I thought I was an “okay” writer. With a former career as a finance director I had no grounds to think that. I hadn’t studied English language for far more years than I care to remember and I had never done any creative writing before. But I had a story in me and the desire to put it in writing.
Since those early days, I have learned a lot. Firstly, having gained a contract with American publisher, Black Opal Books, my editor, Faith, gave me some great tips to both correct and improve my writing. Secondly I have read some useful guides to writing fiction, and thirdly I have started to attend seminars on various aspects of being an author.
I want to share some of what I have learned, especially with anyone who starts out like I did—desperate to write a story but possibly lacking in some of the crafts needed by an author. To authors with a background in writing of any sort, I’m sure this will be basic bread and butter stuff. But I see the mistakes I was making in other books I read. So I’m glad it’s not just me, and for those of you who recognise my errors, take comfort in the fact that you’re not the only ones. We can all improve, and we all have to start somewhere.
I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned about speech. To start with one of my classic examples:
“I like that,” she grinned.
Well. I use an electronic dictionary/thesaurus a lot, but I never looked up the definition of speech. If I had, this is what I would have read:
“the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds”
I would have noted the word “articulate” and realised you cannot articulate a grin. It is not a sound. You cannot grin words. It’s obvious, I know, but when writing your manuscript, words flow seemingly smoothly, and it is all too easy to overlook even the basic grammar sometimes. Without the skills I have learned through the editing process, this wasn’t an error I was looking for.
In helping me with my first book, The Secret At Arnford Hall, not only did my editor point out my errors, Faith also showed me how to correct them. In my simple example it’s all about punctuation. So this is how I should have written it:
“I like that.” She grinned.
Or is it?
Faith also went on to explain the difference between dialogue and action tags. For example, “said” is a dialogue tag and “grinned” is an action tag. Obvious? Yes, I know. Apparently I had some vey nice action tags, but they were being weakened by incorrect positioning and grammar.
In my example I have an action tag. This leads to another point to consider. Does she grin before she speaks or after? A good rule of thumb is that, generally, action tags go before speech. Hence:
She grinned. “I like that.”
And already the writing is improved. I can almost see my heroine speaking whilst still smiling.
Here’s another example. This time I wanted the action tag after the dialogue:
“Take a seat. We need to talk.”
“Yes. We do.” Lauren sat down and crossed her legs.
When the edits on my second book, Guiltless, came back, I was pleased when Faith said there were fewer changes to my original script. But the learning continues. And as it does, I have to confess to being more than a little critical when I read books by some other authors!