Comments from experts… how to use factual feedback wisely in your story (and not go mad when your plot falls apart)

For the novel I’ve just released, Ever Rest, I needed a lot of expert input. I consulted musicians, artists, doctors, priests, music lawyers, morticians… the most significant, of course, was mountaineers.

I’ve been reading about Everest, high-altitude climbing and lost climbers for more than 20 years. I also had help from my friend Peter Snell (my bookseller co-host on So You Want To Be A Writer), whose brother Robin went trekking in Nepal and sent a tireless stream of photos.

Robin sent me domestic details such as teahouse menus.

Loos.

Near the end of his trip, Robin had a brief mishap that required a hospital stay. Trooper that he is, he continued to send despatches. So even the scene in a Kathmandu hospital came from actual experience.

So I was well set up to write the Nepal sequences. But my ghostwriting experience has taught me to check everything, even when sure. For this, I was lucky to find a mountaineer who has summited Everest. And despite my painstaking care, he found numerous glitches that confirm the value of actual feet on the actual mountain.

Feedback can look daunting, especially when it runs to several pages. Especially when some might seriously disrupt the book.

I got to work.   

Small errors of terminology and fact

There were two ways I dealt with these.

1 – I marked the errors I should correct, lest I look like a numpty.

2 – I marked the errors I decided not to correct – these errors were made by characters who did not have specialist knowledge, and would credibly make the same mistakes as non-climber Roz. However, my expert was right and conscientious in pointing them out because he wanted to make sure I knew. If I knew, I could then decide if the character should know. Big takeaway – not all your characters will be experts.

Bigger problems that made plot sequences impossible

There were bigger problems. My expert made several suggestions for solutions, all ingenious. But none of them fitted my dramatic needs.

Sleepless night.

I looked again at my expert’s solutions. Some would be too cumbersome for the narrative. But still, something had to be done. So I analysed the reasons for my expert’s objection, went back to my reading, now with more understanding, and found solutions that were possible from real-life examples. And, as often happened, these solutions eased a few other issues.

Sometimes you have to do a lot more thinking and research… but your expert gets you there.

Emotional corrections

Sometimes I had underestimated how strongly characters would feel about events. In this case, my expert also turned out to be a sensitivity reader. And his feedback allowed me to adjust the characters’ reactions according to their natures. Some were sensitive; some could be obliviously offensive.  

Points where we disagree!

What’s at the top of Everest? In my research, I found mention of an alloy pole at the summit. I liked that. I put it in. My expert commented that there wasn’t an alloy pole at the summit. I double-checked my references. In my novel, the characters climb the mountain in 1994. Two sources from 1996 mention a pole at the summit… one of them is a documentary, so I’ve seen it for myself. My expert was there in the 2010s, by which time the pole might have gone. So I could decide whether I wanted a summit pole or not. I chose to have a summit pole.

Facts… are only half of it

David Mamet said: ‘It’s not our job to explain.’ An expert will deluge you with generous details, but you as a writer, a storysmith, have to decide how to use those details – here is Mamet, explaining the difference between information and drama in loud capitals (see below)

But Roz, most readers won’t know it’s wrong! Look at the physics in The Martian

The physics in Andy Weir’s The Martian is somewhat squiffy. Or so I’m told, because I know a lot of physics graduates. So is the physics in the movie Gravity, apparently.

Most readers and viewers don’t know; that’s true. But I will know. I don’t want to release a book that I know has inaccuracies. And knowing about them has pushed me to find better solutions that fit my dramatic needs and keep the book’s credibility and truth.

