Take Yourself Seriously

Most of you will probably know by now (having glanced around this website) that I am currently studying for an MA in crime fiction at City University in London. At the end of next year I will (hopefully) graduate from the MA having written a complete crime novel.

Scary stuff.

I had a rough meeting with my tutor yesterday that was completely eye-opening. We talked about the plans for my proposed novel, and came to the conclusion that perhaps what I’ve been trying to write recently is not what I want to write. Not really. The idea is fine, but not something I am 100% passionate about.

And that’s scary, too.

But it’s also exhilarating. I can now start afresh! And I’ve been placed on what I’m calling a “Six Week Writing Ban”, in order to recoup and sort myself out. And that means a LOT of reading. So that probably means more reviews. Yay!

Last night was also important though, because we had a class on Violence in Fiction by Alex Preston (@ahmpreston). A lot of what Alex said was helpful, but something he said has really stuck with me. He said:

“Take yourselves seriously.”

As writers, we often don’t feel like we belong. Like what we’re doing isn’t of any worth. And as unpublished writers this is even more common. We think that our writing is not something to take seriously. I know a lot of us are even afraid to say to people I AM A WRITER. But the important thing is, I’m pretty sure most people feel that way. Everybody feels like the imposter in the room. We all feel like we don’t belong, like we ended up there accidentally…

And after Alex’s talk, I left feeling excited. Because I’d just been given an excuse – somebody else had told me that I could take myself seriously! I left thinking: I am a writer. Published or not. And what I do is serious. It is worthy. It’s awesome.

So now I’m giving you the same excuse. The same permission. Be weird. Be awesome. Be you. Be a writer. And don’t apologise about it. Take yourself seriously because you belong here just as much as anybody else does.

Sometimes it will be hard. Sometimes you will have to throw everything out and start from scratch. But sometimes that’s a good thing.

Thank you, Alex Preston, for making me realise this.

Tips for your Tales: Character #1

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Tips for Character Building (A.K.A. Lesson #1 The Basics)

Character is perhaps one of the most important elements of storytelling. If your character is unbelievable, nobody is going to want to stick with them through a whole book, no matter how awesome your plot is. I mean, obviously there are exceptions to this, but for a lot of us, we live with the knowledge that our characters are the life and soul of our novels.

So, when starting a new project, how do you come up with a character? There are a lot of ways to do this, and everybody will be different, but here are a collection of methods I’ve come up with over the years to help me capture my characters.

1. Start with a picture

This first one is nice and simple. I often start with the appearance of my character, because it’s the first thing I’ll visualise. And while this isn’t necessarily important in who they are as a person, it can help you to flesh your characters out in your mind. So, generally what I’ll do is I’ll find a picture. A photograph usually, but you could even draw something if you’re artistically inclined. I’ll Google, “Woman, thirties, blonde hair” or something. And just search until I find what I want.

Focus on the obvious things first: their hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, and then you can start narrowing it down. Do they have a high forehead? Big eyes? Long hair? A broken nose? This can be a lot of fun. Websites like DeviantArt.com are also a good place to look. Just make sure that you don’t use the image for anything unless you ask permission of the artist/photographer!

And then, once you’ve found the picture (it doesn’t matter if it’s an actress or a cartoon character, if it fits, that’s fine! It’s only for personal use) print the picture out and stick it on your noticeboard. Or in your writing file. Maybe even frame it if you’re feeling particularly romantic. =D

Now whenever you get stuck in your plotting, or in your writing, you can look at their picture and think, “What would you do?”

2. Name Generators / Baby Names Websites

A lot of people just name characters off the cuff using the first name that comes to mind. “Oh, I’ll call you Michael.” DONE. Easy as that. Others put in a lot of time, trying to find that perfect name, researching name meanings and origins. I sit somewhere in between those two.

When I’m writing crime particularly, and my project is set in the real world, I often start looking for a name using baby name websites. www.babynames.com is a good one. Sometimes I’ll find a letter I want the name to start with, but even more regularly I’ll simply Google “Most popular girls names in 1978”, or whatever year the character was born. And then I scroll down until I find one I like.

I do the same for surnames, Googling most common names in the areas my novels are set. This can give you a narrower list of names to start with, and make the naming process easier. Plus I like the added ‘historical accuracy’! And then once you’ve found a name you like, you can always have a quick peek to see the origin and what it means. 😉

As for fantasy names, I could write a whole other post on that, but there are some neat name generators out there which you can try, like Seventh Sanctum. Just pop it into Google and generate away!

