Thursday, 26 May 2016

Learning To Inhale: Becoming An Effective Writer

When I first started writing I made great plans about my word counts.  I would write 2000, 3000, 6000 words a day! That way I'd write a novel in a couple of weeks - a month, tops.

Readers, it didn't work out that way.

Part of the reason was that, while I could write at that rate for one day, the next day I was shattered and wrote nothing.  The exception was when I went on a writing retreat, renting a cottage and doing nothing but writing.  Then my output was much larger, more like 5000 words a day, sometimes even topping 7000 - and still finding time to watch Countdown AND Bargain Hunt.

It took a long time for me to twig why there was this discrepancy.  It was because when I went to a cottage I did nothing else (apart from watch day time television).  I didn't have to wash clothes or tidy up or pick children up from school or feed them, or feed myself much for that matter.  I didn't have to worry about paying bills or where my car keys had mysteriously gone to, or whether the cat was going to be sick or anything at all.  All I had to do was plonk my bum on a seat and get typing.

But real life has to go on for most of us, and all the day to day stuff has to be done - demands to be done, in fact.  When I was at my most productive, both in terms of my own writing (books, blogs, articles etc) and teaching others to write, people sometimes said how amazed or impressed they were by my effectiveness.

Truth was, I did nothing else.  Writing, or teaching about writing, and day to day stuff.  That was it.  None of the other fun things people do like sing in choirs or go to concerts or pub quiz nights or social life or knitting or anything.  Just writing...I even stopped reading for pleasure.  I was productive, breathing out efficiently and effectively, but I'd forgotten about breathing in.

Mistake. If you don't breathe in, you run out of air. And if you run out of air...

My counterpart would be the person who intends to write, but never finishes anything.  They may not even get started.  They attend lots of classes and sign up for courses and read all the books.  They probably have a great social life or make beautiful artworks or help others or do any number of interesting things. They write wonderful novels and poems in their heads and tell other people about them with energy and enthusiasm.  It's just nothing gets out there.  It doesn't happen.  They're breathing in, but not out.

You need to breathe out to be a writer, but you also need to breathe in.  Don't forget to organise your life so you're doing both, even if it does make you less 'productive'. Just doing one or the other will not, in the long term, get you far.


Monday, 23 May 2016

The Rules of Writing: The 7 Groups of Writers They Apply To

The Rules of Writing are a hardy perennial of the writing world, from Mark Twain's 'When you catch an adjective, kill it' to Elmore Leonard's 'Never open a book with weather'.

Something new writers find confusing are the vast number of writers who break The Rules.  'But,' they say when you point out an error in their writing, 'Dickens starts Bleak House with the weather, and it's one of the most famous opening passages in literature.'

Well, yes. And you'll find many multi-published, mega-successful writers who proudly proclaim that they have no idea what The Rules are and they never took a writing class in their life.

The truth is, The Rules of Writing don't apply to everyone. Here's my list of who they do and don't apply to.

1.  You wrote something, it got published.  People bought it and asked for more.  You wrote something else, it got published, people bought it.  This cycle has been repeated several - possibly hundreds - of times.  
The Rules DON'T apply to you - why should they?  You're doing just fine without knowing them. *

2.  You wrote something, it didn't get published, so you published it yourself and no one bought it, including your mum.
The Rules DO apply to you - go forth and learn them.

3. You wrote something, but got stuck with finishing it because you couldn't think what to write next. The Rules DO apply to you - you'll find writing easier if you learn them.

4. You wrote something, it got published.  People bought it and asked for more.  You wrote something else, and then got stuck.
The Rules DO apply to you - but concentrate on those relating to structure and character to get you un-stuck.

5.  You studied The Rules, wrote something, it got published.  People bought it and asked for more. You wrote something else, it got published, people bought it and asked for more.  Repeat.  Now you find The Rules restrictive.
The Rules DON'T apply to you - break with impunity.

6. You wrote something, it didn't get published, so you published it yourself, got your friends to buy it, had a massive marketing campaign and did well, despite the 1 and 2 star reviews.  So you wrote something else, and no one bought it, not even your mum.
The Rules DO apply to you - good marketing doesn't make you a good writer. Go forth and learn them.

