How Long Can You Write For? And When Should You Stop?

How much writing can you get done in a day before your brain starts to melt? I’ve picked up a few tips over the years that might help…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. We writers talk a lot about writing habits, writing every day or writing regularly. But let’s have a think about when to stop writing. Now, to be clear.

I don’t mean stopping altogether and jacking it in. I’m talking about how do you know when you’re done for the day? First drafts I could write all day and collapse in a heap. But I’ve discovered that my daily limit is about 2 hours. After that my poor little brain turns to soft fudge and it starts to leak out of my ears.

Either that or I’ve got an ear infection. Anyway, because my brain goes soft, the writing suffers. It’s just not as good as those first 2 hours. For edits, I find that it’s even more important to set myself limitations. Now I was really in the zone this morning, knocked out a little over a thousand words, which might not sound like much, but I’m editing and this was a whole new chunk that I was grafting on to the beginning of a chapter and it was my allotted task for that morning’s writing session.

I’ve left myself a note, you know, fix this by doing X, Y and Z… And I did it.

I was happy with it and I was so buoyed up that I just wanted to keep writing. But I stopped. Well, the truth is, I didn’t have much of a plan beyond my alotted task. I could have carried on, but I would have been blundering about with no idea what to do. And as I said, if this was a first draft I might have sat down and made some notes or maybe carried on writing blind. And that’s okay with the first draft, but when editing I like to stick to that plan. I’ve been through the book, I’ve made tons of notes, done my edit triage, figured out what needs fixing and I’m tackling those tasks one at a time. Have a look at some of my earlier videos on how I prepare for an edit in more detail. So for the next few days I’m focused on one particular character.

After that I’ll switch to the next problem on the list because when editing, the temptation is to try and fix everything at once and then you end up making a right old mess, and there’s a chance you can do more harm than good. So when editing, make a plan and stick to it. One fix at a time. The other thing I do at the end of a edit session is make a few notes for tomorrow’s session. So here… Just 50 words.

I’ve told myself I need to change the POV in the next chapter, and I’ve reminded myself of the changes I’ve made and what consequences they will have. Better to do that when it’s fresh rather than tomorrow morning where I might sit at my desk — and it’s 7:30 in the morning, don’t forget — and wonder just what the blimmin’ heck I’m supposed to do. On weeks like this, it’s also important to set limitations because I’m working on two projects simultaneously. Not ideal. But it happens.

One is the next Woodville books edit. The other is the second draft of a screenplay. They are sufficiently different for me to separate them in my mind, but also having alotted time and tasks really helps, as does having a bit of time between them. I’m lucky enough to work from home. So it’s those between times that I get bits of housework done, which also gets me off my bottom.

Very important for a writer. So that’s just what works for me. Have you discovered your writing session limits yet? Pop something in the comments below. Of course, you might be like Chet Cunningham.

I was reading about this legend the other day, from the publication of his first book in 1968 to his passing in 2017 at the age of 88, Chester Cunningham had something like 350 books published. Westerns, adventure novels, military thrillers. He also cowrote the “Penetrator” books under the pseudonym Lionel Derrick. This is what sent me down this rabbit hole. I saw the covers on the Pulp Librarian Twitter feed, and they are extraordinary. Chet comes from that pulp tradition where a writer was expected to knock out a thrilling adventure weeks, if not days.

I think at one point he was doing one Western per month. Why the hell not? And here’s the thing. Chet never stopped. Here’s a quote from the FAQs on his website when asked about Writer’s Block, he says, “I came from a newspaper background. When the editor assigns you a story, you write it now. No ifs, buts, or I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today. I usually write from eight to 10 hours a day when I’m a roll on a book. Researching is another thing.”

And then he was asked about Writer’s Block. Do you ever get Writer’s block? He said, “I never use the term. I don’t believe it exists. Ever heard of a Carpenter not going to work because he has Carpenters Block?

If a writer can’t write it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper. Or he’s just plain lazy. There’s no such thing as writer’s block only writer-dumb-dumb-dumb.” Well, Chet, we may disagree on that, but I salute you. Me.

I’m going to have a cup of tea. Until the next time, folks. Happy writing.

How Many Characters is Too Many?

How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.

Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.

So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.

They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.

There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.

And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.

And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.

It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.

So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…

There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.

But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!

