Writing a sense of place according to the Internet

Boat

I have to confess that I struggle with creating a vivid sense of place sometimes. Usually when the setting is relatively mundane – some town, some house, someone’s back garden. To help me overcome this weakness, I’ve looked at what the Internet has to say about creating a vivid world.

Why does sense of place matter?

It is the vivid and breathtaking “reality” of Middle-earth that makes Lord of the Rings work. Without it, you have a poorly written story about a bunch of characters wandering around and getting into trouble. The same is true for our own writing too.

Why is setting important? Mastering writing time and place

Use fewer words, not more

When I started this research, I assumed that I needed many more words to paint a good picture of the world my fiction is set in. This is not the case for a masterful sense of place.

The apex of our art is to suggest everything with a single, well chosen, word. Beyond that word, we can show the characters interacting with the world around them (show, don’t tell).

The more words we use to describe the setting, the slower the pace. So, like poets, we need to say as much as possible with as few words as we can. Here, at any rate, it seems words should be treated as an expensive premium.

Transport me somewhere new

may the muse be with youWhen telling a story we are trying to take people somewhere else using only words. This, I can tell you, is hard. I have no words of sage advice for you other than “good luck, may the muse be with you.”

Don’t let that stop you. Keep trying. Keep telling stories and trying to take me away to new worlds.

This is where I stop and hand over to you.

  • What are your tips of sense of place?
  • Do you find making the location vivid hard or easy?
  • Which books demonstrate a sense of place best?

Use the comments and share your insights.

Writers Explore: Disposing of a dead body

In honour of NaNoWriMo, let’s take a look at one of those topics that writers tend to Google far too much – disposing of a dead body.

Let’s be honest, if anyone took a look at the search history of a writer – especially a crime or mystery writer – it would probably be quite disturbing. One of the things that fascinates us writers is how a character might try to get away with murder.

So in this post, and purely on a theoretical basis, let us look at how to get rid of that pesky surplus corpse.

Before we begin, I should point out that every solution can come with an additional set of problems which can spiral out of control. There is no such thing as a perfect murder but a story about attempting one could be really interesting. If you write that, please let me know – I want to read it.

Disposing of a dead body: Moving the corpse

First things first. Have you ever tried to move someone who has passed out drunk? They become unbelievably heavy. That’s what a dead body is like. Your first problem is moving it.

You’ve got a few options here.

  1. Dispose of the body right there (tricky)
  2. Ropes, winches, and pullies (fiddly)
  3. Ask someone to help you (risky)
  4. Cut up the body (messy)
  5. Don’t kill anyone to start with (too late)

Whichever option your character goes for is going to leave trace evidence all over the show. However, your character has already got a body so there is no turning back now.

Disposing of a dead body right there

Oh boy, this is all sorts of problems. Dead bodies are basically a huge unprocessed sack of meat and other less pleasant things. They are going to smell bad after a short amount of time. The hotter, the faster that bad smell is going to show up.

Talking of showing up. Flies and other bugs are going to be attracted to the smell pretty soon. If you have ever watched Bones (or similar shows), then I am sure you have a lot of ideas about flesh-eating insects. However, mostly we are talking flies and maggots.

If “right here” happens to be the middle of a woods then you have probably been planning this for a while (you scary person). If the site of death is suitable for disposal then skip the moving stage and move on to a whole other set of problems.

Before you move on, remember that anyone might have known that the victim was heading to the site. Their phone may have GPS so their movements might have been tracked. They might have said something to someone. They might have dropped something on the way.

The fact is that you (or your character) might never catch all the clues and clean them up.

Disposing of a dead body with ropes and pullies

In terms of moving heavy things, some good climbing gear could be a huge help. You can, on your own, move the heavy sack of dead meat that is the victim in your story (this is still theoretical, right). However, you may leave trace rope fibres, cause most-death damage to the corpse, and/or leave trace evidence at the scene of the death. Also, you will have (possibly expensive) kit left over that was used in a serious crime. You will need to get rid of this afterwards too.

In this video, the basics of lifting a body (yourself or another) using ropes and pullies are explained.

Disposing of a dead body with an accomplice

This is another approach you could take. However, having an assistant means having a witness that could turn on you. If your character is of a particularly evil nature, they could always kill the accomplice at the disposal site and double their workload.

Two people moving about the crime scene substantially increases the chances that someone is going to leave a clue behind.

Disposing of a dead body in bite-sized chunks

If you choose to cut up the body Dexter style then there is a serious clean up going to be needed. Cutting is not much use if you are trying to minimise the trace evidence that’s going to show up on your character and the crime scene.

You could try plastic sheeting but it comes with its own problems. Dexter, if you have read the book or seen the show, had a legitimate reason for obtaining and using plastic sheeting but your character might not have a good cover story.

You could try strong bleach for cleaning the crime scene. However, obtaining industrious quantities of bleach just after a murder might raise suspicions.

Disposing of the actual body

One way or another you have moved the dead body to a new location. This probably involved a car, some really big backpacks, or some other form of transport. Assuming that no one saw you and the police are not already asking you to “come along peacefully”, what now?

Disposing of a dead body: with pigs

If you are a fan of British made crime films (Snatch comes to mind) then you probably think feeding a dead body to a pig is a good idea. It might be effective but in terms of plot, Fed to Pigs is a trope that has been a little overdone of late.

Pigs, as mentioned above, are sufficiently common in crime stories as corpse disposal machines that it is in danger of becoming a cliche. It could work but can’t you come up with something a bit more interesting?

Disposing of a dead body: Burial

A classic because it works so well. However, there are some drawbacks.

Digging a deep hole is hard work. you could get help but that has drawbacks of its own. Digging among trees, at night, while maybe a bit panicked is even harder. Doing all that and then not coming home and looking like you have been digging holes is probably impossible.

Digging in the sand is easier but so is the body getting found.

One often explored ide is to dig an extra deep hole and add a second victim (a family pet) somewhat higher up. This might throw the searchers off. It might not if they have read this, though.

Disposing of a dead body: Reuse a grave

If despite my warnings about the dangers of working with other people, you want to go this route then you might be able to find a corruptable mortician and arrange for your corpse to share a coffin.

If working alone is more your character’s style, then re-digging a fresh grave and dumping your poor victim in there, while risky while you dig, is still a logical choice.

If you happen to run a crematorium then you have further options but I’m guessing this is back to the problem of bribing someone and keeping them quite. Maybe acid could do the job of fire…

Disposing of a dead body: Flesh Eating Hydrofluoric Acid

This solution (excuse the pun) crops up on shows like Breaking Bad. To help you give an authentic portrayal of using acid to dispose of a dead body, we turn to science for answers.

This video shows the results of experimentally dipping chicken into three different acids. Chicken, in this case, is a reasonable analogy for disposing of a dead body without the need to do something horrific to another human being.

