After the Party


Watching America from across the pond, it’s like looking at the House Party from Hell. Where that one guest turns up late and they haven’t brought any booze, but they still feel entitled to get roaring drunk on everyone else’s good stuff.  They shout and stomp and insult the other guests.  Start a fight.  Trash the place.  Throw up in the dog basket.  Then fall into a snoring coma on the couch with a lit cigarette in one hand and the other one down their pants.  And even after all that, you wake them up in the morning with a cup of fresh-brewed coffee and a couple of Advil, and offer them breakfast.

‘Man,’ he says, ‘that was a great party, wasn’t it?’

You look around at your destroyed house.  ‘No, Chuck, it wasn’t.  You ruined it for everybody.’

The rest of world likes to whale on the US – often with good reason, it has to be said.  But America is like the over-achieving Uncle you love to hate.  You can spend a whole afternoon shouting at him for being a bullying moron, but if you’re in a bind, he’s the one you call; because you know he’ll jump in his car and come and get you, even if it’s the middle of the night.

But now your uncle has been slipped a Roofie and he’s had some kind of psychotic break and you realise you can’t rely on him anymore.  And that is a terrifying thought.

You want to take back all those times you called him a moron; when you railed against him for being a bully – because he was, in the end, your bully.  You want him back the way he used to be.  Sure, he could be an overbearing, annoying and even arrogant S.O.B.  But he could also make your heart soar with his generosity and his ingenuity; his refusal to acknowledge the word ‘impossible’ and his unshakeable belief in Doing The Right Thing.

You loved him.

But the party’s over and the house is trashed and Uncle Sam has got dementia.


Five Ways To Make Sure #Love Trumps Hate


America chose Donald Trump as its 45th President on November 8th.

“What the actual fuck?”said the world.

“No really, it’s going to be fine,” said America, as the immigration website for Canada crashed.

Look, the world is going to be shit for at least four years.  All those right-wing nut job fears about FEMA camps and the like … that could become a reality for immigrants and Muslims.  If you think that’s cray-cray – the US has form for this.  Guantanamo Bay.  The internment of US citizens of Japanese descent during WW2.  Hell, the whole of US history up until right now has been predicated on the oppression of the brown person.  And now, for the first time in forever, America will have an openly racist President backed by the KKK and the alt-right.  If that doesn’t scare you, then with respect you need to get your head out of your ass.  And once you’ve done that, you need to stop wringing your hands and shaking that head in despair and ACT.

What to do

  1. Stand up when we see someone being abused in public. Literally, stand up.  Move your ass, get over there, stand beside the person being abused and say ‘No.’  That’s all it takes.  In this New World Order, we cannot afford to be bystanders any longer.  Brexit resulted in a massive upsurge in the UK of hate crimes and openly racist verbal attacks in the street and it’s already started in the US.  If you’re white, now is the time more than ever to use your privilege to help people of colour, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, refugees and Muslims.
  2. Join a group. Any group.  Foodbank group.  Green group.  Knitting club.  Community action group.  It doesn’t have to be political.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It could be you and a few friends.  But the purpose is the same: action leading to change.  Put down the keyboard and pick up a spade.  Get up off the couch and get out in the world.  Stop typing and start doing.  Love only trumps hate if it’s manifested by action.
  3. Find your level. Some folks have a lot of money.  Some have a lot of time.  Some have both.  Some have neither.  But everybody has something. For example, if your job or circumstance means you can’t be seen demonstrating, you may be able to help in the back office, making coffee, knitting balaclavas, writing copy, setting up a network.  And you don’t need money to do something.  Yes, money helps – a lot – but the real change, the real impact, comes from people moving their ass, joining a group, and DOING something physical to effect change.  Give what you can by doing what you can.
  4. Actively broaden your circle. Hate flourishes when there’s a fence (or a wall) between “us” and “them”.  You can start this very simply by smiling or saying hello to people you see at the grocery store, in line at the bank or coffee shop, on the way to work, who are clearly different to you.  Give up your seat on the bus.  If there’s a festival going on, a food market, a talk, a performance involving a different culture, go see it, taste it, experience it.  Watch foreign language films.  Read books about life outside the US.  Stop talking and start listening to people who experience life differently to you.
  5. Stop watching TV.   If you do the first four things you won’t have time to watch a lot of TV anyway.  If you turn off the TV it will give you time to do the other four things.  Win either way.  A quarter of US TV programming is adverts.  Watching TV makes us lazy, physically and mentally.  It wastes our time (Americans spend on average more than 5 hours a day watching TV).  It inhibits critical thinking.  Tune out so you can tune in.