My Big Tip for Screenwriters Worried About Formatting

Here’s my big tip for screenwriters who are starting out and are worried about correct formatting…

Links: Highland 2: https://quoteunquoteapps.com/highland-2/

Slugline: https://slugline.co

Fade-In: https://www.fadeinpro.com

Scrivener: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/sc…

Trelby: https://www.trelby.org

Scriptnotes Podcast: https://johnaugust.com/scriptnotes

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, let’s talk about screenplay formatting. There’s an awful lot of hooey online about screenplay formatting and it can be extremely off putting for the debut screenwriter.

“Don’t make any slug lines bold.”

“No, *do* make your slug lines bold.”

“Don’t include camera directions”.

“Don’t put direction in parentheticals.”

“Don’t add musical cues.”

“And will the words “we see” get me put into movie jail, where I shall rot for the rest of my life?!”

Well, I’ve managed to break all of these so called rules on pretty much every script I’ve written, most of them on my next film, which is out next year and it hasn’t really done me any harm. If you want to learn about screenwriting and formatting, here’s the thing: read. Read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on. And here is the good news. There are millions of the blimming things, all available for free from legitimate sources. I’ll always point people to the BBC’s Writers’ Room, which has a ton of scripts that you can download completely free of charge.

And when it’s awards season time, you’ll see fresh batches sent out by the studios for Academy voters to read. And you can read them too. Follow me on social media as I’ll always share and RT the links.

But why? you say. Why should I read scripts when I could be writing? Because the more you read, the more you realise there are no rules, merely guidelines. The differences between a Wed Anderson script, a Pixar animation, a Coen Brothers movie, a Marvel movie will be noticeable even to the first time reader.

One little tip, try and read as much stuff as you can that was produced in the last few years. Formatting and style is constantly evolving. A lot of screenplay, books and courses point to scripts like James Cameron’s script for Aliens, Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise. And while these are brilliant scripts, these are old movies and as such the formatting is a bit old hat.

And don’t ever stop reading. You will always be discovering new ways to liven up your screenplay. So if the formatting of all these great screenplays can be so different, what’s the common element underlines the all? Clarity. They’re all trying to play a movie in the reader’s head. And here’s what few beginner screenwriters realise: the script you’re writing now isn’t the one that will be filmed. It’s basically a sales document.

It will be read by development execs, producers, agents, the kinds of people who try and help you get it made. And, as such, you need to make that movie spring off the page and into their brains. And to do that, yes, you sometimes have to tell the reader where you’re pointing the camera, or how an actor should say a particular line, or that “we see” someone do something totally pivotal to the plot that might otherwise be missed. Once you go into production, a director, producer, designers, actors all get involved with the script, then changes and decisions will be made about camera angles, music, line delivery, etc.

It will evolve because film is collaborative. It is now their movie is much as it is yours. Don’t go into the movies if you want total authorial control.

That’s why I love writing novels between screenplays. The more you read and the more you write screenplays, you’ll start to develop your own style. And as for formatting, to start with… don’t bother. Here’s a first draft of the screenplay I finished just the other day. I’ll hold it far away so you can’t actually read it. Lots of spoilers.

It’s all hand-written, baby. No formatting. Why? I’ve been finding that formatting just gets in the way of my creativity. I just grab a pen and paper and use that hotline from my brain to the page. It’s something I’ve been doing a lot this year and it’s really working for me. Then I type it up in my screenwriting software.

I’m currently using either Highland 2, or Slugline, which are both designed for the Mac. Nice and clean, very simple to use. They do 99% of the formatting automatically. I would also recommend Fade-In. Scrivener has a pretty good screenplay option and I hear good things from my Windows PC friends about Trelby. I’ll put links to these in the description below.

Whatever you do, don’t rush out and buy Final Draft. People will go on and on about them being the industry standard, but it’s expensive and top heavy with the kinds of bells and whistles you don’t actually need until you go into production. Then Final Draft comes into its own for budgeting, scheduling and revisions, but you don’t need to worry about any of that quite yet. So if you’re starting out, I hope that sets your mind at ease. There are no arcane rituals or rules that must be slavishly followed.

There is no miracle software that will turn you into William Goldman or Nora Ephron.

What you need to do is write an incredible, compelling story with characters, action and dialogue that is out of this world. Yes. A doddle. Oh, and I highly recommend the Scriptnotes podcast. Brilliant advice from John August and Craig Mazin and their many guests who are actual working screenwriters and really know how all this stuff works.

So get going. Until next time. Happy writing.

Read the opening of BABES IN THE WOOD now

You can read the first three chapters of my forthcoming book BABES IN THE WOOD right now.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, all sorts of good news to impart today. First off, if you want to read the thrilling opening chapters to my new book, Babes in the Wood, you can get it right now by joining the Woodville Village Library and downloading this chapter sampler, which also features an exclusive introduction from Woodville Village head librarian, Araminta Cranberry. Available nowhere else! The Woodville Village Library newsletter is for all things to do with the Witches of Woodville books. Sign up and you get all kinds of free and exclusive goodies.

The opening chapter to Babes in the Wood. The short story collection, the Miss Charlotte quartet, recipes for jam roly poly and much, much more and more to come in the future. Araminta sends emails out about once a month and she royally takes the mickey out of me. So what more incentive do you need? Go to: WitchesOfWoodville.com click on the library tab, sign up and Bob is your proverbial uncle.

Oh, and if you’re bookseller or a blogger and have access to Netgalley, you can read the whole of Babes in the Wood now as an uncorrected proof. Just sign in to Netgalley and do the necessary.

I’ve got some exciting events news. A real life book event. I know, though, it’s not actually one of mine. But! I’m going to be in conversation with the mighty Joe Abercrombie at Waterstones Picadilly to celebrate the launch of his new book, The Wisdom of Crowds, the final book in the Age of Madness trilogy. Joe is an amazing writer and a top bloke, and the conversation will be as lively as you would expect. And a splendid time is guaranteed for all, though space is limited, so grab your tickets now.

We’re on Friday 17th September at seven pm, Waterstones Piccadilly.

Stay tuned for more news about a charity short story anthology featuring some amazing authors… and me. And I might… I might even have some movie news soon. Anyway, what are you doing listening to me? Download the Free Babes in the Wood Chapter Sampler. Sign up to the newsletter. Happy reading. Happy writing. See you very soon.

BABES IN THE WOOD

July, 1940

Fleeing the Nazi blitzkrieg, a trio of Kindertransport children come to stay with Lady Aston at Hayward Lodge in Woodville. Their arrival triggers a murder mystery involving a magic apple tree, modern art, a U-boat, and a demonic hound. Faye Bright must play nanny to the terrified children while gathering clues to uncover the dark magic that threatens to change the course of the war.

For fans of Lev Grossman and Terry Pratchett comes the second novel in this delightful trilogy of war, mystery and a little bit of magic . . .

Praise for The Crow Folk

‘Swept me straight back to days of losing myself in Diana Wynne Jones novels, and getting lost in truly absorbing, sometimes scary, sometimes emotive adventure with its roots in folklore and history. A story that is full of magic and delight that will thrill readers of any age’Rowan Coleman, author of The Girl at the Window

‘Stay has brewed a cracking blend of charm and creepiness in The Crow Folk. A rip-roaring tale of bravery and witchcraft on the wartime home front, expertly told with lashings of wit and warmth’Pernille Hughes, author of Probably the Best Kiss in the World  ?

 ‘A delightful mash-up of Dad’s Army and Charmed. An absolute treat’CK McDonnell, author of Stranger Times

‘Warm, witty, witchy wartime fun. With Mark Stay as writer you’re always guaranteed a magical read’Julie Wassmer, author of the Whitstable Pearl Mysteries

‘You’ll love it: Doctor Who meets Worzel GummidgeLorna Cook, author of The Forgotten Village

‘A jolly romp with witches, demons, and bellringing. Pratchett fans will enjoy this, and Faye is a feisty and fun hero. Dad’s Army meets Witches of EastwickIan W Sainsbury

PRE-ORDER BABES IN THE WOOD FROM YOUR PREFERRED RETAILER HERE.

Ten Questions

I was asked ten questions by the author JS Clerk on writing, agents, perspective, voice, the Bestseller Experiment podcast, and all that good stuff. And here are my answers…

You can see more of JS Clerk’s interviews here.

TRANSCRIPT:

  1. Did you always want to be an author? What were your favourite books from your childhood? 

I always wanted to make things up. Play-acting. I think that’s what a lot of creativity is. Make believe. We didn’t have many books in the home, but we went every week to the library. The Star Wars novelisation was a gateway drug to science fiction. And then it was Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, and then Douglas Adams, and then Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin.

I was probably also the only kid who regularly checked out books on what to do in a nuclear war. It was the early 80s and it was disturbing. 

2) Do you have an agent? What was your route into the publishing industry?

I have had many agents. I currently have two: Ed Wilson for books, Matt Dench for scripts. My road into the industry was a temporary Christmas job at Waterstones in Dorking. That was when Tim Waterstone ran the company and insisted that everyone who worked there had a degree. I didn’t. Shh. Don’t tell anyone. 

3) Do you write full time? If so, what was your lifebefore turning to writing? 

I do write full time, very lucky to be able to do that.

I worked in bookselling publishing for over twenty five years, as a bookseller at Waterstones, then a sales rep for a couple of publishers, and then looking after Amazon for Orion. 

4) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to read? 

Not sure I have one, so long as the voice feels honest and true and suits the story. I’m not someone who gets their knickers in a twist if I see something in first person, present tense, or second person. “You open the door, you see a dragon.” Just tell me your story in your voice. That’s the most important thing. 

5) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to write? 

I like writing in a fairly close third person. I love the present tense dynamism of screenplays, too, which is two very different ways of telling a story. I did write a children’s book, still unpublished, in third person, and then completely rewrote it all in first person, which was fun. Still hasn’t been published, though. 

6) How do you judge a book? Is it by the cover, or the authors writing style? 

That’s two things there, really. I mean, the cover is what draws you in and makes you want to pick the thing up, and I am a sucker for a great cover, which is why I’m blessed with the covers I’ve got from the wonderful Harry Goldhawk.

The author’s writing style will ultimately be what you judge a story by, I guess. I mean, I don’t like to get too judgey, as long as it’s written truthfully and you don’t bore the reader. I think it’s healthy for an author to live in fear of boring the reader. 

7) For the unpublished author, do you have any advice on querying agents for publication? How does an author know when their manuscript is ready? 

Agents ask two questions: Do I love it? Can I sell it? And if you can answer both those, you’re fine. Finding the right agent is like dating. Only the odds are more stacked against you.

Just persist and remind yourself of how many times people have been rejected before finding success. Persistence is so important in this business and I really, really, really mean that. In my case we’re talking decades of persistence. You really have to want this. As for querying, keep it short, sweet and honest and be patient. Especially now. Agents are still playing catch up after lockdown and there’s no magic combination of words that will get you repped in a covering letter.

It’s all about your writing. And when is it ready? It’s ready when you feel you could give it to anyone to read. Your worst enemy. Truthfully, that day may never come. So don’t go chasing perfection because it doesn’t exist. Get it as good as you can possibly make it. I know my stuff is ready when I go word blind. I can’t tell good from bad anymore. Then I send it to beta readers and get some feedback and perspective.

8) How did the concept for the Bestseller Experiment come about? How did you develop the concept?

The Bestseller Experiment came about… I’d written a movie called Robot Overlords and did the tie-in novelisation as well, and a guy I knew… We didn’t go to the same school, but we went to schools in the same area, had lots of mutual friends… a guy called Mark Desvaux got in touch. And he said, this is amazing, you’ve written a book, you’ve written a film. He said he’d always tried to write a novel, but he never got beyond 20,000 words. And we got talking.

One thing led to another. We both both have very similar interests, both like podcasts. So we challenged ourselves to co-write write a novel and get it self-published and top some Amazon charts within 12 months. But the important thing was that we asked our listeners to beat us to it. We said to people, if you’ve got a half-written book in a drawer or you’ve got something that’s been sitting in your trunk for years… Get it out, dust it off, polish it.  Listen to the guests that we have on the podcast.

And we’ve had people like Sarah Pinborough, Joe Hill, Joanne Harris, major best selling authors, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin giving fantastic, fantastic writing advice… And beat us to it. And the great thing is loads of them did. I can show you. I’ll show you now. Hang on. See the shelf here. These are all the people that have listened to the podcast and, because of some advice they heard on the podcast, they got published. And that’s the best thing we… that ever could have come … Just the fact that all these people have managed to get their books out there because of something they heard on the podcast is… It’s just amazing to me.

And it’s why we keep going. We’re nearly five years old now. Five years old in October of 2021. 

8) On the podcast, how do you plan your interview approaches?

For interviews, I usually have five or so bullet points, which is good for 20 minutes, we have a really good idea of what our listeners want. So they like writing habits, writing tips, that sort of thing. I try not to get too hung up on sticking to the list. It’s important to listen. Your guest will take you to places you never imagined if you let them.

10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy? 

I used to listen to music a lot, I used to have specific playlists. I’m too old now. I need silence. I wrote Back to Reality with Disney Pixar scores and the score to La La Land. The End of Magic I wrote mostly with Jeremy Soule’s score for Skyrim, which was handy. Robot Overlords, I wrote largely to Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack. And when I hear those now, they make me think of those books, which is a lovely thing. But yeah, at my age I need the sound of silence.

Get a FREE BADGE when you pre-order Babes in the Wood from Coles Books

Spiffing news. Simply pre-order a copy of my new book Babes in the Wood from Coles Books, and you will receive an exclusive free badge and a signed bookplate copy of the paperback.

Pre-Order Here: https://coles-books.co.uk/babes-in-the-wood-the-witches-of-woodville-2-by-mark-stay-signed-paperback-edition

THERE’S MORE ON THIS YOUTUBULAR VIDEOGRAM…

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, old chap. What’s that on your uniform? Why, that’s a Woodville Village. Badge. How simply spiffing. You look quite the dandy. Where can I get one of those? What’s that? One simply pre-orders “Babes in the Wood” from Coles Books for an exclusive badge and a signed bookplate by visiting Coles-Books.co.uk. Jolly good. Where to now? Oh, you have to pop off to defend this Sceptred Isle from the Nazi hordes. Actually, I was going to the pub…

Babes in the Wood coming Halloween 2021.

Don’t be a Nazi. Pre-order now.

Words To Cut To Make Your Prose More Punchy

Want to make your prose more punchy? Try cutting a few of those filler and filter words. Note: these aren’t hard and fast rules. Of course you can use adjectives and adverbs whenever you like. But if you’re editing, it’s not a bad idea to trim as many as possible.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. Want to make your prose a little more punchy? When editing, look for those adjectives and adverbs that can really make your writing drag. All those filler and filter words. Find them and get rid of them. For example… Deep breath… “Thought”, “touched”, “saw”, “he saw”, “they saw”, “just”, “heard”, “he heard”, “they heard”, “she heard”… “Decided”, “knew”, “noticed”, “realised”, “watched”, “wondered”, “seemed”, “seems”. That’s one of mine. “Looked”. That’s another one of mine.

“He looked”, “she looked”. “Could”, “to be able to”, yeesh. “Noted”. “Rather”, “quite”, “somewhat”, “somehow”. Although I think these are OK in dialogue, if used sparingly. “Feel”. “Felt”. Now this… this one always starts alarm bells ringing. Don’t just tell the reader that Bob is feeling angry. Try and describe his rage in a way that is unique to Bob. Which is easier said than done, of course. But no one said this would be easy. “And then” — paired together. Cut one or the other. “Had”. If you have two hads in the sentence, one of them has to go. Hads: two hads together… “had had”, which does happen. See if there’s a better way of writing around that. You might have to completely rethink the sentence. “He looks”, “she looks”. “He turned to her and said”, “she turned”, “they turned”… All this turning can make the reader feel dizzy and you can have whole conversations with people turning around and it goes absolutely nowhere. “Supposed”. “Appeared to be”.

“Apparently”. All of these can be weak and they can make your characters feel passive. If you’re writing the first person, these filter words can be doubly harmful. So… “I turned and looked up and saw the elephant raise its foot to squish me” is, well, it’s fine. “The elephant raised its foot to squish me” is a lot more direct. Keep those physical movements to a minimum. All that turning, twisting, looking… Give the reader just enough to animate the action in their own head. You’re not choreographing a musical.

So when you’re editing, look out for these filter words. Do a “find and replace”. Most of the time you’re better off simply cutting them. Other times you might see an opportunity to replace them with something a little more dynamic. What I mean by that? Okay. Add a bit of movement or action or texture. Instead of the “look to”, “turn to”… have them raise their chin, look down their nose, scratch their ear, run their hands through their hair, drum their fingers nervously.

Action that underlines what the character is trying to say or might be thinking. I find it useful sometimes to act the scene out. We’re all writers, spending far too long sitting on our backsides, so a little exercise won’t do us any harm. Get up, move about, film it, film yourself. No one ever needs to see it but you. But seriously, most of the time just cut the buggers. You’re better off without them. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes we need these words to add clarity to a sentence, but too often I find myself relying on them when I should be trying to be a bit more zippy with my prose.

But hey, that’s editing is all about. Hope you found that useful. Until next time. Happy writing.

You’ve Written “The End”… Now What?

I finished the first draft of my novel this week… but what happens next? Jump right in to edit? Or…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, I typed these beautiful words earlier this week… (The End) Of course, this is nothing like the end. This is a raggedy mess of a first draft where three quarters of the way through I realised there were two characters that were completely redundant. So they were left by the wayside. The antagonist had almost completely changed in their nature. And there are several strands that have been left dangling in the wind. Still so far to go. But why not allow yourself this little moment of triumph?

Most people who want to write a book never get this far. So, hurrah! Cheers. I… I don’t drink. So this American champagne will have to do in lieu of actual champagne. But, I hear you cry, if I know what’s broken, why don’t I just go back and fix it right now? Well, those problems I mentioned, those are issues that occurred to me as I’ve been writing. Experience has taught me that there’s going to be a ton of whole new problems that I’ll discover.

And if I were to jump back in now, it would feel like an insurmountable heap of problems and my brain will probably melt in the process. It’s time to take a break from this book, at least. So here’s what I recommend… Leave it for six weeks. Six weeks!? Yup. Especially if you’re new to this. You need to come back at this draft with your eyes as fresh and objective as possible. And you do that by not even thinking about the bloody thing for at least six weeks.

Excuse me. Windy pops. Coke. Fizzy pop. So what to do in the meantime? Read. Read all you can. Refill the tank. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre, read good books, read crappy books. Read to remind yourself what a finished narrative feels like. Also, I’m editing a client’s book… Did I mention that I edit and offer reader reports…? Visit my Writer Services site here.

Doing this, reading another writer’s text in such a way that you want to give them a constructive critique, will exercise all kinds of new synapses in your noggin. Sparking up the same part of the brain that you’ll be using when you come to edit your own text.

It’s good exercise. Limbering up for the main event. That doesn’t mean you have to be like a professional editor or anything like that. This is where you go to any writers you know, and offer your services as a Beta Reader. Ask if they have any finished novels that they need reading, and offer your eyes and brains… In a… Brains, not ears… In a quid pro quo agreement, because you’ll need a beta reader once you’ve finished your next pass. Why not cue one up now?

You’ll learn so much by reading another writer’s work in progress. You’ll see the same kind of issues that you will encounter. You might, even in the process of offering your own notes, come across a solution for your own problems. Happens to me all the time. I’m very lucky in that I have a couple of trusted readers for my stuff and I’m happy to read their stuff at the drop of a hat. It’s a great arrangement, and by the time you’ve read their book — or books — you might get through two or more in those six weeks, you’ll not only find that you’re ready to return to your own work, but what once seemed insurmountable will simply be a bunch of problems to be solved. But that’s a whole new video. Until next time. Happy writing… Or reading… Or critiquing. Cheers.

How To Write Satisfying Endings

How can you write a really satisfying ending to your story?

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. I’m getting to the final few chapters of this first draft, and that’s when I tend to find that my daily word count starts to drastically go down. Why? Well, up to now, I’ve been getting ideas down on the page, putting my characters into tricky situations, given them terrible dilemmas. And they’ve all made choices with consequences. And it’s all been driving the story forward. But sooner or later, that story has to end and endings are hard.

Just ask George R.R. Martin or J.J. Abrams or anyone who’s had to wrap up a story with a neat little bow. So the creativity brakes tend to start screeching as you realise that you just can’t keep piling on story. If you see my previous videos, you’ll now I’m big on using theme as story fuel, and that’s definitely worked for this first draft. Having a thematic argument has really helped give me focus on how to make things work and I’ve never found myself stuck or blocked.

And just for reference, my thematic argument for this story is: Are we better off working alone or working with others? And I always like to pose it as a question. And I’ve enjoyed this as a thematic argument because there are times when it’s worked for both my protagonist, antagonist, and all the supporting characters. But the problem with a thematic argument is that you have to resolve it. That doesn’t mean you should come down hard on one side or the other.

Ideally, what you want for your resolution is some kind of synthesis. So if you think of your protagonist as the thesis of your argument, they stand for this thing here and your antagonist represents the antithesis over here, then your ending should resolve into a synthesis of both, or something new and unexpected. And that’s what makes for a satisfying ending. Think of The Godfather. So the argument is: can Michael be part of a crime family and maintain his moral high ground?

Well, Michael starts the story essentially disowning his family, but the family’s business tests him, and by the end he’s running the family the way he wants it run, but he’s also defending it with violence by ordering hits on the other families. A synthesis of ideas there. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Can a grave robber prove himself worthy of a great prize? Indy starts the film dismissing the Ark as superstitious nonsense. But by the end, his growing understanding and belief in its power is what saves him and Marion.

And don’t come at me with that Big Bang Theory crap about Indy not affecting the outcome of Raiders. Those people are confusing plot with story and are completely missing the point. Finding Nemo: Marlin, the overprotective father. He crosses a dangerous ocean and finds himself proven right again and again. Yes, the ocean is a dangerous place, but he realises that he has to let his son save Dory. Pixar, frankly, are masters at this kind of thematic storytelling.

Take the time to watch a few Pixar “making of” videos and you’ll get all this good stuff in great detail. This thesis/antithesis stuff is all horribly simplistic, of course, and easier said than done. But keeping this in mind, as I write these last few chapters, has really helped me figure out how to bring my story train to a stop and keep it on the rails and hopefully give the reader a really satisfying ending. Of course, the tracks behind me are a complete disaster, but, hey, that’s what rewrites are for.

OK, till next time, happy writing.

Six Tips for Writing Action

Six tips for writing engaging action and fight sequences in your fiction…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, as I get closer to the end of this draft and I start ramping up the tension and the stakes and the action and, well, I’m about to embark on a big old action sequence. Here are six tips for writing action in fiction. Number one, don’t just have action for the sake of it. It needs to advance the story. By that, I mean it needs to create change and have consequences. Your characters will have to make choices in the heat of the moment that will affect what comes afterwards.

If you can just take that action sequence out of the story, and the scenes that sandwich it still work together, then maybe the action sequence isn’t earning its keep. Remember, we had two big action sequences lined up for Robot Overlords. A chase in an ice cream van. And later, a chase with our heroes pursued by a new robot called Octobots. And these were fun sequences, but ultimately they had zero effect on our story and characters and they had to be cut.

That said, I’m still keen to try out an ice cream chase one day. I always file these things away for later. Two. Let the reader do the work. This is where, strangely, action sequences have something in common with sex sequences. Don’t feel the need to give the reader a blow by blow account.. Oh, behave. We don’t need every punch, kick, swerve, stab and parry. It gets tedious pretty fast. Give the reader just enough detail for them to create the action in their head.

And if there’s some sort of skill involved with a sword or a gun, then it’s worth doing a little research to make it feel real. Again, we don’t need to know the inner workings of a Glock whatever to know that it goes bang and that bullets hurt people. I rail against a lot of modern thrillers where the author seems to get sexually aroused when talking about guns. In fact, I try to put mistakes in my stories just to wind up NRA members. Ha! Three. Pace.

That is, don’t just give us big blocks of action, mix it up with some dialogue, write in short, punchy (ha!) sentences and keep the internal monologue visceral. This is not a time for ponderous reflection. That can come later. This is a time for panic, fear, anger, fight or flight. Use all the senses, the crunch of the bone, the taste of blood, the sweat and filth of battle. That will really help put the reader in the middle of the action.

Four. Think of the setting. Is it a chase down narrow streets in Paris, or the skies above the Grand Canyon? When your hero falls, is it on sand? Tiles? Stinging nettles? Can they hide in the jungle, or are they exposed in a wide open desert? What weapons are at hand? I love those unconventional fight scenes where Jason Bourne uses a rolled up magazine or John Wick uses a book. Use the setting and its props to make the sequences as fun and inventive as possible.

Five. Give it a beginning, middle and end. I’ve used the word “sequence” a few times already and I find that it helps to think of any action beat as its own little short story with a beginning, middle and end. One where the stakes are continually raised with a growing sense of urgency. Compacting all that story into a frenetic action sequence can make your hero make bad decisions — creating those consequences I was talking about earlier — and it will leave the reader breathless and wanting more. I’m quite breathless myself.

Six. Aftermath and keeping it real. In too many stories, the hero walks away from a fight with nary a scratch, and even if they do get wounded, they often bounce back with superhuman speed. That may be appropriate for some stories, but readers will better relate to characters who hurt, who get the shakes, who mourn the deaths of their friends — and enemies — who regret having to do terrible things. This is, again, where a little research will help as well.

What does it feel like to break your ribs, be shot or stabbed? I bet it hurts a lot more than we might imagine. I speak as someone who stubbed my toe recently. Well, I hope that was helpful. Any questions or comments? Then please pop them below until next time. Happy writing and stop fighting.