In the spring of 2006, I decided that I’d write a novel. I was already working as a writer, editor and researcher. However, a novel was still a big step, let me explain…
I’ve always been a book nerd. I still remember the first ‘real’ book I read. It was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I must have been about seven or eight when I’d checked it out of my local library and spent the next weeks reading the book a chapter a night. After each chapter, I’d tuck the hardback book under my pillow and sleep on the novel. A habit I still do to this day. I’ve been a serial reader ever since, replacing one book with the next. However, despite my love of books my chosen career was science, or biology, to be more precise. After studying at university, I worked in a brewing company before moving to the pharmaceutical industry, a dream job at the time. I lasted about a year. I was never comfortable with the cost/care choices that drug companies need to make on a daily basis; so one afternoon, I handed in my notice and walked away from my job. Needless to say my six month pregnant wife was less than impressed.
I knew I wanted to write and I’d always had a passion for history, so with the goal of writing history books in mind, I enrolled on a masters degree in military history. As part of my course, I needed to write a thesis. I picked the subject of courage and how it was reflected in non-military society. During my research, I came across the story of a soldier who had been awarded a gallantry medal but, the author was insisting, was a bully and all round bad guy. The author was Terry Deary, of Horrible Histories fame, (Horrible Histories is a non-fiction history book series. It has sold millions of copies world wide and was later converted into a successful TV series). Terry had failed to name the soldier, so I emailed and asked if he had the source to the original research. We exchanged a number of emails and hit it off. Our friendship grew and Terry asked me to join him as a full time researcher. I ended up working on Horrible Histories for a number of years, slowly developing from a researcher to an editor. This was the first place I really learned to edit a book for the professional market. I was able to see the importance of ‘story’ and how removing the ‘deadwood’ was essential to the process. We approached each section of each book with one simple question - ‘Is this boring?’ If the answer was yes, then the section was cut.
It was also during this period that I picked up my first book deal. Terry had been asked to write a kid’s history book about William Wallace, the Scottish hero. He said no, but suggested me as an alternative. It resulted in my first deal. In fact, it was a two book deal. Once these books were written and in print, they opened the doors to more opportunities. I wrote a series of kid’s history books about different heroes. I also wrote another series about Scottish heroes and inventors. This success allowed me to land an agent and with his help I pitched an idea for a choose-your-own-adventure series based on battles. This series, called Battle Books, was picked up by Hachette.
It was at this point I decided I’d write that novel. Looking back I do feel embarrassed at my naïveté. OK, I’d had a lot of success writing kid’s history books, but they weren’t full blown adult novels, yet I set off on my novel writing journey the same way as many. I planned out a rough outline and dived into the first chapter. Within the space of a couple of weeks I had four chapters written. Eager to get some kind of validation I asked Terry Deary to read my opening. Less than a day after getting the manuscript he rang me and explained that what I’d written was… well… crap. I was devastated. After all I was a ‘published author’. In the days that followed Terry and I had a number of conversations about writing fiction and he started to open my eyes.
I learn two important lessons. The first was the statement, made in passing by Terry, that ‘readers don’t care about events, they only care about how characters react to events’. This stuck with me and like some writing parasite wriggled deep into my brain. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about that simple statement. In fact, I don’t think it goes too far to say that it changed the way I see writing. The second lesson was more obvious - I didn’t really know anything about writing fiction. Up until that point, I’d been bluffing. In fact, I was mimicking writers I knew and respected, doing what I thought they’d do, but lacking any real deeper understanding as to why and to what end. That needed to change. For the next year, I immersed myself in just about every writing book you can find. I read, made notes, read more, made more notes. I was obsessed.
