Why I’m Using a Prologue

I’ve just been doing some rewrites for my latest novel, which is book three of the Riverhill Trilogy. Although (to me anyway) this novel screams out for a prologue, originally I didn’t include one. The book’s opening is a departure from the rest of the book as well as from the first two books in the trilogy. It takes place in a different year and setting from the rest of book three, and a different setting from the first two books. However, its relevance is revealed as the book progresses.

Trilogy

Feedback from my beta readers was mixed in relation to what was then chapter one. They commented on its detachment from the rest of the book but said that it was an effective device in terms of what follows later. This reaffirmed my belief that it should in fact be a prologue rather than a chapter.

So, why didn’t I go with my gut instinct and make it a prologue in the first place?

I’m embarrassed to say that I bowed to outside pressure. You see, prologues are on those lists of things to avoid, which the publishing industry are fond of producing. Although I’ve already sounded off about this topic in my previous blog post Breaking the Writing Rules, I still avoided having a prologue when it was clearly the right thing to do. Silly me.

In fact, the publishing industry are so emphatic when they set these rules that I was still hesitant. I therefore carried out some research about prologues. Apparently, the reason they fell out of favour was because many authors weren’t using them to good effect. One of the cited examples of poor use of prologues includes using an excerpt from a later part of the book to stimulate reader interest. Publishers and agents have now dubbed prologues as ‘overused’.

Researching

During my research I read several articles about how and when to use a prologue. These all agreed that prologues can still be effective if used in the right way. And the good news is that my prologue fits in with many of the stated guidelines for effective prologues. It is set in a different time and place and it carries additional information which is relevant later in the book.

Once I had established all this, I felt more confident about using a prologue. But really, I should never have doubted it. After all, I’m an independent author and therefore don’t necessarily have to bend to the will of traditional agents and publishers. Isn’t that part of what being an independent is all about? My prime considerations should be my readers and what works best for the book.

In terms of readers, those who have read the first two books in the trilogy are used to reading books about feisty females from council estates battling against the extreme challenges life throws at them. Therefore, they will expect similar from the third book.

Soldier

My readers aren’t necessarily into reading about all action heroes in war zones. So I don’t want to put them off by giving them the impression that the whole book is about a group of soldiers in Iraq. Therefore, the way to achieve this is to use a prologue. That way, it will be more evident to readers that the opening of the book is additional background information rather than part of the main setting. It comes into play later in the book as it helps to explain the motivations of one of the main characters.

I’d love to hear views from other authors and readers regarding prologues. Do you like prologues? If not, why not? Have you used a prologue in a book? If so, what made you use one?

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Why Thinking Time is Important for Authors

Recently, while writing my third novel, I reached a bit of a standstill. I was following the outline that I had written but it felt a little like painting by numbers, and I didn’t have the enthusiasm that I had for A Gangster’s Grip. In fact, because of this situation I had put off writing for a few days.

With my first two books I was so enthusiastic that the ideas were spilling out of me. I would wake up with an idea for a scene later on in the book or it would form while I was out at the shops or taking a shower. However, with my third novel things were different. 18,000 words in and this still wasn’t happening. To complicate matters, I needed to do some primary research but I didn’t want it to halt my flow while I was waiting for the answers.

What if

Thinking TimeIn my search for inspiration I started reading a James Patterson novel and going over some of the notes from my writing course, but it still wasn’t happening. So, I put the books to one side, lay down on my bed, shut my eyes and thought about the plot so far.

What had happened up to now? What direction was the novel heading in? How could I inject some suspense and excitement on the way to reaching my final destination (as I already had the ending worked out)? How could I write my way around the scenes requiring research while I awaited answers to my research questions?

N.B. You’ll note that I refer to ‘scenes’ rather than ‘chapters’ because I like to think of ‘scenes’ while I am writing. This helps me to visualise what is taking place. I haven’t yet allocated chapters but I will come to that later. With my first two books I divided them into chapters as I went along but then found that I had to make some alterations at the end, so I’m trying a slightly different approach this time.

