How to Write When You’re Not Writing

Okay, so today’s post is a day late. No, it’s not because I spent ages trying to think of a pun for the title. As you can see I failed in that anyway. No, it was was to do with the fact that I was away at Download Festival in Donington Park all weekend. I fully intended to write a post when I got home yesterday, but energy and time escaped me. So, you can have it today instead. Aren’t I kind to you?

Today’s blog is in a way about Download Festival. Not directly as such, but more what happens when things like festivals, conventions, and other events get in the way of your writing. If you’re an aspiring writer then you probably will be, and should be, attending all sorts of conventions and events to meet fellow writers, agents, and publishers. Things like writing retreats are great to get away and put pen to paper. But what if the event you’re attending isn’t conducive to writing? What if it’s something like a festival where you are stuck in a field for days, cut off from the internet, and horror of horrors, having fun? *gasp*

Well, I would say that this is where ‘thinking’ comes in. Yes, it sounds silly, but it’s something I’ve talked about before. There is a lot more to writing than just typing words on a page. There’s research, planning, and plotting. All of which I’ve covered in previous blogs.

When I’m not by the computer, and even when I’m not carrying a notepad (this isn’t very often, but sometimes I forget it), I spend a lot of time thinking about my story. This can be absolutely anything to do with your story, but it’s a good idea to sometimes take some distance from the page and to just think about it. As I’ve said before before you start writing you need to know certain things about your story and characters.

A writer is always writing.

Right now, as I type this, I’m thinking about a few plot points of the novel I’m currently working on. Because to be fully immersed in it, to be able to write it well, it can never leave you.

I find it useful at the very least to run through dialogue. This can often be tricky to write, and young/inexperience writers often try and cram too much information into dialogue. It needs to be natural. Just sit somewhere and listen to how people talk. Most of what they’re saying is in what they’re not saying.

So, what I’ll do is run through the dialogue in my head, before I’ve even written it. What would that character say in that situation. No that doesn’t sound right, try again. Yes, that’s what they’re trying to say, but this is what they’re actually saying. By the time it gets to the page it’ll feel more ‘real’. As far as you’re concerned those characters have already had that conversation, you’re not making it up on the spot any more.

Dialogue isn’t the only think that you can think through. This weekend, I spent a bit of time, on the bus between Nottingham and Donington Park, thinking about the hierarchies in my novel. Who represents the main organisation, and what are their job roles? This all works towards having a workable, relatable world, even if it is science fiction. By thinking through this, it also brought up relationships between characters: if that was so and so’s job role, then actually they would treat so and so like this…

In short, there is so much that you can be doing, when you don’t have a chance to actually write prose, that will benefit your story. Try not to beat yourself up about not ‘writing’ and realise that actually what you are doing is ‘writing’, just not the physical side of it. I’m not saying drift off and waste time daydreaming and never get you’re writing down. But if you can’t write, then thinking through dialogue, characters, setting, or scenes can help you when you come back to the computer and that blank page that you left behind.

Thanks for reading, and if you liked what I have to say, or even disagree with it please comment below.

Science Fact-ion

“It’s Science Fiction, you can just make it up!”

One of the biggest assumptions and mistakes I have made is that writing Science Fiction is easier because, well, it takes place in a made up world. That means I’ve got my own sandbox to play in; I can do what I want.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – writing, in general, never is.

The first full length novel I wrote was a Historical Fiction novel. It took hours and hours (and hours!) of research to just be able to start it. I wrote one chapter at the very beginning, and it just felt wrong. I didn’t want to approach the subject matter until I had got it right, and I felt like I already had a pretty good handle on the World Wars. Even now, after reading piles of books, there is still more that I could learn about these particular settings. As it was a World War One novel, about the trenches and conscientious objectors, I felt that it was too sensitive a subject to get any detail wrong. Sure, there’s room for artistic license. The characters I created didn’t actually exist, despite getting family names from censuses at the time, but everything else had to be right. The Liverpool Rifles couldn’t suddenly turn up at Gallipoli, because they weren’t there!

So, turn to Science Fiction and these sorts of things should be easier, right? My characters can go where-ever, and do whatever they want? Again, it’s not that easy.

Science Fiction readers are particularly attentive to detail. It’s an important part of the genre. After all, you can’t have Science Fiction without Science. If a ship goes between two planets in a matter of hours you’d better make sure you know how. I guarantee you someone will ask. Or worse, it will take someone out of the story and they’ll put your book down. As a writer, that’s the last thing you want.

