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“Bursting the Illusion” And Other Writing Pitfalls by Fran Long

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Fran Long

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After fifteen years working as a journalist for the Sunday Independent and Sunday Times among others I was fairly confident that I knew how to write. It turned out that practically all my writing habits were bad, at least for the purpose of novel writing. I had to learn new writing skills and forget the old ones.

One of the big mistakes I made was the use of “passive voice”. Reporters use “passive voice” a great deal because it is neutral and supports the notion that the reporter is an objective observer. So I was used to writing sentences like “The discovery was made by John.” My literary agent noticed this style immediately and asked me to correct it. For the purpose of story telling it is better to use “active voice”. So the sample sentence works better in the form “John made the discovery,” or even better, “John discovered it.”

The latter sentence has the mark of a more confident story teller. The tone is important because most published authors are confident storytellers and so publishers automatically look for that quality among the submissions. Young Bulls and Matadors is my third novel. It runs to 125,000 words and I completed thirteen drafts. After nearly two years work I was confident that my story was good and my story telling had greatly improved. A lot of that improvement was down to continual mentoring from my agent. She gave sound advice for which one would pay a lot of money on a creative writing course and which I am happy to share it with readers of writing.ie.

One of the pitfalls I had fallen into was “mind reading”. I was constantly writing down the thoughts of my characters. In reality no one has the ability to “mind read” the thoughts of others so this became something that was unbelievable. For example, instead of writing a sentence like “John was wondering if the woman was English”. It is better to employ dialogue and phrase it as, ‘“Are you English? John asked her.’

This is a very common mistake among new writers and I myself took a long time to overcome it.

Another example of this would be if I wrote something like “John felt hot.” Nowadays I would phrase it better, “a bead of sweat formed on John’s brow and gently rolled down his face.” As my agent put it, the problem is that the writer is “bursting the illusion”. Readers want to be absorbed by a story and pulled into the action or the characterisation. It is irritating for them to be constantly reminded that there is a narrator at work reciting the story to them. They don’t want to know that they are reading a work of fiction as described by a stranger. That’s the illusion. Therefore it is better if the storyteller keeps him or herself and their thoughts and opinions out of the story completely. As my agent put it, “just tell the story and cut the waffle.”

This leads to an important point. Many new writers believe they must use a higher literary tone when writing, this might be done in part to impress the reader with one’s vocabulary. I fell into this trap myself when starting out. I used words like “mellifluous” instead of “sweet” in a clumsy attempt to sound clever. Everyone knows what “sweet” means so it is a better choice to communicate an idea. Once again the idea, or in our case the story, is the most important thing.

Communicating the story effectively, without stumbling, is what is vital.

For example, I learned to use one adjective instead of two adjectives that mean the same thing. Here is a sample sentence. “She was dripping soaking wet, like a soggy sponge streaming water drops into a rapidly growing puddle underneath.” You can just as easily say, “She was wet through.” The reader will still know what you mean, so you can be confident with one adjective. Thus by using one adjective (or even none), you have become a more confident writer. This stops you using a sledgehammer constantly to drive your points home.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of drafting. With every re-read comes a better way of describing the action or phrasing the dialogue. The story needs to be in the best possible shape before submitting it. Then get a friend to proof read it because after a while you will start to skip over any typos without noticing them. (Another pitfall I am still guilty of.) The drafting process also helps to strip out a lot of what my agent likes to call “waffle”. For example in the early drafts of Young Bulls and Matadors my characters did a lot of wise cracking. But this had the effect of releasing the tension I was trying to create. After all Young Bulls and Matadors is a tense thriller, not a rom-com starring Jennifer Aniston. Many of my characters were violent people. It was unbelievable to make them overly humorous as well. Gangsters and violent criminals are not that funny, so the jokes and the wise cracks had to go. This required a measure of ruthlessness on my part. There were sections of the story that I really liked. But I wanted a thrilling story which kept the readers nerves on edge. So out came a lot of material. (Thousands of words were edited out.) Afterwards the story definitely benefited. It flowed a lot better and as I keep repeating, the story is the most important thing.

One of the most important factors to consider is the title of your novel. This might seem self evident but it really is critical. Young Bulls and Matadors used to be called Knackerland until the ninth draft. I had to change it because the former title was too controversial. One publisher actually believed it was “actionable”. So it had to go. The new title was suggested by a friend who first saw the parallel between the criminal hierarchy and Spanish ‘bullfighting’, principally through the use of the phrase “young bull.”

Book publishers, like record companies, used to have large numbers of people working to market their published material. These people now work in Tesco, so it is up to the aspiring author to market their own product.  Young Bulls and Matadors is published on Amazon Kindle. I have also created a blog which contains the synopsis for the novel and the artwork for the cover.

I hope these pointers will help your creative writing. They were hard lessons to learn but the advice as told to me was extremely valuable when it came to finishing Young Bulls and Matadors and my follow up novel The Man Who Hunted in Packs.

young_bulls_and_matadors gunAbout Young Bulls and Matadors

After a drug deal goes wrong. Stephen Coakley and Sean Buggy narrowly escape capture and are left to pick up the pieces of their crumbling drug empire. They owe two million euros for drugs that they lost and now have no way to pay the debt.

They beat senseless those who owe them drug money, but ignore all warnings to pay their own debts. They set about killing their rivals, but their actions attract too much attention.

They are targeted by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and one dedicated investigator, Michael Cunningham, who is determined to end their crimes. Coakley and Buggy flee to Spain and try to re-establish their drug empire with larger scores destined for northern Europe. However they soon draw unwelcome attention from the Spanish authorities and other more fearsome criminals. They are unable to exercise the slightest restraint and their efforts to make ‘hustle money’ quickly runs foul of other underworld figures. This criminal fraternity in Spain are an older more cunning breed and as the “Blanch Boys” underestimate their rivals, they pay a price.

Back in Dublin no one is sure if they are dead. Each rumour is hungrily devoured by a self serving journalist, Lang, who rewards police for any information on the duo. He connives to move up the corporate ladder but, like the Blanch Boys, he is immune to the suffering of those whose lives he has ruined.  Ordinary decent citizens are caught up in the violence. Archer is a pensioner, who interrupts a car thief and whose life is threatened. His assailant’s name is ‘The Gadget’, a poster boy for the modern hoodie/thug. ‘The Gadget’ is a compulsive car thief and vandal. There are also white collar professionals who, by their inaction, facilitate criminals and hinder the work of the police.

Young Bulls and Matadors taps into the real feeling in Ireland and the UK that crime is out of control. Everywhere it seems the streets are not safe to walk. Burglaries, car thefts and assaults are commonplace and neither police nor politicians seem able to stop it. The action is mainly set in Spain, Dublin, Monaco and London. We follow two dysfunctional individuals who wreak emotional and physical carnage wherever they go. Their inability to back down and their talent for making enemies, serves to hasten their destruction. This is a new breed to which nothing and no one is sacred. Fear and violence are their expressions. Drugs are the currency.  They have no fear, no joy or compassion. There is no love in their world.

(c) Fran Long

About the author

Francis Long worked as a broadcast journalist for radio and television for seven years before working as a print journalist for the Sunday Independent for another seven years.  During that time he covered crime stories, political stories and topical news. Thereafter he worked as a technology journalist for Irish Computer Magazine and the Computers in Business magazine published by the Sunday Business Post.

He has worked as a journalist for RTE Television’s PrimeTime current affairs show as well as Ireland’s first television science documentary series, “Big Science”. He has a degree in Science from Trinity College Dublin as well as a Masters Degree in Journalism from Dublin City University. He lives in Ireland and Spain. Young Bulls and Matadors is his first novel.

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