New writers often …

New writers often get ahead of themselves when it comes to writing a novel. They want to know how to pitch an editor or agent long before they have even completed their manuscript. It’s a good idea to know how to write a synopsis regardless of this, simply because it keeps you focused on the story – you could pin it up near your desk to remind yourself of the outline to help you straying into other territory. Free-writing is a useful exercise but it is best kept as a separate exercise, otherwise you may end up wasting valuable time. Some writers free-write entire novels, allowing their imagination to sweep them along. For some this works, but most writers need some sort of initial structure. The synopsis can really help in this way.

Basically the synopsis of a novel is a summary of the main character’s motivations and actions in the order in which they appear in the book. A synopsis is always written in the present tense.

What agents and editors normally do when they receive a submission is read the pitch letter, read the first three chapters, then turn to the synopsis.

The pitch letter is to pique their interest, tell them the story, the genre and the main selling points of the book and a bit about you, the author

  • the first three chapters are to show you can write, create character and atmosphere, and hook your reader into your plot
  • the synopsis shows how you develop the story into a satisfying plot


The purpose of your synopsis is to:


  • explain the structure of the novel – this is the context in which your synopsis will be read.
  • reassure the agent or editor that the rest of the book is in safe hands – that you have promise as a writer and know what you are doing


Basic Layout

There are no set rules for presenting a synopsis, but if you follow these guidelines you should produce a synopsis that is easy to read and looks professional.


  • 500-1,500 words


  • header (your name, the title of your book, synopsis), e.g. Judy Cartwright/ Lost Girl/ SYNOPSIS
  • footer (page number)
  • front page (your contact details, including email, mobile and land line numbers, title of the book, SYNOPSIS in big letters)
  • wide margins (2.5cm all round)
  • double- or 1.5-spaced
  • not justified
  • 12-point character size (any bigger and you will seem unintelligent – trust me! – any smaller and you will appear obsessional and nit-picking)


  • choose a serif font (one with fancy bits, like Times New Roman) for a classic easy-to-read text – this is why newspapers use serif fonts
  • choose a sans serif font (very plain, like Arial) if you want to appear risky and modern – but remember you will be sacrificing readability to some extent
  • DON’T use a fancy font of any kind, ever


  • don’t write it in same style as your novel; it’s not your novel; it’s a plan of your novel; it needs to read like the summary of a novel in a book review, as follows:
  • in the present tense
  • in third person
  • from an omniscient point of view
  • unembellished


  • don’t divide the synopsis into chapters
  • do reflect the structure of the book, e.g. include flashbacks where they occur in the plot, not where they would occur in real time
  • tell the WHOLE STORY, including the denouement (the people reading your synopsis are professionals, not punters, and they need to know how it ends)
  • refer to each character by name and be consistent, i.e. don’t refer to Dr Eileen Gibson as Eileen, Dr Gibson, the doctor, Ellie; choose one and use it throughout the synopsis
  • capitalise each character’s first appearance in the synopsis, e.g. EILEEN, to signal that you are introducing a new character, then revert to lower case Eileen for future appearances
  • signal from whose point of view you are writing with the acronym POV in brackets after the character’s name, e.g. EILEEN (POV)
  • if you switch POV, signal this in the same way


What’s in the synopsis?


  • the summary paragraph
  • a character profile for each of your main characters
  • the sequence of actions and scenes that make up the plot

There are several different ways of putting these three elements together. Ideally you start with your summary paragraph, then begin working through the plot, inserting a fresh character profile every time you introduce another main character. Some people find it easier to list the main character profiles after the summary paragraph and then launch into the plot.

9 handy hints

  • avoid abstract words (e.g. struggle, understanding, resolution)
  • use adverbs and adjectives sparingly
  • read TV listings and book reviews for style and thumbnail character descriptions (e.g. ‘Judy is a vain yoga instructor who steals other women’s husbands’ – ‘Henri is an obsessive, impotent safety officer’; ‘Richard is a secretive, chain-smoking canteen supervisor at a college.’)
  • don’t try to impress – write as if you are writing a letter to a friend
  • explain the story to a friend, encourage them to ask questions, record the conversation
  • practice with other novels – ignoring the back cover blurb, write a synopsis of your favourite books
  • test-drive your synopsis with people who haven’t read the book, and use their feedback for your rewrite
  • swap manuscripts with a friend and write each other’s synopses…
  • work out an ‘elevator pitch’ for your story –  An elevator pitch is a 25-word description of a book or script. This is what scriptwriters use when pitching their scripts at film festivals. They are a deadly accurate, succinct summary of what the film/book is about. If you can write one and raise immediate interest when you read or recite it, you are onto something. When I pitch the book I’m working on at the moment, Bonnie Butler’s Outback Charm School for Blokes, I don’t have to go any further than telling people the title, which does a great job of summing up what the book is about.


Elevator pitch for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

 A group of elderly people retire to a hotel in India and find that life can begin again even when you’re over sixty.


Every agent’s website will set out their preferred submission guidelines, which you should slavishly adhere to. What follows here is a summary of what’s normally expected.

Purchase an A4 jiffy bag and enclose the following:

  • a stamped self-addressed envelope
  • a pitch letter
  • a synopsis of your novel
  • your first three chapters, or your first 10,000 words, whichever is the shortest

People often ask me whether they have to send the first three chapters, because their story doesn’t really get interesting until Chapter 4 – so why can’t they send the first four chapters? My answer to that is: If your book doesn’t get interesting until Chapter four, you should delete the first three chapters and start the book later.


