Orca Rogue Agent

Hey everyone,

Really excited to announce that the follow up book to Orca Rising–you remember? That teen spy thriller shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize!– is ready for publication!

Orca Rogue Agent will be released on 30th November – more details to follow about pre-order and the cover reveal – so stay tuned.

Chris

Writing Hack #17: Introduce new characters with their own individual dramas

There’s a scene in the film I Heart Huckabees where Mark Whalberg’s character, (a secondary character) is about to be introduced to viewers. Two things happen in sequence to introduce him. We’re currently absorbed in a different scene with the main protagonist and his drama with two other people. A phone rings and we hear Mark W’s voice, ‘…got a serious situation happening over here…’ the scene is broken up and we cut to…

Introduce your character’s with their own individual drama
Photo by Daniel Tausis on Unsplash

Mark standing on the lawn of his house as his fire crew buddies apologetically help his wife move out of home with his child. Mark W is berating them all with nihilistic ideas. A sub-plot is introduced, a new character is introduced and right now, it has nothing to do with the main drama in the book as experienced by the protagonist.

Introducing new characters in this way is a great way of bringing verisimilitude to your fictional world. Your protagonist isn’t operating in a vacuum, other people exist with their own feelings, issues and dramas. Next time you watch a new TV show, movie or new book, keep an awareness for how a new character enters the story and you’ll notice it happens a lot AND that it’s good!

Happy writing

CH

Writing Hacks #16 Dialogue: communality, reciprocity and dominance in relationships.

One of my favourite quotes about dialogue is that it is two monologues clashing. It really gets across the idea that there are things said and unsaid which tell us competing wants and frustrations from two (or more) different characters at the same time. I don’t think that this quote applies to every piece of dialogue though and today i want to talk a little about the hidden nature of the relationships behind the people speaking and how as writers we can adapt our dialogue to reflect the changing nature of those relationships. Let’s get to it.

Dominance!
Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

Two people are talking. Let’s say the nature of their relationship falls into one of three camps; Communality, Reciprocity and Dominance (This comes from a Stephen Pinker talk: will share link at end).

Communality – a relationship based on kinship and mutualism, dialogue and action will be engendered by what is ‘acceptable amongst friends’.

Reciprocity – a tit for tat relationship. How a diner may talk with a waiter for example.

Dominance – characterised by an understood power imbalance, for example between a boss and a worker.

Reciprocity
Photo by noodle kimm on Unsplash

When relationships fall neatly in these categories, the dialogue will follow quite predictable patterns in their nature. Friends will teach other more or less as equals, a buyer and a seller will haggle over a price, and a boss will tell his workers to get back to work! From a writer’s point of view, it gets interesting when there is movement between these categories. For example: there’s a great moment (so many!) in the comedy I’m Alan Partridge where bored former TV presenter Alan is feeling rather lonely and walks to the petrol station to buy a chocolate bar. He engages in some small talk for a little too long, then, as he prepares to leave, casually asks if the attendant wants to go out for a drink? It’s awkward, Alan is refused and hiding his embarrassment, leaves. What’s happening here is there is an established relationship of reciprocity: the attendant at the station and Alan, the customer. It’s a tit for tat exchange. Pleasantries about the weather are fine, but when Alan asks the attendant if he wants to go out for a drink, he crosses a line and we understand how lonely Alan really is deep down (even though it is a comedy!).

When you don’t know whether to call someone sir or by their first name it’s a sign you are caught in the fuzzy line between a dominance and a communality relationship. When the person pulled over for speeding offers a bribe, we’re moving from dominance to reciprocity. The thing I notice is that when a relationship changes from one characterisation to another, something interesting is happening – and that is what we are striving for!

Communality
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Understanding the hidden nature of relationships between your characters can help unlock some magical moments in your writing. I highly recommend checking out this short Steven Pinker talk where he goes into a lot more detail about why we use the language we do and why, particularly the way we use indirect speech to protect ourselves from mutual knowledge. Plausible deniability can help maintain the fiction of many a relationship! https://www.trendhunter.com/keynote/steven-pinker

Happy writing

CH

Writing Hacks #15 Make your minor characters more than just extras

Minor characters people your novel and give your main characters’ world verisimilitude. Die to their ‘minor’ standing it is easy to bung these characters into your story. After all, we certainly don’t want them to upstage your main character(s) or distract from their plight. However, you will find opportunities to make your minor characters more life like without compromising your main story and it will add solidity to your fictional world.

