Friday, 5 August 2016

The Basics

This blog's been silent for a number of reasons but one of the main reasons is that I wanted to talk about writing and I've had nothing to say. Or rather, lots of things to say, but none that I could voice well enough to be worth reading. There's a huge amount of advice out there - it would be a mistake on several levels to add something that offered nothing of great value to the pile.

So I am going to start by talking about rugby.

For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, rugby basically comes down to running with a ball through a line of fifteen Goliaths who are allowed to stop you with just about everything short of weaponry. 

This is obviously quite difficult.

There are a number of ways this can be accomplished. One can of course simply meet them head on and triumph by being more brutal than they can be; the purists' approach. It is also possible to beat the defence with breathtaking agility and speed, or by incredibly accurate passing and kicking, both of which can suddenly create space where there is none. Most fans love to see this; most sports fans are hooked to the adrenaline rush that comes from surprise success.

The best teams though don't rely on either method to win. What marks out the best as different - other than a lot of silverware - is their accuracy. What they do often looks breathtaking but on closer inspection is actually quite simple. They don't rely on incredible athleticism (although they have it). They rely on doing the simple things better than anyone else. They rely on getting the basics right.

And this is where I can start talking about writing. Do the basics right.

As I said, there is a huge amount of advice out there. If every list of dos and don'ts for writers was a pie, we'd all die of heart attacks. Most of it is quite good but there is a risk that with all this information and little tricks of the trade, we forget the basics. Its easy too to let creativity wild and in the process, distract us from getting the basics right.

Now I'm not saying its enough to get the basics right all by itself. If you get the basics wrong though, you lose. Another draft bites the dust. There's worse things of course but life is too short to go around chucking away drafts.

Here's the basics as I see them:

Write clear and easily understood prose - Ask yourself if an eleven year old could understand it. If they can't with someone explaining the difficult words, you could have probably made it clearer. Unclear writing is slow writing and your ideas are too cool to make people wait for them.

Describe your events, places and people in the way your readers experience them - Use the five senses. Use metaphors people understand. Use the physical reactions to emotions rather than just naming the emotions. 

Have your characters act sympathetically, interestingly and in a way that makes sense - If characters have readers going "Wtf", "Boring" or "Not Cool", the reader will probably stop reading. You can get away with a lot of frowned upon stuff when writing a character but these three are non-negotiable.

Have events link to each other in a way that is consistent and increases interest - Plotting is perhaps the most difficult part of writing; it is certainly the bit most likely to get tangled in complexity. Getting those two things wrong though is another good way to stop the reader from reading.

There are a lot of other things that usually happen in a good book. Editing for one. Research and Ideas. I haven't mentioned Foreshadowing at all. There's helpful little tricks like the Tags and Traits recommended by Jim Butcher.  And on and on and on and - hey, this isn't the Gaviscon advert. There is a reason why there's so much advice out there. There's so many ways to improve your writing.

These things turn good books into fantastic books though. Doing the basics well gives you a good book (with an edit) and without doing the basics well, there is no potential for a good book. And the writers out there with the longest, most successful careers? They're the ones who have the basics down. Not the people with the amazing ideas or the heartstoppingly beautiful prose or the incredible intricate and interesting worlds. They might write some fantastic books, but the people writing readable popular books year after year after the people who have the best basics.

So that is my advice to any fledgling writers out there, including myself. Never lose sight of the basics of writing. Never stop trying to make them better, never stop trying to make them second nature. Because being good at the basics is how people are good at anything.


  1. Thanks for the link to Jim Butcher. And great post.

    1. Thanks for reading Anya.

      There's a nice little hub of Jim Butcher's comments on writing here -