3. Character Questionnaires

One of the most in-depth ways to get to know your characters is to fill out a Character Questionnaire like this one: (I just pulled this off Google a minute ago). Usually these lists of questions will start with the basics (name, age, gender) and work up to absolute excruciating detail (like ‘what’s your characters favourite way to cook pasta?’). While these often bore me, if you’re the sort of person who plucks random character facts out of their butt and then struggles to keep track of them all (like I used to do) this could be ideal for you.

If you’re lucky, you might find some of the answers sneaking into your novel as fairly important plot points. Who knows? If nothing else, it’s a good exercise to do every now and again to put things in perspective.

4. Write a “Flash” or a Character Sketch

This is something I’ve used a lot over the years to develop characters. Once I’ve got a fairly good idea who these people are going to be, but before I’m ready to pop them into the beginning of a novel, I might consider sitting down and writing what I’d call a Character Sketch.

Basically what this is, is a very short snapshot of your character’s past. It could be an event that affected your character deeply (such as the earlier death of a loved one) or a sort of prologue to your novel (but one which you wouldn’t necessarily publish with the book). Usually what I write is somewhere between 500 and 3000 words long, depending on the event. I write it like a full piece of fiction, almost like a short story or a piece of flash fiction.

You can have other characters present too, which is a great way to figure out how they all speak together and how they’ll display their emotions, any nervous ticks they may have. I think making your characters interact with each other is vital. You’ll get a better grasp for their emotions and the rhythm of their speech if you have them communicating from the outset.

So why don’t you go ahead and give it a go? Write about that time your protagonist found a child wandering alone in the streets. Write about your villain discovering they have magical powers. Write about your detective wanting to make it home for his daughter’s birthday but being unable to do it.

Just remember, what you write for your ‘flash’ shouldn’t be an event that occurs in the novel (unless in the novel it would be told from a different POV). The point is to develop them, which means not paying attention to your plot for a while!

5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly

Let your characters sit in your head. Get to know them. Know how they talk, how the think, and then when you actually start writing it’ll flow easier and they’ll be more believable. Give yourself a couple of weeks if you can, between creating your character and starting work on your project. Fill the time with character sketches and little dialogue scenes. And then, when you’re ready, you’ll already have a fully-formed character who will (hopefully) just walk right out there onto the page.

Hopefully some of these tips will have been helpful for some of you. Please let me know if you have any questions or additional tips! I’d love to see how other people deal with their unruly characters.

Tips for your Tales: Dialogue #1

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Tips for Dialogue (A.K.A Lesson #1 The Basics)

Dialogue is something a lot of people struggle with. It’s something I struggle with endlessly. I won’t claim to be any kind of expert on the subject, but through four years of undergraduate Creative Writing in two countries and a year on a Crime Writing MA, I have picked up a few handy tips.

Today’s segment is going to focus on what I’d call The Basics – but what others might call the “I’ll fix that later” or the “It’s Not That Important”. Yes, it kind of includes a bit of grammar. So, shoot me! But I think that once you get the foundations right and solid, it’s much easier to build upwards successfully.

How to Properly Punctuate Your Dialogue

This is something I see quite a lot (and indeed is something I struggled with for a while myself). A lot of people don’t really understand how to punctuate their dialogue. Does a comma go there – or a period? What about that capital letter, is that right? I don’t know because who the hell pays attention to this stuff??

So here I’ll do my best to explain:

#1: In your story, Bobby wants to tell Lucy he’ll see her later. How do you put that into speech? Where do you put your periods, your commas and your capital letters?

  • Quite often I would see this: “I’ll see you later.He said. But this is incorrect. You have to think of your dialogue tags (or your ‘he said’ ‘she whispered’ etc) as part of the sentence in which the speech occurs. Try reading it aloud to yourself – read it as though the speech marks aren’t there and note the pause where you’ve put that period. I’ll see you later. [PAUSE] He said. (He said what???)
    • Instead, try this: “I’ll see you later,he said.
      • Notice how this time you don’t pause so long after the speech and the sentence (from “I’ll” to “said”) flows seamlessly. I’ll see you later, he said.
    • And because we see the whole thing as one long sentence, you don’t need to capitalise the H in he, either. If you’re not using a period, you’re not using a capital letter either.
    • Our eye is then drawn to the dialogue (where it should be) instead of the dialogue tag (which should be virtually invisible).

So how does this look in a longer sentence, with more description after the dialogue?

  • “I’ll see you later,” Bobby said as he tossed his school bag over his shoulder.
    • If this were punctuated incorrectly, you’d be inclined to think that “Bobby said as he tossed his school bag over his shoulder” was a full sentence. Which it isn’t.
      • I’ll see you later, Bobby said as he tossed his school bag over his shoulder vs. I’ll see you later. Bobby said as he tossed his should bag over his shoulder.
      • You see the difference that makes and how much better it flows with a comma instead?

See? It’s easy. The rule applies whenever you have a dialogue tag in which you express the way the words are being spoken. So whether it’s “I’d really love to go to the dance with you Jimmy,” Alison said or “I’d rather be seen wearing a One Direction shirt than go to the dance with you!” exclaimed Jimmy, hurling his iced tea to the pavement the same principle applies.

Ah, but Fran, you used an exclamation mark in that last one. That’s a bit confusing!

    • So what do we do when we have dialogue that has exclamation marks or question marks? Well, the same sort of thing applies. Although instead of using a comma, you keep your exclamation mark at the end and simply make sure your dialogue tag starts with a lowercase letter (unless it’s a name). Question marks and exclamation marks essentially become invisible.
      • So instead of, “I hate you!” Shouted Danny (I hate you! [PAUSE] Shouted Danny) you have: “I hate you!” shouted Danny (I hate you! shouted Danny).
    • It’s a subtle difference, but once you start noticing it you’ll probably realise that it does alter the way you read your dialogue.

#2: So what about when two pieces of dialogue flank a character action? How does that one work?

  • If I wanted Jimmy to tell Alison he won’t go to the dance, then throw his tea on the floor, and then explain that he’s already going with Mark – how would I do that?
    • Well, the best way is for me to show you: “I’d rather be seen wearing a One Direction shirt than go to the dance with you!” exclaimed Jimmy, hurling his iced tea to the pavement. “Anyway, I’m already going with Mark.”
    • Here there are essentially two ways to do this, and it’s entirely up to you which way you choose. But what it comes down to is: Are your two bits of dialogue the same sentence (as spoken by the character) said in the same breath? Or are they two different thoughts, separated by a pause?
      • The demonstration above is an example where the two bits of dialogue are separate. I don’t want to go to the dance with Alison. I’m actually going with Mark. So what you do is the same as before: Dialogue ends with punctuation and lowercase dialogue tag. Jimmy throws his drink to the ground. Then we have a period, because that’s the end of that bit of dialogue. And then we start the next bit of dialogue as a new sentence. Make sense?
    • The other option is when a character continues a thought while the action is happening. For example Jimmy is pulling at his hat nervously while taking to Mark: “Mark, will you please swear to me,” Jimmy whispered, pulling his hat down over his ears, “that you won’t tell anybody about that thing with Alison?”
      • The big difference here is the way that the action between bits of dialogue is punctuated. The first bit of dialogue is ended with a comma (or exclamation mark etc) and a lowercase speech tag as before, but since the dialogue then continues in the same breath, instead of the tag/action ending in a period it ends in a comma – and the dialogue continues as though it has never been interrupted.

#3 But what if I don’t want to use a dialogue tag? What if an action is enough to end this speech?

  • This is another common way to finish off dialogue. What if you’ve used said enough, and you don’t want your characters whispering or yelling or snorting their words? Well, you could just have something like this: “I’ve had enough of this rubbish.” Dana turned off her computer.
    • Here the dialogue and the action are linked – presumably Dana is turning off her computer because she’s had enough of this rubbish. So, because we don’t have a “she said” on the end, you can end your dialogue with a period (or question mark or exclamation mark), and then start the post-dialogue action with a capital letter. I’ve had enough of this rubbish [, she said]. Dana turned off her computer. Dana turning off the computer is not a VERBAL response, therefore we don’t do the comma/lowercase thing.
    • Here’s another one: “Sarah, will you sort out your washing later?” Her mum was pacing again. “It’s driving me up the wall.”

When it comes down to it, punctuating dialogue is a lot like punctuating normal sentences – and that’s the trick. Imagine where a period or a comma might go if the speech marks weren’t there, and usually you can tell what to do.

But if you ever have any questions, feel free to ask! Hopefully this has cleared up some issues for some people. Have fun with you dialogue, and don’t panic. Soon this will be second-nature to you and you’ll do it without thinking about it.

As always, let me know in the comments if you need anything clarifying or if you’ve got other tips on how to do it (or requests for other tips!)