Some writing dos and don'ts

Some Writing Tips - the Dos and Don'ts for 
New and Novice Indie Writers
some useful extracts from Discovering the Diamond by Helen Hollick with Jo Field

Writing a novel is not just about writing

Everyone can write a book. Not everyone can write a readable book. Writing is the easy bit. Most of the work is in the planning (the thinking), in the structure (the plot), and in turning the first draft into a readable, enjoyable, top quality, novel. All of which involves reading, and re-reading and re-reading! Your idea, your characters, the pace, the style, all of that may be fantastic, but without a thorough edit, without checking for technique, consistency, continuity, grammar, spelling and punctuation, your novel will not shine.

Of course it is nice to have a book in print and know people have read it, but is that enough? As an established author, I want my work to be read not just once, but again and again. I want readers to think of my characters as old friends and dip into the story every now and then to refresh the friendship – and with each reading to experience the same excitement and enjoyment as they did the first time. You can achieve this, but only if your novel is well written. If great chunks of it are a little tedious, or there are too many errors of continuity or “believability” your readers will give up on you and not come back for a second bite – or indeed, will lose interest and never finish it in the first place. Fat chance for your next book then!

A Word On Presentation
It doesn’t need saying that for a book to be worth reading it must be well written, but all too often I come across self-published books (in whatever form) that are poorly presented.

Professionally produced mainstream books do not have double spacing; they do not have all the text aligned on the left-hand side, with the right margin jagged. Professionally produced books have straight margins on both sides, and a page at the front for copyright and publisher details.

Chapters open with the first line not indented – and usually a new chapter starts on a right hand page, but this is not so common now that the cost of paper and printing has gone up. As long as your opening chapter is on the right, you will be alright for following chapters to run on as you wish.

In the UK page numbers usually go at the bottom, either in the middle or at the outer edge. In the US page numbers tend to be at the top.

Do not have your font too small – nor too large, and use an easy to read font.

Think about how your book will look, study how mainstream books are put together. You’d be surprised how these small essentials just don’t occur to many writers. Would you buy a book that looked like it was put together by an amateur? Probably not, so make sure yours looks like a quality, professionally produced one.

To wail “Nobody will notice” if you have a clump of text printed differently to the rest of the book is not being a professional writer. Believe me, many people will notice, but they may either be too close a friend to say, or too indifferent about your book to bother mentioning it.

Look at how real books are produced, then take a look at your rough copy layout – and spot the difference.

* * * * * * * * * *
Common bloopers
Expressions that are spoken aloud are often ok, but can be hilarious when written; particularly when it involves disembodied body parts.

·        The girl feasted her eyes on his face.
·        Her eyes roamed around the room.
·        Dropping his head into his hands he slumped his shoulders, defeated.
·      The head gardener needed to sow the last of the seeds urgently, so offering to help, she ran as fast as her legs would carry her and offered to spread them for him.

We have some well-fed eyes that are hard to control as they keep wandering off, a man very careless with dropping his head – and some naughty goings-on in the garden!

Beware of clichés – oft used by novices, too many clichés dull your diamond’s sparkle:

·        Green with envy.
·        White as a sheet.
·        A ripe old age.
·        Like putty in his hands.
·        Raining cats and dogs.
·        She pulled a face.

 – as do mixed metaphors:

·        It was time to step up to the plate and lay his cards on the table.
·        She was burning the midnight oil from both ends.
·        He needed to take the bull by the tail and look him in the eye.

Fancy words over-egg the pudding!
If you would usually say: “The pram’s wheels were round,” why write, “The perambulator’s movement mechanisms were spherical.” Simple words are easier to read.

Do not use too many adjectives:

“The bright, shiny, glittering diamond sparkled in the dazzle of the hot, skin-burning glow of the golden sun.”

“The diamond sparkled in the dazzle of the sun,” conveys what you mean just as well – and reads so much better.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few ‘do nots’ for your opening chapter:
  • Do not stroll into the story; be sharp and succinct.
  • Do not give too much description of what your character looks like on the first page; strive for a brief image and add to it gradually.
  • Do not give the entire plot away – let the story unfold as the reader turns the pages.
  • Try to end each chapter with a hook.
  • Do not use long, rambling sentences.
  • If you must use a prologue or a foreword then be sure to keep it short and snappy – and not more than a page in length – otherwise, why isn’t it chapter one?
  • The same goes for postscripts or epilogues. You have gone to the bother of finishing on an exciting or thought-provoking note, bringing the story to a breathtaking climax. By adding several more pages you risk undoing all the intensity you have created and making the story fall flat: the reader’s lasting impression may be that your book was a bit dull after all. If you must add something, keep it short and to the point. Think of a roller-coaster ride; you expect it to end on a quivering thrill – how disappointing after that final stomach-churning drop to find there is a mile of flat track to be covered before you reach the end of the ride.
A few ‘dos’
  • Do hook your reader; entice him or her in.
  • Do introduce your main character as soon as possible.
  • Do give an idea of your character’s environment (where and when) so readers can orientate their minds from the first moment. Nothing puts a reader off more than not knowing what on earth you are talking about.
Last chapter
Ending your story is as important as starting it. This is especially true if you want your readers to come back again to a sequel or your next book. Your aim is for your readers to put down your book with a sigh of satisfaction – or to be thinking about what they have just read and regretting it has ended.

Even if you intend to write a sequel, don’t leave threads untied or the plot unfinished. It may seem an obvious thing to say, but a novel must have a start, a middle and an end – even if it is the first of a series.

If you are not sure where to finish, think of how movies or the TV soaps end. Always on a “high”, thoughtful, or “ahh wasn’t that nice”, note.

* * * * * * * * * *
Plagiarism is copying! You cannot be sued for using an idea that is similar to one used before (look at how many versions of the King Arthur stories there are!). Nor can you be sued for using the same character’s name – but you would be ill-advised to copy something too closely; Harry is fine to use, but someone has already used Harry Potter (envy, envy!). There are several books about wizards learning how to be wizards at a wizard’s school, for instance, but there is only one Harry Potter at Hogwarts fighting against the evils of Voldemort.

You cannot copy something word for word from another author, either in a few scattered sentences or for pages on end.

It is the author’s responsibility to not plagiarise other authors’ work. Don’t do it. You won’t get away with it. If you feel you owe a debt of gratitude for an idea, then it is a courtesy to say so in your acknowledgements.

Similarly, if you use a direct quote, seek the author’s permission if he or she is still alive – and even if not, it should still be acknowledged. The same applies if you use research details; this is not plagiarism, but your source should be acknowledged. If in doubt, don’t use it.

Your cover design
Be careful with the choice of your cover as well – by all means use a stock image obtained from the Internet, but make sure it is freely available to use. Just because it is on the Internet does not mean you can blatantly steal it!
And no, changing it slightly is not alright either.

* * * * * * * * * *
The final polishing

So, your book is finished, after many months and several re-written drafts you are finally content with the result. The End.

Not quite. Too many writers make the mistake of sending their treasured labour of love straight off to an agent or publisher. Don’t be tempted. Yes, if it is picked up by a mainstream publisher they will pay for it to be edited, but you have to be certain the book is good before you post it off.

And a professional full edit is essential for self published/independently published authors.

Your final draft should be scanned by a fresh pair of eyes, so get someone you trust to read it through and make constructive criticism as you are unlikely to spot all the errors yourself. Ar yew awre tht it is pssble too read qite adaqtly evn whn sevral vowls ar mssng? The eye has an annoying habit of correcting errors as you read; a trained copy-editor will usually avoid this pitfall. Be sure to present an editor/publisher with a novel that is ready for editing/publishing – iron out all the wrinkles first.

So what is editing and why is a full edit essential?

Basic copy-edit
In a basic copy-edit, the editor will ensure that blue eyes stay blue; check spelling – and unlike a spellchecker, will take note of context, grammar, consistency of capitalisation, and punctuation. (We have not touched on punctuation in these notes, but recommend you read Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.) Your copy-editor will also check the sequence of chapter numbering and warn you if there are potential copyright issues (i.e. you have quoted someone else’s work without permission), but flaws in plot, wording, writing technique and characterisation will not be noted in a basic copy-edit. If your manuscript contains many of the common mistakes discussed in this article, they will remain, for it is not a copy-editor’s job to re-draft a novel that does not come up to scratch. Some will, but only if you ask first and are prepared to pay the necessarily additional fee.

If you are intending to self-publish, then it is worth considering a full edit – as opposed to a basic copy-edit. Most self- or assisted/independent publishing companies will not give you this option and it may be worth your while to engage the services of an independent editor. A full edit can be done only by someone else, not yourself, for you will be too close to the work and unable to see the wood for the trees. You wrote that chapter, so of course you know what you meant. You may be quite unaware that it will make no sense at all to your readers.

A full edit looks at the big picture, taking in the journey from start to finish and includes the route, the scenery, the people met along the way and what happens while travelling. In other words, the plot, the structure, characters and development etc. In a full edit, a good editor will spark ideas; suggest ways in which the story might be enhanced, the plot thickened. An editor can tell you that this bit of the story is too slow for the action; this chapter almost the same as the one before. The next chapter takes the story nowhere – or you need another chapter to explain something. Your editor will tell you where a scene needs linking or that your character is behaving ‘out of character’; will ensure the continuity runs smoothly; alert you to a character who makes one appearance early in the novel and never appears again – is he therefore needed? Will check that certain facts are facts.

The final stages
As the author you are responsible for the polishing of your diamond, not your publisher. The final check before going to press is down to you. Your book is accepted and type-set. At last, your work will look like a real book, but it still needs proofreading to pick up on errors that slipped through the copy-editing process, or were generated during type-setting.

You will be sent either page proofs, i.e. loose pages bearing crop marks and with the print set out as it will look once bound, or the same thing in the form of a pdf computer file. If you are fortunate to have a good copy-editor, she or he may offer an additional proofreading service – and strange, but true, you will both almost certainly spot a different set of errors.

And then, finally, your finished book arrives. Proudly you open a page at random – and you spot a typing error. Eeeek!

Ah well, even the best diamonds can have a small flaw...

Section 1: Tips of the trade for new novelists
Section 2: Thinking of going self-published?
Section 3: The basics of writing a good novel – a few tips
Section 4: So, you have written a book? The edicts of editing 

[Review] "This little volume doesn't cost much and won't take long to read but that small investment is very worth while. It should be compulsory reading for every aspiring writer. Like the diamond in its title, it's compact but valuable, drawing on many years' first-hand experience before the empty page. Although Helen Hollick is now a successful and popular novelist, she's not too proud to share mistakes that she's made in the past and generously allows us to learn from them - and from her triumphs too.

"Although primarily aimed at novelists, this book contains many pointers relevant to non-fiction writers. All the advice is imparted in a friendly, supportive manner that make it very easy to access and absorb. Even the most defensive authors who bridle at the thought of anyone editing their work will be gently persuaded to hone their work until it shines.

"I love the title and its implication that underneath your rough rock of a book there is a diamond lurking, if only you are prepared to spend long enough polishing it. Discovering the Diamond will soon become dog-eared on many an apprentice writer's shelf through constant reference. It is in itself a gem, and a polished one at that."
Debbie Young Author, Book Reviewer, Commissioning Editor for ALLi

Jo Field is a semi-retired editor. After her first career in dairy farming, Jo changed direction, gained a first class honours degree, principally in English History, and became a project manager for the Open University where she was involved in scheduling and co-ordinating the production of course materials. Later, she trained in copy-editing and proofreading skills at Book House in London and went on to copy-edit course units for the Open Business School, and tutor-training toolkits for the OU’s Associate Lecturers.

After twelve years with the OU, Jo left to help set up ASK Europe, an independent training consultancy in Milton Keynes, where she led a team of writers and copy-editors, penning course
materials, novellas and scenarios for face-to-face workshops, and producing toolkits for distance learning tutors, both in the UK and Eastern Europe.

Now semi-retired, Jo works part-time as a freelance copyeditor for a select number of authors, primarily on works of fiction for both the adult and young adult markets. In 2008 she
published an historical novel: Rogues & Rebels – set in Devon during the English Civil War. This is now out of print (2013), but she hopes to re-publish her book and – and, when time allows, to write a sequel…


Through a Reviewer's Eyes by Richard Tearle

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