Pointing The Way

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Whatever type of book you are writing it is always better not to signpost the action too much. By that I mean, do not make it obvious what is about to happen. If you do, why would a reader bother to read on? After all, they already know what is going to happen.

Dead End Signpost

With so much competition for the attention of readers, you need to make them sit up and take notice, to wonder and speculate. If you do that, they will want to read on to see if they were right.

If they were right they will feel pleased with themselves for guessing, if they were wrong they may love you all the more because you challenged them and did not do as they expected.

Dropping breadcrumbs to lead a reader in a particular direction, even if it ultimately proves false, is acceptable. Lighting the way with flashing neon signs is not. It is about as subtle as a brick through a window and never works. Suddenly the writer is stepping forward, making themselves visible to the reader, and that is never a good thing.

Neon arrows

Taking the TV series Britannia as an example, let me illustrate what I mean. In episode eight one of the main characters Aulus takes it upon himself to talk to a lowly scribe, bringing said scribe front and centre of the action and encouraging him to talk about his family.

I did not recall seeing hide nor hair of said scribe in episodes one to seven, yet suddenly here he is being thrust into the forefront of the viewers’ attention. It was ham fisted to say the least. Immediately, my spidey senses told me that said scribe was going to meet a sticky end and we were only being allowed to get to know him a little so that we would know of him and “care” when he died.

Sure enough Lucius tries to murder Aulus later on in the same episode. Having stabbed the sleeping form in Aulus’s bed with such gusto he would be unlikely to wake ever again, Lucius is fairly confident that he has done the deed until of course Aulus steps from the shadows and it is the poor scribe who has met an untimely death. [As a scribe he was probably turning in his grave to have had his own ending written so poorly].

That is how not to do it.

Face Palm

If the scribe had appeared in earlier episodes, if only fleetingly, with one or two lines to mark his presence and his role, we as viewers would have been less clued up to his fate and may actually have cared a little more.

I have the same complaint to make about animals in storylines who are there solely to meet an untimely death to show the readers/viewers how dastardly a particular character is.

It is rule 101 in the Lazy Writers’ Handbook and should be avoided at all costs. It’s been done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun.

So next time you need to dispose of a convenient body, as it were, give them a little bit of life before death and if you need to show the readers that a character is capable of doing bad things, stretch your creative muscles a little and show us this in an imaginative way.

Anything less is writing by numbers and we should all strive to be better than that.

[I have given Britannia a bit of a kicking in the last two blogs – I should just say that I did actually find the show entertaining although not always for the right reasons 😊 which just added to the fun. It is all rather gloriously bonkers and for that reason alone, I was quite pleased to discover they have been given a second series].

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

 

 

 

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The Runaway Character

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Have you ever worked on a story and found a character off to stage left keeps insistently pushing their way forwards, stealing the limelight in every scene in which they feature and generally making a nuisance of themselves to such an extent that you have to start taking more notice of them?

runaway

This has happened to me on a number of occasions. As a writer we are soon faced with two choices, we can either learn to love the impudent rascals and give them the space they need to breathe or we can take them out of the story completely.

If we leave them in we are often rewarded with a richer story with more depth and colour than would otherwise have been the case.

Fans of Gossip Girl may be surprised to learn that the character of Chuck Bass was only meant to be an occasional and minor player in the teen soap but ended up being one of the central characters and the show was all the better and more entertaining for it.

We do however need to be careful that we do not end up creating a monster who even though you have built their part up is still going to ape the limelight and make the hero/heroine seem dull in comparison.

Overshadowed
Bored by Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6yqaro https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This came to my mind recently when watching Britannia on TV. The character of Divis – a demon-possessed outcast – steals every scene he appears in. Clearly having a ball with the role was actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Wonderful as he was to watch, I cannot have been alone in being ever so slightly bored whenever he was not on the screen, surely not what the writers or producers intended.

