Tag Archives: Writers Resources

When it Comes to Imagination, it’s Horses for Creative Writing Courses…

Last time, I talked about whether good writing could be developed with the help of a writing course.  This time, I’m focusing on one writing course in particular:

Help!  My writing’s in a rut!  How do I dig out?

Okay, so maybe you like writing and you want to improve?  Or maybe you want to write, but you’re not sure how to start? Maybe you don’t have access to a local writing group, or maybe you do, but it’s just not working for you?  Maybe you’ve been considering doing a writing course, but haven’t got around to it yet?  Maybe you’ve heard good and bad reports about them – there’s so many on the web it gives you a headache to choose?  Maybe you feel you haven’t got the time, or maybe you’ve heard they’re expensive, and you think they’re not a financially viable option for you?

Decisions!  DECISIONS!!  I don't want to be a grown up.

Decisions! DECISIONS!! I don’t want to be a grown up.

Whatever the reason, you can tie yourself in knots, so sometimes, it’s good to have someone else’s opinion.  Someone who’s done a course already, who’s soared the highs and survived the lows.  Yes, you’re right – that person’s ME!

When I was researching my options, it was around the time that university fees had gone through the roof, and I was an indecisive mess (something you’ll quite frequently witness if you know me well) until I stumbled across the York University online creative writing course.  (Yes, it’s a mouthful, but really, once you get over the hurdle of the tongue-twister, you won’t be disappointed).

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When you said I could tie a cherry stalk with my tongue, you didn’t say THIS would happen!

So, what’s it all about then?

So, practically speaking, the course is set into five modules, which are taken flexibly over three years:

  1. Core Module – an introductory overview of fiction, prose, scriptwriting and critical analysis;
  2. Critical Analysis – looks at what successful writers incorporate into their writing and what it achieves;
  3. Fiction;
  4. Poetry;
  5. Scriptwriting (including scripts for radio, film and stage).

The cost of each module, and the accompanying books, won’t break the bank (between 2011-2014, the cost was approximately £200 per 11 week module.)

How was it for you?

Overall, I absolutely loved it, though there were some peaks and troughs, and yes,  it improved my writing no end.   Not just my writing, but my confidence too.  From completing the first module, I’ve shared things I’ve written with anyone who’s interested (as well as anyone who’s not).  I’ve posted on writing platforms, entered competitions, submitted to magazines, became a staff reviewer for Readwave, and also, have been asked to contribute to short fiction website Storgy.

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Where’s the bridge? You said there’d be a BRIDGE!!!!

Yet, while it was money and time well spent, I have to admit that there were moments when it felt like an ordeal that was never going to end (though, fortunately, I’m not one for giving up).  Maybe all courses are like this?   As you reach the last few miles of your journey, the light at the end of the tunnel seems just as far away.

It made me think, whenever we do anything, there’s often a downside.  In fact, there’s very little that’s all good or bad, but it’s useful to know, before you commit, the advantages and disadvantages of this type of course:

Bloody brilliant!

Firstly, there are a lot of reasons to sign up for the York Uni online course:

  • The knowledge of an experienced tutor, who teaches at a degree level, but gives you the support that suits your ability.
  • Flexible learning.  An online course means you can do the course whenever you’ve got time rather than having to attend timetabled classes.
  • The certificate was far less expensive than a degree, though the course was still taught to an extremely high standard.
  • Suits writers of all abilities, from novices to the more experienced.
  • Invaluable feedback and support from tutor and peers.
  • Connections made with like-minded people that continue beyond the course.
  • The focus on fiction/poetry/scripts gives you a strong understanding of all types of writing, regardless of your main interest.  For example, the concrete imagery in poetry, and the scene-setting and dialogue in scripts, create a better understanding of writing good prose.
  • The end of module assessments give you a clear indication of your current writing standard, your strengths, and where you can improve.
  • Lots of inspiration for writing new material.
  • You don’t have to do every module.  If you want the certificate, you have to complete the whole course, but it is possible to do the fiction, poetry, scriptwriting courses individually if you so wish.
  • You can do the course from anywhere in the world, so you’re not limited by location or travel. (Though getting hold of resources, or watching the recommended programmes etc, could be more difficult).

