Every writer, at some point, has been told to ‘write what you know.’ The advice has become cliched, but lately it has been the focus of a debate that’s raging in the literary world: should writers (especially cis, straight, white, middleclass ones) be creating characters and stories that are outside of their lived experience? In other words, should certain writers be limited to autobiographical fiction (‘autofiction’)?
This debate continued at this year’s Hay Festival, reported in The Guardian this week, with contributions from authors Rose Tremain, Anna Lloyd Banwo, Kate Mosse, and Damon Galgut. The consensus among experienced authors is that you can ‘write what you like, but do it well,’ which means the following:
But what does it mean for the many emerging authors without the publishing deals or means to do any of the above?
Authors may have the best intentions when creating characters or stories to which they cannot personally relate. However, ALL writers should be aware that we live in more sensitive but less forgiving times. There are those who seek out reasons to be offended (usually on behalf of other people!), and then there are people who, due to a history of oppression, have every right to take issue with the appropriation or misrepresentation of their culture, struggles or experiences. It’s this latter group that every writer must care about most.
Of course, anyone can self-publish anything, so long as they’re willing to accept the backlash from readers who feel the author got it wrong. But writers who aim to get an agent or traditional publisher should steer clear of straying too far from their own experience. Or, if they do, they must scrutinize their work through as honest a lens as possible. Some of the questions they might ask themselves are:
Personally, as a writer, I never step too far outside my comfort zone when creating protagonists and stories. I have written from different perspectives, such as male or older person’s viewpoint, and have included minor characters from other cultures/communities in stories. But overall, my key characters are always people I can easily imagine myself being, and the situations I put them in are always ones I can see myself in. My work is very much rooted in my worldview.
Nevertheless, I did have one potentially tricky moment as an author. I wrote a story that was published in a journal and the publication commissioned artwork for it. The illustrator depicted my protagonist as black, when in my mind they had been white (although the only hint of race, to be fair, was their Irish surname). The problem was that the character was a drug dealer, so I was worried that readers might see the image and accuse me of stereotyping. I'm sure the artist had the best intentions, but I would have preferred to avoid any potential for controversy!
Speaking as a professional editor, it is not always possible to edit within my natural comfort zone. As an editor who is cis, white, middle class, straight, neurotypical and non-disabled (yeah, I am that vanilla!), I am aware of my own limitations when editing for people from cultures or communities that I have no intimacy with. I would certainly decline a project if I felt unable to edit with sufficient sensitivity, but mostly I relish opportunities to enter fictional or nonfictional worlds portraying a different life experience. Some of the most memorable and affecting books I have edited are written by and about people who have lived very different lives to mine, and the objectivity I bring as an ‘outsider’ is often helpful because I am able to identify where the writing can be clearer or more inclusive to readers from a different background to the author.
Ultimately, authors have a responsibility to write the truth. In the case of fiction, this doesn’t mean novels or stories must always be autobiographical; it simply means the world, the situations, the relationships, and the emotions that a writer creates in their fiction must be authentic. And once you have truth on your side, your imagination can run free!
In the past 12 months, I’ve started giving online writing classes via The Writers Workshop as part of my mission to turn writers into skilled self-editors. This month, I delivered an online class called The Art of Descriptive Prose, which was not only a wonderful opportunity to dissect some brilliant descriptive passages from books I love, but also a reminder of an often-neglected function of description: emotional depth.
As an editor, I am sad to say that I rarely come across memorable descriptive prose. Sure, I am often shown a setting, or told what a character is wearing, but these are occasional images or details. But passages of description that take me into the beating heart of a scene, setting or character are rarely well executed.
It’s the writer’s task to select the best narrative mode at every point in the story. Writers may choose between action (characters doing stuff), exposition (narrator explaining stuff), interiority (characters thinking stuff), dialogue (characters talking about stuff), and our topic du jour, description.