[Incidentally, when the second best thing about the show is the song chosen as the theme tune you know a show has issues. In case you are wondering the tune in question is Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan played over psychedelic titles – it shouldn’t work on any level but is an absolute triumph. Gold star to whoever was brave enough to suggest it in the first place].

But let’s get back to our runaway characters. It can be an exciting and challenging time when one of your characters threatens to go off piste and run away with the whole thing. As writers we are entering uncharted territory, unsure of our destination and sometimes, often, that is where the magic happens. Enjoy the ride but remember you are ultimately in control. It is enormous fun to follow this character wherever they want to go but it must never be to the detriment of the story you are trying to tell.

Fast car

A runaway character can be a blessing and a curse. Use them well and the outcome can be glorious. Use them badly and you may end up with an indulgent mess.

crash
Crash by Cha Gia Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4Toeoj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As you hang on to the coattails of a runaway character you need to keep asking yourself the same question – is the story better because of this? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then perhaps you are simply telling the wrong story.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Third Man Through The Door

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The Third Man Through The Door concept is taken from film makers. In the most literal interpretation the third man (or woman) came through the door after the hero or heroine and the sidekick.

Third Person concept
Three O by Kwanie courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nWtFM https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Often they were there to bolster the ego of the first two characters and make them look good, sometimes even sacrificing themselves so the hero and sidekick could save the day.

Since reading about this concept many years ago I have always been surprised by just how many stories feature the third man – or person to be gender neutral. Once you are aware of their existence and the reason for their being in the story, you notice them more and more – films, tv and books all feature third people.

As a writer, I’m a pantser not a planner but third people evolve naturally in my stories and I bet they do in yours, too.

We are aware of stories from our youngest age and although we do not generally analyse the roles characters play in them or break them down into their component pieces, we are taking this information in, story by story, by osmosis. We learn that tales often have characters in certain roles and once we recognise those roles, we see them again and again.

Three's company

The third person role is vital to most stories, even if they do not feature throughout the piece, their influence will still be felt. They sometimes do the heavy lifting necessary to make a back story work, they can ask the right questions at the right time, they can impart crucial character information about the hero/heroine and sidekick and, of course, they make your central characters look good.

They are never going to be the sexy one or the most intelligent one – those roles are strictly reserved for your hero/heroine. They are not going to be particularly funny – that role often belongs to the sidekick. They are usually decent and fair and can sometimes be the moral compass of a piece or at least be there to guide the hero/heroine back on to the right track should they waver – although that role sometimes falls to the wise elder. Their backstory can be hinted at but is rarely explored. They are not there to be the centre of attention. They are, as their name suggests, a way down the pecking order and destined to stand off to the side, helping the story along whenever required.

man in shadows

I now find myself trying to pick out the third man in every film or TV show I watch or book I read. I must warn you, however, third person spotting becomes addictive. Once you learn how to recognise them, you will see them everywhere and wonder how come you never noticed them before.

I love the third person. I find the character intriguing and delightful and as a writer they are endlessly helpful and useful.   I urge you to love them too.

When creating your characters we lavish so much time and attention on our main players, rightly so, but try not to overlook the third person. Sketch in their backstory with a few strokes of your pen, give them a life, a past and a future (if they are not destined to die heroically saving the hero and the sidekick, of course ;)). They do such good work for us as writers, they deserve to be more than cardboard cut outs.

Sometimes I like my third person so much they stop being my third person and start to gravitate more to the centre of the piece but more on that next time.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Getting Motivated to Write

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You know what it’s like, you have a miraculous hole open up in the schedule of your busy lives and you think ‘I should do some writing’ but then your inner voice kicks in with an increasingly whiny tone: ‘Do you really want to write? Let’s do something fun instead like go out somewhere/watch TV/play sport.’ Suddenly writing isn’t even on the agenda.

I don’t want to, don’t make me!

It is all too easy to talk ourselves out of time at the desk or in the study if you are lucky enough to have one. There will always be a million distractions. Silencing the whiny voice is where you start.

I was recently in just this position. The last thing I felt like doing was sitting in front of the computer screen. The project I’m working on is tricky. It’s hard work and my psyche was desperately trying to persuade me to do something less demanding and more FUN.

Steeling myself, I sat at the computer steadfastly ignoring the internet and all social media feeds because we all know what a rabbit hole they can turn out to be don’t we!

social media

I made a bargain with myself: sit at the desk for 30 minutes and write the damn thing. I figured if after 30 minutes I was still metaphorically banging my heels on the floor in a disinterested fashion, longing to walk away, I would allow myself to do so.

Sit there and shut up!

I opened the WIP and started to write. Slowly, slowly I was reeled back in to my characters’ lives and the rather precarious point at which I had last abandoned them. I began to engage with the scene, my thoughts racing ahead to the next scene and the next.

And then the magic happened.

magic

I was in the flow. The words were flying into my brain so fast my fingers could hardly keep up on the keyboard.

Two and a half hours and several thousand words later I paused for breath and happened to look at the clock. I could hardly believe it. Where had the afternoon gone? It felt like I had been sitting there for only a few minutes. As we all know time does not exist when we are in the flow.

Don’t go!

Hunger drove me away from the desk in the end rather than an overwhelming desire to check my Facebook updates.

So the moral of the story is get your backside in the chair and write. Don’t listen to the whiny voice trying to entice you away. Make a bargain with it if you must but give yourself enough time to become enveloped in your make believe world and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself wanting to stay.

Aerial view of computer laptop on wooden table

Why not give it a try?

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

Making a note…

Writers love notebooks, right? We have various designs and colours, some with pens, some without. Diaries and planners also feature widely in our collections. We are magpies when it comes to stationery – always searching out the latest, brightest designs.

coffee-flowers-notebook-work-desk-162584

But it doesn’t really matter what the notebook looks like. As a writer, what really matters is how you use it.

A few weeks ago we had a spell of snowy weather in the UK. The temperature dropped but felt colder still because of the wind chill factor. We do not often get snow as deep as the falls we did this year and whilst we are used to cold temperatures, the howling winds from Siberia were a new and unpleasant experience. I had forgotten how hard it is to walk through deep snow. I had forgotten the craving for carbs that takes over in cold conditions. I had forgotten the harsh sting of a biting wind and the ruby red glow of entering a warm house; the simple joy of consuming a mug of hot chocolate. All of these things have made their way into my notebooks now.

Processed with VSCO with e5 preset

At present, I don’t have a character I am planning to expose to similar weather conditions but when I do, I won’t have to rely on unreliable memory banks for the thoughts, feelings or sounds of winter.

When going somewhere new, I always try to carry a notebook with me. Whether I am visiting a far flung country or a local beauty spot, there will always be new things to see and experience, depending on the season and the time of day.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking only special things should be recorded in our notebooks. Simple pleasures have their place, too. Think of sitting on a beach in the summer and scrunching your bare toes into the sand or walking through a forest surrounded by falling leaves on an autumn day.

We enjoy these little moments and if we do, our characters should too.

You wouldn’t normally build a story around any of the things I have mentioned in this post but all of these things occur in our everyday lives and so should also make an appearance in our characters’ lives when appropriate. If we identify with the pleasure of eating an ice cream on a hot day, so will our readers. If we can put on the page the drama of a thunder storm, our readers will remember a similar storm. If we can record the beauty of watching the snow fall when we are warm and safe indoors and do not have to venture out, our readers will recall such a time as well.

Cornfields on a windy day, the smell of the sea, the beauty of an unfurling rose. These snapshots of everyday life will appeal to readers because they will be familiar to them. A few sprinkled across your novel will give it the ring of truth because you recorded them shortly after you experienced them and wrote them down both from the heart and with a memory of all the senses.

 

deckchairs

Notebooks used in this way will not carry the root and branch of a story but they will carry within them the kind of bonus material that will bring colour, texture and life to your work.

