I’ve often looked at the style sheet I’ve created for a book I’m working on and thought that the words listed could be used as writing prompts. ‘Pick any three consecutive words and write 1,000 words based on them’, sort of thing. I even tweeted about making the executive decision that ‘asshat’ is one word but ‘fuck-head’ takes a hyphen. I think you can guess the tone of the book just from that! Shortly afterwards, I saw a discussion on Twitter about how a style sheet is a microcosm of the book as a whole. ‘How true!’ I thought.
So here you go. Some selections from recent pieces of work. I think these all give a good flavour of the piece without giving away any spoilers – and if you want to use them as writing prompts, that’s even better!
son of a bitch
hide and seek
The featured image is my latest artwork, just because I didn’t have anything else to illustrate this with and I’m trying not to use stock images. You can see more of my artwork here.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence. You don’t see a particular mistake for years and then several examples turn up at once and you find yourself asking, ‘Is this a thing now? Why are people doing this?’ So here we go. How to improve your writing by avoiding things that I don’t like. Will it actually improve your writing? Maybe. No guarantees. Depends on context, etc. etc. etc. Try it and see!
There seems to be a trend for writers to use ‘inside’ or ‘within’ where the little word ‘in’ – or ‘into’ – would work just as well. Hence we have ‘The hero strode inside the room’ or ‘She reached within the cupboard’ or ‘He put it inside his pocket’. Try substituting ‘into’ (first two examples) or ‘in’ (last example). Doesn’t it sound cleaner and crisper? See also: ‘placed’ instead of ‘put’: for example, ‘Maria placed it inside the box’ vs ‘Maria put it into the box’. People are always placing things inside things instead of simply putting them in. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for these usages, just that it would probably improve your writing if you stopped and thought about it first to make sure that’s really the best way of saying what you want to say.
There’s another construction that’s been bugging me lately. Again, it’s not ‘an error’ per se, but it’s something you might like to think about to make sure you’re using it consciously and to maximum effect. Technically I’d call it ‘gerund vs infinitive’ – here’s an example:
‘She started walking along the path.’ Compare and contrast with: ‘She started to walk along the path.’ (walking – gerund; to walk – infinitive)
I’ve been seeing a lot of gerunds lately – the ‘ing’ form of the verb – especially in action sequences. ‘Dave started shooting …’ ‘Emma started running …’ and so on. I can totally see why people do it – it has a certain flow, and it tends to be how people talk, as well. But it can actually serve to slow down the ‘feel’ of the action where the infinitive would keep it moving along. This is the case especially where the action is interrupted or moves rapidly on. Neither construction is right or wrong, but if you keep it in mind while you’re reading through your own work, you can make an informed decision about which one you want.
Those are the most obvious things I’ve seen recently that give me an impression of laziness rather than bad grammar or mistakes. When one construction is used a lot at the expense of another which works just as well or better, it just makes me think that the author has got into a comfortable groove and hasn’t really ‘seen’ their own writing. It doesn’t make it bad writing, but if you take a look through fresh eyes and try mixing things up a little, it might give your work that extra pop and sparkle that elevates it from ‘competent’ to ‘good’ or from ‘good’ to ‘great’.
Final note: a character telling another character something is still ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. I find ‘show, don’t tell’ rather a simplistic instruction – there’s a place for both – but don’t think you can stick something into dialogue and it suddenly becomes better. It’s particularly annoying when a character has spent a couple of paragraphs thinking about, for example, how Mr X can’t possibly be a plausible suspect because of Y and Z, and then feels compelled to repeat their thought process word-for-word to their colleague in the next chapter.
I just wanted to share a couple of really useful articles I’ve read recently which touch on both networking and writing your novel.
‘A Survival Guide for Introverts Networking’, a blog post by Abi Saffrey, is aimed at people going to the Society for Editors & Proofreaders conference in September, but it applies equally to any conference or event you might be going to. I’m not actually an introvert, but this post is full of helpful tips like ‘Pre-break the ice’, ‘Don’t wear new shoes’ and ‘Prepare some opening lines or questions’.
I found Randy Ingermanson’s explanation of the ‘Snowflake Method’ of writing a novel clear and inspiring. It made me want to start planning my own novel! I don’t have a plot or theme or any characters in mind, but reading Randy’s article made me feel as though I could write about anything. Remember, folks: ‘Good fiction doesn’t just happen’!
