Category Archives: writing advice

I Don’t Follow My Own Writetips

In short stories, I mean. I’m pretty sure in my novel I have applied every relevant writetip I have ever tweeted. I may not have executed it well, but I tried. 

Yet, when it comes to short stories, I just…don’t. And I don’t know why. 

I had this epiphany when someone replied to a tweeted writetip. The tip was ‘Your story beginning does not necessarily need action. What it does need is conflict’. 

As I replied to this tweep, I realised my own latest short story is lacking in conflict in the opening scene. Damn! And why? I know this stuff, so why have I overlooked this issue? Don’t go making excuses and say no one can be on top of everything all the time, because this is almost the least of this story’s issues. 

For some reason, I forget almost everything I know about writing when it comes to short stories.
Are short stories too… short? Too small? Too… simple? I don’t mean simpler to write, because they aren’t, but the idea is simpler. You don’t have the same word count you have in a novel to tie the reader in twists and turns for six chapters. You get maybe one good twist. 

Once upon a time I could solve trigonometric equations. I forget how, now, but when I could, I’d also trip over basic multiplication. Hey, I still do that. I can formulate solutions to complex legal problems. Give me a simple problem, and I’m more likely to make a mistake. The only pool shot I’ll ever sink is the one you think I’ll never in a million years get.

My brain just seems to think complicated. Is there not enough room for my brain to really flex its muscles in a short story? Maybe it’s like singing – I’m still warming up, trying to hit the notes right, and the story is finished!

The standard advice you’ll be given is that you must write short stories. If you publish a few short stories you have a better chance with novels. Short stories are a good way to learn the craft of writing without the time it takes to write a few novels – although I’ve written eight novels and tossed seven, so maybe that’s redundant (or belated) advice in my case. A few people (like Kate Forsyth, the lucky sod) don’t write short stories, and never have.

I was told recently ‘maybe your brain just doesn’t work like that’. The speaker has post-grad qualifications in creative writing, so I was listening.

See, I’ve secretly suspected the same for some time, but mostly if you say so, you get the kind of advice I’ve mentioned above. Just because short stories are hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them. Doing something outside your comfort zone is a good learning experience. Blah blah blah.

But now I see my writing skills actually regress when I write short stories, and I can’t explain why everything I know goes out the window.

Except, maybe, I was right the first time. Maybe I should just stick with novels.

Or at least novellas.

So I’m turning the latest short story idea into a novella, and it feels much better. There’s room to run, as it were, and I’m no longer tied up in the corral chomping at the bit. There not being much of a market for novellas, I’m intending to self-publish this one, one it’s been written, re-written, revised and edited within an inch of its life, so watch this space!

Character Movement and Fight Scenes

Last month, Dionne Lister and I attended GenreCon in Sydney, Australia. One of the workshops was run by fantasy author Karen Miller (also writing under the pen name K.E. Mills) on character movement and action scenes. 

She explained we are now a culture steeped in visual imagery and story-telling. If you’re a fan of Dickens, Tolkien, or other classic authors, sorry, this doesn’t cut it for the modern audience. Modern fiction has shifted away from that style of story-telling to meet the more visual expectations of the modern reader. As far as visual imagery goes, it’s also worth knowing that people will believe something if they see it, even without explanation, but that in a novel plot holes will be more readily questioned. This explained to me why I’m not able to be as critical of movies as I am of books!

Despite the fact your audience is visual, you can’t just take a fight scene (for example) and transcribe it into words – this will create a boring description which does not in the least engage the reader. Instead, you have to translate what you see into words that create an impression. The scene must be fast enough to ensure the reader is not bored, clear enough so they understand, and real enough they feel they’ve experienced it. 

Relatively speaking, you should incorporate very little actual physical description because this will bore the reader. It’s also unrealistic. When someone is in the middle of action, they can’t and won’t notice everything. At the same time, they can experience time distortion and time will seem to slow down so that person may notice quite a bit in what actually took only a split second. These are qualities you should be sure to note in your fight scenes. 

Action scenes should be anchored through the viewpoint of a particular character to help place the action (unless you’re using omniscient POV, you should be doing this anyway). You should include emotions, thoughts, and sensory impressions of the viewpoint character as to what’s occurring around them. Short, punchy descriptions and verbs will help you to keep the energy going. Choose words that tell us something about the characters, words that make an impact and are energetic. 

It’s very important to get your characters moving even outside of a fight scene or an action sequence. If you don’t, you’ll create a static scene in which people do nothing but talk to each other i.e. talking heads. To avoid this problem, try including body language to bring a scene to life (what Karen called the equivalent of subtitles for books). Not only does this help to define the action, it also helps you to flesh out the characters.

When doing this, try to work out what actions go properly with the dialogue i.e. there may be automatic actions and responses you associate with the dialogue. Think about them and try to identify what they are. You may find there is more than one correct interpretation, in which case you need to decide which is the impression you actually want to convey. This will depend on the plot, the story you want to tell, and the level of conflict you generate. 

While long speeches are uncommon in genre fiction, sometimes characters need to say a lot. If you let one character just ramble on, this can have the same effect as a ‘talking heads’ scenario, and the reader may get bored and wander away. To avoid this, either have the character interrupted a lot, or find the right moment, a lull in the speech, to interrupt and include a physical action on the part of the character. 

Some other words of wisdom from Karen included:

  • Use said almost all the time – it becomes invisible;
  • Dialogue tags like retorted, objected etc. should be used judiciously and ‘he ejaculated’ is not recommended any more;
  • There is a school of thought that it should be clear from the text how the dialogue is presented, but this is not always the case, and then sometimes you may need a descriptor or an adverb – but this should be used carefully;
  • Exclamation marks can be useful, but don’t overuse. Don’t use multiple exclamation marks or exclamation or question mark combinations;
  • Be vigilant about unintended repetition and sentence construction – don’t use repetitive sentence rhythms, as it will put the reader to sleep;
  • Try to give each character their own rhythm and speech patterns (easier said than done!).
  • Including everything slows the pace too much;
  • All you can do is the best job you are capable of at that time, with all the input available to you. You cannot control how the reader will interpret it;
  • Every reader’s view is correct – subjectively speaking;
  • Remember every character is the star of their own show. Give each character a thumb-nail sketch of realness. Don’t ever treat a character as a cardboard cut-out;
  • Use italics to stress a word of dialogue judiciously – only do this when needed to clarify an ambiguous line where it’s important the reader get the correct message;
  • It’s said that you can get the reader across the galaxy, but you can’t get them across the room.

Karen is a brilliant writer, so I strongly recommend taking her advice into consideration. Not only did she read us a fight scene from her draft WIP, which was good enough to turn me green with envy, but I read the book she gave me in two days flat. It’s not often I have the time to do that these days, and when I make the time, you know that book’s got my attention. 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might as well join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or sign up for the newsletter.

Don’t forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this.

Thanks for stopping by and visiting with us.