Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Stages of Revision 12: Show, don’t tell

That old chestnut.  And I’d argue that the more advanced skill is knowing when it’s right to tell instead of show. However, no matter how experienced a writer you are it’s worth doing a separate check on this one. There are a few vey specific things you can look out for:



Don’t just say car – be precise. Is it a little run-around or a gas-guzzler? Is it old or new? Is it clean at the moment or could it do with a wash? What is the interior like?  Now, you don’t need to include all of those details but you at least must know them. If the picture’s clear in your head it is more likely to also be so in your reader’s


Writing with the senses

What can you, your character, narrator or protagonist hear, see, smell, feel and taste? Again you don’t need to be exhaustive but you will convince the reader that the story is really happening if you can make them actually experience the scene. Be aware that often we rely too much on the visual. Use the other senses from time to time. Also be aware that one sense brings the other. If you invite the reader to smell the bacon cooking, they’ll probably hear it sizzling as well and might even be able to taste it.  If you have a scene involving good food, make them hungry.

Real time

Is what you’re relating happening in real time? Your action should take as long as it takes you to write it or read it out loud.

A film in the head

Are you creating the same film in your reader’s heads as you started out with? You might be able to check this by showing your work to a writing buddy, your critique group or a reading group. . Let them read your work and then ask them some questions about it. Some surprising things can happens sometimes. You may not have mentioned the colour of your character’s hair in this passage but they may have got it anyway.

Image by sipa from Pixabay

Convey emotion through body language

Don’t tell us that he looked angry.  Show us his frown, the clenched fists or the flashing eyes.

Dialogue and body language

This is a better way of showing how a character reacts than merely telling us about it.

Showing versus fast pace

If you are showing instead of telling well you will inevitably slow the pace. However, you are sharpening the involvement of the reader. To increase the pace again you can use lots of action words and short, sharp sentences.  Short chapters help as well, especially if they have cliff-hangers at the end.  Anyway, if you have a really good story where the stakes are high that will create its own pace and tension.  In addition the real-time pace holds the answers back and this increase the reader’s tension in any case.    

Friday, 1 May 2020

News 1 May 2020


Days and Weeks Passing By

The days are passing by and so are the weeks. I can’t believe I’m writing this newsletter again.  It seems like just a few days ago that I wrote the March one. This virus is still worrying but the only way to cope, I find, is just to live each day, nay, each moment as it comes. Occasionally, very occasionally I wake in the middle of the night and old monkey mind takes over. What if I get it and it carries me off? (Though I’m convinced I’m going to live to be 104!) What if I lose one of my close friends or relatives? What if we don’t return to normal and we do really start living in a dystopian near future novel? Psychologists tell us that monkey mind is necessary. It provides a kind of risk assessment. The point then is to look at what you can do in the worst case scenario.  Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Put monkey back in his place.  And the best plan is then just to breathe through each moment. I’m fortunate anyway that old monkey only appears very infrequently.  

I’m finding a lot to occupy me.  Tai Chi is replacing my trips to the swimming pool.  The movement and the breathing are similar and the commute is shorter. Most of my U3A meetings are carrying on remotely. But instead of taking a short bus ride into town I just go to my computer and into Zoom.
There is some extraordinary good material now online. The Society of Authors is providing lots of excellent virtual meetings.  I love some of the videos on Classic FM and The Literary Hub.  There are others too. The other day I even went for a virtual walk along the coast in Spain. 

So many people are doing so much. We’re a little restricted in what we can do. So, we’re giving to the food bank every week and I’m donating to a few charities as and when I feel appropriate.  As Cultural Champion I’ve been asked to create some creative writing materials for people who are in total isolation and don’t have access to a computer or broadband.   These and other ideas for creative activities are being distributed throughout our local area.  I’ve produced a couple of ideas for writing stories and a couple of ideas for writing poems, all inspired by old photographs and what people can see out of their window. I’ve also added ideas about how these activities can produce items people may still be able to use after lockdown ends.  I’ve written these prompts in such a way that people who have never written before can use them but so that they’ll also be of interest to more experienced writers. I hope they’ll prove to be worthwhile for a few people. 

If you think they may of interest to you or to someone you know, email me and I’ll send them by return.  

