All posts by Nick Travers

Grammar – Using the interrobang (‽)

Image result for interrobangGrammatically, the interrobang (‽), or more commonly written (!?) or (?!), should never be used in modern writing. The only time it commonly appears is in comic books or cartoons as a visual indicator of a strong questioning emotion.

Artistically, it could be used very sparingly to emphasise the same emotion in writing.

However, it is such an obscure punctuation mark (the original version is only available in a few fonts) you run the risk of confusing your readers and breaking the flow of your fiction—anything that throws your reader out of your fiction world is bad, in my opinion.

Much better, in my opinion, to use words and description to convey the same meaning and emotion, i.e show the emotion rather than rely on obscure grammar to do the job for you‽


Keeping Track of Small Details in a Long Novel

blog204-20checklist-20readyConsistency in small details is key to maintaining the story magic withing a novel, whether short or long.  Recording meticulous details  in notebooks, notes, online files/descriptions etc, are vital. One thing I constantly forget is the colour of my character’s eyes & hair, so I need it written down.

One useful technique I have started using recently is a spreadsheet which briefly lists each scene. I then track where all the main characters are while the scene is being enacted. This prevents characters suddenly appearing in impossible places or while they are meant to be some place else.

I also use the spreadsheet to track other elements of the longer story from scene to scene:

  • Character change from scene-to-scene/chapter-to-chapter
  • Plot development
  • Developments of theme(s)
  • Character relationships (romantic and otherwise)
  • Symbolism
  • Character mood/emotions
  • The progression of sub-plots (which are often not played out over consecutive scenes)
  • Character changes during sub plots

One of the main aims for me, is to ensure every type of progression happens logically and incrementally.

I also find it particularly useful to chart character moods and emotions from scene to scene and character relationships, because if there is going to be any meaning to the story these things have to develop as the story progresses.  However, to be effective these changes must be dripped in slowly and consistently so the reader hardly notices.

Not every author includes any symbolism in their stories, but if you can pull it off, it’s another story element that is generally buried deep within the story telling and may not even be noticed by most reader.  What they will notice, is when you get it wrong, so consistency is really important and I find a spread sheet really helps.

Hope you find that of use.


The Secret to Effective Character Descriptions

Related imageThe most effective character description, is the one your reader creates for themselves. Your job is to provide enough clues for your reader to create their own character, based on yours.

Most readers will identify themselves as the central character, even if this is blatantly opposed to the description you give. One of the joys of reading is that you vicariously live another life through the character in the novel: you become that character and experience their emotions and action through the story.

Don’t try too hard to pin down your character’s physical appearance, other than a sketchy outline – make it easy for your reader to imagine themselves in the central role.

Is your character black or white? Unless the colour of their skin is integral to the story, why risk alienating a section of your audience by defining their skin colour? Let the reader decide.

Concentrate instead on their characteristics (personality), emotional traits, and actions. These are the things your readers really want to explore, i.e. in a safe environment, what does it feel like to be a psychotically murderous megalomaniac. They are also the things that ultimately define your character, whatever their physical appearance.

As to how you write that character, concentrate on ‘showing’ characteristics, emotions, and actions, rather than ‘telling’. Drip feed it all in, one scene at a time.


The Writing Process

giphyWhen I say The Writing Process, what I mean, of course, is my writing process.  The specific process I use, whilst generally typical of the process used by most writers who plan out their novel before writing, does have some peculiarities specific to my needs and foibles:

  1. Start putting everything into order to make a story. If you scribble basic outlines of each scene/story idea onto scraps of paper or sticky notes, you can literally lay them out before you until they start to make some sort of sense. You will likely have bits missing or maybe not even have an overall story – that is fine, any order is better than none.
  1. Stop! Steps (3) & (4) are interchangeable, so do whichever takes your fancy first.
  1. Take time to sketch out you main characters:

Who are they? What are they like? What life events have shaped them the way they are? What do they want? Why?

What is their past, what are the relationships between them, what strengths and flaws do they have, how will they have changed by the end of the story?

Image result for protagonist antagonist conflict

Ideally, your Protagonist’s (Hero) and your Antagonist (villain) should want the same thing or same goal – that way they are in direct competition. What do they want – this is the aim of your story.

Try to make the character flaws of your Protagonist the character strengths of your Antagonist, and the character strengths of your Protagonist the character weaknesses of your Antagonist – again putting them in direct conflict.

The flaws in your Protagonist’s character are the thinks that let them down and get them into trouble. Overcoming one or more character flaws is what leads to ultimate victory or them gaining the thing they want. So what flaws will lead them into trouble and what flaw(s) will be overcome? Jot down story ideas and scenes.

The strengths in your Antagonist’s character are what gives them victories over your Protagonist. However, failing to overcome one or more of their character flaws is what leads to they ultimate failure or to losing the thing they are after. So what are their strengths and what flaw(s) will they fail to overcome? Jot down story ideas and scenes.

