characters are going to be into banter and witticisms. Some are naturally the straight man, only uttering monosyllabic responses and using hand gestures. That’s okay. That’s one of my big things—make the words fit the character. Sometimes I’ll get edits that will say, “I don’t think Sam would ever say this.” Believe it or not, I love those edits. It means my character has become such a living force that my editor is arguing about words that I have made up for them. She can tell when they don’t fit his mouth. It makes me do a happy jig.

Dialogue should be multipurpose. It should advance plot, naturally, but it should also tell us about your characters. It should not, however, be used as a plot-info dump. That’s the difference between this:

“I don’t need your weapon, I have this,” she said, raising an ancient sword.

“Where did you get that?” he growled. “Give it back. Now.”

And this:

“I do not need your weapon, because I stole this one from your house about five minutes ago,” she said.

“I recognize that sword! It is the magical sword from the house of Usher, the one my family has been protecting for generations. It can only be wielded by the chosen one! You are wielding it, so you must be the chosen one, though I cannot believe such a thing right away. You are going to have to prove it.”

Neither of these are the best examples of dialogue, but I think you get the picture. Info dumping is clunky. So is not using contractions. If you don’t use a contraction, it should for a good reason. Same thing goes for slang and dialect—there should be a very good reason to use either. Both dialect and slang can be a good world-building tool when used properly. In Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, she uses a few slang words like cove, looby and so on. They aren’t over used and it’s clear from context what they mean. It doesn’t stop or slow down the reader, and builds Beka’s character and world at the same time. How? When we meet the upper classes, they don’t use these words, so we know where Beka sits on the class spectrum by using them.

Overuse can be distracting, though. If people can’t read your book or understand anything going on, they put it down.

So how do you gain an ear for dialogue? Well, I can give you some hints. Listen. A lot. Go to a coffee shop and be creepy and eavesdrop on conversations. Write down interesting things that people say. What makes them interesting? If they say boring things, how can you use those lines to make something interesting? Take some dialogue you’re having a hard time with and read it out loud. Does it sound natural? If that doesn’t work, have someone else read it out loud. Watch movies and read books that you love—how do those characters talk? Listen to word choice and pacing. Using actions and description to break up dialogue can create the pacing that you want.

Example:

“Man, I love pie. Pie is the best. I could eat pie forever. What kind of pie is this? I think it has berries.”

Or

“Man, I love pie,” he said, licking his fork. “Pie is the best. I could eat pie forever.” He stabbed something blue with his fork and examined it. “What kind of pie is this?” He stared at the blue glob some more. “I think it has berries.”

The actions and description give the dialogue pauses and slows it down naturally. Also, now I want pie, just maybe not the one I just described.

Homework: Write some really horrible dialogue. I mean really try to make it the worst conversation you’ve ever written. Consciously writing bad dialogue is harder than you think (though we all seem to manage to write it unconsciously quite easily!). Have fun with it. When you’re done, examine it. What makes it terrible? Word use? Too many words? Not enough? Does it reveal anything about the characters? Now take the same dialogue and try to write it well. What’s changed?

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

Lish McBride’s bio page

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Guiding A Reader’s Experience Throughout Your Novel (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

Gosh, my series of posts for this blog is turning into quite a tutorial! I’m even starting to learn from it myself.  The next secret is really about pace. Hopefully, you’ve set up a great collision course in your story. Your protagonist is hanging off those cliffs and you aren’t rescuing them too easily. Brilliant. In fact you’re piling on the (metaphorical – or actual) hurt in thick slabs. Good. Your next job, once you’ve got your teenage reader ripping through the pages, is to control them. You don’t want them so eager to find out what happens next that they skip to the back of the book to find out. So this means:

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 11

drum roll…  tada!

Control the reader’s curiosity

If you’ve been successful at creating that page turning novel, strangely enough, to hold your readers you’ve got to build in some ‘breaks’. Readers can easily reach saturation and burnout. They cannot indefinitely hold off not knowing. One way around that is to build in reveals and triumphs to reward them for staying with the story. This is one of the roles of sub-goals. However, don’t reveal the ‘final outcome’ of the overarching quest or goal of the protagonist (whether lost or won), because if you reveal this too early it will kill the suspense.

So how you can use this secret? 

  • Reward your reader by telling them the results of sub goals
  • Allow your reader a little bit of down-time after a very tense scene
  • Up the ante before the tense scene – you know the kind of thing: the picnic in the woods before the reaping in The Hunger Games.

WATCH OUT FOR THE TWELFTH AND FINAL SECRET OF NARRATIVE DRIVE COMING UP IN MY NEXT POST

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Sarah Mussi’s author website: www.sarahmussi.com

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How Do You Know If An Idea Will Develop Into A Good Story? by Bernard Beckett

Not every idea you have flowers, not every book you start to write is finished and not every book you finish ends up being published, or even submitted. If you write, it’s almost certain a significant amount of your time will be spent working on projects that ultimately come to nothing. It’s never a total loss: you are learning from your mistakes and exercising the writing muscles, so to speak. Occasionally, you only get to the novel you should write by way of the one you shouldn’t. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to be able to identify failures-in-waiting earlier rather than later, and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to differentiate between a piece of writing that is difficult to pull into shape and one that is impossible. If we become too sensitive to the signs of nascent disaster, we may lose the courage to see any project through.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this. Having just abandoned a novel after working on it for two years, I may be the very worst example, but here, for what it’s worth, are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

First, don’t abandon a novel just because it isn’t turning out the way you hoped. Woody Allen once said that he arrives on the first day of every film shoot carrying in his mind a picture of the masterpiece he is about to make. Then, compromise by compromise, the actual film takes shape. The thing we are aiming at is a feeling rather than a product. Its fleshy imitation is sure to disappoint, especially on first draft. The danger is that in order to develop the mental toughness required, you can become insensitive to crucial warning signs.

