Monthly Archives: June 2013

Write Now? No… Write Ahead

Set the sat nav. I want the fastest route possible.  Now GO!

Goal Posts

Goal Posts (Photo credit: KTDEE….back on track I hope.)

In life, we all need goals. (And no, I’m not talking about the football variety. Though, there are times – particularly during the World Cup – when we need those too.)  In order to achieve these goals, we have to look ahead to a future that hasn’t happened yet, planning the route to where we want to be. For some people, this is easy – maybe they have more confidence, resilience, or are better connected. But the vast majority of us achieve our ambitions through sheer motivation, determination, and hard work. Also, if you’re anything like me, you might have to stop yourself from constantly talking your way out of situations, simply because you’re scared.

One of the main problems with writing, I find, is that it’s a lonely business. On the one hand, seclusion is essential. You know what it’s like when you’re trying to concentrate, and someone barges into the room, assuming that it’s okay to witter on or clatter around?  But on the other, this same isolation, where you’re trapped with nothing but your own thoughts on a daily basis, can lead to crises of confidence, and processes of negative thinking. You may be familiar with them:

  • Who exactly am I doing this for?  Myself or others?  (Only the dog and the cat show interest.)
  •  Am I any good? (If so, why do only the dog/cat care?)
  • Should I be feeding my children/changing my underwear more regularly instead of this?
  • When is the last time I talked to anyone?

Ignore these thoughts. (Though it might be good to socialise every once in a while, wash, and stop your children from becoming feral). Spiralling into pessimism is common, and it’s your brain’s way of trying to protect you from, what it views as, inevitable disappointment. With everyone around you turning away the minute you mention the subject of writing, it’s easy to give up; to think ‘What’s the point?   No-one cares anyway.’   But you care, and out there will be readers who care, too.  So, if writing is your aim, ignore you doubts.  It’s vital to think beyond what seems like the futility of the moment, and to look ahead towards your objective. But be aware, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take time, commitment and a huge amount of bloody-mindedness.

Can you hear the Death March?  Quick!  Run!

Although I’ve always wanted to write, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve developed the confidence to do it. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure if it was a burst of confidence that was the catalyst. Most likely, it was reaching the age of forty that spurred me on. There’s nothing like being faced with the mid-point in your life – when you see that the end of days is only a hand-reach away – to suddenly make you think, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.’  And, a frightened lamb I might be, but the idea that I’ll never attempt to make a grab for my dream, makes me shudder.

I know there’s a book in me, but how do you get it out?

Like every other person on the planet, I consider myself to have the makings of a novelist. I mean, I have all the qualifications: I read books – lots of them; I can write and spell; I know how to use a thesaurus, and I’m a fantasist. To add to this list of qualities, I can touch-type, and at a snazzy speed.

rover 5000 04

rover 5000 04 (Photo credit: donovanbeeson)

As I’ve said, I’ve always been a fantasist. But, it was the typewriter I received for my tenth birthday that was to blame for one particular flight of fancy. In my dream, I’d sit there, focused, forehead smooth, pounding out page after page. By my side, a neat pile of perfectly written prose – no typing errors in sight, no scrunched-up balls of paper on the floor. There aren’t any flakes of dried-up correction fluid, or any stressful vibes, either. I am the delight of the newspaper critics. Bookshops around the world are straining, each trying to contain fifteen hundred copies of my bestseller. On the back cover of the book, a portrait of my smiling face. In soft focus, of course.

Popeye

Popeye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who knew the reality would be so different?  For a start, my fantasy is out-of-date. Sadly, typewriters are virtually extinct, due to the popularity of the PC (though, positively speaking, their demise does eliminate the need for correction fluid and endless reams of waste paper. Plus, you don’t develop Popeye-like muscles on your wrists and fingers from the effort of typing). As for bookshops, I know where their future lies. In two words: internet and e-reader.

Then there’s that closely guarded secret. You know the one?  Come closer – I don’t want anyone else to hear… Writing is hard work. And it’s nothing at all like the scenes playing out in my imagination. No-one told me that being literate is just one of a multiplex of skills required to produce a masterpiece.

