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by Blair McDowell
I am eminently qualified to offer these tips on writing fiction, not because I’m a vastly published author of fiction. Quite the reverse. My first novel, The Memory of Roses, was released on October third, 2011, and my second, Delighting In Your Company, is scheduled for release in March, 2012, both by Rebel Ink Press and available through Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com. I’m working on my third .
I’m a rank beginner in the world of fiction. That’s why I’m able to write first-hand about the pitfalls and perils of creative writing to all who may be just venturing forth. I’m still doing battle with these demons myself every day.
So what are the problems awaiting us as we enter this new and exciting world of make-believe, creating people, putting them together in interesting places and situations, getting them into and out of trouble? It’s a heady feeling, playing God.
1. POV. How many times have I seen those pesky initials in the margin of my manuscripts! Simply put, we may not jump from head to head in a scene when writing. We have to decide from whose point of view the scene, or the chapter, or even the whole book is to be written. And once the decision is made we have to stick with it. We can’t let our hero’s thoughts intrude if the scene is from the heroine’s POV. Easier said than done.
2. SHOW, DON'T TELL. This is one of the hardest things to do initially. Our heroine can’t just be sad, or look sadly at the hero, she has to do something that shows she’s sad. Maybe her eyes fill with unshed tears. Maybe her shoulders slump, her steps falter, she sighs, or sobs and covers her face with her hands. One way I check for “telling” is to do a computer search for the words “feel” and “felt”. Every time I find one of these, I delete it and try to rewrite the scene to show how the character’s actions tell the reader what the character is feeling
3. USING ALL FIVE SENSES. In real life we use all our senses constantly. We see people on the street. We hear a truck lumbering by. We smell the acrid smoke from the nearby lumber mill. We taste the rich dark chocolate. We touch the baby’s soft skin. Our characters must do the same if we don’t want them to be one-dimensional.
4. DIALOGUE. Dialogue isn’t everyday speech. If we were to write down what we hear around us in the grocery store or at Starbucks, the result wouldn’t be dialogue. It would be full of fillers such as “uh” “so” and “like”. Dialogue is a written substitute for speech, but it isn’t really speech. It is both more precise and more stylized. However it must seduce the reader into hearing it as speech. There-in lies the rub.
5. VOICE. Every good author has an identifiable voice. It is what distinguishes Hemmingway from T.H. White, Nora Roberts from Fern Michaels, Shakespeare from John Donne. Each one of us has our own voice, our own sound, our own way of putting words together. If we call a relative or friend on the phone, they recognize us, not just by the timbre of our voice, but also by the words we use and the way we put those words together. It is that uniqueness of the individual voice that we must somehow translate to the written word.
6. CREATING BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS. This is closely related to #5 above. As we must make our central character identifiable through his/her voice, so we must give our other characters voice characteristics that help the reader know who is talking without the constant and intrusive use of dialogue tags. This can be done in a number of ways. Is the character well-educated, with a large vocabulary? Or is he/she more likely to use simple words? A waitress will probably speak differently than a college professor. Is the character soft spoken? Bombastic? Characterization begins with voice.
7. DIALOGUE TAGS. How many ways can we say “he said, she said”? I came up with fifty words I could substitute for said when I was first writing. But I now believe that simpler is better. The best way is not to find another word for said, but to make who is speaking clear through some action. John plopped down in the kitchen chair. “What’s for dinner?” Is there any doubt in the reader’s mind that John is speaking? And in multi character scenes, if we must use dialogue tags, simpler is probably better.
8. PLOTTING. As a reader, nothing annoys me more than loose ends. I hate getting to the end of a book and discovering that a plot point mentioned on page seventeen has never surfaced again, never been resolved. If we know where we as authors are going we’re more likely to arrive in a timely manner at our intended destination. I’m a great believer in advanced plotting, deciding ahead of time where the crisis points in my story will occur and when and how they will be resolved.
9. PACING. This is one I’m still truly struggling with. I know I should be getting on with the story. But I like to stop and smell the roses. I love setting a scene. I like painting verbal pictures. In The Memory of Roses my setting is the Greek Island of Corfu. How could I not describe the color of the sea, the dark lush groves of olive trees, the picturesque hill villages? This book is almost as much about my on-going love affair with Greece as it is about the lives and loves of my characters. I must constantly remind myself to move the story along as I write. Setting plot points and writing toward them helps me with that.