Meanwhile, here is Ever Rest. Find it in all print and ebook formats.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, author/Bookstagrammer @KateESalisbury (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s producers, Kate Salisbury, who I’ve corresponded with numerous times but never met. She’s formidably qualified for the critic role, being herself a memoirist, YA author, school librarian and Bookstagrammer.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and publishers would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included how much detail to include in a blurb, setting up an emotional hook for the reader, the suggestions inherent in a title, what literary fiction is in today’s market, whether a story has to be made socially relevant, introducing the world in science fiction and historical fiction, digressions and flashbacks in memoir, and how the author’s voice can create a sense of charm or bleakness.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

PS I’ve had a release of my own this week – my third novel Ever Rest. Find it here in all print and ebook formats.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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I made this! Ever Rest is now available

Trust the process. Although there has been much muddling and rewriting; although I started with a short story and wasn’t sure how I’d make it into a long one; although I had to learn about the technicalities of two artforms (music and visual art) and one elite sport (mountaineering)… I got safely and securely to The End.

Ever Rest, my third novel, is now available.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

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How I made my writing career – novelist, writing coach and educator Connie Biewald

How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.  

Roz How did you start writing?

Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)

I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated.  “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”

I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer.  There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.

Roz Was anybody influential in this?

Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.

My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.

Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?

Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.

Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?

Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.

Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?

Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.

That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.

Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?

Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.

Roz What would you tell your younger self?

Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”

Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.

Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?

Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.

Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?

Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.

Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me.  I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.  

At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.

I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine.  It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life. 

Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…

Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.

Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?

Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.

I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.

Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?

Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.

Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?

Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.

Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?

Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.

Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.

You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.

Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.

As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.

I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem  which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.

Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?

Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.

Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?

Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.

Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?

Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely.  On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most.  I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham,  Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout,  to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.

Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.

Roz What’s next?

Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel.  I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.

Roz Give me some stirring final words!

Connie Hmmm.

You can find Connie on Facebook and her website. Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here

If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Reading as a duty and reading for pleasure… plus the oldest book on my shelf. At @jaffareadstoo

A quick interview at the online home of book blogger Jo Barton, aka Jaffareadstoo. The questions are lighthearted, but they raise interesting issues about reading.

Writers and book bloggers have something in common – a TBR pile that’s neverending. We’re reading to keep up with recent releases. We’re reading as research. We’re reading to help our friends. And we’re reading a lot – an awful lot – to do our jobs. When do we read for ourselves?

Do you have a rule that if you start a book, you finish it? I used to. It was a habit instilled at school – abandoning a book was bad manners. I almost felt the author would know I’d sneaked out before they’d said their piece. I remember there was a moment when I decided I had to let go of that rule or I’d never get everything read that I had to. And I’m a slow reader. I like to appreciate a book, not bolt it. That raises another question – if reading is our job, do we still allow ourselves to read for pleasure? I know plenty of people in publishing who have lost their joy of the written word.

Anyway, tell me your thoughts, either here or at Jo’s blog. You’ll also see Jo and I discuss this, the oldest book on my shelves.

If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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And then there were three – 7 steps of a long-haul novel

And so I have a novel coming out.

How long has it been since my last one? I released Lifeform Three in 2014. My Memories of a Future Life was a full 10 years ago. I’m a novelist, but my output is somewhat slow.

It’s not that I’ve been unproductive in that time. I’ve released courses, writing books, a travel memoir I didn’t expect to be writing. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in my coaching and editing reports. And blogs, guest posts, journalism, newsletters.

If we totalled that as a words biomass, it would be substantial. My three novels – my now three novels – would be only a tiny proportion. So I’m a novelist who mostly does other things.

But my novels are my truest purpose. They are the work I am most painstakingly careful about. If I get an epitaph, I want the novels as the headline. Everything else is an also.

So how long did Ever Rest take me? Seven years, and it seemed to fall into seven distinct steps, though that is coincidental. Some steps took more than one year. Anyway, the sequence might be familiar if you’re also a long-haul writer.

Step 1 – short story to novel

Ever Rest started as a short story – here’s a post about expanding a short story into a long one. I wasn’t good at short stories, which is why you’ve never seen a short story from me. I get too involved. I can’t let them go. You’ll see this in later steps.