But, thanks to the dreaded four-oh, and all that it implies, I rejected the idea of writing as something only other people do. In an act of bravery unheard of in the Western world, I switched on my computer, opened Word, and wrote two thousand words. In one go. Sweating, leaning back to recover my breath, I gave the story a once over. It wasn’t too bad. Not great, but that’s what editing’s for, eh?  Day after day, I typed, and typed, and typed. In the end I managed fourteen thousand words in about ten days. An average novel is about eighty to a hundred thousand, so I knew, with perseverance, I had a good chance of getting down an entire first draft.

But then I started to make mistakes.

Perfectionism is in the hand of the pen holder

Writing- Pen & Paper

Writing- Pen & Paper (Photo credit: LMRitchie)

When I say mistakes, I don’t mean those linked with punctuation and grammar, or an over-use of the passive voice. These are common errors – and can be corrected through re-writes and editing. What I mean is, instead of just going for it and completing my first draft, I started to introduce obstacles, which eventually led to a total literary standstill.

In wanting to make my story as polished as possible, I failed to understand that I had to get the entire draft down in rough form first. By heading back, repeatedly, to the opening chapters – to re-read, re-write and tweak every word and nuance – I was getting nowhere. Mainly because I wasn’t looking ahead.  I didn’t realise that I’d let the editing process take over from the writing.

Escalator

Escalator (Photo credit: vpickering)

It was like walking up on a downward escalator. Though I was constantly moving, I was stuck in one place. In fact, the many re-readings of the initial chapters didn’t lead to a more polished novel, but to a total disinterest in the story. Worse still, I failed to see what anyone else would like about my writing either.

Room for improvement

As you can see, by this point, my writing and I were no longer on amicable terms, but I wasn’t ready for divorce. In an act of desperation, I involved the help of an intermediary: a trusted friend whose opinion I valued.  Someone I still consider to be my ideal reader.

After reviewing my work, she sent me a critique. She’s a real treasure, as not everyone is as honest, or as astute, as she is.  Whilst focusing on what I’d done well, she also picked out what needed to be changed, and the list read a bit like this:

  • Use of too many adjectives and adverbs. (A fatal flaw in new writers.)
  •  Too much telling and not enough showing. (Ditto.)
  • Dodgy dialogue, or none at all. (Ditto.)
  • Revealing too much about the characters in one go. (Ditto.)

Her overall positivity reassured me that I wasn’t as awful as I feared. Yet I was still stuck.  Mainly because her criticisms baffled me. What exactly is showing?  I’d read about it, but I didn’t understand what it meant within writing itself. And why couldn’t I use fancy words to describe my characters appearance or actions?  What the hell’s wrong with langorious or pulchritudinous?  (I’ve never EVER used the second word. I swear. I don’t even know how to say it.)   And the characters – how do you tell the story if you can’t reveal their lives; what makes them tick?  As for making dialogue realistic – even now, achieving this is a daily struggle, though it has become easier.

That escalator I was talking about?  Yeah. Things had become even tougher. Someone had turned the speed up, and now I was going nowhere and having to run faster, too.

If an artist has to suffer, why suffer alone?

New LCD 22" computer monitor

New LCD 22″ computer monitor (Photo credit: freefotouk)

After buying a couple of ‘how to’ books on the subject of writing, and getting very little from them, I applied for an online course with York University. It was the first positive step that I took towards improving my writing technique. Let me tell you, I was terrified, but it was beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • The regular writing exercises focused on improving skill in showing, characterisation, description, point-of-view, narration etc. All the things I experienced difficulties with.
  • Students critiqued each others’ work, and by identifying positives and negatives in someone else’s writing, it highlighted what needed to be improved in mine.
  • By critically analysing strategies in successful and published writing, it meant that these techniques could then be implemented to improve my own writing.
  • In addition to focusing on fiction, I also worked on poetry and scripts (genres I’d never even considered) which honed my choice of words, imagery, and dialogue.
  •  I learned that authenticity is established by writing in your own unique voice, not by emulating the styles of writers you admire.