 

And is there a shit end to the stick?

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Like everything, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.  Here are some of the negatives – or rather, the aspects of the course that affected me negatively.

  • It’s time consuming.  You need at least fifteen hours a week for all the reading, writing, research and critiquing required for the course.  Tough if you’ve got other commitments.  I found it took me much longer.  But I’m a slow reader and a slow writer.
  • Some of the course members do not get as involved as others which can be frustrating. (If you’re anally retentive like me and expect everyone to put in an equal effort).
  • Sometimes the sheer amount of critiquing required can be tiresome – I found by my fifth module it became more of a chore (though my personal commitments changed too, which put more pressure on my time).
  • Completing the many course exercises means you have a lot less time for writing for pleasure.
  • With an online course, you miss the joy of knowing people individually; a personal relationship; putting a face to a name.

Enough whinging!  How was it overall?

Though there might seem to be a lot of negatives, there are definitely far more pros than cons.  I certainly don’t regret doing it, and if I was in the same position, wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.  The course was invaluable to writing improvement, and I felt fantastic when I finished it.  What an achievement!

Bleurgh!  I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Bleurgh! I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Also, I’ve developed continuing relationships with some of the course members – we continue to critique each other’s work and offer friendship and support.  They are my safety net when I don’t have anyone else to turn to. (Not many within my family and friendship circles are interested in writing, so it can be a lonely business, especially when you’re feeling insecure – and it’s likely you’re in the same boat too).

In the future, I’m intending to do a Master’s, but at the present time, I’m all coursed out.  For now, I’ll keep on writing, but I’ll write for me, take some risks, and send off more submissions to competitions and magazines.

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I better get my hat back. I’ve got a big head, and I look stupid if it doesn’t fit.

And remember – all writing’s good, whether you do a course or not.  Practise is practise, so keep at it.

You know you want to.

Obviously this is all my opinion.  There are lots of good courses out there, but as I’ve had no experience of them, I can’t tell you what they’re like.  If you’ve taken part in a writing course, please stop by and let me know your experiences, whether they were online or on campus.  I’d love to hear.   Or maybe you don’t think they’re necessary. I’d like to hear what you think about that too.  

 

 

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Filed under Writer's resources, Writing, writing courses

I’m Not Hungry Thanks

What do you do when someone asks you to critique their work and you’re really not impressed?  Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Or do you lie?

As you’re a writer, it’s likely, at some point, that you’ve been approached by another writer to critique their work, probably because they know that it’s not quite right and need a second opinion.  If you’re familiar with them and their writing style – it’s a relatively easy task.  You’ve developed a relationship because you admire each other’s work, you’ve a mutual trust, and an understanding of what to expect.  The whole thing is straightforward – you can be honest, direct, and not tie yourself in knots as to whether you’ll upset them or not. However, it’s an entirely different matter if it’s someone you don’t know that well, but particularly, if it’s the work of someone who’s inexperienced.  Especially if there’s a lot that needs improving.  I don’t know about you, but for me, critiquing the work of someone I’m only vaguely familiar with sets off those anxious little voices in my head (yes, I have voices).  They call out:

You can’t tell them the truth.  

You’ll hurt their feelings.  

And then they’ll be upset.  

And you know who’ll be to blame!

YOU! 

When you’re in this situation (surely I can’t be the only one?), the first thing you should do is turn down the volume on those voices. (You’d never do anything if you took any stock of what they have to say).  The next thing is to consider the critique from the writer’s perspective (especially if they’re a novice).

It’s true that, after a few years of writing, I welcome (fair) constructive criticism, but when I started out, passing my work over for someone else to read made me want to:

  1. throw up;
  2. hide under a blanket;
  3. run away

I knew I was over-reacting. My rational side thought, get a grip woman – it’s only a piece of fiction.  I wasn’t confessing to a life as a prostitute in the window of an Amsterdam brothel (that’s another story)

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She wished she’d got some net curtains. She was sick of every Tom, Dick and Harry looking in when they walked past.

or kidnapping a busload of grannies in Torremolenos and keeping them hostage (best not go there).