7.  You studied The Rules, wrote something, it didn't get published. You studied The Rules even harder, wrote something else, got stuck.
The Rules DON'T apply to you - for the time being.  Write freely, write whatever you like without that imaginary editor/teacher sitting on your shoulder.

*If you're in group 1, I'd suggest that you're either an inveterate reader and have absorbed The Rules by osmosis, or you're incredibly lucky, like winning the Writing Lottery.

I'm sure there are other groups of writers to whom The Rules do and don't apply, and of course, writers can move between groups over time.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

You Must XXX If You Want To Be A Writer

There's so much advice available on how to be a writer.  I read lots of articles and think 'oh, if only I could do XXX, then I'd be a proper writer!'

Which is weird because most people would say I was a proper writer, having been published in 14 different languages and won awards and all that. But I read those articles and feel like a fraud.  Here are five reasons why:

1)   I have never taken to using a notebook.  I've bought them and lots of people give them to me as presents but somehow it's never worked for me.  Generally I forget to take a notebook with me, and on the occasions when I do have it, I write things down like great book titles or character ideas but then lose the notebook or forget what the scribbles meant when I find it a year later.

2)   I've never had a proper writing routine.  I have vague aims like 1000 words a day, but no 'I get up at 5 and write for 2 hours' sort of thing. Especially not the 'get up at 5' bit.

3)   Inciting incident, moment of despair, fetching the elixir... Well, yes, I know what they mean by it and yes, Hero's Journey can act as a useful roadmap.   But I only read about The Hero's Journey after I had my first best-seller.  I see the appeal, but trying to shoehorn my story into a formula seems the wrong way round to me.

4)  Character lists.  I've never done one of these that has actually helped with the writing or  developing the characters.  We did them at drama school too - I'm actually quite good at inventing details on the spot when asked and got lots of brownie points.  But help me be a better actor or writer?  Nah.

5)  The certainty of the writers in the efficacy of their advice unsettles me.  Nothing is certain when it comes to creativity. What works for you won't necessarily work for one other writer, let alone the rest of the writing world.  The way I see it, it's all a bit random.  Yes, working hard and persisting are important because you won't get to The End otherwise, but a lot of the rest is about personality and different tastes and individual circumstances.  There is only the right way for you.  And for me, it doesn't include a notebook.

NB And yes, I do get the irony given I offer writing advice on this blog.


Monday, 16 May 2016

Stay On The Bus

There's a story about Helskinki bus station.  Because of the location of the main bus station, all the buses travel in the same direction for the first three stops before branching off to various parts of the country.  So, for those first three stops it feels as if you're not getting anywhere.

Now imagine that this is a metaphor for your career. Each bus stop represents a year. We all start in the same place - the bus station - but we board different buses.  After three years however, it feels as if we're not getting anywhere so some of us choose to hop off the bus, go back to the bus station, and try a different bus.

You started on the writing romance bus, but that didn't work out so you go back to the bus station and try the thriller writing bus.  After a couple of years, that seems to be heading nowhere fast so you hop off the bus, go back and start again with romance. Or non-fiction.  Or short stories.  Or poetry.  Or script.

Stay On The Bus.

Three years might seem a long time, but in terms of a career it's nothing.  It took me five years from starting to writing fiction seriously (by which I mean, every week I wrote something) to getting my first book accepted for publication.  If I'd given up at the three year point, or shifted to a new genre, then all that previous work would have been lost.

It takes time to establish yourself.  Just accept that, and keep going.  Stay on the bus.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Why Writing To An Author, Agent or Publisher for Advice Is A BRILLIANT Idea

So, you've hit a problem with your writing.  Maybe you're not sure where to go next, maybe you thought you'd finished, but your feedback isn't great.  Now is exactly the time to write to a writing professional whose opinion you respect.

You might not know them, but don't worry.  This will solve your writing problem.

First, recognise that they're busy.  So busy that they won't have time to read your work, you've got to explain the problem clearly to them.  Write as much as possible - for example, if you're not sure where to go next in the story, you might write about the options you've considered, the pros and cons of each, the possible consequences, what each option will mean for each character, how it will affect back-story and so on.