Step 2 – vow of silence

Authors on social media are used to sharing their work in progress. Character back stories, snippets of chapters. I wanted to join their ranks, share the proof that I was working as they were, get cheery encouragement. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t workshop my rough ideas in case they tarnished the finished book. Also, I couldn’t talk about it. It was too deeply difficult. I discussed that here – how much do you talk about the novel you’re writing?

Step 3 – losing faith

I didn’t know what I was writing. The same happened with Lifeform Three. For a long time, I was merely its baffled interpreter. I lost faith in it, hundreds of times. I wrote about that here, especially the idea of creative faith and long-term determination.     

Step 4 – write 100 pages, discard 80

In terms of word biomass, this book is substantial, but much was wastage. I wrote a lot; I binned a lot. During that phase, I read an interview where Marlon James said ‘you can write 100 pages and only use 20’. Even though I knew this to be the case from previous novels, I found his comment comforting. At the time, I was on my third draft and the book was already scar tissue. I eventually did 23 drafts. Here’s how that went.

Step 5 – never let it go

After 15 drafts, the novel operated as I hoped it would. I was ready for beta readers. For many years, the book had dominated my thoughts and my reading choices. I could now widen my diet. Pursue other interests. But did I want to? Very mixed feelings.

Step 6 – red pen and sweet reunion

I knew there would be more work after the readers’ feedback. Some was forehead-smacking, but most was a relief. It was good to be back. A final dance. No, several. Revise, revise, until draft 23.  

Step 7 – real writer again

Now, I have it ready. My third novel. Look, I’m a real writer again.

Ever Rest is released on 3 June. You can find out more here. Read early reviews here. Watch a video trailer here. Pre-order here.

For more about my creative wanderings, look here. And subscribe to future updates here.

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Writers, can’t kill your darlings? Read this

You know the situation. A beta reader or editor says a precious part of your book has to go. You resist, strenuously. They fix you with an unforgiving eye and say: ‘kill your darlings’.

Sometimes we resist a change for good reason. The character/scene/description/flashback/whatever might be needed. It explains something, or adds resonance, or fills a gap in the story, though perhaps it doesn’t yet do its job. That’s fixable.

We also resist changes that will cause a hot mess, though we’ll probably make them when we’ve mustered the courage.

Those aren’t darlings.

What are darlings?

Darlings are things we cling to, with especial defiance, when we shouldn’t. They’re anything we’re keeping mainly because we like them, not because they are necessary for the book.

We all do it. We’ll do it on our first book and yea unto our umpteenth.

So why are darlings such a blind spot? Here’s my theory, from experience at both ends of the editing sword. Darlings carry emotional baggage.

  • We might keep a darling because it’s based on something personal.
  • We might keep a darling that’s totally invented, but it took a long time to draft or edit and because of that investment, it’s going in the goddarned book.

But look at those reasons. Are they about the reader’s experience? Or are they about us, the writer?

What now?

Assuming the beta readers are right, what are the options? Sit down, this is painful.

  • Remove the darling.
  • Change it so it better serves the book.

For some authors, the second option is every bit as scandalous as the first. And this is another way you can recognise a darling, should you wish to. It’s sacred. It must not be changed.

Truly I get it. A story isn’t a purely mechanical process, like building a bicycle. It’s a work of emotion too, a flow between the reader’s heart and ours. Our empathy, our gut quirks, give our book its distinctive life. All this is often beyond analysis. But our emotional contribution must be used carefully. Sometimes the most heartfelt parts of a book don’t touch the reader in the way they touch us. They’re muddling noise. Or embarrassing self-indulgence. Or boring. That’s what the beta readers are saying. They’re not feeling the vibe.

Still we resist. Dig our heels in.

I am NOT taking that out or changing it.

Loyalty to the darling runs deep.

It’s a tug of love. So here’s a more helpful question.

Which do we love better? The darling or the whole book?