What is a minor character?

‘Minor’ should be the amount of importance associated with this character for both you and the reader. A good indicator that a character is minor is that they are not named. It may be a waitress, a gas pump attendant or a mother pushing a pram down the street. The mother may serve just to remind our protagonist for the gazillionth time that she can”t be a mother herself. The point is, they are in your story, so they must serve some small purpose.

How to make your minor characters more rounded

The key here is some minor specificity. It may be something visual your PoV character has noticed about this minor character, it may be some verbal or behavioural tic they have, or perhaps even some backstory that your narrator or protagonist vaguely knows about this person. Some examples:

“The mechanic rubbed the back of his head with the rubber end of his pencil as he read the clipboard. There was an RIP tattoo on his forearm of a name written in a gothic font too hard to read.”

“He looked too fresh-faced and young to be a dealer, his eyes too wide and naive and his frame way too skinny. “

“Her index finger was clipped near down to the knuckle some unpleasantness that occurred in the winners enclosure at Ascot in the early nineties.”

This (hilarious) one is from DFW’s Infinite Jest “… Indiana, where his Ma was a latestage Valium addict and his exsoybeanfarmer Pa, blinded in the infamous hailstorms of B.S. ’94, now spent all day every day …”

The key here is specificity. Let your character stand out for a second before they blend back into the background of your world.

Happy writing

CH

Writing Hacks #14: Where to find the best writing prizes and competitions!

Alright, hands up, slight ulterior motive to this intro. My book Orca Rising is up for the People’s Book Prize and has made the final few – thanks to the good folks at Thistle Publishing for sticking my name in the hat! It’s a prize voted for entirely by the public. If you’ve enjoyed reading my blog and want to give something back then help me out in April by voting for my book here It only takes two secs and you’ll get good vibes in return that last muuuuch longer 🙂

Brown Wooden Floating Shelves Mounted on Beige Painted Wall

I’ll keep the rest of this short and sweet and get to the links for some amazing opportunities to showcase your writing. Applying for prizes, be they short story awards, flash fiction or longer form awards they act as a really good way to get exposure as a writer to agents and publishers. More than that, they can often be a target or deadline and provide much needed motivation to finish your work. Here are some of my favourite sources for finding out about what prizes and competitions are out there. This is by no means exhaustive and if you know of any other good ones then go ahead and post them in the comments for everyone!

Sources to follow for Writing competitions

I love New Writing South (there are other regional partners wherever you are in UK) they are a great organisation and regularly post competitions and opportunities on their website or mail shot. Check them out here: https://newwritingsouth.com/

Check out this excellent blog from JesDavidson for a well thought out list of writing comps and their respective fees. https://jesdavidson.wordpress.com/2018/09/08/novel-writing-competition-list/

The Big List of UK Writing Competitions

Some of my writer friends have had success with Mslexia, note that it is female authors only. https://mslexia.co.uk/writing-competitions/

https://thewritelife.com/writing-contests/ are good at listing prizes with cash prizes and some good advice about avoiding scams.

https://www.ukwriterscollege.co.uk/Resources/Writing+Competitions+and+Events.html

Writing Competitions Event Calendar 2019/2020

https://intercompetition.com/writing.html

This is the one Orca Rising is up for: https://peoplesbookprize.com/

Check out Sharpe Books for their unpublished novel award too @sharpebooks on twitter

I also recommend following author Paul McVeigh on twitter, he seems like a great guy and often posts comps and opportunities. His handle is: @paul_mc-veigh

Peoples Book Prize Finalist

Vote here

Writing Hacks #13 : Creating Suspense (1)

Suspense is one of the most important things to infuse in your writing. It’s not just for crime thrillers, all genres need to have an element of suspense to keep your reader intrigued.

Pass me the onions dear.

So for a writer, what is suspense? Put simply, it’s raising a question in the reader’s mind and then delaying the answer. 

Let’s look today at just one technique for how you can create this delay in your writing; the cutaway.