Disposing of a dead body: Fire

So you don’t have access to a crematorium but you think a fire will remove all evidence. This is no small task.

A burning corpse is going to stink. I mean really stink. All that hair and body waste are going to hum worse than your hasty cover story.

You will need to get the fire hot. Around 1000°C for three hours should do it. After all, a body is mostly water. A fire like that is going to raise questions. On the other hand, DNA and other trace evidence will get eaten up.

An alternative would be to use a steal works. At 1370°C the only thing that will be left will be a little extra phosphorous which would make the steal a bit harder and more brittle. Again, this might be a clue if your character is not careful enough.

Disposing of a dead body: Water

BoatContinuing our theme of the elements, what about water? If you have access to a boat then maybe taking a trip out to sea might hold the answer.

The problem is that bodies float. So you will need to secure them to something heavy. When they go down to Davie Jones Locker you need to feel secure that they are not coming back up.

You will also need a site that is deep enough that no one is going to go down there. The deeper the better. That means a tench or somewhere past the continental shelf. However, out there currents can do amazing things so choose carefully.

The sea is not a forgiving graveyard and things frequently come back when they are least wanted. Have you seen what washes up on the beach? In Margate, for example, World War Two munitions (live and deadly) still show up from time to time.

The general advice seems to be to roll the body in a chain link fence before sending them to their final resting place.

This had the advantage of potentially removing the body forever but the headache of making sure no evidence ends up on your boat. How good are you at cleaning? A single drop of blood or a stray hair could be enough to put the canny detective on the character’s trail.

Disposing of a dead body: By eating them

eat itBy far the most effective method, if a little slow, would be to butcher, cook, and eat the body. The bones and teeth could be ground up into a fine powder and used as a food additive. Grim but effective.

If you own some dogs or other animals, they could help you.

For extra horror, if the character owns a restaurant…

Other considerations

Cleaning up after the crime is a whole other story. Almost everything you do is going to leave traces and no matter how carefully you clean, you might miss something. To make your character’s life harder, the people investigating the murder will be experts at finding things while you (or your character) are newbies.

Here are a few things that you might want to add to your research list.

  • Luminol – reacts with haemoglobin to enable investigators to detect tiny traces of blood.
  • Bleach – because you don’t want luminal to be your downfall
  • Matches – because burning it all down may be your only choice
  • A change of clothes – everything your character had on is evidence

A change of clothes

Seven years after the police took his boots they were able to get DNA evidence that led to the arrest of mass murderer Robert Pickton. Basically, your character needs to burn their clothes.

Of course, a change of clothes is no help if you cannot get clean yourself first. Which will probably leave your DNA all over the cleanup site. I did mention the problems pile up. Have fun solving that one. More bleach and luminol might be called for but good luck explaining why you washed the bathroom with that stuff.

Blood and Magnets

Blood contains iron and iron reacts to magnets. Does that mean you can clean up blood with giant magnets?

Warning, this video contains blood.

More ideas for disposing of a dead body

This reddit thread has a long discussion on the subject of getting rid of a body. Let’s just say that the pigs get talked about a lot.

What’s the best way to get rid of a dead body? from AskReddit

Feel free to chip in with your ideas for how a character could realistically get rid of a dead body. I’d love to hear your ideas.

You might be interested in our previous Writers Explore which looked at mental health. This topic might or might not tie in depending on what sort of story you are trying to tell.

Do you NaNoWriMo?

Who else has heard of NaNoWriMo? If you have yet to encounter it, this is your introduction to something that will take you nought to novel author in just 30 days.

NaNoWriMo, or the National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write a novel in just one month. Impossible you say, that’s what I thought and yet, all these years later, I have a growing collection of first drafts and an increased confidence that each one is better than the one from the year before.

NaNoWriMo is not just for amateurs. Many authors who stared in NaNoWriMo went on to be traditionally published. About 449 traditionally published books started in NaNoWriMo. And that’s just the ones they know about.

This year, participants will be inspired by weekly “pep talks” penned by published authors, including Roxane Gay, Kevin Kwan, Julie Murphy, and Grant Faulkner. NaNoWriMo will also provide participants access to mentorship from authors including Emily X. R. Pan, Mur Lafferty, and Jasmine Guillory.

A novel in a month?

A novel in a month. That does not seem possible. How do the NaNoWriMo folks do it?

The secret is not worrying and just getting stuff down on paper. The fact is that it is hundreds of times easier to fix an imperfect manuscript than it is to write a perfect one.

After that, it is just a case of doing a little math (or letting me do it for you). The target word count is 50,000 words. This is 1,667 words a day. Or about three to five typed pages. Which amounts to a page in the morning, one at lunch, another before tea and two more in the evening.

That’s not so hard right?

How to make NaNoWriMo even easier

There are many secrets, tips, and hacks to make NaNoWriMo even easier but here are three quick tips that will turn anyone into a novelist in just one month.

1. Tell everyone what you are doing

I cannot tell you how much more motivated I feel when I know that everyone is going to ask how my novel is going. That part of my brain that works very hard to avoid embarrassing me (the part that gets trumped by own idiot missteps) can work for you too. I find that I work very hard to keep on target when failure means everyone knowing about my failure.

As motivation hacks go, this one is huge.

2. Come up with a few ideas ahead of time

Nothing takes the pressure off like having a handle on the characters and settings for your story. You can find some tools to help build characters in our Facebook group. You can also get support in the forums, particularly the QnA for aspiring authors. There is a long-running thread with questions to ask in a mock interview with your main protagonist (lead character).

3. Break your story into 30 little chunks

Break your story up into 30 bite-sized chunks. Each of those, oh I don’t know but let’s call them chapters, can tell one part of the story.

This takes the pressure off because you will not need to ask yourself “what do I write today?” because you already have a plan.

Are you going to be doing NaNoWriMo?

Thanet Creative are planning to make Thanet much more NaNoWriMo freindly by holding write ins and supporting WriMos (participants) in our regular writing group events.

What’s stopping you becoming a novelist?

Why we need to write fewer white male protagonists

If you are looking for an audience for your stories you could do a lot better than targeting white able-bodied blokes. That market is already saturated.

There are a lot of people hoping to read about people like themselves. You are missing out on willing readers if you ignore them.

There is nothing wrong with white protagonists

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with white dudes (at least I hope not because I one) but if you are really interested in telling interesting and varied stories with interesting characters, then it is time to expand your character palate.

We writers have an amazing opportunity to create characters that can be role models that inspire people. That inspiration can be as simple as seeing someone like you achieving. So why do most of us choose to have straight white male dudes as our protagonists?

As a white dude, I have a huge array of super-heroes, action heroes, and all sorts of other heroes to aspire to. In marketing terms, I have too much choice. That choice means that I am pretty unlikely to get all that excited about your story. Of course, if it has cool spaceships in it you might be okay because I have a bit of an addiction to those but you are still going to have to compete with a lot of classics I still have on my reading list.

