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.

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Taking the Scenic Route

It’s mad that this is my first blog post of 2014, but then the year has started off massively busy. My New Year’s resolution was to write every day, which so far I have managed, even if only a few words, or I have done some editing. This worked out pretty well until I realised that I had a week to paint an army for a tournament in Nottingham next weekend. Life is about challenges right?

That’s kind of what this blog is about. I haven’t done any proper writing in the last few days because I’ve been knee deep in paint. I also felt that I needed to type up the writing we did in class this week as, once again, I didn’t feel like reading it out in class. (Turns out someone wrote a similar story to me, but did it better – such is life!) It’s also, partly, what the title is about; taking the scenic route to finishing my tasks for this week.

This week we had the external examiner, Carol Clewlow (I had to research that spelling!) who is a novelist in her own right, come in and talk to us. At first it seemed as if she would just talk us through the assignment, but that was only a brief introduction. What followed from that was a very interesting workshop about editing and scenes. We discussed the importance of bridging scenes – just getting a character where they need to be without boring the reader – and crucial scenes – where the detail is included – and their differences. Carol also talked about how it was quite often a shame that a scene was used as a bridging scene when it had the potential for some much more.

I just realised I’ve been typing this in silence without music. Sometimes when you get in the flow that just happens, other times I need music to help me concentrate. If you’re a writer, what do you write to? I tend to favour soundtracks as I find I often end up following lyrics if I listen to anything else. They also help me imagine the drama. I think today’s choice is Game of Thrones season 2, though it’s now making me want to watch it.

Carol gave us a bridging scene:

We left home at 6.30. Not long after turning on to the motorway we hit an accident with a long tailback. A wrecked car was still on its roof as we passed. Despite this we managed to reach dover by late afternoon and by evening we were in France.

We discussed that this scene has so much potential for detail which could add to the story. So, Carol gave us a task, turn this scene into a crucial scene. What follows is what I wrote in that task and also a later edit where she asked us to find that one part that needed more. Rather than splitting it in to two of what is essentially the same thing, I give you the finished version (I may also have cheated and added more as I typed it up – oops!):

We left home at 6.30 in a hurry to put everything into the car. The car screeched as the wheels spun off the driveway under the heavy way and we were away. Not long after hitting the motorway we hit an accident with a long tailback. It wasn’t uncommon given the circumstances. Everyone was in a rush to get away and rushing made people careless. A wrecked car was still on its roof as we passed, glass smashed across the carriageway. The poor people were still trapped inside the crumpled mess of the vehicle. The incessant cacophony of beeping horns wasn’t helping and there was no sign of the emergency services. They had enough to do right now. they would have a job getting through this crowd in time. The victims weren’t worth worrying about. No one could help them now, it was every man for himself.

Despite the crush we still managed to travel the 60 miles from Bromley to Dover by late afternoon. It’s amazing that even in an emergency most Brits wouldn’t drive on the hard shoulder. Its against the rules! But who needed rules now? The port got pretty desperate and fights were breaking out everywhere as we snuck our small car onto the ferry. By evening we were in France, a bit of money changing hands could get you anywhere. The badge didn’t hurt, but showing that around everywhere would raise too many questions. It’s a shame the ferry wasn’t going further, but I didn’t have that much money.

The crossing went relatively calmly, once people were onboard the hysteria had died down.

Driving down the ramp into the yellow ramps lights of Calais, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought about those trapped at home. Poor old Britain. For now though, we were safe.

 

Some of the group decided to completely change the original scene we were given, but I saw this more of an editing exercise. So what you can see here is a typical example of how I might edit. I’ll take a piece I have written and see if I can embellish the sentences that are already there. Sometimes I may need to take out a superfluous word and others I may need to alter the tense slightly, but as the scene we were given was already quite tight I didn’t feel any need to.

My scene could probably be edited further, but then isn’t that true of everything?

On another note, as anyone noticed that no one really talks on Facebook anymore? All that appears on my news feed is people sharing links to videos and various surveys that tell you which character from that poor remake of  that dodgy sci-fi film you are most like. What happened to people typing and having conversations, you know, social networking? Maybe it’s just my Facebook, but I was curious if anyone else had noticed a similar trend?

On that perfectly 1000 word count note, I shall leave you.

Once again, thanks for reading and any suggestions, comments or thoughts are welcome.