“When fear becomes collective, when anger becomes collective, it’s extremely dangerous. It is overwhelming… The mass media and the military-industrial complex create a prison for us, so we continue to think, see, and act in the same way… We need the courage to express ourselves even when the majority is going in the opposite direction… because a change of direction can happen only when there is a collective awakening… Therefore, it is very important to say, ‘I am here!’ to those who share the same kind of insight.”

Thich Naht Hahn, The Art of Power (read this book by the way)

This Is My Dictionary


That quote is an honest-to-God quote from an actual self-published book that I actually read.  And yes, it did cost me no pounds and no pence but that is no excuse.

As indie authors, we must consider the impact of our atrocious spelling on our Dear Readers.  To illustrate: in this particular case, I was reading the offending book (and yes, it did offend, mightily) on my flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam.  It was a full flight, everyone packed in arse-to-elbow in seats designed for people with the dimensions of your average pipe cleaner.  I couldn’t sleep, what with two hundred people breathing in my close vicinity, so naturally I started reading.  The plane was quiet, people dozing off to the somnolent drone of the engines.  And then I read that sentence.  Like a reflex hammer on my reading knee, I exploded in a Tourette’s-like outburst and shouted ‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’  I woke up my seat-mates and every sleeping passenger for six rows back.  From then on, as if I’d created some monstrous psychic link with everyone I’d pissed off, whenever I got up to pee or stretch my legs, forty pairs of eyes would snap open and stare balefully at me until I was out of sight.  The trolley dollies smirked at me and ‘forgot’ to give me a hot towelette.  Every time I dozed off, my seat-mates would ‘accidentally’ elbow me.  I was last off the plane because nobody gave way so I could gymnast myself into the minuscule aisle.

It’s a bloody miracle the pilot didn’t come out of his pilot-office or wherever the hell they live and throw me off the plane in mid-air I’m telling you.  All because some fuckwit couldn’t spell ‘guerilla’.

It is time, my wordsmithing friends, for a Writers’ Creed, to go with the Sacred Oath of the Indie Author.

The Writers’ Creed

This is my dictionary.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My dictionary is my best friend.  It is my life.  I must master it as I must master my writing.

My dictionary, without me, is still a dictionary.  Without my dictionary, I am useless.  I must consult my dictionary true.  I must wordsmith greater than my indie rivals, who are trying to beat me in the Amazon charts. I must write my book before he writes his.  I will.

My dictionary and I know that what counts in writing is not the number of words we write, the length of our books, nor the covers we design.  We know that it is the spelling that counts.  We will spell.

My dictionary is a book, even as I am a writer.  Thus, I will learn it as a writer.  I will learn its pages, its words, its definitions, its lexicon, its meanings and its spellings.  I will keep it prepared and ready, even as I am prepared and ready.  We will become part of each other.  We will.

Before the Word Processor, I swear this creed.  My dictionary and I are the defenders of my writing.  We are the masters of our story.  We are the saviours of my writing.

So be it, until victory is my published work and there is no writing, but writing!

The Angry Apostrophe and the Bee Who Couldn’t Spell



Once upon a time, an apostrophe sat beneath a Bo tree and contemplated the origin of suffering within its curly tail.

A Bee bumbled upon the apostrophe.  ‘Why are you crying?’

The apostrophe looked up.  ‘Because I am abandoned and alone.’