Choose a different market segment

While I have all the white male protagonists I could want to read about, I have none that are exactly like me. If your story were about a dyspraxic geek with ankylosing spondylitis and a problem with weight loss, well, you might just find me pre-ordering your book on principle. Even if there are not many cool spaceships to be seen.The reason for that is that I do not have a wide range of choices when it comes to fat semi-crippled geek role-models.

The same is pretty much true of the vast majority of the whole spectrum of humanity. The only reason we write male characters more than female and able bodies more than less able is that this is what we grew up reading.

Dylan Alcott told a TED conference in Sydney that what disabled kids need to see is disabled people achieving so they knew they can achieve too. As writers, we can make that happen.

The world is full of interesting people achieving

The real world is full of interesting people achieving so why not reflect that in our writing? Take this young record breaker, for example.

Isn’t it time to stop telling the one story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED conference talk on “The danger of the single story”. Her stories show us that the limited view of others reduces them from complex and interesting people to some single story.

We call these single stories “stereotypes”. They are unhelpful through being woefully incomplete.

 

Diversity must be natural, and sensitive

It is one thing to decide to broaden your appeal beyond young white males but quite another to deal with other cultures without sufficient understanding. Cliches and stereotypes are not enough. A badly written dyslexic hero is going to do more to put me off than inspire me. If you were thinking of doing that please stick tot he standard white protagonists.

Justine Larbalestier suggests, in an article called “how to write protagonists of colour when you’re white” that you should be calling on the services of a very sepcial branch of beta-readers – sensitivity readers. A sensitvity reader can help you make sure that you’re not being offensive unwittingly but they cannot do your research for you.

How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White

The case against writing outside of your race

The blog, Read Diverse Books, makes a strong case for not just forcing people of colour into the protagonist role just because of some guilt about being white. That is not helpful at all. That much I can agree with.

The article suggests that white people should stick to white protagonists.  I’m not sure if I fully agree with their whole point but forced diversity n your story is cheap and should be avoided, that much should be clear.

White Authors – Fill Your Stories With People Of Color, But Don’t Make Them Your Protagonists

The case for writing outside of your race

Writers Unboxed have a guest article that I suggest you read. It makes a strong case for writing characters that do not just include your own race. By extension, this case would apply for writing outside of your own abledness (or lack thereof). The case for crossing cultures, ability, and gender. To tell stories about people. Stories that are rich and diverse.

White Writers Writing Non-White Characters: Why I Vote Yes, for Commercial Fiction

A rich diversity of characters is the path to success

Crafting a rich diversity of different characters with different skills, problems, races, genders, preferences, and the whole spectrum of humanity is key. It is, quite possibly, the key to commercial and cultural success as a writer. It might be a strange thing to talk about commercial success. The truth is that it is rare for a writer to be culturally influential and not also be commercially successful too.

Adventure stories do not have to be just about white dudes on motorbikes. Love stories do not have to be only about middle-class girls and handsome princes. Quite frankly these are both boring to me because (as a semi-able geek with average looks and a tendency to write blog posts) I cannot relate to them at all.

There is nothing wrong with writing strong white protagonists. There is nothing wrong with making them male and able-bodied. Just don’t write only that one character.

If you want to find success as a writer do this one thing. Find a group of people, learn all you can about them, and then write stories that contain characters that those people can relate to. Not only will literature be richer for such a contribution but your life will be too.

World Building: Alien Numbers

In this post, I am going to take a brief look at constructing the idea of Alien Numbers in your alien world.

World building your alien world is a topic I hope to visit a few times. Perhaps not to the same depth as mental illness or crafting authentic female characters but to a good degree.

We use base ten but why should they?

In our counting, in the West, we count using the numbers zero to nine – ten numbers. This is far from consistent across the globe. Some of the other counting systems on Earth may seem truly alien to us. If that’s the case on the same planet why should you assume that light years away things will be that similar?

This is a topic that Numberphile digs into (video below). The general point being is that you could be a lot more creative with your words and ideas about number systems. You aliens can use alien numbers, and they probably should.

10 is not a special number

There is nothing particularly special about 10. We simply use it because we have ten fingers (including thumbs) which makes it an easy number to count to.

The changes are that any intelligent alien beings in your world might develop a number system with a base of that matches the number of fingers or tentacles or whatever. Just because that was available to count with and made sense.

It is possible that the base system might seem mathematically pure, culturally important or religiously significant to them.  Any of those cases could create all sorts of diplomatic complexities. As a writer, things that make complexities between characters is good for driving the story. Embrace it.

Base 12 might be better

There is a good case to be made for counting in sets of 12. It divides more easily and would make the maths so much easier to work with.

It would translate back and forth from binary a lot more elegantly which is good for computer programming. Maybe your alien number system uses base 12.

It is not very complicated and you could probably make it work as your alien numbers with minimal effort. Here is an expert to explain this better.

We’re not even consistent

Just to confuse matters we don’t even always use base 10 numbers. For time, we count in units of 60. This counting in blocks of 60 comes from the ancient Babylonians. We have 60 minutes to the hour and sixty seconds to the minute. This 60 unit counting is also why we have the number of degrees in a circle that we have (360).

Sometimes we use base 12 – feet and inches. Although, that is largely the American’s just refusing to move with the times. As a result in 1999, a US$125 million Mars orbiter was lost when the two teams used different measuring systems and did not tell each other what they were working in. The navigation and gueince system was, as a result, way off, and the expensive kit was lost.

Maybe your alien race is more logical but maybe they too have these odd artefacts of numerical language.

My background is in computer science and we work in base 2 (binary) but only when we have to. We tend to flip to Octal (base 8) or Hex (base 16) for easier notation. If you have ever wondered by CSS colours are that odd combination of six numbers and letters – that is three pairs of hex numbers describing the colour.

Make gloriously complex alien cultures

There is nothing wrong with making your alien cultures as complex and as varied as we are (maybe more so) with their number systems. The only thing I would suggest, just be sure you can keep track of the conversions.

What strange number words do your aliens use?

Writers Explore: Mental Illness

mental illness

Mental illness is a topic that has long fascinated writers. Mental illness has been the topic of many different stories, with varying degrees of accuracy and success.

One hurdle we writers must overcome to tell an authentic story is how we get away from cliches and stereotypes of mental illness. This first episode of “Writers Explore” we look at mental illness from the perspective of a writer.

What is mental health?

Before we dive into what it means to suffer a loss of mental health (mental illness) it may help to establish exactly what we mean by mental health.

Mental illness is not a plot device.

Mental illness – especially schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder (entirely separate things by the way) – these are not simply convenient plot devices.