News about my writing

I have had an extraordinary acceptance: a recipe for a charity cook book. My friends in Spain run a charity that supports the provision of palliative care for people with terminal illnesses. If you would like to read my recipe, along with others, and support the charity, here is the link: https://friendsofgirasol.weebly.com/buy-recipe-book.html . My recipe was inspired by a seafood dish I had one night when I was at the Hay Festival. It was so delicious I had to replicate it. This was the result.

I also had a piece of flash fiction short-listed in the Axe to Grind competition. It didn’t make it through to the winners’page but it was nice to be short-listed.      
I’m still carrying on much as before: The Round Robin, the fifth book in the Schellberg Cycle, Not Just Fluffy Bunnies, and I’m still working on The Business of Writing.   
I’m also continuing to write stories relating to the virus and the collection I’m putting together with other writers is growing.       

The Young Person’s Library

I’ve added new this month:  

A Most Amazing Zoo  

By Linda Flynn and Linda Laurie
This is a richly illustrated text for emergent readers with a lot of information about animals.

The Death Cure

By James Dashner
This is the third book in the Maze Runner series. This is about a dystopian world for younger teens.

Ted Rules the World

By Frank Cottrell Boyce
This is a high-low, aimed at upper primary children. It unusually touches on politics.   

Current reading recommendation

This month I’m recommending a collection of short stories Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins.  Find details  here.  

Amanda asked me to review it for her. I did this gladly and I was pleased to create five star reviews on both Good Reads and Amazon. I can’t post them yet as the book isn’t out until 27 May but here’s what I’m saying:
“The short stories in this collection give a strong sense of time and place and allow the reader to follow the characters as they make a journey. Sometimes this is an actual physical journey, at other times it is a journey of the soul. Each story too brings with it an atmosphere that we cannot ignore. We are drawn to the characters and their settings.” 

And here are a couple of extracts from other reviews:
“Her use of all the senses in her stories is wonderful. When she describes food being eaten, it is as if you were there watching the food being eaten! This is hard to pull off well. All of the stories will move you and make you wonder what you would do if you were this character faced with this situation. Huggins creates a miniature world with every story, and you are drawn in, almost hypnotically.” (Allison Symes

"This short fiction collection contains twenty-four emotionally-charged stories that take readers on a journey to households and communities in a range of countries. Through these stories, Amanda Huggins cleverly shows us the commonality of emotional experience. That feelings of isolation, love, grief, loss and regret occur in different backgrounds and cultures. And equally, that hope and the promise of a fresh start is possible. Amanda Huggins writes in a beautiful and empathetic way to immerse readers in the challenges and dilemmas she presents to her characters. As readers we care about these characters and learn from them. This is a truthful, authentic and essential read." (Gail Aldwin

Well worth pre-ordering, I’d say.  


Note: these are usually mobi-files to be downloaded to a Kindle.  Occasionally there are PDFs.
Continuing with dystopian themes this month I’m giving away Babel. This follows on from the novel offered last month and continues the story of the Peace Child. Protagonist Kaleem started nagging at me and I had to write a fourth story about him. I have a fifth one planned. So much for it being a trilogy!    

Certainly the economic situation at the moment is making me realise how the Zenoton may have created their society. And that is one of the bits of Covid 19 writing I’m currently working on.  
You can download Babel and lots of other free materials here.

Please, please, please review it if you read it.     

Note, that normally my books and the books supplied by the imprints I manage sell for anything from £0.99 to £10.99, with most on Kindle being about £2.99 and the average price for paperback being £7.00. We have to allow our writers to make a living. But I’m offering these free samples so that you can try before you buy. Also at the moment I’m quite happy for you to share these links with other people and any of the items you’ve downloaded before - just until the end of the lock-down.   


The Schellberg Project

The posts may be helpful for teachers who are familiar with the Schellberg stories or who are teaching about the Holocaust and also for other writers of historical fiction.

I’ve written a post this month about going back to my primary materials. You can read this here: http://www.thehouseonschellbergstreet.com/2020/04/going-back-to-basics-and-picking-up.html  
I was involved in an interesting discussion at a research seminar at the University of Salford (conducted remotely of course): why has the Nazi era not been romanticised? Most people would probably say that it’s obvious why not. But what about the way it’s portrayed in Hello, Hello? And what about what I’m doing in my Schellberg Cycle? It’s already been described as unusual because I show the German point of view. I discuss that a little in my post Romanticising the Nazi era?