At first, the art of writing seemed almost mystical, with writers offering vague advice that made no real sense - ‘write from the heart’, ‘write what you know’ etc. All great sound bites but of little real value. Yet, as I read more books I started to see a pattern. I read countless books but two books really crystallised my understanding. The first was Story by Robert McKee. In fact, a copy of this dog-eared book still sits on my desk and is consulted on a regular bases. Story is a screenwriting book but it gave me one essential lesson - the importance of structure. This was the book that managed to pull together all of those threads and lay out structure in a way that made sense. More importantly, I finally grasped how structure could be used in a repeatable manner to write better books. I began to see how I could use, and control, structure to improve the reader’s experience. The second breakthrough came thanks to my scientific background. As a research scientist I’d been more than happy to look through hundreds of published academic papers in search of knowledge. It was no different for writing. The second key was not actually a book, but a paper. It is called Hemingway's Early Manuscripts: The Theory and Practice of Omission. It was written by Paul Smith in 1983 and published in the Journal of Modern Literature. Ernest Hemingway had developed a theory of writing, which today we might call Minimalism. He suggested that by removing elements from a story it strengthens the narrative and engages the reader. This was exactly what we’d been doing with Horrible Histories. It was the final piece of the jigsaw.
The combination of McKee and Hemingway were a revelation. For the first time, not only did novels make sense but I knew how to make novels better. I’d learned a secret that I needed to share.
I’d first edited books back at my time with Horrible Histories but now I wanted to apply my new theories in practice. My wife, who is a novelist, creative writer lecturer and editor, suggested that we should set up an editing business. This would allow me to develop my ideas with real writers and manuscripts; BubbleCow was born. The business allowed me to develop and refine my ideas and within a year I had developed a system that could be applied to any novel. I realised that by tweaking the current understanding of showing, not telling (a well worn and often misunderstood concept) I was able to teach writers to create better novels.
I recently calculated that I’ve edited in excess of 500 novels. These have included award winners, bestsellers and many very poor manuscripts. With each novel I have been able to apply, test and refine my theories. This book is a crystallisation of everything I have learn about writing and editing since I started on my journey. I have tried to shy away from the deep theory, though there are some important concepts included. Instead, I have included the simple to understand techniques that I have developed and taught whilst editing.
What follows is a guide to what I have learned and how you can apply these lessons to become a better writer.
So You Want to Be a Better Writer?
I have good news and bad news, there’s always bad news.
First, the bad news.
For years, teachers (whether at school or in creative writing workshops) have been teaching you the wrong stuff about the best way to write. You’ve been given a ‘bum steer’, as my grandfather used to say. You’ve been sold a pup.
You see, all that stuff about flowery prose, about having a narrator tell the story and about ‘powerful words’, has seeped into your brain and made you a bad writer.
There, I’ve said it.
But, let’s not blame the teachers, like all well-meaning busybodies, they know no better. They are just teaching you what they think is right.
Devastating, I know. But, dry your tears, here comes the good news.
In the following pages, I am going to teach you how to write like a pro. I’ll show you the techniques that famous writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scot Fitzgerald developed and used to create some of the most memorable and original work in the human language. And here’s the best news. It’s easy. (Well, that’s not true, it is always simple, but not always that easy. But I don’t think you were ready to hear that just yet, so let’s stick with easy.)
You don’t believe me?
Ok, here’s a simple technique that you can immediately apply to your writing. Without reading another chapter of this book, this one technique will make you a better writer. Later on, we will delve into the theory behind this technique, but at this moment I just want to show you I’m the real deal. No stinky bull here.
It goes like this…
Take a scene from your book (any scene, I don’t care) and then re-imagine the scene as if the narrator is looking through a camera. Picture the scene in your mind’s eye. See the action and hear the words.
Now… re-write the scene JUST describing what the narrator can see and hear. If the narrator can’t see it or hear it, it stays off the page.
If the narrator can’t see something, it can’t go into the scene. That means, no thoughts and no internal dialogue, just plain old action and conversation; you will be forced to describe the action as it happens.
Perhaps what is more important is what you are forced NOT to write.
If describing only what the camera can see, then two important elements are immediately removed from your writing:
- Internal dialogue.
If you need to pass on a vital nugget of information about the main character’s past, then the only option you have is to do it via dialogue. If you want to tell the reader that the main character is sad, you must SHOW the reader the character is sad (tears etc.) with description of actions. That means the removal of the classic “he was sad” line.
And that’s it.
If you are able to apply this Camera Technique to your work, you will be a better writer. Promise. Just try it.
The Camera Technique is the foundation of the way you will be taught to write in this book. A method of writing that will stimulate emotion in your readers and help produce memorable books. The remainder of this book is a description of how and why this technique works so well. Yet it is not dry theory, instead you will be given detailed and pragmatic examples of how you can apply the theory to your writing.
