Category Archives: General

And They All Lived Happily Ever After: The Art of a Good Ending

There’s nothing quite like a good ending. It can be one of the most satisfying parts of a story, but it’s also one of the most difficult things to get right. It can make or break a story. I’ve lost count of the amount of books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen where I’ve come away thinking ‘it was all fine, up until the ending’.

So how do you get it right?

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I mean, I could just end this blog post here. (image: giphy.com)

First, I think it’s important to consider the kind of things people expect from an ending. There’s a handful of things that keep popping up regardless of the type of story they’re in: the resolution of character arcs, the final confrontation, the big reveal. They don’t always have to be big, world-changing things, but the events of the story have to come to a head in some way. A good ending will have been building up naturally through the course of the story, thereby building anticipation for the climax throughout the plot. This can be obvious – for example, everybody knew that the Harry Potter series would end with Harry fighting Voldemort – or more subtle, like in murder mysteries where the clues are spread throughout the story but only brought together at the end.

Of course, some types of stories lend themselves to certain kinds of endings. This largely comes down to genre or structure. In a romance story, for example, people will expect the couple to get together at the end, whereas in a murder mystery, people will expect the case to be solved. Equally, if you use any kind of numerical structuring device to tell your story – for example, getting three wishes, spending seven years at a magical boarding school, or having to complete a task in a certain time limit – then people are going to expect the story to end when the last wish is made, or in the final five minutes of your deadline.

giphy typing
Just like writing my essays. (image: giphy.com)

Having these kinds of expectations can be really helpful as a writer. It’s a good framework to build your story around, and can help with both the pacing and plotting of the story as a whole as well as the ending. If your story ends with the couple getting together, then that dictates the shape of the rest of your story – as readers, we have to see them reach that point. A ‘ticking clock’ is also a really useful structural device: as well as providing a race-against-time ending, it also helps you build tension throughout the whole story. These two types of expectations tend to merge in crime novels. The conventions of the genre dictate that the murderer must be revealed at the end, and this affects the structure of the book. A good crime author will have planted the clues as to who the real murderer is throughout the book, but will have mixed them in with so many red herrings that the reveal is still a surprise.

It goes without saying that this is hella difficult.

Having these kinds of expectations about the way a story is going to end is something of a double-edged sword. It makes it easier for the writer to know where their story needs to go in order to reach that point, but readers are also aware of those expectations. It’s extremely hard to hit all the points you need without making a story seem formulaic. In some genres, readers are so aware of the conventions that it affects the way they view the story. The most obvious example of this is in murder-mystery novels. The first law of mystery novels is that it’s never the official suspect. Even if you build a strong case for that character being the murderer as a writer, the reader will discount them automatically because everyone is so aware of the genre.

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I did a blog post about this and everything. (image: rainybayart.com)

Of course, this can lead to a lot of fun too. Subverting readers’ expectations can be really fun, both as a writer and a reader. But it’s extremely difficult to pull this off and still have a satisfying ending. If you wrote a murder mystery where the murderer was never caught or discovered by anyone, you’d have a very tough time making sure that this was presented in a way that left the reader feeling satisfied when they turned the final page. The proof is in the pudding – if you can pull it off, it’ll work, but if you can’t, then you’re going to have some really irritated readers on your hands.

But what do you do when you’re writing something that doesn’t have an easy ending? While there are some stories that lend themselves to ending in a certain way, there are plenty of others that don’t. Your protagonist might have defeated their nemesis and completed their quest, but is that really the end of their story? Where do you draw the line?

For me, it’s just as important for a writer to know when to end a story as to know how to end a story. There’s been a real case of sequel-itis in the stories we tell each other lately, and it’s really driving me nuts. You’ll read a book or watch a movie with a really satisfying ending, and six months later a sequel is announced.

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I am trying so hard not to throw some very specific shade. (image: giphy.com)

I get the appeal of this from an authorial standpoint, but I have to say I can’t really think many times where this has actually worked. If an author has put a lot of time and effort into creating a world that they really love, of course they’d want to come back to it. A lot of writers will leave ‘back doors’ into their work – little plot threads that haven’t quite been resolved, just in case they want to come back to them in a fresh book. Sometimes, this can work really well, but it’s sad to say that most of the time it doesn’t. Continuing a story after you’ve properly written an ending is difficult, and sometimes it can undermine what has already gone before. If you story originally ended with your characters saving the world, anything they do after that is going to seem like a bit of an anti-climax. If you make them save the world again, it cheapens their efforts in the original story – an apocalypse should only come around the once if you want it to retain its dramatic effect. It can be really difficult to set something aside, but it’s far better to do that and write a really good ending than to just keep going until people lose interest.

Endings are hard. They’re something that a writer needs to consider in multiple different ways. Long before you pick up your pen, you should know how the story is going to end. You should also consider how people are going to expect the story to end, and decide whether you want to play up to those expectations or not. But the most important thing is that once you’ve decided on your ending, stick to it. Commit. A good ending will be building up all the way through a story, and carrying on after it’s finished will only cheapen it. It’s far better to go out with a bang than a whimper.

giphy explosion
Heh heh heh. (image: giphy.com)

And that’s it for 2018! No more blog posts until the New Year. I’ll be back in January with a bunch more opinions – see you then!

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Sherlock vs Dracula: How Characters outlive their Creators

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a series runs for long enough, sooner or later the protagonists will end up fighting Dracula.

No, really. There’s a TV Tropes page about it.

There’s some characters that just pop up everywhere. These are the characters that are so embedded in the popular consciousness that, like Madonna, you only need one word to remember them by: Sherlock, Bond, Dracula. They’re giants. Their names are so well-known that just to say it conveys everything – their personality, their appearance, their genre. They’ve continued to be popular long after they were originally conceived of – and, in some cases, over a century after the author’s death.

But why is this? What exactly is it that makes some characters last for hundreds of years, and some get forgotten within a decade or so? There’s plenty of fictional characters that stick in the mind, but why is it that only a handful of these keep popping up again and again?

Let’s find out, shall we?

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WOO YEAH (image: tumblr.com)

The one thing that characters like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Dracula have in common is that they’ve become archetypes. When you say ‘detective’, you might picture a guy in a deerstalker; when you say ‘spy’, you might picture a suave and besuited man with a predilection for explosions and shiny cars. Even though these characters were originally written just like any other, they have come to represent something much bigger than themselves.

This is really unusual. Archetypes are usually much more broadly-sketched – they don’t always have names attached (looking at you, ‘damsel in distress’) and they tend to represent characters in certain situations, rather than actual personalities. These are the kinds of characters that you find in fairy tales, myths and legends: in stories where it’s not always the character themselves which is important, but what they’re doing and what they represent. Fiction has, of course, moved on since fairy tales were originally conceived of, which is why it’s so unusual that characters with distinct personalities and development have been able to join this pantheon of clichés.

This is what happens when you write a really genre-defining character. When those kind of characters are written, they are not the only things being put on paper – what also gets written down are the things that eventually become the clichés that other writers will depend on. Everything that comes after these characters is, to a certain extent, a response to them. You can’t write a spy novel without people inevitably comparing it to Bond; you can’t write about vampires without the shadow of Dracula looming across the page.

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Much like this, actually. (image: blogs.exeter.ac.uk)

Let’s look at some examples. How many detectives can you think of who are described as ‘eccentrics’, who immerse themselves in their cases so completely that it eclipses everything else in their lives? That’s Holmes. How many spies can you think of with neat little gadgets, bevies of beautiful women in their contacts list and at least three international trips per book? That’s Bond. How many vampires can you think of who swan about in evening dress, with dark hair, pale skin and a tendency to go after young women? That’s Dracula. These were originally features of particular characters, but now these characters have become so widely-known that these traits have come to define the archetypes themselves. Of course, writers can choose to deliberately leave all of these things out – that’s where we see gritty, violent spy movies, or vampire stories were the undead schlub about in jeans and T-shirts – but that heavy-handed rejection of the archetype just makes you more aware of it. When you consume these types of stories, you’re constantly being reminded that these vampires aren’t like the ones you know, or that this spy movie is nothing like the slick, suave espionage thriller you usually get. It’s like ‘Not Like Other Girls’ all over again – something like that doesn’t work unless you know what ‘Other Girls’ are supposed to be.

Characters become archetypes when they step outside the bounds of what their authors originally wrote. A certain amount of ‘placelessness’ makes this process easier. You can put Sherlock Holmes anywhere in the world – the focus of his stories are the cases he solves, and these can happen anywhere. James Bond can go anywhere he likes too – he goes where the danger is, and that can be anywhere. Similarly, Dracula can go anywhere too (although he always comes from Transylvania) – all you really need for him to work as a character is a few blacked-out windows and a steady supply of necks to nom on and before you know it he’ll be flapping through every open window and buying up all your evening wear.

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Fun fact: all of those drawers are filled with cufflinks. (image: pinterest.com)

But to a certain extent, this needs to be possible for their characters too. It can only go so far, otherwise it ends up becoming the rejection of the archetype I described above, but a certain amount of wiggle room is necessary. In the original novel, Dracula started out as an old man with hairy palms – now, he’s being played by Luke Evans. He’s become a spooky sex symbol, which is really not what you’d expect to see if you read the description of the horrible moustache he has in the book. Likewise James Bond, once so typically stiff-upper-lip, has been increasingly portrayed as suffering from PTSD. The core elements of their characters are still there – Dracula is still sinister, Bond still blows things up for Queen and Country – but the way in which we view these things has changed. Dracula is still evil, but he’s been allowed to ramp up the charm as people stopped putting so much faith in the restrictive morality that is set against him. Bond still does his duty, but we see the toll this takes.

This is where adaptations come in.

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Holla holla get that dollar. (image: giphy.com)

Everyone’s been getting a bit sick of adaptations lately, what with all the constant remakes we seem to be getting, but adaptations are one of the main things that help characters outlive their creators. Characters and stories only survive if they retain the public’s interest, and if they lose it, they get forgotten. Adaptation plays a huge role in helping to avoid that. Characters and their stories are updated for a new era, or brought to new audiences via a new medium. Being able to transcend one type of storytelling is part of the reason why these characters have lasted for so long – they’re accessible to a wider range of people and they stay stuck in the collective cultural consciousness for longer.

Let’s look at a couple of examples here. We’ll start with Dracula. He first appeared in the 1897 novel, which was rapidly turned into a play (which by all accounts, wasn’t very good). Then Stoker died, and Dracula appeared again in a collection of short stories, then in Nosferatu (which was rapidly hit with many a lawsuit, hence the vampire’s hasty name-change to Count Orlok), then another play, then several more films which may or may not have existed, then the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi (which was actually an adaptation of the second play, which also starred Bela Lugosi), then several more Universal movies, then several Hammer movies with Christopher Lee, then more movies, then more plays, then a musical, an opera and a ballet and I haven’t even mentioned the TV shows, anime, manga, games, radio plays, cartoons and many a novel that have updated the original story since its publication.

My point is: it’s a lot. But it’s this kind of scatter-gun approach to adaptations that have made characters like Dracula stick in the mind. You can’t forget him, because he’s everywhere.

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I mean, yes. (image: imgur.com)

A large part of why this was possible in the first place is because of the time in which these characters were conceived. Sherlock and Dracula had their first appearances in literary works of the late nineteenth century. These characters have had time to disseminate through the popular consciousness and really burrow their way in. A certain amount of time is necessary to see if something’s going to last.

It’s also worth mentioning that for these two particular examples, part of the reason why they ended up being adapted to Hell and back is because both Sherlock and Dracula are in a slightly unique position with regards to copyright laws. In the case of Dracula, Bram Stoker didn’t fully comply with American copyright registration laws and made a mistake on his application – therefore Dracula wasn’t subject to normal term of copyright laws and was public domain in the US. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, there was a bit of a legal grey area about whether the author’s estate had copyright over the character of Holmes or just the copyright to the stories in which he appeared. It’s pretty complicated and I can’t say I understand it well, but I’m pretty sure that without this wobblyness around the copyright, we definitely wouldn’t have had all the adaptations that brought these characters into the popular consciousness.

Of course, these days copyright and intellectual property laws have been tightened up like nobody’s business – that sort of thing can’t happen again quite so easily. The spread of characters happens a lot faster now, too. Thanks to social media it’s easier to generate a buzz about a new character or story – before Twitter, this could’ve taken years, but now it takes minutes. But whether this will stand the test of time remains to be seen. There’s so much information out there that it’s difficult to say which characters are going to last and which are a flash in the pan. If I had to pick one, my money’s on Harry Potter, but even that’s not certain. It’s impossible to tell what will be able to transcend its original story and the author’s lifetime – despite its popularity, we may find that Harry Potter is just too tied into a specific place and time to properly last in the way that Sherlock and Dracula have done. Perhaps the same will be true for all modern characters, as storytelling has evolved to the point where fixing a story in a time and place – or fixing a character with very specific situational responses and traits – is generally seen as being a mark of what makes a book good. Who knows?

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Don’t ask me please please PLEASE (image: giphy.com)

There’s all sorts of things that lead to characters outliving their creators and unfortunately, there’s no magic formula that can replicate that kind of success. I’ve tried my best to sketch out the boundaries but frankly, there’s no way of knowing which characters will stand the test of time. You could write a memorable character that could easily get transferred into a range of different situations and still not come up with the next Dracula. All authors can really do is write a character they feel passionate about and see what happens. (And lock that copyright down.)

Who knows where it’ll take you?

November is Coming: How to Survive NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. Forget Halloween, this is what autumn is really all about: finding an excuse to sit indoors under layers and layers of blankets.

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I cannot create unless I am cosy. (image: giphy.com)

But let’s be real. NaNoWriMo can be a pretty daunting task. The goal is to write a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Fifty thousand. That totals out at roughly one thousand six hundred words per day, and the worst part is that you’ve got to make sure that they’re actually good rather than just stringing lists of adjectives together. It’s pretty intimidating, especially if you know one of those people who insists on comparing word counts.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before and have picked up a few tips that might make things easier:

 

  1. Plan beforehand, and only beforehand

Trying to write roughly 1,600 words a day is going to be difficult. It’s a lot of words to get down in one go, particularly if you’ve only got one time window to do it in. But if you don’t know what you’re going to write it’s going to be twice as hard to actually get it on paper because you’ll be working out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.

This is where your plan comes in. I’d recommend starting this a week or so before NaNoWriMo, assuming you’ve already had the vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Start plotting things out in more detail, including character and setting. If you do it every day, this can also help you get into the rhythm of regular writing. But when you start writing, stop planning. It’s easy to wind up with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot of your novel and no actual text, so don’t rely on this too much.

 

  1. Start your research in October

November is for writing. If you’re writing something which is going to require any kind of research, start it a couple of weeks before you’re going to write. Read as much as you can and get comfortable with the details before you launch into your novel. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been plodding along with a paragraph when suddenly, I’ll go “Wait, when were pyjamas invented?” and it’s off down the rabbit hole I go. If you’re writing anything historical, I’d recommend starting even earlier, but this blog post is going up with less than two weeks until November so NEVER MIND YOU’LL BE FINE.

 

  1. Writing nine to five

WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’

No, seriously. It’d be great. But unfortunately it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have all that time just for writing. Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for you to finish it. Realistically, you’re going to have to look at your schedule and try and work out when you’re actually going to have time to write. I’d recommend trying to find an hour each day, either in one go or in short chunks. Be a little flexible – if weekends are always really busy for you, try and find some time on weekday evenings. If you commute on public transport, consider taking a notebook with you and working there. See what works for you!

 

  1. Just do it

When it comes to November the first, just start. There’s nothing more intimidating for a writer than a blank page. It can take hours to come up with a first line (mainly due to all those writing advice blogs which tell you to make sure you have a good first line). But you don’t have time to dither – you’ve got a fifty-thousand-word mountain to climb. Just start, and worry about whether it’s any good later. That’s what the second draft is for.

 

  1. Get on with it

Sometimes, inspiration does strike. Sometimes your synapses are flashing, your neurons are firing and an idea comes into your head like a beautiful sunrise. You seize your pen, your notebook, your laptop and don’t look up for hours – for you, dear author, are inspired.

Ninety percent of the time, that won’t happen.

There are going to be days when you just don’t wanna. You’ll be tired. You’ll get home late. You’ll have a bad day and want to spend your writing time curled around a hot water bottle in front of the telly. But when you’re writing to targets and deadlines, sometimes you’re just going to have to make yourself do it. You have to –

– yes, exactly.

 

  1. Just keep swimming

Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite what you’ve already done. Focus instead on progressing through the narrative and get your key plot points down. This is where your plan can really come in handy (although hopefully having a plan will have helped you thrash out any potential plot holes). If you’re having some doubts about something you’ve already written, make a notes section in your plan and add them to that. That way you’ve kept a record of your ideas and you can keep going without needing to slow down. You can always go back and redraft when NaNoWriMo is over.

 

  1. Keep an eye on your daily totals, but don’t stick to them

There are special NaNoWriMo calendars you can find where the ideal word count for each day is written on them. They measure out the month in chunks of 1,667 words and some people find them really helpful.

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Such as this one. (image: deviantart.com)

Personally, I don’t. Some days are going to be better than others, and some days I’m going to come home too tired to do a sentence, let alone like, 160 of them. On those days I write what I can and try and make up the total another day, and I find that works much better than keeping to very strict limits.

 

  1. Details, details

Don’t be afraid to fudge some of the finer points to avoid getting bogged down. Obviously the really important details (i.e., the plot) should be in your plan, but it’s perfectly fine to put in placeholder names for minor characters and places. Just remember to replace these with real names when you’re done and you’ll be fine.

 

  1. More like guidelines

Some people are real sticklers for the rules of NaNoWriMo. I’m not. I once extended my NaNoWriMo project until the New Year because November isn’t over UNTIL I SAY IT’S OVER. I always found I got a lot less stressed about NaNoWriMo when I didn’t take it quite as seriously and that way, it was easier to balance writing with everything else going on in my life.

 

  1. It’s not for everyone

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times now and on balance, I’ve decided it’s not for me. I could do it fairly easily when I was a student, but that was because I was on a course where I only had ten hours of class time per week.

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It was blissful. (Image: giphy.com)

Now I have a full-time job, I find it way too stressful. NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about the discipline required to finish a novel, and writing every day has helped me get into some really good habits, but I find the obsession with word counts kind of counter-productive. The structure was really helpful, but now that I’ve taken that framework and made it work for me I don’t find the old model quite so useful any more. I learned a lot, but it stopped being something I did every year a long time ago.

 

 

And that’s it! My advice for surviving NaNoWriMo. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It’s very easy to get swept up in NaNo Fever – it can be really fun, and it taught me some good writing habits which I still use. But I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously. It’s a good way to get into writing longer projects, but it doesn’t have to be the only way you write.

Editing Tips: How to Do the Words

Let me paint you a picture. You’ve just finished your first draft. Corks have been popped, backs have been slapped, and you’re basking in the rosy glow of a job well done.

Except NO YOU’RE NOT, GET BACK TO WORK.

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That novel’s not going to write itself. (mage: tenor.com)

There’s a saying that writing is re-writing, and that’s by and large true, in my experience. It’s very easy to miss stuff on your first go round. But it’s pretty daunting to have just got to the end of a project and then realise that you’ve got to go right back to the beginning again. Whether you’re writing a novel or an essay, you’re always going to make mistakes in your first draft, but often it’s quite tricky to know exactly where to start.

Luckily for you guys, I am a mild-mannered editor by day and I am, like, the best at making sentences. Here’s some quick and dirty tips to use as a starting point.

 

 

  1. Check your spelling and grammar…

All the editing lists say this, and it’s because it’s true. If you’re writing fiction, having proper spelling and grammar will help a reader get into the story – they won’t get snapped out of it every time they see a typo. If you’re writing an essay, correct spelling and grammar will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. (Also one time, at university, our tutor told my seminar group that someone had submitted their dissertation with an accidental swear word in there, so CHECK YOUR TYPOS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)

 

  1. …but don’t stick to it too rigidly.

This really applies more to fiction than non-fiction, so if you’re writing an essay feel free to skip to the next step. Depending on the type of thing you’re writing, sticking to very rigid grammatical rules can sometimes work against you. By all means use the correct punctuation, but forcing all your sentences to fit into a very regimented pattern doesn’t always work well – it can be pretty boring. Mixing things up a bit in terms of sentence structure helps your writing feel interesting, so go ahead and start that sentence with ‘and’.

 

  1. Take a break.

Go for a walk. Look at some clouds. Have some dinner, or maybe a nap. Anything that will give you fresh eyes, because if you go straight back to the beginning after typing your final sentence, you’re going to be reading what you were going for instead of what’s actually there. Obviously this works better when you’ve got time to take a proper break, but even if you’re writing to deadline this will really help. Maybe just go for a run instead of taking a full week of R&R, otherwise your teachers will be mad at me. 

 

  1. Invest in a thesaurus…

Check your work for repeated phrases. It’s OK to use the same phrase a few times, but if it’s popping up every paragraph you need to re-assess your choice of words. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I used to be so bad for this and only realised I was doing it when one of my friends pointed it out. I was leaning on those phrases so often that they were actually getting in the way of the plot. Fixing it was difficult, but when I did my writing became a lot better.

 

  1. …but don’t pay it too much attention. 

Look. Thesauruses (thesauri?) are great and everything, but they do have a tendency to turn all your prose completely purple. By all means switch up your choice of words, but don’t choose anything that sounds daft.

 

  1. Get some outside feedback.

If you’ve got time, see if you can get someone else to have a quick look through your work. Even if it’s just your mate proofing your essay at the kitchen table, it really helps to have a second pair of eyes. I’ve got my family and friends to read bits I’ve written for as long as I can remember, and they pick up stuff I wouldn’t have even thought of. (Thanks, guys!)

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Ron learned NOTHING without her. (image: gfycat.com)

 

  1. Read it aloud.

Seriously, do it. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of putting stuff down because it looks good on paper, particularly when you’re writing essays. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, and always make sure it sounds like something a human could conceivably say out loud before you hand it in.

 

  1. See how it all flows together.

How are you progressing from one idea to the next? Are you following a chain of argument or a narrative thread when you’re moving between topics? This will really help it feel natural, as opposed to checking things off a list. I always find that reading it aloud helps here too. If new topics are introduced in a way that feels jarring when it’s spoken, that probably means I’m not doing something right.

 

  1. Be picky.

You don’t need to have a cast-iron reason to cut something if you want to get rid of it. It’s your work, and if you decide that it’s time to hack and slash at something you’ve written then chop chop.

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Calm down. (image: weheartit.com)

It’s enough to decide you’ve gone off something – and if you keep the original version, you can always put it back in if you change your mind.

 

  1. Trust your instincts.

You know what you want to say, so write it down. These tips are just tips – they are by no means the be-all and end-all of editing. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. Equally, if something else on a different list works better, add it to your list of things to look for. Going over your own stuff can be an incredibly personal process, so you’ve got to do it in a way that works for you.

 

And that’s it! These are my extremely basic, starting-point tips for anyone looking for some advice on how to edit their own stuff. Hopefully they’re useful. The most important thing is to find a process that works for you. It may take some doing, and you may want to try a few different approaches, but it’ll help you find a way to make your writing really shine, no matter what it is you’re actually putting on paper.

Now get back to work.

In Defence of Fanfiction

Ah, fanfiction. What a beautiful dumpster fire it can be. If there’s one kind of writing that never fails to get it in the neck, it’s this. I’ve been in rooms full of book lovers who will happily discuss minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy until they’re blue in the face, but mention the word ‘fanfic’ and there’s a tangible recoil. Eyes are rolled, smiles go very fixed, and you can see the other person filing your book-opinions under ‘Not To Be Trusted’. Even working in the publishing industry, where everyone has read everything, you don’t always know what kind of reception you’re going to get when you say you enjoy reading or writing fanfic. It has a bad reputation.

But is it deserved?

EbonyWay
I mean. (image: myimmortal.wikia.com)

When fanfiction is bad, it’s really, really bad, and this is what a lot of people tend to think of when they hear the term. There are some infamously bad fanfics out there. My Inner Life, which contains some of the absolute worst sex scenes I’ve ever read in my life (seriously, the word ‘gushing’ should be banned). Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen, which sports some of the worst poetry I’ve ever read and some of the most entertaining typos. And of course, who can forget the goffik granddaddy of them all: My Immortal. They’re all awful. Like, really, really awful, albeit with a silly, slightly Muppet-ey kind of charm.

But this is not the be-all and end-all of the genre. Fanfiction is tied in with a lot of ‘internet culture’ stuff, especially trolling, and it’s often pretty difficult to tell if the really bad fanfics are actually genuine. My Immortal itself is the perfect example of this, because nobody knows who actually wrote it. There’s all sorts of theories. Various people have claimed to know the author in real life, but this mysterious author seems to have been everything from a wannabe-goth schoolgirl to a trio of teenage boys poking fun at fangirls. This all came to a head last year, when someone claiming to be the real author of My Immortal got a book deal about how she wrote the fanfic to cope with the difficulties of the American foster system – and was then exposed as a liar.

As a result of this fanfiction is exposed to a lot of snobbery. People look at stuff like My Immortal and assume it was genuine – which it may well have been, I don’t know. But the difference between fanfiction and other types of writing is that the so-called ‘big names’ aren’t necessarily big because they’re good. Even those fanfics that have managed to break into the mainstream – I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey

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NOT THAT I’M BITTER. (image: coolspotters.com)

– aren’t exactly celebrated as masterworks of literature. As a whole, fanfiction is seen as a weird quirk of the Internet Era, like eating laundry pods and obsessing over Shrek. It’s not really seen as something that should be taken seriously.

I really disagree with this.

First of all, allow me to put on my history nerd hat for a moment. Fanfiction is not a modern phenomenon. Modern fanfiction goes back to at least the 1970s – we’re coming up on around fifty years of it now. But if you go further back, you’ll find that people have been using other people’s characters to tell their own stories for centuries. The Victorians, for example, used to re-write the endings to Shakespearean tragedies so that the heroes would survive to get a happy ending. That’s not so different from writing a fluff fic where your OTP get to live happily ever after when one of them gets killed in the show, thanks for nothing, Game of Thrones, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME.

But it goes back even further. Look at the Arthurian legends. There’s no one source for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – as the centuries passed various writers and storytellers added to the legends, gradually building them up into the often-contradictory pantheon we have today. The most fanfic-ey example of this can be seen with the character of Merlin. Before The Vulgate Cycle – which is a group of stories from the thirteenth century, adding to pre-established Arthurian canon – Merlin was a mysterious and ambiguous figure, with no real clarity about his backstory or goals. But then, Robert de Boron wrote a poem all about Merlin which rounded him up to a full-blown edgelord. According to de Boron, Merlin was the result of a demon trying to make the Antichrist by getting a virgin pregnant, but then she had the baby baptised which somehow gave little Merlin perfect knowledge of the past, present and future, plus a bunch of magic powers. This established Merlin as a vital figure in Arthurian canon, setting him up as Arthur’s teacher and advisor, as well as adding famous elements of the mythology like the sword in the stone. And it goes back even further – all the way to the classics, in fact. The Aeneid is essentially fanfiction about one of the minor characters from The Iliad – it just happens to be incredibly well-written and dealing with big, serious subjects like the founding of Rome. When you’re dealing with material like that, it’s kind of hard to remember that it was also written in order to gain favour with the emperor Augustus, and is basically just a toga-wearing NOTICE ME SENPAI.

So fanfic is far from a modern phenomenon. Writing your own works set in someone else’s universe is a fine literary tradition going back thousands of years. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes pretty tricky to keep holding onto the perception that it’s no good as a genre. There are a lot of good fanfics out there – and I’m not just talking about The Aeneid – which get unfairly overlooked thanks to the reputation of titans like My Immortal.

But there’s something else we need to acknowledge about fanfic as well: it’s incredibly useful for writers.

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Along with tea. (image: phrases.org.uk)

Fanfiction is a great way to start off if you’re interested in writing but don’t really know where to begin. Writing is a weird, isolating hobby that has a tendency to attract a certain tweedy kind of snob. That’s really intimidating. If you’re faced with a room full of people talking about how they write about the intricacies of life and death, or the fundamentally Marxist nature of the human condition, or a controversial take on the banality of mankind, admitting that you want to kind of want to try it too can be excruciatingly embarrassing. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery about first-time writers, or genre fiction, or women’s fiction, or YA, and wading straight into that before you’re really sure what you’re doing can be a really horrible experience.

But fanfiction has far less of that. Yes, fandoms as a whole can get pretty weird – I’m looking at you, Superwholock – but when you start writing fanfiction you’re starting off in a place where everybody already loves the thing you want to write about. That’s a huge confidence boost. The overall world you’re working in isn’t going to be questioned on principle, because everybody else is working in that world, too. This is hugely helpful for a first-time writer because it allows you to focus on other elements of storytelling.

So: what can writers actually learn from fanfiction?

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Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)
  • Characterisation: Fanfic teaches writers how to write consistent characters and stick to an already-established personality. It’s essentially an exercise in character-writing, with the added bonus that you already know the character really well before you start.
  • Setting: Fanfic shows writers how to fit within the boundaries of an already-established world and in some cases, how to expand on it, too. More importantly, it allows writers to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Worldbuilding is hella difficult and it’s actually extremely tricky to put together an original and coherent world with its own set of believable rules. Working in a pre-established setting is excellent training for this.
  • Plotting: Fanfic allows writers to push the boundaries with their plots and try new things. You can experiment – see what works, see what doesn’t, and see what completely blows the universe apart. These are important things to learn, and you’ll likely have to learn them all over again for original projects, but having an established framework for your first few tries makes it a hell of a lot easier.
  • Structure: Fanfic sites encourage users to post stuff on a chapter-by-chapter basis. This encourages writers to think about structure – you’re thinking about how to write a strong opening, how to end a chapter so your reader will want to keep going – and this is something that isn’t always considered when writing original projects.

Are these things that you can learn from writing your own original projects? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that fanfiction can be a really valuable tool for writers and you can really learn a lot from it. The instant feedback you can get from fanfic sites is really valuable because it’s actually pretty difficult to get feedback as a writer. Asking your friends to read your stuff is really nerve-wracking and unfortunately, even if you do ask they just might not have time to read it. You can always submit to competitions and magazines, but that’s a hugely scary thing to do and these types of publications don’t always have the time to give you constructive feedback if you don’t get far in the competition. This is where fanfic sites can really give you a leg up, as you can get encouragement and advice on every chapter. It’s impossible to improve as a writer without constructive criticism, and if you don’t take that first step you aren’t going to get any better.

But there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned so far.

It’s just fun!

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Here to point out that the day needs saving, did you know? (image: tenor.com)

Writing doesn’t have to be a super-serious thing – neither does reading. Yes, talking about craft and feedback is important but you can also just have a good time. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy fanfiction and anyone who makes you feel bad about it is being a snob. It’s still reading. It’s still writing. You do not have to be a tortured artiste starving in a garret in order to produce anything of worth, and you do not have to be wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and smoking a pipe in order to have valuable opinions about what you read. If you want to read or write fanfiction, you go ahead and do it. If you find that it starts up a love of writing or reading that you want to take further, that’s great! If not, that’s great too! Just enjoy the stuff you like to read or write and don’t let anyone try and make you feel bad about it.

Don’t get me wrong. Fanfiction, when it’s bad, can be an absolute pile. But to say it’s bad as a whole is an unfair characterisation of a genre. You get good and bad fanfic in the same way you get good and bad sci-fi. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that a) it’s not the misunderstood brainchild of Tumblr, we’ve been doing this for centuries and b) it has some very real benefits. Things don’t have to be deep and meaningful to have value – they can be fun, or silly, or over-dramatic, or just really really smutty, but if you enjoy them, that is all the value they need. Some people find fanfiction gives them some really useful tools as a writer, and can start themselves off down the path to original fiction – I know that was the case for me. Some people don’t. Either way, that’s fine. You do you.

How to Make a Reader: Ten Books that have Shaped Me

So. As many of you have probably guessed, I read all the damn time. I read everywhere – in bed, on the train, while cleaning my teeth, while going down stairs (not recommended), while helping my dad paint a fence and while eating my dinner, which explains why so many of my books are covered in paint flecks and curry stains.

But not all books are created equal. The vast majority of the books I’ve read I’ve forgotten about, or disliked, or experienced that special kind of apathy which is way worse than actually hating something. But there are some books I’ll always remember. Sometimes I will look back over my long history as a reader and see distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases in the way I think and the type of things I seek out. Some books leave marks.

These are mine.

 

  1. The Witches by Roald Dahl

This was my favourite book when I was about six years old and the most goffik little child you ever saw. It was the first ‘scary’ book I can really remember enjoying, and I’m not really sure why – for some reason, the idea of seemingly-normal women ripping off wigs and gloves and masks to reveal their terrifying faces was kind of amazing to me, instead of horrifying. I had it on tape, read by a man with a very sinister British voice who may or may not have been Richard E. Grant. All I’m sure of is that even now, nearly twenty years after throwing that tape away, I can still remember the way the narrator says “Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.”

 

  1. Awful Egyptians by Terry Deary

This was another book I read at the age of about six or seven, and it sparked a lifelong love of history. For those of you who aren’t aware, this is part of the Horrible Histories series – a series of short history books aimed at kids that highlight all the really gross bits of history. This was the first one I read, and for years afterwards I was obsessed with ‘The Curse of the Mummy’, even though the book went to great lengths to make it clear that it wasn’t real. Horrible Histories was a hugely important part of my childhood, and I read them all until I was well into my teens. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t picked up Awful Egyptians, I wouldn’t have ended up doing my history degree.

giphy loans
Me paying back my student loans. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Greek Myths, Retold and Illustrated by Marcia Williams

Another childhood favourite. This was the first book of myths and legends I remember reading. It was a fairly sanitised version of the classical Greek myths, illustrated with silly little cartoons which I can still picture really clearly. I don’t remember much about the way the actual stories were told, unfortunately, as I was really small when I first read this one. However, after I read this book I spent the rest of my primary school years reading all the books of myths, legends and fairy tales that I could get my hands on. To this day I’m still really interested in folklore and mythology, and I can trace it all back to this book.

 

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

I’ve already touched on my love of the Harry Potter series before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail here. Suffice to say that I read it as a slightly older child and continued well into my teens, and it completely dominated my childhood. My relationship with the series has changed as I’ve got older, and I don’t see it in quite the same way as I did, but there’s no denying it was a hugely important part of my life.

 

  1. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Picture this. It’s the mid-2000s and my snotty teenage self is having a crisis: I’m on holiday, but I’ve read all the books I brought with me. The only solution is to drive my family mad. In desperation, my dad finds an English-language bookstore, grabs a Terry Pratchett book (“No, you’ll like it”) and presses it into my hands. I loved it, and I never looked back. This was the moment that ‘proper’ fantasy as a genre unfolded for me – at this point I’d already read Lord of the Rings and had felt kind of shut out by it. I read this book and a door unlocked. It’s not my favourite Pratchett book now, but it is one of the most sentimental, because I can still remember the moment it all fell into place when I was reading it.

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I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker

This is another teenage darling of mine. Growing up I wasn’t really allowed to read horror – I got nightmares really easily and my parents didn’t want to make it worse. Obviously, this ended up triggering a massive secret horror phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I persuaded them to let me read Dracula because it was a ‘serious’ book, and read it on holiday at the age of about thirteen. I was completely spellbound – and to be honest, I still am. There’s something about the novel which keeps pulling me back, and I find the idea of an ageless, immortal being adrift from his own time utterly fascinating. My copy is falling to bits and still smells a bit like chlorine and suncream, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

 

  1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This book taught me the value of the slow burn. Again, I read this one as an impatient teenager, and I found the book incredibly frustrating until I was about halfway through. Then, it got weird. When the twist was revealed, I saw the entire book in a completely different light. It completely blew my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed the way I read. Without it, I never would’ve looked at half the books I now consider favourites.

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Before, I used to read like this. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I really love this book. This was another novel that took a while for me to get into it, as I read it when I was a bit too young to appreciate the set-up of the first part. But as I got older, and read it again and again, it kind of blossomed for me. The more I read it, the more I discovered. Over the years it’s become a book I really lean on when I’m finding things difficult, and I’ve really grown to appreciate its bittersweet mix of hope and despair. I’ve listened to the audiobook when I was writing my dissertation, and in the aftermath of a very sudden death in the family, and every single time it’s an incredible source of comfort for me.

 

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is one of those rare books that I have to cuddle after I finish, it breaks my heart so exquisitely. I don’t usually go in for stuff set around the Second World War, as it’s not one of my favourite periods of history – I often find war fiction either very depressing or far too simplistic. But The Book Thief paints a vivid picture of life in Nazi Germany and the ways people resisted it, and in a way that isn’t exploitative or sensationalist. It stomps all over my feelings every time and I still keep coming back for more.

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I don’t know why I enjoy so many books that basically put my feelings in a headlock. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I absolutely loathe this book, as I have repeatedly made clear. But there’s no denying it had a massive impact on me. I first read it at the height of the Twilight craze, and the first time I breezed through it in a few days and enjoyed it. But then, I read it again – and this time, I slowed down and actually thought about what I was reading. And I hated it. This was the first book that made me stop and look at things critically and engage with the text on a deeper level. I’ve never looked back! My experience of Twilight was by no means positive, but it encouraged me to be a critical reader and actually think about the mechanics of plotting and prose. Credit where credit’s due: I never would’ve started up this blog if it wasn’t for Stephenie Meyer.

 

 

And there you have it! It was really hard keeping this list down to ten books, but I managed it without crying once. It’s by no means set in stone. Ask me again in ten years and it’ll be completely different – but that’s one of the best parts about reading.

Reading Roundup: Audio Edition

A while ago I made a short list of some of the books I’d been reading lately. I’m going to do the same thing again, but with a slight twist: everything on this list will be an audiobook.

I haven’t really talked about this before, but I absolutely love audiobooks and always have done. They were a huge part of my childhood, mainly thanks to Stephen Fry’s excellent reading of the Harry Potter series (I listened to them so often that to this day, when I read them myself I can only hear the words in his voice). There’s just something really relaxing about having an audiobook read to you, and a good performance can really make all the difference.

So! Here’s what I’ve been listening to that has really stood out:

 

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image: amazon.com

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, by Arthur Conan Doyle – read by Stephen Fry 

This is exactly what it sounds like. Stephen Fry reads the entire works of Sherlock Holmes (apart from the apocrypha) and it’s great. The full recording is about three days long and took me the best part of a month to get through, but it was totally worth it. Fry does an excellent job of creating the right atmosphere for each story and there’s also a short introduction to each of the main collections where we find out more about the Sherlock Holmes canon and how Fry discovered it.

I really liked this one. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t always my favourite, as a lot of them tend to rely on forcing their characters into pretty restrictive boxes, but Fry’s performance made me forget about that. It was a little strange hearing him do all the accents, as I’m just so used to him having the most English voice in the world, but he got the voices right. My only complaint is that I still don’t know how to pronounce Inspector Lestrade’s name right, as he used both ‘Le-straahhhd’ and ‘Le-strayed’ and now I don’t know how to speak. But all in all a really great collection.

 

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image: audioeditions.com

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – read by Sally Darling

This one has a special place in my heart. The first time I came across this particular recording was when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t work very well in the university library, but needed to use lots of books on short-term loans, so what I would do was to take out a bunch of books, transcribe as many direct quotes from the useful passages onto my laptop and then take them all back three days later. My eyes hurt so much it felt like all the moisture had been systematically removed from each eyeball with a syringe. Do not do this.

Anyway. When I wanted to take a break, I needed to close my eyes. But I wasn’t sleepy – I just needed to not be staring at screens or tiny print for a while. So I was idly scrolling along when I came across this audiobook, and decided to listen for a while just to see if I liked the performance.

And it was perfect.

Sally Darling got the pace, the accent and the tone spot on for me. It was exactly like an older Scout had plonked herself down in my chair and was just telling me about her life. I was completely transported. Years later, after a death in the family, I’d listen to this audiobook again, and it was exactly what I needed: comforting, bittersweet and rich, without shying away from all the nasty things in life. After all that, no other performance can compare.

 

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image: amazon.co.uk

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson – read by Richard Armitage

I got this one as part of The Monster Collection, which is a three-in-one audiobook of Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula. All three stories are read by different actors but it was Jekyll that really stood out. (For what it’s worth, Greg Wise and Rachel Atkins did quite a good job on Dracula, but I didn’t really think much of Dan Stevens reading Frankenstein – the voice he went with was a bit too woeful for my tastes, even though I can see why he made that choice.)

Damn, Richard Armitage. Damn. This man can really read a book. His performance was genuinely electrifying. He has the perfect voice for scary stories, managing to get just the right kind of slow-build menace in the scene-setting, but the really stand-out part was when he was reading Jekyll’s confession right at the end. As he was describing his transformation his voice started slowly changing, becoming low and scratchy as Jekyll transformed into Hyde – he did an amazing job of showing the transformation through his performance.

 

image: denofgeek.com
image: denofgeek.com

Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett – read by Stephen Briggs

I’m cheating slightly by listing a series, but it’s my blog and I don’t care. You didn’t think we’d make it this far without me raving about Discworld some more, did you?

There’s actually three different narrators for the Discworld audiobooks, but for me Stephen Briggs is the one that ready stands out. Nigel Planer reads the earlier unabridged ones, and he does a decent job, although some are better than others. Tony Robinson reads all the abridged audiobooks, and while he’s probably the better performer I am 100% not here for abridged audiobooks – don’t give me that nonsense, I don’t care that it takes a day to read it through, don’t cut out the story.

Sorry. Anyway, Stephen Briggs reads the later unabridged ones, and for me these are the best of the lot. He gets the voices and the tone just right, no matter which character he’s reading for, and best of all he seems to have a really intuitive understanding of the Discworld universe, which really makes a difference. It’s little things, like making sure all the dwarves in his Discworld audiobooks speak with a similar accent, that really gives his readings the edge.

 

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image: amazon.co.uk

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak – read by Allan Corduner

I really don’t know why I bought this one. I love The Book Thief, even though every time I read it, it punches me in the face. So far, it is the only book I feel the need to cuddle after I’ve finished reading it. I don’t know why this is.

I was kind of sceptical about this one at first. I just love the book so much, and there’s nothing worse than having a narrator ruin your favourite book by getting the voices all wrong. But I’m happy to say I was proved wrong. Allan Corduner does a great job on the accents and the tone for each character, and he can really carry the emotional weight through his narration. I haven’t finished this one yet, but I know that I’m going to cry.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve listened to that I’ve liked. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. Apart from Frankenstein. It’s been out for two hundred years, it’s a little late for spoiler warnings now.