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Posts tagged ‘writing tips’

R is for … Reversal

Warning: this blog post contains spoilers. They will be called out, but the onus is on you to decide whether you want to continue and read a spoiler for a novel you haven’t read.

Now that’s out of the way, what is a reversal? A reversal can take many forms but is generally either a drastic change in circumstances for a character, or a change in direction for the plot. Reversals can help prevent your story from becoming predictable.

You could have a story where a man goes from rags to riches in a short space of time, changing his fortune (Brewster’s Millions), or one where the opposite takes place. Or, where an unreliable narrator turns out to be the ‘baddie’, after getting the reader to sympathise with them through the story.

One of the more memorable reversals I’ve read, was at the end of Lord of the Rings.

SPOILER ALERT

The spoiler will appear after the following pictures, so scroll at your own risk.

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If you’re still here, you’ve obviously either read the book, watched the films, or you don’t mind spoilers. All right, let’s begin.

For the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the main plot follows Frodo Baggins and Sam Gangee. From the moment they set out from Rivendell, they’re on a quest to go to Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. Yes, there are lots of other plots happening all the way through, but this is the major plot line. One awful thing after another befalls them, but they make it through. At the climactic moment, Frodo stands over the volcano with the One Ring in his hand and … he can’t do it. Wearing the ring and carrying it have affected him to the point where he becomes convinced he can make everything better if he holds on to it. Of course, we know that this is how the ring works, and that if he doesn’t destroy it everything will be lost, but the ring is affecting his judgement and he decides he’s going to keep it. Oh Frodo! What a betrayal.

Then, out of nowhere, his own madness from the ring at the forefront of his actions, Gollum comes shrieking into view to try to take the ring from Frodo. He bites off Frodo’s finger (ring and all) before hurtling to his death in the volcano below. First time readers of the trilogy don’t see that coming.

We have more than one reversal going on here.

  • Frodo’s desire to do good is subverted by the ring, and despite knowing the importance of destroying it, he decides to keep it in the belief that, for him, everything will be different. He, where everyone else has failed, will wield the ring and become a benevolent ruler.
  • Gollum, the most pathetic character in the trilogy, saves the day. However, it’s not altruistic on his part; again, the ring is exerting its influence over him. His need for the ring drives him.

Of course, to make a good reversal work well, it can’t come as a total surprise. You have to lay a groundwork of subtle signs to mark the way for when you reach that point, without making it obvious beforehand. The trick is to make your reader think that the story is going to go one way (Frodo’s struggles to get to Mount Doom and his eventually reaching there), but also drop in enough foreshadowing for the reversal not to be completely out of the blue.  Tolkein does this by having Gollum tracking Frodo for most of the story. He’s seen following them down the river; he becomes their captive at one point, before escaping, so we’re used to seeing him turn up. And then there’s the line where Tolkein foreshadows everything by literally having Gandalf tell the reader what’s going to happen. This comes when Frodo asks Gandalf why Bilbo spared Gollum:

“And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”

It’s cleverly buried in a conversation where we might not think much about it at the time, but here the scene is set for what ultimately takes place.

In my novel, The Lost Weaver, I have a similarly dramatic reversal take place in the climactic scenes. I’m not going to go into detail because the novel hasn’t been published, yet. You can bet, though, that I’ve both hinted at and misdirected all the way to that moment. I can’t wait to see if readers see it coming.

If I do it right, they won’t until it happens. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh! Of course.”

 

M is for … Manuscript Format

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I’m a day late updating the blog this week.  An idea for a story caught hold of me and wouldn’t leave me alone all weekend until I had completed the first draft.  It’s rare that they come to me like that, so I had to comply. It’s quite a long story, and has themes of motherhood and empowerment, along with strong mythological influences. It still needs a lot of work before Ican start sending it out on submission, but I’m pleased with the shape it has taken.

Which brings me to this week’s subject: how to prepare your writing for submission to publications, agents or publishers. While most have their own submission guidelines, they will nearly always ask for submissions to be in standard manuscript format.

