Many of us grew up listening to stories which began, for example: 'Once upon a time there was a king and queen had no children, until, after they thought they would never have a child, they were delighted when the queen became pregnant.." This is an extreme example of telling, which is boring. It includes the followingwords which should be avoided whenever possible:- 'had', 'was' and 'were'.
An alternative could be:
Queen Anne looked out of the window at children playing with a ball in the courtyard of the castle. She sighed. "If only we could have a child."
King James put his arm around her. "Perhaps we will."
Queen Anne doubted it until, several months later, she disturbed her husband in a council meeting to speak to him privately.
"What is it," the king asked, "you know you shouldn't interrupt me when-"
"Shush, your majesty. I couldn't wait to tell you I am expecting a child."
When I finish a novel, I highlight 'had', 'was' and 'were'. I then see if I can rephrase text containing these words.
Of course, the culprits are part of the English Language that we cannot avoid using, but we should make sure we are showing the reader what happens not telling them what happened.
Many of the most famous novels are either romances or have an element of romance in them.
Most of us have experienced romance which novelists can draw on when writing about the subject. Whatever we write the characters must spring to life from the page and, if the reader is not going to lose faith in them, their circumstances and behaviour be believable.
Consider Pride and Prejudice which contains the classic ingredients of an engrossing romance with many obstacles which inhibit it until the happy ever after ending. When the couple first meet they should not fall in love at first sight, although they can be attracted to each other, on the other hand they could be angry or suspicious, be reluctantly drawn to each other, be wary, embarrassed or annoyed.
The setting must be romantic - a holiday in a five* hotel or cottage with rambling roses round the door, an exotic place - a houseboat in Kashmir, a log cabin by a lake in Canada, Venice, a beautiful island.
When writing about the location, descriptions and language needs to be sensuous, employing the five senses, and conveying food, perfumes etc. Everything should be larger than life.
Romance has it's own language to draw the reader deeper and deeper into the story. Short sharp sentences emphasise conflict and drama. Longer sentences allow the reader 'to smell the roses'.
Historical romance requires extensive research - a foolish mistake will cause the reader to lose faith in the author.
Finally, the reader should be able to fall in love with the hero or heroine in spite of their faults. After all, in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind Rhett Butler understood Scarlet's flaws and loved her passionately in spite of them.
Quests are a crucial part of fable, fantasy, legend and myth. To name only a few, there are a wealth of fascinating quests in The Odyssey, the search for the Holy Grail by Arthur's knights of the Round Table, which so many novelists have written about, Tolkien's novels beginning with The Hobbit, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson's The Olympians and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials series).
Perhaps it is significant that the child in all of us enjoys children's novels with riveting quests.
Quests in fiction are important. What does the hero or heroine want? At the beginning of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, her self-absorbed heroine, Scarlet O'Hara's quest is to attract every man at a barbecue, whether she wants them or not, and, above all, to marry Ashley Wilkes, who she pursues until the final chapter.
I have yet to read a novel in which there is not a quest - for love, to find out who done it, to take revenge, to be a successful businessman or woman, actor, actress, artist, poet or author etc.
So, before I write the first line of a new novel or short story I ask myself what the main characters' quests are
Instead of telling a reader about an event it would be more interesting in dialogue.
e.g. Jane remembered the day on which her dog ran away and is glad to get him back.
e.g. Tears filled Jane's eyes as she hugged Rover. "Thank you, thank you for returning him. I've been out of my mind with worry since he ran away."
Involve the five senses to show the reader characters. Allow them to bring back memories of the past. For example, a whiff of a particular perfume brings my mother to mind. A snatch of Indian music reminds me of a performance of a dancer's amazing performance as a peacock. Your characters will have their own memories which lead into the present.
Involve the protagonist instead of relying on description. Instead of, for example, describing a character's new gown, allow her to admire it, smooth it and tweak it into place. Let your reader see her.
Show a scene through a character's eyes, what does he or she like or dislike about it? Show the character touching things. If he or she is outside on a rainy, windy day show how they react perhaps by struggling with an umbrella, perhaps wishing he or she had worn a raincoat.
Conflict increases the pace and so does danger. To heighten them, use short sharp sentences. However, don't rush the pace throughout the novel, alternate tense scenes with calm ones.
When I write the opening lines of a novel, I visualise a customer reading the first sentences. No matter how attractive the front book cover is, or how intriguing the blurb on the back cover is, if the first lines don't grip the reader, the sale will be lost.
When I submit a novel or short story, I send it with a prayer, hoping the agent or publisher will be hooked by the first lines and be reeled in by the following ones.
My historical novel Far Beyond Rubies begins:-
' “Bastards, Juliana! You and your sister
'Aghast, Juliana stared at William, her
older half-brother, although, not for a moment did she believe his shocking
William's accusation and Juliana's reaction are intended to grip the reader and make them want to read on.
The first sentence of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is:-
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton Twins were."
In his book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman comments. "This sixteen-year old girl is presented as someone out of the ordinary."
The first lines are crucial and the author needs to give them very careful consideration.
I like to read novels - particularly historical ones, including historical romance, by authors whose fiction I have not read before. When choosing what to read, the character's names are very important to me. If, for example, the hero, who is a mediaeval knight', is called Wayne and the heroine is a mediaeval lady, for example, called Flossie, I don't choose that book. If the names are inappropriate it indicates the author's research might leave much to be desired.
Wayne or Waine is not listed in The Oxford Book of English Christian names, but "Wainwright. Old English waegnwyrhta 'wainwright, wagon-builder" is mentioned in The Reader's Digest Great Encylopaedic Dictionary as a surname.
Florence, which is shortened Florrie, Flo, Floy or Flossie, became common in the 19th century.
The name, Florence, derives from Florentia, female and Florentius, male. Florence was used in the Middle Ages about equally as a man's or a woman's name but died out as a man's name.
That's enough about the origin of the name, Florence, but as I have already mentioned a heroine in the middle ages called Flossie would put me off the novel.
When choosing names for my characters I refer to The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, The Reader's Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary useful for both Christian and Surnames, and Burke's Peerage as well as a book of first names for Babies which includes names from many parts of the world. As for Burkes, it's fascinating, and provides a treasure trove of unusual first names and surnames some of which have been handed down from generation to generation.
Until I have named my main characters they do not spring to life in my imagination. I spend many happy hours browsing names in my search for appropriate ones.
It is mortifying if a novelist describes a character's eyes as blue and later refers to them as grey. In order to avoid such mistakes I fill in a detailed character profile, which includes appearance, for main characters and a simpler one for minor characters, which also includes their appearance.
In my new historical novel Monday's Child there are many minor characters. Instead of depending on my memory, I have a card index in which I record the names of those who have a very minor role.
These aids to memory are very useful. I remember reading a historical novel which began with the main character, who was called - say - Lady Violet. Half way through the novel Lady Rose was introduced. What had happened? The author had changed her mind about calling the main protagonist Lady Violet and re-named her. Unfortunately, she forgot to change the name in the first half of the novel and - amazingly - neither the contents editor nor the line editor notice so the name Lady Rose replaced Lady Violet when the novel was published. Of course, this is an extreme example, but novelist's beware, but I wonder what the readers made of it.