If you have any especially useful blog posts or articles that you keep going back to again and again, let me know in the comments. Helpful resources for writers are always welcome in these quarters!
Editing erotica presents its own special challenges. By the time something gets to copy-editing stage I don’t want to suggest a major rewrite, but there are some words that get so much use in erotica that I would like to put them on my ‘banned words list’! There’s nothing wrong with these words per se, but if you’re a writer and you’re thinking about using any of these in a sex scene, please, I implore you, think again:
I’d also like to put in a special plea for authors not to describe pubic hair as either coarse and wiry (ouch) or soft and downy (sceptical hmm).
If you’re an editor or proofreader, are there any words you’d like to add to the ‘banned words’ list? I’d love to hear about anything I’ve missed!
This isn’t supposed to be a dig at authors who have used these words in their books, and I’m certain that there are some excellent erotic passages (ahem) that contain them. However, they all seem to get used a lot, so if you want to be rigorous about avoiding clichés, you might want to think of something else or see if you can get away with removing that word altogether.
Bonus points available: outside my office someone has marked up the pavement ready for some forthcoming works. They’ve written ‘SERVICE TRENCH’ in large letters. Every time I see it, I wonder whether this phrase could be worked into an erotic scene. Bonus points for any author who can manage it.
On 5 March I went to the Writing East Midlands conference. I came away feeling as though I’m equipped with all the skills to be a successful writer … except writing skills!
I learned about self-promotion, working with an editor, creating a web presence, and writing crime fiction. I’ll be sharing my pearls of wisdom in bite-size chunks (to mix my metaphors!) over at Help For Writers during the next few weeks, so I can’t give everything away here. I can give you a few tasters, though.
It was a blast from the past to visit Loughborough University, as I graduated from there in 2001. I was based in the art department on the other side of the road, but I visited the Martin Hall building for my ‘Music & the Visual Arts’ module and it was good to see the old alma mater again!
The opening keynote was delivered with energy and enthusiasm by Mike Gayle, who made us all laugh and root for him as he told us the story of how he got where he is today.
Pete is a business coach for creatives, and his workshop on self-promotion for introverts was full of quotable gems like: “Embrace your non-conformity”, “creative people fuel the world”, and “asking for help is not an admission of failure”. I may have been a little bit biased because I loved his illustrated slides – like me, he studied Fine Art at university – but he came across as a thoroughly nice person.
Cressida (a.k.a. The Book Analyst) specialises in deep structural editing and clearly knows her stuff. “The point of editing is to get you a beautiful book” – can’t say fairer than that! She gave a good explanation of the difference between a ‘read and review’, a deep structural edit, copy-editing, and proofreading. Lots of people think they need the last two when they actually need the first two. I try to be clear that I only offer copy-editing and proofreading – structural editing is a different thing and needs a different set of skills. Cressida was the source of the day’s most inspiring quotation: “You never get worse at writing.”
Top three take-home points:
Don’t edit as you go along. Get to the end first
Make sure your editor works in your genre
Editors charge by length, so cut your manuscript as much as you can before sending it off
Shreya Sen Handley, Dan Simpson & Alice Graham on Shouting Loudly: Creating a Presence on the Web
Considering the discussion was pitched around ‘shouting loudly’, there were a lot of mentions of not shouting! There was a general consensus that you need to listen, reciprocate and participate in online communities, not just shout or blow your own trumpet.
Top three take-home points:
Do one or two things well; don’t try to do everything
Avoid sharing the same content on multiple platforms (guilty as charged!)
If you blog, end your posts with a question to encourage comments
After this and the closing keynote by Sophie Hannah I’m a bit of a fan, and I haven’t even read one of her books yet! I did buy her collection of short stories, which I got signed – and the next day I discovered that I’d already bought The Narrow Bed on Kindle! Her descriptions of her plots made them sound right up my street. I love a good psychological thriller.
What struck me most about this discussion was that all three participants started writing at a really early age. Stephen finished his first novel at the age of twelve! Their different approaches to location were interesting too – it was crucial to David, who’s novels are based around Hull (even those which aren’t set there!), whereas Sophie uses fictional settings as “human beings are the same everywhere.”