So, what is that?

If you google the subject, you’ll find lots of answers to that question, including William Shunn’s excellent advice, which hasn’t much changed.  But you won’t go far wrong if you use at least the following:

  • Standard font: Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, etc, set at 12 pt.
  • A4 size paper (letter in the US)
  • Double line spacing.
  • 2.5 cm (1 inch) margins all round.

UK First Page

 

If you’re in the UK, you’ll need a cover page, with your name, address and contact details in the top left corner and the word count in the top right.  In the middle of the page, you’ll want the title of your story, and underneath, your name, or nom de plume.

 

 

 

 

 

US First Page

 

If you’re in the US, you’ll need all that on the top half of the page, and start your story half way down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the top of every page after the first or cover page, you’ll need to have your last name, the title and the page number:

MS Format - Top of page

This is so that if any pages come loose, they can be matched up to the right manuscript. On a UK manuscript, this would start on page 1 because the cover page is not counted. On a US manuscript, this would be page 2 as the story starts halfway down the first page.

If a publication calls for blind submissions, it means they don’t want any information that reveals your identity. Some do this because then they are not biased by the writer and can judge the story on its merits. When submitting blind, you still use standard manuscript format, but your submission will only have the word count, title and page numbers from the above examples, and none of the identifying information.

It used to be the case that two spaces were required after a full stop (period), but most places these days will ask for one. As someone who learned to type when two spaces were the norm, I find it difficult to train my thumb to hit the spacebar only once so I don’t try.  Instead, when I’m editing, I use ‘find and replace’ to change all the double spaces to single ones.

There was also a rule that italics must be underlined, but these days most places will accept manuscripts wth italics. It’s always best to check their submission guidelines to make sure, though.

First line

 

 

Paragraphs should always be set so that the first line  is a half inch, or 1.27 centimeters indented. In Word, you can set the formatting to do this automatically every time you hit the enter key.

 

 

 

I can’t stress enough that you should always read the submission guidelines. It will save your story from being rejected without being read. It might still get rejected (I’ve had far more rejections than acceptances), but at least you’ve given it every chance to succeed.

If you haven’t submitted before, I hope this helps. Now get those stories out there!

 

 

L is for … Language

 

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When you’re writing a character who isn’t from where you are, one of the best ways to convey their origin is the language they use. Since I’m writing in English, my characters will always speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t add a little flavour, and  within English there are many different dialects and accents.

So how do you let the reader know that someone in a story is from a particular place, without doing the obvious and telling them, ‘hey, this character is from London,’ or, ‘this person is from Mexico?’

One way to do this is to mostly use English, but throw in the odd dialect word, or a word from another language. Use dialect, but don’t overdo the accent or it will be hard to understand.

‘E were nowt burra big babby. I telt ‘im ta sling ‘is ‘ook burre wunt. ‘E just kept on whingeing about not gettin’ enough respect.

Being from south Yorkshire, I can understand that, but others who aren’t used to the accent might have difficulty. Let’s try it with dialect but lose some of the glottal stops and dropped h and g sounds.

He was such a baby. I told him to sling his hook but he wouldn’t leave. He just kept on whingeing about not getting enough respect.

The second version is a bit easier to read, but I’ve kept the dialect words such as ‘sling his hook’ and ‘whingeing’. I also gave context for the meaning of ‘sling his hook’ by saying ‘he wouldn’t leave.

Ear mate, wotcha fink abart goin’ darn the pub forra bevy?

The above seems a bit ‘Dick van Dyke’, if you get my meaning. If we take away the exaggerated accent, it becomes:

Fancy going down the pub for a bevy?

We’ve kept the speech pattern of ‘going down the pub’ and ‘bevy’ (which, since we’re going to a pub is – by context – obviously a drink).

So now we’ve got a couple of British accents, how about someone from another country? Here’s my take on someone from Mexico.

I waved to get the flight attendant’s attention. She smiled and held up her hand, and said, “Momentito.”