But the most important aspect of this course, for me at least, was the investment I was making in my writing. I was looking towards a future where all these improvements would eventually allow me to write my novel. I realised that this was something I couldn’t do overnight, but instead, were skills I would have to practise and nurture. Somehow, it was comforting. A novel wasn’t the sole focus anymore. Continuing to build up knowledge and a strong writing style were my aims now. And that meant working on a much smaller scale.

Short (and sweet) stories

Cathedral

Cathedral (Photo credit: Bill McIntyre)

See, I’ve never really been a big fan of the short story. Not since childhood anyway. And I don’t want to dwell on my addiction to Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Twenty Stories about Princesses (Yes, I know). Though Americans have a great market for short fiction, British adults give them short shrift, which is tragic really. Now I’ve come to appreciate them, I admire the concentration of meaning in the words. Like poetry, but written in prose.

In the past, it was their shortness that particularly offended me. I considered the short story the runt of the fiction family. Also, I disliked the endings, which often left you with a sense of ambiguity. I wanted something complete, that wasn’t a struggle to understand. (Strangely, now that I write my own short stories, I like these ambiguities and the possibilities they imply. I suppose it’s another form of writing ahead – a knowledge that the reader will have a proactive role in the story process, working to find meaning in the words.)

In contrast to this, novels were something I could sink my teeth into. The characters and plot drew me in, and there’d be days, not minutes, to bathe in the pleasure of the storyline. Okay, so occasionally, you might get an unsatisfying ending, but as you’d found yourself totally immersed in the previous two hundred pages, you could accept this as a blip (and would resist the urge to write to your local MP to complain.  This time.)

In a rare moment of clarity, I came to understand that short fiction writing isn’t given enough recognition.   Less forgiving than novels, they require an accurate selection of vocabulary to create sharp images and characters in few words. I realised that, in developing the techniques of successful short stories, I was tightening up and enhancing my writing style.  Again, I was investing in my future writer self.

Hello?  Am I on my own here?

Audience

Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

As the fiction module of my creative writing course drew to a close, I experienced a feeling of trepidation. I knew there was a chance that without the impetus of deadlines for my weekly tasks, my enthusiasm for writing might wane. What if I couldn’t write?  What if I didn’t have any more ideas?   One thing I knew for sure, I couldn’t go back to my complete self-imposed isolation. I needed people to bounce ideas off. I also needed an audience. Another thing I was certain of, husband and elder daughter weren’t willing participants in my journey towards getting published. Other victims were required, though I didn’t think it was right to put an advert in the paper, entitled Readers Needed.

Here is how I created my own audience:

  • Setting up an online critiquing group with some students from my online course proved an invaluable support to me (and them). We’d already developed a trust, and felt comfortable enough to be honest with our thoughts. I continue to learn from their writing and feedback, and one year on, we still check in regularly to critique each others’ work.
  • Making use of an online publishing platform. This, I admit, was done with some consternation. After my course, I wrote my first independently written story (without a tutor to hold my hand), and posted A Strange Occupation on Circalit. Expecting ridicule, I was pleasantly surprised when it was met with a positive reception, giving me a huge confidence boost.  Circalit is now defunct, but the new site, Readwave, invited me to submit stories, and later, they asked me to review other people’s stories too. All of this has given me exposure, an online presence, and a feeling that I must be doing something right. The practical advice and suggestions my readers have given me have also been invaluable.  Beyond this, I’ve developed relationships with other writers, and as a result, have been asked to contribute writing to a short story website called Storgy. Most recently, I’ve been invited by Readwave to submit four pieces of short fiction – The Dream, A Suspicious Mind, Aftermath and After Dark – to Worldreader, a charity that uploads stories onto mobile appliances to improve reading in the developing world. These opportunities would never have arisen if I hadn’t exposed my writing to the public at large.
  •  I joined a local creative writing group, mainly because I’m interested in everything to do with writing, but also, as we’ve already established, it can be a lonely business. If you’re not careful, you can go for days without speaking to anyone. (This worries me more because I don’t really see any disadvantages in this.)  My first session was a revelation – we spent the time writing, but we also socialised. A combination which was new to me. Its facilitator was sparky and dynamic, and his quick wit and random thought processes rubbed off onto group members, who came away dowsed in inspiration. Basically, mixing with other writers (in person) really enhances your creativity.
  • Another way of gaining an audience is by entering as many writing competitions as you can, or sending off stories to lit mags. A good place to start is to buy a writing magazine, which lists competitions and publications in every issue. There are also a plethora of competitions and calls for publication on the internet if you search. I’ve had a little success, being published as a result, which is another nice confidence boost.
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