I’ve also added another book review. Past Remembering by Catrin Collier. This is an easy fictional read that gives us much insight into civilian life in the UK.  


School visits

I’ve suspended these until further notice. I’m now starting work on a series of on-line materials.  

Some notes about my newsletters and blogs

They do overlap a little but here is a summary of what they all do.

Bridge House Authors For all those published by Bridge House, CaféLit, Chapeltown or The Red Telephone or interested in being published by us. General news about the imprints. News for writers. Links to book performance. Sign up here.

Chapeltown Books News about our books. Sign up here.

The Creative Café Project News about the project and CaféLit – for the consumer rather than for the producer.  Sign up here.   

Gill’s News: News about my writing, The Schellberg Project, School Visits and Events. Book recommendations and giveaways. Find it here.   

Pushing Boundaries, Flying Higher News about conferences and workshops to do with the young adult novel. (infrequent postings) Sign up here.  

Red Telephone Books News about our books and our authors. Sign up here.

A Publisher’s Perspective Here I blog as a publisher. Access this here.   

The Creative Café Project Listings and reviews of creative cafés. See them here.   

CaféLit Stories Find these here

Gill James Writer All about writing and about my books. View this here.

Gill’s Recommended Reads Find information here about books that have taken me out of my editor’s head and a reminder of the ones I’ve highlighted in this newsletter.    

Gill’s Sample Fiction Read some of my fiction here.

The House on Schellberg Street All about my Schellberg project. Read it here.

Writing Teacher All about teaching creative writing.  Some creative writing exercises. Access this here.     

Books Books Books Weekly offers on our books and news of new books. Find them here. 

The Young Person’s Library I am gradually moving the children’s book catalogue over to this site.  Access it here.

Fair Submissions I am gradually moving the Opportunities List to this site.  Find it here.   

New ones are added several times a day. Roughly once a month I go through it and take out all of the out of date ones. At that point I send it out to a list. If you would like to be on that list, sign up here.  

Happy reading and writing. 

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay  

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Stage of revision 11: Point of view


Getting the point of view wrong or inconsistent is one of the biggest mistakes that new and inexperienced writers of prose fiction make. It’s also reasonably easy to get right if you understand it. Often if you can correct the mistakes you’ve made with point of view your text will improve dramatically. So, it is a good one to get right.

What we mean by point of view 

But what does it “point of view” actually mean? We’re not talking about opinions here. We’re really talking about who the story belongs to. You need to ask yourself “Whose story is this?” Answer that and you have found your point of view.
Try to remember that as you write. If you keep changing the point of view it can irritate and alienate your reader. It can be particularly annoying in short stories. It is counterproductive in another way in all forms of fiction. It prevents your reader from becoming close to your character. In longer pieces, such as novels, you may have to change point of view because the story is not always with the main character. Then the author will often be just as close to another character. On the whole, the more successful prose fiction writers do not change point of view mid-chapter. This aids the reader to find continuity and indeed to buy into the story. So, your second question is “Have I consistently shown this point of view?” Edit just asking that question. It’s an important edit.