Whilst lying on my bed I went over the scenes I had already written in my mind. Then I started thinking about the scenes that were to follow. I decided to write the next scene based on assumptions but highlight it so that I could easily make changes once I had received the answers to my research questions. Once I had decided how to go forward with that scene, I found that the rest fell into place, and ideas started to form for subsequent scenes. I picked up my small notepad and within a half hour I had several pages of notes.

 

Notepad

That half hour or so was worth so much more than hours spent at a computer keyboard willing the ideas to come. It’s great to be able to sit at the computer and hammer away on the keys when you already have a few pages of notes to guide you along. The notes should keep me going for a few more thousand words but if I come unstuck again, I’ll try employing the same tactic.

I’d love to hear from other authors regarding this topic. Have you ever come across a similar problem and, if so, how have you tackled it?

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Why do you Love Being an Author?

During a recent email chat with an author friend we were discussing how frustrated we become when other work pulls us away from writing our novels. I commented that it was probably because other work didn’t give us the same sense of satisfaction as writing novels. This led me to thinking – just what is it about being an author that is so satisfying? So I thought it would be interesting to try to pin down some of the reasons:

Escapism – When writing a novel you can escape into your own world which can be anything you want it to be. That does beg the question – why is my writing world full of violence, bad language and warped characters, and why does that give me so much satisfaction? Hmmm!

Creativity – I gain a sense of fulfilment in having created something from nothing and I’ve no doubt it’s the same for other authors. Your book is like your baby that you feel proud of and it gives you tSatisfied Readerhat special feeling of having nurtured it from start to finish. A lot of us are familiar with the buzz of holding the print version of our own book in our hands or seeing it on the shelf in our local book store or library.

Reader Satisfaction – It’s lovely to receive feedback from readers and know that somebody has enjoyed one of your books.

Organisation and Planning – In the (non-writing) world of work, good organisation was always one of my strengths and I think that both non-fiction and fiction books require good organisation skills. You have to be able to plan the chapters, and carefully interweave the main plot and sub-plots. Organisation and planning are also important in achieving a good balance with the pacing of a novel. Because of my organised nature I actually enjoy these challenges.

Kudos – If I’m honest it’s always flattering when people take an interest in what I do although I also get a little embarrassed sometimes. Even though there are increasing numbers of people publishing books, it still attracts a lot of attention when you say that you have written and published a book.Money Pile

Huge Potential for Financial Gain – Yes, there’s a golden carrot dangling on the end of that metaphorical piece of string. The trouble is, every time you try to grasp the carrot, somebody yanks the string and you find you’ve got a bit further to go until you reach your reward. But as long as we can see the carrot, we’ll keep trying to grab it.

I’m speaking for the majority of authors, of course. There are some who are already reaping large financial rewards, which provides further encouragement for the rest of us.

Now for the things I don’t love so much:

I don’t think I’m very good at the whole marketing and promotion thing. I’ve never been one for selling myself. I’d rather shy away and get on with my writing but I expect a lot of authors are like that, which is probably why we choose to do what we do.

TimeThe other negative aspect for me is that there aren’t enough hours in the day. This is another one that I often hear other authors complain about, especially independent authors. It would be wonderful if we could devote all of our working hours to writing and have somebody else take care of all the promotion, editing, proofreading and formatting etc. but for most of us that isn’t feasible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. What is it about being an author that you love or are there any aspects of being an author that you’re not so keen on?

Anyone fancy a carrot?

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Using Editing Software to Improve your Writing

At the moment I am immersed in the final edits for my debut novel “Slur” and I am using some editing software that an author friend recommended. I have found the software particularly useful so I thought that I would share my findings. The software that I am using is called Prowritingaid. I haven’t used any other editing software so I can’t comment on other products but this specific product offers a number of features.