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She knew she shouldn’t have left that open invite on Facebook.

Yet, despite this, as a new writer, I felt exposed and vulnerable, consumed by a very real and powerful fear.  My writing felt so personal, and I’d invested so much in it, that the possibility of any negative comments felt like a personal assault on me.  I’d set my creative bar so high, that if I lost my balance, I was scared the fall would be fatal.

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This circus trick course wasn’t all it was made out to be.

It’s this I try to remember when I feedback on someone else’s work: the huge impact we have on someone’s confidence when we tell them our thoughts about their creative abilities. As a reviewer, I’m not simply commenting on a story, but something that is personal to them.  The other thing I try to remember is the lessons I learned from others when I received critiques on my stories:

  • Show consideration for their feelings, and don’t be too blunt.
  • Even if it’s very flawed, it’s really important to make a big deal about the good aspects (pointing out things such as interesting story idea, strong voice, easy narrative style, good characterisation, natural dialogue, striking imagery, etc).
  • Only then, when you’ve buffered them to the hilt, do you describe the weaknesses (in my case, the usual suspects: not moving the story forward, too much irrelevant detail, unnecessary description, explaining too much, being too obvious, overuse of adjectives, cliched characters and cliched writing, too much telling, not enough showing.  I could go on).
  • It’s good to have two positives to every negative.
  • Don’t list TOO many negatives – especially if it’s a new writer.  You can always leave a few out.  The future of the Earth doesn’t depend on it.  It’s likely they’re going to send the story to you again, so you can always point out other issues then – once the writing is stronger.

Hearing the faults in a story isn’t pleasant reading for any writer, but if the positives are emphasised strongly enough, the negatives won’t make you want to scurry away, to hide for eternity, covered in cobwebs and cat wee, never to write again.  Instead, you’ll realise, your writing may not be perfect, but what you have instead is something solid to work with.

So, as a critiquer, what you should be serving to the writer, whatever their experience, is the classic shit sandwich.

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Tell me what the pros of writing are again?

Those two positives I mentioned earlier?  Those are the bread.  And the negative? Yep, that’s the shit filling.  You’ve got that, right?  The bread is a shock absorber to soften the blow.  You’re distracting them with something cosy and comforting to chew on (Mmmm! Thick white Warburtons bread)

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Mmmm, Warburtons. My favourite. What did you say that brown stuff was? Marmite?

before they realise what the smell is and the bad taste in their mouth.  (Do you need some water?)

It’s easy to see many negatives in a lot of new writing, and yes, you should tell the truth, but don’t be overly harsh.  Over-emphasising the positives is not being deceitful.  What you’re actually doing is giving a new writer the honesty they deserve, whilst simultaneously building up their creative confidence and self-esteem. It’s the persistence and practise that’s applied to writing – after an initial boost of confidence – that helps with improvement; the ability to apply the good, and to identify (and remove) the bad.

So, if we return to the shit sandwich analogy (yes, we must)…  Over time, if writers act on feedback, they learn to eliminate the shit from their sandwich until it’s nothing more than an occasional skid mark on the bread.

And maybe one day, if we’re lucky, there’ll be no mark left at all.

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Not that I’ll be eating that bread after I know what’s been on it.

 

 

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Filed under Short fiction, Uncategorized, Writer's resources, Writing

Storywriters of the World – Unblock and Get Writing!

As you may or may not know, I write for an online short fiction magazine called Storgy.  The concept of the magazine is unique – readers are encouraged to interact with the writing process by choosing each new story title via a poll.  The nine contributing writers then have a week to produce a story based on the winning title, so essentially, it’s written especially for the readers.  It’s amazing how different each work is, considering there is no variation in the title.

cropped-storgy2

Of course, each month I go through my very own unique torture, wondering how on earth I’m going to come up with a story in seven days, influenced by a title I’d be unlikely to choose myself.  This month’s winning title was ‘Bring Me My Shotgun’.