The cutaway

First, you must reach a moment of tension, of some conflict. Will he kiss her or turn away? Noticing in the rearview mirror that you are being followed? On the news she sees her best friend on a ledge of a tall building, looking down and runs for the door. Whatever it is, you’ve come to a critical moment of tension that you would be a waste to resolve instantly. So how to delay? With the cutaway all you need to do is literally cut away from the scene and place the reader in a different scene (though there is an implicit promise you must conclude the moment of tension later). Here are some examples;

Cutaway to some backstory: In Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach this is done very subtly. Two newlyweds face each other over a meal, unsure of what to say to one another, they both declare their love for one another in a rather unconvincing fashion… then what next? McEwan then puts in a line break and begins some backstory on one of the characters, taking us away from the awkward moment.

Cutaway to a different Point of View: If you have multiple Point of Views, then you can leave your moment of tension by moving to a different character. This is fairly common and you’ll notice it happens typically at the end of the chapter with a cliffhanger.

Cutaway to the next chronological scene : This is a subtle one. You don’t show or reveal what happened but move the story onto the next scene and let the reader work out what happened through direct action. A fantastic example of this is in the film No Country for Old Men, serial killer Anton Sigur has viscerally murdered a lot of people in the film already, we’ve seen him strangle, shoot and even use a pressure canister type thing to murder with impunity. Towards the end of the movie, he tracks down the wife of the man he’s been chasing, who he’s sworn he will kill. He offers her a 50-50 chance, the flip of a coin to determine if she lives or dies but she refuses to put it down to chance, appealing to his human side. The coin doesn’t decide, she says, you do! Sigur however is a fatalist to the core and insists if she doesn’t choose, he will kill her. Then we cutaway and the magic cinematic moment happens. Rather than show us a murder or him deciding to let we cutaway to a shot of the outside of the house. There’s nothing for a few agonising seconds, then Sigur pushes open the screen door and steps out onto the veranda. Has he killed her or not? At this point we don’t know and are in the middle of the DELAY. Then (and this is the bit i really love), Sigur leans on a support post and checks the underside of each shoe, one after the other (checking for blood we presume). In this example the delay is a short one before resolving the mystery, but it’s so beautifully done it has to be mentioned!

So there you have three examples of cutaway techniques! If you’re a keen reader then read on as I call out a few examples of books where suspense is done really well and why. If you know any moments yourself them post below, i’d love to hear them!

One book which I found to be a masterclass on suspense (maybe even too much suspense?) is Before I go to sleep – which also was made into a film (not seen it though!). Set up is this: PoV amnesiac protagonist, starting each day not knowing who she is keeps a diary to help her piece together who she is at the start of each day. Then she realises someone is tampering with the diary. Can she trust it? She finds a message to herself telling her not to trust her husband. What’s going on? The entire book is made up of brilliant suspenseful moments which act as the engine to keep you reading. I’m a big fan too of subtler moments of suspense such as the incredibly talented Elena Ferrante and her Neopolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend being the first). SPOLIER ALERT. Lina Cerullo, a bride on her wedding day, notices a pair of cherished shoes (that she had designed) on the feet of her sworn enemy Marcello Solara whom she had forbidden to attend the wedding. The shoes were a gift from her to her new husband and an emblem of their relationship and love. Seeing them gifted thoughtlessly by her husband to her sworn enemy is a fantastic moment and the possible repercussions fill the readers mind which we wait for Lina’s reaction. Then we get the ultimate cutaway, the book ends and we experience the ulitmate delay until we read the next book.

Happy writing

CH

Writing Hacks #12: Understanding the true work involved beyond the first draft will prepare you for success

So you’ve finished your novel. Whatever happens now, take a breath because you’ve done something truly amazing! The hard work and effort that goes into it, only you truly fathom (but other writers will have a pretty good idea)! Do something to mark the moment, I love to go out for a meal with my wife and son. We aren’t celebrating exactly, more acknowledging a milestone. A first draft is definitely an achievement, but if you think 80% of the work is done then you’re in for a shock.

Picture this: you’re running a 10k race, you train for it, build yourself up mentally for the distance. You feel ready and are in good condition to run a good time. On race day, you’ve run 9km, it’s gone well, you’re tiring but that’s okay, you have only 1km to go and you’re positive you can do it. Then you realise it’s not a 10km run, but a full marathon of 24+ miles.