Write lots about the issue - you want them to really understand - then re-write concentrating on stating the problem as specifically and clearly as possible.  Write your uncertainties, your hesitations, your thoughts.

Then write your question.  Again, this needs to be as clear and specific as possible.

Finally, don't send it.

When I've done this I've always found that, actually, I know the answer to my questions or problems. My real problem was that I was looking for an easy way out, a magic wand: do this, and all your problems will be solved.  But it doesn't work like that.

Writing down the problem specifically and clearly defines it.  Like the marvellous story in your head that doesn't translate to the page, the undefined problem is nebulous, uncertain, insolvable. Writing it down makes it concrete.  It's no longer a vague issue, it is specific.  You don't need to send the question or hear someone else's opinion because your way forward is clear.

You probably won't like the answer you're getting (it usually involves more work) and that's why you wanted the magic wand. Sometimes I find that just beginning to define the problem is enough, I don't need to finish my letter before I know the answer.

Next time you find yourself in a quandary try it - it really does work.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Single Most Important Thing to Remember When Giving An Author Reading

Giving an author reading can be a daunting prospect, but actually it isn't.  Here's why:

Remember when you were last in an audience,  waiting to hear an author speak and read from their latest book.  What were your expectations?  

That you might have an enjoyable evening?  That you might learn something interesting?  That you might discover a new author to read?  They probably weren't much more than that - you almost certainly weren't expecting to have the secrets of the universe revealed to you.

And what would you have been doing if you hadn't come to the reading?

Watched television?  Gone out for a drink?  Read a book?  Got an early night? Again, I'm going guess that the alternatives weren't rivetingly exciting.  Normal things, probably.

And what did you feel about the author?  

If you didn't know them, probably not much - that they wouldn't be boring, maybe.

Now think about you, the author.

If this reading goes amazingly well, what is/are the best thing(s) that will happen?

Some people buy your book?  An agent/publisher/famous author/fabulous person wants to meet up and gives you their number?  The person you've been trying to chat up for ages is impressed?

All these things could lead somewhere good, but they're not exactly life-changing in themselves.

And now, if this reading goes incredibly badly, what is/are the worst thing(s) that will happen?

No one buys your book?  No career-useful person approaches you?  The person you've been trying to chat up for ages is still unimpressed?

In other words, you'll be at exactly the same place as you were if you hadn't done the reading.

Remember that it's all very low stakes.  The audience don't expect much, and won't be that bothered if you don't even meet those expectations.  And from your point of view, even if you forget your name and the title of your book (and I've done that on at least one occasion!) the stakes are very very low, both for you and for the audience.

The worst that can happen is nothing, and that's going to happen anyway if you don't do the reading. So you might as well stop being nervous and just get on with it.








Thursday, 5 May 2016

10 Lessons about Story Telling from Game of Thrones

1.  Keep characters in the forefront of people's minds by mentioning them, even if nothing particularly interesting is happening to them, e.g. Arya in Braavos.

2.  We like guessing where the story is going next, and we really like getting it wrong e.g. Eddard Stark's death.

3.  We will accept big, gaping holes in the plot when we are engaged with the story, e.g. Theon and Sansa surviving unscathed jumping from a high window, the direwolves coming and going.

4.  We will also accept any number of loose ends - Bran's story line, for example - so long as we believe the story teller is in control.

5.  We like audacity in story telling - like the Red Wedding.

6.  Detailed world building is good, so long as the focus is always on the story line developing - Daenerys's problems in Meereen came close to being boring.

7.  Sex, love, violence, the desire for power are all major driving forces so use them. Think big, not small.

8.  The story flows when the names of people and places are easy to pronounce, often because they're similar to 'real' names - Eddard, Catelyn, Joffrey, Theon, Braavos, Westeros.  Daenerys Targaryen is one of the few exceptions.

9.  Family relationships are always a good basis for story telling providing ample scope for conflict, drama, jealousy, loyalty, love, hate.

10.  Even when telling a sprawling story following multiple characters across many lands, keep the same central story line running through:  Who is going to end up on the throne?