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 #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

Writing Hacks #9: Use plot points to map out your story structure

Plot is a massive topic and one I’ll frequently return to in Writing Hacks. Today, I want to talk about macro-plotting and using plot points to anchor your major story destination points to help keep your novel’s shape. I would always recommend that you write knowing how your book is going to end, but more than that, you should know (at least roughly) what your major plot points are along the way. As we’ll see below, most plots will follow an approximation of this standard plot diagram below:

It can be helpful to map out your novel visually. For one it gives you an easy reference and lets you ‘see’ the overall shape of your novel. These things are great motivators too, keeping you on track and more likely to finish. Each time you hit a milestone it’s a ‘Well done! you’re one step closer to finishing! Plus, when you’re dealing in bitesized novel chunks you are by default not wrangling with the while massive lump of novel all at once. Let’s breeze through this example structure.

Setup – Typically this will establish the status quo, who is your point of view character(s). Your job here is to also get across location, time and place (using direct action) to situate the reader in your novel. Some sense of what your PoV character wants or is lacking, subtly conveyed, would make for a strong setup.

Plot Point 1 – Inciting incident: This will be either something borne out of your PoV character’s action; e.g. The trod upon dogsbody finally quits their job, a happily married woman finds herself inexplicably following someone she finds attractive. Or it is something that happens to your character; e.g. a river bursts its banks forcing a family to move out of their flooded house and in with cantankerous relatives. Either way, something happens to upset the status quo and creates conflict or dilemma with your PoV character.

Rising action – This is simply development and further smaller plot points that move the story forward. Sub-plots emerge and your PoV character’s desires and wishes are frustrated and prevented. Complexity increases.

Plot Point 2 – An emblematic major moment in the novel. There will be a small climax that will be bigger in significance than the inciting incident in Plot Point 1, but not as big in significance as the climax in Plot Point 3 to come. This will give the sense of rising drama and is critical to the build up to the climax.

Plot Point 3 – This is the key period of drama in your novel, the moments you’ve worked so hard to build up patiently. It will be the key point of drama or crisis for your PoV character. In police procedurals, it’ll be the scene where the detective finally confronts the killer he/she’s been chasing. It’s the moment when the husband realises he’s lost his wife forever or when the fight between two warring armies takes place. Things may be happening fast but here you need to maximise the dramatic payoff. Don’t rush through this, depict the full action and emotion of what’s happening.

Falling action – This is the fallout of PP3, a warrior is picking through the dead army, sombre but victorious. The husband is wondering how he can live without her, the detective has the perp in cuffs but is scarred mentally from the confrontation.

Exit music

Plot Point 4 – You’re cantering towards the finish line now, so what’s the exit music to your novel? Is there an emblematic moment? A medal ceremony to laud the heroic warriors. The husband crying into a photograph while on a bench? The detective hitting the bottle? This is your moment to leave your novel’s last impression on the reader…or set up the sequel.

Mapping out your novel doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible

I find mapping out a novel at a macro level extremely helpful. That doesn’t mean that the plot points are set in stone forever and can never change. Sometimes in the process of writing you think of a better idea and that’s awesome! You just re-plot, checking that everything still fits together as a whole- or if not you start again. Some people find it helpful to map out the minor plot details in this visual way too, with detailed graph annotations that serve as a turn by turn sat-nav for their novel. I’ve seen amazingly detailed excel charts of each character’s plot arcs, people who use revision flash cards and sticky notes. However you do it, you need to find a method that works for you and that might take some experimentation and trial and error. So try a few different ways and see what works best for you.

Happy plotting

CH

Writing Hacks #8: Infuse narrative passages with character using “free indirect speech”

Narrator or PoV character?

I first came across the term Free Indirect Speech when reading a book by renowned critic (and author in his own right) James Woods, in his book How Fiction Works. As an aside–it’s a great read, you should check it out if you’re interested in learning more about the craft of writing.

So what is Free Indirect Speech?

Well, i’d describe it as a blending of the narrative voice with the character voice in a narrated passage (i.e. not dialogue). Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Let’s look at an example, i’ve lifted this one off my current WIP.

While her friends at school acted grown up, she simply was and didn’t have to pretend. She had a boyfriend–Mark–an indulgence in his mid-twenties, who wore fitted shirts and worked for a high-end estate agent.

