Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Mistakes Writers Make #writetip

“I feel certain this is going to be a great resource for non-fiction writers.”

It was those kind words – written by Lorraine Mace, the host of this guest post – which were the first ones to be left on my blog, Mistakes Writers Make, when I launched it seven years ago with the first Mistake, Believing You Can DIY.

Having at that stage been a tutor for the Writers Bureau for two or three years, I’d been critically appraising the work of beginner non-fiction writers for some time. While showing and telling new writers what to do certainly has its place, I came to fully appreciate that this prescriptive method may not be sufficient or even productive for some learners. It was good constructive criticism that really seemed to move many forward, I noticed: pointing out the errors, and offering guidance on how to correct them, while giving praise for what was being done well, of course.

Not all aspiring writers can or want to enrol on a course, though, and I began to wonder whether a resource dedicated to showing wannabe writers what they might be doing that they shouldn’t be doing would be popular – and might serve those writers more effectively than merely giving them instructions, as many writing guides do (and indeed do well).

The idea for a blog focusing on error sprung from this, and it is still going – although as a writing resource I’m not sure it has ever quite got anywhere near that greatness Lorraine so supportively predicted in its early days! It’s not all about the bloopers, though: the ‘Mistakes’ are supplemented by publishing and other opportunities, product recommendations and book reviews, as well as occasional rants about such hazards as copyright-grabbing writing competitions, which writers have to negotiate.

Some years ago I began to think a more structured guidebook taking the reader sequentially from A to Z might work for those looking for an introductory manual in writing non-fiction. The Mistakes on the blog are not logically ordered – they not only go from A to X to D to P, but since I introduced guest posts they now also take in a few Cyrillic and Greek letters as scenic detours – and whatever Mistake happens to take my whim at any given time becomes the next one in numerical line. Not necessarily ‘friendly’ to a total beginner needing to learn from scratch!

And so the ebooks were born. The first, 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make, was published in 2015; the second, predictably titled 50 More Mistakes Beginner Writers Make, just last month.

They start with the basics – generating ideas, approaching editors, researching and crafting an article – before tackling slightly more advanced subjects – dealing with editors, editing techniques, understanding contracts, interviewing skills and much more. I can’t deny that occasionally the books tell the reader what to do – but when they do they do so through the prism of error, to which I think some people (not all) respond better.

Although some of the more important posts on the blog have been included, albeit in updated or adapted forms, most are fresh and new. Several more books are planned. Curiously, the more mistakes you write about, the more you find to write about, and I have come to be really quite fond of errors. The cock-up is not something to be hidden, ignored or denied, but something to be almost celebrated, albeit possibly not repeated. As I say in one of the books, no doubt I make many errors myself in my job, but they don’t seem to be stopping me from doing what I do or want to do, which is to make a living from words.

Perhaps, then, the trick is to correct the ones that are stopping you from doing whatever it is you want to do?

I hope the blog and the books might help you identify those blighters and banish them. If they do, you probably have Lorraine to thank. Had it not been for that first encouraging comment, the Mistakes Writers Make blog might have met an end as grim as that of some of the characters in her Frances di Plino novels ...

Alex Gazzola’s 50 Mistakes books are both available on Amazon.
His blog can be found at

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

A Hokey Cokey Christmas

With Christmas just around the corner, we weren’t surprised when Ángel, our Spanish teacher, explained there wouldn’t be another class until after the New Year, but he insisted we still come to the school on the next lesson day. After a few misunderstandings we realised he was inviting us to an end of year party.

Laden with plates of eats and bottles of wine, most of the class made it the following week, but there was a surprise waiting. It wasn’t a party for the ex-pats only, but incorporated his other students as well.

These were Spanish ladies of mature years, none of whom had been able read or write their native language before starting lessons with Ángel.

Under Franco’s rule Almeria was a province very much out of favour. Girls during this period didn’t attend school. The only teachers they had were their parents, many of whom were barely literate themselves. As a result a generation of ladies had reached their retirement age without ever having read so much as a newspaper article. Fortunately the Turre council had decided to put matters right and the ladies were getting lessons in basic literacy.

The party started in the way that mixed language events always do, Spanish on one side of the room and English speakers on the other. There was no shortage of goodwill, but a distinct absence of conversation. Nothing daunted, the Spanish ladies decided a few Christmas carols would help to bridge the language divide and launched into song. It was a lively and catchy tune. We couldn’t understand the verses, but the chorus was easy to pick up.