  1. Take time to think about your overall story:

What, in very simple terms is your story, (sum it up in one short sentence) – a much harder exercise than it seems.

How will the main character(s) have evolved from the beginning to the end of the story (One sentence for each character).

Think up some subplots which might compliment/juxtapose/parody the main story, or which show character growth (one sentence for each).

If you don’t already know about Story Arcs, do some research, start to fit your stuff from steps (1) & (2) into your main Story Arc.

Take out every scene and story idea that does not progress the main story.

Use deleted scenes and story ideas for sub plots and character stories. Again, fit them into Story Arcs. If they still don’t fit, save them for the sequels.

Fill in all the gaps with new story ideas and scenes.

  1. Do whichever of step (3) or (4) you didn’t just do.
  1. Start putting everything together:

stickynotes_08Put everything together for your main story into one straight line in  chronological order – lay them out on the floor if you have to, or stick post-it notes to a wall/window/notice board/desk – whatever works for you.

In separate lines lay out the scenes/story ideas for each sub-plot and each character development/story, and decide where they start and finish in relation to the main story.

Merge all the story lines together.

It may have taken you hours, days, weeks, or even months, to complete this exercise, but you now have an outline plan for your entire novel.

  1. Start writing: I tend to write one chapter at a time, editing the chapter a couple of times until I am happy with it. This is my editing process:
  1. First draft: write or dictate a the basic scene/chapter/story. I often use a voice to text software while doing domestic chores or dictate into my mobile while out walking and transpose it to text later).
  1. Scene Brief Edit:5senses

Add in as much description and sensory experience as I can (using all five senses), filling in any plot/story gaps.

Any additions, alterations or amendments to the plot/story are recorded on the outline plan (see 7) and immediately corrected or added to previous chapters (otherwise I will forget about them).

  1. Grammar Edit: concentrate on sentence, paragraph, and dialogue construction. Sort out grammar and syntax issues.
  1. Image result for sound editorSound Edit: this where everyone tells you to read your writing out loud. I find that difficult to do, so I get the computer to read it to me using text-to-speech software. This is were I pick up sound issues and readability issues.
  1. Full read through of the novel with final edits.
  1. Pass out to beta readers for comments and feedback.
  1. Beta edit.
  1. Professional Edit: I pass the manuscript to a US editor I employ. This is party to proofread, partly for a high level copy edit, but mainly to correct British English to US English (the majority of my readers/customers are in the US so I publish my novel in US English).
  1. Novel writing completed. Publish.


World Mental Health Day

I am celebrating World Mental Health Day by looking after myself and by sharing this post:

If you feel like you cannot cope, and one in every four of us (you too guys) will feel like this at some point in our lives, do the following:

  1. Talk to someone and tell them how you feel – yes, it will be frightening, yes, you will feel exposed/stupid/vulnerable, and yes, they might not understand, but it will help you.
  2. Talk to a Doctor, medication can take the ‘edge’ of things and help you cope. If your body stops producing insulin, you suffer from diabetes, and you get medication to replace the missing insulin. So think of your brain as a giant computer, but instead of running on electrical impulses it runs on chemicals and hormones. If, for any reason, your body produces too little or too much of a certain chemical or hormone, your brain will stop functioning properly. You will then suffer from anxiety and/or depression, or bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychosis, or any number of other mental health issues. Taking medication can help restore the balance of chemicals in your brain so it works better.
  3. Find ways to cope with your mental health issues. Yes, it may seem like the end of the world, and yes, you may grieve the loss of the old you, but if you have a long term issue you need to develop proactive way to deal with it. If you developed a physical problem, you would adapt your living/lifestyle to cope with it, mental illness is no different, just no so obvious, so others may not cut you the slack you need, which means you have to be proactive:
  4. Plenty of exercise and/or fresh air and daylight helps.
  5. Actively build up a support network of friends (no they may not be the sort of people you hung out with before, but you may not be the sort of person you were before – seek out people who will be there for you, no matter what).
  6. Get plenty of sleep – regular lack of sleep can cause all sorts of physical and mental issues. Your brain may need more sleep than before. If you cannot sleep at night experiment with other sleep patterns: try two sleeps – early night and early morning (which was standard in medieval Europe), sleep late afternoons or mid morning, or a series of shorter naps during the day, or for a couple of hours at lunchtime (like some Japanese offices) – you just have to findm something that works and change your life around the new schedule.
  7. If possible, reduce stress in your life if you can (if you cannot do so immediately create a longer term plan over a defined timescale).
  8. Identify the ‘triggers’ that cause episodes or that cause certain emotional swings (fear/anger/depression/hyper activity/excitement/anxiety) and try to avoid these triggers if possible or plan to mitigate the emotions after (for instance, a long drive, noisy environment, or stressful day will trigger a depression ‘hangover’ the next day, so I try to plan a quiet day afterwards if I know these things are coming along).
  9. Contingency plan: If you cannot plan ahead, then make contingency plans for when these your mental health issue ‘kicks in’, e.g.:
    1. If I feel hopless, I will phone friend XXXX (be specific who, and agree with them before-hand),
    2. If i wake up in a ‘black’ mood, I will go for a run etc,
    3. If I feel angry, I will walk away, go for a walk, remove myself from the situation,
    4. If I get really stressed/confused I will call for a break/timeout, etc.
  10. Finally, Monitor your moods: Even depression has different aspects/flavours and intensities – I might feel distracted, anxious, hopeless, angry, stressed, exhausted or just ‘a blanket blackness’. If you can identify your exact feelings, you have a better chance of managing/mitigating them. Monitor the intensity: Is it a black day, red, amber, or green day? Yes, some days will be better than others. I monitor my moods on a phone app, together with my sleep patterns and exercise. And I use the following colour code: Green = OK, Amber=bad but I can cope on my own, Red=A bad day, when I should use some of my contingency plans, Black=a really bad day – phone in sick, take a duvet day, potter round the house, sleep all day, watch TV – it will pass. Too many black days in a row – book an appointment with my doctor.