I’m sure there are many pitfalls I haven’t mentioned here. Many I have still to encounter. But isn’t it a great life, writing? We get to build our own reality, day by day, and book by book.
Blair, thanks for sharing such great advice...very helpful!
This can change a dozen times in any given month. But at the moment I’m enamoured with the writing of Michael Dibdin. He is the author of a series of books featuring a Venetian detective in Rome. Three of these books were recently made into television dramas shown on Masterpiece Theater. Dibdin’s writing in descriptive passages is simply gorgeous. He is a master of the craft.
What was the setting for the most romantic scene you’ve ever written?
Has to be the one on a deserted beach on Corfu In The Memory of Roses, although a close second is the one on a beach in the Caribbean, in Delighting In Your Company, my book that will be out in March, a paranormal romance featuring an irresistible ghost lover. I’m a sucker for love on a beach, in spite of sand getting into uncomfortable places.
Sounds very romantic. What is the most exotic place you’ve ever traveled to?
The Torres Strait Islands. There are about five hundred of them, only a few inhabited, between the Northern most tip of Australia and southern coast of New Guynea. I was researching the folk music of the native islanders there. Grass landing strip. No scheduled flights. No hotels. Near the equator and no air-conditioning. But wonderful people with a disappearing language and a unique folk music.
My trip to the northern coast of Iceland on the longest days of the year when the sun never sets, comes a close second.
Thanks so much for sharing. I enjoyed chatting.
When renowned archaeologist Ian McQuaid dies he leaves his daughter, Brit, a villa on the Greek Island of Corfu. He asks that she deliver a package to a woman he once loved there. Brit had known nothing about either the villa or the love affair her father had while married to her mother. At thirty-two, after a disastrous love affair, Brit finally admits to herself that she is desperately unhappy. Left with only questions, Brit has a dawning sense that to live her own life free of shadows she must trace the path of her father’s past.
Her journey takes her from San Francisco to Athens, to the villa on Corfu, and, finally to Venice, where she discovers a truth, long hidden, with the power to destroy lives. During the course of her odyssey she meets Andreas Leandros, a young Greek archaeologist, and while uncovering the secrets of her father's past, she discovers her own future.
Very intriguing. Going on my TBR list. Can you share an excerpt? I understand that in the following scene, Brit McQuaid sees, for the first time, the man who may become the love of her life.
She caught her breath. Standing almost in front of her, absolutely still and gazing down the arcade as if expecting someone, was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen. He was well over six feet tall and his head was crowned with an unruly mass of curly hair so bright that in the sunlight it looked like spun gold. His face was classically Greek, broad brow, straight nose, strong jaw. But it was his eyes that were most arresting. They were a startling blue with streaks of deeper blue, like lapis shards, and were surrounded with dense dark eyelashes. He was long and lanky, and his jeans and short sleeved knit shirt did little to conceal the ripples of his muscular body.
Brit could hardly take her eyes off of him. My God, she thought. It’s Hermes, the messenger of the gods. It’s the marble statue from the Archaeology Museum in Athens. He’s come to life.
She had loved that ancient statue since the moment she’d first seen it at fourteen years old. Her father had teased her about it. Teased her about falling in love with a Greek god at an age when other young girls were swooning over rock stars.
Unable to tear her eyes away, she watched as the young man stood as motionless as the statue he so resembled, adding to the sense of unreality.
Then a small dark haired girl came rushing up to him and, taking his arm, burst into a spate of rapid Greek, the gist of which Brit understood to mean that she had been shopping and had lost track of the time and was so, so sorry, and would he forgive her?
The spell was broken. The statue gave way to a laughing young man. “Of course I forgive you! Don’t I always?”
With that, the pair strolled off, arm in arm.
Thanks for sharing. Where can readers find your book online?
Purchase The Memory of Roses on B & N
Purchase The Memory of Roses on Amazon
Purchase The Memory of Roses on ARe
Purchase The Memory of Roses on EBookStrand
Abigail's Christmas, a short story, will be available in e-book in November through Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com
Love the cover. Will be looking for it!
Blair, thanks again for guesting today. I enjoyed chatting with you and hearing your advice for beginning writers.
If anyone would like to be entered for a chance to win a copy of The Memory of Roses, please comment on this blog post. Feel free to stick around and chat.