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Results of the Past Search Prize for Non-Fiction competition

Members and guests of Norwich Writers’ Circle were delighted to welcome back Gareth Davies, proprietor of Poppyland Publishing, to adjudicate the entries for the Past Search Prize for Non-Fiction.

Gareth said that he was fascinated by all three entries, proposals or early drafts for a 5,000 word pamphlet exploring a historical event in East Anglia.  The entries were:

  • The Great Flood of August 1912 by Paul Taylor
  • The Yellow Caravan by Juliet Webster
  • The Martyrdom of Thomas Bilney by Iain Andrews
  • The Sawmill in the Park by Barré Funnell
  • Of Those in Peril on the Seas – the story of inventor Captain Manby

Gareth expressed his views on each of the entries before announcing the winners. Joint second were Paul Taylor and Iain Andrews.

First prize went to Juliet Webster with her story of three North Norfolk sisters in 1912, who set off on an adventure to tour the county in a horse drawn caravan.  Drawing on original family source material, Juliet has spun a charming tale of endeavour and innocence, only two years before the world will be shattered by war.  Juliet will now work closely with Gareth to produce a Poppyland pamphlet.

Competitions Secretary Marian Pearson thanked Gareth for this hard work in judging the entries and the evening finished with light refreshments.

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Self-editing Workshop

On Tuesday 5th February Kathy, owner of Fine Tune Your Fiction, a professional critique service, ran a workshop on self-editing.

The workshop focused on editing content rather than spelling and grammar. The areas we focused on were:

  • Show vs Tell
  • Tightening Point of View
  • Tightening the Narrative

Kathy went through each area:

‘Show’ vs ‘Tell’

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’

– Chekov

What is the difference between showing and telling?

Telling does what it says on the tin – it tells the reader something, usually in a purely descriptive manner with no emotional attachment. Showing, on the other hand, is a more immersive experience for the reader, allowing them to feel and sense what is going on.

It might help to think of showing as firsthand experience, and telling as second hand experience, at least as far as your reader is concerned.

When should you ‘show’ and when should you ‘tell’?

Telling engages the readers intellect. It is useful when you want the reader to take in information to carry with them through the story.

Conversely, ‘showing’ engages a readers imagination and emotion. It helps them feel what is happening first hand. Any time you want the reader to have an emotional connection to what is happening, you need to show.

‘By this I don’t just mean making the reader feel happy and sad at the appropriate time. Of course you do, but there are other ways this applies.’

– Kathy

Kathy went on to discuss effective characterisation:

‘Your reader has to get to know your characters. The only way to do this is to show them. It’s not enough to tell them “John was shy”. Show them what shyness looks like for John, allow them to experience him. This is something that will take time to build and you can only achieve it through consistent showing.’

Then we moved onto showing atmosphere.

‘It’s not enough to write something like “She ran into the creepy house and was scared”. It doesn’t give the reader anything to go off of. You need to show what it is that makes this house so creepy, and also how this character reacts when scared’

– Kathy

Kathy then explained ways to identify ‘telling’ sentences:

  1. Look out for adjectives. Adjectives are nearly always telling.
  2. Looking out for emotional qualifiers i.e. ‘She said angrily’. If you’ve shown your scene well enough, you won’t need it.
  3. Describing sensory experiences i.e. ‘John smelled freshly baked bread’. This is not a first hand experience for the reader – instead let the reader smell the bread too.

Then it was time for the first exercise or the workshop. Attendees were tasked with going through their extracts and underlining any instances of ‘telling’. Then they were challenged to re-write them to show everything they ‘told’ instead.

Tightening Point of View

‘Whenever you write a story, you are telling it from somebody’s perspective … How we perceive things is very personal. We all see, experience, and describe things very differently. You have to take this into account when you are writing.’

– Kathy

Kathy then explained three things that affect how writers describe a scene:

  1. Is this how the perspective character would describe them? What is their frame of reference?
  2. Is this what the perspective character would focus on?
  3. How does their mood affect how they describe things?

‘These things overlap. You need to scrutinise every word you use and everything you choose to describe. Ask yourself – is this what the perspective character would focus on? Is this how they would describe it? Does it match their frame of reference? A sixteen year old girl and a ninety year old man are unlikely to focus on and describe things the same way. On top of all that you have to consider their mood. We describe things differently and focus on different things when we’re angry, or sad, or happy.’

– Kathy

Participants were then given their second exercise: go through the ‘showing’ passages again and scrutinise every word, asking those three questions.

Tightening the Narrative

This is sometimes referred to as ‘proportioning’.

‘It’s all about removing the extraneous details … sometimes you show things you don’t need to, or repeat yourself’

– Kathy

Are you showing in detail how a character opens a door? Readers know how doors work – you can simply write ‘He walked through the door’ or ‘He left the room’ and the reader can fill in the step in between.

‘I once read work where the writer described their character getting dressed – how they put on their socks and then underwear, then their jeans and shirt and so on. This was completely unnecessary. When a reader gets to descriptions of clothes, they’re probably going to figure they’re wearing underwear, assuming they care at all. Most likely, they don’t.’

– Kathy

Kathy also explained that it applies to other areas such as:

  • Using dialogue tags that are obvious i.e. “Where are we going?” she asked. We know from context that this is a question, so you do not need to tell the reader again.
  • Repeating yourself when creating similes and metaphors. Example: ‘It was as dark as the deepest ocean, a darkness so thick it enveloped everything.’ The second line is basically exactly the same as the first, just with different words. They’re describing that deep, dark ocean again. If you want to build on your simile/metaphor to create a more vivid mental image, try focusing on a different aspect such as ‘It was as dark as the deepest ocean, and silent as a tomb’.

The final exercise of the evening was to read through the showing lines a third time and check for redundancies and repetition.

Kathy finished by offering some general tips for catching mistakes:

  • Read your work aloud. Sentences that are hard to say are often hard to read.
  • Try reading aloud passages how you want the reader to process them – if you have fast paced passages, try reading them quickly. The same goes for slower ones, or passages that fluctuate between the two. If you can’t do it, chances are your reader can’t either and you may need to edit some sentences further.
  • Try reading lines of dialogue how your characters are saying them – if they’re shouting, or laughing etc. If you can’t, then your character can’t either. 
  • Use text-to-voice software. Even when you read out loud, you still risk missing mistakes because you know what the words should be. Text-to-voice software will read everything exactly as you wrote it. You can therefore listen out for incorrect words that both you and your spellcheck missed. Frees ones include:

If you own a Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/sendtokindle 

Online: https://www.naturalreaders.com/online/

  • If you’re struggling with a ‘showing’ scene, try listening to appropriate music while you write. For example, if you’re working on a sad scene, listen to sad music, if you’re writing a battle scene, try fast paced or ‘angry’ music (such as death metal, or Ride of the Valkyries). It will help put you in the right mindset to think of appropriate language. If you’re easily distracted, try music without lyrics. You can listen to these for free on services like YouTube or Spotify.
  • Do you often forget to consistently take into account the setting/environment of your scene? Try playing some appropriate ambient sound effect tracks to help you immerse yourself . You can access anything from forest sounds, to ocean waves, rain on a car roof, to city sounds, and even space ship noises – all for free on YouTube. Play them as you write the scene. A channel which provides a lot of different ones is called ‘Relaxing White Noise‘. You can also find plenty more simply by searching for the sounds you want such as ‘haunted house sounds‘ or ‘crickets‘.

Word clouds can also be useful to check the overall balance of characters and themes. There are plenty of free generators too. They work by scattering words into an image/shape, with the most commonly used word at the centre in the biggest font. With this in mind, you want major characters, themes, and possibly settings to be the largest text. If they aren’t, you may need to look at the manuscript again.

‘It’s not totally foolproof … but it can be useful to see at a glance what words crop up the most. It is especially useful if you are juggling a multitude of characters. You want the biggest name to be your protagonist, but if a secondary or background character is the most prominent, you may need to cut back some of their scenes, or show more major characters more prominently. The same can go for important themes or settings.’

– Kathy

The NWC would like to thank Kathy for guiding us through the editing process. Everyone seems to have benefited from it.

If anyone is interested in hiring Kathy to critique their work, you can visit her website: www.finetuneyourfiction.com or email her on kathy@finetuneyourfiction.com. Kathy has offered to give NWC members a 15% discount.

Lastly, we’d like to thank our members and guests for coming and actively participating in the workshop. It went far better than we ever could have imagined. We hope you enjoyed it, and look forward to seeing you at out next meeting.