Narrative techniques

Closely linked with point of view is what we call “narrative technique” and it is often the narrative technique you use that helps you to establish your point of view. Below are a few examples of narrative techniques. 
First person
The first person narrative is often referred to as unreliable. In some ways it is. You are only getting the narrator’s side of the story and arguably here the point of view does become an opinion. Also, the reader then has to stay with that character all of the time. But the reader is certainly seeing things as the narrator sees them. The first person narrative does actually give a very reliable picture of the character’s view of the world. Particularly striking examples of this are in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Read or reread one of these books. Here is a short excerpt from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time:
                        Mother died two years ago.
I came home from school one day and no one answered the door, so I went and found the secret key that we keep under a flowerpot behind the kitchen door. I let myself into the house and carried on making the Airfix Sherman Tank model I was building.
An hour and a half later Father came home from work. He runs a business and he does heating maintenance and boiler repair with a man called Rhodri who is his employee, He knocked on the door of my room and opened it and asked whether I had seen mother. (28)
Note that Christopher is giving us a lot of details we might, as good creative writers, consider irrelevant to the story. They are important, though, because they show us much about Christopher’s personality and about how he sees the world.  They give us his point of view and do almost start to give us his opinion here. So, by getting point of view right, Haddon also gets voice and character right. Or you may prefer to think that by getting the voice and the character right he gets the point of view correct.
There is, however, one really big limitation with a first person narrative: the narrator has already had the growth and the reader cannot enjoy that growth with the protagonist.
A first person narrative is often used when writing for young adults. However, it is a false narrative as the author is pretending to be someone just a little bit older or a little bit wiser than the adolescent who is reading. They’re usually – though not always – considerably older than their readers.
Third person close
This also allows for a very close point of view. It is as if the writer is sitting on the character’s shoulder and can hear and see everything they can hear and see. They even know what the character is thinking. This works very well and does allow the reader to experience the growth with the character.  
V.S. Pritchett uses this in the short story A Family Man in the Penguin Book of Modern short stories. Here we have the viewpoint of Berenice, William’s mistress, who is visited by William’s wife.
But now – when she opened the door – no William, and the yawn, its hopes and its irony, died on her mouth. A very large woman, taller than herself, filled the doorway from top to bottom, an enormous blob of pink jersey and green skirt, the jersey low and loose at the neck, a face and a body inflated to the point of speechlessness. She even seemed to be asleep with her large blue eyes open. (46) 
Notice how in this passage the impression we are given of the visitor is really Berenice’s. It is Berenice who sees the dominating pink jersey and that is it loose and low. She decides that the woman seems to be asleep and that she has large blue eyes. We are following Berenice’s story. The reader buys into what is going to happen to Berenice.           

Third person distant neutral
This is also a common point of view. It is often found in older texts. A neutral narrator tells us the story, in effect showing it to us almost as a film. It is a little different from a film in that we occasionally see into the minds of the characters. However, we have none of the opinions nor personality of the writer in these texts. The narrator only tells us what we need to know in order to understand the story.
This type of narrative may skip from person to person, but it does so in a balanced way and it keeps the same distance from all of the characters. A good example of this type of narrative is found in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

The evening visitors – the men with collars turned up and soft hats rammed down    - nodded familiarly to Mrs Verloc, and with a muttered greeting, lifted up the flap at the end of the counter in order to pass into the back parlour, which gave access to a passage and to a steep flight of stairs. The door of the shop was the only means of entrance to the house in which Mr Verloc carried on his business of a seller of shady wares, exercised his vocation of a protector of society, and cultivated domestic virtues. (14)
Thus we see a scene played out before us. It is Mr Verloc who sees his vocation as protector of society and cultivator of domestic virtues. He knows he is selling shady wares. The narrator simply tells us this without any judgement. Later in the novel we have the points of view of Mrs Verloc and other characters. Even in older texts, this switching of point of view only comes in separate sections or chapters. In longer works, the writer sometimes needs to do this in order to explain what is happening to characters other than the protagonist. In the short story the writer tends to stay with one point of view.
It is currently rather unfashionable. The modern reader and publisher seem to prefer a first person, a close third person or the narrator – whether first or third person – as an extra character.
Fictionalised narrator
This doesn’t have to be first person but often is. Imagine, for instance, the rather eccentric woman next door, the landlord of your favourite pub, or an interesting minor character in a book you like telling the story. An extreme first person example is in Adam Rapp’s 33 Snowfish.
Then he points to my other pocket and goes, “What’s wrong with your hand?”
I go, “I cut it.”
But he’s like, “I mean the one in your pocket.”
I go, “Nothin’.”
“You steal somehtin’ from my yard?”
“Ain’t shit to steal.”
“You sure?”
I’m like, “You deaf?”
And then the nigger pulls my other hand out of my pocket and he looks at it.”
We may well be shocked at the word “nigger” but this is part of the way this character talks. It is part of his voice and his point of view.

Some common mistakes

Study the three examples below:
I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he danced. Back and neck straight. Gaze fixed. Arms rigid by his sides. His feet never missed a beat and always came down in exactly the right place. My own feet started tapping to the music.
Then Patrick looked at the others. He winked at me. He showed them who was boss. He was so proud of me. He was thirsty now. He wanted a drink. But I kept on pushing him.

The point of view has shifted from the narrator to Patrick. How can s/ he know what Patrick intended or whether he was thirsty?