  • By opening a Twitter/Facebook account, you have another platform for your writing – it’s amazing who’s interested in what you’re doing if you just GET YOURSELF OUT THERE. Once more, I’ve made connections to people who are interested in writing, though it does feel a bit like you’re standing alone at the top of a foggy mountain when you first register.
  • BLOG, BLOG, BLOG!

Do I have to?

All of this seems like a lot of effort, doesn’t it?  Well, yes, I did warn you. But it’s worth it. You just need to consider it all a part of the concept of writing ahead. Planning not just for the now, but preparation for the future.

But be prepared for the fact that your plans may not always be fixed in stone. Just as life itself can be unpredictable, something that isn’t always in your control, consider your writing in the same way. Be prepared for it to change, at times, into something other than what you intended (whether it be because of the complexities and ambiguities of the words you use, the fluidity of the storyline, or because of the interpretations imposed on it by the reader). Sometimes it might be a shock what you produce, but most times, it’s a lovely surprise. Just remember to be open and learn from everything you do, and apply that knowledge to your future writing.

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...

Cover via Amazon

And there is one final thing.  If you want people to take your writing seriously, ensure that it’s as polished as possible. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout all stand out (and not in a good way) if they’re left in a rough state. It tells a potential publisher you can’t be bothered. So, write ahead with this too. If you can’t be bothered, can they?

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Filed under Creative writing, getting published

The Last Two People Left on the Night Bus

night bus

night bus (Photo credit: penguinpanini)

My latest story on Storgy.

Bill hates the night shift.  You never know what’s going to happen.

Hope you enjoy.

The Last Two People Left on the Night Bus – SALLY-ANNE WILKINSON.

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Filed under Creative writing, Short fiction, Storgy

Creative Outpourings… Or Not?

Oh, hello idea.  Welcome

You know how it is.  You’re not doing anything particularly exciting.  Maybe you’re having a shower, or watching TV?  Most likely, you’re fast asleep.  When KER-CHING!  IT happens.  An idea strikes.  If you’re lucky, it might be the full shebang – beginning, middle, end, characters, plot, imagery.  But usually, it tends to be nothing more than a scrap of information.  In my humble opinion, this doesn’t matter.  However tenuous or vague the concept is, you can be certain there’s something bigger ready to unfold from it.   All you need to do is chip away, and eventually, what might seem like a lifeless speck, flashes gloriously in the light.  You pick away at the edges, and before your eyes, the core of your idea transforms into gold.

Sahara

Sahara (Photo credit: tonynetone)

Crawling dry-mouthed through the Sahara of your imagination

It’s hard to explain why sometimes, ideas present themselves in abundance, and at the most unexpected moments.  And then, there’s the opposite effect, when your imagination is sparse and you’re desperately scratching around in the dust for things to write about.  Most likely, this occurs when you’ve just completed a piece of writing, and you’re primed and eager to throw yourself into the next.   There’s fresh paper and ink in the printer, the keyboard’s ready, and you suddenly realise…  there’s nothing in your head.  Your muse, who’s not left you alone for weeks, not even allowing you to wash up or watch television, has abandoned you.  Unless you’ve already got something written down in your handy little notebook (which I advise you to do, in preparation for the many dry times – but more on that later) ideas can be cagey little devils.  For me, anyway.  I know some writers’ minds are brimming with creative spoils, but my imagination only seems to connect with certain situations, objects or feelings, and then, only when the moon is full.  I think it’s the werewolf in me.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, the perplexities of why sometimes you’re showered with inspiration, and other times, it’s like tramping your way around an imaginative dessert.  To be honest, from my own perspective, I can’t give a reason.  I try to be open to the many experiences that life throws at me – picking up on fragments of conversation, interesting looking people, and peculiar situations – but my creative soul is a stubborn, elusive type, and sometimes, no amount of visual or auditory foreplay will get it in the mood.

Speeding down the open road of inspiration

But those joyful times, when your synapses are clear, your neurons are firing on all cylinders, and your brain is oiled and ready to go, it’s like driving to work when the kids are on half term – the roads are empty and the journey is done in half the time.  In fact, you can’t get your ideas down quickly enough.  If you really were driving, the police would pull you up for driving too fast, and you’d have to go on a speed awareness course.

On these bountiful occasions, your creativity’s on fire.  Metaphorically, at least.  I wouldn’t want you to get burned.  Every question you ask, every thought you process, adds another answer to the many what ifs of your storyline.  When you’re walking the dog, you think of the resolution; in the middle of the night, you build the perfect first sentence; on the train, you bring together the climax, a conflict, a key character’s motivation.  You’re so excited, that if you’re in a public place, you might have to restrain yourself from telling a complete stranger what you’re thinking.  I mean, they don’t know you.  How is the customer in the local cafe expected to understand that the buried knife you’re babbling about is nothing more than the twist in your next story?  Sometimes, it’s best to keep things to yourself.

Note it down.  Yeah, blah, blah, blah

The hardest part, I think, is getting the ideas onto paper before they evaporate.  I find that if I let a thought drift for ten minutes, the distractions of the world flood my mind, and the tide of ordinary life sweeps it away like flotsam on the waves.  I mean we’ve all done it.  (Nah, don’t kid me, I know you’ve done it too.)   You’re convinced you’ll remember it – that amazing solution to how Jemima managed to break into the office building without being picked up on CCTV.  It’s so clear, you don’t even consider that it will get lost, lodged forever between the lists of mindless chores you have to do that week.

But the time I’m most likely to resist noting down a brain-wave, is when creativity visits in the middle of the night.  Rolling over in bed, I block out the sound of my conscience nagging (in a tone of self-righteous certainty) that if I don’t write my idea down this very minute, it will disperse like the mist in the morning sun.  The trouble is, it’s three in the morning, my eyes are stuck together, it’s freezing, and Mr W is snoring away beside me.  I really don’t want to get up and sit on the toilet seat to scribble away, and I know I can’t turn on the light again.  Not after last time.  So instead, I snuggle further into the covers, assured that my thought process is so obvious, so relevant, there is no way I can forget it.

So, I thought you weren’t forgetful…

Planets of the Solar System

Planets of the Solar System (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next day I wake – perky, vibrant, and maybe a little confident.  Confident, that is, until I come to scribble down my eureka moment from the night before.   Errr… not so clear now, is it, cleverclogs?  My brain primps up its bosoms saying, ‘You had your chance – now you’ve blown it’.   Of course, it’s not gone so far as to cast the idea away.   No.  It’s simply making me suffer.  My literary overture is still present, but now, it’s locked in the little box marked ‘ideas that weren’t written down in the middle of the night’.   I might get another chance to get my hands on it, when the situation is right.  Maybe Venus has to be in Capricorn, or the planets of the Solar System have to be in perfect alignment with the Sun.  Whatever.  I’m going to have to accept, maybe a little tearfully, that for now, and possibly forever, the idea is gone.

Inspiration in its many forms

Everyone’s creativity is influenced by different things.  I find that my imagination is often sparked into action by simple things, such as memories, or by something seen on a walk – maybe a person, or frost-covered grass.  It might be an event (whether it be on the news, or linked with someone I know, or in my own life) that preys on my mind.   Occasionally, an interesting bit of dialogue could start up a story.  But, for some reason, my best ideas seem to come directly from chatting to someone, or reading an article, about writing.  It’s almost as if the notion of writing itself is what sets my brain’s motor running.  It’s like the times when you smell a barbeque, or bacon, or chips.  Even when you’re not hungry, they whet your appetite.

When your writing turns to soup

Unfortunately, there are times when even the most prolific writer despairs.  Yes, you know what I’m talking about.  Those desolate, grey days , when your creative landscape is arid, and the Word document taunts with its blankness.  You can’t understand it – two weeks ago, you were a conveyor belt of inspiration.  Not all your ideas were workable, but they were ideas nonetheless.  Fortunately, you think to yourself, you noted most of them down – apart from that really good one that prodded you awake at three in the morning.  But, the less said about that, the better.

Your emergency plan of action is to use that… um… unusual storyline you wrote down that time, about the girl that finds herself locked in a snow-dome.  You’re pleased with yourself – nothing can stop you – and eagerly, you start on the opening.  But for some reason, the concept, the words, the journey of the characters, don’t gel.  You know you’re not getting your point across – or at least, not as well as you’d like to.  However you describe it, you think no-one will understand what you’re trying to portray.  It’s like you’re a native of Babel. You speak, but no-one understands.

On a positive note, you know from past experience that your language issues will pass.  One day.  Hopefully soon.

Keep on with the bear hunt – squelch squerch, squelch squerch

In the most difficult times, the important thing is simply to write.   Even if it’s gibberish.   If you’ve already got a storyline – keep at it.  You can always edit it afterwards.  No-one will ever know what you went through to make it seem so effortless – the cold tins of soup you ate; the three weeks that passed without a wash.  Or the five o’ clock early rises in winter, dressed in fifteen layers of clothing. Obviously, on the days where you simply can’t get into the zone, it’s useful to distract yourself with other things.  That way, you’re not obsessing about your writer’s block (you don’t want to build that block into a wall).  Cleaning, or ironing, or scrubbing the oven might help.  And, don’t roll your eyes at me.   I, too, despise these activities with a vengeance.  But it is this alone, that inevitably leads me back to the PC.  Often with unbelievably limber fingers and mind.

If the ideas still aren’t knocking at your door, you might try speedwriting.  Especially to music.  Some people swear by it, claiming the stream-of-consciousness style brings them a whole barrage of inspiration.  As an idea-processor, it doesn’t work for me, but it does send me into a therapeutic space, which is beneficial.  Also, as I see it, I’m still writing, rather than just staring at a blank screen.  And if you put on some really fast classical music, you might amaze yourself with the speed at which you can type.

(With a final note on that topic, I’d recommend staying away from dirges – especially if you’re in a real creative slump.)

Clear out your brain, then take it for a run

If you can’t get any inspiration from the outside world, try rummaging around inside yourself, and see what you come up with.   This is not as alarming as it sounds.  For instance, everyone has a past, and though you might think it’s not worth talking about, (or perhaps it’s one you don’t want to highlight to the public at large) it’s amazing what can be formed from it.  Noting down memories can lead to some great storylines, and I’ve created a few short fiction based on the most insignificant recollections (though being trapped inside a snow-dome wasn’t one of them).

If that doesn’t work, try to write outside your comfort zone.  For instance, if you only write fiction, try a poem, or writing to form.  A haiku or a sonnet.  It’s tough, but it’s a puzzle that makes your brain work hard.  Give your grey matter some exercise; make it supple.

And then, there’s the notion of blogging.   As you know, I’m pretty new to this (and the prospect of putting my thoughts on the internet terrifies me) but every type of writing is still writing.  You’re giving an opinion, writing from your personal voice, and it’s something that reflects another aspect of you.  It might not involve a character or a plot, but you are practising your art, forming ideas, and offering something to readers who might appreciate what you have to say.

English: typewriter

English: typewriter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a hard slog, but somebody’s got to do it

Whatever you do – make space to sit and create a story; a poem; whatever.  As a writer, it’s the most important rule.  If you want to develop your ideas and your skill, you’ve got to keep at it.  Don’t be put off by the slow times.

No-one said it would be easy, and no-one can make you do it, but you.


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Filed under Ideas, Imagination, Short fiction