It is not okay to simply cite madness as the reason your character is being weird. Mental illness is not an excuse to have no reason for a character’s behaviour. Mental illness, just like cancer or arthritis, has an underlying mechanism. It has a cause. There is a root cause for the suffering.

Towards the end of a blog post “Mental Illness as a plot device and other bad ideas“, Drew Chial says this:

You have to be careful when you identify a character’s disorder. Your portrayal must be nuanced, not grandiose. Not only do you run the risk of losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, you run the risk of offending them.

I would go further.If your entire understanding of mental illness is something you saw on TV and a little bit of trash quality pop-psychology, then you have no business writing about mental illness.

Convenient mental breaks, laser-guided amnesia, and other trashy plotting should be added to the list of hack writing techniques that we need to avoid.

Mental ill-health is not a fun addition to a character. Mental health is not a nice way to make a character more interesting. It is a complex set of societal judgements, burdens and problems to be overcome.

Jessica Dall writes in her blog post “Plot device disorders” about:

…the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,

She is right to point it out – mental illness is never “fun”.

Schizophrenia: A tale of mental illness.

“Is it okay if I totally trash your office?” It’s a question Elyn Saks once asked her doctor, and it wasn’t a joke. A legal scholar, in 2007 Saks came forward with her own story of schizophrenia, controlled by drugs and therapy but ever-present. In this powerful talk, she asks us to see people with mental illness clearly, honestly and compassionately.

Suicide: Terminal mental illness.

When the illness becomes too much, when hope diminishes, mental illness can lead to death. But it is a death that we too frequently do not understand.

We often hear people saying “I don’t understand why she would do that,” and “why would he take his own life?” That’s when we hear a compassionate response. Too often I hear people write off suicide as stupid, as selfish, as “just a cry for help”. All that tells me is that the person speaking does not understand.

It is not a case of just “cheering up”.

I’m just going to put this out there: If you write a character with depression or mental illness and by the end of the book they get the girl, get the promotion, or win the day and are suddenly fine – you failed as a writer. Whatever you were writing about it was not a mental illness it was just a self-absorbed gloomy Gus. No one wants to read that nonsense.

This was something that Ruby Wax talked about when she gave a TED talk on mental illness – the stigma of mental illness. Why is it, she asks, that you get sympathy when you get sick in any organ of the body apart from the brain?

Show us the full story of mental illness.

If you are going to write about mental illness it is not enough to simply understand the condition. As we said in creating compelling female characters, the way society responds is part of the picture too.

With a mental illness, that reaction is often negative. Rarely is ist negative through malice but through ignorance.

This is because mental illness is often seen as a taboo subject. It is frequently repeated that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Yet we rarely talk about it.

Not only that but, right now, it is deeply likely that a person in the UK with a mental illness is not going to receive adequate care and support. The NHS has been forced to slash money from the mental health budget again and again. According to King’s Fund, three-quarters of people who suffer mental illness go untreated.

There has been an ongoing historic inequality between the way physical and mental health are treated in the NHS. This is a huge political issue that is not going away anytime soon. As writers, we are well placed to widen the discussion about these issues and shed some light on what is going on. But first, we have to know what it is like.

The mentally ill as targets for cuts

I don’t want to get too policial with this guide but benefits and the way claimants are treated forms part of the larger story of mental health. The way they are treated is often appalling. There are a number of reports that Jobcentre managers are pressured to sanction and push the mentally ill off of benefits to save money.

Sanctions have risen in both numbers and proportion terms from the late 2000s.

  • Mother-of-three Angie Godwin, 27, said her benefits were sanctioned after she applied for a role jobcentre staff said was beyond her.
  • Michael, 54, had his benefits sanctioned for four months for failing to undertake a week’s work experience at a charity shop. The charity shop had told him they didn’t want him there.
  • John, 40, was unable to leave the house due to an anxiety attack he was sanction for not attending a DWP assessment.

This is a part of the story that is rarely told. It is a grim fact that being mentally ill in the UK is a total nightmare.

Try to imagine dealing with all that while also facing something like this young lady (Cecilia McGough) faced:

Writing what we know – writers who suffer from mental illness.

For writers as with many creative types periods of poor mental health are not uncommon. In fact, writing can be one of the best therapies for dealing with mental health conditions – especially depression and trauma.

Many writers have famously batted mental illness:

  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is believed to have suffered from a bipolar disorder.
  • Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) reportedly suffered from a deep depression, especially in later life.
  • Ernest Hemingway (1889-1961) suffered from very poor mental health descending into alcoholism before he finally committed suicide.

I could go on but I think you get the point.

It is important not to suffer alone. When the black dog is barking, please reach out. At Thanet Creative, many of our writers know what it is like to go down that road. When things seem most hopeless, that’s when staying connected matters the most.

If despair is grinding you down, I beg of you to speak up.

How to write a mentally ill character.

Very briefly I’d like to list some of the more important considerations when writing a character with mental illness.

1. Know what you are talking about

If it is not obvious by now, I am firmly convinced that the only way to write about mental health is to understand not just the condition itself but the way people react to it.

2. Make the character relatable

This is almost a universal rule but do not allow yourself to get lost in the mental health issues and forget that you need to write a character that I, as a reader, can relate to. People who suffer from mental illness are still people. They are no different to you or me – having a mental illness does not make me a monster.

3. Keep the story (plot and narrative) central

Your story is about a character who happens to have mental illness. Mental illness is not the story. The character’s struggles with the world arround them – that is the story.

4. Specify the details of the condition, at least in your head

Mental illness is not generic. It is specific. The symptoms and struggles that go with that condition will be specific to the character. So you cannot portray mental illness unless you know which illness you are portraying. Pretty obvious when you think about it.

5. Don’t get lost in the internal world

While you might find the condition you are writing about fascinating, like any good storyteller, you need to prune back the details and focus on the story. Just like anything else you might choose to put in a story, show don’t tell. Pull back the curtain and show us this world but try not to get lost in there.

6. Tell a good story

While you are doing all that, don’t forget that you need to tell a good story. How you do that is a whole other article.

Mental Illness: Further Reading.

The bustle has a list of novels that give (in their opinion) the most realistic portrayals of mental health issues. But what else is there to read about mental illness and writing?

Writers Digest has a great broad strokes overview of how to write mentally ill characters.

How to Treat Mentally Ill Characters When Writing a Novel

You may want to read Rosie Claverton’s “5 Biggest mistakes when writing mental illness“.

5 Biggest Mistakes When Writing Mental Illness

As writers, our work often starts with reading. Book Riot has a list of 100 books about mental illness.

100 Must-Read Books about Mental Illness

Beyond your blog has a list of places to be published when writing about mental health topics. Sadly, there are not that many paid publications.

18 Places To Publish Your Writing About Mental Health Topics

Whizzpast has a list of 8 writers that suffered from poor mental health. That’s where I drew my examples from.

Madder than most? Eight writers who suffered from mental illness

Dan Koboldt writes “Mental Illness in fiction: Getting it right“. He, quite rightly, points out that OCD is not humorous and it is okay to talk about suicide. In fact, it may be healthy for us to talk about suicide just a little more openly.

Mental Illness In Fiction: Getting It Right

Over to you

No matter how much we write about the topic there will always be much more that has been left unsaid. It is just one of those large topics, that way.

  • Have you suffered from mental illness? What were your experiences of it and how has it influenced your writing?
  • What advice would add for writers wanting to tackle to mental health?
  • Which mental health issues would you like to see given a more sympathetic treatment by modern writers?

Advice on writing better

writing

I could give you advice on writing better (in general) but as I am still learning, here is what the experts are saying.

We recently asked what makes a good writer? Here are some tips (mostly from other people) on how you can be a better at writing.

Writing better sentences

writing betterHow to craft better sentences, Copy Blogger. Three great suggestions that can be summarised as:

  1. Consider your sentence in context.
  2. Edit, dits, and edit some more.
  3. Look stuff up to be certain you are using that word right.

My summary here has not done a great article justice. You should read it.

You might also want to check out:

I find Copy Blogger to be consistently helpful and you should probably subscribe.

Writing better essays

When it comes to essay writing Oxford Summer School should know what they are talking about. They have published a list of six practical tips for writing better essays. The first is that old standby that all writers should know – read good examples in your field.

How to Write Better Essays: 6 Practical Tips

Writing better female characters

One of the areas the areas that we looked at in depth was how to write compelling female characters. It is a big topic and we had a lot to say. If you write fiction, this is a post you need to see.

How to write interesting and compelling female characters

General tips for writing better

Life Hacker has a list of 10 tips for writing better. The tips focus on ways to stay organised, stay focused, and reduce avoidable mistakes. If I had to sum it up: Make notes about what you want to say, remember why you want to say it, and check that you have really said it well. There’s more to the list than that, obviously.

If you cannot trust the Oxford Dictionary people on writing better, you cannot trust anyone. Their top tips for better writing is worth the few minutes it will take to read.

Avoid these hack writing techniques and your writing will definitely improve.

What are your tips for better writing?

Let us know your tips on better writing. Do you have a life hack or technique that has improved your skill as a writer?

  • Do you have a life hack or technique that has improved your skill as a writer?
  • Are there tools you use that make you better at writing?
  • What helps you get better at writing?

 

How many of these hack writing techniques are you guilty of?

Hack writing is the fastest way to go from interesting story to trite and boring without really trying.

In almost all cases hack writing is a result of lazy storytelling often combined with a failure to write for the reader. How many of these have you been guilty of?

Having a character look into a mirror and describe themselves.

When telling a story from a first-person perspective, the hackiest thing you can do is use a mirror. Not just because it is cliche (which it is) or because it represents a fundamental failure of imagination (which it does) but because it just is not realistic.

When I look in the mirror (which is something I avoid doing as much as possible) I don’t consider my blue eyes with a hint of green at the centre. I do not cast my eyes over my slightly receding hairline and note, with great detail, the ever-increasing level of grey in my hair and beard. I certainly do not stop to appreciate that I have long hair and a ponytail.

What happens is: I look for as short a time as I can. Either I think, “not bad; I’ll do.” or I think, “I look scruffy. Where is my hairbrush?”

When telling a story from the first person perspective you are letting us see the world through the eyes of the character. Do you know what they cannot see? Themselves. Which is why you are struggling to put into the narrative that description you worked so hard on. That’s a good thing – because it is not relevant.

Forcing details into a story that don’t advance the plot.

This hackish technique is often what is wrong with your opening chapters. When a character first appears you give a full description, a brief summary of their life history, their blood type, and inside leg measurement.

Not only is that unrealistic (so unrealistic) but it slows the pace of the story, obscures the important details, and is really boring to read.

When I introduce two of my friends to each other I don’t give each one a full CV’s worth of background. I simply say “Jack, this is Barry. Barry, this is Jack. I think you two will get along really well because you are both champion call of duty players.” After that, I can leave them to it because my work is done.

Take, for example, The Story of Samson and Delilah. Describe Samson.

You probably said muscles and long hair. What colour was Samson’s hair? We don’t know. What about his eyes, facial hair, or the tone of his skin? We don’t know these things. We don’t know because they are not relevant to the plot.

Samson’s hair matters because that was a pretty important plot point as (spoiler warning) when Samson’s hair is cut off he became weak.

Please, for the love of all that is good about writing, don’t force details into your story that don’t need to be there. This hack writing technique is just about the fastest way to get your story rejected for being boring.

Describing everything the protagonist is wearing.

Go back to Samson for a moment. Did the Biblical author tell you about his clothes? No, of course not. That was an irrelevancy. His clothes were unremarkable. That means not worth remarking upon.

I used to own a book which I would show to other writers. This was known as “the worst book in the world” (because it was that bad). In it, the author describes the heroine, then goes into detail about her outfit. A page later she changes into another outfit and we get the full mirror treatment again.

Do you know what importance any of this had on the plot? If you said “none whatsoever,” then you were right. All that text did was serve to fill out several pages and inflate the word count.

Like every other hack technique on this list so far, this crime against writing is throwing information at us that we don’t need.

Writing a Mary Sue

A Mary Sue is a character who is just a little too perfect. If they have any flaws they are likely to be endearing or actually strengths with a touch of false modesty.

A Mary Sue in a story is someone everyone (except maybe the bad guy) loves, admires, and generally agrees with. They are a thin stand-in for the author.

Just ask TV Tropes:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

There are many reasons not to include a Mary Sue (in any form, ever) but the most important one is that they are so damn boring to read.

There are a few things you can bolt onto a character to avoid Mary Sue. Things like an average background; skills and abilities appropriate to the setting; real character flaws and thus an ability to change; weaknesses they struggle to overcome; or even just some toning down of the god-mode powers.

Once again, this hack writing technique is a failure to consider the reader and it is boring as all heck.

There is nothing wrong with wish fulfilment. Many of my best ideas started off that way. Just don’t expect anyone else to read your daydreams; at least until you’ve refined them into something other people can relate to.

Female characters that are just men in dresses

This hackish for of writing happens most often when the (usually male) author just fancies using a female name but does nothing to make her gender in any way real.

I’ve talked about this at great length before. If you could change Jill to John and the character is now a male, then this was just a man in a dress character.

A female character is going to have female friends. She may experience sexism. Her attitude may be different to all the testosterone-filled characters. In short, she should be a real live human being.

When you write a female character, do me a favour and use little details to convince me this is really a female. Anything bra related probably does not count.

Show me the complexities of societal pressures that shaped your character. Show me how gender identity influences the character in the situation you are presenting. In other words, let me walk a few miles in the shoes of a female through your story.

New Powers as the Plot Demands

This is a hack technique that many otherwise good shows are guilty of. Not to mention comic book writers. Oh, superhero genre – what are you thinking?

This is basically a Deus ex Machina with funny glasses on. If as a writer you have not at least attempted to foreshadow the power and just pulled it out of your bum to get out of a corner you plotted yourself into – this is bad!

One of my favourite shows – Doctor Who – does this from time to time. Int he very first season (aired before I was born) he had no powers at all. Then he sort of gained all sorts of abilities (like telepathy, regeneration, immunities, etc.).

Take, for another example, this instance pulled from TV Tropes:

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Lupin repeatedly points out that the Patronus charm is incredibly advanced magic. He highlights that only very powerful wizards can pull it off, and that even fully qualified wizards struggle to master it. By Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, pretty much everyone in the narrative can cast a full corporeal Patronus without any trouble whatsoever, including most of the adolescent members of the DA. By the seventh book, they can also be used to send messages in the caster’s voice.

Let me put this another way – please do not do this. It is bad writing. Even when semi-justified (even by just being damn cool) it makes suspension of disbelief harder.

Let us make our writing better than that of our favourite authors.

What crimes of bad writing are you guilty of?

They say confession is good for the soul.

Have you been guilty of some hack writing before? What sort of hack writing did you engage in and how terrible was it?

How to write interesting and compelling female characters

Female characters. For whatever reason, they do not get the same page time as their male counterparts. There are no good reason for it aside from perhaps a lack of understanding of how to write a compelling female character.

Following the pattern from before, I’m going to look to game design for some lessons on this.

The problem of too few compelling female characters.

Female characters are not a new topic. I mean, tor.com covered this two years ago, so did Creative Writing Guild at around the same time. Two years before that Alice Leiper explained how to write deep and interesting female characters. I could go on but I don’t want to bore you.

It quite clear to me that there is no mystery to writing strong and interesting female characters so what gives? Why is fiction so lopsided in favour of just one gender?

We’d probably need an entire blog, a team of writers and a lifetime to get into the specifics of why and how we come to find ourselves with so few good female characters (especially in games) and an equal deficiency in the variety of ethnicity.

My suspicion is that the industry is lopsided because it has been lopsided. Publishing houses are notoriously conservative. Seeing books with strong males and unimaginative females selling well, they greenlight more of the same. Rinse and repeat.

We writers may be to blame too.

The writing industry might not be all of the problem. I have no doubt we writers have part of the blame here too. Especially us men. As a man, a white man at that, I tend to write strictly what I know – white males. Specifically, slightly socially dysfunctional geeky white males with a gift for science and long words.

In other words, I write about myself, as we writers usually do.

While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is hardly helping anyone but far worse it is not exactly expanding any frontiers for my readers or myself. In short, this approach runs the danger of being boring.

One thing I have noticed running writing groups is that we males are pretty clueless when it comes to writing female characters while the ladies are much more confident writing different genders. That may be because there are a lot of sterling examples of male characters in print already or maybe lady writers are just more flexible. Who knows?

But this creates a natural bias towards male characters. The thing about biases is that they are often self-inforcing. That’s not good. Worse, it robs us as readers from an interesting variety of characters.

One of the many signs of a good writer is that they can write from perspectives other than their own. This should be a problem we writers can correct.

The problem of culture.

Cultural ideas of gender have caused all sorts of not quite true ideas. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way men tend to write women in fiction.

“How Genre Stereotypes Limit Games and Players” by Extra Credits looks at this issue for gaming but, like three things games can teach us about writing, there is a lot we can learn from this discussion as writers too.

To help us break out of the cycle of not giving female characters enough “air time” in our stories, we are going to take a look at how to go about writing a believable, interesting and compelling female characters.

What makes a compelling character in the first place?

First, let’s talk about what it takes to write a decent character. Extra Creditz has us covered here too.

The character journey.

It is widely held that a character should take us on a three-stage journey.

  1. Compassion (or pity)
  2. Fear
  3. Catharsis

When I say “widely held”, I mean it has been widely held since about the time of Aristotle in his Poetics.

It is this first stage – compassion (pity) – that causes us to feel positive empathy for a character. Regardless of gender or race, we need to experience a degree if believable sympathy in order to connect with a character. However, those aspects of a character – gender, race, sexuality and so forth – must be presented in a realistic way. Simply falling back on stereotypes, apart from being cheap, will rob your story and character of much-needed depth.

This pity, fear, and catharsis pattern follows the analysis pattern of the three-act structure. Not that I am saying that you should write to the three-act structure – trust me, don’t do that – but it does roughly follow it anyway. Mostly because that is what makes the three-act structure so ubiquitous to start with.

That story pattern applies to film, game, and novel equally. Here’s a better explanation than I can offer.

Real vs stock characters.

Take, for example, the use of child characters. The presence of a child character in a story or game can offer the opportunity for the player or reader to experience the emotions of family and parental relationships. Reach for the stereotypes though, and you will almost certainly create forgettable child characters or worse, deeply annoying child characters.

My “go to” game discussion series Extra Creditz takes a look at an example of this done right in the game of “The Walking Dead”.

Details matter, they are not add on extras.

Your character choices in setting, time period, character, gender, sexuality, race, and so on – all should have profound but subtle influences over your character, their worldview, the way they behave towards others and the way that others behave towards them.

Take, for example, the true life story of Mary Anning. Who she was, her gender, her socioeconomic status, and the time in which she was born all have a profound influence on her story. If Mary Anning’s brother had walked her path in life the story would be different.

Gender and race are not just extras to colour your character.

If you can change hats and have a different gender, race, and setting while the character remains unchanged then you never actually had those things to start with. Racial tensions are, at least for us white males, often difficult to portray and so we can avoid doing so. Yet racial and gender disparity are part of the wider truth of our world that, as writers, we should be shining a light on. The same sorts of insights are needed as writers to handle those sometimes subtle differences.

I’ve never played LA Noire but, according to Extra Creditz, LA Noire, for all its faults, is a good example of using racial tension in a believable and character-defining way. That is despite the character being a white male. Race issues affect us all and, as writers, we need to be ready to show that truth.

Applying this to writing compelling female characters.

Let’s bring this back round to the topic of writing interesting and compelling female characters. There are questions that, as the writer, you need to answer. Those answers need to come in what you show us in the story.

  • How does being female influence the way people react to your character?
  • How does her feminity change the way she reacts to the world?
  • Does her gender limit her options? (Such as for Mary Anning).
  • Does her gender offer options not available to male characters?
  • What is it like being a woman in the world you are showing us?

These answers need not be blatant. There is no particular need to smack us in the face with your research but you need to have considered them enough to flavour the narrative with the answer.

We are going to take a look at some of the more specific questions that we writers might need to consider (especially if we are males).

How does being female influence the way people react to your character?

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Gender, for good or ill, influences the way others react to you.  We’ve looked at this a little already but we will take a further look before we finish.

The feminity of your character will influence the ways (some) others react to her. This is where you can show us that your character is really a female.

It may not be necessary to drum up a token bigot if there is no scope for one in your story but that does not mean that your female character is not going to encounter men that hit on her, men that ignore her, bosses that pay her less, men that get promoted first, men or a man that underestimates her, otherwise reasonable men that make crude comments… There are many ways, often subtle, that being female is not the same as being male. Make use of this in your storytelling.

There are many ways, often subtle, that being female is not the same as being male. Make use of this in your storytelling.

For example, a female kidnapper might be able to walk a child right from the school gates without anyone noticing whereas your hairy ape in a suit character probably would not. Then again, the school might have sensible precautions in place.

If you really don’t know how being female differs from being male – say, on account of being a man – then I would recommend that you talk to sisters, mother, girlfriend, wife, or one of the many females that populate your world. I think you might find it an eye-opener.

How does her feminity change the way she reacts to the world?

This might be obvious but your gender colours the way you see the world. After all, it is part of your identity as a human being.

Again show us how this works for your character.

For example, who are her friends?

I don’t know about you but I tend to make friends with people I have a lot in common with. That tends to mean I have a lot more male than female friends. A lot of my friends are geeky. Many of my friends are open-minded. In short, my friends are great because they are similar to me but different in many more ways.

It is not enough to simply shoehorn in one female character per story and claim to have solved “the gender issue”. I’ve seen that happen, I kid you not. After all, most women have friends that are women. Women talk to their friends just like men do too. Well, not just like men – there are some differences (less toilet humour on the whole). The point is that it is unreasonable to try and jam a single token female into a story. No character exists in isolation.

The point is that it is unreasonable to try and jam a single token female into a story. No character exists in isolation.

Does her gender limit her options?

In some societies, gender can be decisive in determining your options in life. If this is the case – show us.

Today, for example, we have unreasonable pay gaps. We have whole fields where women are rarely found (some parts of IT have a woeful lack of ladies).

We also have jobs (midwifery, for example) that are largely seen as female only jobs.

Not so long ago we had male-only clubs.

The answer to this question changes with time and culture. In a male-dominated culture where women are just possession, being a female will be very different than it is today.

This experience is what we readers want you, the writer, to show us. History is a great teacher here.

Remember what I said before, about taking examples from history? Looking at famous women of the past can help you form a well-rounded idea of what a well-rounded female character might be like.

I would advise that you look at examples in fiction but, as we said earlier, there is a paucity of good examples there.

We’ve got you covered if you don’t know where to start. Here are a few women that you would do well to Google.

  • Ida B. Wells
  • Harriet Chalmers Adams
  • Jeanne Manford
  • Nellie Bly
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Elizabeth Kenny
  • Kathrine Switzer

You are missing out, as writers, if you do not let yourself learn at least a little bit about each of these women. Knowing your history gives you a context for what it is like to be a woman today.

Does her gender offer options not available to male characters?

Often times, the reverse is true but when and if gender-specific opportunities exist they are worth noting. If only because they say something about the world.

Opportunities and insights that set your character apart from others are what make your character interesting to read about. Show us these differences.

I’m not just talking about the opportunity for motherhood. As a writer, I am sure you can do better than that. Or maybe you can’t. In some settings, men had all the options. It might not be fair but it is a truth we writers should be exploring.

Which leads us on to…

What is it like being a woman in the world you are showing us?

As you might have guessed by now, my advice is to show us the world from a female perspective.

As a reader, I want to live through your characters. I want to feel what they feel. With compelling female characters, I want to come away from your story having experienced life as a woman, if only for a moment.

Let us take a look at what it is like being a woman today.

Being a woman today.

If you happen to be a boy that is far too shy to actually talk to girls (honestly, they don’t bite) I’ve compiled a few videos that should get you started.

Boys, notice that there are a bunch of different ladies in these videos. And. They. Are. All. Different.

Some insight that, as a writer, you might want to pay attention to. What it is like to be a girl

Our next video is a look at what it might be like to be an attractive female. Warning, you could use this limited information wholesale but only if you want to end up with flat generic characters.

Show us women, not men in dresses.

The takeaway here is that just as all these women are different, your characters can be different and unique too. In fact, if your female characters are interchangeable or worse, men in dresses, you have failed as a writer.

Wait, what? Men in dresses?

Men in dresses are “female characters” that if renamed to Bob or John would instantly be male characters. That’s just a “man in a dress” character. Don’t do that.

If you have tried to answer the five questions then you are unlikely to have written a man in a dress.

  • Show us how her gender influences the way people react to her.
  • Let us see how her feminity changes the way she reacts to the world.
  • Make us feel the frustration of gender limiting her options.
  • Explore the few options not available to male characters.
  • Show us what it is like being a woman.

Just don’t write a man in a dress for goodness sake.

The secret of writing authentic, interesting, and compelling female characters.

Wait, you waited until now to get to the secret?

Why, yes I did. I waited because if I put the secret at the top, there is no way in heck that you would believe me. So, are you ready for the secret of writing interesting and compelling female characters?

The secret, lads, is this: Listen to women, try to understand the perspective you are given when you listen, try to imagine what it is like to be that woman. If you can do that then you will not only be a better, more interesting writer but a better more interesting person.

Like almost everything in writing, the secret is research and empathy. Now you know everything you need to know about developing characters that are not you with a different hat on. Go and write amazing stories.

Fun fact for shy boys – listening to and understand women enough to write about women authentically will make talking to girls much easier and, if that’s your thing, will make you a better boyfriend or husband. It will also make you a better son and/or brother too.

You can never have enough research material. So here is yet another video of what it is like to be a woman online. Hashtag, not all men suck (we promise).

Over to you.

What advice would you add on crafting compelling female characters?

Can you recommend any stories with a truly compelling female character?

Are you, yourself, female? Who are your female remodels and what can we, as writers, learn from them?

What makes you a good writer?

What makes a good writer? Specifically, what does it take to make you a good writer?

This post is inspired by Thanet Writer and author, Matthew Munson’s blog post. I took his main points and examined them one by one to see if I agreed or if I could come up with any further points. You should probably check out Matthew’s blog and his new book which is coming out soon.

What makes a good writer?

What Matthew Munson says makes a good writer.

Good writers serve the reader.

Matthew’s first point (and a point well made I think) is that good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It does this, he tells us by anticipating reader questions and answering them.

He is right. All writing is for an audience. That audience could be the writer themselves (a diary, for example) or millions of people (a popular newspaper column for example). Whoever it is for it is for someone.

