Ten tips to help beginners come across as advanced writers. Part 1

Part of my job as a tutor is to look at some of the first creative writing people have shared with another person. It is a part of the job I relish, and I think it important to meet people’s first shared work with positivity and enthusiasm – where possible. I think it takes real guts to express yourself on the page and then offer it up to other people for feedback. Especially to a tutor who will have a more technical perspective they adopt when reading it.

There are a few areas for addressing that I often see in the first pieces people share. I thought it would be useful to offer my tips on how to avoid them, to help you come across as a more advanced writer.

1.Clearly establish the gender of your protagonist.

As writers, we are responsible for how our story reads. We can give a character a male or female name (often even names are ambiguous) but that doesn’t mean the reader will get the impression your protagonist is the gender that you know it is. Your character has to also read like a man or a woman (or whoever you want them to read as). A pretty well-known author I know commented to me that beginner writers often don’t make the gender of their protagonist clear in the prose. Bear in mind it is not only the name but the way your character speaks, thinks and acts that are all part of the impression that will be made on the reader. It is important that the reader can specifically picture what you want them to. Almost all of my tips are in service of this aim.

2.Establish exactly where your character is in the scene right away.

I think this is my most important tip. You can open with a line about how your character is feeling, or you can even quickly describe the run-up of events leading to the story that is about to start before you specify where your character is in the scene. But if we want the reader to be able to visualise the story as it progresses then they need to know where the character is within the setting, right from the start.

This also requires crafting the prose so we have a sense of the whole layout of the scene. For instance, consider these opening lines-

‘Angelene entered the bar, and saw at the far end a spare stool, between two men. Cautious, she took her place on it, and turned back to face the entrance.’

From this we know the gender of the character, her name, where she is in the scene and we also have some sense of the layout of the scene. We even have a sense of how she feels and we know she is indoors! All this is important. Writers often overlook these details, making it very hard for the reader to be able to picture what is happening.

3.Establish the Point of View right away.

In the example opening line I offered above we are in Angelene’s perspective right away. We have a sense that she is deciding what to do, and that her character is driving the narrative. Having established, in the third person, the Point of View we now have to keep it consistent throughout the story. I often see, in the work of writers starting out, stories that shift from a person-centred perspective to an omniscient Point of View. Or stories that open with a filmic description of the whole layout of a setting, before honing in on one aspect, like a camera doing a close-up. This isn’t very literary. This previous blog might help with regards to this issue- https://weareoca.com/subject/creative-writing/point-view-okay-head-hop/

4.Don’t stray far from the action.

Another pothole writers starting out seem to fall into is having a character in a scene and then straying far from that for most of the piece. Going into their thoughts and into their back story. If you look at published fiction, the author rarely strays away from the moment the story is in for more than a paragraph, before focusing again on what the character is doing now. Which brings me onto my next point.

5.Keep the story moving with some action.

A big tendency I often see is writers spending a lot of time describing one thing a character said or did and then unpacking the consequences of it for many paragraphs. This really prevents the action from moving along. I also see writers spending a long time reflecting on something the character feels or observes rather than giving the reader some more action for them to sink their teeth into. Whatever has happened in the story, and whatever the consequences of it, I suggest saying what you want to say as concisely through the narrative once- and then move on!

To be continued…

 

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6 comments for “Ten tips to help beginners come across as advanced writers. Part 1

  1. Linda
    7 November 2017 at 10:02 am

    “Your character has to read as a man or a woman (or whoever you want them to read as)”. So there are gender specific ways a character can read? Doesn’t this open up a whole can of worms regarding gender stereotypes? In which case, I don’t know how to apply ” or whoever you want them to read as”.

    The current rethink of gender ambiguity and gender declaration refusal has opened a whole exciting new world for writers, surely? Do we really have to make a character read gender specifically?

    • 7 November 2017 at 12:19 pm

      I agree Linda. I recently staged a play where I intentionally allowed two of the characters to be “gender-fluid”. I didn’t want to direct what the audience should think based on my decision, I wanted them to develop a sense of relational perspectives based on their own stereotyping, allowing them to confront their own biases.

  2. Charles
    9 November 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Though I think that to discover after a page of assuming that the character you are reading about is male, because the writer themselves is male, only to discover that they are female, is annoying, I do agree with Linda and John that to suggest that a woman speaks or acts in one way and a man in another does a disservice to characterisation, and to the fluidity of the genders. After all, you have female firefighters and police officers and have had male nurses for years, and often women you overhear in the streets are more potty-mouthed than a lot of men. In the past I have often used She or He in introducing a character even before a name or physical description, if I think there is any likelihood of confusion.

  3. 9 November 2017 at 10:15 pm

    My point was that gender is fluid (hence ‘or whoever you want them to read as’) and the vital issue for the reader is that they can visualise who that character is throughout the text. No can of worms needs to be opened- it’s about helping writers create a text the reader can picture.

  4. Nikita Garner
    10 November 2017 at 9:17 am

    I read it as: If you don’t want to define a character – don’t. But make that decision consciously.
    I believe that’s where the ‘or whatever you want’ comes in. If a character is gender fluid, or you don’t wish to define them, then that is a conscious decision on the writer’s part.
    This article talks about the new writer being oblivious or ignorant of the way a character comes across to the reader because of their inexperience in conveying what may be obvious and clear in their own heads.
    As progressive as society is, the majority of novels will still need to define characters as male or female and assign traits in accordance with or in spite of societal norms. As readers we use this to inform our understanding and appreciation of the characters and the wider text.

  5. Linda
    10 November 2017 at 9:59 am

    As Guy says, the important thing is to ‘create a text that the reader can picture’. But I still think there is a question to be asked here: does gender – or gender fluidity – have to be specified? Because if it does, is that because to do so will set certain expectations? If so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
    I really like what John has said about his characters – it sounds very exciting.

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