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Wanda Whiteley blog posts

Planning Your Plot


A good structural skeleton is achieved through study, analysis, and hard work. This is one area that is not about some innate gift – yes, there will be delicious flashes of inspiration, but diligence will be a better friend to you.

It is definitely worth doing scene by scene analyses of classic texts – be they novels, film scripts, or plays. This helps you get a feeling for the balance between character development, plot and action. Scriptwriting coaches, such as Robert McKee and Syd Field, are masters of this kind of plot mapping. McKee uses Casablanca. It’s free to download so it’s an easy one for students to work with.

You can use any book, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Essentially, the structure is largely held up by reversals, those turning points that often come at the end of acts. A narrative won’t keep the reader engaged without them. A couple of random examples: Twelfth Night - when Olivia falls for Viola (dressed as a page). Girls aren’t …

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Dialogue masterclass


How can you advise writers on dialogue? Firstly, I ask them to use their ear; read their dialogue aloud. Those who get it right have what amounts to a musical gift but, frankly, most of us don’t have a knack for it. It takes hard graft to get to a basic level, where the speech doesn’t sound weird. Successfully varying your style for each of your characters is a whole other ballgame. The most common howler I see is the educated-sounding blue collar worker, and I don’t think I’ve worked with a single writer who’s a whizz at teen speech.

Sometimes writers craft a series of staccato sentences in a stylised thriller style (that can get unbearably annoying if overused) while pairing this with grammatically perfect dialogue. Wrong way round surely? Who on earth speaks in perfectly constructed sentences complete with subclauses and connectives?

Other dialogue traps:

Dumping information and backstory into dialogue for convenience with no calculation as to whether this would take …

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How to make your book stand out


I know all of you will be writing for pleasure, but I guess many of you will be wanting to sell – you may even be hoping that you can make a decent salary out of your writing. A question you will need to ask yourself, if that is the case: ‘What makes you and your book stand out from the crowd?’

I have been working with a thriller writer who’s done very well selling his self-published e-books, so much so that an agent has sought him out and signed him up. His first book was a medical thriller – and swiftly became a bestseller of that sub-category on Amazon. His second book is still perfectly competent, but it contains much less of the medical techy stuff that made his work stand out. He was looking to up his game, but I felt it was important that he didn’t change it. His ‘pharma dramas’, as I call them, are his USP. Were he to join the general melee that is the thriller-writer rat race, he’d be just another set of scrabbling claws.

So what quality marks you out, …

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A Cynic's Guide to Agent Behaviour

Many commercially savvy agents live by the rule: When going through the day’s post, deal only with those things that make money. The rest can be consigned to the bin, or something rather like it: a pile (often on the floor) that’s usually covered with a thin layer of dust. This forgotten tower of submissions is the heartbreak hotel of first-time authors.

Let’s have a look at the system:

1) Young graduate opens post/surveys agency inbox. If a submission is from a friend of a friend of the agent, or from someone who sounds important, it’s fished out and popped in the agent’s in-tray.

2) The rest are placed in the slush pile. 3) Graduate gets to the slush pile every month or so. The vast majority of supplicants are sent a carefully-worded-so-it-doesn’t-look-standard Standard Rejection Letter.

4) Agent scans everything in their in-tray (or inbox) every day. It might contain one of those things that make money.

The slush pile will occasionally throw up a diamond in the …

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The Author's pact with their reader. Blue Pencil # 32

How far can you go before the bond of trust you have with your reader breaks to the degree that they stop reading your book? If your hero-protagonist looks lustfully at a child, or delivers a racist comment, almost certainly. But what if you slip up on factual details?

The world is full of information junkies. Computer use, TV documentaries, and a huge trend in non-fiction reading have created a generation of highly well-informed individuals. Plenty of your readers will know how long bread takes to prove, how much a Rodin sculpture is worth, or what climbing paraphernalia you’ll need to get up K2.

One author I worked with recently self-published a thriller novel - in which his descriptions of a medical lab and the various scientific procedures going on in it felt reassuringly and enjoyably authentic. But then, just as readers were settling into their chairs, relaxed in the knowledge that they were in competent hands, some of them were dismayed to discover that he hadn’t achieved …

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