Relatively quickly, an idea developed, but I approached it with caution, as popular writing wisdom dictates that the first thing that comes into your head can be unimaginative or clichéd.  So, after dismissing my first idea, I spent the next five days pondering and cogitating until… well, actually… nothing.  I scribbled, I typed, but none of my scrawling could be described as a story.  Nothing gelled.  On paper, I had a title about a shotgun and not much else.  Pah.

That week, when I wasn’t frustrated by my lack of creativity, I did my usual things:

  •  I watched past episodes of Misfits, a series I’ve been aware of but never watched – WHY have I never watched Misfits? – and was distraught when loner Simon, and his girlfriend Alesha, left the series.  I was totally caught up in his superhero transformation/time travel storyline.  And yes, I do have a Superman fixation.
Misfits - I've always been a late developer.  I only cottoned on to Misfits when it was in its last series.

Misfits – I’ve always been a late developer. I only cottoned on to Misfits when it was in its last series.

  •  I worked in a primary school where they ran a dress-as-you-like day to raise funds.  Some of the younger kids came in fancy dress.  Also, during that week, some children drew my attention for various reasons: developmental, learning or social issues, or difficulties at home.
  •  I went for country walks with the dog.
  •  I read (and enjoyed) The Humans by Matt Haig, which relates the story of an alien being visiting Earth to assassinate people he sees as a threat to the future of the Universe.
Are you sure your husband is who you think he is?

Are you sure your husband is who you think he is?

All of these things happened as part of my week, without me giving them much thought or consideration – but at the end of day five, an idea began to crystallise in my mind about a loner who received the best Christmas present ever, and what happened as a consequence of this.

The next day, I sat and I wrote my entire story in one sitting.  Despite my worries, the week wasn’t wasted after all.  Yes, I may have struggled with words and ideas, but it was because my brain was busy, busy, busy.  It didn’t want to be disturbed; it had more important things to deal with – absorbing events around it and piecing them together with the title, like parts of a jigsaw puzzle.

No, my story wasn’t about the things that happened to me that week, but I’d used aspects of each day to create my imaginary world.  Bizarrely, at one point, a memory of the fairy tale, The Little Match Girla story I loved as a childinfluenced me too.

Funny the things you remember that influence your writing.

Funny the things you remember that influence your writing.

You see, our brains enjoy grappling with a puzzle.  They like to connect and make sense out of fragments of information.  That’s why one method for releasing ideas when you’re suffering from writer’s block is to use a number of unrelated words to conjure up a storyline.  It’s a process which works in a similar way to what happened to me this week – though I made associations from the life around me.

My associations were made up of:

  • a shotgun
  • a child who is young for his age
  • a primary school dress-as-you-like day
  • Christmas
  • winter countryside
  • superheroes
  • space/universe
  • The Little Match Girl
superman

Some childhood obsessions you never grow out of.

Weirdly, these concepts all fit perfectly into a story.  Yet they came about, not by sitting at my computer, but by getting on with my ordinary routine.  (Although, having said that, sitting and staring can have its uses too.)

Writing is so much more than the physical process of writing itself.  It’s also about about moving away from the keyboard, doing other things, communicating, relating to others, noticing the finer detail, and absorbing the things you experience.

If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.  Next time you’re struggling with ideas, or the story won’t flow, get up and go out.

Let your mind open itself to the world, and you’ll be surprised how quickly it will help you to perform your writerly magic.

Your brain enjoys working out a puzzle.

Your brain enjoys working out a puzzle.

If you would like to read my version of Bring Me My Shotgun click the link below:

Bring Me My Shotgun

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Filed under Ideas, Short fiction, Storgy, writer's block

Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Four

So, in parts 1-3 of ‘Confessions’, I’ve covered the pitfalls of writing a first novel, how to avoid falling foul of ‘writer’s confusion’ (that’s my own phrase, thank you very much), and how to stick to the target of completing your novel.

