Breaking The Rules

I’d like to start out this blog post by saying that I break the rules. A lot. (Not laws and work rules and such- I’m almost offensively straight-laced when it comes to following those. I am not a rebel.)

Nope, I’m talking about writing rules. The ones that say things like ‘Cut ALL adverbs and adjectives’ and ‘Never start a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘Never use any dialogue tags’. Stuff like ‘Always sit down and outline your book before you write the first word’ and ‘Never use semicolons’. No run-on sentences! Not to mention all the various grammar rules and regulations. Let’s face it, when it comes to writing, there are a lot of rules.

For the record, I use quite a reasonable amount of adverbs and adjectives, and although I don’t tag every bit of dialogue I write, I do tag some. There are some rules of grammar that I break for effect or in line with a particular character’s voice. I quite often, for stylistic purposes, start a sentence with a preposition. I may, in fact, have broken most of the rules of writing. There’s a time and a place for everything.

HOWEVER.

There is a huge, monumental, gaping great difference between breaking the rules for stylistic/characteristic/etc purposes, and breaking them because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. A huge amount of my favourite authors break the rules constantly, in one way or another (reading Terry Pratchett last night just reinforced this) and I don’t think there are many people who would be daft enough to tell Terry Pratchett, Patricia Wrede, Steven Brust, etc, to pull their socks up and get their grammar right. This is because they know the rules. They simply choose to break them every now and then. But they do know them.

I’ve read a heck of a lot of bad books. Books with bad spelling, the wrong homonyms, atrocious grammar: errors that stick with you whether or not the actual stuff of the book is good. I’ve also heard a lot of authors, when their errors are pointed out, say something along the lines of: “Oh, I didn’t realise that. But it’s okay, insert famous author here does it all the time.”

It’s not okay. Breaking the rules is okay, but there needs to be a reason. And you need to know that reason. You need to know the rules before you break them. It makes all the difference between good and bad writing. You might get it right by accident, breaking the rules, but you’re far more likely to get it horribly wrong and find your book being mocked for the rest of its (probably short) life.

So pull your socks up. Learn the rules.

Then go ahead and feel free to break ’em.

Housekeeping

Did you guys know that printed books should always be odd-numbered on the right page? Or that text should be right and left justified? Or, for a matter of fact, that when you shorten the front of a word with an apostrophe (ex. ‘leave ’em alone’) that the apostrophe must face the same way as one that shortens the end of a word (ex. ‘doin’ what comes naturally’).

I didn’t until I started self-publishing. Got any idea how long it takes to go over 300-odd pages of text, looking at every flamin’ apostrophe? Oh yeah, and MS Word just puts ’em through as regular apostrophes. You gotta think about every shortened word as you type it. (Well, there’s probably a function I can turn on somewhere in the recesses of the program, but beggared if I know where it is.)

Also on today’s housekeeping: both Masque and A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend: Volume One are on a Goodreads giveaway at the moment, until about mid-April. I’ve got three signed copies of each to give away, so if you’re interested, click through the link on either above, and enter to win. A handy little feature of Goodreads that I found out about just a few days ago, and that I’m very happy to make use of!

And as I announced on my Facebook and Twitter pages, Wolfskin is at present being sent out to bloggers and reviewers. If you’re interested in getting a free copy (either ecopy or paperback) for the purposes of a review, contact me at gingellwrites [AT] gmail.com, through the comment section, or from the form on my Contact page.

Fourthly and lastly, I’ve been bingewatching On The Up with the wonderful Dennis Waterman, delightful Sam Kelly, inimitable Joan Sims, and pot-stirring Jenna Russell. SO MUCH FUN. So many glorious one-liners. And I’m completely in love with the ending.

Well, that and the equally wonderful live-action version of Black Butler. I’ve watched it three times now. It’s become one of my all-time favourites along with Alice (mini-series version with Andrew-Lee Potts), The Fall (Lee Pace), and City of the Lost Children (Ron Perlman).

Seriously. Watch any of these.

Over and out.

(What? You didn’t think my housekeeping would include actual work, did you? Well, apart from all the apostrophes.)

Inferiority Complex

We’re writers. We’re meant to be at least slightly neurotic. But there’s that day, every so often, when we’ll be reading a good book. I mean a really good book: solid to fantastic plot, fascinating characters we fall in love with and weep for, and the absolute perfect pacing; all wrapped in a superbly crafted structure.

You take a thought break to bask in the gloriousness of it, grinning foolishly to yourself. Then it hits you.

