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Geoff Nelder – 6 Tips for Becoming a Better Fiction Writer

6 Tips for Becoming a Better Fiction Writer

by Geoff Nelder

There is a necessary arrogance we have to endure when it comes to writers telling other folk how to become better at their craft. Anyone can write words and if you are skilled at talking in that you can hold an audience even if only at a coffee meeting, then presumably you can write well? You’d think so but over the years you pick up those techniques of writing to avoid and those to employ in order to win competitions and make reading your words a more enjoyable experience. Even so there is subjectivity here and you’ll notice my hand is in the air waving away to say that I have pet peeves and biases that will show.

I declare in advance that I am a short story competition judge and along with another judge, Dave Haslett, have written a short ebook on How to Win Short Story Competitions. Consequently, you are getting a free sample here!

1. Characters – You are already observant and so engage in people watching. Admit it, we’ve seen you. However, most of the people you see are ‘average’ and they shouldn’t populate your stories – well, perhaps one if you need a dullard to make others more exciting. You need to make each character distinct so don’t have too many. In a short story have one protagonist and maybe up to three others. More for novels. Each need to be slightly OTT than real life but not so much to be clowns – unless your story is about a circus! Think about TV soaps. All the characters in the memorable, long-lasting soaps have characters with a defining quirkiness about them. Do the same in your stories.

2. Dialogue tags have seen a transformation in recent years. Good writers always avoided the amateur pitfalls of using smiled as if it was a speech verb – eg ‘Hello Auntie,’ she smiled. Nooo. Also avoid laughed, grinned and snorted as dialogue tags. Your characters can do those things but not as a speech verb. Use said instead: it is invisible to readers. Now there is a trend to minimise said – this is well done by A.L. Kennedy but goes wrong with Phillipa Roberts’ The Other Boleyn Girl   It’s usually best to use a few saids if by leaving them out the reader is confused.

3. Avoiding weak modifiers. Many amateur writers follow their own behaviour patterns and so write things such as He almost fell off his chair, when it is far stronger to say He fell off his chair. (with the almost deleted) Go on, be bold and let the reader have the action! Ditto with weak modifier words such as nearly and slightly. Look through your narrative and see if you can remove them.

4. Use all the readers’ senses. I am particularly keen on this, as is the writing mentor, Sol Stein. To help the reader engage with the point of view (POV) owner or protagonist make them smell, touch, hear (other than speech), taste and see (such as colour) their surroundings. Examine your short stories. How many have no smell at all, or only one colour – and it is white!

5. Cut the pleonasms. This is a word, which if deleted, the meaning remains the same. Allan Guthrie wrote a famous paper entitled: Hunting Down the Pleonasms and he exampled it by cutting the word Down – the meaning remains the same. Go through your stories and cut pleonasms such as actually, even, and just. Expunge your thats!

6. Another tip from Allan to me personally and I believe this is the first time it has been published is after he edited the opening chapter of ARIA: Left Luggage. ‘Whenever I see nodded, a sigh or a shrug is sure to follow.’ He’s right!  We use those words because they convey a hundred words by describing a familiar action. That’s good, isn’t it? Well, in editors’ opinions they are so overused they’ve become clichés and so best worked around. Damn. Consequently, I rarely use them now.

I can’t promise that I obey those five tips in all my writing. Sometimes you need to break such ‘rules’ in order to control pace or to make a point. It’s a case that you can break the rules but you need to know them first.

How to Win Short Story Competitions by Dave Haslett and Geoff Nelder is at


ARIA: Left Luggage (without nods, shrugs and sighs) http://www.ll-publications.com/leftluggage.html

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Genre – Science Fiction / Medical Mystery

Rating – PG

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Website http://authorsdb.com/authors-directory/2426-geoff-nelder

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