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I Would Have Gotten Away With It If It Weren’t For You Meddling Kids!

I want to start by saying I know next to nothing about children. To the extent that he can be said to have taught me anything beyond how to deal with one individual child, Sebastian’s lessons still don’t extend beyond his age, and it’s a while since I was too young to buy alcohol.

But I’ve always thought “write what you know” shouldn’t be taken to its extremes, and (prodigies aside), we’d never read books with children in if adults didn’t take up the baton and write them. So how do we write about children, even make them protagonists and narrators, when we’ve left those years behind.

Personally, I think the first lesson is not to underestimate children. Kids are a lot smarter than many adults give them credit for. I was talking to a pre-teen the other day whose ambition is to study Law at Cambridge. She discovered I’d done it and was happy to discuss her thoughts and plans in detail. Talking to her, it was easy to forget that this was just a kid. I could imagine having the same conversation with someone ten years older, hearing the same enthusiasm and excitement, and being enthused by it myself.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should base our portrayals on the children in children’s stories either: Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone character, the Famous Five, even the meddling kids from Scooby Doo (How old are they anyway? I always thought they were grown ups, in spite of this line… is it apocryphal? Another ‘beam me up, Scotty”? I’m digressing. And dating myself!) … Anyway, there is no need to go over the top with kids who outwit and outsmart adults at every turn, unless that’s your genre.

But in my (limited) experience, children think about many of the same things adults do, they notice things, they have the same feelings as adults, even if it’s about different things. They are not different from us, they just come at the world from a position of less experience, and less knowledge.

It’s easy to make child characters 2-dimensional and push them into the background, but even if they are minor characters, they can help hold the story together better the more clearly and honestly we write them.

 

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Voice Week: Guns in the Toy Box #5

Here’s the final installment of my Voice Week entries. You can see what it’s all about, and read the first installment in Monday’s post, then follow the other voices over the rest of the week. The voices are designed to be read in any order.

Thanks for reading along!

Little_boy_with_toy_gun

Guns in the Toy Box

So, he’s a Commando now. Off to kill some innocents in another pointless war. I heard through his sister.

I knew he’d turn out that way. Always had guns in the toy box, thanks to my ex. Just like his father: first into the fray, last one to consider anyone else’s point of view. He’d no more be an ordinary soldier than an ordinary son. Why not go blow up some people who never did anything to him?

Mind you, though, he’d better not come back dead. If he does, I don’t know who I’ll kill first – him or his father.

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Voice Week: Guns in the Toy Box #4

Here’s the fourth installment of my Voice Week entries. You can see what it’s all about, and read the first installment in Monday’s post, then #2 and #3 yesterday and the day before. The voices are designed to be read in any order.

Little_boy_with_toy_gun

Guns in the Toy Box

I understand he wants to see his heritage. I just never imagined it like this. He says he’s among friends. He calls them his brothers. But you hear stories. How they’re so deeply brainwashed they see the enemy among their comrades. He says he’s careful: prays away from the others, doesn’t rub his faith in their faces, but a Mother worries. Can these boys really tell a radical Muslim from a good follower of the Prophet?

And what about the locals? Will they see him as a hypocrite – an invader who should know better?

In sha’Allah, he will be safe.

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Voice Week: Guns in the Toy Box #3

Here’s the third installment of my Voice Week entries. You can see what it’s all about, and read the first installment in Monday’s post. #2 was yesterday. The voices are designed to be read in any order.

Little_boy_with_toy_gun

Guns in the Toy Box

There has been a Blythe in the Royal Marines since before there was a Royal Marines. Teddy knows the risks; his father was wounded out in Kosovo, but there is no way he wouldn’t have joined up. Doesn’t every little boy want to be like his Daddy?

He used to look through the medals and berets in my Pop’s cabinet when he was tiny. He even played with Pop’s old Webley. Safety catch on. Not loaded, of course. Pop gave it to him for his fifth birthday, said a boy needs to grow up knowing the man he will become.

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Voice Week: Guns in the Toy Box #2

Here’s the second installment of my Voice Week entries. You can see what it’s all about, and read the first installment in yesterday’s post. The voices are designed to be read in any order.