Editing Software

The main problem that I wanted to address is that I suffer from adverbitis. By that I mean that I have a tendency to overuse adverbs. I also default into using the passive at times when it would be better to use the active especially for a crime thriller, which should be fast paced. I think this is probably down to the fact that I am used to proofreading student theses, which are written in a formal style in accordance with university requirements and therefore use the passive rather than the active. Unfortunately, if you are used to working in a particular style then it can become hard to break the habit. I therefore invested in Prowritingaid at my friend’s recommendation.

You can choose from six main styles of Creative, Academic, Business, General, Technical and Web Copy. Once you have set your preferred style you can then choose what you want to check for. I chose Writing Style Report, which flags up adverbs and use of the passive but you can also run a full analysis or various other checks such as repetition, overused words, consistency, plagiarism etc. depending on the writing style you are aiming for. In fact, there are a total of 23 Highlightingdifferent types of reports/checks to choose from.

Prowritingaid makes it easier than editing your work yourself because when you are working so close to your work you can fail to notice things. The software pinpoints instances in embarrassing, brilliant highlighting so you can’t fail to notice them, and at $35 per year it’s substantially cheaper than hiring an editor. It also means that you retain control over your work. I must admit that I cringed at the number of times I used ‘quickly’, ‘forcefully’, ‘really’, ‘slowly’ and ‘quietly’. I had also used more powerful adverbs such as ‘maliciously’ and ‘subconsciously’, which can make an impact if used sparingly, but overuse lessens their impact so a good trim was necessary to improve the quality of my work.

Another good thing about this software is that you can upload a sample of your work to the site to trial it before buying. Here’s the link if you want to give it a whirl: http://prowritingaid.com/. I’d like to add that I’m not being paid by the suppliers to write this blog post. I just wanted to share this useful discovery.

Lose the Adjectives

I came across something else of interest in the book that I am reading, called “Writing a Novel” by Nigel Watts. In the chapter on style he cautions writers to beware of overusing adjectives and adverbs. One of the exercises at the end of the chapter is to write a descriptive passage without using them. In fact, he also encourages the reader to leave out abstract nouns, which is a point that I don’t necessarily agree with per my comments below.

I found this particular topic interesting in terms of the effects that you can achieve without having to use adjectives and adverbs. Nevertheless, I am not advocating that we leave them out altogether, but it’s amazing how descriptive verbs can be. Nigel Watts suggests looking at the work of authors you admire to see how they deal with certain situations. As I was reading a Val McDermid book at the time, and she is one of my favourite crime authors, I had a look. To my amazement she had managed to write an entire descriptive scene and hardly used any adjectives at all – remarkable!

Charles DickensUnfortunately, due to copyright laws I am unable to quote the passage from Val McDermid’s book. However, it’s easy to compare contemporary writers to those of a bygone era who used a lot of adjectives and adverbs. In fact, my personal feeling is that adjectives and adverbs have their uses, but authors such as Dickens overused them, and I much prefer contemporary writing styles. Here is an excerpt from David Copperfield:

“My aunt was a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking. There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage, amply sufficient to account for the effect she had made upon a gentle creature like my mother; but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. I particularly noticed she had a very quick, bright eye. Her hair, which was grey, was arranged in two plain divisions, under what I believe would be called a mob-cap; I mean a cap, much more common then than now, with side-pieces fastening under the chin. Her dress was of a lavender colour, and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible.”

Try comparing that passage to one from a book by one of today’s popular authors and you’ll probably see a vast difference in the number of adjectives and adverbs used.

Instead, verbs can be used to great effect. One example the author used is walking, which can be described as: shuffling, creeping, stepping, pacing, striding, dawdling etc. Each of these creates a different image in the reader’s mind. Another example relates to the various verbs used to describe eating: chew, gulp, devour, swallow, bite, consume, nibble, crunch etc. Again, each one paints a different picture in the reader’s imagination. ‘Devour’ for me brings to mind someone who is aggressive in their behaviour and attacks their food as though it is the enemy. ‘Nibble’ on the other hand, makes me think of someone who is nervous, reserved or picky.