Top three take-home points:
Getting a huge advance can be a poisoned chalice if your book doesn’t sell well enough
Avoid being too self-critical and enjoy your successes when they come
“The only thing you can control is how good you can make the book” – Sophie Hannah
What’s my exciting Help For Writers news from my last post? Yesterday I started working for them full time in the role of Director. I’m thrilled to have the chance to focus on growing the business and I’m looking forward to developing it over the next year. I think we have loads to offer to writers; the challenge is to get the word out.
I’ve got so many ideas and things to do running around my head; it’s great to finally have the time and brainspace to get started!
Of course, my specialism remains proofreading and copy-editing and Help For Writers continues to offer those services either alongside digital distribution or independently if that’s what you want. Another element we’d love to grow further is cover design and I can’t wait to show off the portfolio of our talented graphic designers!
Every now and then I like to get out of my cave and meet people face-to-face – especially writers, naturally! Today I went to the Leicester Writes Writers Meet Up (see, I resisted the temptation to insert an apostrophe and/or a hyphen there!) and saw a few familiar faces from the festival back in June, as well as meeting some new people too. I always find it inspiring to hear writers reading their work; this evening was no exception.
I have to big up Farhana Shaikh from Dahlia Publishing for organising these events – she does a great job.
If you live in the Leicester area and are interested in attending writing-related events, I recommend you join the Leicester Writing Events Facebook group, which pulls together everything writerly that’s happening in the area.
I don’t have any photos from this evening, so here’s a completely unrelated doodle.
I’ve been accepted as an Intermediate Member! I danced a little happy dance when I got the email.
If you’re thinking about using a copy-editor or proofreader and for some inexplicable reason you don’t want to use my services, I recommend you look for someone who is a Society for Editors & Proofreaders (SfEP) member. You have to prove a certain level of competence – including training and experience – before you are accepted as a member.
The SfEP has a great set of FAQs about using copy-editors and proofreaders – if you’re sitting on the fence, you might like to take a look.
The Apprentice is my guilty pleasure and I’m not ashamed of it! (Well, says my inner copy-editor, that would make it not a guilty pleasure, then. Or not a guilty pleasure. Wherever you want to put the italics, that’s fine by me.)
Last week the candidates had to write, produce and sell a children’s book in three days. That’s right – one day to write it, one day to get it made (complete with illustrations and design work) and one day to sell it into stores large and small. The tasks on The Apprentice are getting a bit tired and samey after ten years of the same formula, but this one was right up my alley.
At first I was cringing as I watched Sam wax lyrical about Aristotle and the Snottydink, but by the end I wanted his team to win as I liked his enthusiasm and creative spirit! At least he was thinking about the plot and the overall ‘message’, unlike the other team who did have a plot, but one that wasn’t accurate in the information about honey production that it was trying to convey to its young audience. Nothing gets my goat quite like a children’s book that is wrong, wrong, wrong about something factual.
Sam seems like such a nice guy, I want him to do well in the process but usually it seems that the most horrible characters do the best on The Apprentice so I fully expect the final four to be Richard, Charleine, Selena and Vana, or possibly Brett.
I think the episode went a good way towards illustrating why writing a children’s book isn’t just as easy as A, B, C. I definitely have a lot of admiration for the graphic designers who came up with the visuals in just a day!
That reminds me, I need to finish off – start, actually! – the artwork for this year’s Christmas card… I got off to a good start with my watercolour sketch, but my first full size effort was doomed to failure after the masking fluid didn’t behave quite like I thought it would.
It’s almost NaNoWriMo time! If you’ve never heard of it before, that’s National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write 50,000 words during November, which will hopefully form the first draft of your novel.
I’ve gone down the rabbit hole which is the internet and emerged, bleary-eyed and cramped, with my top tips for NaNoWriMo. I hope you find them useful!
After so much reading about NaNoWriMo I almost feel inspired to have a go myself, but not quite inspired enough to actually have a go. After reading tales from the coalface – people who work 60-hour weeks and look after kids and pets and elderly relatives and pursue other hobbies and still find time to hit the 50,000-word target – I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a wuss. One thing I do have, however, is this:
I bought it on impulse earlier in the year and the pages are still virgin. If I can at least write in that every day during November, I’ll consider my writerly itch scratched.
On the shore of a different creative sea, I’ve started sketching out this year’s Christmas card. It involves a lot of snow, and I’ve run out of masking fluid, so I’m wondering whether I can get away with a blank piece of paper (it’s a very snowy scene).