Writing tips

Need For Read

As of today, I’m on holiday. I’m off to sunny, sunny Scotland. A holiday for me means warm food, cold drinks, and plenty of time for me to catch up on my reading.

“Do lots of reading” has got to be one of the most common pieces of writing advice. Reading should be a basic staple of any writers day, but I have a suspicion it’s often one of the first things that fall by the wayside when time gets tight­­­­. I’m guilty of it, and I know plenty of other writers who are too.

I ran the numbers, and so far this year I’ve definitely read less than ten books, some of those audio-books. Screw you, yes they still count.

I’ve been slacking, and that’s bad.

books 2

I am totally judging these by their covers

One of my favourite Tyrion Lannister quotes from George R.R Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (better known as Game of Thrones):

‘A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much.’

Reading improves your vocabulary, your sentence structure, your pacing, your dialogue. Basically every part of your writing. Reading helps you spot what works and more importantly what doesn’t. The more you read the more refined your own writing “voice” becomes, the end result is something of an unconscious amalgamation of all your favourite subtleties, and that’s pretty cool.

Reading also helps me a lot when I get stuck with writer’s block. When I get trapped too much in my own head reading a book helps ground the writing process and once again make it an attainable thing. I think, this seems easy enough, maybe I can do this.

Hell, there are reading benefits that non-writers need to get in on too. Studies show reading helps your memory and fights against diseases like Alzheimer’s.

More than that, reading is fun. You get the same pleasure as you would from watching TV, but with the added bonus of it being vaguely intellectual, meaning you can lord it over people.

book man

I’ll have you know Sir, I read books

More seriously, it’s been suggested reading increases analytical thinking ability and a person’s empathy, improving a person’s ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. My God does the world seem to need a bit more of both of those things lately.

I know it sounds dramatic but I really do feel like reading is slowly becoming a lost medium. Literary fiction is in decline, and naturally, that scares the hell out of writers. Movies, TV shows, even big video game releases have become these big cultural events. It doesn’t seem to happen for books anymore, not since the Harry Potter frenzy years ago.

I have faith that it’s a temporary blip, despite the decline there are also reports that millennials are reading more than ever—so maybe the next generation is going to help with a resurgence.

I know I need to start getting more consistent with my own reading. In 2019 I’m setting myself the modest goal of reading at least 50 books, which roughly means reading a book a week. I’m going to set some time aside to read before bed, spending less time on my phone, and hopefully benefit from a better nights sleep as well.

How many books have you read this year? Are you on top or could you stand to do better? Why are people reading less and how can we fix that? Maybe you’re freaking out about all this and want to something to read RIGHT NOW.

– H. L.

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Murder at the Bookstore

Have you noticed that in 2018 the fiction section of your local bookshop is full to bursting with detective novels? Almost every other book is about a P.I Whogivesa or a D.I Whatsit.

I went on holiday last year and thought I’d pick up some reading at the airport. Mistake. It’s a tiny airport bookstore, so I’m not exactly expecting the library of Alexandria. But damn near every fiction book was in the crime genre. If you didn’t want crime you were out of luck. Best accept you’ll be doing Sudoku for the next three hours.

crime

Silver Lining: I actually don’t mind Sudoku

Some of these bloody books are even in disguise. Not content with taking up large section of the shelf, crime-fiction is masquerading as horror-fiction. They have titles like “Pale Ghost” and a book cover featuring an illustration of a demon, then you flip to the blurb and get:

Former homicide detective Quincy Jones has made a lot of mistakes in his career. Now some of these mistakes are coming back to haunt his retirement. Can this disillusioned old cop solve a case that he thought he buried years ago, or will his demons finally destroy him?

Get out of here. That is not cool. You tricked me with your tricky marketing. Bad writer. If crime-fiction is so hot why pretend to be something else?

I’m being sulky. I don’t want to bash the writers knocking these things out. I know they’re not easy to write. Essentially having to work backwards from the end and sprinkle in all sorts of red-herrings along the way. Like baking a cake with only a picture as a frame of reference, and you have to trick people into thinking you made it with a toaster at some point.

toast

Crime.

People have tried to explain the surge in popularity with everything from the stressful times we live in, to the accessibility of Poirot on Netflix.