  • Aim for 1 – 5 pages
  • Double space
  • Write your name at the top of the first page, at the left margin
  • Follow with your complete address, telephone number and email address, on separate lines
  • Write the novel genre at the top of the first page, at the right margin, opposite your name
  • Below this write the word count of the novel, also flush right
  • Below this write the word “synopsis”
  • Six spaces below your contact information centre the title in UPPERCASE letters
  • Leave two spaces and begin writing the synopsis below the title.

Finally, Google ‘Synopsis Samples’ to find examples. Read as many as you can. They will teach you a lot about the art of writing one.

Good Luck!



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Mentoring Schemes for Writers


I’ve just read about a fantastic mentoring program for writers called the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative. It’s an amazing scheme and generous, too.

There are more and more mentoring programs for writers these days. Gold Dust is an established one with some top published writers like Louise Doughty, Michele Roberts and Shelley Weiner offering their expertise to new writers.

The National Association of Writers in Education also offer a mentoring program for writers.

Strathclyde University have developed a new mentoring program and their website has examples of feedback given to writers – I think this sounds like a wonderful scheme!

Then there’s The Writing Smithy and The Writers’ Advice Centre and The Sydney Writer’s Centre Mentoring Scheme.

There’s plenty to choose from and something for everyone amongst these links. Do your homework before deciding which one suits you best – they are all different, but all offer expert help to bring out the very best in your own writing.



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How To Show, Don’t Tell – The Dilemma All Writers Face

For me, the whole point of writing is sharing – sharing your ideas, ideals, interests, beliefs, emotions – in an entertaining, engaging way. When you first set out to write a story you’ll be surprised when it comes out quite different to the way you envisaged it in your head. Rarely is a first draft how you want it to be, rarely is it perfect the first time round. Re-writing is the key. Until it’s as close to the original vision as possible. It’s hard work!

One of the pitfalls all writers fall into during that tricky first-draft phase is telling the story, not showing the story. All the How To Write Fiction self-help books put great emphasis on this craft device. And so do literary agents, editors and publishers. If you want to have your writing published, it is vital that you learn how to show, not tell.

Show, don’t tell confuses a lot of people. What does it mean? Basically it means you must dramatize your story, that is, bring it to life with active verbs, dialogue and action. And through those devises, show us who the characters are. Word choice is also key.

For example you could write this:

He was sitting on the sidewalk crying. People were walking past on their way to work, but no one was looking at the man.

They were looking the other way.

That is passive writing. It lacks movement. There is not enough detail, either, to bring this scene to life. It doesn’t really come alive in the reader’s mind.

Look at the difference when a few active verbs and some dialogue is added:

Toby was slumped on the sidewalk next to the Atlas Beverage Company. Office workers rushed past, their eyes straight ahead, their minds on accounting and sales figures. No one looked down at Toby. He was a blur at the edge of their vision. A pile of dirty cloth in worn-out sandshoes.

At last the owner of the store, Mr Mc Dowell, came out and offered him a bottle of Brownie Root Beer. Toby looked up at him and smiled. He only had one tooth left on the top row, but it gleamed in the winter sunshine like a diamond.

‘Thanks Mr McDowell. I really appreciate your kindness.’

‘No trouble at all, Toby. When you’re finished, bring your bottle inside and you can use the washroom.’

Mr McDowell left Toby and went back into the store.

Toby finished the root beer, savouring the taste of allspice, ginger, wintergreen and hops on his tongue. He knew all about the ingredients in root beer. He used to work for Mr McDowell and had read all the labels on every bottle.

He looked up at the building opposite, and felt the weight of all that concrete and marble weighing down on him. Then he leaned over his knees and sobbed into his dirty cotton trousers.

Now the scene has dialogue, action, detail. It shows the two characters clearly through these details and dialogue, and we can be sure it is set somewhere in America, possibly in the Fifties. All important details that bring the scene to life.

It’s hard work writing like that in a first draft. You have to mentally walk your way through each scene, each exchange between the characters. As well as creating the plot and making sure it all makes sense. It’s like creating a jigsaw with a million pieces. You have a vague idea where each piece is, and what it looks like, but you’re not sure where it is all going to fit. You almost get to the end, and when you cast your eye over the picture you realise there’s a few missing pieces! Or some of the pieces are in the wrong place, or don’t quite fit.

With a bit of re-jigging and finding those missing pieces, eventually it all holds together and looks as it should.

Hard work. Attention to detail, that’s the real key. Bringing all those craft elements together to create a picture made of words. A picture with movement, detail, the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) and emotion. Careful word choice is vital for that picture to work well.

Yes, it takes up more space to write this way. But there is a place for telling – I prefer to call it SUMMARY.

You can sum up a scene that does not need to be dramatized, something that happened in the past, for example, something that happened off-stage at another location. You can sum up a person’s emotions, reactions, worries – this can be done using the interior monologue devise – a person’s thoughts – through the narrator.