So remember, notebooks are not just for looking pretty on the desk or shelf, they are for writing in. Take them with you, get sand in them, have the fat raindrops of a summer storm spatter the pages, let them live as you live and they will reward you for many years to come.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

Artist’s Dates

As some of you will be aware I have recently been reading Julia Cameron’s ‘The Right to Write’ book which I highly recommend to all writers. There are nuggets to be enjoyed in every chapter. You will, inevitably, recognise yourself in Julia’s wise words, nodding and smiling wryly as you read.

Right to Write_
Julia Cameron’s ‘The Right to Write’ https://www.amazon.co.uk/Right-Write-Invitation-Initiation-Writing/dp/178180981X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518280756&sr=8-1&keywords=write+to+right

One of the concepts that Julia introduced me to was the idea of ‘artist’s dates’. We are all familiar with going on dates but we don’t normally take ourselves on one – alone. Here, you do just that.

Romance rose

You choose a day that suits and an activity you know you will find interesting, fascinating or stimulating and off you go. Just you alone. This is a special time for you to commune with your inner self or as Julia puts it you are ‘romancing, wooing, courting your creative self’.

Date Time

You could go to see a play or a movie. You could visit a museum or take in an exhibition. You could go to or take part in a glass blowing demonstration or a workshop on how to make mosaics. You could knit, sew, crochet, draw or paint. You could listen to a talk on a subject of interest or visit a historic landmark. Take a walk in an ancient wood or along an unfamiliar coast line. The only limits are the ones you place on yourself.

Museum

Julia suggests going on these excursions once a week to refill the creative well. With a busy schedule, once a week is a little optimistic for me but I have been achieving an artist’s date once a fortnight and it has been an uplifting and inspiring experience. We’re in the grip of winter in the UK so my activities have been largely based indoors: an exhibition of black and white photos, a mindfulness meditation session, an exhibition of landscape paintings and a past life regression. I am looking forward to the spring when I can widen my horizons further.

Whilst I have no definite plans to include any of the things I have done or seen in future stories I am pretty certain they will filter down into a work in progress at some stage and I will be excited to see how that turns out. In the meantime, now that I know the joy and freedom of an artist’s date, they will remain a firm addition to my calendar.

Autum open road

Why not give them a try and see where they take you?

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

Putting the FUN back in your writing

Following on from last week’s blog about remembering that writing is meant to be fun, I took a look at my own writing world – several works in progress at different stages of completion, a desk covered in notes about Pinterest boards to be created, advertising campaigns to organise, podcasts to listen to and articles to read. A tsunami of to-do-lists and to-finish-lists. Is it any wonder that I’ve lost touch with the joy that used to sit at the heart of my writing?

frustration2

Fun, Fun, Fun!

I decided enough was enough, it was time to put the fun back into writing. When I catch myself being far too serious I find the best way to jolly myself out of it is to write. Not the work in progress. Not even something that might become a work in progress but something completely new, of the moment, to be created, enjoyed and left.

Fun3

Flash Fiction

Flash Fiction usually does it for me. I have a dictionary of phrase and fable (a guaranteed rabbit hole to disappear into if you want to lose an hour) which I open at a random page, stab my finger down and whatever it points to, I give myself 500 or 1,000 words to write a piece of flash fiction that incorporates it. If the dictionary isn’t near at hand, I’ll use a magazine instead. It’s amazing the kind of subjects you can find yourself writing about when a copy of Cosmopolitan is close by!

The beauty of this exercise is that you are free – forget genres, forget writing styles, forget targets and plans. Just flex your creative muscle and see where it leads you. You might be a romantic novelist who writes in the third person by day but for this exercise you might find yourself writing gothic horror in the first person. A literary heavyweight could discover their comic alter ego, a chick lit aficionado could let out her gory crime other self. The point is to let yourself go, to have FUN.

Forget the rules, forget who you think you are as a writer and just write. You will be amazed where it takes you and when it’s time to put the games away and get back to the work in progress you will hopefully find having let your creative self off the leash for a bit, you return to your work energised and re-engaged.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes