Monday, 13 June 2016

Need to signal a flashback? #writetip

Margaret from Exeter is having trouble with the pluperfect (even if she may not realise that’s where the problem lies): I’ve been told my flashbacks are clunky to read because I use too many hads, but if I’m already using the past tense for the main story, how else am I going to show that I’ve gone even further back? Is there another way to show that other than using had?

Let’s look at the definition of pluperfect in English: It denotes an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied, formed by using had and the past participle, as in he had wanted to meet her, but she had already left.

As a flashback shows action completed prior to the time she is writing about using the past tense, this definitely qualifies as a reason to use the pluperfect. So, Margaret is absolutely right in using it, but her friends are also right: overuse can be clunky and distancing to read.

 If we look at this short passage, you’ll see what I mean.

Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He had sat at a corner table of the pub where he had been certain he could not be seen and had waited for over an hour before Janet had appeared. She had been alone when she came in. She had gone straight to the bar. As she had sipped her drink, a man had come in and had stood next to her.

When going into flashback it is important to signal it so that the reader is aware of what is happening, so using the pluperfect in the opening sentence is fine. However, to avoid the clunky feel, you should switch to the simple past tense as soon as possible.

Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He sat at a corner table where he couldn’t be seen and waited for over an hour before Janet appeared. She was alone when she came in and went straight to the bar. As she sipped her drink, a man came in and stood next to her.

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Monday, 6 June 2016

Grammar - narrative vs speech #writetip

Michaela from Huddersfield has sent in an interesting question about using natural sounding speech: I recently had a short story critiqued and the person who commented on my writing said I was making a mistake when I wrote my character was sat at the bar. I don’t see what’s wrong with that – it’s how the character speaks. In fact, he didn’t pick up on almost the same words in dialogue, so I’m now even more confused.

This is a case of narrative versus dialogue grammar usage. In dialogue, we can use all sorts of incorrect grammar, because it is, as you pointed out, how the characters speak. However, in narrative (where no one is speaking) using exactly the same construction would, in many cases, be incorrect.

I’ll use your query term in the following example.

“I don’t know why Jane got so upset. Dan was sat at the bar minding his own business and her mate came on to him. He didn’t start it.”

In the above paragraph, it’s fine to say Dan was sat because it is in direct speech and is in keeping with the speaker’s character.

However, if we change things around a bit, so that we only have narrative, we cannot use the same construction because it is grammatically incorrect. We can only use Dan was sitting or Dan sat.

Dan was sitting at the bar…
Dan sat at the bar…

To summarise: in dialogue you can use incorrect grammar, as long as it is in keeping with the way the character would speak, but in narrative you have to ensure the grammar is correct.

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Thursday, 2 June 2016

Quote/Unquote #writetip

I have posted a letter from one of my regular readers below, but before you move down to it, I hope you won't mind if I take a moment to tell you about one of my books. As most of you know, I write crime as Frances di Plino. The first in the D.I. Paolo Storey crime series, Bad Moon Rising, is on a week-long promotion. Please tell all your family and friends they can download Bad Moon Rising for the ridiculously low price of 99p/99c across all Amazon sites.

Niall from Luton gets confused about quote marks and asked for some advice: I see some people use quote marks like these ‘ ’ and others use the ones that look like this “ ”. How can I find out which ones to use and does it matter?

As you’ve shown in your email, there are two different types of quotation marks: single and double. Double quotation marks are now used less than they were in the past, but some magazines and publishers still favour them over the single marks.

The best way to decide which to use is to check the house style of your target market to see which they prefer. If you’re planning to approach a magazine, finding out which they use is as simple as opening a recent copy and looking at the content.

However, if you are planning to submit a manuscript to a publisher or agent, very often they will have their desired formatting style on the submissions pages of their websites. If the guidelines don’t stipulate one or the other, I would simply use the style with which you feel most comfortable.

Do bear in mind that whichever marks you use for direct speech, you would then use the opposite quotation marks to quote 'speech within speech'.

‘I’m praying Jack hasn’t started drinking again. When he left this morning he said, “I’m going to the supermarket.” That was hours ago and he should have returned by now.’

The double quotation marks show that someone is being quoted word for word. If you use double quotation marks for the main speech, use singles for the ‘speech within speech’.

Other uses for quotation marks:
Idiomatic expressions, for example: He was always referred to as a ‘pain in the neck’. Note that when quotation marks are used in this manner the full stop or comma comes outside the marks, but if quotation marks are used for dialogue the full stop or comma comes inside the marks.

When quoting the title of a magazine article: ‘The Generation Game’ in Spanish Magazine, March 2007.

(The above answer was partly taken from The Writer’s ABC Checklist)

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Monday, 23 May 2016

Want to use omniscient pov? #writetip

Geoff from Barnsley says: I want to write my novel using omniscient point of view, but the friends who have read a few chapters say they can’t follow what’s going on. I want all the characters’ emotions and thoughts to come to the fore, so that my readers know what everyone is feeling. Can you help me to write using this technique? I really don’t want to use limited point of view.

First and foremost, you have to give due to consideration to why you want to use omniscient point of view. Only by knowing why can you decide how and when to use it.

The structure in a novel using this technique is vitally important – even more so than when using third or first person point of view. This is because it is so easy to confuse and/or alienate the reader. You have to know when and where to use it and what effect you are aiming to achieve.

If you have information to impart that is vital to a scene, you need to open that scene in omniscient, so that readers know immediately they are being narrated to by someone who is not one of the characters in the book. If the omniscient narrator is a character, readers need to know that too, so that they can accept this voice intruding from time to time, or filling them in on details the other characters don’t know.

Don’t open with a character’s actions or dialogue, because readers will believe they are in that person’s perspective, which is then thrown off balance when an absent narrator, or one of the other characters, lets us in on their thoughts and feelings within the same scene.

If you want to use omniscient so that you can tell the reader about a period in time and its history, or a new world and future technology, it is fine to use an absent narrator, but you have to use it in the right way. You cannot drop an omniscient voice into the middle of a scene and expect the reader to know that is what you are doing. Open scenes with it and even close scenes in the same voice, but when actually in the scene itself, pick one point of view and stick with it.

Whether you have finished the novel or not, I feel you need to draw up a complete outline of the story. When using omniscient point of view, you have to bring your reader up to speed on the vital aspects, but leave out any details that are not important for the reader to know. There will be masses of information that you (as author) need to know, but that doesn’t mean your reader has to be informed of every tiny detail. You are there to entertain, not to lecture.

You still have to develop your characters or your readers won’t care about them or what happens to them. The reader has to identify with the characters, not the absent narrator. For each scene, pick one main character to follow. Don’t head hop around the minor characters.

Omniscient point of view does not mean giving all the characters the same importance in the story. It means using the unseen narrator’s voice wisely to impart knowledge that you cannot otherwise let the reader in on.

Read Joseph Conrad. He was brilliant at limited omniscient point of view.

Limited omniscient means you limit yourself to being in one character’s head at a time. If you really feel you simply have to change point of view within a scene, do so by showing the reader you have moved to a new point of view.

In a romantic scene, for example, you could open from the girl’s point of view. We see and hear what she sees and hears. We are her as she looks at the love of her life who she feels has betrayed her.

Then the boyfriend could reach out and take her hand, while telling her he has been faithful. In the next sentence you can move into his head as he observes her reaction. The rest of the scene can then be shown from his perspective.

However, once you’ve made the switch, don’t be tempted to move back into the girl’s head. Stay with the boyfriend until you move to a new scene.

True omniscient viewpoint (where we know everything the author knows) is extremely difficult for readers to follow and is almost impossible for authors to get right. Even experienced and much published writers struggle with it. By using limited omniscient you’ll find the challenge less stressful, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

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Monday, 16 May 2016

And the winners are ... #flashfiction

Flash Fiction Winners

The flash fiction top three stories for the first quarter 2016 are now up on the site. You can read the winning entries and the judge's report here

Sheila Bugler has now taken over the judge's chair for the second quarter 2016 which is open for entries: flash fiction category
For more information on the three competition categories (Flash Fiction, Short Story and Novel Opening), visit the Flash 500 Home Page.

Kind regards,


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