Monday, 28 February 2011

The Bus Stop Test

Recently I've been doing a bit of travelling by public transport. It's been great - a chance to settle down with a book. However, there is always the niggling residual fear that I'll be so sucked into the fictional world that I miss the stop in the real one. It hasn't yet happened, partly because my book at the moment has been the magisterial Last Night in Twisted River by John Irvine.

Weighing at nearly 700 pages it was always going to be a long read, but I'm a reasonably fast reader - a book a week is standard, so I didn't expect Last Night in Twisted River to go beyond a couple of weeks. It's been over a month, and I've only just finished. Phew.

There are two main reasons why it has taken so long. Firstly, I kept dropping off to sleep. Secondly, even when reading I was easily distracted by what was going on around me. I was trying to pin-point why, exactly, I was making such heavy work of reading the book - it's undoubtedly well written, the sentences flow, the images are arresting, the characters distinct people, yes, there's flashback and I was often confused as to when exactly we were which meant going over some pages a second time but that wouldn't entirely explain my distraction - and then it struck me: it was the omniscient authorial voice.

At the end of the book John Irvine talks about the writing process (the novel is about a writer who uses autobiography for his writing) and says that the omniscient authorial voice is out of fashion, but he likes the style and is going to carry on using it. Fair enough.

But to me, that voice distanced me from the characters. I never truly engaged with them and could have put the book down without reading to the end almost every moment. There were only about 20 pages when I was in danger of missing the bus stop and, in a book of nearly 700 pages, that seems a poor ratio. I persisted with reading because I usually do read to the end regardless, because a friend had rated the novel and because John Irvine is a great author.

It may be that intimacy with characters is fashionable and fashions can, and do, change. You can choose to write in whatever style you wish, and if that's with the magisterial voice common in the C19th then fine. There are readers who love that style. But, you should also be aware that it's a distancing voice and the current fashion is for something more intimate. That way, hopefully, you'll pass my bus stop test.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

Friday, 25 February 2011

Should You Ask Rhetorical Questions?

When I first started writing I was part of a critique group which featured a couple of super academic, professionally high achieving and all-round scary ladies who were writing Literature (the capital L was obvious). I have never forgotten one of them holding the corner of my offering and commenting that she automatically dismissed any work that featured rhetorical questions.

So that was me told.

Older, and wiser (and published) I now recognise that it's one of those areas of English, like split infinitives, that some people have a thing about. At the time I slunk off into a corner, never to ask a rhetorical question again. Or did I? Well, in truth, I have sinned, but never without that particular grande dame's voice reverberating around my skull.

Does it matter? Should one not be free to write as you wish? Shouldn't we liberate ourselves from out-moded rules about style? Or do we readers become fed up with one damn question after another? Who knows?

So much about writing is a question of taste. Personally, I quite like a rhetorical question every now and then but, like exclamation marks, usage should be limited or the writing appears cluttered. And it's well to be aware that for some people it leads to automatic dismissal. But then, I was never interested in writing Literature with a capital L. I have only ever wanted to write stuff people want to read.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/Bath 3rd July

Thursday, 24 February 2011

And Another Rude Poem that Goes Too Far

We can go too far with showing not telling. This is the poem I was originally going to recite at the Get Writing Conference last Saturday:

Mary had a little lamb.
She also had a duck.
She put them on the mantlepiece
To see if they'd...fall off.

It's just not as funny. Yet we're still relying on the audience identifying and then supplying the missing word, exactly as in yesterday's poem. I think it's not as funny for two reasons: the missing word is generally considered ruder and cruder, and the substitution weakens the joke.

When you're writing, you're creating a world. You want to lure the reader into your world and keep them there. They're usually keen to stay, but can be jolted out. By being crude, the reader is startled out of their comfort zone. I was interested to learn that several friends preferred my later novels because there was less 'bad language'. Now, I don't think there's much in any of my novels, but I took their comments on board. The 'bad language' had jolted them out of their comfort zones and away from my story world.