 

Ideas & Mathew Street

So I had another incident with the vending machine. This time of a completely different design. While I was having my morning issue with the vending machine not dispensing my crisps properly I glanced to the ever-shiny chocolate section. There I saw a Twirl and thought, oh that will be nice after lunch. If I’m still hungry afterwards I’ll come back and get one. Imagine my disappointment when returning to the vending machine after a rather unfulfilled lunch that there were no longer any Twirls left in the machine. Now, I’m assuming there must have only been one left and one of the three students that came in to work that day had decided on the very same thing that I had. The kitkat I had was just not the same.

Today’s blog is as usual in two parts. Firstly I want to have a little talk about where I get my story ideas from and what drives me to write. Secondly about something that is happening in the city I live in at the moment.

Now something that really interests me is where do writers get their ideas from? When ever I come across a blog or article by a professional author this is something I seek out. Now with the plan of trying to recreate these ways to my own benefit but more of an interest in what drives them and if I have a similar way. I know of only one author at the moment that gets his ideas the same way I do.

Most of my ideas tend to come to me in the evenings. Which I suppose in a way is not unusual. I tend to be quite introspective in the evenings, usually in bed where I think about everything and the world. I like to come up with scenarios on how I would solve something or change things so this is usually where ideas drop in to my head. Which can be quite annoying as I’m already in bed. If I’m still fairly awake I’ll try to get up and at the very least make a few bullet points in my notepad. On the other hand, if I’m nodding off I’ll try and force my mind in to remembering it by constantly going over it until I fall asleep. Which can make for some pretty odd dreams! Then in the morning I’ll think about it on the way to work. Usually with a clearer mind where I can actually work out the idea properly. I also tent to do a lot more reading in the evenings which I guess puts me in the story/scenario frame of mind.

Last night I finally came up with that idea for a Dark Angel story that I mentioned in a previous blog. I was actually sat on the toilet before bed and I thought…’what would it be like to be inducted in to the Deathwing?’ and there you go I had a story idea which I had to go and write down. Don’t worry, I cleaned my hands first!

The other major time I come up with ideas is on the train. This is also the way the author I mentioned (Dan Abnett) gets a lot of his ideas. I travel a lot between here and my home town of London as well as Weymouth where my parents live, so I spend a lot of time on the train. (Alas, I don’t drive but I love train travel anyway – I suggest driving would not have the same effect or be as safe ideas wise!) I used to try and read on the train but always got distracted. Now, instead, when I get on the train I put my notepad and pen out in front of me and spend the journey watching the world go by, day-dreaming. Often in these day dreams I come up with ideas and jot them down. Interestingly this is actually where I write more scenes and dialogues. In bed it tends to be the outlines and on the train the actual content. I wonder if any one else finds a similar phenomenon?

Please let me know if you have any thoughts on generating ideas as I’m interested to hear how other people do it.

Now on to Mathew Street Festival, a festival that happens every year on bank holiday weekend here in Liverpool. Now outside of this wordy text-box I am actually a keen advocate of live music. I teach sound engineering and I play in not one but two live bands. I honestly think festivals are a good thing, they bring music to people and supposedly help the economy. I also love events; being a Londoner I love to see people out and about, doing. But I can’t help but feel a certain disdain for Mathew Street.

The amount of pure scum that come from all over the North West for Mathew Street is astounding. It actually makes me sad for the future of the human race. Where all these ‘people’ come from I really don’t know. If Ofsted want to see the pure abject failure of the education system in this country then I can do nothing more than suggest that they come to Liverpool on bank holiday weekend.

When walking to the train station last night for my weekly pub quiz, minding my own business (I even had earphones in). Two tracksuit-clad, fosters-can wielding, young guys deliberately crossed over  a busy road in order to tell me that I had, I quote ‘a fat fanny’. Now I’m not sure if they were commenting on the size of my backside or were just so drunk that they were sorely mistaken as to my sexuality. To be perfectly honest, compared to a lot of the other people ‘attending’ the festival these two ‘lads’ were relatively restrained. I’ve heard stories of young women (12-13 years) using profanity I would not even use and mouthing off about how much the ‘needed a fag’. This couple with the fact that these people bring small children in the the environment sickens me and makes me sad. I currently live right in the city centre so last night I could see a lot of this first hand from my living room window. Now I like a drink like the next person, but it looked like some sadistic scene from a film where everyone had lost their senses. It’s what I imagine the fall of the Roman Empire to be like, but with not nearly as much class.

It’s not about the music, as far as I can tell it never has been. Sadly a lot of music festivals are going this way now-a-days. I have been to festivals and met people there that have not seen a single band and spent most of their time with their beloved MDMA. The fact that the local council relax the street drinking laws just means that teenagers grab a couple of crates of Fosters and head in to the centre to become as close to paralytic as possible. What the council should do to encourage a nicer environment, short of sterilising them would be to not allow people to bring their own alcohol in. In stead, encourage local pubs and venues to make their drinks cost effective and issue special mathew street cups or something similar that people may walk around in. They could also introduce the token system that some festivals have to make sure that ID is necessary.