Description is the obvious mode of choice when writers need to give the reader critical information about the world of the story (especially important in historical fiction, sci-fi, horror or fantasy), an unusual setting, an important object or, of course, a key character. But when the mode is deployed most powerfully, it works on an emotional level too, either conveying a character’s state of mind and/or eliciting certain feelings in the reader.
In my editorial experience, writers often struggle with the emotional depth of description. It can often result in ‘purple prose’, which is overwritten, overwrought description that often comes off as melodramatic. 'Less is more' when it comes to emotion, and the single most important decision a writer must make is what tone best fits the descriptive moment. Tone is created by vocabulary and syntax (sentence structure), as in the following two examples.
This tone conveys the 'gut emotion' of the character or creates it within the reader. The vocabulary is strong, blunt, literal, shocking, graphic, and sensory. In terms of sentence structure, the visceral favours simple, active sentences, and it can effectively mess with ‘proper’ grammar. How does this passage from Daphne DuMaurier’s story ‘The Birds’ make you feel?
It was pitch dark. The wind was blowing harder than ever, coming in steady gusts, icy, from the sea. He kicked at the step outside the door. It was heaped with birds. There were dead birds everywhere. Under the windows, against the walls. These were the suicides, the divers, the ones with broken necks. Wherever he looked he saw dead birds. No trace of the living. The living had flown seaward with the turn of the tide.
He set to work in the darkness. It was queer; he hated touching them. The bodies were still warm and bloody. The blood matted their feathers. He felt his stomach turn, but he went on with his work. He noticed, grimly, that every window-pane was shattered. Only the boards had kept the birds from breaking in. He stuffed the cracked panes with the bleeding bodies of the birds.
This tone primarily creates gentle (rather than gut) emotion in the reader. Its vocabulary is wistful, nostalgic, poetic, beautiful, and figurative. The style can rhythmic and the sentence structure elaborate, as illustrated by this passage from Joanne Harris’s The Salt Road:
The ocean has many voices. It sings in the voice of the pilot whale; the voice of dolphin; the waves on the beach. It sings in voice of a thousand birds; it cries in the wind that howls through the rocks upon the distant skerries. But most of all, it sings in voice of selkie; those people of the ocean clans that hunt with the seal, and dance with the waves, and, nameless, go on forever.
The voice of selkie is soft and low. At first you may not hear it. At first you may mistake it for the cry of a bird, or the bark of the seal, or the sound of the tide on the pebbles. But listen, and you will realize that each of those sounds is a story—the crunch of pebbles underfoot; the splash of a leaping mackerel; the cry of a sea-eagle hunting above the white rocky shores of the islands.
In addition to the tone, there are several literary devices that help build emotional layers in description. There is no time to get into all of them here, but two common devices are:
Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.
One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
Finally, it’s important to remember that effective description is often about restraint because your reader’s own imagination can be the most powerful tool at your disposal. Stephen King wrote in On Writing that ‘description should begin in the writer’s imagination and end in the reader’s.’ Sage advice indeed. If you trust your reader to build a fulsome image of their own, based on well-chosen details you’ve provided, you make them a co-creator of your book and they will have a stronger stake in your story.
In conclusion, here are few more description tips:
Ecological catastrophes, global pandemics, endless armed conflicts … With the world in a constant state of turmoil, sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing and if it matters even one iota.
If you have ever wondered something similar, we are fellow members of the Existential Crisis Club. The club has welcomed many new members since a spikey little coronavirus forced millions of people to evaluate their lives and what they were doing with them, sparking the so-called Great Resignation. In 2021, 47.8 million Americans quit their jobs, and the quitting continues as people tire of doing something they consider valueless and search for something more meaningful. In Europe in 2022, citizens facing the renewed threat of a cold war are also pondering the point of it all—life, that is.
For some, this existential panic takes a serious toll on their mental health. For me, it’s simply a constant hum of anxiety, like mild tinnitus of the soul that increases in volume every so often before subsiding again into the background: ever present but not debilitating. As a writer, the anxiety is partly about the legacy of my creativity.