It’s a hard call. I’m just as guilty as anyone of keeping stuff for bad, muddled reasons. You should see the outtakes files for my novels. But I’ve always found this: there comes a point where the manuscript seems to mature. When the book is working well, I appreciate what it needs as a whole. Then, I’m able to make the tougher decisions. I love the book more than I love a scene I’ve clung to for a long time, or a character or a description.

How you will know them

Here are a few more things I’ve learned about darlings.

They lurk in deep disguise. They often come from our very earliest workings on the book – for instance, a scene that helped us start the writing in the first place, or the first things we wrote about a character. They seem to be set in stone. But they don’t have to be. They might be scaffold – vital at first, unnecessary for the final piece.

A darling might come from our actual life, a secret ingredient of real experience or knowledge. This is another reason why they’re so hard to remove, because they are a kind of proof that we know what we’re writing about, that they came from something we learned first hand.Our vision and understanding of the book might be intrinsically tied to these darlings.

They once had an important purpose, but do they suit the book now? Has the book outgrown them?

These kinds of darlings don’t show their true nature until late on. It’s as if the editing process is a long relationship. In the first flush, we welcome everything we create for the book, especially the parts with the biggest life. (Darlings are often startling, dramatic, distinctive.) We’re discovering. From these, we might make numerous inspired and rewarding decisions. Those were important, but we don’t always need the material they came from.

I promise, because this always happens to me, that late in the process, you acquire a level of clarity and vision that will amaze you. When you’re very sure of the book, and of yourself in its skin, you’ll know when something no longer fits, even though it has been personally important to you in the book’s making. You recognise it strikes an unsuitable note, or tunes the reader wrongly, or muddies an important moment, or halts the emotional action. That’s when we can judge:

Which do I love more? This one precious part or the whole book?

There’s plenty more about killing your darlings in Nail Your Novel, and the accompanying workbook.

If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Ghostwriting, writer’s block, researching a novel … and training a horse. Interview at @officialSNWfest

How do I tackle writer’s block? How much research do I do before I start writing – and what kind of information do I look for? What’s the hardest thing about writing and what is the most joyful? And… what’s it like to write books for other people as a professional ghostwriter?

On Sunday 25th April I’m presenting a session on ghostwriting at the Surrey New Writers Festival (you don’t have to be in Surrey to attend.. we are Zooming!). So here I am on their blog, talking about how I work, how I keep working when it isn’t necessarily easy, and other strategies for a productive author life. Oh, and they asked about a little horse. Do come over.

Meanwhile, if you’d like more concentrated writing advice, I’m teaching the second part of my self-editing masterclass at Jane Friedman’s next Thursday. It’s all available as videos and transcripts if you can’t make the live broadcast. Find it here.

You might also like my Nail Your Novel books.

If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Learn advanced self-editing techniques in a 3-part masterclass

The magic happens when you rewrite.

But how?

If you’re a regular at this blog or you follow my newsletter, you’ll know I’m a huge believer in creative self-editing.

That’s what I’m teaching at this three-part masterclass at Jane Friedman’s online academy. I’ll be delving into the art of self-editing, showing you techniques to evaluate your work, spot opportunities to deepen characters, sharpen the plot, restructure if necessary, strengthen the themes and refine the language – all to help you take a rough manuscript and polish it to professional standards.

The course starts this Thursday (15 April 2021) and continues on the two Thursdays that follow. If those times aren’t convenient, each session will be available as a recording afterwards. Step this way.

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A world in a word – 3 ways your vocabulary can increase reader belief

I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.

She’s not wrong.

‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’

We’ll return to that in a bit.

The writer’s deception

Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.

Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.

1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession

A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.

2 Vocabulary is culture and time

Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.

Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.

Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.

This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)

3 Vocabulary is individual character

Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).

Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.

Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)

Fur again

Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?

1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.

2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.

3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.

As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.

My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.

And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.

‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.

Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?

Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.

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