Writing is one of those things that is easy to learn but difficult to master. I by no means claim to be an expert, but I have picked up a few of the basics, which I would like to pass on to you.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is that I have a lot to learn. If you start writing thinking you know everything, or that your way of doing things is unique and superior to everyone else’s method, you will not get very far. So, tip #1 is to open yourself up to the resources out there and learn.
Author David Kazzie provides an amusing look at the realities of being a writer. Of course, I like to think that aspiring writers like the character in the video don’t really exist; we’re smarter than that. Hopefully you won’t see yourself in this… So You Want to Write a Novel
On a more serious note, you can find recommendations for resources on The Great Escape forum. Please add your own resources and help us compile a useful directory.
I’ve pulled together a few of the things I’ve picked up, including, tenses, perspective, showing vs telling, pace and editing which I’ll be posting over the next few months. This week I’m looking at goals and basic stylistic choices.
What is your ultimate goal as a writer? Is it to tell a story? Is it to entertain your reader? Is it to create a complex, believable plot and rich, multi-dimensional characters? It’s all of these things, but the real challenge is to do all of this while remaining invisible; to immerse your reader so completely that the story becomes real for them.
Any time a plot point seems unbelievable, or the reader has cause to question the author’s choice of words, or the author inserts some reference to themselves, then the reader is dumped out of the narrative. This is what you don’t want.
Do not assume that you’re going to achieve it all the time; even bestselling, published authors have a few moments in their stories where this happens. But, the more you can minimise the slip ups, the better your writing will become, so always keep this goal in mind.
Tense and perspective are choices you make, usually up front, although if you change your mind later it’s not the end of the world; you can edit to change it.
When telling someone a story, as in literally talking to them about something that happened, you would almost always use past tense. Why should a written story be any different?
As with everything in writing, your task as a writer is to immerse the reader and make them forget that they are reading at all.
When you write in past tense you ask them to imagine that the events took place at a specific time, in a specific place. This is an easy thing for them to believe, so they accept it and get on with absorbing the characters, settings and events.
When you tell a story in present tense you are asking them to believe that the story is taking place at that moment. This is less easy to believe, and, however unconsciously, some part of the reader is thinking, “this is impossible.”
This is not to say that you should never write in present tense. Sometimes it can be very effective, but, as a beginner new to writing, past tense is both easier to write and more natural for both writer and reader.
Once you have chosen a tense, you must be consistent with that tense. You shouldn’t need to use more than one tense in a story, let alone a paragraph or sentence. Of course I refer to the three major tenses here (past, present and future). Grammatically there are tenses within tenses, known as aspects:
From The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation
|Past||I walked||I was walking||I had walked||I had been walking|
|Present||I walk||I am walking||I have walked||I have been walking|
|Future||I shall/will walk||I shall/will be walking||I shall/will have walked||I shall/will have been walking|
Read more on Wikipedia – Gramatical Aspect
Whilst you should stick to one consistent tense, you can use the varied aspects of that tense to create the effect you want and give a sense of time and order to your writing. The exception is dialogue which should use whichever tense is appropriate to give an accurate representation of the character’s words as they were or are spoken at the time the events took or take place.
In literary terms, you have three choices of perspective – first person (I walked), second person (you walked) and third person (he/she/they walked). Choosing a grammatical perspective is not just about the way you construct your sentences, it also determines how your reader connects to your characters and experiences your story.
Ignore second person perspective; it is rarely used and even more rarely published. For the same reason that present tense makes it harder for your reader to become immersed, directing the story at “you” when it is blatantly not you, makes for an awkward, unnatural reading experience.
First and third person perspectives are equally valid choices and both have their benefits. First person naturally allows for a more intimate point of view, but it constrains what you can describe to what that character experiences; some writers find this tricky.
Third person perspective should not be thought of as one perspective at all. It is a spectrum, running from intimate to distant. At one end you have an intimate third person perspective, told strictly from one character’s point of view, and differentiated from first person perspective only by the language. At the other end of the spectrum is something called omniscient perspective.
Omniscient perspective allows the writer to see and experience all, jumping from character to character as needed. For some writers this is what they naturally gravitate towards. It is not wrong, but it is old fashioned. By its very nature it distances the reader from the characters and emotions in the scene.
There are then many shades in between. Developing your grasp of perspective is something that comes with practice. The perspective you choose will also need to fit your genre. For an emotional story, for example a romance, something towards the more restricted, intimate end of the spectrum will likely give your readers a better experience. Meanwhile, a broad, sweeping, historical epic may benefit from a more detached style.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful. Next time I’m going to take a look at the bane of existence for all authors; showing versus telling, and a little about non-verbal thesauri – showing emotions visually. I’d value your comments and any suggestions for future posts.