Writers (all artists, of course) often suffer a lack of confidence in their value as a creator and the worth of their work in the world, especially when the daily struggles of everyday people are so blatant. What’s the point of asking people to buy our stuff when so few people can afford to properly heat their homes? Maybe they can burn the pages in the grate …
But writers don’t need a global pandemic or enemy invasion to be thrown into existential despair; frequently all it takes is a single rejection from an agent or publisher. Just one ‘no’ can make us question the value of every word we’ve ever written. With a rejection/acceptance ratio of several billion to one, it’s amazing any writer has any self-belief at all.
So, how do we as writers deal with such crises of self-worth? As far as I’m concerned, we could all take a leaf from the Stoics’ book. Here are a few basic tenets of Stoicism to keep in mind when the going gets tough existentially speaking.
1. Focus on what you can control. That means ignoring the vagaries of the publishing industry and concentrating on putting words on paper. Continuing to take action is crucial here; simply giving up with a shrug and a night of Netflix is not being Stoic … that’s just being lazy.
2. Be virtuous. Okay, this might seem like a stretch, but stay with me. Writers can spread happiness through their writing. So what if Harper Collins gives you the bum’s rush? Sharing your work with your friends, family or other forums makes your work valuable, and being an active and generous member of a writing community will help you and your fellow writers feel seen, heard and valued.
3. Limit your ego. Remember that A) Rejection is 99 times out of 100 about the rejecter, not the rejected, and B) You are not entitled to success because, as noted in point 1, there are too many variables to contend with. Behaving like a moody teenager when you don’t get what you want or being jealous of another writer’s success isn’t a good look, and you’ll only perpetuate your existential misery … follow point 2 instead!
4. Build resilience. For Stoical writers, this means managing your emotions and channelling them into action. In his book on modern Stoicism, The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes: “Under pressure and trial we get better—become better people, leaders, and thinkers. … See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path is now a path. What once impeded action advances action.” In other words, learn to see setbacks as opportunities. How we feel about rejection and our self-worth (indeed, everything in life) is ultimately a choice, but that type of decision-making is a learned skill for many of us, so be patient and practice resilience daily.
5. Practice gratitude. Ah yes, where would the pep talk be without the platitude of gratitude! This is hard, but try to find things to celebrate every day on your writing journey, from the smallest achievements to the biggest successes. Perhaps you’re simply grateful for the fact you own a laptop! Recognise the fact that writing is a privilege and not everyone has the luxury of sitting down each day for an hour to work on their opus. Don’t abuse that privilege by giving into bitterness or self-pity.
Finally, when I’ve got my head firmly up my butt in a bout of existential angst, I remember that D.H. Lawrence said it best: “Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.”
For some, this quote might make matters worse. For me, I am soothed by the idea that we must simply enjoy life in the moment without the expectation of reward. After all, if tomorrow never comes, none of our work will matter, period.
There are so many ways to tell a story, be it fiction or nonfiction. But when it comes to telling true stories, the decision is especially important ... after all, you're dealing with real people's real lives. Quite the responsibility!
A range of nonfiction projects cross my desk during the course of a year. While they are always interesting in their own ways, I sometimes wonder if they may have been better had the writer taken a different approach.
There are plenty of factors that can influence the choice of genre, but the writer must first determine their objectives in telling their personal story. If the writer is aiming for publication, there are two motivations they should always avoid:
These motivations are too inward-looking and ignore the very existence of a reader. Instead, the writer needs to ask one critical reader-focused question at the outset: What do I want my book to do?
Reader-focused objectives include:
All of these objectives may play a role, but identifying a primary objective will help you figure out the right approach to writing your content, be it:
If the thought of writing a no-holes-barred memoir might be too painful, think about framing your story as an inspirational book that can focus on the positive aspects of your journey. If you have learned lots of life lessons on your journey, perhaps an instructional book might be more effective. If you feel a strong sense of injustice about your experience, consider writing a persuasive book with a powerful call to action.