Then it was our turn. Nods of encouragement made us bold, but it was at that point we realised none of the carols we knew was blessed with an easy to sing chorus. Our Spanish friends did their best, but couldn’t really join in. When we’d finished they started another one in Spanish and again we were able to sing along. Someone came up with the bright idea of writing the words to the Twelve Days of Christmas on the board, but not only could we not remember how many maids were a-milking, we couldn’t translate it either. The result would have had Santa’s elves running for cover. Off-key, out of tune and everyone singing a different part of the song, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

After yet another superb Spanish carol, we felt that British pride was at stake. Then someone suggested the Hokey Cokey. Oh well, what did we have to lose? We put our left arms in and our left arms out, in out, in out, we shook them all about. So did the Spanish ladies who’d leapt to their feet. Smiling and singing along, they enjoyed every second of it.

Jingle Bells followed, but they knew more verses in Spanish than we did in English, so we simply repeated the first verse several times. It didn’t matter; the ice was well and truly broken. We ate, drank and made merry with hardly a word exchanged.

When it was time to leave, our new amigas sang a beautiful song of farewell and then the lights went out. We stood in the dark, not sure whether to grope our way out or wait for the electricity to return. The strains of the Hokey Cokey started up again. No one could see, but I’m certain everyone’s arms went in and out.

So, if you should find yourself in this part of Spain over Christmas, do make sure you know that traditional carol the Hokey Cokey.  The locals do.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Need to signal a flashback? #writetip

Margaret from Exeter is having trouble with the pluperfect (even if she may not realise that’s where the problem lies): I’ve been told my flashbacks are clunky to read because I use too many hads, but if I’m already using the past tense for the main story, how else am I going to show that I’ve gone even further back? Is there another way to show that other than using had?

Let’s look at the definition of pluperfect in English: It denotes an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied, formed by using had and the past participle, as in he had wanted to meet her, but she had already left.

As a flashback shows action completed prior to the time she is writing about using the past tense, this definitely qualifies as a reason to use the pluperfect. So, Margaret is absolutely right in using it, but her friends are also right: overuse can be clunky and distancing to read.

 If we look at this short passage, you’ll see what I mean.

Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He had sat at a corner table of the pub where he had been certain he could not be seen and had waited for over an hour before Janet had appeared. She had been alone when she came in. She had gone straight to the bar. As she had sipped her drink, a man had come in and had stood next to her.

When going into flashback it is important to signal it so that the reader is aware of what is happening, so using the pluperfect in the opening sentence is fine. However, to avoid the clunky feel, you should switch to the simple past tense as soon as possible.

Michael had wanted to see for himself that Janet was meeting another man. He sat at a corner table where he couldn’t be seen and waited for over an hour before Janet appeared. She was alone when she came in and went straight to the bar. As she sipped her drink, a man came in and stood next to her.

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Monday, 6 June 2016

Grammar - narrative vs speech #writetip

Michaela from Huddersfield has sent in an interesting question about using natural sounding speech: I recently had a short story critiqued and the person who commented on my writing said I was making a mistake when I wrote my character was sat at the bar. I don’t see what’s wrong with that – it’s how the character speaks. In fact, he didn’t pick up on almost the same words in dialogue, so I’m now even more confused.

This is a case of narrative versus dialogue grammar usage. In dialogue, we can use all sorts of incorrect grammar, because it is, as you pointed out, how the characters speak. However, in narrative (where no one is speaking) using exactly the same construction would, in many cases, be incorrect.

I’ll use your query term in the following example.

“I don’t know why Jane got so upset. Dan was sat at the bar minding his own business and her mate came on to him. He didn’t start it.”

In the above paragraph, it’s fine to say Dan was sat because it is in direct speech and is in keeping with the speaker’s character.

However, if we change things around a bit, so that we only have narrative, we cannot use the same construction because it is grammatically incorrect. We can only use Dan was sitting or Dan sat.

Dan was sitting at the bar…
Dan sat at the bar…

To summarise: in dialogue you can use incorrect grammar, as long as it is in keeping with the way the character would speak, but in narrative you have to ensure the grammar is correct.

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