And then there's the substitution. I think this weakens the joke by pointing out that it IS a joke, a contrivance. The reader doesn't feel as clever as they did in yesterday's poem when they did the work and substituted the word. Instead, it's a trick, and they're the ones being tricked. The subtext runs: You're expecting this rude word, but - ha ha - it's something else quite innocuous.

So there has to be a balance. If we use showing not telling, but make what we're showing too obscure and difficult, it becomes too much like hard work and the reader will give up. If we mislead the reader, the reader will turn away. Sometimes telling is the right thing to do. Part of the writer's job is learning about the balance and getting it right.

When I told my partner of my poetry plans for the talk at the Get Writing Conference he said I must have balls of steel (!) to contemplate reading out such material in front of a group of strangers. Yesterday's poem got a laugh, today's wouldn't. On Saturday I got the balance of smut:crudity right. Tomorrow maybe I won't. Who knows? It's all a matter of trial and error and, balls of steel or not, isn't it fun to be playing and experimenting?

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Rude Poem that Proves a Point

I recited this poem during my talk at the Get Writing Conference on Saturday:

Mary had a little bike,
She rode it on the grass.
And every time the wheels went round
A spoke went up her -

At which point I stopped, and the audience laughed (luckily - I'd have been scuppered if there had been silence). Why did they laugh? I asked them. The answer was because they knew what word was coming next - and in fact one lady helpfully mouthed it at me just in case I hadn't known. But the missing word isn't intrinsically funny, so why the laughter?

I'm sure there are lots of complicated psychological reasons why the omission of a mildly rude word can get such a reaction with a group of adults, but what I was using it for was to demonstrate that the audience was both willing to do some work - ie supply the missing word - and enjoyed the process. In fact, they enjoyed supplying the missing word far more than they would have done if I had said it.

When we're writing we can forget that the reader wants to work, and will enjoy their reading far more if they have to make an effort. That's the basis for show, not tell. We show the reader a situation, the reader does some work and deduces for themselves what's going on. It's much more effective than telling them exactly what's going on. Tell us that Evangeline was nervous, and we're bored. Show us Evangeline's sweaty palms or bitten fingernails and we're delighted to deduce that she's nervous.

Make the readers do some of the work, by showing and not telling, and you've got them hooked on your story.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Never be Snotty to the Assistant

At the RNA party to announce the shortlist for the Novel of the Year 2011 (which Kissing Mr Wrong just happens to be on) I was chatting to a commissioning editor from Headline. It turned out she had originally started as an assistant to my own editor at Headline and had risen through a series of promotions to the position she now held.

Think about it. How does a commissioning editor get to be a commissioning editor? It's usually not because they've been, say, middle management at Marks and Spencer. No, they've come through the ranks. Many have had stints as booksellers or been agents (or their assistants) en route but essentially, at some point they'll have been the one making the tea and going out to get the sandwiches.

Those people are usually the ones who new authors first make contact with at a publishing house or agency. So a new author would be advised to be polite and considerate at the very least. You may be thinking you always are, and I expect that's true, but there are some people who phone up demanding this or that, or respond badly to rejection and take it out on the assistant. Not a good idea because, remember:

The Tea Makers of Today are the Commissioning Editors of Tomorrow.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Yehudi Menuhin v. Nigel Kennedy or Why Perfection Doesn't Matter

A few months ago I was listening to a radio programme about violinists. I'm not musical - Chopsticks on the piano is about it - but it was fascinating hearing various musicians talk with such passion about the soloists.

Nigel Kennedy, it was universally agreed, was a perfect violinist, literally note perfect. Yehudi Menuhin, on the other hand, made errors. 'But I'd rather have the Menuhin recordings,' one of the musicians piped up. The others agreed. They enjoyed Menuhin's passion, his heart-felt commitment to his music, and that over rode any considerations of perfection. Put simply, it was the mistakes that made Menuhin the violinist he was.

And it got me thinking: why do we writers tie ourselves up in knots about some nebulous ideas about perfection? We edit and edit and edit until our shoulders seize up and our hands ache. We don't send our work out because it's 'not quite there yet', even though we finished that draft a year ago. We tinker and fiddle and primp our words, searching for perfection.

It's not there! And even if it was, would we want it? Wouldn't we as readers rather choose the heart-felt, the committed, the passion for story telling over mere perfection? Go for it, let your words soar like Menuhin's playing and stuff the imperfections.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Why Readers are like Goslings

Reading is a strange business. We start out with high expectations and long for them to be fulfilled - no one reads hoping that they're going to waste their time, surely. So we latch onto whatever we get given in the first paragraph. Aha, we think, that's what this story is going to be about.

And then it isn't.

It's such a disappointment. As a reader, you sort of commit to the first person you see in a story, just like a gosling hatching from the egg. And as you read further, and the story gets further away from the character you started with, half your brain is wondering when we're going to get our real main character back, the one we started out with, the one we bonded with.

I see it in class time and time again. We begin with character X, then mourn X's absence if X doesn't turn out to be the main character. Feedback invariably starts with 'What happened to X?'

In novels this may not be so important - though in published novels, if the story is going to start with a different character, you often see that chapter being called a prologue, or some such, just to alert the reader that they shouldn't commit fully.

But in short stories starting with the character you mean to go on with is vital. Consider this: I see misleading story beginnings in class fairly often, but I can't remember seeing a story that didn't start with the main character when I've been the final judge for short story comps. That implies that the misleading beginnings get weeded out in the initial judging stages.

So, I'd strongly advise anyone to make sure their opening paragraph concentrates on the main character and call me a goose if I'm wrong.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Never Do Convenient Writing

So there I was sitting on the bus quietly reading The Legacy by Kathryn Webb when suddenly she did something so dreadful, so awful, I actually groaned. The main character is looking for the missing clue when she goes to visit some acquaintances, one of whom has just had a baby. They've been talking about babies and mutual friends for four pages.

Then, completely out of the blue, the new mother pipes up: "I was wondering if you'd tell me again why Grandpa Flag was called Flag? I know someone told me before when we were little - but I can't remember it properly now."

And whoppee, the answer is EXACTLY what the main character needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle of the plot.

Now, I accept this might happen. But I can't remember asking my mother a question about my family history without there being some sort of lead up to it. And for the previous four pages there hasn't been. This particular question is exceptionally useful, but so lacking in any context it's implausible for it to be there, except for the author's convenience. And at that point the story lost it for me. I couldn't take any of it seriously any more. Which was a pity, because I'd already read over 300 pages.

Convenient writing is the kiss of death for the reader. They've committed themselves to these characters and their story, the last thing they want to be reminded of is that it's all a contrivance. We're trying to create a real world here, with real people doing real stuff. It has to be plausible within its own terms (eg werewolves are fine, so long as what they can and can't do is consistent). One of the wonderful things about Philip Pullman's Northern Lights was that it created a world so real and consistent, it was a surprise that when I came back to my reality I didn't have my own daemon.

It's convenient when the doorbell/phone rings at the crucial moment (unless we've set up a character saying I'll call back tomorrow).
It's convenient when the characters need an X, and a passer by says I happen to have one here.
It's convenient when the missing information is handed to a character without them having to work at it.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we know that Charlie Bucket is going to find the golden ticket because there won't be much of a story if he doesn't, but he doesn't find it on his first bar of chocolate - that would be convenient. Make the characters - and us - work for their opportunities, and you won't have your readers groaning on the bus.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why Writing Needs to be Real

It was the first time workshopping the new students on my courses yesterday. They're all new-ish to writing, and I think weren't quite sure of what was expected of them. But they had a go and turned in work and we workshopped. One comment was duplicated on several pieces: if it had been more real, it would have been funnier/scarier.

Writing needs to be rooted in reality. If it isn't real we can't project ourselves into the situation and it becomes distanced, rather like watching a television through a window. If the situation is real, however, we can put ourselves there. Then we can find it funny, or scary, or romantic.

So, if you take the characters on Friends, Monica is a control freak. She's more of a control freak than anyone I've ever come across, but it's an exaggeration of a tendency I see in others (not me, of course). I'm a fan of programmes like Time Team, and give me something about Ancient Rome and I'm there, but I can see that Ross takes his dinosaur enthusiasm too far, or rather, into the realms of comedy. Joey is dim, Rachel is vain, Chandler is Mr Beige, Phoebe is irritating - I mean fey. It's all normal human behaviour, but exaggerated.

Conversely, I didn't find Black Swan that scary - and I'm so easily frightened, I thought I was going to have a heart attack during Misery and had to leave the cinema. But it was about a world I knew little of, and the characters didn't seem grounded in any normality I recognised so it was harder for me to care about them.

John Irving said in an interview once that he writes the first draft full of normal people, then in the second draft he exaggerates them to make them funny. It's normality on superdrive. But it needs that kernel of truthfulness to work. Perhaps that's why I don't 'get' Phoebe - her character is the furthest away from my reality, and therefore she seems contrived rather than real.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Why Use a Strapline to Pitch Your Novel?

What is a strapline?  At it's simplest, it's a short phrase that encapsulates your novel, often with the format X meets Y. The idea is taken from the film industry where the most famous is for Alien: Jaws in Space.  I like Eoin Colfer's strapline for Artemis Fowl: Die Hard with fairies.

But some people think they're maybe a bit facile, maybe a bit trite, maybe a bit contrived.  Their novel can't be summed up in just a few words.  And of course, they would be right.  However, think of it this way...

A novel goes through a chain of readers on its way to actually hitting the shelves.  First the agent, then the editor, then marketing, then sales, then the book buyer.  As the book goes through each stage the person selling the novel onto the next stage will have read less and less.
You'd expect the agent and editor to have read the lot, and in depth, marketing will have skimmed it, sales might have only looked at the first chapter and the book buyer...well, Waterstones caused outrage a few years ago at a seminar where they revealed that of the four criteria that decided whether they were going to support a book or not, none were related to the quality of the actual words inside the cover.  

So the strapline is for them.  It's an easy way to pigeonhole a book for people who probably aren't going to read it but are going to make important decisions for its future.  

How to create one? Think of the two or three most important elements of your book, then think of a very well known book or film that sums up that element.  I was trying to do one for Kissing Mr Wrong for this post and came up with: Birdsong meets Outnumbered.  Birdsong to me says WWI and Outnumbered says a wry look at contemporary families.  

It's worth a try - at the very least it makes you think about the essential elements of your book.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Falling in Love With Your Characters

So we were out on a walk and talking about Colin Firth, and whether he was fanciable or not.  I said yes. 

My friend countered with, 'But if you were Bridget Jones, you'd have been much better off shagging Hugh Grant, because he was fun.  Whereas Mark Darcy was set to carry on being stuffy and repressed.'

'Ah, but it's not all about the shagging,' I riposted (I have these intellectual sort of conversations).  'Hugh Grant is all very well in his own way, but Mark Darcy thinks Bridget is perfect just as she is.  He loves her, with all her faults.'

Writing's a funny way of making a living.  You invent this set of people and give them stuff to do, and then see where it develops.  This takes a long time - a year, usually, though the more literary your writing, the longer the industry will give you to produce the book.  You have to love your characters to put up with them for so long.

When I was doing my MA in Creative Writing, there was one WIP I loathed because the main character was so perfect.  Nothing she did was wrong.  Her make up never smudged.  She was kind to children and animals.  She helped old ladies across the road.  These are all good things, but frankly, she was hateful. She wasn't lovable because, unlike Bridget Jones, she had no faults.

Bridget has faults, and Mark Darcy - and millions of people across the world - loves her for it, and we love him for loving her.  So when you're writing give your characters faults. The more faults they have, the easier it is to love them.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Shortlisted! And Why It Matters to Me.

Yippedy doo dah! I've been shortlisted for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year 2011. Or rather, Kissing Mr Wrong has, but as it's a novel I get to scoot up to London and drink champagne on its behalf.

It was a difficult book to write in many ways. My deadline was end of June, and by Christmas I'd struggled to get 20,000 words written down. Then there was Christmas and New Year and, well, not much got written. I picked it up again in mid-January and then I had a phone call. My father had gone to see his GP, rather against his will but my mother insisted, the GP thought it would be a good idea to run some tests, and the quickest way of getting them done was to admit him to hospital straight away. My father didn't want to go - after all, he felt fine - but he could see the logic so off he went to hospital.

The tests didn't go the right way. He stayed in hospital. As he was virtually blind, he needed someone to help him so my mother stayed to support him, and I stayed to support her. Three days later we were told he had terminal cancer. He went back home a few days later. My mother, my sister and myself operated an informal shift system so one of us was with him all the time. I had the day shift. He was slipping in and out of consciousness at this time, so I tried to get some work done when I could, but every moment he was awake was precious. (If you were on the Bristol Diploma a couple of years ago, sorry for the terrible handwriting on your assessments.)

He died on Valentine's Day 2009. It had taken 16 days from that visit to the GP. We were all in shock - he hadn't been ill, he hadn't shown any signs. And I stopped writing. I couldn't. I nothing to give.

I warned my editor who was sympathetic. February went by, then March and April. In May I realised I was running out of time. I picked up the 20,000 words and thought - what rubbish. Then I thought about the contract I'd signed. My dad was always a man of his word. So I wrote Kissing Mr Wrong in two months, delivering the manuscript at 11.58pm on the last day of June.
My lovely editor at Headline gave me a couple of months to do the re-write, and Kissing Mr Wrong came out just a couple of weeks behind schedule.

And here it is, shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year. It makes me cry because, you know, he would have been so proud.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

You need More than Talent to Succeed as a Writer

We assume that talent, or natural ability, is a given for any creative person, but as far as I can see, talent is low on the list of desirable qualities.

I'd put persistence top. Talent may get you noticed at first, but persistence keeps you going. You need persistence to write a novel full stop, and doubly so when you have a full time job doing something else. And then persistence to keep going when you have set backs.

But dogged persistence isn't enough when you're banging your head against a brick wall. You need to have the ability to adapt as well. Perhaps there's another way round that wall, a different route that could be taken. An adaptable person will try many ways to achieve their ends.

Along with persistence and adaptability, I'd cite willingness to learn. From classes, from reading, from other writers, from feedback - it doesn't matter where the information is coming from, but a writer needs to be open to all learning opportunities.

But not necessarily to take on board every scrap of feedback, because a writer also needs to have self-belief and the confidence to reject feedback if they think it is wrong. Self-belief and confidence also provide the fuel for persistence and openness.

So, can you teach talent? No more than you can teach persistence, or adaptability, or openness, or confidence. But surely these qualities are innate in all of us. If we're lucky our childhoods will have equipped us with these qualities. If we're unlucky then we have to do what we can to develop what we've got. Can you teach these qualities? No. Can you nurture them? Yes.

Discover the best ways that nurture your writing qualities - it might be a support group, it might be a writing class, it might be uninterrupted writing time away from home, it might be all (or none) of them. Discover what works for you. And then do it.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Good Choices are Essential for Compelling Stories

Recently I was discussing the first draft of a novel. The climax came when the main character was torn between a job presentation - her boss claimed she would let everyone at work down if she didn't make it in that day - and her baby's health. Now, call me irresponsible, but there aren't many circumstances when I'd put my work ahead of a very ill child and none of them seemed applicable here.

I'm prepared to accept that, had I read the whole novel rather than a synopsis, I would have been swept away by the main character's dilemma, but in general compelling stories feature characters making difficult choices. The choices need to be proper ones, and the more evenly weighted they are, the more compelling your story.

Does Superman save Lois Lane, or the world? Does he follow his head, or his heart? Will Lizzie accept the repulsive Mr Collins and save her family fortune? Or turn him down and risk penury? Frodo could return to his beloved Shire and leave the ring at Elrond's house. Pip could give up his snobbish aspirations of being a gentleman and go back to Joe Gargery's forge and marry Biddy. Would you shop your child to the police? Or would you burn everything that linked them with the crime?

The more compelling the arguments are on both sides, the more compelling your story.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Writing the Other Man

If you write relationship books as I do, at some point you come to the Other Man Problem. The other man is the person who the main character either is going out with now, or thinks she wants to go out with, when by the end of the story she's going to end up with someone else entirely.

He is a difficult proposition. If he is too attractive, the reader won't understand why the main character ditches him to go out with the true hero. If he is too unattractive, the main character will look like an idiot for staying with him when he's obviously not the one for her.

I read one book where the author had tried too hard to make the Other Man undesirable. He called his girlfriend, the main character, Sweetums. Well, it was obvious she was going to have to ditch him, but the penny didn't drop for her for at least three hundred pages. That meant I lost sympathy for her. Another author tried to subtly make the Other Man unsuitable by having him giving the wrong gift to the main character, but only achieved in making the main character look grasping and ungrateful.

I think the best way is to write an Other Man who is attractive and has no obvious giveaway flaws, but who shows by his actions that he's the wrong man: he lets the main character down in some way, he reveals one of her personal secrets, he tries to take control, he has some questionable views. In other words, there is something that is a deal-breaker about him. If he reveals his flaws through his actions it means he can reveal them quite late on in the story, which is more satisfying for the reader and doesn't make the main character look stupid for thinking that he could be Mr Right.

But it's hard. Everyone has their personal quirks - I know my Other Men tend to be alpha male types, which is often Mr Right in other books. Out there, there may be readers who are baffled at the choices my main characters make or else berating me for making it so obvious who the main character is going to end up with. All I can do is be as aware as I can and make the Other Man as attractive as possible, while not outshining Mr Right-for-her.

Monday, 7 February 2011

How to Use a Scene Check List

A scene check list can be a useful tool. I sometimes use a scene check before I start writing, to inspire the actual writing. Other times I use it when I've got stuck on a scene; completing the list usually gets me going again. And then I sometimes use it when I've written the scene and want to check I've got everything I need in the scene.

This is mine...

Time, season, temperature, weather, lighting.
Location. Things to see. Props. (ie things characters could use, a chair, a mug, a spoon)

Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch

Symbols and images.

The past: recent (usually, a reference to the previous scene), distant past, memories.

The future: soon (usually a reference to the next scene), events to come.

Characters: Internal - Attitude. Relationships. Feelings. Concerns. Wants. External - clothes, hair, shoes, props.

Dialogue: Subjects. Things not mentioned (ie subtext).

Information (ie things the reader needs to know).

Actions: What happens?

Scene ending (ie does it make reader want to read next scene?)

I go through the list checking that I've included every element in my scene. It sounds a bit mechanical but it's a good way of making sure that you're covering the scene properly.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Writing Time-Sucks

I'm a champion procrastinator. I can happily spend days on writing related business without actually doing any writing. Apart from writing blogposts about procrastination, my top time-sucks are...

Social media
Twitter and Facebook are great for putting you in touch with other people, other writers. Publishers tell their authors to go out there and get involved in social media. Unpublished writers are advised to build platforms through social media so when they do get published they have a ready-made readership.
I love Twitter, though I find Facebook less compelling. But I can spend hours on both, following up links, reading blogs, staying ahead of any publishing gossip. It feels like work - it IS work, given my publisher told me I should be doing it. But it is work that should be rationed. Last year I blogged every day without fail, this year I'm trying doing weekdays only.

Checking emails all the time
It is death to a writer to have the device turned on that pings whenever an email turns up in your inbox. You will never get anything done. Turn it off now!

Phone calls
Have you ever been in a shop with a query when someone phones and the assistant immediately answers the caller's query before yours. And you took the trouble to come in! Why do we feel compelled to answer the phone? I don't know, I just know I am. I now write with the phone nearby so if a window replacement company phones I can answer, and disengage in a couple of seconds. The only problem with this approach is that friends and family ring and if I answer I get sucked into a long call. The only solution is to let the answer machine answer for you.

I don't watch much television in the evening, it's day time television that's my problem. Bargain Hunt at lunchtime, Countdown in the afternoon. On good days they are my reward for writing. On bad days they console me. Either way, they take up an hour of my day. I actually think that's quite modest for most people and hey, you've got to have some downtime.

I love the Times crossword and Sudoko, the harder the better. I think I like them because I get so absorbed in the puzzles all else zips out of my brain. This includes writing a novel. For that reason I don't buy a daily newspaper at the moment for the sole reason that I don't want to get sucked in and lose hours of my life over a square of newsprint.

I love thinking about writing. I can wake up and spend at least an hour mulling over the latest book or thinking up potential blog posts. I could delude myself that this mulling time is an essential part of my writing process, but the truth is I get on much better I start writing first thing. You do need thinking time, but it's best saved for other occasions like exercising, commuting or doing domestic chores.

The chances are that your family is hugely disruptive to your writing. They interrupt writing time with questions "I won't be long, I just wanted to ask you..." or kindnesses "I thought you'd like a cup of tea and a biscuit." They want to go out now, or eat a meal now so you have to stop what you're writing and do whatever it is they want. If they are young they have an inexorable timetable of school runs and homework all of which comes just as you're writing the most important scene.

Domestic stuff
Things have to be pretty bad with the writing for this to be my procrastination of choice. Unless it involves spending serious money, like playing fantasy houses or dream kitchens, in which case it becomes more interesting. But I can honestly say that I have never chosen to do ironing, hoovering or dusting instead of writing.

The scary thing is, this is already one of my longest blog posts, and I could go on - but instead I shall go and do some proper writing.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

What's Stopping You From Writing?

Sometimes writer's block is more serious than the usual reluctance to get going. What's stopping you from writing?

1. Fear of not living up to expectations.

This affects published writers - will my next book be as good? - and the unpublished - I've talked about my book for so long, it'll never be as good as everyone expects. I think you have to ask yourself what the alternative is to not writing a book. What would happen if you walked away from it? Sometimes looking at the alternative makes you less afraid of failure, whether it's because actually, the alternative isn't so bad or because you realise that all you really really want to do is write.

2. Fear of the internal editor

A lot of us have an internal editor who sits on our shoulder and tells us what we're doing is worthless rubbish. Sometimes the voice of the internal editor may be that of a former teacher or a parent. Try to visualise your internal editor. Then tell them to go away. Explain that you're busy writing and part of the process of writing is to write rubbish because we can edit it later. Writers often call the first draft the dirty draft. Accepting that your first (second, third...) draft is going to be rubbish is part of the writing process.

3. Fear of Rejection

This is a pretty obvious one. No one likes getting rejected. No one looks for it. And sometimes it hurts so much that we'd rather not expose ourselves to the risk that we might get rejected. So we don't write. That means our dreams of being a writer are safe. But...if we don't write, we're not writers.
Edison said in an interview: "after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we could have to try some other way."
Think of writing as statistics. There are X number of publishers out there. At least one of them will publish you, but it may not be obvious which one. So you have to send out to lots of them before you get the right one - but, each time you get rejected, you're closer to finding the right one for you.