Picking the right path is a great first step. The next challenge is writing something powerful. Each of the approaches (narrative, expository, persuasive) require different writing skills, which the first-time writer should spend time developing before they dive into writing their book. They can do this by:
Your story is important, so it's vital that you tell it as well as possible so that it can go out into the world and fulfil its mission ... and in doing so become a real book with spine!
I love short stories. A great short story is a short, hot shower, while a great novel is a long, luxurious bath, and both are equally satisfying to me.
However, the short story is an underappreciated literary form in Western culture, perhaps even more so than poetry. I blame the big publishing houses for marginalising the short story by actively discriminating against its creators, blatantly refusing to accept submissions of short story collections.
“Too niche,” they claim.
“Bullshit,” I say.
The reason so many people don’t read the short form is that the publishing industry perpetuates the myths that A) size matters, and B) short stories are too “literary” to have mass appeal. But, in actual fact, audiences LOVE short-form storytelling. They love it in the form of a beloved childhood storybook; they love it in the form of the many feature films adapted from short stories; they love it in the form of the annual Christmas tearjerker ad campaigns; they love it in the form of episodes of their favourite shows. The public would love short story collections too, if only the publishers gave readers the chance to discover them.
This unjustified literary prejudice is depressingly prevalent among new writers, too. Most of the writers I meet are working on full-length projects, be it a memoir or a novel, because they either think the short story too trivial or too intimidating. On that matter of triviality, those writers could not be more wrong. But when it comes to writing, the short story is certainly no easy option.
Why are short stories so tough? In my view, they are hard because the artform requires the author to NOT write. The short story needs restraint because it is most powerful when it is economical and undiluted, and when its ending is not neatly resolved but left open. Trickiest of all, the focus of a story must be narrow but its resonance universal.
Turning out a first draft of a short story might be quicker than a first draft of a novel, but it still requires a lot of work to hone it ... as the philosopher Cicero so eloquently put it, “If I had longer, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Nevertheless, I believe that writers should embrace the artform for many reasons, of which here are my top three:
1. A first draft of a short story can be finished quickly. This is great for new writers because finishing a first draft of anything is a huge confidence booster.
2. The short form is perfect for experimenting. It is a great vehicle for the dark, the weird, and the crazy because the writer doesn’t have to sustain it for long. It allows the writer to let their imagination loose and explore new voices and styles without committing to the long, exhausting marathon of novel-writing.
3. A story is more likely to give a writer their first publishing credit. There are thousands of publishers of short stories but relatively few for full-length work. With a couple of story publications or story contest victories under their belts, writers stand a far higher chance of attracting an agent or publisher for their novels.
Here are my recommendations for initiating yourself into the wonderful world of the short form:
Look out of my Short Story Study Group launching via The Writers Workshop in 2022! We will read and analyse short stories and use them to inspire our own short-form creativity.
On October 18, I participated in the annual Novel Slam, held as part of Sheffield's Off the Shelf lit fest. But until 30 seconds before I got up on stage to deliver my novel's first line and 1-minute pitch, there was no way I was going through with it.
I absolutely detest being front-and-centre. As I often tell my editing clients, "I am not the person on the stage; I am the one in the lighting booth." I have always had a fear of performing. I recall the occasions as a child when I had to sing or act and hating every single second, mostly in contrast to my peers who seemed to revel in the attention and thrill of performing. Fortunately for me on Monday, I had two things in my favour:
1. A friend who would not let me back out
2. A surname that put me last in the pitching order
Both of these helped me conquer my fear in the moment and put myself out there. And man, did I sweat! But I am so pleased I did it, given that I was voted into the final eight entrants by the Novel Slam audience and then placed second by the panel of esteemed judges. Hurrah for validation! The experience has relit the fire in my belly, and I'm more determined than ever to get my novel published.
So, what did I learn from this little adventure?