What makes this Free Indirect Speech as opposed to just a narrator’s passage? There are a couple of signals here but one single word flags it the most strongly. Can you spot it? It’s the word indulgence. Think about it, who’s word is that? To whom is Mark an indulgence? Certainly not to the narrator, therefore it must be point of view character’s word. She appropriates or even taints the passage with that word, pulling it towards her gravity. Substitute the word ‘indulgence’ with ‘man’ or ‘estate-agent’ and it becomes just a normalish narrative paragraph. The other flag here is the ‘high-end’ estate agent. That is a distinguishing detail important to her. Why? The astute reader will make inferences about the character that make her seems more rounded, real and complex.

Third Person

FIS only really applies when you’re writing in the third person. In first person everything being told is narrated by that point of view already. One of the reasons why some (including me) think third person is a preferable mode for narration is because it affords you the flexibility of techniques like FIS that just aren’t in the armoury for first person works (that isn’t to say there is no place for 1st person work!).

When should I use it?

Like everything in writing, don’t use it all the time or it gets boring. Variety and change of pace is a key technique to keep your reader enthralled in your book. Think of your book being told as if a camera were on the shoulder of your point of view character. There are moments when you want to zoom in, get closer to that character, to let the reader get to know them better. There are moments when you want to zoom out, and let the reader wonder what they’re thinking. FIS gives you a subtle way to get your reader a little closer to your PoV character in narrative passages that functionally are just there to ‘move the story along’. This is good because you aren’t now having to do EVERYTHING in dialogue or through direct action, there is a little glimpse into your character that can tell the reader a lot. For example, in my example above, what can you infer from the word indulgence? And ‘high-end’ estate agent? What does that make you think the PoV character is like and how she sees herself? In short, a few small words can do a lot of work for you.

If this is the first time you’ve read about this, you’ll probably start noticing it all the time in good writing – I did! Whether it’s Jane Austen talking about someone’s ‘tolerable fortune’ (tolerable to whom!?) or V.S Naipaul’s Mr Biswas sleeping on his Slumberking bed and consuming Maclean’s brand stomach powder….you’ll start to see FIS in the ether, everywhere!

Happy writing

CH

Chris is author of Orca Rising, which you can read here, or if you don’t like paying with bank money, here.

Writing Hacks #7: Getting thick-skinned, in conversation with author Shaun Baines

Shaun, on his way to doing some editing

This week I talk with author Shaun Baines. I met Shaun having shared an agent and a publisher and found we had more in common than just writing. We both left the city to live in rural areas to write, tend to our gardens and chickens! Shaun’s author of Peoples Book Prize Nominated book Woodcutter, the first in The Daytons trilogy of gritty, gangster noir set in Newcastle. The second book, Pallbearer is just out this week. Despite the violence he can conjure up on the page, he’s a really nice bloke and a lot of fun to talk to. Today I wanted to chat with him about the psychology of writing, dealing with feedback, rejections and what success means. I really enjoyed our chat and hope you do too.

In Conversation with Shaun Baines

CH: Pallbearer, the second book in the Dayton series has just come out this week, Congratulations! How do you feel it’s going as a writer? 

SB: A second book feels special. I’ve learned how to be a better writer and now I know my first book wasn’t a fluke. I’m not sure I’d call myself a proper writer yet, (maybe when you read Pallbearer, you won’t, either,) but I feel more in control. I’m not free-wheeling down the side of a mountain anymore. I’m half-way to knowing what I’m doing.

CH: I was thinking a bit about how as a writer, you know you’ve proper made it when people refer to other people’s work through the lens of yours; i.e. that novel has a Dickensian feel to it. Could you envisage someone saying in a few years time, talking about a new gritty, gangster noir book that it is positively Bainesian? I mean, how cool would that be?

SB: Bainesian sounds like a disorder of some kind. Like something you’d contract in the tropics. I doubt I’ll ever reach a level where I’m a reference point, but I have worked hard to do things my way. A reader told me she could recognise my writing without my name being attached. It has its own distinctive feel. That’s a huge compliment and something every author should aim for because no-one can take that away from you.

CH: So what is success for you, writing wise?

SB: A gold yacht? Or one that doesn’t sink because it’s way too heavy? I think of success as an end point that can’t be reached because the goal posts are constantly shifting. But there are a lot of milestones to be celebrated on the way. Finishing a novel is the first one, then a publishing contract, holding your first book in your hand. One of my major milestones was being stopped in the street by a postman and being asked to sign a book. He’d been carrying Woodcutter around for weeks, hoping to bump into me. And what’s more, he’d done it as a gift to his wife at Christmas.

CH: And how do you think other people breaking into fiction should set their expectations?

SB: If you said to me, “I have a job for you. You’ll work seven days a week for very little money or thanks. Strangers will happily tear you apart for doing this job. You’ll suffer from a range of anxieties, probably put on weight and you can never, ever quit.” I’d say, “Is there anything going at the sewerage works?”It depends on what a writer’s expectations are. If it is to produce some writing they are happy with, then that boils down to hard work, but it’s achievable. If it’s to make millions of pounds, you better join me down the shit pit because people drop their phones down toilets and we can sell them on.