I think that we can achieve similar effects with our choice of nouns or abstract nouns, for example, a stench is much more offensive than a smell whilst an aroma is more appealing. Having saidStorm that, the author of the aforementioned book also cautions against the use of abstract nouns because they are imprecise whereas if you describe a scene by painting a picture in the reader’s mind, it is more definite. The example, he gives is when describing the ‘devastation’ caused by a storm. The reason that the abstract noun ‘devastation’ is imprecise is because people interpret it in different ways. So, instead of using this abstract noun, you could describe the damage caused by the storm, which would paint a clearer picture in the mind of the reader. For example, you could describe the wind tearing the branches from trees.

This is just another idea that will stay in the back of my mind whilst I’m writing fiction. Hopefully it will help to improve the way I write. I would love to read your thoughts on the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs.

Writing Using the Five Senses

As I have returned to fiction writing after a long break I have decided to brush up on some of the skills I learnt on my writing course many years ago. I have therefore recently been reading a book called ‘Teach Yourself Writing a Novel’ by Nigel Watts. Whilst reading chapter 9, ‘Setting the Scene’, part of this chapter reminded me of something I covered on my writing course. This relates to utilising all of the senses when describing a scene from a character’s viewpoint because this helps the reader to picture the scene i.e. don’t just describe a scene or character visually but also describe how it sounds, smells etc. Perhaps you could be describing a mangy room where the odour is so bad you can almost taste it, for example.

EarOn this blog I have previously described how when I was writing my first novel I became really engrossed and felt almost as though I was the protagonist and was experiencing everything that she was going through. Perhaps part of the reason for that was because I was utilising the five senses. With my second novel I haven’t felt that same attachment up to now and I know that I need to recapture that feeling before I return to it. Hence I am revisiting some of the techniques that I learnt previously.

Another example of utilising the five senses would be if the protagonist was to enter the scene of a burning building. By using the five senses you would not only describe the visual impact but also the sound of the flames, the feel of the heat, the smell of burning flesh or the choking effects of the smoke. Obviously it isn’t always necessary to use all five of the senses but by using a few of them you can add dimensions to your scene. Because this helps readers to imagine the scene, it fits in with that old writing adage of ‘don’t tell, show’.

I was pleased to find an example in my debut novel where I’d taken on board some of the advice I’d picked up in trying to set the scene. In this particular scene the protagonist has just been subjected to a vicious verbal attack in the canteen where she works, as she is one of the suspects in a murder inquiry.

Mouth

Julie’s first reaction was to flee from the room as quickly as possible, but Norma’s words kept echoing inside her head, and she told herself, “If I run, everyone will think I’m guilty.” She knew that she had to see it through. “I’m going to eat this bloody pie if it kills me,” she told herself. “I’ve got to try to act as normally as possible; I mustn’t let them get to me.”

Consuming the meal was a struggle. Julie had never before realised that eating could take such an infinite length of time. Her muscles were tense and she found it a tremendous effort to eat each mouthful. Her throat was so constricted that she felt as though she would choke each time she tried to consume the bland pie. Occasionally, she raised her head and glanced around the room just to let people see that she wasn’t about to bow her head in shame.

 NoseShe could sense eyes watching her, but each time she raised her head, they quickly diverted their gaze. This caused her to become even more self-conscious. She felt as though her every movement was being noted; the shaking of her hands, the way she struggled to swallow – her face becoming more flushed with each agonising gulp, the way she shuffled uncomfortably on her chair.

A piece of pie then became lodged in her throat and she lifted her drink so that she could attempt to swill it down. Unfortunately, the cup slipped from her shaking hand. She quickly grasped at it and managed to steady the cup on the table, but not before some of the contents had spilt onto her food.

As she replaced the cup, Julie heard somebody clear their throat and a couple of people coughed, as though indicating a break in the tension. She couldn’t face going to the canteen staff for a cloth to wipe up the mess, so Handshe searched her bag for a tissue. Julie only succeeded in clearing up part of the drink with her tissue, so she had to face eating the rest of her meal with her plate swamped by liquid.