‘Well,’ said the Bee, and settled on the ground beside the apostrophe.  ‘Your not alone anymore.’

The apostrophe stared at the Bee for a long moment – and then crushed the Bee with its curly tail.


I’m with the psychotic apostrophe on this one.  Never, in the history of the written word, has a punctuation mark been so maligned, misunderstood, abused and abjured.  No wonder it’s gone a bit dot-dot-curly-wurly-cuckoo.  Let’s take that asshole and do a short edumercaytional lesson:

your = that asshole belongs to you, you own it, it is yours, congratulations!

you’re = when you behave like an asshole, you are – you’re – an asshole, congratulations!

Rules on the use of apostrophes are actually very simple.  Perhaps they’re (ooh, an apostrophe!) too simple, who knows?

  1. To indicate the possessive
    • This is the apostrophe’s story.  It is a gruesome tale, whereby the apostrophe’s tail dismembers a stupid Bee.
    • Personal pronouns (my, his, hers, theirs, yours, ours etc) don’t need an apostrophe because they’re already possessive, like Gollum, my precious.
  2. To indicate missing letters (commonly known as contractions)
    • It’s bloody annoying when people don’t use apostrophes correctly.
  3. Sometimes to indicate the structure of unusual words
    • I bcc’d my BFF to tell her to mind her p’s and q’s when it comes to apostrophes, otherwise the Red Pen Serial Killer will be paying her a midnight visit.

And that’s it.  It’s also worth bearing in mind that apostrophes really hate it when they’re used to incorrectly indicate a plural, so let’s recap on the fruits of our apostrophic labours:


Writing stories is a little bit like being in labour.  Let’s make sure that we pay attention to our contractions so we don’t give birth to any self-published carnival monster’s.  <–I did that on purpose.

p.s. I haven’t forgotten the Bee Who Couldn’t Spell – that bumbling idiot will be centre stage in the next post…

The Sacred Oath of the Indie Author


We do this thing because we love it.  Because we can’t not do it.  Because there’s a burning hole in our soul where our story resides and the only way we can put that fire out is to get it down onto the page.  Like hacking up a thorny, fiery, fur-ball.

And for some of us, that’s where the story ends.  For others, there’s more hacking and fiery fur-balls, and we examine the smoking pile we’ve barfed up onto the computer screen, and we decide: “Yeah, I want to share that with other people.  I don’t care if it looks like a pile of Friday-night vomit.  I’m publishing!  Go me!”

A few years ago, we’d have to find an agent, get a publisher, suffer through edits and meetings and, um, advances – actual money in the bank because a publisher has deemed our fiery fur-ball worthy of print.  In those days, self-publishing was a bit of a dirty word, and expensive.  We’d have to shell out our own money to get our work out there.  And then along came Amazon, and the world exploded.  Like, it literally exploded: earthquakes and tsunamis and meteors, oh my.

And like any explosion, there’s an aftermath.  You only have to read some of the self-pub stuff out there to see the debris: broken editing; collapsed storylines; the bloated bodies of dead character development.  All for 99p!

But there are some absolute gems out there, in the self-pub universe.  Hugh Howey is often lionised – he’s like, the Stephen King of self-pub, an icon to which to aspire and all that.  I’m pretty sure Hugh Howey didn’t barf up his fiery fur-ball on the first go and just press ‘send’.  No.  He probably let the smoke die down a bit first, poked through the ruins, chewed over the remains and then hurled up another, bigger, better fur-ball before he shared it with the world.

That’s where the discipline of the indie author comes into play.  It’s so tempting to write our tens of thousands of words; feel fantastic at the achievement; and then publish.  The discipline is in letting the fires of our fiery fur-ball die down first.  Put it in a drawer for a couple of months (start another story while we’re waiting).  Come back to it with a fresh eye, and take up the Red Pen.

This is where our writing becomes our craft.  And our Dear Readers deserve that.  Our stories deserve that.  As indie authors, we don’t have the luxury of a publisher or an agent helping us to craft the best story we can.  It’s up to us.  And that’s why indie authors should have a sacred oath, and it’s a simple and profound one:

Don’t be crap.