CH: I know what you mean, royalty cheques sound so glamorous…until you see the actual numbers. I’ll meet you down in the sewer, let me get my gloves!

SB: I actually refer to royalty cheques as ‘my beans.’ As in, how many cans of beans will this buy me? 

CH: At a guess i think i’m good for about four cans of beans. Though if I were to go supermarket brand it’d stretch to seven or eight. In all seriousness though, there’s a nice camaraderie sharing the realities of what it’s like to break into the writing world isn’t there?

SB: Yeah, I have to say the writing community is a really friendly, supportive place, which is unusual in a competitive market place. We’re all in this together and I’ve made some good mates. No matter what your expectations, when they’re not met for whatever reason, there’s always someone around to sympathise. It’s our choice to write and let’s not forget, it’s a great job filled with great people. Do you see other writers as friends or competitors?

CH: I always try and be friendly and supportive and I just assume everyone else is that same: that’s my opening gambit with anyone i meet in the writing world. Inevitably I’ve had a couple of negative experiences among the many, many good ones. It’s usually when someone gets in touch, appears very nice and then after a few interactions the mask slips and its all about what you can do to help them promote their book or who i can introduce them to. So I have no time for users, but I’d give up a lot of time to help people who I think merit it.

SB: Like me!

CH: For sure! Let’s share a little bit about some of our experiences on receiving feedback. I remember having to write a piece for my Creative Writing Masters. I was feeling super confident because i’d had glowing feedback from our (hard-to-please) lecturer on my last piece of work. I remember spending ages on it, and i sent it off feeling really proud of what i’d done. The response was tantamount to ‘You’ve completely missed the point, re-do it.’ Ouch. But what can you do but suck it up, take the advice and have another go? I think it’s better to be challenged, to reassess your own work critically, particularly if it’s someone’s opinion you respect. What’s the worst feedback you’ve ever had and how did you cope with it?

SB: I have really low self-esteem so I don’t think I’ve received bad feedback. I assume that I deserve it somehow. Hand on heart though, I don’t think I’ve had anything cutting. One reviewer couldn’t stomach some of the violence. Her favourite genre was Christian romance fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a hell of a jump from that to Woodcutter. It’s like going from fish fingers to fermented fish. Her taste was out of line with my own and just because you like stories doesn’t mean you’ll like all stories. Giving a book a low rating because of that doesn’t seem fair.

CH: Yeah, that’s just about book fit, but then maybe there’s a sadistic pleasure in reading genres you will automatically hate so you can write searing reviews about them. Speaking of sadism, let’s talk about what sort of feedback works for you. I used to run a writing group in Brighton, and one of the things i noticed is that people are often in different places with the type of response they need, if early in their career and tentative they often need encouragement and support, but others need a ‘pull your finger out, you can do a lot better.’ What sort of feedback do you find most helpful?

SB: I’m into the tough love. Not sure how I’d respond to being told to ‘pull my finger out.’ I’m more of a ‘finger in’ kind of guy. The criticism has to be constructive. If it’s given in a way that improves your writing, it’s nothing but good. Woodcutter wasn’t the first book I wrote. I wrote one in my twenties and paid an editor to give me his thoughts. What I received was a four page rant on how I wasn’t a writer. “Why did you even send this to me? I’m not wasting my time going through this rubbish.” He still cashed the fucking cheque, though. His response crushed me and I didn’t write another word for almost twenty years. Spite like that is damaging and has no place in the writing community. Honestly, if I could remember that guy’s name I would out him to protect other writer’s suffering at his hands. Then I’d go round his house when he was asleep and do things to him.

CH: If that guy’s read any of your books, he’s probably booking himself into Witness Protection right about now. The good news is you don’t need him anymore (and didn’t back then either). Do you think you’re tough on yourself, when redrafting?

SB: I like to think I’m pretty ruthless. I’m certainly not precious about anything I write. If it’s not working, I cut it from the narrative. I’ve never done a creative writing course so I mainly go on instinct. I’ve read lots of books and watched lots of TV. You get a sense of when things need to change. My process, if I can call it that, is write the first draft. Read and make notes for the second. Show my wife for the third. Tidy up writing for the fourth. Send to beta-readers for fifth. Line edit for sixth. Proof read over and over. Send to publisher/agent, take their notes and make final draft.I don’t enjoy the process until I work on the fourth draft and I start to feel I might have something. How many drafts do you do?

CH: Too many to count. There was no set number really, but i think with Orca Rising I probably had about twenty drafts before it was out there in the world. Maybe five or so before I sent it to agents, and then some at the agent’s recommendation, then publishers etc. It’s probably different for each book. With more experience, I suspect–based on what writers like David Mitchell say–that you need to do less redrafting, presumably because you’re just getting more of it right first time round.

SB: Imagine writing a book in one go.

CH: A writer’s aspiration, an editor’s worst nightmare! So, now Let’s talk about getting an agent and/or a publisher interested in your writing. For me, I think the dynamic here is totally fucked by market economies. There are way too many writers, writing too many books to a saturated market, in short it’s super-competitive so what you have is a situation whereby agents and publishers are spoilt for choice and are flooded with manuscripts. Making your work stand out from the crowd is now more important than ever. There’s crafted cover letters and synopses to write and then a 6-8 week wait for an (often) templated reply. I can see why a lot of people get frustrated. But when you take a step back, it’s easy to forget that without you, the writer, agents and publishers have nothing. They cannot exist without us, yet in reality it feels like the opposite is true. What are your thoughts about this, and how can writers keep sane when it’s more than 99% likely that they’ll be looking at a rejection email after a lot of hard work.

SB: You’re always going to have a flooded market when being an author is one of the top jobs to aspire to. People do it out of love rather than money and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Rejection is part of the job. It’s not palatable or easy to swallow, but I think it comes in two forms. Firstly, your book is rejected because it’s not good enough or you haven’t spent enough time on it. Instinctively, we’ll know when this is the case. Secondly, a book is rejected because it doesn’t fit the current market trend. I find this harder to take because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve written the book I want to read and no amount of redrafting is going to change that.I don’t spend much time on cover letters. I make sure they’re professional and polite, but its the book that does the talking. Hitting the zeitgeist is beyond my control, but I hear gangster noir is going to be big this year.

CH: Where do you stand on Self-Publishing?

SB: It’s seen as a last resort when it’s not. It’s just incredibly difficult so some self-published books come out looking amateurish. As always, you need money. An editor costs money. A proofreader costs money. A cover designer costs money and if you don’t have that money, it affects how your book is received costing you more money. A book someone has spent years writing suddenly goes down the tube and that’s not fair. Writers aren’t stupid, but most of us are poor so we’re backed into a corner, forced to pay money we can ill afford to see our dreams come true. You’ve self-published a book. How was the process for you?

CH: It was a last resort really. Kidding! With my first novel, Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage, i wrote it for my Masters and it just grew from an exercise I did as part of my coursework. It had no real market or commercial hope so I didn’t even try to get it placed with a publisher or agent. I self-published for two reasons, one because my family and friends asked to read it and wondered what the hell i’d been doing the last few years, did I have anything to show for it? Yes, i could point to this thing and say there, it’s available if you want it. And second, i self-pubbed just to learn and see what the process was like. You have a lot of autonomy of course; creating the cover, the blurb and all that jazz, but there’s also the formatting (yawn) and the marketing. It’s a lot more work but you do get a lot more creative control and more spoils if it comes off. I personally hate self-promotion and I see a lot of authors spamming twitter with their books 8-10 times a day. Why would anyone want that in their feed? Unfollow. So having done both, I prefer having a Publishing House behind me, though i wouldn’t rule out self-publishing again. Alright, so that’s enough writing chat, let’s get the stuff people really want to know about you Sean. We’re both keen gardeners, if your writing were a vegetable, which would it be and why?

SB: You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked that. Always with the vegetable questions. Er…I think my writing would be a parsnip; one that hits a stone when its growing and becomes all twisted. And when you pull it out, its formed into a weird face you can’t cut in to because you’re worried it might haunt your dreams. 

CH. I knew you’d go for a root veg. That’s gangster veg! Thanks for hanging out with me today Shaun, I’ve got Pallbearer downloaded and ready to be go and i’m looking forward to it after Woodcutter. What’s next for you?

SB: I’m writing the third Dayton novel for publication next year. Then I’m thinking of doing a series of novellas. I also have a collection of short stories I’d like to self-publish.But right now, I have to go outside and clear up after a two day storm. Living the writer’s dream, eh?

Pallbearer and Shaun’s first book in the trilogy, Woodcutter are available from Sharpe Books.

Writing Hack #6 : Metaphors and Similes. My top 5 tips are like…ah…an octopus with three tentacles cut off?

This week let’s talk metaphor and simile. Both are used as comparators, and when used well can make your writing leap off the page. First, what’s the difference?

