Thursday 28 April 2016

The 20 Stages of Writing

1.    You had this great idea for a story about a guy called Sam.
2.    It was perfect in your head.
3.    You tried writing it down.
4.    It didn't look the same on the page as in your head.
5.    So you tweaked it a bit.
6.    And then a bit more.
7.    You tried changing his name from Sam to Ed.
8.    You changed his job too. And his car.  And his cat became a dog.
9.    And re-wrote it a bit.
10.  And then a bit more.
11.  Then you cut the first paragraph.
12.  And changed the ending.
13.  Then put the first paragraph back.
14.  With a new opening sentence.
15.  Then you got confused about it's and its.
16.  So you stared at the page for hours hoping that one or the other would look right.
17.  Then you changed the line.
18.  Then you put back the original name by using a global edit.
19.  Which meant you had to go back and sort out words like 'dressSam' and 'changSam'.
20.  And then you were sick and tired and bored and knew your writing was rubbish, tripe, garbage and you were an untalented fool who couldn't write and was useless and what was the point anyway because no one would ever want to read such a stupid, boring story.

Luckily, the reader only has one stage:

1.  They read.

That's why you're not always the best judge of your own writing.

Monday 25 April 2016

Do You Need to Tie Up All the Loose Ends to Have a Good Ending?

One of my favourite films is Predator.  There's something v satisfying about seeing muscle-bound Arnie having to use his brain rather than brawn to defeat the all conquering alien.  But the bit I really like is at the very end when Arnie has the alien at his mercy and is about to deliver the final blow, then pauses and asks, "What the heck are you?"

The alien, all quivery mouth tentacles and dripping green fluorescent blood, pauses then taps the question into his handy arm pad.  The pad flickers - it's translating the question.  And then the alien laughs.

He's about to die, and he laughs. Then he pyrotechnically explodes, and that's basically the end.

What makes it work for me?  Human intelligence beats alien technology?  Humans are essentially compassionate while aliens eat people?  Perhaps it is those things, but I think it's more that, while the alien is beaten physically, his spirit refuses to accept defeat, laughing in Arnie's broad and baffled face.

And as a writer I think, how brave not to explain who the alien is, and how he came into the jungle.  It is a mystery, and we will remain as baffled as Arnie.

With my first book, Adultery for Beginners, the original ending went a bit further to give a very obvious happy ever after ending but my editor stopped me.  'We don't have to know exactly what happens,' she said.  'It's enough to know that the main problem is over, and a new and happier story is starting for the main character.'  

We don't have to tick all the boxes and tie up every loose end. Just, solve the main story problem (the predatory alien is dead) and hint about the direction the main character is heading in (Arnie's going home). Most of the rest can be left to the reader's imagination.

Thursday 21 April 2016

How to Create Sympathetic Characters

John Aubrey* would have been a terrible man to do business with.  By his own admission, he should have given his younger brother a large sum of money from the sale of land but instead ran off with it and went into hiding.  And yet readers - well, this reader for sure, and I imagine many of his fans over the past centuries - not only forgive him but find ourselves nodding our heads in sympathy.

Aubrey knew he was a rubbish business man, he was aware of what he should be doing, but couldn't help himself from not doing what he should because there was always something far more interesting to research and study than knuckling down to boring business.

Let's face it, everybody does stupid stuff from time to time.  Sometimes we know full well it's stupid but we still rush in headlong.  Why?  There's bound to be some psychological name for it, but I think it's simply an essential part of being human.  If we only did sensible stuff, we'd never eat doughnuts.

So characters who never do stupid things, who are always perfect, who never ever get it wrong are characters we don't recognise as being human (even the ones that are aliens).

But in itself, doing stupid things is not enough for a main character - although it works for peripheral or secondary characters e.g. Father Dougal in Father Ted, Pike in Dad's Army.  

Main characters need to have some self-awareness - like John Aubrey. They know they shouldn't stay for another drink because they have an important job interview tomorrow morning, but...they're human.  They know they should rise above rudeness from their teenaged daughter, but find themselves snapping back.

Make your characters self aware; have them weigh up the options open to them. And then have them pick the least sensible one.

*The C17th antiquarian and writer, who I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago.

Monday 18 April 2016

How To Get From Suck to Non-Suck via Pixar and the Writing of Finding Nemo

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, writes extensively about the creative process Pixar goes through to develop films in his autobiography, Creativity, Inc.   Stories start with an idea which gets pulled apart, developed, re-written, pulled apart again, re-written etc.*

"Early on, all of our movies suck...Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go...from suck to non-suck."

It was a stressful, time-consuming process but worked.  A few films down the line (Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and 3, Monsters Inc etc) Pixar thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if they could skip all that angst and wasted development.