Writing in the 3rd Dimension


What makes a good story?  No matter our story’s archetype, our characters are king.  Or queen.  Or Optimus Prime.

There are only so many story archetypes in the world.  Take the star-crossed lovers.  The story of Hero and Leander is perhaps one of the earliest examples of this one.  Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower.  Leander would cross the Hellespont River every night to be with her, guided by Hero’s lamp. This story archetype surfaces in the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo & Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff.

What makes these stories different isn’t the settings or time periods (Ancient Greece, Dark Ages England, Medieval Florence, Nineteenth Century windswept moors) but the characters.  Leander was a smooth-talking son of a gun who seduced the virginal Hero into rumpy-pumpy, only to drown on a stormy night when Hero’s lamp blew out and he lost his way.  Lancelot is driven by duty and love for God until he meets Guinevere and risks everything, then leaves on a lonely quest when he realises he can’t have her.  Juliet, a quiet and obedient girl, becomes a powerhouse of strength and rebellion when she decides Romeo’s the guy for her.  He thinks she dies, so he kills himself.  She follows swiftly after.  The template for thousands of dreamy-teen stories the world over. Heathcliff is a cruel and twisted bastard who taps into Cathy’s wild and tempestuous nature and her yearning to be free of society’s constraints upon her. A co-dependent abusive relationship that paved the way for Fifty Shades of Grey and if Emily Bronte wasn’t dead I’d do her in myself for that one.

The similarity in these characters, though, is that they are all flawed.  There’s no black-and-white here.  And that’s what we want – what we need – for our stories: well-rounded and flawed characters who develop and grow as the story progresses.

Think of it like this: if someone asked us what we did at the weekend, the conversation might go something like this:

“Well, I was in Nando’s on Friday night and this swoon-worthy guy was at the table next to us, and this time I was determined not to be a wallflower.”

“Ha!  About time!  What happened?”

“I kinda-sorta nonchalantly leaned over, and I was so mesmerised I forgot I was holding a chicken wing and I dropped it into his lap.”

“O-kaaay.  And how did that work out?”

“He called me a stupid tart and got up and left.”

“That is so rude!”

“I know, right?  He didn’t give me the chicken wing back!” *

*This is not a true story that did not happen to me.

The real story here isn’t that it took place in Nando’s.  It’s that our narrator is obviously a nerd-worthy social illiterate.

So how do we conjure a three-dimensional wonder from our imagination?  First, we have to know who our characters are.  So we might develop a character profile for them.  Then, when we’ve worked out our character’s development, we use our story elements – plot, scene, setting, dialogue, interaction with other characters – to show our character’s journey.

We’ve got some options when it comes to character profiling.  Here’s the profile template I use (in Scrivener), with a draft for a major character in my Work In Progress:

Character Name Felicity ‘Flick’ Dunbar
Role in Story Major Character POV
Age/DOB 32
Hair Colour Brown; shoulder-length; fine and straight
Eye Colour Light Blue – stonewashed denim
Skin Colour White
Height 5’6″
Weight/Body Type 140lbs; curvy, prone to weight gain
Physical Description Soft features; averagely attractive, with a full mouth and button nose – as a young woman she was ‘cute’; as a mature woman she’s aged well into her features
Personality Quiet, generous, helpful, strives for a normal life, kind, resilient
Personal Quirks Doesn’t like swearing
Moral Code Her kids come first in everything. She hates judgemental people (having been judged herself); always gives people the benefit of the doubt – which bites her in the arse with regard to Daley later on
Flaws Lack of confidence in her intelligence, capabilities and judgement
Key Traits She’s braver than she realises; has enormous courage; selfless
Secrets Her father abused her when her mother died.
Fears That her children will leave her behind, intellectually and emotionally; no idea what she will do when they leave home; that people stereotype her as a ‘single mum’
Possessions/ Status Working class, low-income, few possessions – old Ford Fiesta on its last legs
Occupation Cleaner
Origin and Childhood Mother died of cancer when she was 5yrs old; father violent, uncommunicative, judgemental. He abused her from age 9-15, when she became pregnant by a boy at school. She knows it was the boy, because her father always used condoms. She was not promiscuous – she had sex with the boy because she knew if she became pregnant her father would leave her alone. She thinks the abuse by her father is a secret, that her brother never knew. But he did. They have never talked about it.