Better might be:  
I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he danced. Back and neck straight. Gaze fixed. Arms rigid by his sides. His feet never missed a beat and always came down in exactly the right place. My own feet started tapping to the music. 
I worried as he looked at the others but then he winked at me. I wanted to make him proud of me. He was sweating and he must have been thirsty. I know I was. But I kept on pushing him.

George pushed pressed the buzzer on the entrance to the sales office. If this is supposed to be housing for everybody, why are they trying to keep people out? he thought.
Mandy Prior stopped painting her nails, patted her hair and called out in her best secretary voice: “Good morning. How can I help you?”
“George Morgan, Artist in Residence, Peppwood Council,” replied George.
Mandy pressed the buzzer. “Yes, Mr Sullivan is expecting you,” she said. George found himself in a type of exhibition area. His eyes were drawn to some huge photos of modern flats and town houses.  “Big Plans for Gorsall,” he read.
“Welcome, welcome,” said the short, middle-aged man with greying hair and a very red nose.

The point of view skips between George, Mandy and an unknown person. The reader may get confused. 

Better might be:
George pushed pressed the buzzer on the entrance to the sales office. If this is supposed to be housing for everybody, why are they trying to keep people out? he thought.
“Good morning. How can I help you?” chimed a voice that suggested dyed hair and painted nails.
“George Morgan, Artist in Residence, Peppwood Council,” replied George.
“Yes, Mr Sullivan is expecting you,” said the same made-up voice. A buzzer sounded and the door swung open.
George found himself in a type of exhibition area. His eyes were drawn to some huge photos of modern flats and town houses.  “Big Plans for Gorsall,” he read.
“Welcome, welcome,” said a voice. 
George turned to find that the speaker was a short, middle-aged man with greying hair and a very red nose.

The boy had a lump in his throat. 
It had been a grey old day and the first drops of rain were starting to fall. He turned on the windscreen wipers.   
As the little blue car turned on to the motorway, it was raining heavily. Before it got into the heavier traffic there were flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. Tom turned on the radio to try and drain out the noise. He pushed his right foot down to the floor, bringing Binky up to her top speed. The music matched his mood. Rousing rock. He was going to fight this and he was going to win.
The car was now in the middle lane. The rain was now pouring like a waterfall over the windscreens of all the cars. Everybody’s wipers were going full speed. It was that sort of weather where you can’t see at all. The cars and lorries were chucking up spray and were being buffeted from side winds. No one seemed to be able to drive in a straight line. .

We move closer to the main character and back again. It’s like watching a film that has been made by someone who has little control over a camcorder. The zooming in and out can leave you feeling nauseous. Whilst this can be quite effective if executed elegantly – Philip Pullman uses this a lot, for example, particularly towards the end of The Amber Spyglass – it is not really appropriate or effective in so short an extract.

Better might be:
The lump was in his throat again.
The first drops of the rain they’d been promising all day fell on the windscreen.
He turned on the wipers.   
By the time he got to the motorway, it was raining heavily. As he filtered into the traffic there were flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. He turned on the radio to try and drain out the noise. He pushed his right foot down to the floor, bringing Binky up to her top speed. The music matched his mood. Rousing rock. He was going to fight this and he was going to win.
He steered Binky into the middle lane. The rain was now pouring over the windscreen like a waterfall. The wipers were going full speed, but he still couldn’t see all that well. As he overtook the slower cars and lorries he also had to put up with the spray and the buffeting from the side wind as he drove out of their shelter.

Try this

1.      Rewrite a fairy story, a myth or legend, one of Shakespeare’s stories or something from the Bible from the point of view of a minor character or the “bad” character.
2.      “Patch test” a piece of your own writing. Write a couple of paragraphs using one of the narrative techniques described above. Then try it with two others. Which works best? 
3.      Take two paragraphs from a piece of fiction you have enjoyed and decide which narrative technique the writer has used. Now choose another narrative technique and rewrite that passage using that. Was the author right? Why do you think they used their chosen narrative technique?  

Working with this in the future

1.      Before you start a piece of work, make conscious decisions about whose story you are telling and which narrative technique you wish to use. Try to keep this in mind as you write.
2.       Once your work is finished you should read it though checking just point of view. This should be just one of several edits.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay