Sunday, 26 September 2010

Speed versus quality

But I don't think they are necessarily opposing each other.  There's something to be said for just getting the first draft down regardless.  I've got a great book by Scott Meredith, who was a long time agent in the US, and he says you should get into the habit of writing the best you can first time.

I think it's a valid point.  There's speed writing and there's writing fast.  Speed writing I would regard as just getting something down, anything, so long as you keep writing.  Writing fast I would categorise as doing the best you can as fast as you can.

Nanowrimo, where everyone writes like mad with the objective of doing 50,000 words in November, seems to prove out the belief that writing intensively is the best way to keep going.  With a deadline looming, my buddies and I talk of doing a "sprintathon" to get finished.  Which effectively means writing like mad for about a week or so.

I've discovered that I write best when I write fast, so I now try and get up to four writing days a week and expect to keep up 5000 words a day, which takes about 4 to 5 hours with a couple of breaks.  Why this works for me is that I don't think.  I just write.  The composition goes straight from my "inner" brain, if you like, to my fingers.  I'm a touch typist and I guess that helps too.

In the non-writing time, I plan the next bit.  I know when it's going well because I start plotting - in the bath, while cooking, etc.  New ideas jump into my head.  And when ideas for the next book start jumping around, I know I'm really moving.

Learning to write fast means you have to push through a series of barriers.  These are the very things that get in the way of self-belief.  You could call it cutting out the middle man.

Now I'm not suggesting everyone should write fast.  You'll have a comfort zone that you like.  I do suggest that once in a while you give it a try.  You never know, it might just work for you too.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

How deep do we need to go?

Years back, I had to ask a writing friend what she meant when she said my potential mainstream novel lacked depth.  I thought I was doing depth because I had several historical romances to my credit already and knew how to bring emotional intensity to the story.  But that wasn't it.

She said:  "I want more."  It took us a while, but in the end I understood that she was talking about detail and  imagery.  That didn't mean I should plaster the text with lots of irrelevant data.  It's the craft of creating a word picture to illustrate what is going on inside your character.

This isn't an easy thing to explain, but I'll try.  There was a scene where my heroine returned to the flat she had shared with her dead lover.  It wasn't enough to say that she found the emptiness bleak and have her going from room to room.  I needed to show the emptiness.  Here's an example from the finished book, with the heroine in the kitchen.

"The milk pan on the hob, gathering the scum of days on the surface of the water poured in to keep the burn from sticking; and on the breakfast bar by the window, an open packet of cornflakes, a half-empty bottle of milk, the rest of its contents lumping in decay."

This is the lover's last breakfast, and everything has been left exactly as it was when she heard the news. It's a simple statement of what is there, but it conveys the bleakness of the place and emphasises the loss.  There is more of this sort of thing in the bedroom, the lover's study and finally in the living-room, where the heroine at last breaks down.

The trick of this piece of craftsmanship is one of the less obvious ways of showing rather than tellling, but if you can learn to do it, it's extremely effective.  Use it when needed, not all the time.  Like any other kind of emphasis, it's only effective if it takes us into a different atmosphere from the norm.

What you're doing is using the physical world to take us into the character's interior world.  Try it.  You may be surprised at the difference it makes to your writing.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Ok, who said that? Where's my hatchet?

I'm incensed to find yet another writer disturbed by some random comment out of the ether.  Is it impossible for anyone to put their work out there without attracting one of the small percentage of nutters who think only in negatives?

Here's a message for these guys.  If you can't think positive, we don't want to hear from you.  Get it?  No one objects to constructive criticism.  I'll spell that:  C-O-N-S-T-R-U-C-T-I-V-E.  If you have something negative to say, then jolly well find the positive as well.  There is not a writer alive who hasn't written something worthwhile in their offering.

And to the victims of this abomination: don't take it to heart.  A negative comment on its own means you've got hold of a negative personality.  This type of person thrives on carping at anyone who dares to stick their head above the parapet.  Believe this - they are trying to bring you down.  Don't ask why.  Don't go there.  Just don't let them win.

Artists as a race are a magnet for people of this type.  As writers, it's one of the risks we face.  Arm yourself by realising what you're dealing with and you won't get hurt.

What to watch for?  "I really enjoyed/liked your book, BUT ..."  Don't believe the first bit.  They wouldn't have liked it if it was strawberries and cream.  "You made a research error on page 57."  Yeah?  So what?  If they are being picky, you've hooked one.

A positive personality is going to be specific.  "I love your hero .... I laughed and cried..."  They won't be ready to jump down your throat for small errors.  They might query something - politely.  "I'm interested to know if..."

So what do you do?  Two choices:  ignore it.  Respond ever so politely and just thank them for their comments. Don't justify, excuse or get into any discussion about the point raised.

Of course, there's a third choice too, but I think it's illegal...

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Discipline - what does it mean?

We're always being told you have to be disciplined as a writer.  "If you want to get anywhere, write every day..." or whatever the disciplinary committee decides is the important rule.

Tell you the truth, I hate that word.  It's loaded with implications of penalties and wagging fingers and writing it out on the blackboard 100 times, and all that ghastly stuff you go through as a kid.  To hell with discipline!

So why am I writing a blog on discipline by request?  Because we need to get this sorted out.  Because as writers we are keen to believe there are ways to circumvent time and effort and do it easily.  Well, there are.  And the number one way is to stop punishing yourself for not being disciplined enough.

You're writing because you want to.  It's your choice.  It's also your choice how quickly you achieve your dreams.  No one can drive you.  You can only drive yourself.  We all have a comfort zone of activity - too much or too little makes you either overwhelmed or bored.

This is my solution.  Find out what your comfort zone is in terms of activity, and stick with that.  Then you can occasionally push yourself to make that deadline.  If you like to work in frenzied spurts and then have days off, do that.  If you like to write a certain amount every day, do that.

Why?  Because when you are comfortable and doing it the way you choose, you will free up your creative juices.  If you have your attention on your "shortcomings" in terms of getting it done, you're damming up the flow.

If there is a word that belongs here, for my money it's persistence.  Keep going, that's all.  And if you fall off your timetable or your plan, so what?  Who cares?  Get back on again and pedal.  You'll get there.

Friday, 3 September 2010

New website about my assessment service

My new website has gone up today.  This tecchie stuff is alarming but thank goodness they make it easy for those with zero designer skills.

Hopefully the website will give people a chance to find out what I'm offering before getting in contact.  I know that's what I like to do.  Plus how much is it going to cost?  Always a key item.

Clients have kindly given me the okay to put their success stories on there, which is another thing people want to know.  How good are you?

My web page link on the profile now transfers direct to the site at and I'll be delighted to have writers who are interested routed in that direction.

Very pleased also to have a write-up about the service in the October issue of Writers' News.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Are you planning too much?

There are about as many methods of writing as there are writers.  We all like to know how others do it, and workshops and tutorials are very much about finding out.  But beware!

Any technique is only as useful as it helps you at a given moment.  It's all too easy to let the technique overtake the writing.  Technique is there to enhance, not to rule.  If it starts taking over, throw it out the window.

Worrying too much about specific techniques can stop you right at the outline stage.  What's important in a story is what happens.  You can have all the backstory, motivation and characterisation you want, but if there's no action, there's no story.

Don't let methods of planning bog you down.  Work with some technical framework by all means, but like research, set it aside when you write.  Any successful writer will tell you that a story is no use unless it's alive.  If you worry too much about technique, your writing will be wooden and uninspired.  Dead, in other words.

When the story lives for you, it will live for the reader.  You have to be involved.  It can be like watching a film unwind in your imagination as you write about what you see.  That's storytelling.

If this hasn't happened for you, try this:  set a timer for 2 minutes.  Start writing and keep going until the timer goes off.  Don't think and don't stop.  Then go 5 minutes.  Then 15.  By this time you'll probably keep going when the timer goes off.  You may think you're writing rubbish, but I'm willing to bet that what you write will be more alive than anything you've written before.

Put simply, writing the book will shift you into living the book.