This guide will be a mini-series for writers who publish online, the do's and don'ts and practical handles. It is by no way meant to teach you about grammar, spelling and all those technical things, this is a guide about the practical side of writing. I try to show you some conventions and some handles on how to write and get read online.
Part 2 of this guide will start where Part 1 ended, to go back to Part 1 you can click on one of the topics spoken about in the last instalment or use the link at the bottom of this page.
List of topics (in progress):
2. Description of the story, blurb, summary
3. Narration, tenses and grammar
5. Setting and talking heads
6. "flowery" language
8. Narration styles, voices
9. Clichés to look out for
1. How to find readers/writers
2. How to make people remember you
3. How to give feedback that people appreciate
4. Know the Terms of Service of the website (or, How to keep out of trouble)
4. Dialogue. I've seen some people struggle to get their head around this. There is a standard way of dealing with dialogue that once you understand it is easy to use. Most readers expect the dialogue and story to be formatted a certain way and complying to that standard makes reading easier for everybody. Nothing is as annoying as people assuming one character did something and saying something while you as a writer meant that the action and the dialogue part were two people.
I'll use a stylised example to explain what I mean, this is what I sometimes run into when reading stories:
"dialogue person A." Actions person B.
"dialogue person B." Actions person C.
For someone who assumes the normal way of formatting dialogue this seems like person B is saying what actually is meant for person A and person C is saying what is meant for person B. In this example it is 3 people, but I think you can imagine what it is like when it's only two people and you feel like person A is not saying the right things and person B is just as weird. The example can be rewritten to this form to make sense to any reader:
"dialogue person A."
Actions person B. "Dialogue person B."
Actions person C.
Here every line is for one person. It is easy to see who is speaking when and what part of the dialogue belongs to them.
The ground rule is that for dialogue or actions of a new person you start a new line. If you have someone do something, talk and then do something again you can just go long with it but as soon as you describe someone else doing something you need to start on a new line.
To stylishly explain the different type of dialogue and action combinations look at this example:
"Dialogue person A." Actions person A.
Action person B.
Action person C. "Dialogue person C."
"Dialogue person D."
"Dialogue person E." Action person E. "More dialogue person E."
Actions person F. "Dialogue person F." More actions person F.
You can mix up dialogue and actions as long as you make sure that you only use one person in that line, otherwise you need to put it on the next line.
Not too hard when you get used to it.
5. Setting and talking heads. I'm not good at this part of the writing, though I know I'm improving. Some people call this the "talking heads syndrome", meaning that basically your characters are nothing more than heads, because they only talk and have facial expressions. When writing your story remember to write how a place looks, what they smell, hear and feel. Not just when they smell something bad but also to describe setting.
Of course, don't just one by one describe all the senses for every scene, but try to get some subtle sensory attributes, a whiff here, a glance there, a sound thus, a surface that. It makes a place more real for the reader when the writers tells what a place feels like in a sensory way. One to remember here is: show, don't tell. A flower doesn't just smell nice, the narrator (or character, depending on your POV) thinks it smells nice, there is a subtle but very obvious difference between the two.
The same goes for the body, it's easy to forget that your characters are actually doing things while they are talking, even when they aren't doing anything really. Things like body language, moving of hands, feet, anything.
Have your character do something while they talk. They might be playing with the hem of their shirt or maybe they've found a paper-clip on the table next to them. Make them do something while they talk, don't just have a whole page with just dialogue lines.
Which nicely rolls into the next point.
6. "flowery" language. Use real language, don't try to copy the style of Jane Austen (unless of course it is a historical novel). Use real language, read other writers in the genre you write and look at how they use words and sentence structures(a warning with this to read a recent book in your genre, language and conventions change a lot over, let's say, a 20 year span).
Don't try to go over the top with adjectives. Adjectives are often 'telling' or describing things, make them real, show something is a certain way, showing, interacting with something. Make the story active and forward. Flowery language usually makes the story slow down and people have to take more time trying to figure out what you mean because something you would interpret one way they might another way. Someone once said that light and short sentences were preferred over dense and long sentences. Flowery language is often a form of dense sentences, trying to put as much meaning into a few words. Try to shorten your sentences and make them active, go forward in the lines.
Listen to how the people around you talk, use real language you encounter in life to write your stories(but do make the language understandable, not everybody might understand the slang/accent spoken where you live).
7. Names. This is purely my own feeling on the topic, so you can always skip reading this part if you think about this differently. I do feel strongly about this so I'm putting it in here anyway.
I think the names of your characters have to fit the place where the story takes place. I use really normal English names like Jack, Vic, Anne, etc. in my own stories. Why? Because I want people to remember the character because of who they are as a person, not because they have a strange name. Some of my weirder names include Keiran(which is an old Gaelic name) and Galen (also Gaelic), but since it's set to be in the Western world I found I would be able to do it. They were also the only "weird" names I used in that story.
When in a fantasy setting I get it that names are usually not normal names, that is how it works, but try to at least keep it pronounceable. I would like to able to pronounce the name of the character I'm reading a story about.
What I usually do have a problem with are weird names just to be weird, they often don't look like anything I know, the story takes place in an all white American neighbourhood and they have names 90% of Americans would not even be able to pronounce. That doesn't work. That is weird names for the sake of the name. I also cringe when I encounter a story set in the USA, all white characters, white school, and all Japanese names. That for me is just wrong. Either give them normal American names or make the story take place in Japan (and do the research for it).
What I really just want to say is that you need to use normal names, there are so many names out there that you can use and that won't make your character look like they got a name just so they or the story would be unique.
Names don't make a character unique, you, the writer, make a unique character, don't ruin it by giving them names that no-one will ever be able to pronounce or remember.
I hope you liked this instalment, next week I'll be writing about narration style, voices and cliché's to look out for.
Please leave a comment if you want to add or ask something.
Guide for online published stories, Part 1