She became pregnant again at 17, when she had sex with a casual labourer in the village, a black guy – this was her first romantic love. When she had the baby, a mixed race child, her father threw her and the children out of the house; he refused to have ‘a picaninny’ in the family.

She took the children and moved to a hostel for women and then into a council house at Bridgehaven, where she has been ever since.

Character Progression At the beginning of the story, she lacks confidence in her own abilities and decision-making; she knows she’s not smart (see Fears) and she generally defers to her children when it comes to decisions. The threat to her family, though, transforms her – and she finds a hidden ruthlessness, her protectiveness of the kids transforms into a lioness-like refusal to go down. She becomes strong, internally and externally; her meekness gives way to decisiveness; she discovers that she may not be book-smart, but she is intelligent and resourceful.
3 Critical Moments

1st external; 2x internal

  1. The home invasion – where she hides the kids and distracts the rapists from looking for Ally; she realises the extent she will go to to protect the kids
  2. Standing up to her father – when he refuses to take them in because of Ally; she purges her past
  3. Deciding to exile Andy from the group – when he attempts to rape Grace; she realises that she has become the leader of the group (something everyone else has already figured out)
Hobbies, Interests None: she devotes all her time, money and energy in providing for the kids
Family & Friends Two children: Rob (16) and Ally (14); never married; both from different fathers; Brother Ben Holloway

A character profile is a living thing and I might need to make some changes to Flick’s profile as the story develops.  Character Progression and Critical Moments – these are the cornerstones of the profile that will help me drive my character forward in the story.  We can use the character profile to make sure that, when we edit, we don’t have any continuity issues that make our Dear Readers tear their hair out – or throw their eReaders across the room.

Once we start writing, though, our characters will argue with us and be determined to do the opposite of what we intend for them, because they’re pesky like that.  And if they do start getting pernickety, that’s a good thing – it means they’re coming alive, jumping off the page and slapping us around the head saying ‘No!  I will not do it, Creator!’ (or, if they’re anything like some of my characters, punch you in the face with a succinct ‘Fuck you!’ before slinking back to the page in a sulk).

Craft Corner

Useful resources, book-wise, to help develop strong characters:

  • The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Volger
  • The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein
  • Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
  • The Emotion Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, both by Ackerman and Puglisi

Places on the web to find free character profile templates:

Happy character-building, scribes!

The awesome picture in this post is by

He Said She Said Say What?


Talk.  Most of us do it all day, every day, and sometimes in our sleep.  But when it comes to our writing, talking transmogrifies into something terrifying called “dialogue” and we run away screaming, and hide behind the sofa, and mumble that we can’t go on, that it’s too fucking hard, all because “dialogue”.

Come out from behind the sofa and get the dust bunnies out of your hair.  Dialogue is not a monster.

But that’s not to say we can’t turn it into one, with our adverbs and our stilted prose, and our refusal to use contractions, because this is a novel and not the real world so our characters have to talk like they spent their formative years in an Edwardian Boarding School, wtf.

Harry, who is eight years old, and Gretchen, his older sister who has just had her tenth birthday, are lost in the woods.

“I do not think we should go this way.”

“I do not agree with you.  This is definitely the way we should go.”

“No, I insist.  We really ought to go this way.”

“I have torn out my eyes with my fingernails to avoid reading any more of this drivel.”

Aside from the fact that no children in the history of the universe have ever sounded like that – no, not even in an Enid Blyton novel – we have no fucking idea who is saying what.  Although we can, it is true, empathise wholeheartedly with whoever has clawed at their own face to escape that turgid exchange.