Writers have to make hundreds of choices every day when they are writing. Those choices are a reflection of you, the writer, but more importantly, of your characters. Try using visual prompts to help keep the story alive in your mind as you write. Invest in a large noticeboard so you can pin the pictures in front of you and refer to them for ideas and inspiration. If you don’t have room for one, buy a large display book and arrange your research and pictures in that. Immerse yourself in the characters’ world. Imagine the smells, sights, tastes, sounds, the emotions that all of these things conjure. It is a unique world like no other. Choose the words that transport you and the reader to that location. Venice, Italy is nothing like Melbourne, Australia. Piece by piece the complete picture will emerge, and before you know it you will have a whole world opening up before your wondrous eyes.

(C) Maree Giles, November 3, 2011

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20 Writer’s Prompts to Unblock the Muse

Stuck for an idea? Halfway through a chapter and not sure where to go next? Try these prompts to get your brain ticking over:

1. What if your character lost something precious?

2. What if your character had a secret?

3. What if your character found something valuable?

4. What if your character discovered he had inherited a castle?

5. What if your character discovered that losing all that weight made no difference to his life?

6. What if your character was invisible?

7. Choose five words from your dictionary to use in the chapter you are writing.

8. What if no one likes your character’s husband/wife?

9. What sort of person was your character’s mother?

10. What if your character takes up an unusual hobby? How will his family and partner react?

11. What if your character couldn’t pay her bills?

12. What if your character couldn’t pay for his meal at a restaurant?

13: What if your character accused someone of stealing food, but was mistaken?

14. What if your character dug up an unexploded bomb while gardening?

15. What if your character was a confirmed bachelor or spinster and somone fell in love with him/her? How would your character respond/change?

16. What if your character woke up and his skin was green?

17. What if your character had to rescue a snake from a frenzied dog?

18. What if your character lost his/her sense of smell (this happened to me! When it returned more than a year later I was overwhelmed by the intensity of all the smells around me)

19. What if your character was ostracized by his/her family? (this also happened to me! My father ignored me all my life. Believe me, it’s not a pleasant experience!)

20. What if your character moved to a place where everyone was rude and unfriendly?

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Dialogue Detective

Without dialogue, fiction would be pretty boring. Dialogue moves a story along. It reveals character, motivation, conflict, mood and tone. A page peppered with dialogue keeps your readers interested. Their eyes move down the page more quickly than when reading a page crammed with dense exposition.

Good dialogue in fiction imitates real dialogue. But what you hear in public is not what you would hear privately. If you are lucky enough to eavesdrop on a heated argument in a public place, get your note-book out and write it all down. In spite of the conflict you will still see that such an exchange is littered with oohs, aahs, ums, slang and expletives. Unless you are using such language to characterise one of your characters, don’t try to write that sort of dialogue in your fiction. You are aiming for mimicry but not exact mimicry.

For example, I recently overheard this:

“Alright, mate?”

“Yeah, you alright?”

“Yeah. Cold, innit.”

“Yeah. F…..n freezing.”

“Yeah. Tell me about it.”

“Got a light?”

“Yeah. Fancy a cuppa?”

“Nah. Got a fag?”

“Yeah. F…k it’s cold.”

“Yeah. Dunno about you but I’m freezin.”


This fascinating conversation took place outside a train station in London. It’s the type of exchange you hear a lot on London’s streets. Follow the two characters to their home and you might hear something entirely different and altogether riveting:

“What’s up?”

“Just got this bill from the gas.”

“It’s freezing in here too.”

“Yeah well, I can’t afford to turn the gas on.”

“How you gonna pay it? Have you found a job yet?”

“Went for three interviews last week. You’d think I was applying for a position with God the way they went on.”

“Mad, innit? I had the same problem when I went for mine.”

“Yeah, I know. When I walked into the interview room there were eight of them lined up with clipboards.”

“They want to know everything, eh? Even the colour of your underwear.”

“I felt like telling them to get f . . . . d, but I need the money.”

“What can you do, mate? If you want to eat you just have to put up with it.”

“I think you should try for something with the council.”

“You must be joking. What do you think I am, stupid?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you, mate – ”

“Yeah, well you’ve known me long enough to know I’d never stoop that low.”

Now it’s getting interesting. It’s so much more than a boring exchange about the weather. The reader can now glean quite a lot about who these characters are. When you introduce a problem it can lead to a conflict of interests, ideas, needs or desires, which can lead to disagreement and in some cases, all-out war. This is a simple example. Imagine your characters are a married couple and the wife has just found out her husband is having an affair with her best friend. They are at home where it’s private and they can more or less say what they like to one another. Behind closed doors in the privacy of a character’s home, people let their guard down. Street conversation is rarely that interesting. But that doesn’t mean that as a writer you don’t need to eavesdrop. You will still learn a lot from listening to other people’s conversations.

But wait! There is still something missing in the above exchange. There is nothing else happening but speech. In real life people move around when they speak, they scratch their nose or their head. Their eyes dart this way and that. They might cough, or blow their nose, or pull a face, laugh, cry, or sniff. In fiction when these actions are seamlessly scattered among dialogue they are called beats. Beats break up the dialogue and give the reader a mental picture of the characters in conversation. Not many people sit or stand completely still when they talk. Body language is important in real life. It is just as important in fiction. It can reveal character by showing nervousness, shyness, fear, hesitance, joy, hatred, love, admiration, disapproval, acceptance, rejection, and hundreds of other emotions. In other words, beats, or small actions, can relieve the monotony of dialogue, for even when dialogue is interesting it can still be tedious if it goes on too long without a beat. Aim for no more than three lines of dialogue, then include a beat.