I don’t really care how the genre got so popular. The only important thing now is sorting out a plan on how to take it down.

Here’s what I’m thinking: we increase actual crime rates. Murder your neighbours, set fire to your communities, generally just go run amok. Only when the real world starts looking like it does in The Purge will people stop turning to crime-fiction for escapism.

Drastic plan? Maybe—but it’s the best one I’ve got.

While I work on that, I understand the wheel is going to keep turning. So. If you really do feel the need to add another detective book to the pile, please, try and mix it up a bit.

There’s been plenty of material out there about various cliches in this genre that should be avoided, but I’ve gone one step further and offered some creative alternatives:

1.) Instead of having your detective addicted to drugs or booze…make him fat. He’s a heifer that buries his angst in goodies. You’ll get some George R.R. Martin-level food description in and it’ll make the chase scenes way more interesting.

2.) Instead of a retired detective sulking over that one case he just couldn’t solve…make him miss it. What if wife made him retire. Maybe playing charades with the neighbours is driving him mad and he longs for the days of being knee deep in blood.

3.) Instead of having your detective be a genius Sherlock type…make him bad at his job. Maybe his uncle is the Chief of Police and nepotism prevailed. Detecting is hard. Be brave enough to have him rub his temples and admit he is really goddamn confused.

Those are my tips. You have about a month or two to use them before this blog blows-up and there is chaos in the streets and variety in our bookshops.

Why do you think crime pays so well? Why is a habitual murder so much more interesting than a hobbit to the common man? Would Harry Potter have done even better if his parent’s murder had been a whodunnit? Let me know in the comments.

– H.L

Finding a Place to Write

A year and a bit ago I and my fiance moved into our first home. It took a while to get settled, but we’re finally happy with the place.

OK, I’m happy. The other half is still moving things around. I don’t really like change, it’s a whole thing. I’m getting off point.

The biggest challenges I faced include replacing a built-in-fridge, getting a second-hand futon (fully-assembled!) up a very narrow set of stairs, and of course, finding the perfect spot for me to sit down and write.

Your writing space can mean the difference between sweet success and that other, dark, harrowing thing.

failure.jpg

Failure, that’s the word

Traditional writing advice suggests your work area should be free of distractions, but not barren enough to stifle your creativity. You should be comfortable, but your space also needs to be practical.

My own search hits a few different rooms, which I’m now going to take you on a journey through, but where I finally end up might just surprise you.

The Study

The new house came with a study? Problem solved, right?

Not quite.

“Study” is actually a pretty generous euphemism we use to avoid telling people, this is where we keep all the video games and the second Playstation. Study just sound more…adult.

The best part is the previous owner had this cool multi-coloured mood lighting installed which helps set the tone for whatever I’m working on.

It does have a desk, but it’s littered with all sorts of gadgets and games, all fun, but not exactly conducive for productivity.

I used this room for a bit, but the numerous distractions and the lack of desk space was killer in the end.

Final Score: 5/10

trash.jpg

I was going to provide actual pictures of these rooms, but that would require cleaning

The Conservatory

The conservatory makes for a beautiful writing space. It’s where I envisioned myself getting to work when we were buying the house. Whether looking at the nice view of the garden or having the blinds drawn to create a cosy atmosphere, the room is just brilliant to write it.

But damn it, it’s just not meant to be.

The room has some hella-comfy chairs, but no desk. That means any writing means having a laptop on my lap—and that means less time writing and more time spent worrying about the damage I might be doing to my fertility.

Final Score: 0/10

Notworthit

Not worth it

The Dining Room

The dining room is…serviceable. It has chairs, a table, no immediate threats to my swimmers. Nirvana right?

It’s practical. But so is an ironing board, and neither set’s my world on fire.

Final Score: 6/10

The Kitchen

Yes, this is where I ended up. Hang on, hear me out – it’s cooler than it sounds.

There’s a corner of our kitchen with a breakfast bar we seldom used. I was walking past one day…and inspiration hit.

Think about it. It’s close as you can be to all the local amenities. Snacks and drinks on demand. Plenty of desk space. There’s even a shelf overlooking the garden I’ve decorated with some notebooks and ornaments.

