Not my style – even more writing tips

First of all, try getting your head around this radical concept: instead of giving “writing advice” or spending time running a YouTube author channel (I don’t have the looks or the vocal-fry voice for it), I decided to try something practical instead, and I decided to publish it on here, no matter how it turned out.

I’m not going to advise you, or anyone else, to try this, but I honestly believe it’s a good way to potentially achieve a number of goals. It could get you past a period of writer’s block, if you’re stuck in the middle of a particular draft. It could start you along the road to a totally different writing destination. It could improve your overall standard of writing. Note – a lot of ‘could’ in all of that.

What am I going to do? Easy, I’m going to write something I don’t particularly want to write, in a style which I would never normally consider using.

I’m not into wolf stories, fairy-tales, fairy-tale parodies, flowery descriptions of, well, anything, and I don’t like the trope of a super-cool, badass (magical or mundane) young woman kicking everything’s ass. I know I wrote a couple of vampire books where there’s a super-cool badass woman kicking everything’s ass, but I had to get that out of my system. Also, she wasn’t young. Also, I really like Buffy so I’m a bit of a hypocrite.

And so I end up here, telling myself I have to write a few chapters about a super-cool, badass young woman kicking everything’s ass. And it has to feel like a fairy-tale parody, with flowery descriptions and wolves. I hate myself already. Brace yourselves, we’re going in…

THIS IS WHERE IT STARTS, IF YOU SKIPPED PAST MY LAME DISCLAIMERS

Night air hissed by, given a sibilant voice by his passing, the sensation akin to hurled handfuls of dusted ice cleaved by his hurtling body. Frigid nocturnal fingers grasped at the slicked-down slate-grey mane, caressing flexing, corded muscles as they rippled in time with the relentless, rhythmic pounding of his fore-legs.

Wide, unblinking eyes, blacker than the emptiest night sky, focussed ahead, locking on each trace of the spoor no matter how insignificant. A crimson smear on a broken stalk of grass. A perfect ruby dewdrop, no larger than a pinhead, clinging to a leaf still trembling with the aftershock of the prey’s urgent, panic-stricken flight.

The scent of terror hung in the air, an intoxicating fragrance of fear without hope, of one who knows the inevitability of its own destruction.

Massive, clawed paws crushed and scattered the detritus of the forest floor. Needles, cones, loose twigs, and the stinking black mulch lying beneath it all.

Ahead, a glimpse of movement. A dark shape, small and furtive. The prey. The rush of excitement heralding the kill spurred him to even greater speed, barrelling through the underbrush towards his target.

When the huge wolf leaped from the cloying dark of the forest into the moonlit clearing, the girl staggered backwards against the unforgiving bark of an ancient, towering tree.

The wolf landed on all four paws, halting no more than a handful of yards from the cowering prey. It stared down at the girl, taking in everything it saw, hesitating as it savoured the moment when it would deliver the final strike, jaws-wide.

The girl swept her black cloak aside, held up the impaled, twitching body of a young hare. The creature’s front legs jerked uselessly, scrabbling at nothing. The girl’s eyes were bright, clear, no fear in them. Her mouth was set in an indifferent, humourless grin. No scent of terror about her.

Blood dripped steadily from the dying hare to the curved fronds of a fern, ticking in the still of the clearing, ticking like a handmade grandfather clock.

The girl stroked the hare’s ears back, close to its head, hushed it as if calming a babe. She tenderly clasped the skull and twisted. There was a crack of tiny bones, and the hare dangled limp from her hand.

“Your Pappy never tell you not to chase really obvious blood trails, Mister Wolf?” the girl said. She tilted her head to one side. “Oh, but how could he, being all that time dead?”

The wolf had a voice. Not human, yet not entirely brutish. He raised a huge paw, his whole body trembling with anticipation as he studied the girl by the light of the moon.

“I know you.”

“You all know me.” She stepped away from the tree trunk, dropping the dead hare and shedding the cloak to reveal another beneath. A closer fit this one, dark red, the burgundy of drying blood beneath a winter sunset. The hare’s broken carcass lay in the decaying blackness of crushed leaves, needles and rotted moss, but the girl’s hands were not empty.

The wolf saw the knife in the girl’s left hand. No glimmer of a moonlit reflection, the blade forged dull by design. He didn’t yet take a step closer to her, tasting a fresh scent in the air.

“Silver,” the wolf said.

“Goes in nice and slick, slippety-slip, but the bleeding just doesn’t quit. Not even for big ones like you.”

“You can’t stop me with that.”

“Come a little closer.”

The wolf started to circle the girl. Still no scent of fear. He did not know why, and it bothered him.

“All of your kind,” the wolf said, “your time in this place is done.”

The girl’s right hand flicked beneath the cloak for a moment, returning with a new weapon. Shotgun. Black. Pistol grip and sawn-off triple barrels. Two under, one over, with a selector switch set to fire all three barrels on one pull of the single trigger. She raised her arm, aimed the gun at the wolf’s gigantic head.

“How many times have I heard that, Mister Wolf?”

The wolf glared, loops of drool hanging from its jowls between jagged, nine-inch fangs. The bunched muscles of its haunches rippled as it prepared to pounce on the girl, to tear into her with tooth and claw.

“You have no respect for the rightful owners of this land,” the wolf said.

The girl shook her head, dark humour curling her mouth into a sadistic leer.

“Fuck rightful.”

The wolf leaped at the girl, jaws wider than the span of her arms packed with gleaming, bone-white blades.

She pulled the trigger. All three barrels at once.

THERE YOU GO. THAT WAS CHAPTER ONE. 

I enjoyed writing that a heck of a lot more than I wanted to, definitely more than I want to admit. If you liked it, maybe I’m getting everything else wrong and I should ditch my own style and go full…whatever that was.

Maybe.

The ‘show, don’t tell’ conundrum

I felt prompted to write this following the varied responses to something I posted on a Facebook authors’ group. Varied and just a little bit misinformed. Okay, there were some raging opinion-wielders but it’s Facebook so what did I expect?

If you’re an author, you will almost certainly be aware of the advice “show, don’t tell” (I hesitate to even hint it’s a ‘golden rule’ because of the raging opinion-wielders pedantically pointing out fatal errors wherever they want to see them).

Couple of obvious pointers, which are not obvious enough for some people: “show, don’t tell” does NOT mean “write long descriptions of everything” or “always try to show, never try to tell” or “follow this rule to the exclusion of any other rule, or even common sense”. And, most importantly and most often misinterpreted, “show, don’t tell” is not purely about describing what something looks like.

Now, the more pedantic and impatient opinion-wielder will want to ask this: Fine, smarty-pants, so what DOES “show, don’t tell” mean?

Easy. It means don’t bore the hell out of your readers, give them something to think about. It means don’t write “The king was evil” when what the reader needs to read is “The king liked to roast kittens for fun and drown miscreants in their own blood, even if all they had done was forget to salute his huge, obsidian statue seventy-five times each day.” It means be entertaining with your writing. Entertainment is key.

We can play around with some more examples, like this:

Sarah was happy.

That’s telling, not showing. Let’s give it some context.

Fred gave Sarah a bunch of roses. Sarah was happy because she appreciated the romantic significance of the unexpected gift.

That’s still telling.

Okay, smarty-pants, how else could you write it?

How about like this:

Sarah stared at the bunch of roses Fred was holding.
“For me?” she asked, clasping her hands to her chest. Her face lit up with a radiant smile. “They’re, oh, they’re just delightful.”

Pure gut-wrenching drivel, granted, but that’s showing rather than telling, and it gets a response from the reader. In this case, projectile vomiting.

In its most extreme form, telling becomes the infamous infodump. This is where the author wants to impart information they believe to be essential – usually the colour of a character’s eyes (green, generally) – but can’t figure out how to work it into the story so they just tell the reader about it.

Sarah looked in the mirror and saw a tall woman of twenty-three with long, frizzy blonde hair and emerald eyes.

That’s telling. Obviously. And a really painful way to describe your character.

First of all, nobody cares about the colour of a character’s eyes or the length of their hair. You generally see these descriptions somewhere in the first chapter and then never mentioned again. Unless a particular feature is essential to the plot, such as in a case of mistaken identity.

But I love how Sarah looks, protests the adamant author. It’s a huge part of who she is. I have to tell my readers what Sarah looks like.

Okay. Try this.

“You know you look like a cat, right?” Fred said.
“How dare you!” Sarah replied, gasping in horror.
“I mean your eyes, dummy. They’re green, like a big, cute, sexy cat.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to notice. What do you think of my hair?”
“Looks like a Barbie doll fell in a cement mixer.”
“Aw, that’s exactly the look I was going for.”

And right there you get the description across, plus some insights into the two characters and their relationship. There are other ways to do the same thing, you just have to think like an entertainer rather than an estate agent.

Try this. It’s a tricky one:

Sarah opened the door.

That’s telling, not showing. Okay, but what if Sarah has been locked in the cellar for twenty years, without daylight? Or how about if Sarah is outside the main entrance of the castle belonging to that evil king? Or playing with a doll’s house? Or about to unwittingly open the front door to a serial killer?

Guess what – writing ‘Sarah opened the door’ would be fine in each of those cases. Adding an adverb would not improve it. Bloating it with descriptions would not improve it. But, and this is kind of important, it could be written differently because that’s up to the author and how they want the reader to feel when they read it.

No more examples, I’m sure that’s enough from me on the subject. I really need to get back to finishing the sequel to Cold Inside. Optimistically, it should be ready in the first quarter of 2019. I’ll post some more information on here as soon as I’ve got something definite to announce.

New books on the way

While I’m still celebrating the veritable tsunami of sales (single figures at the last count) of my sixth novel – crime thriller, Cold Inside – it is of course time to be writing the sequel while simultaneously planning the next thing I’ll be writing after that.

If you enjoyed Cold Inside (it’s about a 5 in 7.6 billion chance, but let’s go for it), then I know you’re going to be excited to hear that the sequel is well on its way. A fairly accurate estimate would put it at around 35% written, which leads to a finger-in-the-air forecast of a release date somewhere around October this year. That’s allowing for my ruthless editing and plenty of time for feedback from test readers. No title reveal yet, but I do have one.

What will come next? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense; it’s going to be a doomed marketing experiment. So far, I’ve failed spectacularly to get anything more than a handful of sales in genres that are currently popular, so I’m going to put something out in a dual-genre that is probably so unpopular that it doesn’t even have a cult niche of masochistic weirdos supporting it.

If you read this far, maybe you’re going to be intrigued enough to try it out. You at least deserve to hear what the genres are: Horror Western.

Branded (more writing tips & opinion)

Your protagonist has a phone. Heck, yeah, we all have phones. But your protagonist only needs “a phone”.

Cody reached into his pocket and pulled out his Samsung Uberphone ZX81 and…

No, no, no. And no. It’s a phone. Your reader will imagine it to be whatever phone they want it to be. But not if you tell them the make and model. They could even begin to despise the character because of the phone he or she is using, but mostly they just won’t care.

The same goes for tablets or e-readers. Either don’t mention the damn things or just mention in passing that Cindy was reading. Does it really matter to your story or plot whether Cindy was reading a paperback or on a Kindle? No, it doesn’t. Unless she’s being stalked by the Kindle Killer, in which case it’s essential that we know (or at least suspect) that she is reading on a Kindle.

But 99.9% of the time we do not need to know what make or model of electronic device a character in a book is using.

It started with a dream

Never, ever start your book with a dream sequence.

The wall exploded inward, showering her with chunks of plasterboard and shattered fragments of glass. A deafening, inhuman screech forced her to clamp her hands over her ears as a massive, green-scaled claw forced its way through the six foot hole in the wall. She backed against the jammed door, knowing that the next breath she took was going to be her last, her eyes squeezed shut to block out the vision of terror as the creature’s grasping talons closed around her…

Jenny woke up and turned off her alarm clock. 

“What a terrible dream. Oh well, never mind. Time to go eat some cereal and have a chat with my best friend, Tracey.”

See, now that right there is appalling. The reader thinks they’re getting one thing (which may be awful, but that isn’t the point) but they’re actually getting something infinitely worse – they’re getting let down.

The best thing to do if you want to start your book with a dream sequence is to … NOT DO IT.

If you absolutely have to put a dream sequence somewhere else in your book, always clearly introduce it as such and don’t play a stupid game with your reader, who is absolutely not going to find any entertainment value in being duped by an author who thinks dream sequences are clever or fun. They are neither.

Character descriptions are stupid

Okay, they’re not; not all the time, and not when the way a character looks adds something to the story. But, generally, it does not.

Any author who feels the need to describe the colour of the protagonists’s eyes, or the length of their hair, or the make of their suit in the first couple of paragraphs is sending out the clear message that they have nothing more interesting to say in those first paragraphs.

We’ve all read it, and you may even be one of those authors who does it. This kind of thing…

Misty Blade the teenage vampire hunter crouched at the edge of the steeply sloping roof. She pushed her long, deliberately unkempt style raven black hair over one shoulder and looked down at the dark street below through her matching pair of emerald eyes under arched eyebrows that were the same ebony shade as the aforementioned hair on her head.

Truly awful, I know. But come on, we all know someone who thinks that would be a great opening paragraph for their next novel.

Before describing a character, you need to ask yourself a few questions, of which these are just a sample:

1 – If you do NOT mention the character’s eye colour, will it affect the story at all?
2 – Can the character’s hair length be mentioned as part of an action sequence rather than just for the sake of it?
3 – Will the reader have a better time imagining how the character looks based on the character’s actions and behaviour, rather than being given an A-B-C description of eye colour, hair length, etc.?

If you absolutely have to mention a character’s physical features and clothes, try to avoid dumping them into the opening paragraphs like some kind of shopping list. And ditch the green eyes. They have been seriously overused.

Don’t use a mirror when you’re writing first person. You know what I mean, and if you don’t, well here’s another example.

I’m Byron Alpha, the extensively tattooed billionaire Mafia don. I paused as I strode past the mirror. I nodded with satisfaction at my mane of thick, glossy black hair (that every woman I met loved to run her hands through), hooded green eyes, aquiline nose, roguish two-day stubble, perfect cheekbones, and washboard abs that I knew were there but couldn’t see at the time because they were hidden beneath my very expensive Ermenegildo Zegna suit.

I am not completely opposed to describing a character’s appearance. I have done it myself, as anyone who has read any of my books will know. The point that I am making is that you do not need to shove details of eye colour, hair length and designer labels into the opening paragraphs of your book.

This is the first of a series of posts on specific writing issues where I feel that I need to add my own opinion to the millions that already exist. I have already posted a version of this on Wattpad, and I may post it elsewhere if I feel that it would be appropriate to do so. Or maybe just because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Cheating Sunrise – the soundtrack to my writing

Here are the albums that I was mostly listening to while I wrote (and while I’m editing) my fourth novel, Cheating Sunrise. This list isn’t representative of the style or theme of the novel, or the kind of music that I imagine playing in the background of any particular scene. This is just music that I have been listening to over the last eight or nine months while I’ve been writing this book. And working out. And driving.

I’ve listed the albums in alphabetical order of band/artist, because that’s always a good idea. If you click on an image, it will take you to the album’s iTunes page. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

alestorm_sunset
arch_war
bb_tilam
cream_bestof
cb_inthered
doyle_abominator
motor_badmagic
nitzer_ebb
smiths
One of those bands does get a very brief mention in Cheating Sunrise, but you’re going to have to wait until it is published to find out who that is.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the above bands for providing background music and a considerable amount of inspiration while I’ve been writing and editing over the last nine months or so.

How I write

I’m getting this down so that I can look back at it a year from now, or 5 years from now, or maybe next week, and see how much anything has changed. If someone else comes across this blog post and finds it vaguely interesting, that’s a bonus.

I generally write during a short (1-2 hours) period in the evening, every day, between 20:45 and 22:15. This is through necessity, not choice. I would write for longer if I had the time. On a good day, I can produce over 1000 words in under 2 hours, but it’s usually not that many.

I don’t force myself to write; I write for enjoyment.

Technical stuff: I write in Word 2007 on a desktop PC. I use Notepad to write plans, outlines, character bios, and other background notes. I regularly convert my work-in-progress Word documents into mobi files and transfer them to my phone or tablet so that I can do some proof-reading and editing as and when I get time while I’m out of the house.

I use a mechanical keyboard, specifically a Das Model S Professional. I don’t know exactly how many first-draft typos it has prevented, or how much it has actually improved my typing speed, but it looks great and it is just excellent to work on.

I plan books before I write them. I also plan individual scenes and choreograph the details of sequences where that sort of thing is necessary or useful.

I spend a lot of time naming characters, then I get people telling me I named a character after them or someone they know. I didn’t do this. Or, if I did, it wasn’t you or anyone that you know. Just so we’re crystal clear on that. Again.

I write each book as a single Word document. The first full length book I wrote, I created individual documents for each chapter. Terrible idea. It makes everything much more complicated and tiresome than it needs to be, particularly if you want to search for a particular word, or rename a character.

There are thousands of tips on how to write, in hundreds of books and even more websites. Some of the tips are very good, some of them don’t apply too readily to the way that I work.

For example, everyone seems to have a tip for breaking through “writer’s block”. I don’t get it. I actually don’t get writer’s block, whatever that is. Maybe it’s because I only have an hour or so each evening, and I’m constantly excited about filling that small window of opportunity with creativity and entertainment. Perhaps I’m just lucky, although that’s a bit of a stretch.

Another tip that I don’t agree with is to write your novel in a random order, maybe starting with a scene that you really want to write that happens near the end, or in the middle. I can’t see how that can be anything but utterly counter-productive, and it makes me wonder if that is the cause of all these people with writer’s block. It seems fairly obvious to me that if I planned out a novel, identified half a dozen really exciting scenes and wrote them first, the rest of the novel would end up feeling like a chore to write, filling in lengthy gaps between the few scenes that were actually fun to write.

I start at the beginning and write the whole novel in the sequence it’s going to be read. I look forward to writing the fun scenes, and I plan them before writing them, but I also enjoy writing the book as a whole. If I don’t enjoy writing the whole thing, how can I expect anyone to enjoy reading it?

I’ll list a few tips that I consider essential:

Get the grammar, spelling and punctuation right. You’re not James Joyce and I’m not Cormac McCarthy. If the first page of a Kindle sample of one of my books is full of spelling mistakes, grammatical foul-ups, and poor punctuation, I’m not going to assume anyone will be interested in reading more.

I’ll fully credit this next one to Elmore Leonard, as he says it most succinctly when listing his ten rules for writing novels: “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” If you create strong scenes and give your characters good dialogue, you don’t need anything else. And don’t use adverbs to modify “said”.

No clichés. And I mean clichéd situations as well as using worn-out phrases. If any slip through the cracks in my first draft, I strip them out with extreme prejudice during the editing phases. While you’re busy eliminating clichés, take out any uses of the word “suddenly” and rewrite the sentences so that the suddenness is apparent without the word.

Don’t describe characters, places, or objects in extreme detail. I’ve been guilty of doing this, but I’m working on it.

Mirrors. Don’t have a character look into a mirror as a mechanism for describing that character, particularly when writing first-person. I looked at my reflection and checked that my hooded eyes, chiselled jaw and jet black hair complemented the neatly pressed shirt and grey Armani suit that I was wearing for the annual Billionaires’ Ball. That sort of thing. It’s everywhere.

Read it all aloud. The whole thing. This will highlight clunky sentences, overused words and bits where it just doesn’t work. It is really useful and should not be avoided.

Edit with a chainsaw. If you can’t afford to pay an editor, do it yourself and be absolutely brutal. I look forward to editing my own writing, almost as if it was written by someone I don’t particularly like and I go in wanting to find lots to change, rewrite completely or just rip out and throw away. I’ve got a document called “Deleted parts of Kissing The Scorpion” that is over 6000 words. Those are just the parts I ripped out; I changed a lot more. Subsequent books have required less wholesale butchery because I am learning as I go and not repeating my mistakes. In theory.

Get someone (more people if possible) who will give you honest, useful criticism and feedback, to proof-read or test-read your books. It’s invaluable.

That’s just over 1000 words. I’m not going to claim those as today’s 1000 because that would be cheating.

If you enjoyed that post, or if you think it’s rubbish, please let me know.