HOW TO WRITE FICTION
Suppose you have an idea for a book, but wonder if you lack the technique to produce a mss acceptable to an editor. Here are some thoughts on the process which may help when you come to make a submission to a publisher or agent.
Let’s start by looking at the markets: some people write for the Christian media, some for mainstream and some for both. Some write for the children’s market, which has its own criteria. Look at what is already out in the shops, and decide where your work would fit in. Contact the publisher and ask for their tip sheets, which will tell you what they are looking for. First decide what market you are aiming for.
Next you should decide what GENRE you will use. Chose from such categories as romance/suspense – crime – sci-fi – historical – fantasy. What genre do you choose?
Let us look at the structure of your book. Nearly all books have a THEME, as distinct from plot. A theme is the message you want to get across, a plot is how you make it happen.
For instance, love and marriage is chick lit. See Jane Austen.
Grief and widowhood are covered in most adult women’s books. Anne Tyler does these well.
Rites of passage books include Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and The Kite Runner by Hanif Kureshi.
Greed, lust, revenge, anger are the staple of crime fiction.Decide what theme(s) you want to include.
Now for PLOT; There are three main ones, as follows:
ACHIEVEMENT…working towards a goal.
MORAL CHOICES…when the course of action is not clear.
QUEST…this can be a puzzle solved – as in detective work, or
an enquiry as to what direction your life is going to take.
Some other major plot strands are: Rags to Riches, Overcoming the Monster, and Voyage and Return. Also, Misunderstanding – which can be dealt with by comedy or tragedy – and Reformation of Character.
The enduring favourites are those which combine several of these plot strands in one book, such as in Tolkien’s The Return of the King. Consider how Dickens managed several plot strands at once in his books; each chapter follows the story of a different set of people, working out their destiny with threads that connect in various ways. If you wish to do this, then make sure you have thought out each strand carefully before you start. It’s no good starting a plotline which goes nowhere.
There is one theme which never fails in its appeal, and that is: A disadvantaged – or small (think Hobbit) person overcomes a powerful evil.So, what form is your plot going to take?
Let us consider the question of TENSION. Without tension, your plot will lack that all-important page-turning quality, so tension must be considered part of the plot from the start. Is it to be a clash of personalities? Or a struggle against appalling odds? What is the ever-present threat that charges the mood with electricity? Generally speaking it is good to set up an impossible-to-solve situation in the first page, and solve it on the last.
There is one little trick I have learned. In moments of danger, slow the action right down, shorten your sentences, use short words and leave plenty of space on the page so that the reader gets through it fast.
Another tip: start the book with a clip of dangerous action from near the end of the book, then break off and begin at the beginning.How will you put in tension?
Decide the ENDING before you begin. If you don’t, you may find you’ve written a book that you can’t finish, or that has such a lame ending that the reader is disgusted with you.
Now we come to the all-important matter of CHARACTERISATION;
what does your protagonist look like? Is your character based on someone you know – or on yourself?
Here is a series of questions which may help you discover what your
character is like.
Male or female? Age? Education? In education, working, or retired?
Is their bedroom pink or Spartan? What star sign are they or what animal do they resemble? What would they have prefer to have been in life other than what they are? What do they consider their best trait – and are they right?
What is their favourite colour? Where do they live? House, flat or squat?
Where do they shop? Favourite food? What sort of underclothing?
Are they soprano or alto, tenor or bass? Hairstyle? A loner, or gregarious?
NAMES can hint at origin. The names you give your characters can say a lot about them. Saxon names are mostly based on nature, such as Thorne, Oak. A Norse name will probably have a ‘by’ at the end of it, such as Maltby. An Irish name might be O’Reilly, a Cornish one Tregunter, and so on. Patel, Sikh, etc., indicate immigrant status somewhere along the line (take care to spell the names of people from places outside the UK correctly) You will find a useful resource for names in your local newspapers.
There are fashions in first names: Biblical names endure from generation to generation, but others such as Ivy or Gladys, Cuthbert, Kylie or Gary, may hint at a certain era. Name your CHARACTER now.
It is very important to get your reader to IDENTIFY with the main character. For this you need sympathetic characters with both good and bad points.
For instance, this is how I introduce Ellie Quicke in Murder of Identity:
‘Ellie Quicke, a fiftyish widow with a comfortable figure, did not consider herself to be a brave woman. She’d never learned to drive and her efforts to fend off a bullying daughter had met with only partial success. On the other hand, she had managed to bring various wrongdoers in the community to justice.’
