9 November 2012

Special Guest Post - Alana Woods on 25 Essential Writing Tips: Guide to Writing Good Fiction

You want your story to sparkle, with cutting edge dialogue and evocative narrative? Then you need to hone, hone, hone!
In June this year I published a fiction writing guide aimed at helping writers hone their story telling skills.
Tony asked if I’d mind sharing several tips from the guide and of course I said, ‘For you, Tony, I don’t mind at all’.
My profession is copy editor; been one for close to 30 years. Non-fiction was my specialty until I published my first novel, AUTOMATON, in 2001. After that I began to take on fiction as well.
The second print run of AUTOMATON I sold direct to the public at events such as club and library talks and I therefore met the people who bought it. Some of them were aspiring authors who were always interested in how I’d gone about things. And one thing leading to another I’d be asked if I’d look at their work. And when someone’s just handed you $20 you feel a tad beholden, so I usually agreed.
Recurring weaknesses made themselves obvious pretty quickly so I compiled a tips sheet for authors covering those areas. Earlier this year I decided to flesh out those tips and produce the guide. It covers voice, hooking the reader, show don’t tell, dialogue, characterisation, story development, sentence construction, point of view, tense, active/passive voice, description, sentence fragments, spelling, punctuation and grammar.
So, which tips am I going to share today? I thought we could talk about the hook, show don’t tell, and finish with a bit about dialogue.
The hook: also known as the literary hook. This is quite simply grabbing your readers’ interest with your opening words. If you’re lucky enough for a prospective buyer to pick your book off the shelf (in a real or virtual bookstore) you have only seconds to make the sell. So one way or another make sure you grab them by the throat. There are various types of hook, the most popular being action. In the guide I use Matthew Reilly’s opening to Hell Island to illustrate:
Terrified, wounded and now out of ammo, Lieutenant Rick ‘Razor’ Haynes staggered down the tight passageway, blood pouring from a gunshot wound to his left thigh, scratch-marks crisscrossing his face.
Other hooks I discuss are cliff hangers, really off-the-wall statements, writing quality, dialogue, jumping in at a crucial moment, internalisation, painting a picture, or posing a question. I imagine you could add more.
Show don’t tell is such an important lesson to learn. New writers are often mystified by this advice, so let me explain it. Telling is giving information. Showing is painting pictures with your words. Here’s an example taken from my second novel IMBROGLIO:
Telling: The sharks attacked.
Showing: Like a ballet troupe, as one they altered their course and turned inward. In their rush they grew huge, obliterating the sun, looming like tankers, casting her into black shadows.
It should have your mind’s eye immediately visualising the sharks.
This doesn’t mean that telling has no place in a story. It does. It’s just as important in its way as showing. Both contribute. Generally speaking, show the important elements and use telling to move the story along.
Dialogue: this is one of my bugbears. Stilted and unnatural dialogue drives me to distraction. So how do you write dialogue that sounds natural? For a start listen to how people talk in real life and emulate that. People generally don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences. They, for instance, converse in shorthand, they change their mind in the middle of thoughts, and they use body language and expressions to punctuate what they’re saying. Here’s a before and after example from AUTOMATON:
‘Phil, it’s Robert Murphy speaking. Joe and I need to talk to you. Can you spare us five minutes of your time in, say, twenty minutes?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ Detective Sergeant Phillip Milne said, ‘What’s up?’
‘I’ll tell you when we see you. Where do you want to meet?’
‘You don’t want to come in to the police station?’
‘I’d prefer not.’
‘Okay. Let’s meet at the Wig and Pen then?’
‘That will do perfectly. We’ll see you there in twenty minutes.’
There’s nothing wrong with this. But notice how flat it is and that it doesn’t convey the urgency Murphy is feeling. Now here’s the actual version:
‘Phil, it’s Robert Murphy. Can you give Joe and me five minutes in, say, twenty?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ Detective Sergeant Phillip Milne said, ‘What’s up?’
‘Tell you when we see you. Where?’
‘You don’t want to come in?’
‘I’d prefer not.’
‘Okay. The Wig and Pen?’
‘See you there.’
Much more natural, wouldn’t you agree?
Of course there’s plenty more to say about dialogue, such as using attribution (he said, she said etc.), using names, carrying the story forward and how to show who is speaking when there’s a group. It’s all in the guide.
Alana Woods is a professional editor with many years’ experience working with non-fiction and fiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and a Graduate Diploma in Communication. 
She has two published novels, thrillers, although she prefers to categorise them as literary fiction.  Her first novel AUTOMATON, legal suspense, won the Fast Books Prize for best Australian self-published fiction in 2003, was nominated by Sisters in Crime for the Davitt Awards in 2004, and became an Australian best seller. Her second novel IMBROGLIO, espionage suspense, was published last year. She also has a collection of short stories, TAPESTRIES AND OTHER SHORT STORIES which includes a UK prize winner. She is currently working on a third novel.
Find out more at http://alanawoods.com/ and follow her on twitter 


1 comment:

  1. Hi Tony, many thanks for the invitation to guest post.