Learning to write from the best writers

I love to read science fiction. When I’m not writing myself I can usually be found reading — a sci-fi novel, or if not sci-fi, a book about the craft of writing. Recently, I realised I needed to take a break from writing my new novel. I had reached a point where I needed to think more deeply about where the plot line was taking me. I find when I reach such a point, focusing on something else is a good way to distract the conscious mind and let the subconscious mind work on the problem. Reading a novel is a great distraction. So I picked up some novels to read. The first was Veronica Roth’s Divergent which was devoured in two days. The second was Hugh Howey’s Wool.

As a writer, I find it difficult to completely relax and enjoy a novel without also examining the author’s style and approach. There is a lot to learn by observing an other author’s word craft — how they build empathy for their characters, build tension and conflict, and how they unfold the storyline. Both Veronica Roth and Hugh Howey are new, and by all accounts, successful writers. Reading their novels was an opportunity to learn from the best.

Divergent is YA Sci-Fi novel with a strong female lead character. It is written in the first person point of view (POV) and using the current tense, as so many successful YA novelists have done before (for example, Stephanie Meyer’s The Host or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games). Using first person POV makes for an intense emotional experience as the story is told through the eyes (and thoughts) of the heroine. But writing in the first person POV, without excessive repetition of “I” and sticking to the current tense, is not an easy style to master. Roth, however, makes it look remarkably easy and natural. Writing in the first person POV is not a style that particularly suits me. I like complex plot lines and multiple POVs, and first person POV does’t allow you to see into the mind of any other character other than the lead character.

Hugh Howey’s Wool is written in third person POV  (‘he/she’) and in the past tense: a more natural style for me. It also uses multiple changes of POV — we learn the story through the viewpoint of different characters in different chapters. This is sometimes called limited third person POV as the POV is limited to one character per scene. Although writing in limited third person POV can be less intimate than writing in the first person, when it is managed correctly it can be just as intimate as writing in the first person. And Howey achieves this in masterly fashion .

When I’m reading, one of things I dislike is laborious detailed descriptions that don’t add to the story. In Dicken’s day this was the norm. Nowadays excessive use of detailed descriptions can detract from a story line and slow the action down. So when I’m reading, I tend to skip over these as I suspect most do. One of the features of Howey’s style that I particularly like is the way he combines his description of events with character revelation. For example, when describing the unusual dystopian environment of the silo as the characters descend the staircase, Howey not only describes the details of this strange environment, but also how the characters react emotionally to it. It stirs their memories and feelings and gives us an insight into their character. I think all good writers have this instinct. Description should not stand alone separate from the story but be an integral part of it.

Choice of person, point of view and tense are decisions that any writer must make before putting pen to paper (or hitting the keyboard). It affects the whole way a story is written and is not easily revised after you start writing. How a writer deals with action, dialogue and description is scene specific. We can identify which scenes create emotion between the reader and the characters in a novel, but it is perhaps more difficult to understand how the author achieves this. But it is important to remember that this is part of the word craft of an experienced writer and the result of endless editing, revision and honing. So, if you’re a newbie writer, observe and learn from the best. But don’t get disheartened or over awed by them. One day that writer may be you.

The Style Rules of Writing Fiction

After spending so much of my business career writing reports, books and letters in a plain style of English, writing fiction for the first time was quite a challenge for me. If you’re contemplating writing your own novel for the first time, you might be struggling with the same kind of issues. Below I’ve set out some of the principal style rules of writing fiction. They’re not exactly rules; as Barbossa said in Pirates of the Caribbean said, they’re “more what you’d call guidelines”. But if you don’t understand the guidelines, and why they are there, you won’t get very far.

Point of view.

When writing a novel, a writer needs to choose a point of view and normally stick to it. I touched on point of view in my last blog. It’s probably one of the main differences between writing fiction and non fiction. A fiction writer has a choice to narrate a story from perspective of a number of different points of view, and the choice that he/she makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told. The key question is ‘who is telling the story?’ Is it written from the perspective of the author themselves as an objective narrator, or is the story being told from the perspective of one or more main characters in the story? Where the story is written in the first person (I/we) it will always be told through the eyes of the main character narrating the story. This is useful when the author wants to reveal the inner dialogue and feelings of the main character and build empathy for the character; but it is restrictive in that the writer cannot reveal what the main character does not see or experience themselves. Therefore, the main character has to be present in every scene. When the story is written in the third person (he/she), it is still possible for the writer to reveal the thoughts and inner dialogue of the main character in a scene if that’s what the writer wants to do. This is called limited third party point of view, or sometimes third party subjective point of view . Each scene could have a different point of view character depending on who was the main character in that scene. But the scene could also be written from the perspective of some detached objective observer without looking intot the heads of any of the characters. This latter objective third party point of view is a kind of cinematic viewpoint where the reader is given a cold objective view of characters and the reader has to make their own mind up about what the characters might be thinking. Lastly, there is an omniscient third party point of view, less common among fiction today, where the point of view expressed is some invisible god-like all-knowing narrator who can see into the minds of all the characters and comment on their behaviour. No particular point of view is necessary right or wrong. But the choice the writer makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told.