Today’s blogpost is brought to you with the collaboration of fellow writer Tom Benson, and the number 4 (that’s Part 4 to you).

With a little help from your friends

Recently, I approached Tom Benson, self-published author of Ten Days in Panama and Beyond the Law to ask if he had any useful tips for helping with the novel-writing process.   He said that, for him, making use of certain tools and ideas makes the whole concept of writing much simpler.  He passed on this list, which he produced during the writing of his novels, which I thought you might find it useful too:

*Make a simple timeline, whether it is set as days, months, years or whatever suits you best. A timeline combined with a synopsis is a real asset from beginning to end.

*Cast of Characters may sound obvious, but keep it handy:

    It will help avoid the duplication of names or similar sounding names.

    It will also help to remind if a character appears once for no good reason – get rid.

*Zodiac signs book. If you haven’t got one, it’s a useful tool for ideas on characteristics, personal likes, dislikes – and even star signs.

zodiac

*Baby names book. A good one will give a range of nationalities.

*The Yellow Pages is good for both names and trades/professions.

yellow-pages

*Body Language book. Say no more, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, fingers crossed.

body-language

*An atlas.

*Fashion Catalogue. In case you’re no good at putting together an outfit.  (Though remember, don’t describe too much of what your characters are wearing.  Your reader doesn’t care.)

*Be aware of the ‘chewing gum on the mantlepiece’. This is where the writer makes a mention of something, (like the aforementioned chewing gum), but it serves no purpose in the story, and is only mentioned in one scene. It could be a person, a vehicle, animal, anything. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – leave it out.

chewed gum

Big chewing gum on big mantlepiece (outside)

*Page Numbers from the outset. They work in your favour in two ways:

    As a navigational aid when editing on screen.

    As a navigational aid when you’ve printed off several pages or a manuscript for editing.

*Obtain a perpetual diary. You can use it to define any date with the correct weekday.

*www.historyorb.com is a great site for checking out information.

*Consider writing the beginning and end, then work on the rest. It may work for you.

*Know every detail of your main characters as if they were real. You won’t be telling everything, but you must know everything.

*If you intend to use a location in the past, double-check its situation/condition at the time.  I had to alter a date, because a meeting place I used was closed for refurbishment when the two characters would have met there.

If you want to check out more about Tom, his e-books are available on Amazon, or you can view his website at www.tom-benson.co.uk and his blog at tombensoncreative.wordpress.com.

From my perspective, I particularly like the idea of the zodiac signs book, the body language book, and the baby names book.  I spend too much time fretting about names, and gestures, and characteristics when I’m writing.   These are great tools which will surely help.  I’d also say that when you’re flicking through the books, they’ll also generate ideas for future characters.

So, stop distracting me.  I’ve got a novel to finish

My own novel is approximately half-way there, though I’ve got lots of concerns about how I’m going to tie up all the individual strands and subplots together.  It’s in my head – can I get it onto paper?  Will it all fit neatly together? I’m putting all that to one side for now, though.  The writing’s the focus.  Improvement later.

In the meantime, I hope that both mine, and Tom’s, experiences and advice will help you with your own novel writing.

I’ll let you know how I get on with the second half of my novel, which will (hopefully) be finished in December.

Watch this space.

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Filed under Novel, Writer's resources, Writing

Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part 3

Last week, I talked about how thorough planning can help the inexperienced writer to swim more confidently through the murky depths of novel-writing.   I also talked about the particular methods that worked and didn’t work for me, and where I might improve in the future. Today, I’ll take a look at some techniques that I found useful when trying to stick to my target.

WHAT?  5 o clock in the morning?  Are you mad?

Well, as I described in my previous post, my planning methods haven’t always been perfect, but the changes I’ve made have led to an improvement in my writing output.  Each day I’ve managed between 1000-1300 words, and I’ve maintained this for over a month now.