1. Find a friend who will hold you accountable and (if necessary) shame you into putting yourself out there, be it as a contest entrant or performer of your work.
2. Understand why you're afraid to put yourself out there. For me, the reason is usually imposter syndrome, which is a decades-old affliction. However, since hitting 40, I care very little about others' judgement, so my reason no longer holds water. If you understand your reason for hiding, there will be plenty of advice online about how to overcome your fear.
3. The writing community is incredibly supportive. Wherever you are, you'll be part of a community that's in it together. Sure, you'll find a few oddballs, but mostly other writers have got your back and want you to succeed. Knowing this makes putting yourself out there much easier.
4. Be prepared! I showed up to the event not expecting a pitching slot, but I went armed with my materials anyway. I'm not suggesting you carry your manuscript everywhere on the off-chance, but I would suggest having your elevator pitch committed to memory. You simply never know who might want to hear it! It's a heck of a lot easier to put yourself out there one-to-one, too.
5. Putting yourself out there is the job of a serious author. There is no choice, so suck it up! If you don't put yourself out there, your just a guy or gal in a room with a laptop.
All this said, my Achilles heel is social media. The very idea of Instagram fills me with dread and a weariness I cannot describe, and Twitter just irritates me. But social media unavoidable because its the most efficient way of putting yourself out there, so I guess that's my next challenge--one that can wait till 2022.
I recently discovered that my name is literary in more than one way. I have long known that my first name was invented by RD Blackmore for his Cornish heroine Lorna Doone. But I didn't know till last week that my surname also has a literary association. 'Mrs Partington and her mop' is a character used in early 20th-century satirical prose and plays as symbolic of futile conservativism, the ineffectual resistance to the rising tide of progress. This discovery prompted some thought about the importance of naming characters.
Parents often find naming their child a little tricky; it's a big responsibility, after all. Clearly, it's a matter of personal taste, but it's very often influenced by current celeb trends (wait for the boom in Lilibets) and/or historic connotation (Adolf, Oswald or Enoch will always raise eyebrows). Like a parent, the author must also find the right names, but for a whole cast of characters, which is not as straightforward as you might think.
The author must take into account:
1. Convention. Genre fiction often has naming conventions (e.g., you're unlikely to find an Elf King named Bob Jones). Similarly, fiction set in the real world will be populated by characters with everyday names, unless their parents are particularly eccentric or they give themselves a more interesting nickname.
2. Time/Place. Research the setting of your story so that you don't call your heroine 'Mary' if they're French, or 'Kylie' if they're born in the 1800's!
3. Readability. A character might have a hard-to-pronounce birth name, but try giving them a nickname that's easy for the reader.
4. Memorability. This is particularly important in a large cast of characters. Avoid using names for other characters that sound similar to your protagonist's (e.g., Lorna, Lauren, Lara, Laura).
5. Connotation. What does the name tell us about the character? A skinny, diminutive hero unironically named 'Hercules' will be hard to take seriously. But a well-chosen name can be an effective way to create an impression of, or offer insight into, a character.
Dickens is king of character naming; so much so that his names have become bywords for archetypes in our culture, e.g., Miss Havisham and Ebenezer Scrooge. But often the names he assigns are a bit obvious, caricaturing the heroes and villains and patronising the reader.
Other writers have used a character's name as a literary device. Again, it's hard to ignore the protagonist of Lolita: Humbert Humbert is a pseudonym adopted by the narrator that adds to his unreliability. Mystery writer Colin Dexter withholds the first name of Inspector Morse as a way to give the protagonist his own air of mystery before revealing it to be Endeavour, which is a suitably impressive name. But less accomplished writers often fall into the trap of using a name that's too self-consciously clever or quirky, forgetting that plain can be just as effective. Names don't get much plainer than Harry Potter!
Inspiration for names can come from any source: nature, mythology, the art world, popular culture, the writer's own life, a directory ... the list goes on. Sometimes the right name exists from the start; at other times, it will reveal itself to the author as he/she gets to know the character during the writing process. But if you're truly stuck, help is available via online name generators, including one in the writing programme Scrivener.
