The first two novels of my trilogy, The Talismans, are not available as e-books at present, but I expect to get them back online shortly. However, I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!
Buy The Talismans
The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. I hope to see my books back on Amazon under a new publisher in the near future.
Buy Mythic Resonance
Mythic Resonance is an excellent anthology that includes my short story 'La Belle Dame', together with great stories from Alan Baxter, Donna Maree Hanson, Sue Burstynski, Nike Sulway and nine more fantastic authors! Just $US3.99 from Amazon. Got a Kindle? Check out Mythic Resonance.
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For Readers, Writers & Editors
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- Know your characters via astrology
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- Modern Writing Techniques
- My best reads of 2007
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- Planning and Flimmering
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- Psychological Spec-Fic
- Readers' pet hates
- Reading, 2009
- Reality check: so you want to be a writer?
- Sensory detail is important!
- Speculative Fiction - what is it?
- Spelling reform?
- Substantive or linking verbs
- The creative cycle
- The promiscuous artist
- The revenge of omni rampant
- The value of "how-to" lists for writers
- Write a decent synopsis
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- Writers block 1
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- Writers need editors!
- Writers, Depression and Addiction
- Writing in dialect, accent or register
- Writing it Right: notes for apprentice authors
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Wednesday, June 17, 2015 | Posted by Satima Flavell
My speciality as a freelance editor is doing what I call ‘mini-assessments’ for new writers. A mini-assessment is based on a synopsis and the first few pages of the writer’s manuscript. I’ve been doing these for several years now, and it didn’t take me long to realise that a new writer’s problems all show up within a few pages. I quickly learnt, too, that almost all beginning writers show the same six faults. They don’t all have all of them, but I’ve yet to have a newbie client who didn’t show at least three!
I believe the first two are inexcusable, but you’d be amazed at how often I see them! But before getting down to the nitty-gritty, I’m going to give you the standard lecture. It’s quite possible that you already know these things, but it’s surprising how many writers do not, so I always restate them to be on the safe side.
1. It’s extremely hard to get a novel published, and it’s getting harder and harder with the current uncertainties of the economy and the radical changes that are inevitable in the publishing industry. For every thousand MSS sent to publishers, no more than a half-a-dozen are published. Hard SF – or even ‘soft’ SF – is harder to sell than Fantasy and even harder to sell than the most popular genres, Romance, Crime and Mystery.
2. Because it is so hard to get published, your work needs to be of a very high standard in every department. This usually means spending money on editing and/or MS assessment, and these services are not cheap. Because of that, it’s sensible to make sure you’ve done absolutely all you can with the work before handing it to an editor.
3. You may well decide to self-publish. Here are a couple of things to bear in mind.
• ‘Vanity’ publishing should be avoided at all costs. Publishers who want money from you to publish your novel are vanity publishers, even if they call themselves self-publishing houses. True self-publishing means you set yourself up as a publisher and engage your own sub-contractors for editing, artwork, layout and printing. It’s a lot of work, but it usually works out cheaper than vanity presses. In either case, distribution and marketing fall to the author, and it’s a sad fact that most self-published or vanity-published fiction books sell fewer than 100 copies, and many sell fewer than twenty. The bolding there is deliberate as it’s something every wannabe author should know and accept.
• A note on e-publishing. This is becoming more and more the route most writers will follow to get their work ‘out there’. A quick look at Smashwords on any given day will reveal that several dozen new books have miraculously appeared overnight! So it’s just as competitive as the hard-copy market. All those books begging to be read — no one could possibly read all of them, and many readers still have a resistance to reading on-screen at all. So an e-book has to be outstanding to succeed, and the author must also be ready to undertake a lot of work on promotion through the social media. Just sticking your book up online will not by itself bring in sales.
I hope I haven’t put you off writing with the above comments, but I like to make sure new writers don’t have stars in their eyes and are not on the road to being conned by vanity publishers! There are some veritable sharks about on the internet. I’ve heard of people paying as much as $25,000 to get a book published, because they didn’t know any better!
So, back to the six inevitable problems of new writers1. The first one is not reading enough. A writer learns the basics of the craft by reading work by experienced authors and emulating them. You need to read widely, not just in your preferred genre, but in other genres as well. And it’s important that you read not just modern works, but the classics of past years, too. If a client writes but doesn’t read it’s screamingly obvious to me, and it will be to an editor at a publishing house, too. So make sure you read extensively – non-fiction as well as fiction – and read other genres as well the one you write in. And when choosing books to read, be sure to at least sample the work of authors from days gone by. In any job, the historical perspective is important. If we can’t see where we’ve come from, we’ve got Buckley’s chance of knowing where we are going! But we need to read the modern writers too, so we can start to recognise trends.