I’ll never be this good. This is the Van Gough of books. If I live until I’m fifty and keep writing better and better, I’m still never gonna be as good as this bloke.

And you know, that can be good. I’m not one of those people who thinks it’s damaging to the human psyche to admit to actual inferiority. You’re never gonna be as good as at least one girl or bloke out there, and sometimes that knowledge spurs you on to do better. Anything that gets us in front of that computer/notepad/whatever to write and grow, is a good thing.

But it’s also good to remember that writing is a growing thing. The first books of at least two of my favourite authors, had I read them first, would not have inspired me to read more of their work. I can literally see the growth as I read through those early books. You’re not going to be the best you can be right now. You’re going to have to work on it. Your first book is most likely not going to be your best. You’ve still got so much to learn. I’ve still got so much to learn- and practise, and put in to practise.

Who knows, one day we may be that good. But if we never had anything that spurred us on to be better, we’d probably never get there.

Embrace the inferiority. Just don’t let it stop you from being better.

When Beta Reading Makes Your Writing *cough* Beta *cough*

I don’t do a whole lot of beta reading. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read. Also, when I read nowadays, it’s not without my back-brain saying things like ‘oooh, I like how they did that!’ and ‘yer, bet I could do it better’. But beta reading is different. If you enjoy it, that’s a plus; but you don’t want to be enjoying it so much that you let things slide because you liked the book as a whole. You get into the nitty-gritty and point out the tiny inconsistencies and mashed sentences. You argue with your writer friends about tenses, and old versus new spellings, not to mention Australian versus American spellings. You tend to be more ruthless, even to nit-pickyness. Something that you might glide over in a run-of-the-mill book you’ve picked up, you don’t glide over. And that’s how it should be. That’s what you want in return. But it is hard work.

Book pile

Besides the obvious benefits of beta reading (someone who reads your work in return, someone with whom to discuss the ins and outs of writing) is another, overlooked benefit. In my mind it’s probably the biggest benefit.

It’s the benefit of recognizing in your own work the very thing you picked at in your friends writing. Come on. You know what I mean. You’ve just highlighted that part of the MS you’re beta-reading: the niggle that keeps happening in their writing. You add a note to remind them that this is becoming a habit. You put aside the MS for the time being, exhausted with your efforts, and settle down to work on your own MS. And as you’re reading the last paragraph you wrote last night in order to refresh your memory, you realize that you’ve done that thing. That thing that you just highlighted a dozen times in the novel you’re beta-reading. You look at it in horror. Go over the last chapter. Find you’ve done it another half-dozen times. Shriek and pull out your hair. Go back to the start of the MS and find the time after time that you’ve done that thing that annoyed you so much in your friend’s book.

It’s annoying. It’s exhausting. But in the end, beta reading is so very worth it. It makes you look at your writing like an outsider again, and if you don’t want your readers being constantly annoyed by that thing, it’s an essential habit to cultivate. Don’t be afraid of the irritation: it’s all part of the process. And if you’ll take my advice, do some beta reading.

The Joy of Last Edits

I started re-editing one of my books this week. It’s a fairytale rewrite of Beauty and the Beast as a murder mystery, regency/steampunk style. I’m working on it with the view to having it published in February next year, and so far the edits have been reasonably simple to do, which means my timeline is thus far intact.

That, of course, has made me think about my editing process. The first thing I notice when editing is generally clumsy words or phrases, and the occasional cough spelling mistake, which can range from a two second fix to a half hour session of mulling over the best way to rearrange a sentence. Lately I’ve even become able to delete whole sentences and paragraphs without so much as a pang (well, sometimes just a small pang), which makes the whole process significantly easier.

Next I start noticing the characters. This usually manifests as a general feeling of unease every time I read a piece of dialogue spoken by the character, or a section of action that just doesn’t sit right for some reason. That sense of unease is almost invariably because the character isn’t behaving in character. The dialogue is too much like another, stronger character, and needs to be made over to match this character.

The first MS that I finished had to be completely rewritten because of character problems. The problem being, my character had no character. She was a cardboard piece, angry because I said she was angry, happy because I decreed it, and was entirely lacking in any quirks or memorable features. The side characters were no better. Once I figured out what the problem was (thanks in great part to Frances Hardinge, whose characters stand up and determinedly claw their way out of the book and into my life), I could start fixing it.