Now, I must go. There's a tsunami that needs my attention!
In a recent class that I delivered online about self-editing, I touched only briefly on the subject of character development. It is, of course, a vast subject, and there is so much to say. In later posts, I'll analyse some characters, but first, I want to share my checklist of what makes a compelling protagonist.
'Compelling' is the best descriptor, I think, since it does not mean the character must always be likable. But however hard the protagonist may be to like, it’s imperative that the reader is rooting for them by the end of the book.
For me, a character is compelling if they are sympathetic, expressing a unique worldview, and doing things that are admirable.
First, what does it mean to be sympathetic? I believe that this simply means that we understand why they are who they are, and the reason they want certain things. We might not agree with the protagonist’s actions or ambitions, but we can see where they’re coming from. This understanding means that we feel sympathy for the protagonist throughout their journey, even when they are getting their just deserts. This is a core quality of the classic antihero, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but I think it should also be a factor for every kind of protagonist.
Sympathy (or, often, empathy) stems from vulnerability. Think about the folk on social media who only present their lives as a Shangri-la of splendiferousness … annoying, right? Vulnerability is what makes people likeable, and most of us root for the underdog because we can identify with his/her/their fears, weaknesses, or disadvantages.
For some, this might be about the character's 'flaw', but I’m not too keen on the word because that is too value-laden. Most vulnerabilities are not the protagonist’s fault, per se; they are simply the outcome of their personality (e.g., fear or rejection), physical affliction (e.g., serious illness), cognitive or educational disadvantage (e.g., illiteracy), or social factor (e.g., homelessness). Whatever their vulnerability, the protagonist’s journey should be focused on overcoming it, turning it to their advantage, or coming to terms with it.
Having an unusual perspective lifts a protagonist from forgettable to compelling, and sometimes into the category of controversial. I’m thinking here of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Whatever you think of his actions, the way he ‘justifies’ them is incredibly articulate and highly challenging to the normal worldview. You don’t have to create anyone as morally bankrupt as Nabokov’s antihero to present an unusual perspective, but the greatest writers (and ergo their protagonists) are often pseudo philosophers or anthropologists who have something groundbreaking or surprising to say about the human-centred universe (think George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler).
Of the four components, this is probably the hardest for writers to incorporate because it requires of them the ability to see the world differently also … or identify people who do. I based a key character in my novel on the late Bill Hicks, my favourite comedian, because I love his acerbic, cynical take on politics and consumerism.
Finally, I believe great protagonists are admirable in how they behave. This might involve a grand act of selfless heroism, a quiet determination in the face of overwhelming odds, or anything in between. In essence, the character must do something that we can see is very difficult for them and which makes us wonder how we would act in similar circumstances. Again, with reference to antiheroes, they often redeem themselves with an act of great self-sacrifice or humility, or they deal with defeat in a way that endears us to them in the end.
There are many other qualities you can throw into the mix, but I feel that these three comprise the base ingredients. I’m curious to know what your core qualities for great protagonists are, too, so share them here, and let's improve the recipe!
What makes a book, film, poem, painting, or song a 'classic'? I'm talking about that intangible something that makes a work of art something that generation after generation goes back to. In my view, the answer lies in the endless interpretability of its theme, which is an aspect of writing craft often overlooked.
'So, what's it about then?'
We lovers of books with spine can't wait to tell someone else about what we're reading. In a nutshell, we have two ways of describing a book: by plot or theme. Let's take a book I read recently, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler:
The thematic description of The Parable is, of course, MY reading of the book; it may not have been what Butler intended. Each reader (and each generation) brings their own perspective and life experience to a book (or any work of art) because interpretation is not about taking meaning out; it's about putting meaning in.
But if every reader brings their own interpretation to the table, should a writer even bother being intentional about a theme? IMO, yes. A theme adds depth and cohesion to a narrative. Theme is like a spice that infuses the book; you may not be able to identify the spice, but it adds a memorable flavour to the writing that will linger with the reader.