She had managed to swallow the lump of Shepherd’s pie whilst her mind had been drawn to other things, and this had encouraged her to quickly devour a few more forkfuls. However, she was still only two thirds through the pie, and was beginning to struggle to swallow it once more. She knew that she mustn’t leave any on her plate, as this might suggest that she had rushed away, unable to face people any longer.

When Julie eventually reached the point where a marginally acceptable amount was left on her plate, she arranged her cutlery so that it concealed the biggest lumps of food. She then stood up and pulled back her chair as calmly as she could, in defiance of her rapidly beating heart and clammy hands. Julie then walked slowly and deliberately from the canteen with her head held high.

Eye

Please feel free to share your thoughts about using the five senses in your writing, by adding your comments below.

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Tips for Tackling Writer’s Block

I have now finished my series of blogs about becoming a copywriter so I’m returning to more general writing topics for a while although I’ll still be covering copywriting from time to time. I thought I’d start with some tips on how to tackle a perennial problem for many writers – the dreaded writer’s block.

Writer's Block

Writer’s block usually occurs when your brain is overworked so that you become mentally tired. When this happens it becomes harder to write and you can find yourself unable to produce work that’s of your usual standard. Words that would normally flow from your keyboard are difficult to find and you become increasingly dissatisfied with your work when you read it back to yourself.

There are a few ways of dealing with this problem and some will suit you better than others. It will most likely depend on the extent of the problem i.e. whether it is just a short-term blip or whether it is more long-term. Here are some tips that might help:

1. Continue writing anyway and don’t worry if it doesn’t read quite as good as it should. At least you are getting something down on paper (or screen) and you can always return to your work after sleeping on it. You will often find that you can make huge improvements once you tackle it with a fresh mind.

2. Take a rest from writing for a short while and take part in physical activities such as walking, gardening or swimming as these can enable you to relax. Even watching TV or listening to music can help; basically get involved in anything that diverts your attention from your writing and gives your brain a rest.

Swimming

3. While you’re taking a break from writing it doesn’t mean you have to take a break from reading. Read a few good books or have a good browse in your local library or bookstore. Do it in a relaxed way though rather than with a particular aim in mind. The objective is to let ideas creep into your subconscious rather than trying to force them to materialise.

4. You could also try reading newspapers and magazines; all those snippets of information and short stories may just trigger something. Again, take a relaxed approach and read them purely for pleasure.

5. Go out somewhere busy such as a bar, the beach or a bustling city centre. If you’re writing a novel then it could be particularly useful to go somewhere linked with your setting. Don’t try to force ideas into your mind though; just immerse yourself in the atmosphere and enjoy some down time.

6. Try writing out of sequence. Sometimes, if you’re writing a novel, you can be stuck on a particular scene but still have plenty of ideas for what happens later in the book. In fact, you may have already worked out the ending. There’s nothing to stop you writing the plot highlights first then filling in the rest. It’s handy to start with an outline, which acts as a framework that you can then build onto, adding more and more detail as you go along.

7. If your writer’s block is particularly bad and none of the above suggestions help, take a holiday. If you enjoy reading then don’t stop doing it during your holiday but take a break from writing.

Holiday

8. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t obsess about the situation. Worrying about it won’t help as your brain needs to totally switch off. Take comfort in the fact that the situation will right itself eventually. In some ways the brain can be compared to the muscles in your body. For example, if you overworked in the gym and all your muscles were aching badly then chances are you would take a few days off before returning unless you really had to train for something. The same applies to the brain.

Writer’s block can happen to anyone and even the most successful writers suffer with it from time to time. The books I am currently writing are non-fiction, which are mainly researched based and follow a set format so writer’s block is not really a problem for me at the moment. However, I have plans to return to writing novels in the near future so no doubt I’ll be recapping on this post at some point and heeding my own advice.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If so, you are welcome to leave any feedback comments below. Alternatively, if you have any tips for dealing with writer’s block, please share them.