The next thing is the importance of being able to distil the idea that brought you to the novel. I think the cliché of being able to reduce a story to one or two sentences is absolutely as valuable as its ubiquity suggests. If you have a vague feeling that you find highly exciting but you’re unable to find a succinct expression for it, then it might not be a story-in-waiting at all but rather one of those phantoms that will always dissolve under scrutiny. I once had the idea of a story where a boy receives a letter in the mail from God. He assumes it’s a hoax but can’t quite let it go… I could never pull any more out of it than that, even though, whenever I think of it I have an ill defined yet compelling feeling that there’s something there. Until I can say what, there’s nothing to be gained from exploring it further, or so I see it.

Another point I have to remind myself of constantly is that openings aren’t stories. Openings are fabulous ways into stories, but just having a great opening is not in itself a reason to believe a great story (or indeed any story) will follow. I struggle with this one a lot, simply because I find openings so seductive. ‘A middle aged journalist at a concert is called away to cover the location of a murder victim’s body. He is meant to be taking his teenage daughter home at the end of the concert, so accepts the offer of a man he has bonded with during the show to drive her home. Only, of course, this stranger is the murderer, seeking to groom his next victim…’ I really wanted to write that, so I did. The opening ran to five thousand words, I was excited by it, I liked the voice, there was a great sense of momentum, then a screeching halt because the opening was all I had. I didn’t actually have a story I wanted to tell that went beyond what was in fact a slightly macabre little short story. Novels aren’t quite in the plant-and-wait-for-it-to-grow category of things.

Finally, and this is the one that caught me recently: is the story you are telling an authentic expression of you? That sounds waffly. Let me see if I can sharpen it. There’s a very great difference, I think, between trying to be the sort of writer you would like to see yourself as and trying to be the best version of the writer you actually are. Sometimes I will read a book and immediately be seduced by the idea of ‘wanting to write like that’. Yet, when I examine it more closely, I realise the thing I have loved about the book is the insight it has given me into a world and personality that isn’t my own. Much as I admire and am jealous of so much great literature, it is very often shot through with a sort of existential angst that, were I to try it on for myself, would play as nothing but self absorption.

I’m not in the end a deeply serious person. I maintain a certain lightness in my life. I struggle to take myself seriously and when others do there’s always a part of me that wants to slap them. Where others are able to draw upon the depths of their fears and sufferings, I find the hole has been filled in with a truckload of cheap gags and irony. That means, on the occasions that I have tried to imitate the writers of serious literature, there’s been a fake quality to the writing that I’ve quickly become self conscious of (but haven’t angsted over, you understand). The writing I’ve most wasted time over is the writing where I’ve been trying to be something or somebody I’m not.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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On Writing Self-Contained Novels In A Series, by Andy Briggs

When does a story end? At what point can you confidentially type the words ‘the end’, and not be forced to use ‘to be continued’?

There is a trend at the moment to push everything through as a series if possible (and, as a writer of two series, I’m as culpable as the next author). This sometimes results in stories that could have easily been condensed into a single volume. The worst culprits for this are graphic novels, in which writers are ambling their way through multiple books to tell their tale.

As a consumer, I find this highly annoying. When I buy a book, I want to be able to enjoy the full story. I’m quite happy to have a few unresolved strands that lead the way to future books, but I do want some form of resolution. I have paid good money to be entertained, not left on tenterhooks for a year before the author publishes the next part.

Harry Potter was an enjoyable read because each book was a self-contained story, with just enough to propel you on to the next book, but not so much to make you feel you had been cheated.

I try to make sure my series have books that are self-contained stories, something you can pick up without the need to read any other book in the series and walk away having read through a complete story. I aim to make the characters evolve enough through the books so the casual reader feels happy, and leave just enough ‘extras’ so that the fan can get even more from the story because of the subtle ways it connects to the other books. When I write graphic novels I refuse to make a series that runs across multiple books. Each one must be a satisfying self-contained story with a solid ending. Otherwise, why buy it in the first place?

Speaking to many budding writers, I often hear the phrase it’s part of a series of X books, with X usually spanning between 3 and 7 for some peculiar reason. I think their reasoning is that it proves their story is worthy and complex, when in actuality they will end up padding the prose out with extraneous details that slow the pace down to a crawl. I have read many series that could have done with a pair of editor’s scissors slicing through the pages. People don’t like to admit their story is only suitable for a single book. For some reason they feel that lessens the quality of their work, when in fact it simply proves that they have no idea when to stop. Many times I have read a book and thought I have reached the end only to flick through the remaining pages and wonder what could possibly happen next. The answer is usually: nothing. Or, worse, some surprise ending that makes no sense at all and would have worked better as a separate story.

One of the hardest things I have been asked to write was a short story. Warrior Number One is aimed at reluctant readers, so brevity was the key. It’s incredibly difficult! Cramming a whole story into 3,000 words is a more difficult task than expanding it into three, 500+ page volumes.

So, when you have completed your story and typed the exciting words ‘the end’, go back and read your story with a sense of urgency. Could this have ended several chapters back? Your readers are busy people. They have lives. Maybe they’re reading your book while on vacation so need to finish it before returning home, or they have a stack of other books vying for their attention. Don’t be greedy. Respect your reader’s time. They will thank you for it and come back for more.

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

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