Your characters have names – use them in dialogue when necessary, but don’t overuse them. And keep those speech tags – he said, she said – invisible. When you start trying to be clever with speech tags they draw attention to themselves and can signal amateur writing: he gasped, she intoned, he whispered, she screeched, he suggested, she spat, he screamed. All these are unnecessary. Let the dialogue tell the reader how the words are delivered. Show the anger your character is feeling by choosing words that convey that anger. If a character squares up to his or her opponent and the dialogue goes like this: “I hate the sight of you. Get out of my house, now!” it’s pretty clear that the person is angry. No need to add, he shouted angrily. Which brings me to adverbs. Angrily is an adverb. Adverbs are often attached to a speech tag: He said testily. She said softly. He said truthfully. She said warmly. Again, let the words convey the mood and emotions of the speaker. Ditch those adverbs! They weaken prose and talk down to the reader. Many writers get away with using lots of speech tags and adverbs, and they are successful authors. But a really good writer, a writer who isn’t lazy, will take the time to find active verbs, accurate adjectives and proper nouns to enliven their dialogue.

Let’s name the two characters in the above exchange, add a few beats and a few active verbs and proper nouns, and see what happens:

“What’s up?” Hal sat down at the kitchen table, which was littered with dirty dishes and moldy mugs. He reached into his duffle coat pocket, pulled out a pack of Marlboros, and lit one. He was about to place the packet on the table, had second thoughts, and returned them to his jacket pocket.

“Just got this bill from British Gas,” said Larry.

“It’s freezing in here.” Hal sucked hard on his cigarette and blew a long stream of smoke at the bare light bulb above the table. It swam around the cobwebs for a moment. Hal thought about offering his friend a cigarette, but knew if he did it would set a precedent and Larry would expect it every time they met.

“Yeah well, I can’t afford to turn the gas on.” Larry shuffled across the room and filled the kettle at the sink. He had to push the pile of dirty dishes to one side to manoeuvre the spout under the tap. They toppled and crashed across the bench. A cup fell on the floor and the handle broke off. He kicked it aside.

Hal raised one eyebrow. “How you gonna pay it?” He watched Larry search for two clean cups. There were none in the cupboard.

Larry returned to the sink and washed two with a filthy sponge. “Have you found a job yet?” he said.

“Went for three interviews last week,” said Hal. “You’d think I was applying for a position with God the way they went on.”

“Yeah, I know.”  Larry poured boiling water into the cups and dipped the two tea bags up and down with delicate precision. “When I walked into the interview room at Krunch Kreme Biscuits yesterday there were eight people lined up with clipboards, all waiting to ask me questions.”

“They want to know everything, eh?” Hal sighed. He took another long drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out in a mound of leftover tinned spaghetti. “Even the colour of your underwear.”

“I felt like telling them to get f . . . . d, but I need the money.” Larry slurped his tea and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“What can you do, mate? If you want to eat you just have to put up with it.”

“I think you should try for something with the council,” said Larry.

“You must be joking.” Hal gave his friend a sharp look. “What do you think I am, stupid?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you, mate – ”

“Yeah, well you’ve known me long enough to know I’d never stoop that low.” Hal shrugged one shoulder and sniffed.

I think you’ll agree that by adding a few beats – small actions interspersed among the dialogue – this conversation is now much more revealing and interesting. To make it easier for you, I’ve highlighted the beats in red. We can now see more clearly who these men are. Of course there’s more to them than this, but it’s a start. We know they are unemployed and struggling. They are probably bachelors who have little interest in housework. Their diet is probably poor. Note that the beats include active verbs. There are other active verbs in this exchange, which I have highlighted in blue. Active verbs bring prose to life.

Next time you are talking to someone watch what they do as they speak. Take a note, if you can, of how many small actions they perform. Start a list of beats that you can use in your writing. Use them sparingly, otherwise your character will be jumping all over the place like a jitterbug. If your character is a jittery person, that’s different. Think about the character you wish to convey. Is he a quiet, thoughtful man who moves slowly, or a nervous wreck who can’t sit still? Small actions, or beats, dialogue, facial expressions, thoughts – all these can reveal the sort of person you are writing about. They reveal character and as such are vital to piecing together a mental picture for your reader and showing the motivation behind what they say or do.

A useful exercise you can try for yourself is to write down a piece of dialogue from your favourite novel and leave out the beats. You will quickly see how much is lost and how the dialogue is weakened by the loss of those all-important beats.

Another trick to writing good dialogue is to have your characters give oblique replies to a question or comment. By that I mean, don’t let your character answer a question or comment directly. Get them to say something that is unrelated to the topic of conversation. This can create tension and lead to conflict. This is particularly effective when one person is avoiding an important emotionally-charged issue:

“Where were you last night?” Toby sat up in bed and stared at his wife.

Julia walked across to the window and stood staring out at the fields beyond the front gate.

“The lawn needs mowing,” she said. “Would you do it later, darling?”

“What’s that mark on your neck?” Toby leaned forward and narrowed his eyes.

“You might need to change the blade. Oh, and while you’re at it, can you prune that rose by the back gate?”

These two characters are playing a game of avoidance. The dialogue is oblique. We know that any minute someone is going to blow their top. It might be Toby. He wants to know where his wife has been, and rightly so. Julia wants him to mow the lawn. But is that her real motivation? We already know she doesn’t want to come clean about her whereabouts. Perhaps he’s a lazy type and she’s so fed up that she’s gone off and found someone new. Our interest is heightened because their game of avoidance has created tension. That tension is going to quickly lead to conflict. Conflict in fiction keeps the reader enthralled. They want to find out what happens and who is going to win the battle that is unfolding.

Finally, take a look at some of your favourite books. See if you can work out the percentage of dialogue, roughly, compared to the percentage of exposition. A good rule of thumb for a more commercial novel is to aim for 60 percent dialogue and 40 percent exposition. That creates a good balance and will keep your reader motivated to finish the book. Of course, the dialogue has to be good, it has to sparkle, and it must reveal character and motivation. A word of warning: don’t use dialogue simply to convey information. It can come across as contrived:

“Do you think your marriage will last?” said Rita.

“I don’t know,” replied Harriet. “It’s hard to say, given that we were married five years ago last Monday the 23rd June at a couples resort in Jamaica, and Darren had just been divorced after twenty years of marriage to Marianne, and I’d just broken up with Taylor after living with him in a flat in Brixton for six years.”

“I see. It’s a bit like me and Josh. Married for seven years then next thing you know he is offered a job in Houston and we have to put our house on the market with Foxton’s estate agents and sell all our furniture on Ebay for next-to-nothing.”

Sometimes as a writer you will be tempted to tell the reader everything all at once, and dialogue can seem an easy way to do so. Don’t fall into the trap of verbosity! Less is more. Leave some ‘space’ around the words for the reader to ‘fill in’ with their own imagination. Readers don’t need to know everything. People don’t talk like that in real life or fiction. Focus on what is happening now in the story. If you feel that certain information is important to move the story forward, reveal it in snippets, not all at once, and definitely not all through dialogue, or it will sound like a long, boring list of recollections or facts. That is what exposition and flashbacks are for. But that’s another story, and something I will cover in another post  . . .

Meanwhile, put your Dialogue Detective hat on and stop, listen, and look at the people around you. You will start to notice those all-important beats when people are speaking. And you will hear some interesting conversations in public places, but they will rarely be personal. Read work by writers who respect their reader’s intelligence and imagination, authors like the late Raymond Carver who had the courage to delete anything superfluous and give the reader only what mattered to move the story along. You have to be ruthless about this. Don’t be afraid of the delete button. If you think something is unnecessary but you’re not quite sure, cut and paste that segment and save it in a special “maybe file’ for later. When you watch a television drama take note of how little speech there is and how much action, large and small, there is in between. Not many people pontificate for long stretches of time unless they are giving a speech. A verbatim speech in a novel is boring unless it absolutely vital to the plot and to revealing character. For instance, if a novel included a famous speech by someone like Martin Luther King, or Hitler, Stalin, or a famous Hollywood star, it would probably keep the reader’s attention. But not many people have the to ability to capture an audience’s concentration when they give a long speech. You only have to watch the Oscars to see that. A few brief words is enough from each winner and the audience begins to get restless.

Likewise in fiction brevity is the key. Keep the story moving forward with dialogue that tells the reader who that person is and what is motivating them, and do so using as few words as possible, so that the story is lively and captivating.


I try to leave out the parts that people skip.  ~Elmore Leonard

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Characterisation – a quirky possession can tell you a lot about a person

There are many different ways a writer can reveal character: action, dialogue, emotion, internal monologue (thoughts), reaction. You could also give them an unusual possession. A spectacular house, for example, can reveal a lot about the people who live there. Ask yourself questions about the character and the reasons why they own certain objects or live in a particular style of house.

What sort of person would own a frilly pink umbrella like this one? A woman, no doubt about it.  But wait!  What if your character is a gay man?  What if he decidesto carry a pink umbrella into town to prove a point? Perhaps he simply likes it and is not ashamed or embarrassed to use it. In fact, he thrives on the attention it attracts. Exaggeration works in life so there’s no reason it can’t in fiction. If the owner of the umbrella is awoman, is she elderly and frail and from another era? Or young, frivolous and narcissistic? Is the umbrella a deliberate attempt to anger someone close to the character, such as a shy husband who hates being stared at when they are out together? What sort of emotions does the umbrella spark?

Perhaps your protagonist owns an odd-looking cat. What sort of cat is it? This elf cat would certainly attract attention. Maybe that’s the whole idea. What attracts your character to such a weird pet? Pity? Bad taste? Conversation starter? Again, is the character attention-seeking? Lonely? Is she a rare cat breeder? Was the cat expensive? What sort of person would pay a large amount for a domestic animal that no one else even likes? Does her partner or spouse like or dislike the cat? If the answer is they hate it, what sort of friction does this cause in the home? The cat could be the catalyst – excuse the pun – for violence, either against the protagonist or the cat. Perhaps it causes havoc at home because of its antics. Perhaps someone steals it because it is valuable. What if the owner adores the cat and that is her motivation, pure and simple? You can’t argue with that, but it could still cause jealousy, envy, anger.

What about giving your main character a weird chair like this one? Why did he or she buy it? Was it a wedding gift that has to stay on display even though your character loathes it? Perhaps it is hidden away until the person who bought it comes to visit – the mother-in-law from hell, for instance. Does anyone ever sit on it, or is it simply “for show”. Lots of people own things simply “for show”. I know someone who hangs her prettiest towels on the bathroom towel rail with strict instructions they are not for using. Objects often create  tension and can be the underlying source of an argument or confrontation. Perhaps the owner of the chair loves it and shows it off to visitors who feel obliged to be polite, when really they think it hideous. Imagine the conversation between the fake admirers on their way home.

Hats are another fun way to show who your character is. I bought my pink one at a lovely millinery shop in Australia. Am I a granny? Not yet! Does it remind me of the Twenties? You bet! That’s why I love it. Why would a person be drawn to that era in 2010? Perhaps her grandmother wore a similar hat and it reminds your character of her. It could be that the owner of such a hat was simply cold the day she bought it. How does it make the owner feel when she wears the hat? Some hats are outrageous but they give the wearer confidence. Some hats make the wearer feel safe and half-hidden from strangers’ glares.

Some hats are silly, frothy, sensible, outrageous. What sort of man would wear a hat like this ridiculous cowboy number? A comedian? An actor? A singing telegram performer?

Hats more than any other possession can reveal the wearer’s character. Choose your hats carefully. They can say a lot about a person. Don’t judge me too harshly by this hat! I was in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney last winter and wasn’t prepared for the chilly wind. I stumbled upon a gorgeous hat shop with all sorts of goodies besides hats, and pounced on this pink felt cloche. I love it! It can’t blow away and it keeps me really snug.

An exotic walking stick like this African elephant one could tell you a lot about the owner – well-travelled? A local tribesman? A flamboyant writer visiting the area to do some research? I can picture author Alexander McCall Smith carrying such a stick, when he visits Botswana to do some research for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books.  Perhaps it belongs to an elderly lady whose husband bought it for her in the exotic markets of Marrakech. Or perhaps the owner simply found it in a charity shop. Has it got any hidden compartments? Has the owner used it to stash drugs or diamonds?

Imagine the chaos it could cause! The game of cat and mouse. It looks like the perfect sort of object you might find in a crime thriller. What if it contains a poison dart? Or is hiding a razor-sharp sword? It might hold the key to someone’s shameful past, or the answer to someone’s financial problems. What if a previous owner hid an ancient text  from Egypt inside it ? The possibilities are endless!

Beds are another useful object you can use to reveal character. Who would want to sleep in a pod like this one? Think of those large circular beds you often see James Bond frolicking on with a gorgeous blonde. Hammocks, beds that fold away into the wall, beds that can be raised and lowered, beds that creak and wake the neighbours, inviting, seductive beds draped in satin sheets, dirty beds where someone has fallen asleep drunk or drugged, beds where the dogs sleep with the owner, beds that have built-in hi-fi speakers or telephones, water beds (these are a bit old-fashioned now) straw beds, narrow hard beds, big sumptuous beds, antique beds, plain wooden beds – do your research, visit the library, museum or bed shop. What happens to your characters in the bed you’ve chosen? Where is the bed? In a mountain hut, a lakeside villa, a European city apartment, or above a seedy Spanish bar or a family-owned Greek taverna? How old is the character in the bed? Is he or she afraid, alone, crying, contented, angry, seeking revenge, having sex or reading the Bible?

If you are going to use a vase to reveal character, or a biscuit tin, you could choose to make them ordinary, the sort you might see at your great-aunt’s house, or you could make them unique. I can’t imagine this blue and white one belonging in a suburban brick home, but perhaps the owner is an ordinary person with high aspirations. The horse vases and the pink arty one might suggest someone striving to be avant-garde.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          There are so many ways to reveal character. Actions, reactions and speech are the obvious ways. But there are hundreds more. Shoes can give insight, so can toilets. A friend of mine lined the walls of his outside loo with photographs of famous bands from the Seventies. He could have been an ardent fan. In fact, he was a road manager for The Clash. The pictures held great sentimental value, yet he chose to paste them on the wall of his toilet. Quirky? I think my friend was making a statement about the philosophy behind punk. Anyone else may have spent a lot of money on fancy frames and placed them on a living room wall. This person revealed he who is by putting them in the toilet. Another friend owns one of those tropical toilet seats with starfish and shells embedded inside transparent resin. Is she young, hip and fond of

rap? Not at all! In fact, she’s a little old lady who recently turned 78. Objects can be contradictory, mysterious, fun, alarming, troubling, cute, awe-inspiring, repulsive, arty, ugly and the cause of happiness or despair. They can spark memories, good and bad, and they can cause disagreements and signify love and commitment.

See if you can think of an unusual object to reveal who your main character is, or perhaps a minor character could benefit from owning something weird that makes them stand out from the crowd.

Something as innocuous as a cute pen can tell you so much about its owner. Some people are lucky enough to own an expensive Mont Blanc fountain pen, others always use a black biro, or a fine-tip felt pen. Some use a pencil that has been chewed and sharpened to within an inch of its life. Who are they? What are they like?

Cars, cups, mirrors, handbags, watches, earrings, hairstyles – the list is endless. If you can think of anything else I’ve forgotten to mention, please share it in the comments section on this page. Remember that fiction is real life dramatised and re-shaped so it feels familiar but is exagerrated and heightened. When you are choosing an object to reveal character think about the effect the object has on the person’s life and the people around them, the emotions the object arouses and the conflict that ensues. Without conflict a story is not a story but rather a string of uneventful events that will do nothing to keep your reader turning those pages. Use objects sparingly but carefully and create drama using the object and its owner as a starting point.