That first sentence is exposition – otherwise known as telling our Dear Readers shit they could find out in a much more entertaining way.  For example:

“You’re only eight,” Gretchen yelled.  “We’re going this way, Harry!”

“I’m not following you anywhere.  You got lost in McDonald’s on your birthday.”  Harry started walking in the opposite direction.  “Two years older than me doesn’t make you smarter than me, Gretchy.”

“Don’t call me that, you little twerp,” said Gretchen.  “It would serve you right if a witch came out of the woods and gobbled you up!”

Harry laughed and didn’t even bother turning around.  “Only girls believe in witches.”

I’m pretty sure Harry will come upon a gingerbread house and find himself trapped inside an oven, whereupon he will Learn An Important Lesson about Something Or Other.

Dialogue has to move our story on and contribute to either character or plot development.  It connects the Dear Reader with our characters.  It’s grease on the axle of our story locomotive and without it the bloody wheels fall off.  It’s the chew-chew for our choo-choo.

Using the correct punctuation is the nuts and bolts of our dialogue mag-lev.  It seems like a small thing, where to put a comma rather than a full stop. In dialogue.  So that it, makes sense to our, beleaguered, Dear Readers.  Catch my drift, hombres and hombresses?

  1. Read it aloud – if we sound like an alien trying to master the English (or any other) language, then we re-write (unless of course our character is an alien trying to master … etc)
  2. Get rid of the ell-why’s – you know whys
  3. Think about dialogue tags and remember that “said” is an invisible word.
  4. Here’s a simple little flow chart I use to remind me where it’s at in the dialogue hierarchy:


And lastly, an uplifting quote from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights Dialogue Monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a Monster of Dialogue.”  He totally said that.  Google it, when you come out from behind the sofa.

Wherein the Adverb Dies – Horribly

murdered_adverb_2Ah, the adverb.  The literary device that indiscriminately shits all over our manuscript.

These incontinent -ly’s must be annihilated.  Exterminated.  (Perhaps with fragments.)

Okay, so maybe not all the adverbs in the world need to be taken down to the basement and tortured by the Red Pen Serial Killer.  Like an expensive perfume, some adverbs can be lightly spritzed about the body of our manuscript, just enough to turn the Dear Reader’s head and make them swoon (with lust, not their gag-reflex).

Where adverbs definitely need to die, though, is in the dialogue tags.

“Oh my god!” the Scribbler’s Apprentice cries astonishingly.  “But how else can I express the depth of my character’s experience?”

“I dunno,” says the Red Pen.  “Maybe you could put the action in the actions of your characters instead?”

“Ha, ha,” the Apprentice laughs uproariously, “what a novel idea!”  She stares at the Red Pen thoughtfully.  “What are you talking about?”

The Red Pen takes a switchblade out of its pocket and begins scraping the blood from under its fingernails.  “Are you sure you want to know?”

“Uh, yes.”  A bead of sweat forms on the Apprentice’s brow.  “I think.”

If a character laughs, do we really have to add “hilariously”?  Or “infectiously?”  If our character has an infectious laugh, then we should be showing the laugh, not telling our Dear Reader something they can’t picture (unless they picture “infectious” as Patient Zero in the Zombie Apocalypse, in which case, I want that Dear Reader as my Ruthless Critic and I will give them sweets and cheap wine).

Let’s take our character with the (non-apocalyptic) infectious laugh.  What does an infectious laugh sound like?  Is it like a braying donkey?  Does it start with a snuffled giggle, low in the belly, then erupt in a volcano of cackles?  Does it sound like a nineteenth century steam train?  What makes it infectious?  That’s what we need to capture in our writing.  Not an -ly tacked onto the end of a word like a lazy afterthought.

