A Falling Friend by Sue Featherstone & Susan Pape

Lovely review – both Susan and I learned a lot writing this book and I think the sequel has a much packer beginning.

bytheletter bookreviews

28791887.jpgBook Description:

This “witty and pacy” character-driven masterpiece is “reminiscent of Bridget Jones” and proves that there really are two sides to every story.

After spending her twenties sailing the globe, making love on fine white sand, and thinking only of today, Teri Meyer returns to Yorkshire – and to studying. That’s when she discovers John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, and poet of all things depraved. What she doesn’t realise is even beyond his grave, his influence over her is extraordinary. To hell with the consequences.

Having gone out on a limb to get old friend Teri a job at the university at which she teaches, it doesn’t take long for Lee Harper to recognise a pattern. Wherever Teri goes, whatever she does, every selfish choice she makes, it’s all setting her up for a nasty fall. But Teri’s not the sort to heed a warning, so Lee…

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Sign up to the Scrooge School of Writing

Like most journalists, I belong to the Scrooge School of Writing. Words are my currency and I don’t believe in spending them recklessly. I use just as many as I need to make a point and not a single word more. It’s called the KISS principle – Keep It Short and Simple – and it should be tattooed on the forehead of every would-be writer.

Sadly, it isn’t.

Instead, wannabes labour under the delusion, fostered by their English Literature teachers, that the WIG theory – Wordy Is Good – holds the key to good writing.

No, it doesn’t!

Writing short and writing simple means the writer does all the hard work and the reader can wallow in the luxury of active, clear, snappy sentences that are easy to digest and don’t give them heartburn. And that’s important because the average reading age in the UK is that of an educated nine-year-old.

WIG aficionados, on the other hand, either don’t know, or don’t care, that much of what they write is incomprehensible to pretty much the majority of the population, preferring instead passive, long-winded sentences that take a month of Sundays to get to the point. It’s supposed to be a sign of intelligence – but, if I need to read a sentence twice in order to make sense of it, it’s not clever, it’s dense. Ditto, if I can skip several paragraphs of torturous description and still follow the plot.

So here is one simple tip that will help you get and keep readers: use the active rather than the passive voice.

Journalists, for instance, write: The man bit the dog. WIG followers write: The dog was bitten by the man.

Which of the two sentences is easier to read and understand? The first, of course, because it is written in the active voice, which is a shorter, more direct way of telling someone what has just happened. It also follows a more straightforward grammatical structure that mimics the way most ordinary people speak –  subject (the man), verb (bit), object (the dog).

The WIG sentence, though, uses the passive voice, which is a much more formal use of language – object (the dog), verb (was bitten) subject (by the man). It is a longer way of giving someone the same piece of information and, taken in isolation, a passive sentence is not difficult to understand. But, any piece of writing that makes multiple use of passive sentences inevitably becomes more complex and harder to follow – and that’s the quickest and easiest way to lose readers.

And, I don’t know about you, but I like it when people read what I write.

Work those muscles

“Writing is like a muscle, it will be a lot stronger if you work it every day.” (Randall, 2000: 141)

I have a love-hate relationship with my personal trainer, Melissa. She’s funny and fun and, in different circumstances, very good company. But every time we meet I’m checking my watch to see how soon we can say our goodbyes. Which begs the question – why pay good money, workout after workout, to be put through hell?

Simple: I want the female equivalent of a six-pack – which may be an unrealistic goal but there’s no harm trying.

Besides, exercising regularly helps my asthma and, in some weird masochistic way, there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained from pushing further and harder. Every extra painful, gasp-inducing sit-up and press-up and squat represents a small victory of mind over matter.

Wouldn’t matter if it didn’t – Melissa has zero tolerance for sloppy technique and half-hearted effort. “Legs need to be hip distance apart,” she says demonstrating a perfectly-executed squat. “Back straight, head upright.”

She watches critically. “Keep your knees turned out.

“Sink a little bit lower,” she orders. “Push up from the heels.”

It’s a lot to remember, especially with a heavy weight on your back, but slowly, and surely, repetition and attention to detail brings results. Improved technique and constant effort makes weak muscles stronger.

