Sunday, January 05, 2014

Writing Clinic: Basic Tips

Thought I'd share with you one of the latest messages I've had asking about writing. It came from one of my readers via facebook but I get asked similar things all the time so I hope my answer helps. Tell me what you think or add your suggestions in the comments...

I don't know whether to describe a character in one big paragraph or a bit here and a bit there as the chapter goes on. Also i just can't seem to change the scene.
I'm having lots of trouble bringing the child from school to home.
Should i write about him walking home from school because that's not in my plan or should i skip from morning to noon and go straight home?
So if you understand what i mean i want to write a bit about a conversation with his friend at school and then he gets detention but i don't want to write about him walking home.
Please help and i hope you understand what i mean as it's hard to explain and these problems really frustrate me i hope i'm not wasting your time and ask for your help


Hi F,
These are great questions. I think I have a couple of bits of advice that might help...
First of all, it's OK to write ANYTHING in your first draft even if you think it's not part of your plan or you think it doesn't work. Forget all that and just WRITE to get to the next bit of the story. When you're finished, you go back and you can cut out all of the bits that you don't need. But in order to find out what those bits are, sometimes you have to write a lot of rubbish in a first draft to begin with.
Having said all that, with a bit of experience and practice you'll get a better feeling for which bits you don't need to write in your first draft. For example, if nothing happens when the character is walking home from school, don't write that bit. You'll only cut it out later (or you should). Just go straight to the character being at home. Readers are smart people. They'll work out that the character isn't still at school when they seem him sitting at home watching TV or eating or having an argument or whatever it is that he's doing (and by the way, having an argument or having some kind of problem will probably be a lot more interesting for your readers than watching TV or eating. Unless he chokes.)
So what about describing a character? My suggestion is that you describe a character as little as possible. If you feel like you have to do it, just give one or two bits of very basic information without being too fancy about it. Get it out of the way early and quickly. You readers will build their own picture of the person. Again, they're smart people. They'll assume your character has some kind of face. Unless there's anything really unusual about it (and there should only be something unusual about it if it's essential to the story) then you don't even need to mention it. Your readers will also assume your character is human and has the right number of arms and legs. Also that he or she is not wearing a hat. Nobody assumes there's a hat any more. Maybe they did in the fifties. I don't know. What a world that would have been.
Anyway, whatever you write, don't worry about it for your first draft. Just get it down on paper or the computer. Then go back and change most of what you've written or cut it out.

PS Here's my tip for changing the scene: JUST STOP and start again with a different scene.
Nobody has to leave the room or die or say "that's it" or turn the lights out. You can just end the scene by stopping writing any more. So say what you need to say, show your reader the bit of the story they need to see, then stop. Start a new line. Start the next scene. Sounds simple, but I know it feels hard sometimes. So JUST DO IT.
Same thing with characters getting to and from different places. Nobody needs to see how that happens. It may as well be magic. Nobody actually cares if they got a train a bus or rode a dragon. Travelling is boring unless that's the story. Just get them there in a single line:
"By the time Joe turned up at home he was too late..." etc.

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