It wasn’t easy, that first book. There was trial and error, a lot of research (me reading a lot of my favourite authors), and many, many discoveries along the way. First, I decided exactly what I wanted my character to be. I decided what quirks she had, what things she did with her hands and feet when she talked/walked/sat/spoke, and the ways in which she reacted to stimuli in general. Then I went over every single bit of dialogue with a fine-tooth comb, cut most of it, rewrote the rest, and thought I could finally see her emerging from the bones of it. I rewrote her actions. I rewrote her thoughts. In fact, there isn’t much in that book that remains of the original bar the basic storyline and the character names.

My second book, (the one I’m re-editing now) was by comparison, much easier. The characters were fully formed as I wrote, and I had all the tricks and methods I’d learned with the first. This time I knew just how to create an idea of a character in a few lines of dialogue, or a short paragraph of action. This has made the editing process a much smoother affair. There are still things I have to change, of course: I still occasionally come across a line of dialogue that sounds more like another character than the one it should, and I still occasionally come across a speech tag or reaction that doesn’t fit with the idea I’m trying to portray of a character. In fact, I rearranged a whole page of dialogue/action just yesterday. It’s a work in progress, this writing business.

The last read-through is generally the one where I catch all the plot/continuity issues that I’ve missed in the preceding read-throughs. Other than that, I try to leave it as it is. There’s always some little niggle that I catch every time I read one of my books again, and it’s hard to know when to let it go if I keep re-reading. So I stop. I let it go (let it gooooooooo- wait, no) and hand it over to my sister or my writing group.

And that’s when the fun really starts.

Look, Ma! I’m Makin’ A Movie!

Look, Ma!  I’m makin’ a movie!

Well, I’m writing a screenplay, anyway.  Close enough?

For those who don’t know what a screenplay is (one of the guys at my writer’s group asked me this morning); a screenplay is the bones of a movie or tv series, or sometimes even a game.  It’s a script plus a few extra bits, like scene settings or actor instructions, or camera shots/angles.  It’s the beginning of a movie.

I wrote a short story a while ago that I just couldn’t get out of my head.  There were things I knew about the setting and characters that didn’t make it into the short story for the very simple reason that if I’d included them, it wouldn’t have stayed a ‘short’ story.  It was an unusually visual story for me, and it didn’t cease to prod at the corners of my mind when I finished it, unlike every other story/book I’ve written.  I always still love my characters when the story is done, and I’m always fully immersed in the re-writes and editing, but this particular story just seemed to keep growing with scenes and dialog that were increasingly visual.  Then someone from my writer’s group read the story and said: “This should be a movie.”

movie_camera

At first it was just ridiculous thoughts of: “Oooh, this is a great song for the soundtrack!” and “This actor is perfect for George.  Oh, and this one is going to play Ruth.”  Then I started wondering about the form of screenplays: how they’re structured, what they contain, etc.  It didn’t really occur to me that I could write a screenplay, of course; because I’m a writer and don’t you have to be a playwright/screenwriter to do that?  Am I allowed to write a movie?

Well, apparantly I am.  I did my research (ahem.  Well, a full day of furious typing on the google and madly following links, and reading the screenplay for True Grit); found out the correct format (oh boy, are they a pain!); and started writing.

And I can do it.  It’s a different form with different rules, and entirely refreshing.  It’s almost easy, because I know where it’s going and what I have to show to make it work.  It’s just a matter of plugging away until it all done, and then making it as beautiful as I can.  I don’t know that I’ll try and send it out to anyone when it’s done.  Heck, I don’t even really know if I’m doing it properly.  But now that I’ve started, other books have begun with the same siren song . . .

Well, the world really does need a four-hour miniseries of The Count of Monte Cristo, after all.

 

Walking Home In The Fog

I’m a fiddler.*

Even if I’ve only written a chapter of the manuscript, the next day will see me re-reading, editing, revising.  Fiddling.  Reworking.  Obsessing.  By the time I reach the midway point in a manuscript,** I will have read it in excess of 40 times. Then the MS is finished, and the fun really begins. There’s the line by line edit, where I catch*** all those stupid little grammatical errors; not to mention the glaring errors in spelling. There’s the paragraph to paragraph read, when I try to make sure of continuity and flow. Then there’s the last**** read through to be sure my story structure stands up on its own two feet.  That’s not to mention the time I spend on my characters, making sure that each of them is separate from the others; each with their own personality, voice, quirks, and reactions.

That’s now.

But when I finished my first MS, fiddling aside, I did nothing like that. I did read the MS. In fact, I read it exhaustively, niggling at wrong word choices and bits that just weren’t quite right.  The problem was, 9 times out of 10, I didn’t know what was wrong.  I spent the first few days after finishing the MS in a happy daze, certain that I was the next Austen,***** or Patricia Wrede, or Diana Wynne Jones.  Then I re-read it, and I was just as certain that it was rubbish. I could feel that this paragraph or this sentence didn’t fit, or didn’t sit right, or just plain felt wierd; but I didn’t know what was wrong.  I knew that the characters weren’t right, and that everything felt flat, or too fast, or too slow; and that the conversation that felt so very witty and/or grand when I first wrote it, now seemed somehow not quite so witty or grand.  I just couldn’t put my finger on where it was that I’d gone wrong.  The next few weeks after finishing the MS I spent in a black fug, gloomily certain that I would never be published.

I still get both of those feelings.  The euphoria, the fug.  The difference is, now they’re in moderation because I do know what’s wrong and I do know how to fix it.

It’s the difference between walking home on a clear night and walking home in the fog.  In the fog, you know where home is and you’re pretty sure you know where you are, but the turns are obscured and everything feels just that little bit off.  The familiar parts of the road aren’t familiar in the fog, and you can’t see enough to know if you’ve turned rightly or wrongly.  Then the fog lifts, and suddenly you know exactly where you are, and where home is, and every turn and step of the way there.  You know that in two steps you’ll have to turn left, and that the gate across the field is already open so you won’t need to wrestle with that rusty hinge, and that the neighbour’s dog is outside, so you’ll have to watch out for that irritating burst of barking.

walking home in the fog

I know more now that I did when I started.  I know about pacing, and structure; I know about characterization and voice; style and flow; a little grammar and a smattering of spelling.  I read a sentence I wrote last night or last week, and I know straight away what’s wrong with it.  I still make mistakes and write flat characters and make a complete mess of continuity,****** but now I know how to fix it.

And that makes all the difference.

 

 

*No, really. I play the violin.

**Usually 60,000 words, give or take.

***Alright, so I try to catch ’em.

****Supposedly.

*****Well, I am a writer.  Did you think I bought that imagination at a garage sale?

******That’s what sisters are for.  Right?  Right, Sis?  What’s that?  You say that they didn’t have fluffy towels in the whatever century?  And that gun popped up out of nowhere?

Full-length Novels Vs Short Stories

Until about half a year ago, I’d have told you that I don’t write short stories.  My stories tend to grow exponentially as I write them, and the meagre 2, 000 to 10, 000 word limit on short stories has never seemed enough to do them justice.  Added to that was the fact that, well, I just wasn’t interested in short stories.  So I kept on writing my novels.

It was only when I recieved feedback from an editor remarking upon the need for improvement in pacing that the idea of short stories came up again.  At around the same time I began to attend a writer’s group in my local library, where we were quite often given a list of words and asked to write a poem, short story, etc., using all the words.

The setting was the Second World War.  The place was a rooftop.  The words were ‘ladder’, ‘shopgirl’, and something else I can’t remember now.  And for the first time, I had an idea for a short story.  I gave myself ten pages. Ten pages to experiment with pacing.  Ten pages to see if I could actually do it.  Ten pages to play out the entire idea, and a week in which to write it.  You can see how it turned out here.  I had so much fun with A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend.  More importantly, it gave me real life practise in trying a different type of pacing.

You see, you can’t waste words in a short story.  You’ve got a limited amount of them, and you have to make sure each word counts.  If you’re a writer like me, that means figuring out how to slip from scene to scene neatly and coherently, in as few words as possible.  I’ve always been overly verbose, and wrangling words into their simplest terms was refreshing.  It was challenging.  And when you have to read your short story aloud to a room full of impatient elderly writers who each want you to Shut Up So I Can Get On With MY Story, you’re going to be confined to an even smaller word count.

A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend was preceded by Ruth and the Ghost, which I found even more enjoyable, if possible.  After the two short stories came flash fiction, and then the Drabble.  I still love my novels.  I still even prefer them to short stories.  But now I know a little more about pacing, and I’ve had practise in stream-lining my fiction.  I’m stretching myself as a writer.  I’m learning.  And when you’re still in the slush pile, that’s about all you can hope for.

Keep writing, fellow slush-ites.  Stretch yourselves.  Try something new.  One day that’ll be us in the Best-Seller list.

TimeTravellers (No subtitle) Ruth and the Ghost pic