I waited until she finished helping the other passenger. When she turned to me, I asked, “do you speak English?”

She held up her forefinger and thumb pinched together. “Un poquito.” She grinned.

We can see that she means ‘a little bit’ by the action she makes for ‘un poquito’ and the same goes for her putting up a hand as if to say, ‘wait a moment’ when she says,  ‘momentito’. Plus, the word sounds similar to ‘moment’. It’s enough to show she’s not English without going into too much detail or dwelling on an accent.

How about German?

Some people might make a big deal of writing every ‘w’ sound as a ‘v’, or every ‘th’ as a ‘z’ but it comes out quite stereotypical if we do that.

I gave her the moeny we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “Zis is vonderful!” she said, hugging me.  “Zank you! Zank you my friend!”

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I gave her the money we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “This is  wonderful!” she said, hugging me. “Danke! Danke mein freund.”

Instead of using stereotypical accents, we use the language itself. The words are commonly known, and sound similar enough to their English counterparts that we can see what she means, especially alongside the actions. Again, it’s all about the context.

This is an especially useful method to use when writing fantasy, especially if your fantasy is set in another world. Rather than make up new words for everything, it’s probably best to choose a few important words and put them in a context where it’s obvious what they mean.

I’ll leave you with a partial scene from something I’m working on. Can you tell what’s going on here? What do you think the word ‘hekesha’ means?

“I loved her, yes.” Laera hung her head. “But that isn’t why I ran away.”
“Hekesha!” Her father shrieked.
Still she did not look at him, not even at the sound of tearing cloth. She did not need to look to know that he had torn off his sleeve and cast it at her feet. The ultimate in rejection. He had disowned her in front of the entire court.

 

F is for … Foreshadowing

I’m late posting this week; things have been busy, and the blog post I thought I’d be publishing this week isn’t happening yet (but will be something to look forward to in the future, I hope!).

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I’ve also had some brilliant news: I had a telephone interview yesterday with one of the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School and have been offered a place on their MFA in Creative Writing, starting September. I’m so excited! I’m also terrified I won’t measure up.

Once I submitted the application, I tortured myself for two weeks. If you write, you’ll know what I mean. From the moment I sent off the paperwork (containing a writing sample, book review, reference and personal statement), I started to doubt everything. One moment I’d think, ‘this is a good sample of my work,’ and the next I’d think, ‘Who wrote this rubbish? They’re going to laugh me out the door!’ I seriously considered asking if I could withdraw and submit again.

Luckily, I didn’t. The tutor I spoke with liked my writing, and, after a brief chat, offered me a place! Now I just have to wait for the official offer.

Did I mention I was excited?

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Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to this week’s post.

Foreshadowing

You may have heard the term before. In a nutshell, foreshadowing is where you drop clues in the story about something significant that will happen later. Usually, the clues are subtle, so that the reader might not think anything of them until the important event happens and then – if you’ve done a good job – they’ll say ‘Oh yes! I should have seen that coming!’

Sometimes, the writer will try to disguise foreshadowing by misdirection. They might have the main characters dismiss something as impossible and never going to happen, but then, of course, it does.

Or they may use nature. Nothing says there’s trouble ahead like a raging storm, or animals acting oddly.

The trick is to make the foreshadowing innocuous enough for the reader to absorb it as background detail, or worldbuilding if it’s speculative fiction. Details that seem minor and vaguely interesting at the time we read them, are rendered pivotal at the novel’s climax. Or at least they should. There’s a fine line between innocuous and forgettable. Don’t make your foreshadowing too noticeable or you’ll puncture the suspense you’ve so carefully built, and don’t make it too unnoticeable or it won’t give the reader that ‘Oh, of course!’ feeling later.

Examples

In Lord of the Rings, Tolkein foreshadows the climax at Mount Doom:

‘Pity? It’s a pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’

In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee foreshadows the novel’s main story arc.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

What are your favourite foreshadowing moments?