HOW WILL YOU MAKE YOUR CHARACTER APPEAL TO THE
Development of character helps to build a rapport with the reader. It is not, strictly speaking, essential, but it does help. Through the series of eight books Ellie has a constant battle with her dreadful daughter Diana, and is gradually getting her own point of view over. In the Eden Hall series, the heroine Minty starts with a massive case of self-doubt, but grows in stature as she overcomes problems concerning her ancestral home.
In the new series The Abbot Agency, coming in 2007, Bea Abbot meets various challenges, sorting out other people’s problems. She also has to face the eternal question, is it right to bend the letter of the law in order to bring an evil person to justice?
In some series there is no development eg., Poirot, Morse, Miss Marple. Why don’t they develop? I think because they are all masterminds, the people you look up to, the people you trust to sort things out.Write a description of your protagonist. Remember it is more important to give us a picture of their character, rather than their looks. Many writers fail to give physical details, preferring to leave that to the reader’s imagination.
POINT OF VIEW. Multiple POVs are fashionable, and can be extremely useful, but they do have their disadvantages, mainly that you can lose your reader each time you ‘swop’ heads.
There is the authorial, omniscient voice – ‘little did he know that he was walking into danger’. This allows you to present an all-round picture of what is happening, but loses intimacy.
Then there is the cinema version, in which you observe what the character does, but don’t enter their heads. Most earlier fiction, especially pulp fiction, including Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) is written like this.
The easiest to write is third person, but to get the reader to identify with the character, you have to get into their head, reporting their feelings and thoughts as well as their actions. We call it writing First As Third. This allows you to IDENTIFY and prevents you from throwing the book down in disgust because you couldn’t give a twist what happens to the characters in it. Most older books are written in one POV – Wuthering Heights is an exception. Jane Austen is all one POV. Harry Potter is all one POV.
The Eden Hall books are also one POV. When I needed to bring in something Minty couldn’t have seen, I use dialogue.
The Ellie Quicke Mysteries are designed as multi point of view, with passages which intercut between the heroine and the villains in order to keep the tension going. So you see Ellie innocently going about her daily tasks while the villains plot to destroy her. The same technique will apply to the new series, The Abbot Agency. And this is where multiple POVs score. But I have to spend a great deal of time thinking how to make the villains convincing, give them their own way of speech, dress, etc. You can’t take short cuts when creating characters.
Tenses: Present tense is possible but difficult to do. Diaries are the best vehicle for this format as they combine lst person and present tense, giving intimacy which is otherwise difficult to attain.
3rd person past tense can move from one character to another with ease, but only if you think your characterisation through beforehand. You should be able to tell who is telling the story by the way the character acts and speaks. Think Barbara Kingsolver and Maeve Binchy, who do this well. Switching POV can give rise to a ‘bump’ for the reader. But, it gives you a greater range to deal with your subject matter.
Problems: each voice must be distinct and separate (we all know those that aren’t). A woman with poor education would speak differently from a man with poor education, or a University lecturer. Think ‘I’m not bovvered’.
Switching can be done within a chapter or a section, but you should give a clear signal to the reader that this is what you’re doing. Never leave your reader guessing who it is that’s telling the story. Multiple POVs demand more of the reader.
TRY REPORTING ON A CAR ACCIDENT FROM TWO DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW, ALLOWING US TO GUESS WHAT SORT OF PERSON IS SPEAKING EACH TIME.
For instance: ‘I come over all funny. It was seeing them eggs in the road and her shopping all over the place that did it.’
‘Mummy, mummy! I seed the lady’s legs go up in the air, and she felled down with a bump. Will they mend her in hospital?’SHOW ME! Actions speak louder than words. Show what is happening by your protagonist’s reactions. Show amusement/fear by bodily reactions or by thought processes rather than saying ‘he was afraid’ or ‘he was amused’.
The order for showing feeling when dealing with a shock is …first action, then speech. (He pounded the table. ‘Get out!’)
Example: A character opens a package and gets a surprise. Show me his/her reaction in body language. Such as: ‘She pried open the packet, screamed, pushed back her chair and fled.’
WRITE HOW YOUR CHARACTER MIGHT REACT IN THE
DIALOGUE; action accompanying dialogue makes for good scene-setting, but don’t have two people sitting down to discuss the plot over a cup of coffee, unless you can find some way of breaking up the scene.
How do you write dialogue so that it sounds as if people might really have spoken the words? How do you make it clear who is talking each time? How do you further the action in your dialogue?
First let’s look at the usual ways of writing dialogue, such as in the following ordinary piece of dialogue:
‘I love you,’ he said.
‘No, you mustn’t,’ she said.
This is pretty bald. Try using different verbs, instead of ‘said’.
‘I love you,’ he groaned.
‘No, you mustn’t,’ she panted.
Well…it’s a start. Try using adverbs.
‘I love you,’ he said hoarsely.
‘No, you mustn’t,’ she said shakily.
Is this any better? No, because adverbs are not fashionable, and anyway, you can do better than this by putting in a few words to indicate how the scene is really being played out.
He touched her hand. ‘I love you.’
‘No, you mustn’t.’ She backed away.
The underlined words bring the scene to life. They are called BEATS. The difference between the first and last examples is enormous. Using beats you can transform dialogue.
Another tip when writing dialogue is to let it flow, forgetting grammar and word count. And then cut to the bone. You may be surprised at what your characters choose to say when given permission to say what they like.
Don’t use dialect because it’s too difficult to read. If you wish to indicate a low level of education in speech, use a spot of bad grammar. A double negative works wonders. Example: ‘He didn’t never do it, so don’t you never think he did!’
It’s hard to get a digestible chunk of information across in dialogue. It’s better to break back into prose.
Eavesdrop on people in cafes, pubs, buses. Trends in speech often follow television series, so we now say ‘Hey!’ for ‘hello’.
Write innocuous dialogue between people you know are at loggerheads, so that even a request for a sandwich can be a move in a power game.
Speak your dialogue out loud, and avoid too many ‘s’ sounds.
Put in beats to make sure your reader know who is speaking.
Write a short exchange using ‘he said’ and ‘she said, ‘and then re-write it using BEATS
That FIRST SENTENCE must intrigue. There’s one I was given years ago which has stuck with me. ‘He opened the dustbin lid and looked out.’
The opening line for one of the Eden Hall books is: It was a bad decision.
Another began: ‘She was being watched.’
The start of the new Abbot Agency series: ‘She was desperate to get home before breaking down.’ Write an intriguing first sentence.
LAYOUT; double space, one side. 12 point,Times New Roman is preferred. No fancy type faces, please. Number every page. Put your name and email addy on everything!
NOW FOR SOMETHING DIFFICULT, BUT VERY NECESSARY.Write your plot idea down in no more than two sentences, which must include tension. This concentrates the mind on the essence of the story and these two lines are what can sell the book first to an editor, and then to the buyer of a bookshop.
When you’ve done this, check that you have covered Who, What, Where, Why, When and How.
Next, expand these two sentences into a paragraph, covering the action,
the characters and what will happen to them.
This is not easy to do, but once done, it will be your guideline as you write. Of course details of your plot may change as you write, but editors like you to stick to the storyline which you’ve sold them because that is what they’re paying good money for. A hard-hitting action scenario involving gangs, drugs and prostitution shouldn’t change in mid-stream to be all about the domestic difficulties of adopting a Third World child. (Or should it? You’d have to consult your editor if you wanted to make such a drastic change in your plot line.)
A BLURB is almost as difficult to write as a synopses – but do it yourself. A blurb should set the scene but also raise questions in the reader’s mind.
A SUBMISSION should contain; a covering letter, plus a second page which gives market, genre, length, readership. Follow this with a two sentence description of the book, and expand it into one paragraph covering characterisation and action. Include one or two chapters, according to whatever is needed. Send by hard copy: don’t send by email unless requested to do so.
E-mails are all too easy to lose as more flood in every day.
THE TECHNIQUES OF FICTION – a checklist
Decide what MARKET you are aiming for.
Choose from Christian/mainstream. Decide age, gender and type of
reader, library/pb/hard cover.
Children’s: according to age, illustrated or not.
Select your GENRE: Are you into romance or romance/suspense, crime, short stories, sci-fi, fantasy or historical?
What is your THEME? Grief, rites of passage, greed, lust, pride, etc.
What is your STYLE OF PLOT or plots?
Where is your TENSION?
Decide the ENDING before you begin.
CHARACTERISATION. Name your character, give their age, and appearance.
Work out how they look, where they live, and how they interact with others.
Decide on POINTS OF VIEW. One or more? If more than one, think each
character through so that when you switch, you don’t lose your reader.
Use BODY LANGUAGE to show reactions, rather than telling us what the
character is feeling.
DIALOGUE. Use beats to help the action along and show characterisation.
He touched her hand. ‘I love you.’
She smiled at her image in the mirror. ‘Me, too.’
Write down the plot in 2 sentences, including tension. Print this out and keep it always in mind as you write.
LAYOUT. Double space, one side of page. 12 pt, Times New Roman or Ariel is preferred. Remember that the FIRST SENTENCE should intrigue.
A BLURB may take time to get right, but do it yourself rather than leave it to
A submission to an editor needs a covering letter, plus a separate page giving genre, readership, length. Include a two-sentence blurb, plus a paragraph describing characters and action further. Add a synopsis and one or two sample chapters, whatever is required. Don’t send by email – always send hard copy.
Put your name on everything, and number the pages.