My system for achieving this was:

1.       To have a clear time for writing.   For me it is 5am.  Though it’s a struggle to drag myself out of bed, my brain isn’t fully engaged yet, so I don’t spend so much time worrying about the quality of what I’ve written.  There are also fewer distractions.  ‘Mum, can I have my breakfast?’ or ‘Where’s my tie?’ come to mind.

5oclock_3004

2.       To have a clear word-count for each day.  I actually gave myself a relatively low daily target initially (500 words a day), but found that I was exceeding this regularly, so my target now is 1000-1300 words.  Most days I manage 1300.   See what fits in best to your schedule.  Give yourself a realistic target and stick to it.

3.       To not worry too much about what I am writing, but instead to simply move the story forward.  If the story is in print, I can go back and improve it in subsequent drafts.

4.       To write a brief synopsis at the end of each writing session, so that I don’t have to churn through every word written when I’ve forgotten a detail.  I find synopsis-writing exceedingly dreary, but it does cement the story into my memory.

5.       NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, GO BACK TO RE-READ ANYTHING IN DETAIL, OR EDIT YOUR WORK.  Not until you have finished your first draft.  If you do, it will prove to be your undoing.  At the moment, I am clearly aware that entire sections of my story are weak, certain character’s behaviours are incongruous, and the plot is, at times, repetitive or doesn’t fit.  I’ll sort it out later (hopefully).  I know if I try to sort it out now, I’ll be taken away from my objective – to complete a novel.  So, if this is your objective too – DON’T GO BACK.

6.       If you have any new ideas to fit into the story while you are writing.  Note them down.  If you’ve gone too far in the story to include them, you might be able to fit them in on the second draft.  If your ideas are overflowing and you’re confusing yourself trying to include them in the plot, maybe you need to write another novel?

Some days my writing flows and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.  Other days, my characters don’t do what I want them to do, or the pace is all wrong, or I’m finding what I’ve written is dull (which usually means it is, and the reader will think so too). It’s hard to carry on, especially when you can’t think of where to start, or the words won’t gel.  Usually, however, once you start, even if it’s not perfect, the words are there and the story’s progressing.  Your novel’s not set in stone – it can be changed later.

tearing hair out

So, be strict; adhere to the rules you set yourself.  Find a time that suits you, set yourself a wordcount, don’t make excuses, don’t keep going back (for me, it’s another form of procrastination when I edit before the story is completed), and make sure you write a brief paragraph of each chapter as an aide-memoire.  Your chapter synopsis will hold your hand through the whole novel writing (and re-drafting) process.

And finally, rules are your friend.  Stick to them.  Above all, remember to be kind to yourself about your first draft.  It’s never easy for anyone, and if you don’t believe me, here’s a link to Austin Kleon’s blog.  He’s posted excerpts from John Steinbeck’s diary, which the author wrote while grappling with his novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/32462339668

Anyway, I’d love to hear from you about your first draft experiences.  What successes you’ve had, any pitfalls you’ve encountered.  Has your novel writing experience gone like a dream, or like me, have you spent many hours in despair, wondering who is in control.  Is it you or is it really the novel?

Novel and writer

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Filed under Novel, Planning, targets

Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part One

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Remember, remember, it’s NaNoWriMo

Yay!  It’s November.  The month when writers globally take part in NaNoWriMo.  And no, I’ve not lost my mind.  Or talking utter gibberish.

For those of you who don’t know – it’s National Novel Writing Month, where writers get their teeth into a story idea and bash out a novel in a month.  Although I’m not taking part in the challenge, I have now surpassed the mid-point of the first draft of my first novel – that’s 54,000 words to you.

In terms of writing endurance, it’s not been such a long journey – I started the first chapter on the 16th September 2013 and I’ve been writing virtually every day since.  If I keep up at this rate, I’m hoping to complete the entire first draft by the beginning of December (unless it ends up longer than I expected).  By posting this, it means I can’t back out.  It’s a challenge I’ve set myself, and you are all witness to it.

Now, you might say that, by pounding away at a keyboard every day, with no real regard to quality, my novel’s not going to be up to much.  And you’d be right.   You can be certain there’s no way I’d show anyone anything I’ve written up to now.  However, as I’ve been far more productive this time than during my first attempt at writing a novel – halting abruptly to an end at 14,000 words – I’m not in any rush to alter my method.  I still weep when I think about the energy expended on those  words – back in 2011 – for them to be simply locked away, abandoned and unread.

How hard can it be?

Looking back at my original attempt, there were a number of flaws in the methodology of my writing, which meant I was doomed from the beginning:

1.       No plotline – I was starting off without any real thought as to where I was heading.

2.       No character planning – I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the characters in my story.  I also hadn’t considered how these things would impact events within the story, which led to confusion as I tried to untangle the jumbled mess.

3.       Too much exposition – I was constantly explaining instead of showing characters behaviours and motivations, which I was aware would lead to inevitable reader boredom.   This was because I didn’t know my characters well enough.

4.       Constantly seeking writing perfection – ie. going back to edit and re-edit instead of focusing on the story ahead.

5.       Forgetting what I’d already written – as a result, expending time and energy having to check and re-check the story.

6.       Failing to set a specific writing time – I was either constantly interrupted or found excuses not to write.  I could always ‘do it tomorrow.’

7.       Failing to set a specific writing target – if I had writer’s block that day, it gave me an excuse to stop.

8.       Getting too involved in a minor character’s story or point of view – sometimes the internal dialogue of my characters were extraneous to the plot.  I was constantly veering off at tangents, unsure of what was important (or not) to my story.

 

Practise makes… er… it better

The hit-and-miss/write it-as-it-comes method is probably why many of us, as novel writers, fail, unless we have particularly amazing memories, imagination and skill.  Some people are that lucky.  But not me.

After attempting a novel once, it took a long of energy for me to try again. In all honesty, I was disappointed with the way I handled it – I’m a perfectionist, and hate it when things aren’t right. So, basically, I gave up.  This time, however, the more pragmatic side of me knows that my first complete book is likely to be less than I want it to be.

Remember when you first wrote a short story?  It wasn’t that great, was it?  Oh alright, show off.  Yours might have been, but mine wasn’t.  I had to practise over and over to improve.  And I’m still improving now.

If I’m really lucky, my completed novel will be of a publishable standard, but it’s much more likely that it won’t be.  Is this a reason to stop?  No.  The next time I attempt to write a full length book, it will be a much improved experience, because I should have learned from my mistakes.

Not that I’m being negative – I’d love to be published.  But if I’m not, I’ll be following that age old adage… If at first you don’t succeed.

Writing a novel isn’t about half measures.  It’s about motivation, energy and commitment.

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Filed under Ideas, Imagination, Novel

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

Okay, so why am I here?

Why This Blog?

First, of all, I’ll be honest.  I’m not comfortable with all this blogging business.  That is, when I say not comfortable, read that as ‘I’m panicked at having to reveal things about myself to a bunch of people I don’t know’.  There’s the fear that I’ll be JUDGED on what I’ve written… Is the content funny enough?  Is it well thought out?  Does it make sense? What about the punctuation and the grammar?  All of this is scary.  (Apparently, the average writer is an insecure type, and I can vouch for that).  So why do it?  Well, see, there’s the question.  I really want to make it in writing.  I really, REALLY want to.  And the common consensus is, to be a writer, you have to get yourself out there.  And being afraid isn’t an option.  So, here I am!  I’m out there!

Hello.

It’s good to be here.  Outside my comfort zone.

Or so I’ve been told…

Reading over that first paragraph, I’m having a strange sense of deja-vu.  At one time, I had exactly the same feelings about creative writing itself.  I remember the awful crawly-skin of having to show someone something I’d written, the tightened chest as I realised I might be JUDGED, and even worse (dum… dum…. DUUUUUUM!!!) being really proud of a piece of writing, only to receive a critique which made me realise I wasn’t quite the natural I’d been led to believe.  (‘Your emails are sooooo funny, Sally.  You’d make a brilliant writer.’  PAH!)