If you are writing for children, let your imagination run wild! How could a child resist your description of a house perched above the water like this one?

Have fun when you write and think about what your readers expect – not just a great plot, but fascinating characters who never fail to surprise.

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Understanding human behaviour is one of the keys to good writing

Friends or family in need, real friends and fairweather friends.

‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ is a popular saying, implying that some people play the friendship card when they need something from you. While this can indeed be true, the reverse is also significant. When you are in need, then you find out who are your real friends.

An acquaintance found out recently that she has a chronic medical condition. Nothing visible and nothing to stop her living a normal life, but something that will occasionally flare up and cause discomfort. A bit like depression or sadness over past events. She also found out something of the difference between real and fairweather friends & family. She informed them simply because she is an open and honest person. There was no seeking of particular help. Perhaps a little sympathy, some understanding that the condition occasionally makes her despondent, but she didn’t want any special treatment or additional attention. When she told some friends, they responded with concern. They listened without asking anything in return. They asked how they could help. These were real friends. Others, who she also believed to be friends of the same sort, who were in fact, members of her family, responded with selfish concerns. They asked if it was infectious or if they might be affected in some way. Then they melted away, despite reassurance of their safety. Fairweather friends are those who are most likely to appear when they are in need or, at best, when you are not in need. Real friends don’t care about their needs. They will help where they can and know that it’s ok if they can only offer a little sympathy. This must be something like what it is to have cancer, HIV or AIDS. Those who were friends when all was well suddenly show their true colors, while some from the core and some from the periphery fly the true flag of friendship, offering and giving what help they can and not jeopardising the friendship.

I’m interested in this sort of universal life predicament because as a writer you need to develop insight about human relationships. For that reason I read books about psychology, I love observing  people interacting, and how they relate or choose to ignore one another when the going gets tough. There’s not a lot of genuine concern for others these days – look at the situation in Haiti after the earthquake and Mississippi after the floods – the re-building of lives and property is simply not happening the way it should. People can be unbearably cruel even to those they claim to love.

There’s a terrific magazine here in the UK called Psychologies which writers would do well to buy for its insightful analysis of the human condition. Three-dimensional characters are what drive a story forward, not descriptions of a mountain scene or the interior of a bedroom.  To write well you need a certain depth of understanding of human behaviour, and there are many ways of achieving this: reading, observing and interacting with people from a variety of  backgrounds and ethnic origins. Travel is important in this way, it opens your mind and deflates the ego and any bigotry you might have been unaware of. A writer is a seeker of truth, and has a responsibility to the world to present it accurately. Research is important, but understanding people and their behaviour, good and bad, will elevate your writing to another level.

Try to nurture the sort of inquisitive and soul-searching mind that makes the difference between an ordinary writer and a great writer.



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Write well – don’t let adverbs, dull adjectives and passive language drain your writing

‘I don’t believe in marriage, but I do believe in no-strings sex.’

Photo courtesy of

This sort of “tea scene” (pictured) can fascinate readers. Add some lively dialogue full of tension and some “beats” – She slid her hand under the waistband of his trousers – He lifted his shoulders off the ground and pulled her towards him – and you have transformed what could have been dull into something special.

Over the years as a writer I’ve learned there are three things in particular which can suck the life out of otherwise good prose: adverbs, inaccurate or weak adjectives, passive voice and ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.

Time and again I’ve worked with students who make these mistakes in the belief that readers will want to know everything, that everything has to be explained or qualified.

Why is this sort of writing a mistake?

For starters, it’s an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Using a lazy adjective can be jarring and boring. Adverbs tell us what we already know or imagine. As for passive voice – readers want action, even if that action is as tiny as scratching your nose. If you have two or more characters in what I call a ‘tea scene’, that is, talking and not doing much else, that can be very boring for the reader unless the conversation revolves around an off-stage drama such as murder. Of course, such scenes can’t always be avoided, and if done well they can be fascinating and full of tension and also reveal a lot about your characters.

But in  ‘tea scenes’ you need active voice. Instead of writing: She was  talking very loudly across the table, write: She shouted across the table.  You also need ‘beats’, small actions that will keep the scene alive – any small action such as scratching your nose, using a serviette to pat the corners of the mouth, flicking  hair out of your eyes, raising an eyebrow, curling a lip, thumb twiddling, pulling an ear-lobe – these are all ‘beats.’ Beats can be character quirks (for example, someone who constantly pulls her lower lip in a nervous way)  and can reveal who a person is just as effectively as a detailed description of what they are wearing or what they say.

Readers like scenes to unfold before their eyes, as if in a film. They want to be shown that scene with active verbs like paced, jumped, swam, punched, reeled, stripped, fried, sizzled, sapped, rattled, plopped, dived, floated – do you get the picture? They crave concrete nouns like toasted almonds, oak tree, red squirrel, grey elephant, Volkswagon Golf, walnut coffee table, corduroy trousers, silk frangipani, Kohl eyeliner, Laserjet Printer 1160, Boeing 747, chocolate Labrador, velour blanket, Portmeirion pottery, clematis florida. Warning: don’t overdo these or your story will be littered with irrelevant details. Make sure you use a concrete noun effectively, to reveal character and atmosphere,  but mainly to bring a scene to life fully through specificity.

To reiterate: if you write: She was jumping up and down this is passive voice. If you write: He paced the floor this is active. If you write: She was swimming across the lake this is passive. Instead, write: She swam across the lake. Simple really. First drafts will be full of passive writing. It’s your job as a writer to go back over your work and turn any passive passages into active.

It’s also your job to ditch any weak adjectives and replace them with either an active verb or a specific, telling adjective or noun. Instead of writing: The sky was blue write: The sky was the colour of  faded jeans. Instead of writing: She sat behind the wheel of the old car write: She sat behind the leather-bound wheel of the 1943 Buick. Instead of writing: Her hair was blonde write: Her hair was the colour of bleached wheat. Instead of writing: The room was full of modern furniture write: The sofas and tables were pure Andy Warhol. Instead of writing: The house was made of bricks write: The house was an Edwardian semi with roses over the black front door.

Writing a story is the same as creating a picture or building a jigsaw: the whole comes together through the careful and delicate juxtaposition of images. Choose words carefully to create those images. Read each word, each sentence, each paragraph over and over, until each one counts and anything superfluous is cut. It’s a game of adding and subtracting until the sum total forms before you, whole and real and deadly accurate.

If you think your readers need adverbs to help build that picture, consider these short passages:

It took her longer than usual to walk into town. She dragged her feet and pondered carefully the conversation she had just had with her husband, and slowly, steadily arrived at the Divorce Court with hardly any energy left to talk openly to her lawyer.

Study the simple improvements:

It took her longer than usual to walk into town. She dragged her feet and pondered the tense conversation she had just had with her husband. By the time she arrived at the Divorce Court she was stuffed.

Remove unnecessary adverbs (in italics, above) and you are left with a stronger paragraph that speaks for itself. Readers don’t need adverbs to help them understand the drama of this scene. In other words, leave some ‘space’ around the words – and only leave in the words that really count, the ones that tell us exactly what we need to know, and no more. Readers like to fill in the details themselves. Some good writers go so far as to leave out physical descriptions of a character, allowing their actions and speech to provide the reader with their own individual image of that character. This is quite risky and I would only recommend it to writers who are skilled at revealing character through other means.

If you can try to end each sentence with the most important word in the sentence and paragraph, it will resonate with the reader and she will want to read on.

In the above example, stuffed is the final word. Running out of energy is not a good way to arrive at a Divorce Court – you need plenty of steam to fight the battle ahead. By finishing the sentence with that carefully chosen word, the reader is already contemplating the future of this character: how will she cope in court if she is already feeling drained?

Another mistake writers make, including me, in a first or second draft, is telling rather than showing. To avoid this trap try to turn narrative into a scene. When you have action, dialogue, more than one character, you can create a vivid and lively scene, just as if you were writing a film script. Novels and short stories need scenes – novels more so than short stories – to bring them alive for the reader. Yes, I know there are lots of great novels that rely more on narrative than scenes. Personally, I love those novels. When the right words are strung together they can move you in ways that even the most beautiful music can’t. Such writers are  highly skilled.  Aim for a balance: 50-60 percent dialogue and 40 percent narrative. Scatter it in between narrative, add those important beats and other bigger action when required. You don’t have to have a beat after every piece of dialogue, just now and then. You must be the judge of when it is going to be most effective in breaking up a section of dialogue that might be too long. Imagine you are talking to that character. Would you be sitting there doing nothing at all for that long except talk? Not many people sit still for long when talking. They scratch, sniff,  roll their eyes, stare into the distance, toss their hair back, check their mobile phone, get up to go to the toilet, notice a friend walking by outside, wave to someone they know, type a text message into their phone, they burp, cough, fart, swallow hard, chew loudly . . .

Dialogue keeps the story moving forward. Some readers find dense narrative a struggle, and as people are so busy these days, it’s our job as writers to make life a little easier. That’s not condescending or “selling out” to commercial tactics, it’s recognising the ways of the world. As a writer you have to be flexible, you have to know what readers want, not just in terms of subject matter but in terms of time and energy available to people. There’s that word again: energy. To be a good writer you need lots of energy. For what you see in your mind doesn’t automatically translate onto the page the same way. At least not in the first draft or even the second. It takes a lot of re-writing, cutting, adding – in other words, editing – to achieve the original vision. It is hard work. Painstaking, in fact. But worth it.

So, give your readers active verbs, concrete nouns and adjectives, and change verbs that end in ING:  jumping, skipping, sneezing, hammering, mixing . . . too many of these strung closely together in a sentence create a sing-song effect, which can be annoying: She was skipping and jumping along the beach promenade and wondering if she could start singing without being heard by the other children, who were digging in the sand near the grown-ups who were eating ice creams and squinting at the bright sun.

Note the difference:

She skipped  along the promenade and wondered if she could sing without being heard by the other children, who were digging in the sand. She watched them for a moment. They had dug an enormous hole. A little boy jumped in up to his ears. The grown-ups licked at ice creams that had begun to melt. They squinted at the hot sun.

The re-written version only has one verb with ING on the end: digging. The sing-song effect in the first version has been neatly eliminated. If you have two verbs or adjectives choose the one that is strongest.

Wishing you the patience to hone your craft until your writing sings – apologies for the three INGS in this sentence!


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