2. You learn a lot by reading, but it’s not enough to turn you into a writer. The second problem of beginning writers is not bothering to learn the craft of writing.
I don’t know why it is, but many people seem to think that because they know how to write words and sentences, they will automatically know how to write stories, too. Sadly this isn’t true. It takes at least ten years to train as a concert pianist, and it takes about the same amount of time to learn to write well. Just as if you were learning a musical instrument, you need to practise and take tuition, so I hope you wannabe writers out there are doing a bit of writing every day and also going to classes and workshops as often as you can. It’s also useful to join writers critiquing groups, and go to conventions. There are state and national conventions for Romance and Speculative Fiction every year in Australia, and perhaps Crimescene, a relatively new convention held in Perth for readers and writers of crime, suspense and mystery, will set the ball rolling for those genres as well. If you write fiction – especially literary fiction or ‘mainstream’ fiction – you will love the writers festivals that are held annually in most state capitals. Just Google.
The above two faults are inexcusable because all these things can be read online and mastered with practice. All you have to do is Google!
However, the other four faults are excusable, and are readily overcome with time, patience and practice. Here they are:
3. A problem shared by most beginners is not knowing where to start the story. In genre fiction, it’s essential to start, as the Latin poet Horace put it, in media res – right in the thick of things. Beginners tend to load the first few pages with backstory, and that is a sure mark of an amateur. While an already established author might get away with a slow opening, most of us will not. Start with something exciting that leads us to the precipitating incident – the event that gets the story going. We should meet the protag in the first paragraph and know what he or she is seeking within a few pages. This is shown through the precipitating incident. The story then unfolds through a series of disasters that create change within the protagonist so that by the end of the story we see what the character learns about him/herself and the world as a result of the experiences s/he has undergone.
4. And that brings me to structure – another bugbear for beginners. Structure is complex and it’s a thing you learn slowly as you get the knack of producing books. First of all, just bear in mind that for a novel, novella or short story to work you must be able to answer the following four questions:
a. Who is your main character?
b. What does s/he want?
c. What is stopping him/her from getting it?
d. How does s/he deal with the opposition?
These are the four essentials of a good story. If what’s written can’t be summed up in this way, it’s not a story. It might be a lovely descriptive piece, a dissertation, or a clever bit of propaganda, but it’s not a story. These four essentials are also the foundations of a good synopsis. A decent synopsis is an essential part of your submission package. For more detail, see my article on synopsis writing at: http://satimaflavell.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/write-decent-synopsis.html.
A genre novel needs to be constructed, like a play, on a three-act model. However, it should also contain four sections. These two sets of divisions lie parallel and both are essential. This sounds complicated, but it’s one of the things a writer needs to understand.
1. The three acts should cover what some people call ‘three disasters and an ending’:
The three disasters are preceded by what’s called ‘the precipitating (or inciting) incident. This should occur as close to the opening of the book as possible — always quite early in Act 1.
a. The first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1 (about ⅓ of the way in).
b. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2 (about half-way through the novel)
c. The third disaster, the main climax, is the end of Act 2 (about 85 to 90 per cent of the way into the novel. (Act two is easily the longest chapter!)
d. Act 3 – the ending – corresponds exactly to the denouement (see below), which wraps things up. It should take less than 15% of the novel, and is quite often only about 10%.
2. Parallel to this three act structure we have the four classical divisions:
a. Exposition: Allow about 10% of your novel for the exposition, including the precipitating incident.. This section shows the reader ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. (The ‘how’ is shown in the rising action.)
b. Rising action: This takes up a good 75% of the novel – about ¾ of Act 1 and all of Act 2.
c. Climax: Here we find the main disaster, mentioned in the three act structure, which happens at the end of Act 2.
d. Denouement: As we’ve seen, the denouement corresponds to Act 3, the tail end of the novel. This section is usually very short.
Note: If possible, introduce all your major characters in the exposition. Certainly it’s a mistake to introduce a new major player after about a third of the way through as readers will not usually bond with a latecomer. (Minor characters, of course, are another matter and can be introduced as needed by the plot.)