The parallels with writing are clear: the more you write the better you’ll get. But you need the equivalent of a personal trainer, to correct your technique. I learned good journalism as a rookie writer from subs, who ruthlessly cut back flabby copy. You need someone with experience who will do the same for you – someone who knows the trade, whether that’s a college or university lecturer, or the news editor who has offered you a couple of weeks on work experience.

Lots of my students at Sheffield Hallam University get their work published on niche websites or blogs. Often, they work for free and it’s great experience – but I’m not a great advocate of working for nothing so get your payment in the form of constructive feedback and criticism. It’s the only way to grow and learn as a writer – and if your editor can’t spare the time find someone else running another site who can.

And learn from other writers too. Like Grace Dent, who writes for The Independent. She published a great viewpoint piece recently about three London teenagers who ran away to join Isis fighters in Syria. You can read it here: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/if-teenage-girls-want-to-join-isis-in-the-face-of-all-its-atrocities-then-they-should-leave-and-never-return-10065516.html

It might be a while before your writing six pack is as strong as Grace’s, but, like you, she was once a beginner.

Three simple rules

All good writers follow three simple rules. They have something to say and they say it well.

And once they’ve said, they shut up.

Of course, if it was that simple, we’d all have given up the day jobs and would be living the high life on the proceeds of our writing. But it isn’t and, we’re not, so, over the next couple of posts I’ll examine those rules in a little more detail.

Let’s start, though, with rule one: have something to say.

For the news reporter, writing a straightforward news story means having something new or interesting to tell readers that they [the reader] didn’t know before.

And if, you, the news journalist haven’t got anything new to say – find something else to write about that is new and, therefore, interesting.

It’s a little less straightforward for the feature writer, who, in most cases, will be writing about a person, place or issue already in the news. Here their role is to tell the story behind the story. Where a news journalist goes in and gets the facts and tells the story straight without any emotion or embellishments (Pape and Featherstone, 2006: 59-60), the feature writer has to be able to provide new insights or new perspectives or new ways of seeing. And, once again, if you can’t – write about something else instead.

The roles of the news journalist and the feature writer are, therefore, pretty clear cut and, apart from the regional press, where news journalists may also write features, and vice versa, it’s rare for there to be much cross-over between the two. Established feature writers don’t write straightforward news stories and news reporters tend to stick to reporting the news.

The blogger, though, has much more freedom to mix and match and to post news posts alongside feature-ish personal opinion or viewpoint pieces. And, that’s fine – as long, as the two styles of posts are kept completely separate. News posts should be straight and factual and completely free of any hint of personal opinion while opinion pieces should be a deft mix of evidence, analysis and comment that leave the reader in absolutely no doubt about what he or she should think about a person, issue or event.

And there’s the rub: because whilst it’s great fun climbing on your soapbox and giving the world your two pennies worth of opinion, you’ll end up with egg on your face if you can’t express those opinions knowledgeably, authoritatively and succinctly.

Further, you’ve got to say it before anyone else says it – and you’ve got to say it better.

Which brings us neatly to rule two: say it well. But that’s a topic for my next post.

My Fallen Friend

From fact to fiction: My Fallen Friend is the working title of my first novel with my friend and fellow journalist and co-author Susan Pape.

Together we have written two very successful books on news and feature writing: Newspaper Journalist: A Practical Introduction and Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction.

Now we’ve completed our first piece of fiction, set partly in the academic atmosphere of a new university, and partly in the world of regional television and newspapers.

The novel revolves around two women, Teri and Lee, who take it in turns to tell their side of the same events. Teri is obsessed with a 17th century fallen poet and rake, but she fails to see how the damaged libertine from the past is reflected in her present day disastrous relationships.

Watching as Teri’s life implodes is best friend Lee, who, despite being calm and clever cannot stop the inevitable – and worse, unwittingly contributes to it.

Susan and I had a lot of fun writing My Fallen Friend. So far, we’ve only shared the book with a small number of close friends and family  – and I’m glad to say they have all voted it a good read. I hope they’re not trying to spare our feelings.

We’re hoping to find a publisher later this year. But, in the meantime, over the next few months I’m looking forward to sharing Teri and Lee’s adventures with you.