What about an example from the dialogue snippet up there?  What does “thoughtful” look like?  An image will probably come to mind: that friend of ours who always looks as though they’re just about to shout ‘Eureka!’; the woman we saw in the coffee shop the other day, staring out the window and seeing nothing; the frown of concentration on a child’s face as they try to tie their shoelaces for the first time, tongue peeking out of the corner of their mouth.  Which, if any, of those images suits our character?  What do we want to show our Dear Readers?  Whether we’re writing a romance or a horror-filled gore-fest, we’re trying to achieve the same thing: the enticement, the seduction and then the ravishment of our Dear Readers.  We crook our finger and invite them deeper inside our story with a flash of leg here and a hint of a smile there.  Then we slap them around a bit and lock them in the dungeon until they write us a good review.  Wait.  I may have got that bit wrong.

Anyway.  Physical reactions are some of the clues that gradually reveal our characters to the hungry eyes of our Dear Reader.   Another clue, of course, is in our characters’ dialogue.

(I spritzed a little adverb in there somewhere.  I’m hoping the Red Pen Serial Killer won’t see it and go all Crazy 88 on its ass.)

Revision is the Mother of All Suck-Ups

grocery_list_2If we can make amendments to our grocery list, why wouldn’t we edit a story we love more than our mothers, more than our children, more than the Red Sox or the White Stripes or Johnnie Walker Black Label?

Remember our excruciatingly awful paragraph from the last post?  Let’s recap on our second draft (now we’ve got rid of the dreaded PVZ):

I walked down the street, minding my own business, when I heard a loud bang behind me.  Terrified, I turned around, my heart about to explode, and  I saw a plume of exhaust from a back-fired car.  i felt like an idiot and started walking faster.  I didn’t want to be late for work, not today.

If you’re anything like me (and it’s okay if you’re not, because fuck the hegemony), you trawl through Amazon Kindle looking for the magical price-point of £0.00.  You stumble on a decent-sounding title (one that doesn’t have “A novel of post-apocalyptic survival” or some such shit tacked onto the end of it, as though the author can’t quite believe in the intelligence of their own Dear Readers to figure out that a picture with a wasteland on it is likely to be dystopian fiction of some sort).  Then you click on the ‘Look Inside’ feature – just because it’s free doesn’t mean you’re going to read any old shite.  Your time is precious and you want to be entertained not tortured (unless you’re into that kind of thing, which is cool as long as it’s all consensual).  And you read that paragraph up there.  Would you continue reading?  Would you download the book?  Would ya?  Would ya?

I know I wouldn’t.

Here’s why I’d stop reading and think this was a pile of shite:

  • Everyone walks down the street.  That’s such a pedestrian opener.
  • Minding your own business?  As opposed to what?  Something more entertaining, perhaps?
  • I don’t feel anything.
  • By the time I get to the part where my interest might be piqued, I don’t give a shit.

Reader = gone, in three sentences.

“But-but-but,” we say, “my story is really good!  If they’d only persevere until the second paragraph/page/chapter, everything will be revealed!”

And the only sane response to that, Word-Sorcerers, is this: if the story gets going in the second paragraph/page/chapter, then put that bit first.  Rocket science it ain’t.

As a Dear Reader, I want action, tension, intrigue.  I want those words to jump off the page and force my finger to scroll.  It’s a war, man – a war for my attention, my feelings, my investment.  I want to be imprisoned by prose and end up with Story Stockholm Syndrome.

So what can we do to help our apprentice Word Sorcerer (that would be me, then) salvage this piece of shite?

Where’s the action?  Where’s the tension?  Where’s the intrigue?

Well, we can surmise that our protagonist is nervous – otherwise a car back-firing wouldn’t scare the crap out of them.  And it’s got something to do with not being late for work today.  We could have them walk down the street nervously, perhaps – except we should endeavour to kill most of the adverbs in our writing, horribly (there’ll be a post about that later).

My heart stopped for a couple of seconds when the car back-fired.  I checked the reassuring weight in my jacket pocket, then picked up the pace, anxious to get to work on time.  For the first time in years, I had a reason not to be late.