One of the important tools we writers have is to keep our readers firmly in mind. If you are telling a story, you are trying to put the images, sounds, smells, and emotions from your head and transmit them with words into the heads of readers.

If you are telling a story, you are trying to put the images, sounds, smells, and emotions from your head and transmit them with words into the heads of readers.

With non-fiction work, you are trying to transmit facts and ideas in exactly the same way.

Good writing is grounded in facts with context.

Yes and no, Matthew. Good factual writing should, of course, be grounded with solid data, well informed by objective truth, and given proper context. Poetry and prose, not so much.

Fiction, by its very definition, is able to play fast and loose with the facts.

Opinions – for example, editorials and similar blogs – are again expressions of the self. There is a cross over in that where such writings talk about the real world the best ones talk about what is real and provable rather than plucking “facts” that sound right and fit the current prejudice. Even so, this has nothing to do with good writing and everything to do with journalistic integrity.

Good writing can be anything but grounded. Good writing takes you on a journey. Honest writing might have a solid foundation of objective truth. Trustworthy writing might be well researched. Valuable scientific writing might have a solid grounding in data. But, despite all this, good examples of all of those also take you on a journey with those truths, research, and data.

On the other hand, writing lacking any moral compass might convince you the sky is pink, the earth is flat, and the Nazis were jolly nice people. It could be good writing that makes a very compelling case. In which case the author should probably go to work for somewhere like the Daily Mail where words like integrity are worth nothing more than the 13 points they get you in a game of scrabble.

Good writing happens with the rewrite.

Dark Editor

This is only mostly true. Good writing happens with editing and rewrites, it is true. Yet good writing can be hindered by that selfsame process too.

 

When the inner editor tries to object to a grammatical form too soon, you can end up never finishing the sentence and losing the wider meaning of what you were trying to say. In the Thanet Creative: Writers group, we call this the Dark Editor. If writing were a religion, the Dark Editor would be the devil.

So to clarify Matthew’s point – good writing happens with the rewrite at the right time. (Say, after the first draft).

Good writers aren’t smug.

Dear God, I wish that were true.

I have known very many writers over the years. I can tell you that good writers are frequently smug – it is what has stopped them becoming great writers.

It is not an ordinary smugness – the kind that gently invites a punch to the nose – no this is usually a deep sneering smugness and loudly demands that you hope with every ounce of your being that karma is a thing and that you are still around to see it pay out.

Pride may go before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall but when you meet a truly smug writer – especially when the smugness is ill deserved – that fall cannot come soon enough.

There is something else Matthew says on this point:

…the label seems more meaningful when it’s bestowed upon you by others.

I have to agree. No matter how strongly you acknowledge that you write and by definition, you must, therefore, be a writer, it is still wonderfully uplifting when another acknowledges you as such.

However, being a writer is rough. It is a truism that we are going to see more rejections than you can encompass in a hastily invented simile. To weather that, we need a degree of toughness – either through unreasonable smugness or through a quiet assurance that we know what we are doing.

It is the only way to see off imposter syndrome and the doubts of the Dark Editor.

The best writing is collaborative.

When Matthew is right, he is right. Writing cannot happen in a vacuum.

A common fear among writers is the fear that someone will steal your ideas. The truth is no one is going to steal your ideas because any writer worth his salt already has more ideas than they know what to do with and those that lack an abundance of ideas tend to lack the skill to use yours.

Indeed, as Matthew points out, without the support of beta readers, proofreaders, and copy editors, your work is unlikely to get finished.

While very few blog posts are run past editors and proofreaders, the process of blogging – the feedback from readers – serves the same process. Over time, you simply become better at writing good posts. This still does not happen in a vacuum.

One of the best places to find a supportive community is your local writers’ community. For those who have written and need that vital early feedback – beta reading – a writers’ group can be of incalculable value. Find out more about our writers’ group Thanet Creative: Writers on Facebook or Author Buzz.

 

Remarkable writers read.

readingI would go further and say that only the very worst hack writers don’t read. Reading is a vital part of writing because writing (as we just covered) does not happen in a vacuum.

Reading is a vital part of honing your craft. As I said when talking about how writing should serve the reader, you are trying to communicate to others. How though can you communicate effectively if you have no experience of being communicated to?

In some ways, saying writers need to read is as obvious as saying Chefs need to eat. Reading is simply part of the writing process.

Writers must have patience.

This is probably true. To be a good writer you must have dedicationa and that is, more or less, the same thing.

Yet I could also argue that to be a good writer you need impatience. You should impatient to get back to writing, impatient to get it all down on paper, impatient to get on with the story and cover the background details later (and only if they prove important).

Perhaps, then, it is fairer to say a good writer must be both patient and impatient at the same time. After all, in so many aspects a writer is a living contradiction anyway.

Good writers are good listeners and observers.

This is another point that I am unsure if I agree with. Certainly listening and observation skills are very useful to a writer. A writer with these skills has a lot more material to draw upon. Does that mean that you cannot be a good writer without them?

I don’t think it does.

Perhaps the corollary here is that if you want to be a better writer then developing listening and observation skills will make it happen.

What else makes a good writer?

So what else might Matthew have missed out from his list?

A good writer writes.

Perhaps it goes without saying but you cannot be a good writer if you do not do any actual writing. Writing itself is the final act of the creative process but it is the expression of the other skills we have discussed. Without putting the craft into practice a person can at best be considered a potential writer in theory.

Good writers write. The best writers write every day.

A good writer takes constructive criticism to heart.

Remember that we said writing cannot happen in a vacuum? It follows from that idea that the feedback you get must be considered and acted upon. Otherwise, it is as useless as if you had none.

A good writer must develop not only a humility compatible with having others (including less skilled writers) school them and critique them but must also learn how to tell when the feedback is just wrong. That is a skill set which is more art than science.

Good writers express ideas clearly.

You could have all the other skills in abundance but without the ability to clearly express ideas, you will never be a good writer. Not ever.

To be a good writer you must learn to express ideas with clarity. That is, perhaps, what Matthew was getting at when he said that a good writer considers the reader.

Remarkable writers connect the dots for you.

A truly great writer needs to be a sort of visionary reporting back what has been seen from afar. Again, this is part of considering the reader but also aprt of expressing ideas clearly.

The best writers see connections that others have missed and then express those connections so that others can follow along. They connect the dots in a new way and reveal the pattern that was always hiding there.

Remarkable writers could use sci-fi to show us where things are going or they might as easily explain a complex theory. What most writers of fiction do (or should do) is show us a new insight into the human condition. The best and most memorable fictions in any genre do this.

Over to you.

How much do you agree with Matthew Munson’s take of what makes a good writer? Would you agree with the three additions we came up with? What else, would you say, sets good writers apart from the rest of the pack?