For a lot of people, that’s what they find out when they finish a first draft. A bit of tinkering around the edges and some light editing and it’ll be good to go right? Sorry! That’s the 9km point right there, and a marathon awaits. I think of the first draft as a third of the work done. The second third is editing and redrafting. And third, promotion and publication time.

Drafting and re-drafting : During my Masters we learned about the number of drafts done by bestselling author Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth), to paraphrase; expect to write the thing two or three times over at least. So if you’re novel is over 100k words you might end up writing 200k-400k words before finding the 100k that make the final version. I experienced this a little with Orca Rising, i rewrote the final third of the book maybe four of five times (complete rewrites), not to mention the redrafts in the rest of the novel. Feedback from your agent or publisher is invaluable here, my agent was great at getting to the heart of what needed to change succinctly and why. Yes, its a lot of work, but also a lot of fun! If you expect to do it, then it doesn’t feel like a chore, I now look forward to redrafting as much as the creative process of coming up with a first draft.

Publication time: If you self publish, as i did with my first novel Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage, then this is even more work; you need to proof, do the formatting, design or arrange for a suitable front cover and organise all of your promotional activities. You can pay for people to do this for you, it depends on your financial situation. I actually enjoyed doing this myself, it was really exciting to have total end-to-end creative control. If you’re lucky enough to have a publishing house behind you (as I did with Orca Rising), you benefit from their experience and contacts. The work you can put in here is totally up to you, whether you do blog tours, radio shows, book signings, workshops, school visits, contacting local press, entering competitions, sending out copies to get reviews, organising ads on platforms like Goodreads, Facebook, Kindle etc. There’s so much you can do, and I am certainly no expert here, but I have tried all of those things and the only absolute about them is that they take time, effort and in some cases money. If you’re mentally prepared for these things then you are more likely to meet the challenges they bring with success.

So that’s today’s writing hack; go in with your eyes open, be prepared and be positive; your first draft is a massive achievement, it proves you’ve got what it takes to go all the way, however long the way may be!

Happy writing, editing and publicising

CH

Writing Hacks #11: Keep your Character point of view tight

One of the things I underestimated most when I started out writing was the importance of point of view (PoV) in writing fiction. In fact, I didn’t really give it much thought. After learning about it and re-reading my old work, I quickly realised that sloppy PoV writing undermines the rest of your story, its clarity and impact. With PoV our job as writers is to make clear which character the reader should be identifying with and when. Once you know to look you’ll probably spot it a lot and although the principle is basic, following it all the time is not as easy as you’d think!

Point of View

Here’s a short passage written in third person from my book Orca Rising, here we can see there is a clear and tight point of view character, called Ocean. We are ‘with’ him the whole time and nobody else.

There were no revision classes that afternoon, so Ocean went home. Though it was Wednesday lunchtime, the time zone at home was set for Saturday night. The curtains were drawn and Match of the Day was on playback. Lager can. Smouldering ash-tray. Cigarette gasping out its last grey breaths. And there he was, tarnishing the sofa like a spilt drink. Andy. He had a hand down his trousers, cupping rather than scratching.

What are you doing home?’

Without taking his eyes from the screen Andy lifted up an arm in a cast.

‘Ouch.’ Ocean resisted the urge to smile. ‘How did you do that?’

Andy liberated his good hand, reached for his lager, saw it away and belched. ‘Rather not talk about it. Fetch us another would you?’

Fetch it yourself you waste of space. But no. He’d promised to make more of an effort, so off he went.

How is this tight to Ocean’s PoV? Well, we begin the paragraph establishing that it’s his PoV with the words ‘so Ocean went home.’ We then get some of his thoughts and impressions on his mother’s boyfriend, Andy, who tarnishes the couch ‘like a spilt drink.’ Andy certainly doesn’t think that, it’s Ocean. We get his internal thought ‘Fetch it yourself you waste of space.’ again this is Ocean. You might point to this sentence, ‘Without taking his eyes from the screen Andy lifted up an arm in a cast.’ or indeed the next sentence about Andy drinking his lager as PoV slips… but these are things noticed by Ocean, still from his PoV even though Andy is doing them. I didn’t bother saying ‘Ocean watched Andy liberate his good hand….’ because I don’t need to, it’s implicit that it’s him and more direct to just say what he is seeing.