Image

Accepting Constructive Criticism

Yes, criticism is tough.  But the key to improvement is to accept criticism from people you trust (and not simply show your writing to people who will tell you what you want to hear).  Believe me, in the end, you will value and even welcome those negative comments on your work.  As long as the comments are constructive.  And there’s the word – constructive.

Before I consider what constructive means, let’s look at the word trust. I trust my husband, Mr W.  With everything.  Well, with everything apart from my writing.  He just doesn’t get it. In the few times I’ve let him read what I’ve written, he’s nit-picked every typo (which, I’ll grant, is important), but then never mentioned anything good.  After he’s fed back, I’m the writerly equivalent of a snail that’s been crunched under someone’s shoe.  And that is not good.

You see, basically, he’s not interested.  And he doesn’t understand the whole reviewing thing.  For starters, it annoys him that I use words in my writing that I’d never use in real life.  Duh!  He can’t seem to get over that.  I assume it’s because he knows me too well.  To add to this, he only likes certain genres of writing – action, crime, thrillers, and war.  That’s it.  I don’t write that kind of stuff.  He can’t get over that either.  Thirdly, as you may have already realised, he’s pedantic to the core.  For him, this means that on a grey and cloudy day, he’s certain of rain.  He’s seen the weather report, and the meteorologists agree with him.  They forecast rain too.  But, he’ll focus so much on the rain, it means that he’ll not see the rays of sunshine peeking out, or the rainbow above the trees.

Don’t get the wrong impression – Mr W likes to laugh, but complaining is so much more his bag.

So, what I’m trying to say is, though I trust Mr W, I don’t use him as a reviewer.  He’s virtually useless to me, as my confidence becomes pancake flat with every word he reads.  This should not be the purpose of critiquing.

And here we have it.  The crux of the issue.  He’s not constructive.  He can only see the negatives.  On the other hand, my teenage daughter, Ms Backchat, (known, henceforth, as Ms B) is.  She’s not cruel, but neither does she tiptoe around trying to keep me happy.  I’m her mother.  Why would she want to make me happy?

Anway, back to the point.  Once you’ve got someone whose opinion you trust to review your work, you have to be ready to not always like what you hear.  A critique is only helpful if you are told the truth, even though it’s likely to hurt.

However, as with the word trust, there are levels of truth too.  For me, when I say truth, it’s preferable if it’s a truth that’s wrapped in cushions and feathers, so that it doesn’t hurt like a rock smashing into your face as your reviewer clumsily hands it over to you.  If you’ve not been lucky enough to experience constructive criticism yet, the cushions-and-feathers part of the review sounds like this: ‘I like how you set up the scene.  It’s really vivid, and I feel like I’m there.’  But wrapped within it is the rock of: ‘But do you need to use shimmering, hovering, and searing all in the same sentence?  (But I like ALL of those adjectives!)

What I want to know is, why is it always the bits I like best that have to go?

For a novice writer, no matter how small the criticism, it always feels brutal.  The cushions and feathers might help, but like the princess in the famous fairy tale, they don’t hide the discomfort of that tiny dried pea.  No matter how many soft mattresses you might pile up on top of it, you still come out of the whole experience feeling bruised.

But, you have to remember that, if all that someone tells you is, ‘OMG, that’s amazing, that’s the best thing I’ve ever read!’ it’s actually not very helpful. Neither is them telling you that your writing is ‘Pap!  Utter Pap!’

What we all need is a reader who can highlight the good, but also identify the bad.  From this, as writers, we can learn and move on.  We can get better.  And for those writers who don’t want to hear about the bad, or who are not willing to act on constructive criticism, I’d say, their writing is never going to improve.

If you’re serious about improvement, you will realise that every time you write or re-write, it helps you to achieve your purpose – to become a better writer.  And the consequent result, of hearing more positives in the constructive criticism that you receive, will make the pain of the rock a little easier to bear.

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Filed under constructive criticism, Creative writing