Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Common faults number 2 Shifting point of view

 Whose story?

It’s really important to establish whose story you are telling. You then need to decide which narrative voice you will adapt: first person, third person distant, third person close, omniscient or maybe even second person.

Modern choices

We tend to favour at the moment first person – this is particularly popular in texts written for young adults – and also third person. Some argue that a first person narrative is unreliable. On the contrary, I would say it is very reliable – in portraying the character whose story we’re telling.  However, a reflective first person can pose a problem for the reader. The character has had the growth and the reader cannot enjoy it with her.  The close third person allows the reader to enjoy that growth with the protagonist. The reader is sitting on the protagonist’s shoulder and can read their mind.

However let’s be quite clear about a couple of things. First this is a modern trend.  Charles Dickens jumped about from one head to another and often used very successfully an omniscient, sometimes intrusive author. Readers loved it.

Secondly: the first person works very well in young adult texts as long as it is quite immediate.  Often the writer uses the present text.  We have the feeling that our best mate is relating an experience to us and has not yet worked out what it is all about.

Zooming in and Out

You need to decide exactly how close you want to be to your characters. Some texts have us zooming in and out of the character in way that can actually make you feel quite sick.  

Rules are made to be broken
Before you say it, yes I know; Philip Pullman skips form head to head (but only in whole chapters) and at the end of The Amber Spy Glass he zooms right out and leaves Lyra and Will to get on with goodness knows what.
But of course, he’s allowed to break the rules because he knows where and how he can.

Try a patch test

Rewrite a passage from your work in progress in:
  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person close
  • Third person distant
  • Omniscient author

Also vary the tense:

  • past 
  • present 
  • future

Check carefully
Is every scene in the same point of view and at the same distance from that main character?  

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Common faults number 1 No story

As both a creative writing teacher and a commissioning editor I’ve become aware of three major mistakes that new writers make. These are the most common reasons for lower marks rejection and for rejection. 

The biggest of all is that there is no story. Poor writing can be fixed – sometimes with a lot of patience and effort.  But if there’s no story, there’s no story. If it’s not convincing it’s not really a story. 

Literary fiction may be more subtle but it will still have a firm story arc.
The protagonist must have changed by the end of the story. And it must be a significant change. You don’t want your reader to think “Was that it?”

Sometimes an ending can be too melodramatic. Could that really happen? You need to check back that there really is cause and effect throughout your story. 

Don’t cheat. Don’t pull in a deus ex machina – a god flown on to the stage on a dodgy piece of machinery. Their magic-wand waving will leave your reader dissatisfied. Heroes must solve their own problems. It’s wise even to get rid of any mentor before the climatic part of your story.  Let your protagonist shine.  

Image by Image by Mojca JJ from Pixabay 

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Truth and Fiction in Writing Biography and Autobiography


Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

When we are not truthful and why

 We take liberties with the truth to make our text interesting.

 How do we choose what to put in and what to leave out? How does what we leave out contribute to what we are saying?

We exaggerate. We by overemphasize the significance of something. We may make something bigger or smaller than it actually was.   

 We are discreet. We leave some facts out so that people are not hurt.

We invent to fill gaps. This may be a genuine attempt to use our imagination to work out what has happened. Indeed this is a technique used frequently in fantasy and science fiction but perhaps also more surprisingly in historical fiction. How might they have managed something that looks impossible?   

Our memory may not be reliable. We might remember several versions of an event, particularly if it is disturbing. Others may also remember a particular event differently.  

We may colour what happened with our current emotions. If something happened a lot time ago we may have spent years analysing it and rationalising it. Writing with the senses can help us to avoid this.  Immerse yourself back in the scene. What did you see, hear, smell, feel - in both senses of the word? Importantly what was the reaction to that scene then, not now?      

Some points to ponder

  1.  Why are we not fully truthful in autobiography?
  2.  What are we saying by what we leave out?
  3. Why do we write autobiography?

Thursday, 21 November 2019

More on writing about yourself


Some advantages of using relationships

  To tell our own stories we need to tell the stories of those around us.

  We have colourful characters on tap.

  We are the gap between the interactions of those amongst us.

  Our psychology depends on the psychology of others.

Some ethical issues

  We are stealing the stories of others.

  How would you feel if you were used in somebody else’s story?

  You could be charged with slander, libel, defamation of character if you are not careful.

  What right do we have to make judgements about others?

  Note the difference between writing biography and autobiography from writing fiction, though you can use the same techniques that you use in writing fiction.  Indeed, if you do, your text may be more engaging to the reader.     

Slices of life

You can indeed enliven your text with:
  A competent handling of time and space
  Making sure that all that you write shows place, personality or action


Write about a scene from your life that includes a colourful character. Can you write it in such a way that there would be no chance of this character charging you with slander, libel, or defamation of character?  Use some techniques you might apply to fiction to enliven your text: have a good narrative balance of dialogue, action, description, inner monologue and very little exposition.  Show, don’t tell.