PoV Slips

PoV slips are what happens when we depart from the point of view character, briefly enter the mind or PoV of a different character and then return to the main PoV character. I’ll stick with Ocean to invent an example of what not to do.

Ocean scaled the wall, paused at the top and looked down for Claude.

‘You can do it Claude, jump up! Quick!’

Claude was shorter than he was. He took a good run up but he flailed at the wall, catching his fingers painfully against the brickwork at the top.

‘I can’t do it!’

This is quite a subtle one, on the face of it you might think, that’s okay, we’re with Ocean, aren’t we? He’s the one observing Claude, watching him take a run at the wall and fail. And you’d be right but for one word. Painfully. Think about it…how does Ocean feel that it’s painful if we’re with him and it’s his PoV? We could maybe hear Claude cry out, observe him shaking out his hand, wincing, cradling it in his arm, see the scratch redden with blood, whatever – that would all be observable from Ocean’s PoV…but Claude’s pain is not Ocean’s PoV, it’s Claude’s.

Writing Hacks for maintaining PoV

  • Mentally, be inside your character’s head as you write
  • Use words that your PoV character would use
  • If you’re writing a story with multiple PoV characters, try keeping their chapters distinct. If you can’t do this, you need to make an extra effort to be clear about which PoV we are with, when and flag when there is a change.
  • Get a good proof-reader on your work, you won’t always spot everything.

Happy writing

CH

Writing Hacks #10: Nuke your adverbs

Alright, let’s kick this thing off and read a short paragraph about Reginald shall we?

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Let’s park for the moment whether you think the passage is good or bad, for the sake of this exercise, it actually doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we can do anything to make the passage better. This we will aim to do by decluttering the passage of its adverbs.

Er….What is an adverb?

An adverb is a modifier, typically (though not always) you’ll see an -ly on the end of it, like carefully, respectfully etc. Here’s a list of over 3000 of them. Google says adverbs are: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gentlyquitethenthere ).

Ok got it. Why are adverbs so common in writing then?

What is often taught in schools about creative writing is completely at odds with what is taught by professional creative writing teachers. At school, children are encouraged to use flowery vocabulary and descriptive adverbs. In a sense, this is good, because it’s definitely worth having a broad and varied vocabulary at your disposal right? You have to use these words in order to learn them. No issue there. The problem is, this ‘bad habit’ carries on uncorrected and will feature in their future creative writing.

What’s your actual beef with adverbs themselves then?

My beef is that adverbs are explanation. When you hear the oft misunderstood edict to ‘show but don’t tell,’ what people actually mean is show but don’t explain. (Telling is fine but I’ll talk about that another time). Adverbs are a perfect example of this. You’re explaining the way something should be interpreted by the reader. Now what’s wrong with that? Well, as a general rule, readers enjoy working things out for themselves with the clues you give them. Therein lies the enjoyment. When you tell someone exactly how to interpret something, it becomes less interesting. There’s less for the reader to engage with. So there, that’s my beef with adverbs. That’s not to say they can never be used, there are no universals here. The main point is to be aware that you’re using an adverb and if you are, have a good reason for doing so.

So let’s revisit the passage from the beginning. Here i’ve bolded the adverbs.

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Now, we could just delete the adverbs, but in some cases we may benefit from using different words. So here’s a heavier edit.

“Reginald paced across the forecourt, bumping into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ he swatted his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper into a bin. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.”

Overall the whole things is shorter, tighter and more direct. Let’s examine why. Clearly ‘paced’ is preferable to the clunky ‘walked quite quickly’ (urgh it makes me shudder!). So using active verbs is a good tip for replacing some adverbs. She stepped quietly can become, she tiptoed. He said loudly can become he shouted/yelled/cried. Out of all the adverbs in the passage, the worst was probably ‘remorsefully’. Doesn’t it just stick out and poke you in the ribs? This is typical of a writer trying to get across an idea; in this case, that his character is annoyed that he won’t have time to read the paper. But it’s not necessary to explain that to your reader with the adverb. The reader will get it from the sentence that follows “He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.” which just so happens to be an example of Free Indirect Speech – check out Writing Hacks Week 8 if you want to read more about that technique.

Dhalsim’s approach to adverbs

As the great Stephen King says, “the path to hell is paved with adverbs.” Off you go then! Sharpen your machetes and watch your adverbs quietly tremble!

Happy writing

CH