I started planning my current novel thinking, ‘ack, I can sort that as I go along.’ However, the more I tried to plan and work out what was happening to the characters the more something didn’t feel right. What they were doing and how they were reacting didn’t make sense, because I didn’t yet have a sense of their world. This is a little easier in short stories, as the story world itself is usually smaller.

There are a few planets and cultures, with different factions, involved in the story and I first needed to work out how these worked. What made the humans tick? What were the aliens’ motives? If both cultures were on this planet, why? What did they eat, drink? How did their economy work.

Some of this may seem a little indulgent, but unless these places and cultures are real living, breathing things, at least in my head, then the readers won’t believe in them either. I ended up reading books about quantum physics and various other things. At least I find that stuff interesting. Writing, for me, is another way of learning, of absorbing information.

I still don’t think I’ve got everything right, and sure more will come out as I tell the story, but the chapters I’ve written are starting to feel more right, more real, as I go along.

Maybe someday you’ll be able to read it and see what I mean?

How to right a blog?

No, it’s not a typo. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to write a blog post, particularly as I write here on my personal blog, and on The Brush and Boltgun. What makes a good blog? What should you talk about? Why would anyone want to read it?

I think I’ve spent a lot of time in the past really planning out a blog post and trying to have a particular message, or piece of advice across. While that’s probably necessary for something like Brush and Boltgun, which is about the hobby, this blog is to showcase my skills as a writer and keep people up to date with what I’m doing.

As I’ve talked about before, planning and writing a blog can take up a lot of time. Time which I would rather spend writing stories, or working toward my PhD.

For a story, novel, short story, whatever format it may take, planning can be really important. Today I’ve been working on the plot outline for a submission I’m about to make. It can be quite tricky, but that time spent in preparation can pay dividends later on. It definitely helps me to think about things in the story I wouldn’t normally talk about.

But what is a blog if not just a log? This space should be for me to talk to you, my reader. Planning it out can be useful, but I think sometimes I just need to take off that handbrake and type. Sometimes you just need to put your thoughts down on the page.

So I think from now on, that’s what I’m going to do: tell you what I’m thinking.

Today, as I said, I’ve been planning a novella for a submission. I don’t want to tell you too much about that yet, but I will do soon. (I often keep things quite, because I have a slight superstition that when I tell people abut projects they fall through.) But it is a publisher I have submitted to before. However, last time they said they liked my writing, but that it was too similar to something they already published. I take that as encouragement, and this time I hope that not only is the writing good, but it’s suitably different, and interesting, for them to publish. I have had successful submissions before (although not all of them have then come to fruition – once accepted there is still some way to go to be published) so fingers crossed!

Tomorrow is my last day on a contract as a lecturer. That might be quite a shock to some of you. But with my health, I have decided to spend more time on my PhD (which I am supposed to be doing full time anyway), and make sure that I do the best possible work on it.

In order to pay the bills I will still be doing some freelance lecturing. Although, I am on the look out for more freelance work. If you know anything that might be suitable for me, particularly freelance writing or editing then please do get in touch.

I think that will do for now. I’ll be back next week with a further update, and perhaps a book review.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Writing with ME

If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you will know that I often get annoyed at myself for not blogging enough. Okay, I’m quite busy, but having a more regular blogging presence and readership is useful to show publishers. I’m fairly sure when that when I query agents they will look for me online, and it doesn’t look great when my last post on here is a couple of months old.

However, I don’t talk about it much because I don’t want to be ‘that guy’, but I suffer from a condition called CFS/ME. (Here’s an interesting link on the symptoms). As Friday was ME/CFS awareness day, I wanted to talk about how it affects my writing and explain why my blog isn’t as active as I would like.

One of the main ways of coping with ME is pacing. It’s something that I’ve done quite naturally since I was diagnosed with ME in 1999. I usually know my limits and when I can do something cognitive, or when I just need to sit and think. Since I referred myself to the local clinic last year after having a relapse, this has become even more important.

I think this is one of the reasons I naturally turned to writing. I’ve always loved stories, and I enjoy telling stories. A writer (I think it was Gav Thorpe) once said to me that a writer is always writing, whether they are putting pen to paper or not.

Even if I’m having a bad day, health wise, I can sit and think about my plot, character or setting. A lot of the planning gets done on these days, and it’s always good to plan out as much of your novel as possible before writing the actual prose. This allows me to feel quite productive, even if the physical novel or short story isn’t actually increasing in word count.

I would love one day to write a book about ME itself, but we’ll see.

Of course having mentioned this, you can perhaps understand why I don’t blog as much as I, or maybe you, would like. If I feel up to putting figurative pen to paper then I would much rather be writing the actual stories themselves.

However, I have a plan. Rather than writing one post on the day that it needs to be posted, I’m going to try and plan ahead and schedule posts. Here’s hoping I can actual fulfil this.

What I’d love to know is what kind of stuff you would like to read?

Feel free to ask me writing questions, and I will answer them as soon as possible.

Thanks for reading.

To blog, or not to blog?

Yes, it seems I’m officially out of clever titles. I may have even used this one before, but any excuse to poorly paraphrase Shakespeare is okay in my book! (The academic in me really wanted to put a citation then.)

I’m annoyed with myself because I haven’t posted a blog in a few weeks. I promised myself that I would do a regular blog and try to build up my readership – you guys. But I’ve been busy – sure that’s everyone’s excuse. Trying to keep up with a part-time academic job, and a full-time PhD isn’t easy, but I should be able to find time to write a little blog, right? I’d hope so, and I’m definitely going to try harder, even if it’s just a book of the week post so you can hear what I’m reading at the moment.

The other reason I haven’t blogged is because I haven’t asked my students to in a few weeks. They’ve been too busy with assessments and it wouldn’t have been fair to make them do a blog too. They’re too busy…

I want to ask you a few questions. I will do some proper research on this, but I want a few opinions first to get a rough idea. (Feel free to comment below)

How important is a regular blog post, or is it better to wait for good content/ideas? Is it good to write a regular post so that people know when to expect it?  When should that be?

I’m trying to work out how to manage this blog, and I want to know how people interact with blogs. Such as how long a decent post should be?

I’ve made a short survey that you can fill out to help me with this, if you have time: Blogging Survey


I’m also looking at increasing my freelance workload. (After complaining about being busy? I know…)

So if you’re a student and you want sometime to check through your work for you and check the content (no promises about grading!) or just to edit/proofread, or if you’re an aspiring author and you want some critique on your writing/some help, then please get in touch. We can work out what you need and sort out an appropriate way of payment.

If this sounds like you, then please send me an email and we can sort something out!


Book of the Week

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

So, I’ve finally got to last year’s Arthur C. Clarke award winning novel. I was going to wait a bit to read this as I’ve got a few things on my reading list that I really want to read, but then I got a few recommendations for this in a matter of days.

I’m now 150 pages in (which may sound like a lot, but it’s only a quarter of its 600 pages), and I’m really enjoying it. It’s nice to pick up a sci fi book that feels fresh and pulls you along for the ride. Adrian is typically a fantasy writer and this is his first science fiction book. It reads like a fantasy writer writing sci fi, but that’s not a criticism. The world building is so strong and so believable that it can only be written by someone who has written fantasy. A common pitfall, and one that I am guilty of, with sci fi is to assume that you can make everything up. But you must absolutely understand how your world works, in as much detail as possible.

Adrian provides that detail, but unlike a lot of sci fi authors he doesn’t hit you over the head with it with long exposition, but rather intertwines it expertly into the narrative.

The other thing that I really like, and it was so subtle it took me about 80 pages to notice, is that both the civilisations represented in the novel are represented by a different tense. The humans are a typical third person past tense, which feels natural. Then the aliens (no spoilers!) have a third person present tense narrative. A subtle difference when kept to different chapters, but a striking one when you realise what it means.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this technique pans out, and how it helps the story.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and please get in contact/leave a comment below!

New Short Story!

I’ve just had another story published in ‘Drainpipes for Strike Posts’ by Mantic Games, featuring such literary greats as David Guymer, Guy Francis Haley, and that Rob Knipe guy that keeps following me around.

The story is called ‘The Price of Success’, and it’s a suitably grimdark tale about what happens if you get too big for your own boots.

The blurb:

 

A DreadBall Xtreme Anthology

We’ve all watched pro-wrestling at some point.

Even if we don’t openly admit it, at some point or another we have sat and watched those big, oiled-up men in their costumes and carrying their gimmicks and their ‘steel chairs’, putting each other through the ‘Spanish Announcer’s table’ (why always the poor Spanish?) and whether it’s been a guilty pleasure or just something we’ve happened upon, we’ve all had some flavour of the same thought: ‘It’s all very fake.’

Dig a little deeper, and you will find that in order to get on that oh-so-shiny stage, there is an awful lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears that goes into getting noticed enough by the big boys.  Those TV cameras don’t turn on just anyone. Those wrestlers have to spend years – sometimes decades – working their way up through small, no-name leagues, playing in front of small, excitable crowds of people baying for blood.  Yeah, they have a great life when they get to the top, but they have a hell of a slog to get there.

DreadBall is the big leagues – the glamour, the bright lights and the big bucks. The gimmicks and stylised weapons and violence, al seamlessly choreographed to make the best possible show.  Sure, people get hurt, but generally between all the safety measures, the best armour that money can buy, and an understanding of the realities of corporate sponsorship, everyone gets to go home with the minimal amount of lasting injuries, as a rule.

Xtreme is what happens in the shadows.  A handful of these guys might make it to the big time, but they have to survive first.  There are no rules, the sponsors have more important priorities than the personal safety, comfort or breathing status of their players, and armour is either stolen, home-made or passed down – often all three.  There’s no cameras, no million cred player deals and definitely no glamour.  What there is, is good old-fashioned violence, the way that DreadBall started all those many years ago.

Here we have eight tales from that shadowy underbelly.  From enigmatic alien sponsors to good old-fashioned human gangsters.  From fresh-faced newbies hungry for their first taste to worn out old-timers just looking for the money, we have it all here for you.

So settle in, and experience the Galaxy’s Greatest Sport the way that it was meant to be played.  But remember, this isn’t fake.  When these guys, gals and aliens bleed, it’s all for real.

Greg D Smith

 

You can get the whole anthology for £3.99 on their website. Great as a Christmas present, or you can buy it to wish me a Happy Birthday for tomorrow!

15 Things to Tell a Writer

Okay, so it has been a while since I have added anything to my blog post.

I have been busy working on my first novel, which is also my portfolio for my masters degree. I thought I would have a break and update my blog. This blog post has been sat in my drafts folder for a while, so I guess point number 1 should really be ‘finish things.’

The last session we had on the masters was a visit from the lovley Jenn Ashworth. One of the things she talked about is her ’15 things to tell a novelist’, which I found quite interesting. Some of the points were things I probably take for granted, but it was nice to see them written down and they are often things that as a writer you forget.

It was mentioned that we could write our own list of 15 things, and I thought that it might be a nice idea. There are some things that I have come across and/or struggled with in my writing that it may help other writers to see. I’ve not called this a 15 things for novelist as I also write short stories and I think the disciplines apply to all types of story whether prose or otherwise. This list is in no way a rulebook, but merely some thoughts that might help you to either produce more, or better work.

Here is the list, in no particular order.

1. Plan your Work. 

There are two main writer paradigms, the ‘planners’ and the ‘seats-of-pantsers’, and either method is fine, but I think in any story there will come a point where the writer needs to know where they are going. This could be a fully outlined synopsis, or chapter breakdown, or by simply researching and knowing your world well enough to wing it. Synopsis have definitely helped me when I’ve got stuck with a story, even if they are the devil to write.

2. Know your Characters

I think that in order to qualify the names you have written in your work as characters then they need to have a backstory. You need to know as much about them as possible. That way when you write them, you will a) know where they are going, and b) give your readers something to care about. It doesn’t need to be a character-driven story, but the reader wants someone they can invest in.

3. Don’t be a Slave to your World-Building

Along the same lines as character backstory, world-building is important. In some genres more than others. But if you do create your own world, as much as you should know everything about it, it is there to serve the story, not the other way around. Don’t let what you want the world to be hold you back in writing the story you want to write. The latter is always more important.

4. Don’t Edit as you go Along

One of the biggest ‘mistakes’ a new writer can make is to try editing as they go along. I even tell this to my academic writing students. Get to the required word count (or end of scene/chapter is probably fine) and then go back and edit it. Otherwise you will spend hours berating yourself over one sentence and never getting anything finished. You may have one perfect sentence, but a sentence does not a story make.

5. Always Show your Writing to Someone Else

One of the main things we learnt on the masters was to be less precious about our work. We were all writing for it to be read, but even then it was a struggle to give it to someone else. One of the most valuable parts of the masters was the workshops we regularly engaged in, and we still meet as much as possible to carry them on outside the course. A reader can tell you things about your work that you take for granted, or simply miss. It may require having a thick skin, but it will definitely improve your work.

6. Set Yourself Targets

Writing regularly is an absolute must if you are serious about writing. Of all the advice I got from published writers when I was starting out that was what they all said, without exception. Obviously, the day job and other commitments can get in the way and things like family always come first. However, if you can set yourself targets then this can ease the pressure. I have a daily word count that I need to meet, which varies depending on the project. Others I know have a monthly word count, or simply set themselves a deadline for having something finished. This allows you to add an element of professionalism even before you have been published, or have a book deal. It will be important then.

7. Allow Yourself to Write Crap

I guess this sits with my ‘not editing as you write’ point, but one of the most difficult things to do as a writer is not worry about the writing. I honestly believe the best way is to turn your internal editor off and get the words down on the page. An analogy that I always use with my writing students is ‘a sculptor cannot sculpt without stone to chip away at, and a writer can not make good work without the words in place.’ I once went to a seminar on ‘Fear and Writing’ with the excellent Kim Newman and the one thing she said that has stuck with me is ‘Give yourself permission to write shit. The first draft is always shit, but you can improve it.’ Excellent advice.

8. Draft and Redraft

Never hand in your first draft for anything. For most editors – and I find the same in an academic setting – a first draft is very obvious. Often you need the first draft to get the story on the page and then use it to figure out your POV, key themes and subplots, to name a few. At the very least you should read it through once and make any obvious edits. I’m not talking spelling and grammar mistakes, everyone makes typos, but glaring story problems, etc.

9. Read Aloud

When I’m reading through a draft I find it immensely useful to read the work aloud to myself. I can’t remember who first told my this tip, but it has been useful to get things like dialogue right. Feel free to put on accents, but simply reading the words aloud helps you to see if the dialogue is wooden or unnatural. I also find that if you stumble over a sentence, or have to read it twice then that highlights that there is something wrong with that sentence and it needs a fix. This obviously can be difficult if you live with other people, but if you are serious about writing then I am sure they will understand. I often have conversations with myself to test dialogue. I’m not mad, honest…

10. Know your POV

One of the most distracting things for a reader is when they don’t know who is telling them the story, or is the prose is confused. This can often be caused by the writer not really knowing what POV (point of view if you don’t know the term) they are trying to employ. Third person past tense is very common these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write it in another style. Just make sure you know how you are trying to write it and stick to the same narrator and tense. That way the reader can get inside the characters head, or follow the story in the way you intended. It can also help you avoid story mistakes.

11. Think about the Function of each Scene/Chapter

Yes, fiction should be fun to read and that is the most important part. But to have a truly effective and fun story the reader needs to know why they are reading. We could talk about character development, arcs and such things, but it can be simpler than that. What is this scene doing? Is it designed to show us the character’s motivation? Is it simply setting out the world? Thinking about it lets you know what you need to include and what is unnecessary information. It will make the writing stronger and more focussed, not to mention fun.

12. Keep Reading

Never stop reading. Well, okay you can go have a wash, books get wet in the shower, yes, but you should always have a book on the go. A writer can learn so much from their peers. If you want to write Science Fiction see what other writers are doing and how they tackle issues. If you want to write historical fiction see how other writers get across the setting and dialogue. See what works and what doesn’t work. Even if you are reading ‘just for fun’, you are always learning. It can be worth trying to pinpoint why you really enjoyed a book, or what it was that meant you put that book down after fifty pages.

13. Don’t take all Feedback as Gospel

At the beginning I stated that these are in no way, shape, or form a list of rules. Find what works for you. If you show your work to others don’t always make the changes that they suggest. Learn to way the good and bad suggestions and edits. The more people you show it to the easier this will be, but there will always be subjective stuff that others don’t like. Be true to the story you are trying to tell, but take on board suggestions and see if you can compromise. If a few people are giving you the same feedback, then maybe you really should delete that needless sex scene…maybe.

14. Research is Key

You might think that certain genres of fiction require more research than others, but that’s not really the case. Readers of science fiction are just as particular as historians, or readers of historical fiction. If you have sound in space then someone is likely to put down your book and go read something else. Research is absolutely key, and it helps you to build a true world, whether it is fantastical or not. It helps make the characters more than just pronouns you have moved around on a page, but actual characters.

15. Always Backup

Almost two years ago I had my Macbook stolen at work. On this laptop was over 15,000 words of un-backed up writing. You can imagine how devastated I was. Sufficed to say, I am yet to return to those stories because I can’t bring myself to realise the loss. The most annoying things is that even then I used a word processor called ‘Scrivener’, that can automatically backup to dropbox. Only, I had not ‘got round’ to setting it up yet. Now I have and every single word I type on my laptop, or my iPad is automatically saved there, as well as a cloud storage device I have at home. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

(I almost lost this blog post because my internet connection keeps dropping on my Mac and I hadn’t realised when I clicked ‘publish’.)

Well I hope some of these rules help you, feel free to comment with your own suggestions, or maybe make your own list. I would love to read it!

Thanks for reading.