Scots-born Jane Richardson now lives on the coast in the south of England. After a couple of fantastic careers, the last of which was her dream job as a DSM in professional theatre and opera – where she met her husband - she’s now a home-educating Mum to two gorgeous kids. When she gets the chance, she loves to write, read, listen to music, walk in the sunshine and the breeze, paddle at the edge of the sea, and cook and share food, chat and good times with family and friends. She’s also fond of lemurs!
Read Right – Write Right!
Thanks Paula and everyone at Heroines With Hearts for having me here!
I’ve been thinking about something I heard a writer say the other day – how she often found it very difficult just to read for fun, now that she spends so much time writing. She found it hard to suspend her judgement, or take off her ‘critique hat.’ The things that were ‘wrong’ with a piece of writing tended to jump out at her more than things that were ‘right,’ and this was spoiling her reading pleasure.
Hmm. Well, I sort of know what she means, and I bet there are lots of writers who’ll say the same thing – how they find it hard to enjoy books that don’t meet up to their ‘high writing standards.’ Is it really the case that when we become writers, our ‘reading standards’ suddenly change? Perhaps up to a point they do, though I’m afraid I’ve never ever really been one to give a book more than a couple of chances anyway. So many times I've started a book with high hopes only to drop it in disappointment before end of first chapter.
Call me impetuous, but I’m afraid I tend not to keep reading in the hope that the book will improve – it invariably doesn’t, and it gets quietly dropped to one side while I go to the next one in the TBR pile. Too many books, too little time!
But you know that old thing about making lemonade out of lemons? Well, you can use that here. Use your reading time as a valuable learning resource. We can use identify what works or doesn’t work in a story, and why, and incorporate the positive things into our own writing. This doesn't mean copying a style or another author's voice, not at all – it means sorting the good stuff from the less good, and using that experience to focus in a positive and honest way in your own work, and change what needs changing.
Very often, and most telling of all, a lot of these things can be spotted in the first few pages. As writers, we need to take note of that - after all, if I’m prepared to stop reading a book in the first chapter, I have to accept readers might do the same with my writing, unless I work very hard to make absolutely sure they want to keep reading!
So what is it that keeps us reading, and stops us from hurling a book aside with great force to ricochet off the wall and land face-down in the nearest bin? I’ve picked out just a few of my likes and dislikes to illustrate what I mean, and called them Dodgy Moments and Learning Curves. I’m sure you have lots of your own, so please do feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section!
Dodgy Moment 1 – Does the writer open the story by setting the scene quickly and launching me on a forward journey from the get-go? How many times have you read on to a second or third paragraph where the writer has felt the need to start explaining the story, when all a reader wants to do is read the story?
Learning Curve 1 – opening with explanation or backstory can deal a killer bow to you story. You rarely need it, and it’s certainly not appropriate in the opening sections of a book. Trust your reader to fall in step with you as you move forward – you’re taking them on a wonderful journey, and if they trust you, they’ll go willingly. If you feel your story simply won’t stand up without some backstory, then you might want to consider if you’ve started the story in the right place.
Dodgy Moment 2 – now that the story’s moving, does it keep moving? Or did I have to go back and re-read sections again, before I understood what the writer meant?
Learning Curve 2 - a story has to flow. A reader might be prepared to re-read a section once, but twice is pushing a writer’s luck, and three times is way too much to keep a reader interested. This is where good, honest feedback is invaluable to a writer in the early stages of a manuscript. A good critique partner should be able to spot this for you, and when they do, get rid of it.
Dodgy Moment 3 - ‘It was a dark and stormy night…. I’m talking about those dreaded clichés. Has the drowning writer grabbed the cliché straw with yet another ‘ruby liquid’ or a ‘defiant chin?’
Learning Curve 3 - one cliché is one too many. Use all the clichés you like in your first draft, especially if it gets you out of a hole at the time, but you absolutely must go back and get rid of them before you put your story in front of a paying reader. If they feel they’ve read it all before, why on earth would they want to keep reading?
Dodgy Moment 4 – can you tell the characters apart from the way they speak, or do they all sound the same? Do they all use perfectly constructed, grammatically correct sentences? Into the same category comes accents and dialogue – are you being asked to read an awful of of words you just don’t understand, or work out what a character is trying to say by trying to make sense of a bagload of peculiar spellings?
Learning Curve 4 – think about each character’s individual speech pattern. The rhythm of a person’s speech, as well as the words they choose to use, is far more effective than worrying about whether or not their grammar and syntax is correct, or whether you’ve ‘written out’ an accent phonetically. Rhythm and word choice is also a very effective way of highlighting your characters’ individuality, especially when you have a lot of characters in the same scene or chapter - use their individual assets to make them shine.
Dodgy Moment 5 - when we’re first introduced to the characters, are they too good to be true? Too nasty to be true?
Learning Curve 5 – think about just how realistic your character’s behaviour is, especially if you’re trying to portray someone initially as less-than-perfect. In contemporary times in particular, women are less likely to give arrogance a second chance, but will either respond to it or not bother with the guy again. Even if you’re aiming for a misunderstanding between characters or a mistaken impression that will be corrected later, a baddie with roots in Victorian melodrama belongs in Victorian melodrama and nowhere else!
Those are just a few of my thoughts – I’d love to hear yours!
Thanks, Jane, for such a lot of interesting points to think about!
Jane’s latest release is a short story called Edinburgh Fog, published by MuseItUp Publishing.
You can read more about Jane and her future projects at her blog Home Is Where The Heart Is - http://janerichardsonhome.blogspot.com/