Now we’re getting somewhere!  It’s a gun, right?  He’s got a gun in his pocket and he’s going to shoot his boss!  Amirite?  I’m right, aren’t I?  Ooh.  But what if it’s a girl?  And she has a portable hard drive in her pocket, and she’s going to steal her company’s secrets?  Ooh-ooh, wait!  It could be a transvestite who’s got a prosthetic dick in their pocket and they’re going to slap it down on their co-worker’s desk and tell ’em to suck on that, motherfucker, with your transgender-phobic potty-mouth. Ahem.

Now I think I might be tempted to read the next paragraph, because I can’t be sure what it’s all about yet.

And that – the elusive moment when our Dear Reader’s interest is piqued to continue – is why we must suck it up and take up the Red Pen of Revision.  We can win the war by slashing sentences and chopping the head off every unnecessary word.  Aim for a battlefield strewn with broken letters and  dismembered paragraph parts, then raise your Red Pen aloft and cry, “Oh god!  I’m back down to 20,000 words!”

Then pour yourself a stiff drink and start again.

Get Aggressive with Passive Voice

passive_voice_4For the love of God (or Buddha, or Rationalism, or whatever floats your existential boat), please let’s bash the Passive Voice Zombie on the head with a baseball bat.

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when there was a loud bang behind me.  I was terrified, and turned around like my heart was about to explode out of my chest.  And I realised it was a car back-firing, and then I felt like an idiot, and realised I was late for work, which was bad news, because today was an important day.

What’s wrong with that paragraph?  Apart from the excruciatingly boring subject matter, the copious use of commas and the terrible writing style of course (which I freely admit is all my own).

Let me go back a step, and explain: as part of my research into my post-apoc fiction-writing, I’ve downloaded a lot of £1.99-or-less eBooks on Amazon.  I wanted to see what some of the competition is doing and, after my eyeballs had stopped bleeding, I realised there were some common problems among the glut of self-published books out there.  Not least was the frequent use of passive voice (see what I did there?).

So here’s that paragraph again with the dirty undergarments of the passive voice exposed for all the world to see (and hopefully vilify):

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when there was a loud bang behind me.  I was terrified, and turned around like my heart was about to explode out of my chest.  And I realised it was a car back-firing, and then I felt like an idiot, and realised I was late for work, which was bad news, because today was an important day.

Passive voice drains the life out of our work like a screwdriver hammered into our fuel tank.  It takes away all the vroom in our storytelling engine, and the only get-up-and-go is our Dear Readers getting-up-and-going to another book on the virtual shelf.  And we don’t want that to happen do we?  Because we want that buck-ninety-nine dammit!

If we see passive voice in our writing, we need to ruthlessly weed it out like the yarn-destroying kudzu it is, and replace it with action:

I walked down the street, minding my own business, when I heard a loud bang behind me.  Terrified, I turned around, my heart about to explode, and  I saw a plume of exhaust from a back-fired car.  i felt like an idiot and started walking faster.  I didn’t want to be late for work, not today.

Not only does removing passive voice speed up the narrative, it forces us to put more action and context in our work (details like the plume of smoke; walking faster) and our hook (why doesn’t this person want to be late for work?  What’s so special about today?) practically writes itself.  I’ve written a purposefully awful example to hopefully illustrate that removing passive voice can unearth potential in even the most boring dung heap.

This brings us onto the second most common issue I’ve found in my reading research so far: editing.  Well, the dire lack of editing.  It’s as if some writers out there have never heard of the words “first draft”.  That first paragraph up there?  First draft.  The second paragraph?  Second draft.  We have some awesome ideas in our heads that we want to share with the world.  Why on earth would we word-vomit our first attempt into the public domain?  That’s just gross.  Far better to throw up our first draft in private, cry a little (okay, a lot) over the mess, then clean it up.  That’s called revision and editing.

If we’re going to take two quid off someone, let’s at least refrain from using a PVZ to munch on their brains.  And do our throwing up in private.

A couple of useful resources to understand passive voice (and other common writing mistakes) which I’ve found helpful:

‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’