Look after yourself,


Writing a Mental Breakdown

Image result for mental illnessTo write a character having a mental breakdown, you would first have to show the stress that will eventually lead to the breakdown, that everyone else can see, but not the main character.

Then you need to show a loss of objectivity / increasing obsession / distancing those who care.

Next you need a trigger that will bring on the breakdown – a betrayal is always good, someone dumping the blame, a deadline that cannot be met, or events spinning hopelessly out of control, the consequences of which seem to increase exponentially. For dramatic effect, the more public the breakdown the better.

Then you need to show the fear of failure, the impossibility of achieving/facing simple tasks (like looking down the wrong end of a telescope), the fear of madness, the knowledge that all is lost/career is ruined, missing periods of time. With the black veil of depression descending over everything (like the onset of tunnel vision).

Also, you should show other characters unable to comprehending/understand, what is happening. Even if they want to help, they cannot. A breakdown is an intensely lonely affair, because it is happening inside the head.

Finally, a loss of emotional control (tearfulness/anger/hopelessness), a sense that someone (yourself) has died, a sense of detachment from the world, mental chaos whenever you try to get a grip (because the old strategies/ways of rationalising the world, no longer work), exhaustion, and the belief that all is lost and the world (especially your loved ones) are better off without you.

At least, that is the way it happened for me.

If you survive all that, the fight back is long, hard, and frightening, and requires a lot of support, but makes a good story too, because the main character will be forever changed. The film ‘Regarding Henry’, staring Harrison Ford, although not about a mental breakdown, brilliantly shows the sort of recovery that a mental health patient has to go through.

Character Contradictions

Related imageCharacter creation is the fun part of writing. Testing your characters to the limit is even better.

Testing whether your Character will act out their values is one of the main reasons people will read your stories. Basically, having decided on a set of character values for your protagonist, your antagonist (whether a person, society, your world, or the ‘system’) must embody the opposite values, but both must want the same prize. This ensures they come into direct conflict and the values of each are tested.

The testing occurs through the action of the story. If your protagonist is a pacifist, will they stand by and watch their friend die at the hands of another? Or will they act in their defence? How, after the action, do they justify going against their own values? How have they ‘grown’ / ‘learned’ / ‘changed’ through the incident?

Everyone has the ability within themselves to both plumb the depths of humanity and to soar to the heights. We also have the ability to not only hold several contradictory views at once, but to justify virtually anything so that we are in the ‘right’.

The film Schindler’s List is a great example of the internal conflict within human nature. Here is a man who does good things for bad reasons—this is the sort of character that keeps our readers glued to the text, furiously turning pages.

Do you think any of the despots in the twentieth century believed they were evil, or the villain of the plot? All, I suspect, sincerely thought they were making their society, and the world, a better place. They alone were the courageous souls taking the necessary decisions others flinched away from. In their eyes, and the narrative of their lives (more about this later), they were the heroes.

The only source for this type of internal conflict is either other people’s writings (whether fictional or factual) or our own experience. Fiction writing is very often just an extreme version of the things we ourselves have experience, that is why some people claim that all fiction is autobiographical to some extent.

Try taking some of your own internal/emotional conflicts, put your characters into the scenario (their values and actions might be very different to your own), then extrapolate all the variables and conflicts to their maximum extent – this is how you turn your own mundane experiences into exciting fiction.

Psychopathic Characters Without Cliches

Image result for psychopath

Definitions of psychopathy range from the mentally unhinged (insane) to a spectrum of mild to severe personality traits.  In common parlance ‘psychopath’ is itself a cliche, which makes it very difficult to not produce a character who is a cliche.

To create an interesting psychopathic character, who doesn’t pander to cliches, concentrating on your character’s personality traits. Pick out some personality traits that might be considered psychopathic and define what they mean with regard to your character:

  • How is she dangerous? Is it about power, pain, focus, skill? Why do others (psychopaths always consider themselves to be normal – don’t we all) consider her a psychopath?
  • How is she psychopathic? Is she uninhibited, does she have uncontrollable anger, is she egotistical, deluded? Can she turn the charm on and off like a tap, but have no underlying feelings of empathy?
  • What is her attitude to rules. Are they there to be broken? Applicable to everyone else but not her? Does she apply them ridgidly and unbendingly in all situations without exception/empathy. Or does she apply her own criteria as to which rules should be kept and broken – if so what is that criteria? Is she a good or a bad psychopath?
  • Does she stray more toward the Sociopathic or the psychotic (research the differences – it’s important)?
  • How extreme are these psychopathic character traits, and are there any triggers/situations that increase or activate those traits.

Related image

For a nuanced, more subtle, and therefore less cliched, character, give her only a few truly psychopathic character traits, and some normal character traits – no one is ever stereotypically all bad or all good. The best psychopathic character I have seen recently is Jessica Jones in the Netflix series.


Next, work out where the psychopathic character traits come from. Why is she the way she is? What has happened to make her the way she is? Try to write some back story to show how she identified with these traits.

Finally, remember that every villain (if in deed she is a villain) is always the hero of their own story.

  • In her mind she is the one making the right decisions for the right reasons. You need to show this in your writing/scenes so your readers can understand where she is coming from, however twisted her reasons and thinking might be, and even maybe, has some sympathy for her.
  • Always plan out the villains story, from their point of view, as well as the hero’s story.

Now for the magical bit: Forget she’s a psychopath.  Just concentrate on writing a character who displays/shows all those character traits and you should end up with a rounded, nuanced, believable, character.

Have fun.


Secrets of Chapter Construction

Each chapter is a mini story in its own right, so to work properly, just like any story, each chapter must have, as a bare minimum, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Or to put it another way every chapter needs a three line plot. This consists of:

  • A premise – what is the scene about.
  • A complication (one per scene) – (But) what difficulty do the characters have to overcome and how do they overcome this complication.
  • A trigger – How overcoming the complication triggers the next complication that needs to be overcome in the next scene.

Each chapter may be a single scene which follows a simple story arc, or may comprise of several simpler scenes, each with a beginning. Middle, and end, that together form the story arc. I prefer to use a variation on the classic eight-part story arc.

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3.  Quest
  4.  Complication
  5.  Choice
  6.  Climax
  7.  Reversal
  8.  Resolution

However, unlike the overall Story Arc, most chapters do not end with a Resolution, but with the trigger for the next scene in the flow of the story. This keeps the story moving and the reader turning the pages. The trigger would normally by a consequence of the complication or difficulty tackled in the scene/chapter. If it is the last scene in a chapter, then classically the trigger could be a cliff-hanger to the first scene in the next chapter or the next scene involving that character.

Here is a Scene Flow infographic from my article on Creating Good Scene Flow that applies equally well to structuring chapters.

Dialogue or Description

The amount of dialogue and/or description you use in your novel depends, on your genre, point of view, and audience.

I have been told that publishers flick through the first chapter of a manuscript and if the balance between dialogue and description is not right, they won’t even read the first page. Try this on any physical book, it is easy to do, just flick through the pages and longer paragraphs of description will immediately jump out – not so easy for an electronic book where formatting often requires shorter paragraphs.

Therefore, if you plan to be traditionally published, it is crucial to get the balance right. If you are self-publishing, you can do whatever your audience/you like.

Literary Fiction will definitely require more description than dialogue, as will High Fantasy and Hard Science Fiction, genres.

Young Adult generally requires a faster pace, so more dialogue will help push the story along. Also the description may be attached to the dialogue rather than in separate paragraphs (see below).

The first person present tense point-of-view, in which I’m currently writing my Nina Swift series, requires more dialogue as you are constantly inside the point-of-view character’s head. Also, I find it useful to attach the description to the dialogue instead of identifiers, as this pushes this Young Adult story along even faster. Have a look at examples on my website or on my Wattpad pages to get an idea of what I mean.

Recently I had a go at Text Publishing a short story, which requires pure dialogue. Any description has to be included within the dialogue spoken by a character. challenging, but fun.

If in doubt, always try to achieve an even balance between dialogue and description. When you want the story to increase in pace, use more dialogue/shorter paragraphs, and when you want to slow the story down, used more description/longer paragraphs. If your novel is the same pace throughout, your readers will either get exhausted or bored.