Little_boy_with_toy_gun

Guns in the Toy Box

Royal Marines Commando. Them’s no ordnary soldiers them. Makes im special. Top one percent thingy. 99.99% Need Not Apply.

Bloody love im. Couldn’t be more proud. Raised him up good, din I? ‘Fe wants to go bring peace to some Godforsaken shithole. Keep them rag’eds in line.

I knew, course. Makin’ guns out of his sister’s doll before e could walk. Bought ‘im a toy pistol when e was five; never looked back.

Just ‘slong as they bring ‘im back in one piece, course. Got ‘is Uncle wot’s a lawyer to write ‘em a letter. You bring my boy back OK.

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Voice Week: Guns in the Toy Box #1

First, and irrelevantly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my gorgeous little boy, who has become one of my best friends and a constant reminder of the wonder of life.

Now, onto business. It’s November, which means I’m already at least toe-deep in NaNoWriMo, but the lovely Steph over at BeKindRewrite doesn’t care about a small thing like that. She demands voices, because this week is Voice Week. So, every day this week, I’ll be posting a 100 word story in a different voice. If you want to find out more, join in, or read other Voice Week stories, check out VW HQ.

Either way, I hope you enjoy my stories this year. I’d love to hear your feedback – on the stories, on the voices, whatever. My stories are based on an InMon prompt from a few weeks ago, which I liked but didn’t use.

Little_boy_with_toy_gun

Guns in the Toy Box

We always said our son wouldn’t play at war. It seemed wrong to our middle class, liberal minds, that he should play at shooting when children half a world away do it for real.

But if you don’t buy them guns, apparently kids just make them. Out of fingers. Or toilet rolls. Or the arm of their sister’s Barbie. So we let him have a water pistol when he was five.

Now he’s going halfway around the world to protect those foreign children. I’m proud. But if it’s such a good thing, why do I wake up cold and sweating?

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Who Said That?

My story for InMon on Thursday raised a great comment from Stuart, including the observation that he’d sometimes struggled to identify who was speaking. The scene involved three girls, discussing the Narrator’s one night stand the previous night, and I know what Stuart means; it’s a challenge I hate as a reader and face as a writer, so I thought I’d stop and deal with it in more detail today.

When I discussed this with my writing group on Saturday, we decided that sometimes it doesn’t matter which friend is saying every single comment – what’s important may just be their effect on the narrator. But as a writer, that’s a really brave call to make. There will be readers who will be turned off the story by this, and those readers might occasionally be the ones who decide whether you get published or not! So, how do we deal with this problem?

The Easy Answer

The most straightforward way to avoid confusion is to use dialogue tags, most obviously “she said” or “said Alice” etc. Whilst it’s good to occasionally mix things up and have someone squeak, shout or whisper, for the most part, writing guides discourage too much imagination on dialogue tags – we read “said” without slowing down, but anything else disrupts the brain’s concentration on the dialogue itself, apparently.

But putting “said Alice”, “said Louisa”, “I said” after every line of dialogue gets a bit tiresome after a while. And most of the time, dialogue tags come either in the middle or at the end of the speeches they refer to – ideally, the reader doesn’t want to wait that long to find out who’s speaking.

Slightly More Sophisticated

It’s a step up from tags to actions. For example: “Who cares?” Alice had let go of the gain control again.

This allows you to identify Alice as the speaker without any sort of tag. The rule here is, one paragraph per person, so if the action is in the same paragraph as the words, it’s done by the speaker.

Watch out for the tag / action distinction so bemoaned by writing coaches. You can speak and smile, for example, but you cannot smile a speech. Compare the punctuation in:

“Have a biscuit,” Evan smiled.

“Have a biscuit.” Evan smiled.

The first version implied that Evan smiled the words, which is impossible. In the second, someone says the words (and because it’s in the same paragraph, we can assume it’s Evan) and Evan smiles.

Top Marks

The fanciest way to distinguish between speakers is through character. In a super-short story like Thursday’s, that’s not so easy to do, but it’s a skill I definitely need to work on even within those boundaries, and in a longer piece it’s imperative.

The goal is for the reader to know your characters so well, they know who is speaking from the words they say. Think about your favourite book or TV show. If I gave you a few lines from it, you’d probably be able to tell me who is talking.