The precipitating (or inciting) incident comes early in the piece, certainly not more than 10% of the way in. At about the 30% mark should come the protagonist's first setback, which marks the end of Act 1. (All major characters should have been introduced by the end of Act 1, by the way!) Act 2 is the longest act, and it can take up to 60% of the novel. About half way through the total length we should have a second setback, and at the end of Act 2 – 90% of the way through the novel – we have the third and biggest setback. There will have been minor disasters in between, of course, both in the main plot and in the subplot, but the one at the end of Act 2 should show us the main character hitting an all-time low from which he or she has to turn things around. In most novels, this will be where the protagonist’s fortunes turn: the battle is won, the throne is gained, the princess is rescued — or your detective solves the case and confronts the criminal, or the lovers plan a happy future. Then, in true Hercule Poirot style, we should see the main character clear up loose ends. This denouement should use up no more than 10% of the total word count.
5. The fifth problem of beginners is not having sufficient grasp of ‘show, don’t tell’. This is the most widely touted rule in writing, so I’m sure you’ve heard it before, and you will no doubt hear it again and again if you keep on writing.
What ‘show-don’t-tell amounts to is this: when we go to a new place, we learn about it by finding our way around and listening to what the locals have to say. So too, in reading fiction, we learn about the author's world by becoming immersed in the sights, sounds and senses of the inhabitants, who are brought to life through narrative and dialogue. This is especially important these days because modern readers expect an immersion experience. Writers today have to compete with many other forms of entertainment, and most of those are visual.
We cannot give our readers visuals in a straight novel, but we can give them something better. We can get right inside the mind and body of our main character, showing how anger affects his body rather than telling the reader he is angry; showing how he interacts with his world rather describing the scenery or telling us it’s a fine sunny day. Done skilfully, this not only drags the reader into your characters’ world, but also gives the reader information about the characters and the plot. It’s a very subtle thing, this show-don’t-tell. Chekhov put it very nicely when he said, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass’. Can you see how that single phrase shows us that it’s night time, the moon is shining, and that the presence of broken glass means there must be a building or some other human artefact nearby, and that there has been an accident or violence or a natural disaster of some sort. In that one little phrase ‘the glint of moonlight on broken glass’, there lies a world of writerly wisdom.
In fact, my friend Carol Ryles came up with a good way to think of the best form of worldbuilding. See it as a picture painted on glass. You then smash that glass picture and insert shards of it – tiny shards, no more than slivers – into dialogue and in action beats (of which more later). There are lots of subtleties in show-don’t-tell, and it’s closely bound up with worldbuilding and point of view. As Chekhov has done, you have to try to make each word carry meaning well above its customary workload in conversation. Can you see how much we learn from ‘Moonlight glints on the broken glass?’ That’s show-don’t-tell at its best.
6. This strong connection that binds show-don’t-tell to worldbuilding and point-of-view brings me to the last problem of beginning writers – and that’s not having a good enough grasp of point-of-view (POV). I’m assuming you know the difference between first and third point-of-view. First is easier than third in some ways, and harder in others: easier because you have only to write from within the headspace of the main character, and harder because you are limited to that one viewpoint. First person also makes it easier to give readers the immersion experience they want. That’s harder to do in third person. What many authors today do is write from a ‘close third’ (AKA ‘tight third’ or ‘deep third’) viewpoint, which involves getting inside the character’s head just as you would with first person, so you are limited by what that one character thinks, feels, senses and experiences. But in third person you are at liberty to include more than one view point. Do make sure, though, that you only use one POV per scene. ‘Head-hopping’ – skipping about from one character’s head to another – is not only confusing for your readers; it also prevents you from giving them the full immersion experience of the tight third POV. In a really deep third, you write everything, even the narrative, from within the character’s head. You avoid using dialogue tags as much as possible, and you slip in information about the characters and their world where appropriate, always from within the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the POV character. You, as the author, are hidden by the point of view. Your ‘voice’ becomes the voice of the character.
A few pointers on the craft of fiction writingDo make sure you have a good grasp of the basics, the stuff you learnt in school. Without a good understanding of grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation you are going to find it impossible to find an agent or a publisher, and if you self-publish a badly written book it simply won’t sell. There are so many self-published books out there that you have to be at least as good as traditionally-published authors if your work is going to attract readers. Learning to lay out your MS like a professional – with wide margins, double-spacing and so on – is also important if you don’t want your submissions to look amateurish. Be sure to read the publisher’s guidelines before preparing your submission, because they do vary in their requirements and expectations. Whatever the instructions for submission say, stick to them exactly. If they ask for a handwritten MS in green ink on pink paper, that’s what you send them!