Well that’s my brief thoughts on the Mathew Street festival piss-up. I’m sure you guys have some thoughts on it too.

As ever I will be interested to read your comments and thank you for reading.

Good People

I was thinking this morning; I need to write a blog today, but I have nothing profound to talk about. Today is one of my days off, or at least mornings off and as part of my writing efforts I am trying to write a blog every one of these days off. This is why I’ve been missing since, Saturday I think it was (awesome gig by the way, my zombie Starfleet Ensign uniform looked…well, alright I suppose) because every day since then I have been working in the morning and by the time I’m finished or have the afternoon off, I really have not energy to sit here and write. I know, I know, I’m going to have to work on that if I want to become a writer and write regularly. But at the moment I’m building up gradually. If I can write one of these every morning that I have spare, then eventually that will become norm and I will be able to build everything else on these foundations.

So here I am, without anything interesting to say (I know what you’re thinking keep reading, it get’s better!) wondering what the hell I am going to write a blog about, then someone says this:

“Why is it always good people that bad things happen to?”

And this got me thinking. It’s something I’ve heard thrown around a few times recently, and something I’ve been thinking myself while feeling deeply sorry for myself. Why is it always the good people that bad things happen to? You go through life trying your hardest to be fair and understanding and treat people well. I was brought up to ‘treat people how you expect to be treated’. Then something will come along and really kick you in the teeth and make you think ‘why do I bother?’ and ‘maybe I should just give up, be horrible like everyone else and then maybe things won’t happen to me as much’.

Sure, I’m not saying I’m perfect. Nobody is. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re kids or teenagers because we don’t really understand how the world works yet. But I like to think I’m a pretty decent and nice person always willing to help others. I’m very lucky in many ways, don’t get me wrong. But I also suffer from something called ME, which during my teenage years made life pretty difficult. I was essentially bed ridden and couldn’t do a lot of things teenagers normally do. Which as I was very sporty and active beforehand was pretty devastating. I don’t talk about it much, because it’s one of those illnesses that people don’t really understand and I don’t like people to think I’m milking it for one reason or another. I try and get on with my life. The only time I do bring it out is when people call me lazy. This is one thing I am most definitely not, and I can take a joke, but I absolutely loathe being called lazy, because I would like to do everything that’s possibly with my time on this planet, but I simply cannot and it irks me. I’ve also been through some shit over the last year that I will not and cannot talk about.

I went slightly off topic there, please excuse my rant. Why does bad stuff happen to good people? Is it because when bad stuff happens we realise that most of us are essentially good people? Or is it the people that we go day to day thinking, they’re a good person. Then BAM something bad happens to them. Is there something more to it? Are the fates just cruel bastards? Sometimes I think they are. There definitely seems to be some correlation. The really good people seem to get all the shit in life, excuse my French, and those that just breeze through doing whatever the hell they like seem to get by scot free. It’s not fair I tell you! And I’ve had enough!

Still, as I said the other day. It’s difficult, but you can’t let things in life effect how you are as a person, unless it’s for the better. Oh, it’s so damn difficult…

Also, why do serious illnesses seem to happen to really intelligent people (not including myself here…I am incredibly blonde and simple at times…). Why do they always seem to be the ones that lose it? Is it because their brains are so powerful that eventually they overload and just explode? I was absolutely devastated when I heard that Sir Terry Pratchett had Alzheimer’s. He is an incredible man, complete genius and also one of the small list of authors that really made me love reading and stories. I couldn’t imagine a world where he was not exploring the Discworld universe and making us all laugh. He deserves better in life than to have his memories slowly fade away. I hope, as sad as it is, for his sake that it doesn’t come to that.

Also glad to I could recommend his work to people before he sadly stops producing more so that they have a chance to experience it too while he is still with us.

Well I think that’s enough profoundness for one day. Albeit it slightly ranty, I hope you have found it interesting.

I’m not sure if I will be posting samples of my stories any more. I think that I would like to have something finished before I show it to you guys, just in case it turns out that I wasn’t happy with what I had written in the end. Once it’s up it’s up and I can’t get rid of it, it’s been said, it’s happened, there it is. So I will be more careful.

In other news the 20th was H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday. So I started work on a Lovecraftian story that I have been planning for ages. It’s set on the Isle of the Dead, otherwise known as Portland Island in Dorset. There is a reason for this setting, but I’ll keep you guessing for now. More on that soon.

Once again, thanks for reading.