A Simile is apparent when you see the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ before the comparison. Here’s a couple of examples from my friend Shaun Baines’ upcoming book Pallbearer. If you’re into gangster noir, you should check out his work, it’s chock-full of great similes.

[Describing a fishing boat] “Where it had once been white, rust pockmarked the paint so it looked like it was infected with boils” (from Pallbearer)

“A vast chandelier hung like a crystal tear drop from the ceiling ” (from Pallbearer)

“A small pool of water had formed under his feet, as if the conversation were melting him.” (from Orca Rising)

Metaphor on the other hand states a comparison, describes something in a way which isn’t literally true for symbolic effect.

‘Her voice was a poem.’ (me)

‘Don’t let the weather make your Russian brain soggy.’ (Pallbearer)

If you’re interested in telling the difference there’s a cool quiz you can do on Grammarly here.

Five Tips for Metaphors and Similes

  1. Metaphors in particular should estrange and then connect with the reader. The goal is to challenge the reader in a surprising and pleasing way that after a moment’s pause immediately fits and makes sense.
  2. Avoid clichés. Say something new. In our stripped down, economic, modern way of writing metaphors and similes are one of the few chances you get to show off your creativity, make it count!
  3. The metaphor or simile should be in keeping with the point of view character’s lexicon and thinking. For example, a violent character might ‘see’ things in an ugly way, so using a metaphor about a beautiful flower might not be appropriate. The Pallbearer example above of the fishing boat’s sides looking like ‘infected boils’ is great because the character noticing this is a mean gangster who sees the world through that sort of lens. It feels entirely apposite.
  4. Don’t overdo it. With M & S, less is more. It’s better to have one killer simile than three goodish ones which dilute the impact. In my opinion, more than one a page is too much.
  5. Here’s a tip I heard my favourite writer David Mitchell share at a talk he gave. When asked how and why his metaphors and similes were so damn good, he said that when he finished his draft of a novel he’d go through the manuscript and give a score out of five to every simile and metaphor. If it scored a three or under, he binned it. Get harsh!

That’s me, now check out this little dude.

CH

Writing Hack #5: How to stop meandering and write with purpose

Ever find sometimes when you’re writing that you go off on these tangents, introducing plots, sub-plots, even characters that just occur to you in the moment? Sometimes this meandering bears fruit but the majority of the time when you read it back the story’s gone all over the place. You like what you added but it doesn’t seem to somehow fit with the overall structure. Trust me, I’ve done it a LOT.

I was a meanderer. A serial meanderer. I couldn’t figure out why i couldn’t finish a novel, i’d get halfway through and wonder what the hell had happened to my brilliant idea and overall plot. So i’d abandon it, start another one. Then it happened again. And then a third time… That’s when I decided to do a Masters, to ‘tool up’ and learn some craft skills and techniques that could help me stay on track, become a better writer and FINISH. This tip is probably one of the simplest, but perhaps the most transformational to my writing. The advice was this: ‘write to a climax.’ I took this on a practical level to decide what the end of the scene would be first, even to write that bit first. I’d then go back to the start of the scene and write until I reached that climatic moment….Here’s what I found:

  • My writing was more purposeful: it became tight and felt like it was going somewhere.
  • There was less meandering and more economy. More coherence and more clarity.

When you think about it, it makes sense. everyone has read a page turner at one time or another or watched a film with a ‘cliffhanger’ in it. This isn’t a complex idea to grasp. What is a little harder to get your head around is that ‘writing to a climax’ doesn’t mean you have to write huge climaxes; cars crashing through cocktail bars or the mega twist when the protagonist realises they’e drunk the poison they’d intended for another. Climaxes can also be subtle, gentle. It’s the build up that gives the climatic moment meaning in retrospect, so if you write the final moment first, you are more likely to write a killer build up that maximises the payoff of that moment.

Give it a go! Here’s some prompts

So why not try it? You can easily change the ending anyway if you change your mind! If you’ve not got a novel to try it with right now, try with some of these climatic prompts you can use as an exercise.

  • She set down her keys on the coffee table, unwound the scarf from her head and cast her eyes around the lounge. ‘Well don’t just stand there, go and put the kettle on,’ she said.
  • Arms outstretched as if he were an angel, he waded into the howling sea.
  • ‘I love you too.’
  • Her phone vibrated in her pocket, she stole a glance at the screen and her breath caught in her throat. It was him.
  • Matty popped a chip in his mouth, nodded with obvious satisfaction and then took another. It was as easy as that.
  • ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.’

The last two are taken from my People’s Book Prize shortlisted book Orca Rising, but you can make up any number of stories with those end points. Have fun!

CH