Tighter writingAvoid unnecessary words, especially adjectives and adverbs! They use up precious space without being very useful. If you feel a noun needs an adjective to describe it, look for another noun that can stand on its own. And if a verb seems to need an adverb, look for a stronger verb.
An example of lazy writing:
Jack walked slowly down the highway. It was a really hot summer’s day and he was starting to sweat. He was very thirsty, too. He noticed a little house a few hundred metres away and wondered if he should stop and see if they would give him a drink of cold water. But what if they called the police?
Here is the same mini-scene, written more tightly:
Jack trudged down the highway, the summer sun at his back and sweat pouring down his face. Gods above, it was hot! Maybe he should risk a stop at the cottage that topped the next rise.
Not only have we fewer words in the second example, but a closer relationship with Jack, and a higher degree of tension. In the first example, we are flies on the wall, watching what’s going on. In the second, we are right inside Jack’s body and mind, and we get a better feeling for what he is experiencing.
A few words on dialogueDialogue is essential in a genre novel, for many reasons. It furthers the plot, helps slip in information about the characters and their world, and creates a break from narrative and the characters’ internal monologues. These three elements need to be in balance. There is nothing worse than long slices of a character’s internal musings followed by an equally long stretch of description. Break these up with dialogue. Try to have some dialogue on almost every page. Actually, another reason dialogue is important is to break up the appearance of the page by allowing for short paragraphs!
But make sure your dialogue is always in character and serves more than one purpose. Use tags (‘he said’, ‘she asked’, ‘Fred replied’ etc) sparingly. If only two people are talking, you only need one tag in about every five lines.
And the tag need not be one of the standard dialogue tags above – and no, I’m not suggesting you use tags such as ‘he growled’ or ‘she opined’ – they are distracting and if overdone, a tad ridiculous. ‘Said’, asked’ and ‘replied’ are usually all you need, although people do occasionally call, shout, or gasp, and words like those are fine in their place. But for heaven’s sake avoid things that aren’t ways of speaking, such as ‘he smiled’, or ‘she frowned’. Facial expressions are not speech tags!
But what I’m really trying to get onto is the topic of ‘action tags’, sometimes called ‘action beats’. An action beat is when we indicate which character we’re focussing on by mentioning what they are doing. Look at this example, which mixes up the three forms of dialogue we’ve just looked at:
As they lay together in the afterglow of love, she snuggled into his arms. ‘Dearest, I want to ask you something.’
He turned his head and brushed her forehead with his lips. ‘Ask away, my sweet.’
‘Would you mind if your mother were to teach me magic?’
Beverak turned onto his side and disengaged the arm that had rested under Tammi’s shoulders. He half pushed himself up and gazed down on her. ‘What? Tammi, you can’t be serious!’
‘Of course I’m serious.’ Tammi’s gaze met his with something like a challenge lurking in their depth. 'It’s part of my heritage.’
‘Part of your heritage? What on earth is that supposed to mean?’
‘The same as it means to your mother and to your cousin Ruthvard. It means I am part-elvish and I have inherited some of the skills that make elves different from ordinary mortals. It means that I might be able to develop those skills in a way that will serve you and Dresnia and the Islands.’
You can see, can’t you, how I’ve used action tags and no tags at all? Not once have I used the words ‘said’, ‘asked’, or ‘replied’.
However, if there are more than two speakers, you can’t get away with no tags at all. Here’s an example with three speakers, in which I’ve used both speech tags and action beats:
Wulfrin appeared from beneath the overhang that served as a goat shed, carrying two small milk buckets. ‘Just finished milking,’ he called. ‘Want some?’
‘You’re late this morning, Wulfrin.’ Auberin’s voice was reproving and Jedderin grinned surreptitiously. Won’t stand any slacking among the servants, won’t his highness.
Wulfrin was unfazed. ‘Sorry, Auberin. Molly was kidding and I had to help her, so I didn’t get to do the milking before breakfast. She’s had a nice little doe kid, another milker for the year after next.’ He disappeared into the kitchen cave, where he could be heard pouring the milk into the vat.
Fiersten yawned. ‘A new goat. How exciting. What a shame we won’t be here to see her grow into a milker.’
‘Thinking of leaving us already?’ Jedderin asked. I wish you’d leave today, you slimy toad.
Fiersten shrugged. ‘To be honest, I’m finding the lessons tedious. All this starting again at the beginning is boring. Besides, the Mistress’s silly celibacy rule is driving me barmy. I’m not used to going without female company. Close female company, I mean, not just listening to Maverill’s prattle about her latest spellcraft experiments.’
Those samples are from my own work (The Dagger of Dresnia, Satalyte Publishing, 2014) and better authors than I will do it better. But as examples of using action beats, dialogue tags and no attribution at all, they serve the purpose well enough.
And more on Point-of-ViewAs we’ve seen, in constructing a story, we need to have, first and foremost, a character who wants something. This main character should be introduced right at the start and we should learn his or her name in the first paragraph. By the time we’ve read a page or two, we should know what it is that s/he wants. Our main character will carry the POV all or most of the time.
Modern readers, especially young ones, don’t want to be told a story; they want an immersion experience. Remember that people today are used to absorbing fiction through TV, movies and video games, where they can see things through the character’s eyes. So, as writers, we have to get inside that character's mind and body and experience his or her world through his or her five senses. Being a fly on the wall and reporting what's happening from the outside will not engage a reader these days.
A friend sent me a quote which is very relevant to the relationship between POV and ‘Show, don’t tell’. It comes from How Fiction Works by James Wood (Picador: New York, 2008). It might be a book worth buying. In this excerpt, Wood is discussing the handling of inner monologue in fiction.
a. He looked over at his wife. ‘She looks so unhappy,’ he thought, ‘almost sick.’ He wondered what to say. This is direct or quoted speech (‘“She looks so unhappy,” he thought’) combined with the character's reported or indirect speech (‘He wondered what to say’). This is the old-fashioned notion of a character's thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.
b. He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say. This is reported or indirect speech, the internal speech of the husband reported by the author, and flagged as such (‘he thought’). It is the most recognizable, the most habitual, of all the codes of standard realist narrative.
c. He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say? This is free indirect speech or style: the husband's internal speech or thought has been freed of its authorial flagging; there is no ‘he said to himself’ or ‘he wondered’ or ‘he thought’.
Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to ‘own’ the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character's own words (‘What the hell should he say?’).
We are close to steam of consciousness, and that is the direction that free indirect style assumed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
d. He looked at her. Unhappy, yes. Sickly. Obviously a big mistake to have told her. His stupid conscience again. Why did he blurt it? All his own fault, and what now?
You will note that such internal monologue, freed from flagging and quotation marks, sounds very much like the pure soliloquy of 18th and 19th century novels.
(James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting professor in English and American literature at Harvard.)
Note from Satima: As you may know, the earliest users of FID (free indirect discourse) included Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert, so we have come full circle. The current fashion for a tight third POV comes very close to FID, if not SOC (stream of consciousness). To give your work a chance in the current market, it might be wise to adopt a style of inner monologue that comes close to these two styles. Can you see how much closer we are to the character in the last example, and how much we have learnt about him? We are not told that he has something on his conscience: we simply absorb it through his thoughts. We can see he’s prone to self-blame as well.
If we wanted to get all that info in when using the detached style of the first and second examples, we’d end up with something like: ‘He looked over at his wife. ‘She looks so unhappy,’ he thought, ‘almost sick.’ Only the day before, he had blurted out what was on his mind and now his wife was so upset he had no idea what to say. He blamed himself because what he had let slip was really only to assuage his bad conscience.’
Fifty-two words as opposed to thirty-one in Wood’s example d., which is more in the style we should be aiming for.
Food for thought:‘Show-don’t-tell’ is far more complex than it first appears. Narrative, setting and point-of-view are a kind of holy trinity, each one different manifestation of ‘show-don’t-tell’.
What now?I strongly suggest, if you haven’t already done so, that you join a writers group or a class, either face to face or online. These can be found in all large towns and cities. For example, there are three writers centres in Perth, Western Australia: Tom Collins House, the Peter Cowan Centre and the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre. You can find all these by Googling. Membership is not expensive and most of the workshops and groups are reasonably priced.
You can also learn a lot about the industry as well as the craft of writing by reading blogs by writers, editors and agents. Don’t be scared to leave polite comments, and if time permits, why not start a blog of your own, too, if you don’t already have one? It’s never too early to start getting your name ‘out there’. But refrain from commenting on subjects you know little about as that will just get people’s backs up, and it’s really important to make friends, not enemies, of your fellow writers. Writers are usually very friendly and helpful, and they are also readers who might eventually buy your book!
I wish you all the best in your writing career. Write because you want to, not because you want to make money or win awards. Those rewards are only bestowed on a lucky few: the rest of us have only the joy of writing and hopefully, having a few people like and appreciate what we have written.
It has been a pleasure to share the joy of writing with you. Write on!