Dialogue.

A writer should use concise and effective dialogue. Good dialogue should have the purpose of advancing the story, developing character, or creating dramatic tension; it shouldn’t be used as an information dump. Good dialogue has been described as conversational English, but with the boring parts removed. The normal convention is to start each piece of new dialogue as a new paragraph, so it is obvious when someone new is speaking. Dialogue tags (he/she said) should be used to distinguish who is speaking. Avoid descriptive tags such as ‘shrieked’, ‘shouted’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘groaned’, ‘whimpered’ and other similar sounding words. A simple tag such as ‘said’ will normally suffice. The reason is that even when ‘said’ is repeated, it is relatively invisible to the reader’s eye. Other speech tags tend to stand out too much, and duplicate what should be obvious from the dialogue. Where a paragraph starts with a character action (or beat) (e.g. ‘He turned towards her.’), it is presumed the following dialogue relates to the same character and a dialogue tag is not necessary. Good use of beats is therefore a way reducing the number of speech tags. Also if there are only two characters present and it is obvious which character is peaking a speech tag is unnecessary.

Contractions.

In fiction contractions such as shouldn’t, it’s, I’ll etc are all quite acceptable. In the business world it would be unusual to see them at all. Similar, certain grammatical constructions normally avoided in business English can be relaxed in writing fiction, when it is seems natural to do so. So starting a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but or ending a sentence with a preposition such as on is acceptable. But don’t over do it.

Adverbs

Good fiction writers tend to minimise the use of adverbs (words generally ending –ly). Why? Because there is usually a stronger verb that is more effective. For example, ‘The man ran quickly’ could be written ‘The man sprinted, or darted’. Also when used as part of speech tags, adverbs can overstate the obvious. For example: ‘Well so what if I did!’ he shouted loudly. He said would suffice; the adverb loudly adds nothing to the meaning.

Punctuation

Good punctuation and good grammar are much the same in fiction and non-fiction. But don’t be tempted to use punctuation for dramatic effect. Exclamation marks should be used sparingly and multiple exclamation marks should never be used.
That’s the end of my list of style ‘rules’ that are different from business English. I am sure there are more. Feel free to comment.

First or third, what’s your point of view?

Writers tend to read a lot, and recently I ’ve been reading more than I’ve been writing. Apart from the joy of reading a good novel, it’s also an opportunity to study the styles of successful authors outside my genre, and learn from them. One of the books I finished recently is Stephenie Meyer’s Host. It was a impulse buy based on the unusual story description and the fact that it was now a major Sci Fi motion picture. The story is written in the first person (I), from the point of view of the heroine, who happens to be a selfless alien parasite inhabiting the body of her human host. Yes, it seems such a strange plot line, particularly the relationship between herself and her human host. But it’s so well written and emotionally charged that it works. I couldn’t put the book down.

The fact that the author wrote in the first person is not the only reason why the book was so emotionally powerful. Stephanie Myers is a successful writer and such success doesn’t come about without being a great writer. But I doubt whether it would have worked out so well if it had been written in the third person (‘she’).

Another book I enjoyed reading recently was Suzanee Collins’ Hunger Games. In fact, it was so good I read the whole trilogy one after each other. Again the trilogy was written in the first person from the point of view of the heroine, but in this case it was also written entirely in the current tense. At first, this seemed very strange style to adopt, but the books are such great stories that it didn’t seem to matter. Stepenie Myers also uses the current tense in the Host, but only in certain passages where the heroine was reliving certain memories of her host body.

Why then do many authors tend to write in the third person and in the past tense? That’s easy to answer. The story demands it. Stories written in the first person can quite clearly make the reader identify and empathise with the protagonist. But the story is told purely from that one person’s point of view. Consequently, there is no easy way of making the reader aware of actions away from the main viewpoint character that may be vital to the storyline. The reader only sees what the point of view character sees or is told. If you want the reader to see what is going on when the main character is not present then the story needs to be written in the one of the third person forms (she/he).

One way is to use use third person limited point of view. This means that each scene is written from the point of view of one character, the point of view character. For example, all of Dan Brown’s books featuring Robert Langdon are written in the third person. So when Langdon is not present in a scene, a different point of view character is used.

When using third person limited point of view, it’s best to ensure that there is only one point of view character per scene. Otherwise it leads to a kind of ‘head hopping’, which can be irritating to the reader. When there are more than one main character present in the same scene, a choice will need to be made. In Collision, my own novel, there are two main characters, Elle and Ben, and I give each a share of point of view scenes. There are also point for view scenes for each of the antagonists. In this way, the reader can see what’s coming. The antagonists just don’t turn up to surprise the heroine.

First person, and limited third person point of view are not the only points of view that could be used to write a story from, although the other choices are far less popular. For example, second person (you) is hardly ever used. There is also third person omniscent where the story is told by some god like narrator who sees everything rather than a particular character. It’s a style that’s less popular these days.

Whichever point of view you choose to write in will have an important affect on the way your story unfolds and the way it needs to be written. But whatever point of view you choose will need to be applied consistently.