Writing Books Readers Want to Read
Did you know that just under half the people who start reading a book will not get past the first hundred pages? This means that about half the people who pick up your book will just give up before they reach the mid-point. The flip side, of course, is that about half of your readers will persevere.
But how many of these will finish?
Well in a recent survey, only 38% of readers said they would read to the end of a book, no matter what. This is shocking.
In a world were book prices are lower than ever, access to books, especially digitally, is almost unlimited and readers are prepared to take a gamble on new and unknown writers, your job as a writer is clear.
You must write books that excite and engage readers. If you don’t they’ll just stop reading.
If you are going to write exciting books, you must first understand what makes a reader stop?
Well, some of the obvious candidates play a part. Readers suggest that dislike of the main character plays a part, as does weak writing and a poor plot. Yet, these are not the key reasons readers give up. There is one reason, far beyond any other, that stops people reading.
The single biggest reason people stop reading is that they found the book boring.
This should be like a dagger through your writer’s heart. After all, how can a reader find your story boring? You’ve sweated blood over the plot, thought for countless hours about characters and even written out painstaking back-story for your world and its inhabitants.
The reader must be wrong. Your book’s not boring…
Or is it?
Well here’s a secret; it’s probably your fault (and the fault of those busy body teachers).
You are not doing it on purpose, and you’ve probably never been told you are doing it, but you might just be writing boring books.
Before you start typing out that ‘Dear Gary’ angry email let me explain…
It is not what you are writing but the way you are writing. Writers often become tangled up their book’s story (lets call it plot) more than the way in which the book is written (we’ll call this structure, though it is also technique). Let’s say this again, for many writers the plot is more important than the structure. They’ve been told that ‘story sells’, that readers are looking for ‘a good story’ even that ‘the story will win out’, and this is true, story is essential. But the problem is that with a 100% focus on story, there’s no time to consider structure.
So let’s readdress that balance. A novel consists of two key elements:
1. Story - this is the book’s plot.
2. The way in which the story is told - this is the book’s structure.
Simple so far, so let’s throw in one of those gems that will change the way you look at books.
Story and structure are separate. You can tell the same story in a number of different ways. It is possible to have the same basic story but alter the way in which it is delivered to the reader via the structure of the novel.
But what’s this got to do with boring books?
You see, it may not be that your story is boring. It is far much more likely that the technique you are using to tell your story is intrinsically boring. I am not saying you are a bad writer. I am saying that you haven’t been shown the best way to write non-boring books. This stuff isn’t obvious; you will not know it unless you’ve been shown.
Storytelling is a natural process. We are weaned on stories, our life is told in stories and are brains are hardwired to understand, consume and think in stories. In short, being a storyteller is natural, being a writer requires a new understanding.
So what does this mean in the real world of Amazon reviews?
If you are a great storyteller, but a poor technical writer, you will produce boring novels. On the flip side, if you are a poor storyteller, but a great technical writer you will also produce a boring novel. Remember, our definition of boring is a book a reader fails to finish. If you are to produce a novel that will engage and inspire a reader, you need skills in both story telling and story writing.
Now for more good and bad news.
The bad news first. Storytellers are born, not taught (in my view). Being able to tell a good story is something in your bones. If you can’t tell a good story then stop reading now, I am wasting your time. However, the chances are that if you are even considering writing a novel, then you have the storytelling bug.
Now, here’s the good news… writing technique can be taught.
In fact, unless you have been shown how to write in a way that will engage your reader, then you will be grasping in the dark. We all have some latent knowledge, which we have picked up by reading novels. However, without understanding the principles behind the writing techniques, you will be flying blind.
You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible. – P.D.James
Now… time for a little honesty.
There are many ways to write novels, though the basic principals remain the same. For years, editors and writers have been arguing over the best practices. Some suggest that large amounts of description are essential, others that anything other than the most basic description is unnecessary. What’s more, what has been considered the ‘best’ writing technique has changed over time.
