Today I have another amazing Guest Post for you. Author S.D Mayes not only discusses her writing but offers some fantastic tips to others who want to write.
S.D. Mayes – Journalist, Author and Editor
I always liken editing to cleaning the skirting boards. I don’t really want to do it, but afterwards I feel so much better. However, after doing many rewrites and edits – and that was around eighteen drafts of Letters to the Pianist, my historical suspense novel, I was ready to throw the blimmin’ laptop out of the window. Yep, this novel was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. Timewise, I spent a year writing and nearly two years editing and rewriting, so getting it finally published at the end of September this year was a huge relief.
I’ve worked as a journalist for over twenty years and had already written a best-selling self-help book, Be Your Own Psychic, published by Hodder & Stoughton – one of the big five, so I thought writing a novel would be easy. How wrong I was. I had chosen a complex multi-layered plot with a parallel father and daughter story, simply because the story popped into my mind years back and I loved the premise of it – a Jewish man who loses his memory and marries into a family of Nazi sympathisers. I thought it was going to be hard work, but it just kept popping into my head, and one rainy Sunday afternoon I got started. I had two protagonists: teenage Ruth Goldberg, and her father Joseph Goldberg who was renamed Edward Chopard by his new aristocratic wife Connie.
A protagonist is the character your story revolves around. And I chose to write Ruth in the first person so her story was right up front and in your face. I then chose to write her father, Joseph and all the other characters in third person – both of which was clearly delineated by change of chapter. Many of the reviews I’ve received have said that they like getting the many third person point of views of different characters, but this book was a steep learning curve in many ways – and as I also beta read and edit other authors manuscripts as part of my other work, I’ve seen the many mistakes we can all make as new writers.
Show not Tell
I’m sure you have heard this phrase. It is essential for good writing, and most new writers don’t fully understand what this means. With ‘telling’ many paragraphs can end up being summarised instead of really engaging readers in the powerful elements of a story, so there is a huge lack of description throughout a book where the writer generalises far too much and expects the reader to join the dots as to what’s happening. As writers we need to be painting a story with pictures. A good parallel about the difference between show and tell is that with ‘telling’ the reader becomes an observer of your story. When you ‘show’ however, the reader really experiences your story, often becoming one of the characters in their minds. So that’s a huge difference in the experience of reading.
Here’s some examples with the authors consent on manuscripts I’ve edited.
‘My father died when I was young and my mother raised me. She was very pious, prayed constantly and took me to church every Sunday. The bitch didn’t allow me to read any book other than the Bible and she didn’t allow me to listen to music either. She was very strict. Every minor infraction would lead to a severe beating with a belt, rod, or cane.’
This paragraph gives a quick summary ‘telling’ us. There needs to be description and detail about how the relationship developed between mother and son. There is barely any description of Jack as a boy and no description of his mother’s character.
‘One afternoon I walked into our house after school. I was only seven, a small, thin waif of a boy because I didn’t get fed much, only rice and beans if I was lucky. My mother was scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees, pushing the bristles back and forth. It was a strange sight to behold as she barely did a scrap of housework. As usual, she stank of rum and her shirt was partly undone showing her huge breasts wobbling about. I stood in the doorway staring. ‘Mom’, I muttered, feeling ignored yet again. ‘Mom’, I’m starved. Can I have some bread?’ Finally, she looked up at me with bloodshot eyes, peering at me strangely. ‘Hungry, huh, well there’s no food for you, boy. Get upstairs and read that bible,’ she shouted. You have a darkness in you, I can see it oozing it out of every pore – the spirit of Beelzebub is in you, and you need to read that bible over and over to get it out. Do you hear me?’
With ‘showing’ the reader gets an immediate understanding of the dynamics of this boy’s childhood and relationship with his mother.
Another example of ‘telling’ from a sentence is this.
‘The food was retrieved from a counter where a team of cooks worked furiously to get enough food out for the encroaching students. They ate well, the food was good. Few words passed as the food went down.’
So what’s wrong with this paragraph?
Firstly, the word ‘food’ was used four times in one paragraph. It’s important for a writer to vary their language. Repetition of the same words too close together reveal boring lazy language – and you want to keep your reader on their toes. But it’s also important to be descriptive to state what this food is. The author needs to make sure it sounds delicious. For example, a description of ‘showing’ with food would be this. ‘There before us, was a long table set out in front of the bay window with the most mouth-watering display of food: platters of buttery smoked haddock and crispy potato cakes, bagels oozing with cream cheese, a dish of boiled eggs, a sponge cake trickled with honey, and my favourite, big round sugary doughnuts all set out on lace doilies. I was drooling, picturing the sweet jam exploding into my mouth.
You get my drift? This kind of detail is what brings stories alive so the reader can see and taste the food.
POV relates to the point of view of a character and many writers resort to head hopping which can confuse the reader. And this is very common. When you write from first person it’s obvious you are in your protagonists head, and that can be up front and powerful as the character tells their story. The problem with first person is that it is limited to that one perspective. So events can only unfold from that characters perception as they tell their story. Many novelists such as Paula Hawkins author of ‘Girl on the Train’, and Gillian Flynn author of ‘Gone Girl’ use this first person POV for all their characters by putting the name at the top of the chapter, so they get another characters perspective. And in my view ‘first person’ is the easiest way to write.
Third person is far more complex when you go from one character to another, and this is something many authors struggle with where they resort to ‘head hopping’. There is a golden rule with POV. The rules in writing are that you cannot head hop from one character to another without first changing scene or chapter. For example, in this para the characters headhop from Jenny’s thoughts to David’s in two consecutive paras.
Get up, you two! Quickly!” Jenny yelled. The emphasis in her voice appeared to be sharp and impatient. Knowing that assisting the slumbering twins could get her in trouble, she quickly removed her head from underneath the ivy-covered entrance.
David was shocked that Jenny still had such pent up energy despite being up all night. Although he overslept, he felt like an extra hour would have helped him feel less groggy.
So this has gone from Jenny’s point of view to David’s in the same scene. Dialogue can of course go back and forth between characters, but you need to choose whose head you are going to be for that scene or chapter and stick to it, or create a new scene if you are changing POV to another character.
Adverbs: I often find new writers over complicate a sentence by using too many adverbs. I know I did initially. Strong, direct language is best. Adverbs are fine in moderation, but many manuscripts I’ve seen use very similar phrases within a few paragraphs, so there’s a lot of glaring eyes, saddened eyes, brooding eyes and bulging eyes. Writing is about being creative in how you write, not saying the same thing with a few different words. Find different ways of physically showing how your characters express themselves. For example, instead of saying saddened eyes which is technically ‘telling’ – say ‘she hunched over, clenched her hands together, her eyes wet with tears.’ Leaving in adverbs can look amateurish and lazy as if you can’t be bothered, so describe things properly instead of generalising and be confident with leaner sentences that read in a cleaner, crisper way.
It’s considered a big no no to mention too many clichés. Expressions of speech, are different if they allude to a certain way of speaking, but it’s important as a writer to find ways of saying the same thing in different ways and finding unique metaphors. Who can forget ‘Hills like White Elephants’, a short story by Ernest Hemingway. What a great description, and one that immediately evokes a visual picture.
What I did in Letters to the Pianist was if a cliché came to mind, I would try and put my unique spin on it, so instead of saying ‘trapped in a gilded cage’ which is a well known cliché, I used, my own – ‘Everything else came under his list of possessions and she was merely another, ‘trapped in a mink-lined dungeon.’
None of this came easy to me at first, and it takes consistent work to keep going through a manuscript and cleaning it up. And I don’t profess to be an expert on any of this, but I have learnt a lot through the years, and as tough as it might be, it definitely gets your creative mind ticking over, and that to me is what writing is all about.
Letters to the Pianist is out now in hardback, paperback and eBook