"This then became our goal - finalise the script before we start making the film.  We were confident that locking in the story early would yield not just a phenomenal movie, but a cost-efficient production."

Great idea, so they set it in motion.  The screen play was written, the film made.  Trouble was, it didn't work.  Test audiences found it confusing.  Industry execs were lukewarm. It was clear that what worked on paper, in theory, didn't translate to the screen in practice.

So they went back to pulling it apart and re-writing, pulling apart and re-writing yet again, and the result was Finding Nemo.  They've stuck to that process ever since.

If you want to write several books a year planning, and then sticking to the plan, seems essential - and well done you if you manage it.   I've always been in awe of the productivity rates of some authors.

But just because some people do it, you shouldn't beat yourself up if that's not your way of working.  Hey, you might not be producing 4 books or more a year but you're in the same company as Pixar.

*At a dinner party a few years back I was lucky enough to sit next to Doug Chamberlin who co-wrote the screenplay to Toy Story 2, and he told the the process was extraordinary and exhaustive.  He also said that Pixar never employed the same screenwriters twice, I assume because the re-writing process was so draining they reckoned no scriptwriter could go through it a second time. 

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
via Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Thursday 14 April 2016

The Secret Formula for Writing Success

Before I was published I used to go to a lot of author talks about getting published.  I was always hoping they'd reveal the magic formula or, at the very least, some of the magic might rub off on me.

Now I'm published and give those talks myself and I can reveal - just to you - that Yes!  There really is a Secret Formula for Writing Success. To celebrate my return to blogging, I will reveal it to you.  It is:

A + B = Success!!!

It really is that simple.

Of course, there are complications, because with secret formulae there always are complications.  First off, what does success mean?  Well, it means whatever you want it to mean.  That might be a conventional publishing contract, or your mother/partner/child's approval, or shedloads of money and an appearance on TV.  It's entirely up to you to define what your success will look like.  As to the rest of the formula:

A = Get it finished.

It doesn't matter what you're writing, unless it's finished no one else can read it so getting it finished is essential.  The trick with this is to remember that Finished is not a synonym for Well Written. The writer who hands in their very first draft and has their readers applauding is rare; most that I know expect to write what is often called a Dirty Draft before they get on with the second stage.

B = Make it good.

"Good" here means making the writing as effective as possible - if you're writing horror, your reader should be really scared. If you're writing romance, your reader should feel all warm and fuzzy.  If you're writing a thriller, your reader's heart should be rattling along at the same speed as the pages get turned.

The formula only works when you put A and B together - no point in making it good, if it never gets finished.   And no point in getting it finished if you never go back to make it good.  The two go together.

There are lots of different methods to achieve A and lots of advice and exercises to achieve B.  But essentially that's all it comes down to.  A + B = Success.

Monday 11 April 2016

A Problem For Planners From the 17th Century

I've been reading, and enjoying very much, Ruth Scurr's biography of John Aubrey which is written in the form of a diary.  Aubrey was born in 1626 and spent much of his life collecting information - folklore, surveys of buildings and monuments falling into disrepair, natural history: pretty much anything that took his fancy.

One of his ideas was to make a Book of Lives of his contemporaries, a collection of short biographies which would include personal anecdotes as well as simply listing achievements.

March 1680: "I have made an index for my Book of Lives: it includes fifty-five persons (I have done ten of them already, including four pages on Sir Walter Raleigh). It will be a pretty thing when it is finished.  I am so glad my researches for Mr Wood and my promise to write the life of Mr Hobbes have led me to collect these other lives.  I do it playingly.  This morning, I got up by 10 and wrote two lives....If I could get up by 7 a.m., I could finish my Book of Lives in a month."

Oh, how many hours of my life have I spent planning writing a book!  Just like Aubrey I've written out a list of chapters or ideas.  I've worked out a schedule of writing - if I write 1000 words a day, I'll be finished within 3 months, if I write 2000 I'll be done in less than 2.  When I first started writing, I even worked out a schedule based on 5000 a day - perfectly possible if I got up at 7am, or 4am or write through the night.  It's like NaNoWriMo - 1667 words a day for a month?  Easy! And it is easy, in October.

Also like Aubrey, I've gloated over the prospect of the finished book.  I've seen the cover, I've seen all those typeset pages, perfect bound.  I've written the reviews (glowing, naturally) and given interviews.  I may even have given gracious acceptance speeches after winning awards.

January 1681: "How much work I would get done if I did not sit up with Mr Wylde until one or two in the morning, or if there was someone to get me up in the mornings with a good scourge!  I think I could finish my lives in a week, if I were to stop wasting time.  Sir James Long has invited me to stay again....Next week I will buckle to finish my Lives.  I am sure I could do it in a week."

Aubrey never finished his Book of Lives.*

And that's the problem with making plans for writing.   They're deeply satisfying to make, but at some point you've got to write the dratted thing.

*Luckily for posterity, Aubrey made sure that his writing and collections of manuscripts were deposited in various university and museum libraries. His contemporaries criticised him for his attention to details "too minute" or trivial, but he said - rightly - "a hundred years hence that minuteness will be grateful".  Without his work, much of the detail of the past would have been lost.

John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr

Thursday 7 April 2016

5 Reasons You Should Accept Feedback

1.  And this is the most important one...Does it sound right?  Do you get it?  Does it make you feel that the doors to Paradise have suddenly swung open and you can now see the light?   Yes?  Then grab the feedback with both hands and implement it.

2.  Sometimes feedback is right, but the solution is wrong.  People like being helpful, so they like giving a solution alongside what they see as the problem.  Sometimes they can't articulate the problem, they just know they have a solution for it.

For example, the feedback might go along the lines of:   "You could make your main character take a job at the local supermarket."  That's a solution.  The problem is something like, "The main character is a bit wishy washy and I find it really irritating that they sit back and expect other people to sort out their financial problems for them - they need to take some action that shows they are at least trying to support themselves financially."

That sort of feedback is golden: now you can work out what the action that they're going to take will be.

3.  Feedback is all about how a reader perceives the character and the situation.  This will almost certainly be coloured by their own experiences.  However, if several readers are pointing out the same issues, then you can be fairly certain that's a true response.  Act accordingly.

4.  Sometimes you're too close to see it.  Writers spend a lot of time in their heads.  We might appear to be going for a walk, driving the car, or doing the washing up but really we're busy writing stories in our head.  These stories are always brilliant - I'm frequently walking around with tears rolling down my face as the tragedy in my head unfolds, or laughing inappropriately because one of my characters has just done something incredibly funny.

The trouble is what works in our heads doesn't always translate to the page.  When we look at the page, we might see what we wrote in our head, not what we've actually written.  A reader can only read what's on the page, and not what's in your head.  A sure sign of this is when you find yourself explaining what's going on to a puzzled reader and how they have missed the point.  Stop!  It's your job to write clearly enough so they don't miss the point.

5. If we're honest with ourselves, we sometimes have little niggles about the work that we hope will magically go away if we don't think about them.  Perhaps, we hope, perhaps no one else can see that glitch in the story.  Feedback can good for confirming that those glitches do exist and somehow we've got to deal with them.  Sigh.  I wish it wasn't like that and the glitches would magically disappear by ignoring them but there it is.    They don't.

Monday 4 April 2016

5 Reasons When (and Why) You Should REJECT Feedback

A former student got in touch with me about some feedback he'd had from his writing group about his planned novel.  He wanted to know what I thought of it (the feedback, not the novel) and should he accept it? So I had a think... and my answer was No.  Here's why:

1)  This was feedback about what he proposed to do i.e. his plans for his novel.  They were commenting on something that hadn't been written, so in effect were assessing its market viability.  Now, I'm sure the feedback came with the best of intentions, but the question has to be: were they qualified to comment on 'the market'?  Unless they were all experienced agents, editors or publishing marketeers, then I'd say no.  And it should be noted that even the most experienced agents, editors and marketeers get it wrong frequently.  Basically, no one knows where the market is going to be in two months time, let alone two years. It's pretty much all guess work.

2) The feedback was also concerned about plausibility: he was writing about a location he wasn't a native of, nor had lived in. Would any potential buyers accept this?  Well, why on earth not?  Yes, some authors are writing based on autobiography, but a lot - most? - don't.  And there have been many best sellers written by authors who've never set foot in their setting - what about Steph Penney and The Tenderness of Wolves, or Martin Cruz Smith and Gorky Park to name two.

3) Do readers know or care about an author's background if the story is good?  A successful novelist I know writes tender romances for Harlequin Mills and Boon. Does it matter that, despite the feminine name on the cover, the writer is a strapping male former paratrooper? Is JK Rowling a wizard for that matter?

4) Sometimes the feedback is factually wrong.  Too early to say in this case, but before I was published and in a similar feedback group, one of the group had written a story aiming for a specific slot on Radio 4. Using my knowledge as a former actress, I thought the dual narrative split between male and female narrators would cause problems for casting a sole reader.  Luckily the author didn't pay any attention to my advice, sent the story in and it was broadcast (with a male reader).

5) Writing a novel is hard enough work as it is.  If you don't write what you really, really want to write, if you don't write the book of your heart, if you don't write from your gut, then why write?

So, that's what I thought, and why.  But that doesn't mean my advice was right.  The only person who can decide is the author themselves.