I’ve got a miniature zen sand garden I can rake when I’m stuck on a paragraph. A little quill and ink pot (stylish but not for actual use, I’m a lefty). A raven figurine I think I got from a Game of Thrones Monopoly set. The whole thing is pretty chill.

If you haven’t got your own writing space, take a look at your house with a fresh pair of eyes. The kitchen was the last place I expected to end up, but now I couldn’t be happier with my little corner of the world.

OK, the stools could be comfier, but hey, they keep me humble.

Final Score: 9/10

What does your writing space look like? What have you decorated it with? Do you put more stock in comfort or practicality? Let me know in the comments.

– H. L

How Not to World Build in Your Opening

Wularz was the youngest son of the prominent Backth family. They lived on Knaphi, and like many others made a good living trading in Abilia, in the warmer seasons at least. Life seemed good, but Wularz’s family were oblivious to his dark secret…for three months he had been a card-carrying member of the Scisac-Clan. Today he was set to be half-blooded.

This is not the opening to my next project. These are the prototypical first three sentences I read in many a novice writers efforts at writing science fiction or fantasy.

I get it. I really do.

The Backth family has a vast and interesting history which spans for generations, and the lore of Knaphi is so incredible you could fill a companion bible with its culture.

But I’m never going to read that bible. I’m not going to hang around long enough to find out that an Abilia is a sort of cow, and that the Scisac-Clan is a street gang, and to be half-blooded means committing assault on their behalf for the first time. And it’s a damn shame I’m not going to hang on, because that all sounds like it has the potential to be a good story.

But you’ve already lost me:

  • Dropping five jargon words in the first paragraph is a red flag.

  • Naming jargon, and then writing about it in a way which sounds like I should already know what it is, is a red flag.

  • Giving supplementary information about jargon, before I even know what the original jargon even is, is a red flag.

I only need one red flag and I’m putting down the book and considering if I’ve made a bad choice. If I get hit with three flags that quick; bang, bang bang – you’re either getting deleted from my Kindle or you’re going in the bin.

magic girl

You’ve put a lot of thought into your magic-system? Think maybe we can talk about that later? Pretty please?

Maybe you think the main problem with that opening is that it was telling all that information, rather than showing. Well, let’s see how showing the same quantity of gobbledygook is just a big a turn off:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

Drospe, a full-blooded, tutted.

‘Why are you even here Wularz, you’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy Backth?’

This elicited chuckles from the other Scisac-Clan members. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years tending Abiilia have given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, and if he passed, he’d finally be half-blooded.

This is a much better opening, but it’s still got too much jargon for my liking.

As a reader, I’m frustrated this blooded thing keeps getting mentioned and I’m still in the dark, it feels like I’m the last one to a party.

The sentence about tending Abiilia giving the character a fine right hook makes perfect sense to the author, but no sense to the reader.

We’re only seven paragraphs in and we’ve managed to overwhelm, exclude, and also confuse the reader.

tap

Your jargon is water coming from a tap. It needs to drip, any faster and the sink overflows, and then you then slip and die.

Let’s fix it. Cut the mention of the family name and establish it later. Cut the mention the blooded system, and establish it later. I might even cut mention of the Scisac-Clan, and establish it later. We have got a whole book to get this stuff in after all.

Let’s see how the scene looks now:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

‘Why are you even here Wularz,’ tutted Drospe. ‘You’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy?’

This elicited chuckles from the other men. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years working on his Daddy’s farm has given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, it would take a better man than Drospe to make him slip up today.

Now we’re rolling. Our jargon count has gone from nine words to three, but we’ve still got the exact same scene.

Of the three jargon words that are left; two are character names. Names are pretty important in prose, duh. If your reader is only going to remember one piece of jargon by the end of your opening, it better be your weird-ass character’s name.

Anyway, that’s the end of today’s lecture. If you liked the small taste of my writing why not check out Inferna – a  web serial/writing exercise hosted for free on this blog.

Have you got any pet peeves that bother you in the first couple pages of a story? Do you have any books to recommend which ease you into the world, rather than throwing you in the deep-end? Let me know in the comments.

– H. L