What Makes a Good Theme?
Too often I see a theme described in concepts so huge that they lose all meaning: love, loss, identity, courage, and so on. I believe that a great theme is simultaneously universal and personal.
Take the film of the Wizard of Oz as an example. A classic, I think we can all agree. As a classic film, it can be viewed through many critical lenses (Feminist, Marxist, Queer, etc.), each bringing its own interpretation of theme. But there is also a clear, intentional theme: There's no place like home. This theme is both general (everyone would agree) but also specific (we agree based on our own experience of 'home').
'There's no place like home' is what I call a 'thesis' theme because it wants you, the viewer, to agree that 'home' is the best place for you. The plot of the film is formulated to prove the thesis, adopting a definite stance. One sees this kind of theme often in kids' films that attempt to impart a moral lesson, as well as the many early Hollywood movies that border on propaganda.
The more interesting theme is what I call a 'conundrum' theme. At the centre of the narrative is a moral dilemma that the protagonist is dealing with, a dilemma that the reader is also invited to explore. If Wizard had been less didactic, the theme might have been: 'What if you had to choose between leading a small, black-and-white life in the bosom of your family, OR live a large, adventurous, technicolourful life with your dearest friends?'
If you are a writer struggling to identify your theme, start with your protagonist. Identify what their 'journey' is and think about all the conundrums that arise from that. Pick just one that interests you most and develop it through the narrative as you revise your manuscript. You don't have to be heavy handed! But with a little intentionality, you can create a story that both entertains your readers AND challenges them to think about themselves and/or the world ... now that's a book with spine!
As an editor, I get deep joy from weeding out errors and helping writers elevate their prose. What I enjoy less is the techy bit, which isn't about what's on the page but how it's presented. I know most of you understand that, judging by the state of some manuscripts I get! But, if you present a chaotic manuscript, your editor will not only curse you, they will likely charge you for time spent reformatting, especially if they charge by the hour.
So, if you intend to share your work with an editor, agent, or publisher, use this bare-minimum checklist.
1. Use black, size 12 Times New Roman font throughout. I know it's dull, but if you're worried that the font will make your book boring, you might have bigger problems than you realize! Select the entire text and then click on the TNR font; this will ensure any rogue fonts are banished. Don't forget the footnotes!
2. Do NOT indent the first paragraph of each chapter, after a subhead, or after a list.
3. Indent all other paragraphs to 1cm. NEVER use tabs or the spacebar for indentation!!!! (The overuse of exclamation points is justified here). To properly indent, highlight all of your text and then find the paragraph spacing menu on the HOME menu of Word (indicated with red arrow). In the drop-down menu, click "line spacing options", which will bring up this box below. Choose the "first line" option and set the size to 1cm (or go with the default of 1.27cm).
5. Use double or 1.5 line spacing (see above box) so it's easier to read.
6. NEVER use more than one paragraph break to separate paragraphs. If you want a slight gap between paragraphs, set the paragraph spacing to 6 or 8 pt (see box above). N.B. Gaps between paragraphs are not common in fiction or creative nonfiction.
7. Use single spaces after each sentence. Many people were taught to double space, but that's no longer necessary (in fact, it's actively frowned upon). To easily fix every double space, go to "Replace" on the HOME menu of Word (see pic). Click to bring up the box below.
In the top long box, press the spacebar twice, and in the bottom box, press it once. Then click "Replace All".
8. Run the basic Word Editor programme for spelling and grammar errors. Of course!
9. Use heading styles if your chapters have several subheads (common in nonfiction). If you know how to use heading styles in Word, hurrah! If not, at the very least, use your font to indicate a style for each level. For example, font 20 for chapter titles and font 16 for main headings. Your editor will then apply the heading styles and use them to create a table of contents.
10. One document only! Don't expect your reader/editor to piece it together themselves!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith