Is Any Story Ever Really Perfect?

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Writing the perfect novel

How do you know when a novel – or short story, for that matter – is finished?

At what point should you stop tinkering, put down the quill, lean back in your overstuffed armchair and say to yourself “Right, done! Now to publish”?

The greatly-missed Iain Banks once said:

Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.

You can hear the years of experience in the quote – there speaks a man who learnt the hard way. Because, of course, we all want to publish the most perfect book we possibly can. And we’re artists, so there’s always a different way to express something, a fancier adjective, a more elegant turn of phrase, a slicker exposition…

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Abracadabra!

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The magic trick of self-marketing for writers.

There is one magic trick for marketing your books (or blog or brand or self)…

What’s that you protest? Everyone else tells you “there’s no magic trick to successful marketing?” Yep, I’ve heard that too. Don’t believe them, they’re wrong.

There is one magic trick to marketing and it is this…

Don’t spread yourself too thinly.

Right, off you trot and get on with it.

Actually, woah, hang on… before you go, allow me to elaborate…

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Mind The Gap!

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Writing tips - avoiding plot holes

Plot holes, those devious little blighters, have a knack of popping into existence just where you least expect them.

I am not the kind of chap who outlines a novel before jumping in to the fun of writing it. Broad brush strokes, a skeleton framework of ideas and then it’s chocks away! My transatlantic friends call this being a ‘Pantser’ – flying by the seat of one’s pants as the story takes one from point to point in a free-wheeling, fast-flowing fashion. Being from the side of the pond where the cucumber sandwich still reigns supreme, the term ‘pants’ has less savoury connotations for me. No, Pantser will not do at all. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Trouserist.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that I don’t have the luxury of writing every day. Much as I would love to, the demands of daily life and a mortgage mean that I often struggle to find the time to write. Progress on the novel is sporadic, at best.

I am a self-confessed Sporadic Trouserist.

And that is where the plot holes worm their insidious way in… (you don’t want holes in your sporadic trousers, I assure you).

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Fools, Horses and Writers

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Self-marketing for writersOK, so here’s the thing about marketing yourself as a writer on the interwebz.

It’s bloody hard work.

Hemingway famously said:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

And he never had to use Twitter.

So Who Made You The Expert Then?
“Ah yes,” you may be thinking sagely, “but just who are you, young whippersnapper, to deign to tell me how to promote myself or my novel online? What makes you such a guru eh?”

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Show And Tell

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Show don't tell in your writing

Ah, that most vexatious of subjects – “show, don’t tell.” Advice which is bandied about liberally yet which writers, particularly those newer to the craft, often struggle to comprehend. I speak from experience – it took me years to get my head around the difference between showing and telling.

Yet, like riding a bike or juggling hamsters, it’s a skill which, once learned, will never desert you. Today I offer some examples which I hope will serve to clearly illustrate the difference and give you a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to showing versus telling.

OK, let’s start with a bit of telling shall we?

Lord Farnsworth bustled toward the Orangery. The night air was cold and a light rain was falling.

So far, so factual. A clear description of the weather, very useful if you yourself are planning to go for a walk and wondering if you need your trusty brolly. But it’s not particularly compelling is it? In fact, it’s rather dreary. Much like the weather afflicting his Lordship.

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When Words Take A Holiday

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Rules of writing you can break

“Write,” they all say, “just write.”

To be a writer, one has to write. And one is expected to be able to pull the very act of writing out of a hat at the drop of… erm… another… hat…

Anyway.

“Just write,” they all say. “Plough on through. Whether you feel like writing or not. In the face of writer’s block. When you have so many ideas you can’t choose the next one. In good times, bad times, sunshine and showers, just write!”

That’s another rule of writing I’m breaking, OK?

Sometimes all you can do is not write. Some days you even sit down with the best will in the world and all good intentions of cranking out a couple of thousand words at the very least. You have the time and the ideas.

Then the words don’t come.

Sometimes the words go on a little mini-break to the coast, dragging a suitcase full of fish-paste sandwiches and Cornettos behind them. Then you’re left sitting in front of the keyboard wordless and it’s not very long before motivation, desire and The Muse all sidle away to catch up with the words and get some ozone in their lungs. And, if I know my Muse, a couple of sneaky G&Ts.

You find yourself scraping together clunky phrases, ambiguous sentences, painfully poor prose, excessive alliteration and generally forced writing which is no fun to write or read.

So I think that sometimes it’s OK not to write. You’re still a writer.

Am I right?

Killing Your Darlings

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The Rules of Writing

It seems there’s barely a day goes past without someone somewhere posting about the “rules” of writing. Now, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this; I feel there are far too many so-called rules imposed upon one of the most creative pursuits imaginable.

Creativity doesn’t follow rules – creativity bends, warps and downright breaks rules. Look at James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Dalí, Picasso, Man Ray, John Lydon… you can add plenty of your own favourites to that list.

Or, as Thomas Edison so beautifully put it:

There are no rules here, we are trying to accomplish something

Of course, some rules should be followed, but only because they work. I prefer to consider these principles, not rules. A couple of examples which will be familiar to all writers:

  • Active voice is more dynamic than passive and drives a more immersive story;
  • Showing will deliver a more lasting impression than telling every time;
  • Adverbs will slow down your plot and bog down your readers;

However, there are others which simply beg to be broken in the name of trying something new. One of these, for me, is the advice to “kill your darlings” – that is, no matter how much you love a particular phrase, situation or scene, if it doesn’t fit the story, you have to get rid of it.

Really? Says who?

Unless it’s a major glaring departure from the rest of the book, I reckon you can work it in. OK, so I have a hard time imagining blue-skinned beings from the planet Morgos landing on the deck of the Pequod with laser harpoons – although it would, admittedly improve the tale no end (you can read my thoughts on Moby Dick elsewhere in this blog.)

Otherwise, if you create something of which you are justifiably proud, should you really allow perceived wisdom to stifle that creative impulse and shut it away in a box labelled Conformity?

One of the key purposes of any art form is to bring innovation to light. By adhering too strictly to what should actually be flexible guidelines, writers – particularly new writers – run the risk of inhibiting themselves and diminishing their work. When we start out on the writing journey, we find ourselves suddenly (Elmore Leonard says never to use “suddenly”, but sorry Elmore, been and gone and done it) in the midst of a wilderness with no signposts. So we turn to age-old wisdom and advice. This has to be framed somehow, so is given the label “Rules of Writing.” Before you know it, off we go down the path previously trodden by everyone else and end up creating something which… well… has been done before.

I have one particular phrase in my novel which I love. I’m very proud of it and I believe it encapsulates a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another in our lives. I have never seen it expressed in the way I’ve put it (apologies if that sounds arrogant by the way.)

But…

It didn’t fit within any of the versions of the scene I had written. I knew it was the right place, the right time and the right phrase. But it stuck out like a sore thumb nonetheless. “Kill your darlings,” my inner editor yelled over and over again, “get rid of it!”

So I did. And I missed it. And the scene missed it, And the book missed it.

That’s the point at which I tore up the rule book and decided that rules are indeed there to be broken. It would have been far easier just to lose the phrase and move on. Instead, I stuck to my guns, re-worked a whole chunk of the scene and lowered the prominence of that phrase, so it blended seamlessly.

And do you know what? It works. The scene is stronger, more natural and imbued with greater significance.

So before you succumb to the safer option of following the rules regardless, I say try throwing them out of the window, but make sure they land within easy reach just in case you need them again in future.

Am I wrong? Have you fallen foul of rule-breaking in your own work? Or do you find a little occasional bending a liberating experience?