4. Fear of Success

A friend of mine confessed that she doesn't send her work out because she feels she couldn't cope if it was accepted - they'd demand another book for starters. So you're back to the fear of demands being made of you, and the fear of expectations. In fact, you don't have to write another book, you may well be offered a one book deal. But the one thing you can guarantee is that if you don't write it and send it out, you'll be offered nothing at all.

5. Wrong time, wrong place

I made lots of attempts at writing a novel and short stories in my 20s. None of them worked. In hindsight, I don't think I had anything that I really wanted to say. Later, when I started writing again some fifteen years later, the words flowed. This time I had things to say and was prepared to learn how to say them.

I've had times since when I've been completely unproductive as a writer. They're always associated with other things going on in my life such as the time I took on a job I loathed or my father's sudden illness and death. There's nothing you can do about this except trust that time will bring back the desire to write. Be kind to yourself.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

5 Ways to Beat Writer's Block

These techniques are good if you need a bit of a kick start to get going.

1. Write for ten minutes about anything. Use an egg timer to time yourself if you like, but you'll probably get more written if you don't - getting going is usually the problem, not keeping going.

2. Give yourself permission to write rubbish. Brilliant writing in your head is worth less than the grottiest bit of writing on the page. Remember, you can always make it better later - that's what editing is for.

3. Don't write chronologically. If you're getting stuck on a particular scene then jump to a scene you do fancy writing. There are no extra points for writing in a particular order, all that matters is the finished product.

4. Close your eyes and visualise the scene. Think of the details - the location, the weather, the people. Then describe the scene, using the 5 senses. Hopefully you'll get started and then keep going. And if you can't keep going, then you've got some useful description that you'll probably be able to use anyway.

5. Team up with a friend and arrange to swap word counts on a daily or weekly basis. Even better, be part of a group where you have to announce your word count. It's amazing how the prospect of confessing to not having written will inspire you.

Most of the time getting over writer's block is a question of overcoming inertia; once you get going you can't stop writing. I'll look at more serious blocks tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Publishing Money Flows in One Direction Only

Yet another story of another writer being scammed surfaced on Twitter last night. The writer had found it hard to get a publisher but had eventually found a literary agent. Full of delight they signed a contract and waited. The literary agent kept needing top-ups of money (I wasn't 100% certain why from the post). In the end, nothing had happened and the writer took the literary agent to a small claims court. However, the contract was very much in the agent's favour and the case was dismissed. The writer lost their money.

Please - publishing money flows in one direction only, from the publisher, through the literary agent if you have one and then on to you. A literary agent may have some expenses - in the past I've paid for copies of my books to be sent to co-agents and potential publishers abroad, I've paid bank transfer fees and once I paid for a copy of a manuscript to be couriered to a publisher. These expenses have been deducted from my earnings, as has my agent's commission. I have NEVER given my agent (or my publisher) any money.

A literary agent does not ask for fees up front. They might suggest you need additional editing. Some agents will do this as part of their service to clients, others may suggest you get some freelance editorial help, but they would never insist you use one particular editorial service. The money flows in one direction only.

It's one of the reasons it's so hard to get a literary editor or publisher. The agent is going to invest considerable amounts of time and money in a new writer, without any guarantee that a publishing deal will follow. That money may be thrown away. A publisher can't guarantee that they will sell enough books to make a profit after all the costs of printing and marketing are included - a surprisingly high number of books make considerable losses.

You want to be represented the literary agent who is so confident that they'll sell your book that they'll take the risk. You want to be published by the publisher who loves your book so much they can't believe that the public won't love it too. These people won't charge you money to be involved with your book because they believe in it.

The money flows one way only, from them to you. Any agent or publisher who charges you money is suspect.