This is another danger zone: take it too far and the characters become wooden or caricatured. But there’s definitely a happy medium. I struggled to differentiate Louisa and Alice on Thursday because I made them so similar. Of course they are similar, they are friends, of the same age, living in the same place. They have shared idiom and experiences. But even when we lived on top of each other at university, my best friend and I didn’t speak exactly the same way. I’ve been with my husband more than a decade, but he and I are definitely distinguishable in the way we speak too.

So if I were to go back to Thursday’s story and improve it, I’d work on the girls’ characters some more. I’d find the differences between Alice and Louisa in particular, and the Narrator too, and I’d bring them out better in the dialogue.

A note on duologue

All the above still works, but if there are only two people speaking, it’s a little easier. As long as you punctuate and paragraph correctly, the reader can follow the exchange like a singles tennis match between them, with just the occasional tag to orientate us occasionally so we don’t get lost and have to count up half a page.

Sometimes, you can be sneaky and put names into the speech instead. If Sarah and Pete are talking and someone says “What do you think, Sarah?”, we know it must be Pete. But in real life most people rarely actually say each other’s names out loud, so use this sparingly. And still aim for top marks where you can.

I once wrote an entire 7000 word story as a duologue between a brother and sister. There was not a single word outside the quotation marks: no tags or actions, just the words they spoke, like a radio play. But for the most part (not entirely, it still needs work), I think you can tell who is speaking because of a combination of the other tricks mentioned here.

If you’re working on a story right now, how do you make it clear who’s speaking?

 

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Show and Tell

Anyone who has ever read anything about writing or editing knows that there are two universal truths: 1) Show everything, tell nothing, and 2) Avoid adverbs like the plague.

The problem in writing a novel, is that by definition you are telling a story. Television, picture books and comics literally SHOW much of the story, but in the printed word everything is telling. So really, rule 1 is a fallacy. There are, however, degrees of telling, and the purpose of this rule is to nudge us towards the show-y end of the spectrum. For example:

Sarah felt embarrassed

Is more tell-y than

Sarah blushed

Is more tell-y than

Sarah’s face filled with an unmistakable tint of red

All these examples say the same thing, and since none is accompanied by a picture, they all do it by telling us what happens. The difference is that the second two paint verbal pictures.

If you’re editing a draft, you can do worse than to search for the word “felt” and check around it. Emotions are generally easy to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing. Although, “Sarah felt a prickling warmth in her cheeks” would be a decent way to deliver this sentence, because it’s using “felt” in a physical sense and not an emotional one.

Adverbs (and to some extent adjectives) are also often markers of telling, handily linking rule 2 in with rule 1. “He squeezed tightly through the hole”, the adverb tightly is arguably redundant because of squeezed, but it is also at the telling end of the spectrum. Instead, we could replace the sentence with something like

The skin on his arms grazed against the panelling; the hole was no wider than his shoulders.

Telling is often a shortcut. Showing almost always takes more words. As such, sometimes telling can be useful. “He slept soundly” could be replaced with “He lay in bed, unmoving, his breathing shallow and regular, his eyelids flickering only occasionally as a dream crossed his mind’s eye without disturbing his body’s rest”. But imagine if it was important for the reader to know that this continued for the whole night. I think most readers would vote to be told that, and not to have to read a minute-by-minute account of it.

However, if it’s not important for the reader to know the exact time period, it’s worth considering whether the reader could be left to infer that this state of affairs continued until the next scene, where we see the character awake and alert the following morning.

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In Mon – Farewell to Words

Well now. When I first got the email with this week’s InMon prompt, I thought I’d be writing a tribute to Steph, who runs it. I also began to consider how I might replace InMon in my blogging schedule. And then I thought about the date. And then I read the post in full. And then I sighed.

So, no tribute to you, Steph. And you almost did yourself out of a participant!

Instead, here’s a story…

A Farewell To Words

“I put them there for a reason,” sighed Joanna, trying to keep the whine out of her voice. “I don’t go in for gratuity, you know I don’t, but sometimes you have to include the character’s language for realism.”

“I know, but the publishers won’t take it.” Ian flicked through the redacted copy in front of him. He could almost hear the author’s brain trying to come up with arguments through the silence on the telephone. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice perfection.”

“For what? Market share? There is no way Bilton would say ‘Shoot’ when he sees those bodies. No way! There’s perfection, Ian, and then there’s…” She stumbled over the words; she wanted to pick up the phone and throw it across the room.

“I know it’s frustrating, Jo, but that’s what they are telling me. They want the novel. They want to give it publicity, a good launch date … hell, they’re even offering you an advance. That’s unheard of for a first novel in this market.”

“Did you say hell?”

Ian took a breath. Now she was mad.

“Did you say HELL, Ian? Not heck? Not gee, or shoot? You said hell, because hell is what came to your lips when you heard I might get some money for seven years of researching and writing. Now imagine you’d just seen a room full of carved up little children. Imagine you had spent chapters and chapters looking for those children, talking to their parents, hoping against hope that they were alive somewhere. Are you imagining it, Ian? Are you imagining you open that door and see the bodies piled up, bits missing, unseeing eyes staring at you … Now, tell me you would say ‘Shoot’.”

“Jo…”

“No, Ian. Go back to them. Tell them the swearing stays. And if they don’t like it, they can go shoot themselves.”

******

A bit of backstory, for those who are interested.

The prompt “Farewell to words” reminded me of the Hemingway title, A Farewell To Arms. One of his most famous and successful novels, this book was originally published censored, with the swear words replaced by dashes. It was America, in the inter-war period, and such language was too much for the publishers and readership. But this is a bleak, tragic novel, set during the First World War. Undoubtedly the real-life soldiers for whom those events were real didn’t hold back their language, but Hemingway was obliged to when he depicted them.

Even now, authors face a conundrum of how and when to use blasphemy, swear words and other controversial language. It’s a difficult balance to strike – between realism and toning it down for the market. Graphic, horrific scenes seem to get a much easier ride, and yet as a reader, I think I struggle much more with some of the images created than the odd F- or S-. I thought that might be an interesting subject for a short, and the story above was born.

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Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Last week’s post considered the elements of a good first line, but there’s a bigger (and in some ways harder) issue about the start of a novel, which is *where* in the story to begin. It’s usually pretty easy to know where to finish (although I struggled with that too last week). But it’s harder to know where the story begins. The actions of any character will partly depend on the things they saw and felt and experienced outside the confines of the story itself. In a later post, I’ll come back to ways of weaving in backstory, but for now, let’s just agree that some things are backstory, and some belong in the “now” of the narrative.

You want the beginning to be punchy, to include the hook, to rope the reader in. You want it to include an exciting scene, some intrigue, to introduce the main characters, setting and plot. So it’s tempting to find the most exciting thing which happens in the first quarter of your novel, and start there. Great – fantastic beginning, all sewn up.

BUT

If you do that, you spend the rest of that quarter catching up. As a rule of thumb, if the opening (which could be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter or even a couple of chapters) is immediately followed by a backstory-dump, you started too late.

There’s no easy answer to the question of where to begin; it’s entirely dependent on the story you’re telling. Usually, you just get a feeling about it – if the start drags, you went in early, if you end up with that backstory-dump, you came late to the party.

Think about your character arc and plot – generally, the first portion of the book sets the scene, tells us about the characters before anything starts to change in their lives or their psyches. Give yourself time to show this, but then you need to get on with the story, which is about those changes.

Since I’ve stolen a line from the Sound of Music for my title – let’s think about where that story starts. We get a brief look at Maria’s life in the convent: she longs to be free (The Hills Are Alive) which causes trouble for the nuns (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?); and then we’re off into the family Von Trapp, which is where the changes and therefore the plot begin.

Of course, starting before the action doesn’t mean you can’t start with a bit of action. It just has to be a little detached from the plot, whilst still being relevant at least in terms of theme and/or character. Consider, if you will, the beginning of any Bond movie (I’ve got Daniel Craig in my head – what else is new? – Casino Royale, I think). We see Bond somewhere exotic, taking down bad guys, possibly romancing a lady: none of them in the slightest bit relevant to the plot, but all relevant to the Bond franchise and exciting enough to start us off with a bang!

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