Writing and reading for pleasure – Part Four: How to Write Fiction (One) | Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham continues his series of articles on writing and reading for pleasure.

“I enjoy thinking about how to write a good novel. It is a huge question and one that is impossible to answer completely; perhaps that is its fascination. So much is required from a novelist: 
Originality, imagination, dedication, skill with words, sharp observation, an understanding of people, the time and ability to work alone on one project for months or even years. 
It’s daunting.” 

Part of the forward to More about How to Write a Mi££ion by Michael Ridpath written in 1996. 

Few of the basics appear to have changed in 18 years.
1.0 Introduction 
Firstly I recap on suggestions in my previous three posts on writing and reading for pleasure: 
One – Why write
Make a start! 
Two – What to write
Find out for yourself what you want to write by action. Set yourself a realistic aim between writing for pleasure or going the whole way to being a bestselling author. 
Three – Reading
Write what you enjoy writing … and I should have added what you enjoy reading if you are able to do so.
Our writing journey together then continues into the foothills on a WRITING FICTION path. Another path on WRITING NON FICTION may come later as I manage to do some more. You may notice other fellow travellers around you writing at ease with words which flow like medal winning athletes, or you may even recognise you are also one of them, destined for the mountain tops. 
In my writing journey I noticed early on I did not have the skills with words required to scale the mountain tops with ease, so I set my ambitions lower. I have always been pragmatic in leisure activity, not wanting to command a yacht or climb a high mountain with ropes and crampons. My aim—just to be satisfied—was enjoying to the full mountain walking and scrambling and also short ocean yacht voyages while letting someone else take the heavy responsibilities. 
However, in my paid work career and environment I did take the advice of a distinguished board chairman. 
“Those who aim for piddling things only achieve piddling things,” adding, “if you want to achieve great things it will take long hours, great care and effort.” 
Looking back I think achieving great things in writing is as hard, if not harder, than paid work, simply because of the level of competition and because so few people reach the top. The financial rewards are much lower to all but a few. 
How to Write Fiction is a huge subject, so I propose to write about my experience and thoughts in two parts. This part is about getting help by using the right tools. I will remind you in a later post that one cannot do everything oneself. The first priority—in my view—must be given to your own writing because unless one cheats and uses a ghost writer, no one else can write for you. The next part of How to Write Fiction later in the year will be about the technical aspects of writing, coming from someone who is not very good in this area! I hope this sharing of experiences can provide comfort to others in the same boat. You are not alone.  
Like so many things in life, statements about writing are much easier said than done, so help is needed. 
1.0  How to write – Help and books on how to 
After you have written say 50,000 words—learning by doing—in isolation and trying as many subjects as you like, I suggest you try something I did. Start reading books about how to write. A decision will have to be taken on what books to read from the thousands available. In any case, having written 50,000 words, you will derive satisfaction from reading these books about situations you have actually experienced in the process of writing. You will form your own views about the writing process; about being stumped not knowing what to do. 
I have already mentioned Stephen King’s On Writingand confirm this as a must read book—a view supported by many other good writers. A complimentary book for me is John Braine’s Writing a Novel, a gritty, no nonsense view of the craft of writing. The choice of my own third starter book was made for me by my daughter, who in July 2011 gave me Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner’s book How to Write a Blockbuster and get it Published. Reading Helen Corner’s description of the mainstream publishing process—offering books, rejection, rejection, rejection, and more rejection and loss of control to agents and publishers—fortunately turned me against this route. I started reading the first part of the book about how to write and dipped into it many times afterwards. I do not accept everything in their book but I have found what is written a good starting point on many topics. I have also exchanged emails with Helen and Kathryn at Cornerstones and found them helpful on my writing extracts they have seen. If you feel you want to be a bestselling author going the traditional route, then talking to Cornerstones and maybe getting an edit and report from them may be a worthwhile exercise, especially if you are a female writer in their genres. 
I wrote my million words in the mistaken belief my stories, scenes and characters were good as they seemed to compare well with those featured in books I read. Then thinking again about what I had written in my current self-edits, and after reading two established writers’ advice as set out later, I know I have to do better given I have only one chance to get my stories right. 
During the last four years I have copied pages from bestselling authors’ books and tried to self-edit them. To my surprise, these authors do not appear to keep to the rules stated in the books about how to write. I suppose I have suppressed or been deliberately blind to the fact many bestselling authors do have a magical ingredient in much of their writing. And that means the writer has to hook one in as reader, give one warm feelings about the writing (even when a grim subject matter), give one laughs, throw in surprises, tug at one’s emotions and provide one with lots of factual information. 
I have read all Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and I am still wondering why he has hooked me in to do this, even when in my view his most recent books have been much weaker than those which have gone before. Perhaps Lee Child gives me something mysterious to look forward to; he has well defined characters, and provides nice cameo scenes on bloke’s things—guns, cars, fights and some sex. I understand he has sold 60 million books, so he must be doing something right! 
In reading and listening to authors who have written about how to write, I have found great amusement from those authors who try to set rules into stone about ‘show not tell’ and other how to write mantras. This is when I notice they vehemently object when they have received comments from their editors or publishers saying they should change their own books. I think we are all human and do not accept criticism easily. Although I may not take all advice given, I do try and consider carefully all of what is being said. 
2.0     How to write – Help and other advice 
I have followed up on some other good advice, like joining a writers’ group, finding a writing buddy, finding a good editor, selectively searching for relevant advice from the internet, and entering competitions, as well as reading widely. 
2.1 Join a Writing Group 
I joined a local poetry group in 2012. Although I found the work composed and read stimulating, poetry is not my forte. In November 2012, I attended a local event in Waterstones where a publisher and two authors presented their experiences of publishing. This event underlined the difficulties of the traditional route, because even with good family contacts, one author struggled to get published. At the end of the meeting, one attendee stood up and asked whether anyone would like to help set up a local writer’s group. The Inkplotters was born and I have found being a member a great help to my writing. 
The main benefit to my writing is composing in genres and in ways one would not do on one’s own … pushing out one’s boundaries. I found a writing buddy in the group. I also took part in an internet writing group and met some other writers who contributed to my short story book Ywnwab! and a self-published author. I keep in touch but I think the internet group folded largely because of chemistry and not being face to face. 
2.2 Find a Writing Buddy (Not a term I like, but I cannot think of another) 
Finding a writing buddy is difficult. It took me two and a half years before finding Calvin Hedley. We share an interest in war, planes and making sure one’s writing is of a good standard of English grammar, punctuation and spelling. The complimentary aspect is that he is an expert on grammar, despairing at my poor English and slowness as a pupil to learn. He has, I believe, a touch of magic in his writing. He published his first novel Turning-Pointlast week.
The book joins many other self-published books for sale on Amazon. What marks the background to the writing and publishing of Turning-Pointout from others is Calvin has overcome being blind. I read and commented on three drafts of the book last summer, 2013. Also in the final technical stages of getting the book up onto Amazon as an ebook and Createspace in hard copy, Calvin has been helped by another self-published writer, Tony Richesof the Writing Desk. 
I commend self-published authors getting together as writing buddies and helping each other. The main blurb for Calvin’s great book is as follows: 
Matthew Pelham’s disappearance, while flying an RAF Harrier, can only be explained through investigations conducted some forty years apart.

The quest involves wartime intelligence services, high politics in the Third Reich and beleaguered Britain, and has incalculable implications for the war’s course and future events.


Calvin Hedley has written for many years and Turning-Point is his first novel. Partially sighted since birth, he became totally blind in 1997. He lives in Coventry with his wife Denise. 
2.3 Professional Editing 
Two professional editors examined my first 100,000 words. Gary Smailes of Bubblecow and Catherina Dunphy of Words Worth Reading. I arranged this to gain reassurance about carrying on writing my million words. 
I looked at and exchanged emails with several other editors and rejected many because I thought—by their actions—my book could become theirbook. Maybe I am unwise taking this view, but I feel very strongly if I have written a book it should be mine and not the editors, with the same logic being applied to any publisher I may get involved with. By taking this view, I may definitely not become a bestselling author, if this is what I wanted. This does not worry me, but it may worry you. It is your decision. Both Gary and Catherina provided me with many useful comments and I would recommend them. 
On reflection, two years later, they might have both been a little harder in their comments, but then if they had done so I may have felt my book becoming their book. It is a fine balance. Professional editing is a very time intensive task, so I understand balancing this with the amount charged per thousand words or per book is difficult. Gary and Catherina gave me some invaluable re-assurance about the quality of my writing. 
I believe in the future more and more editing is going to be part of a computer-driven process, simply on production cost grounds. Autocritto me supplements traditional editing and also shows a way forward for more automation. 
2.4 Web and Broadcast Advice 
Ever since summer 2010, I have used the internet to receive and find regular advice to help my writing and future self-publishing.  
·    When it comes to ‘how to write’ information and advice, there are so many websites. It becomes a danger to spend too much time reading the advice and insufficient time on writing, especially if one comments on blogs etc. (See future post on web matters.) 
·   One of the first and valuable sites was TIPM, which saved me from vanity publishing and also provided me with leads to York Publishing Services. This company helped me publish Ywnwab! Leicester-based Matador, which runs the useful annual Self Publishing Conference [TIPM previous post] and Writer’s Experience days [TIPM previous post]. I have also discussed self-publishing with The Choir Press in Gloucester and Authors Online. All are worth talking to about self-publishing. 
Listen to the radio and watch TV programmes about reading and writing. 
See these and more details on Allrighters web page services and reads. 
2.5 Entering Competitions – Toe in the water help! 
Entering competitions seemed a logical thing to do, but I have become cynical about this believing from results judges are conditioned in their thinking to be more receptive to a narrow range of genre, particularly romantic threesomes. Also, some competitions are unduly restrictive to new writers by a catch 22 process of only welcoming entries from writers who have already published in the traditional way. 
Out of the blue last month, I was asked if I had any objection to a very small piece of my writing being published with others in a traditionally published book. Yippee … have I overcome rejection? Well, A start anyway! 
2.6 Reading helps … again! 
In my view, reading and writing are integrated. Reading is a powerful form of help and advice to the subconscious. Notice how other writers—good and bad—go about the business of writing.  
·         The power of a strong hook in the first sentence
·         The expression of suspense
·         Providing a strong and interesting technical background, and then
·         Writing on demonstrating flow and pace to a satisfactory ending
I have read and commented on several draft books written by writing group members and found this very satisfying, perhaps showing most writers share the same opportunities and problems with better or worse outcomes. I have also done the same for their published books and come up against the difficulties of a book which is a curate’s egg. If the book has not been published, then one can be frank … afterwards, perhaps the cop out is to be silent—a course of action I suspect taken by many who have read Ywnwab! I would rather have all comments good or bad. 
3.0 Final thoughts 
You will notice I have not mentioned going to creative writing classes or having a personal writing coach. This is because I have little positive experience of using these facilities, preferring to read books about writing and use the internet. I have attended short instruction sessions locally and also sessions on the Matador Self-Publishing Conference day. Generally, I have been underwhelmed or felt literary world conditioning being rammed down my throat. Maybe this is the rebel and loner in me reacting, not wanting to accept everything I am told. I feel many speakers and even websites regurgitate the same old stock advice, not noticing the world of writing is changing. 
Recently I have read two areas of hard-hitting advice on how to write which stopped me in my tracks in the foothills of writing; to go no further than just writing for pleasure, before any regrouping both my draft fiction books and direction. Despite scaling a small hill by publishing Ywnwab!, I have known in my heart for some time that my draft fiction books are only average. I want to do better, whether I go on to publish or not, I hope to change this as I have only one chance to get my writing all right. 
The half-a-million bestselling self-published ebook author Russell Blake has a website with blunt advice to writers and a funny but troubling ‘tongue in cheek’ book How to Sell a Gazillion eBooks which unfortunately contains, in my view, some Gerald Ratner-like comments, albeit in jest, about those who buy books. However, in amongst all the hype and parody, there are some nuggets of excellent advice. In a recent post, Russell effectively demolishes my four years of thought about stories and ideas being the key to writing, because his view is that ideas for a story are all a-plenty and easy. He believes the hard part of writing is the way a book is put together and this is the key skill for a writer. To me, he demonstrates this well, but in a very over-the-top thriller and suspense writing way. Like Lee Child, he has flow and pace in his writing and both are very skilful in the use of language. 
The first book Description by Monica Wood in the More of How to write a Mi££ion book starts with—to me—an interesting and thoughtful introduction.  
“Description is not so much an element of fiction as its very essence; it is the creation of mental images that allow readers to fully experience a story. When you write a story, you offer an account of a chain of events, the characters that inhabit those events, and the places those events occur. How you describe those events, characters [actions and feelings] and places affects your readers’ perceptions.” 
These few simple words with my addition in […] sum up how I need to write. I can identify with this state of mind view as a reader and feel challenged to start improving what I have written in the hope I can complete writing I am happy with.  
Monica also goes on to take a very balanced view of the ‘show not tell’ mantra, which I welcome, but more about that later in PART TWO of How to Write Fiction. For me, Monica explains in her book of advice better than most other people what the essence of good writing is, and how to help overcome the barrier of advice being easier said than done. 
The next post will be about Who for, Where and When to write. 
In the UK, as children go back to school and others return to work, the weather improves. So if you are inside, there’s a choice to be made—whether to enjoy the weather or write and read!

Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighterswith other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing into several books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes.

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

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