Take MOBY DICK, for example. The book is, rightly, considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. However, it would struggled to be published today in the format it was written. In places, the technique used is simply outdated. You will find not only large narrative ‘lectures’ on a wide variety of topics, including Melville’s thoughts of the taxation of fisherman, but also whole chapters on the debate over whether a whale is a fish or a mammal (SPOILER - it’s a mammal). Yet, Melville remains a great storyteller.There is little doubt that if MOBY DICK were written today, it would be a very different novel.
This all said, there is once strand that ties all novels together, no matter when they were written. The aim of a novel is to tap into an emotional truth and shine a light on human nature. Novel writers, as all artists, are in the business of stimulating emotion. After all, that’s the point of a good story other to highlight a universal truth? When considering the best way to write a novel, you must ask yourself one simple question – what’s the best way to express emotion?
We our looking to create books that truly touch a reader and alter the way they view the world. The ability to find and express emotion, at a level beyond the words, must be the aim of all novels. How do you make the reader feel? Writers must always be striving to discover the truth behind the words and tap directly into the reader’s emotional honesty. Without this drive writing a novel stops being an act of ‘art’ and simply becomes an act of entertainment.
So how is this done?
In a novel format, there are three places emotion can be expressed:
1. The dialogue.
2. The actions.
3. The reader’s mind.
Let’s just dwell on this a moment. It is easy to see how dialogue can express emotion. However, the emotion we elicit via words is the emotion felt of the characters. It is not the deeper, universal emotion, which great novels seek to spark in the reader. Notice the difference? We are looking to stimulate emotion in the reader and this is not the same as emotional characters.
For example, let’s take the novel THE COLOR PURPLE. This novel stirs deep universal emotions. It seeks to stimulate the reader to consider the truths behind the human desire for freedom. This is a universal emotion. A deep truth. So where will a writer find these universal emotions? The answer, ironically is in the mind of the reader. As a writer you are not inventing emotions, you are just trying to stimulate them. That’s what we mean by ‘truthful writing’, that is writing that stimulates a universal truth. The words and actions of a novel are the key to unlocking these emotions.
So how is this done?
The answer, for us, starts with Ernest Hemingway.
The great American writer developed a writing technique he called the Iceberg Theory. It is a theory that has been built upon and developed over the years. It is also the foundation for the writing techniques you will learn in this book. The Iceberg Theory’s foundational concept is that universal emotions exist. These are deep, truthful emotions that are shared by all readers. All readers will understand, at a subconscious level, emotions such as happiness, sadness and the infinite shades between. The goal of the writer is to tap into these emotions. Since these true emotions are understood at a gut level, words attempting to ‘describe’ the emotions are, at best, ineffective. Instead, a writer must use the words and actions of their character to reflect these deeper emotions, in the process unlocking them for the reader.
By showing the reader events, situations and conversations that are born from these emotions, they are, in turn, stimulated in a reader.
This sounds all very airy-fairy but the result is simple.
Think of it this way… have you ever cried when reading a book or watching a film? I am thinking that unless you have a waxy pea-sized heart the answer is yes. Well, that book/film tapped into a true emotion and stimulated this emotion in your mind, hence the tears.
So this sounds complicated, right?
Well, the techniques you need are, actually, simple.
You must focus your energies on developing characters that act in a ‘truthful’ manner. It is these character’s action and dialogue that will stimulate the emotion your reader.
I’ll say it again, since it is the key concept of this book.
You must write in a way that forces the reader to engage with your characters.
You do this by describing to the reader what your characters and doing and saying. The readers will then imagine the scenes in their own mind as they unfold. Brains are weird things and even have trouble confusing thoughts with reality. Therefore, as the scenes unfold, you will experience the emotions that these scenes stimulate.The result is that you must describe (or SHOW) as much as possible. This means less telling the reader what to see and think and more showing of events and words. The lack of TELL creates a ‘space’ between the reader and the novel’s characters; it is in this space that the emotion grows. The beauty of the approach (apart from the fact it works) is that you will NOT need to learn any new, complicated techniques. In fact, for this way of writing to work you will be doing less, not more. You will discover a simple set of rules, that when applied, will bring the Iceberg Theory to life.
In the following chapters we will take a pragmatic look at the way you should be writing. We will look at each element in turn and set out a toolbox of simple techniques you can use in your day-to-day writing.
Engaging Your Reader
A boring book is one that a reader fails to find interesting, but let’s put that differently, a boring book is one in which the reader fails to engage.
The idea of engagement is essential, so I want to reinforce its meaning in this context. Engagement is when a reader is emotionally invested in a book. Remember that feeling when you can’t wait to get back to a novel you are reading? Yeah? Well, that’s engagement. What about the feeling of shock when a character you love is killed off? We are all looking at you J.K.. Well, you’ve guessed it, that’s also engagement.
Sorry, we are on the verge of jargon here, so let’s delve a little deeper before it all gets out of hand.
A reader that is engaged in your book is active.
A reader that is not engaged in your book (thinks it boring) is passive.
The best way to explain the concept of ‘active reading’ is with an example.
Let’s say you are writing a novel about a petty criminal, we’ll call him John. As the main character of your book, John will have a detailed back-story. One of the key elements of this back-story is that John is scared of dogs. The fear of dogs will play an important part in the climax of the story and is, therefore, an important plot point.
The reader needs to know about John’s dog fear. The question is – how do you show the reader that John is scared of dogs?
You have two choices, one will leave the reader actively engaged; the other will produce a passive, bored reader.
The easiest option is to ‘dump’ the back-story via the narrator. This is the process of using the narrator to TELL the reader about the back-story.
You could write this into the first chapter of your book:
‘John had always been scared of dogs. Just the sound of a distant bark would bring him out in a cold sweat. His mother had always insisted this fear had sprung from an incident when he was just a baby. Apparently, a large black Labrador had jumped into John’s pram, nipping his hand whilst snatching a melting ice cream. John wasn’t one for psychology. He just knew he hated dogs.’
Seems OK, right?
Here, the narrator is TELLING the reader about John’s fear of dogs. You have ticked the box entitled ‘tell reader John is scared of dogs’ and you are free to write the more exciting scenes. The problem is that this approach leaves the reader in a passive stance. They simply have to ‘sit back’ as the narrator spoon-feeds the key elements of the plot. The reader is not required to do any work. They are just given the information. They don’t have to piece together any clues, or interpret any actions, or even read between the lines to see what a section of dialogue us really about. It is all there, no confusion.
Well it may seem fine for this one example, but imagine a whole book of this back-story ‘dumping’. Each time the writer needs to TELL the reader about an important plot point, they just dump it into the narrative and tick off the box. This way each plot point, and back-story element, is spoon fed to the reader, who sits back and lets it happen. It quickly becomes, well… boring.
So, if we can’t ‘dump’ the back-story, what’s the option? The second choice is to actively engage the reader. This requires more work, more skill, more thought, but the rewards are astounding. With this approach, the writer doesn’t TELL the reader that John is scared of dogs, instead the writer SHOWS the reader by leaving clues. You must force the reader to work for the plot, sifting the story to find the plot elements that are important.
So what do you do?
Let’s go back to our mate John. If you remember John’s fear of dogs is a major plot point and we need to let the reader know. At first, there’s no need to write a new scene. Just begin by taking a scene from the start of the book and adding in a description of a passing dog. Nothing spectacular, just a dog on the street, blink and you’ll miss it. John sees the dog and acts. You don’t write in any new dialogue, just a few lines of description where John sees the animal and crosses the street to avoid the dog. It is essential that the narrator describes the action but offers no explanation. The narrator must not TELL the reader why John is acting in the way that is described. Now, let’s jump forward. Imagine there’s a scene, at a key point in the book, in which John, having just committed a crime, is running from the police. John knows a short cut down an alley. He turns into the alley and sees a dog. John stops in his tracks, turns around, and chooses to take a different route. He is nearly caught in the process. Again, this is action only. The narrator must not TELL the reader why John is acting, just a description of his actions. Nothing is said about the dog, beyond a description of John’s actions. John sees the dog and reacts. It is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Finally, you write a new scene. In this, John and his partner in crime are in a car. John sees a dog in the nearby park. He looks at the dog and shakes his head, muttering under his breath. His partner asks, “What is it with you and dogs?” And you are off… Now you can write a conversation (it must be via dialogue), in which John talks about his hatred of dogs. Perhaps he relates the ‘ice-cream-in-the-pram’ story, it is up to you. You already have the back-story in your head, how much of this you give to the reader it your choice. What is essential is that the reader learns of John’s fear via conversation, NOT the narrator.
What you are doing here is writing a scene in which you can present dialogue that passes the back-story in a convincing manner. John’s friend has seen John’s reaction to dogs, it would only be natural for it to pop into conversation. This conversation then becomes a vehicle for you to present back-story.
I would like to go one step further.
It would be perfectly acceptable for you, the writer, to never explain John’s fear of dogs to the reader. You could remove completely the conversation and just have John reacting to dogs. The important aspect is that you, the writer, understands John’s fear and how he will react in any given situation.
Have you ever seen the Indiana Jones series of films? In these, Indy often encounters snakes. In Raiders Of The Lost Ark there is this exchange:
Indiana: There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!
Jock: Oh, that’s just my pet snake Reggie.
Indiana: I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ’em!
Jock: Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya!
The viewer is never given a reason for Indy’s fear of snakes. Does the writer, George Lucas, know the reason? Perhaps. Does it matter that the reader is never told? Absolutely not, Indy’s fear, is just a tool to humanize the character and help the viewer to engage. As part of Indy’s back-story it helps the writer to predict how Indy will react in a situation that involves snakes.
The only thing you must NOT do is to have the narrator explain the back-story via narrative summary.
Wow… that’s an import little statement.
For all of this to work, you are relying on one trick of the brain. In day-to-day life we see people acting and hear people speaking, but we have no explanation for their reasons or motivations. Our brain has become very good at seeing meaning in words and actions. At the most basic level, if a man looks angry, is carrying a big stick and running towards us shouting, ‘Die’, then our brain must work out what is going on pretty fast.
This means that whenever your brain sees an event or hears words of conversation it will automatically try to work out the meaning behind the words and actions. This is where the magic happens. It is this action of the brain that you, as a writer, are trying to harness.
If you can write event in which people act convincing but don’t explain why, your brain will do the rest and add in a meaning. The same goes for conversation. Your brain will naturally look for a meaning between the lines. If you write truthfully (as in true to the nature of people), your brain will see deeper meaning. That’s why when John runs from the dog, your brain is trying to work out why.
Another way to think of this is that you are trying to create a distance between the reader and the character.
By not explaining why John is scared of the dog, the reader is forced to fill in the blanks. Perhaps the reader is also scared of dogs and overlays their own fear. Even if they are not scared of dogs, we are all scared of something. Your brain recognizes fear when it sees it. There is something in all of our lives that will, metaphorically, make us cross the street. After all, fear is the deepest of human emotions.
So… here’s the next level. By forcing the reader to recognize fear and look for that emotion in their own memory banks, we are triggering a deeper truth then we can ever express in words. The reader sees John’s fear and actually, at some level, experiences fear.
The key point here is that by altering the way you write, by moving away from narrative summary and towards words and actions, you are forcing the reader from a passive stance into an active stance. When you write in a way the creates a narrative space between the reader and the characters, the reader will ‘lean in’ and engage with your book.
In the most simplistic terms:
•Narrative summary (dumping back-story) = TELL.
•Passing back-story via dialogue and actions = SHOW.
A word of warning here… You are going to learn to use show, don’t tell in a way that moves far beyond anything taught in a creative writing class. Writing in this manner is more than a simple technique, it as a new writing methodology. In fact, show, don’t tell will become your mantra. The application of this one simple phrase is the key to unlocking your novel and creating active prose that sucks the reader into your story. You will find that by simply asking, ‘Am I SHOWING or TELLING?’ you will lift your novel to the highest possible level.
The trick is now to forget the theory and to learn the simple techniques that will allow you to build the Show Don’t Tell Methodology into the very fabric of your writing. It’s this task that we will be addressing in the remainder of this book.
To apply the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology to a wider novel you will need to focus on four key aspects:
4. Narrative Summary.
Characterization will see you learning how to use back-story to determine how characters will react in any given situation. Dialogue will show you how to write speech that creates a narrative space between the reader and your characters. Description will demonstrate the best way to describe events, and narrative summary will give you guidelines at to what you can and can’t have the narrator saying to the reader.