A Novel Idea

Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

Happy New Year everyone!

Image courtesy of Marina and the Diamonds band blog

http://www.marinaandthediamonds.com/blog.htm

I’ll be posting a new inspirational piece each month.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2011.

2011 is the year I will land a generous contract for my first novel. It is the year I will complete my Masters. On a personal level, it is the year I will marry the love of my life.

These are my goals for this year. What are yours?

On New Year’s Eve 2009, I was in Paris. The goals I made then did not anticipate the upheavel and the opportunity that 2010 would bring. This time last year, I did not realize I would be writing and studying full time after abandoning a successful but unsatisfying corporate career.

We cannot know what lies ahead, but we can know what lies in our hearts and act accordingly.

My biggest lesson from 2010 was to trust in love. Sometimes your own steam will only take you partway up the mountain. A supportive life partner, who values your dreams as much as their own, can provide the encouragement that inspires you to find the last skerrick of determination you need to approach the summit.

Look at the relationships in your life. Are some in need of repair? Are some better left in the past?

If your art is your life, the people closest to you need to support your path.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2011.

Season’s Greetings fellow bloggers, writers and inhabitants of this wonderful world. Here is a gift for you to do with as you please.

This picture stopped me in my tracks as I browsed through the local bookshop today. I hope it sparks a story for you.On the cover of Guy Bourdin’s ‘In Between’ photography book.

I’ll be posting a new inspirational piece each month.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

Unless you are lucky enough to write in a state of peace and quiet, cocooned from the noises of city life in a far away beach or mountain retreat, you probably take some time to switch gears into writing mode. Music – of a specific variety – helps invite the Muse into your mind.

I want to share some pieces that I have found particularly inspiring.

Music has a number of functions for the writer:

1. Music stimulates your synapses.

2. Music sets the mood: for the writer to create and for certain stories to emerge.

3. Music can give you access to a character’s perspective (and their ‘voice’) quickly.

4. Music delivered through good quality headphones can block out external noise.

Have you found other uses for music in your writing life?

The Muse Calliope by Augustin Pajou, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Surely she’s a sucker for a symphony.

Here is a glimpse of the play lists I use for each function above:

‘Get the brain working’ play list:

– Jane Rutter’s ‘Apasionada: Spanish and Exotic Pieces for Flute’ (I’m listening to it as I write this).

– Handel’s Largos

– Brahms’ Symphony No.4

If classical just won’t cut it, try jolting your brain with Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World/ Harder Better Faster Stronger’ from Alive 2007.

‘Doing my writing thing’ play list:

I find music with lyrics almost impossibly distracting. I start singing instead of writing. While I have been inspired by the words of a song before, I tend to listen to instrumental music if I’m actually writing.

Classical! I hear you say – that has no words. 

Have you considered movie sound tracks? A lot of them include mood pieces which are perfect for writing along to.

Some of my favourites:

– Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard’s ‘Gladiator’ sound track

– James Horner’s ‘Braveheart’ sound track

– Randy Edelman’s ‘Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’ soundtrack (I kid you not) 

Character play list:

How well do you know your own characters? If they had control of your stereo or mp3 player, what would be pumping out?

At the danger of appearing nutty, here’s what one of my characters loves to listen to. Can you guess their kind from their musical choices?

– Good Charlotte’s ‘Misery’

– Santanna and Dido’s ‘Feels like Fire’

– Missy Higgin’s ‘Steer’

Do you have a set of songs or artists that you write by?

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.



This week’s post is an attempt at being ‘cruel to be kind’. I read Ian Irvine’s ‘The Truth about Publishing’ earlier this year and found it brutally honest yet ultimately encouraging.

Make yourself a steaming cup of tea or coffee – then read this:

http://members.ozemail.com.au/~irvinei/publishing.html

Harsh as it may sound, I agree with Ian that ‘Anyone who can be discouraged from writing should be’.

What do you think?

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

What does it take to get your attention?

The phrase ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’ is well worn, but especially pertinent to a writer navigating slush piles.

Publishers receive so many unsolicited manuscripts that it is physically impossible for them to read your entire work. You’re lucky if they finish your first page before moving on to the next manuscript.

First impressions matter. Your first page or perhaps only your first line will be judged as emblematic of the quality of the thousands of words which follow.

How do you craft a riveting first line?

My writing process, unlike a good scientific experiment is not consistently reproducible.

Sometimes the first line I write proves to be the both the first line of the story and the best choice. Sometimes I have to write the story before I can pin the opening down.

Right now I’m working on the first draft of my first novel. I’ve set myself the milestone of Bastille Day to finish it. There’s about a hundred pages between now and then to write. I should be tapping the keyboard furiously to close the gap, but instead my mind is circling the opening sentence like a vulture sensing death.

I turn to other novels I love for insight. Here are their first lines:

“It was her scars that made her beautiful.”

~Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  One Hundred Years of Solitude

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune, is in need of a wife.”

~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Great first lines not only grab your attention, they pull you into the story.

I may have been going to far by equating them with flashing, but they’re just as arresting. 

I wonder whether these gems arrived in the first draft stage. How marvellous if they did.

What are your favourite first lines of published works?

I best get on with the remaining hundred pages…

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

I’m certain there’s a glamourous image evoked in the minds of potential authors by the term ‘writer’s group’. If I thought about this term even two years ago, my mind would conjure up famous gatherings like The Bloomsbury Group or The Inklings. I would imagine Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forster dining and debating in a London home. I could see C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein reading aloud and laughing over a pint in an Oxford pub.

Now the term ‘writer’s group’ means something much more humble but far more useful to me.

Today I am a member of three disparate writers’ groups. I write across ages and genres, so each group sees different pieces.

By writing group, I mean a gathering of people who bring their work to each meeting to seek and provide feedback aimed at improving everyone’s writing.

I don’t mean a reading club where you talk about how incredible Toni Morrison is or a drinking session where you moan about writer’s block or how much you hate that your teenager thinks Twilight is good reading.

It takes some brass to open yourself to critique, but every instrument needs polish to shine.

I want to share my thoughts on what constitutes a successful writing group.

1. Common purpose

Writing groups are like relationships – they work best when you both want the same outcome.

Just as the girl who repeatedly stalls in front of jewellery shop displays studded with sparkling engagement rings in the hope that the boyfriend will one day get the hint, some groups are ultimately a waste of time.

Not everyone who writes needs to be published. They may want it, but aren’t prepared to do what it takes to make it happen.

Let me be clear. Any feedback about your writing is helpful. Regardless of whether someone has published One Hundred books or just read that many, their response to your work is of interest. But if your writer’s group is composed of people who are just dabbling, odds are you’re not maximizing the quality of feedback.

2. Regularity and size

At this risk of sounding like an advertisement for Metamucil, do not underestimate the importance of staying regular.

Two of my groups meet monthly, one meets fortnightly. Weekly meetings are possible, but I find fortnightly works best. It is long enough to produce a satisfying chunk of work and incorporate feedback into the editing process. One also has a life beyond writing to juggle…

Inevitably people cannot make every group meeting. That’s where size matters. Like a house of parliament, you need a quorum. If only two other people turn up, it makes it difficult to decide how to treat feedback you don’t vehmently agree or disagree with. If you have four or five opinions on the same piece, you have a better chance of obtaining an objective analysis of your work.

Twelve is a good number for a writing group. It’s manageable if everyone turns up, but half the time you’ll be receiving four to six diverse responses to your work. But like the Apostles, you’ll probably have one Judas.

Which leads me to my final tip.

3. Protect your work

The risk with sharing your work is not so much that someone will plagiarise it (in Australia the form of words is protected by copyright), it is that they will steal your idea and write something better. Or even something average that gets published before yours and sops up the public interest.

This is tricky.

It goes without saying that you should add a copyright note to all your material, whether it’s the first or thirty-seventh draft. I would also caution against giving people electronic or hard copies of your work until it is published. Make sure you collect every copy of your work at each meeting.

Unfortunately you can’t stop someone using your idea. I have heard speakers respond to this by saying your idea probably isn’t as unique as you think it is – there’s nothing new under the sun. That may be true, but it’s not very comforting.

I was at a course recently, with a well-known Australian author (within their field), who confided that a writing friend had published an almost identical book to the one this author had discussed with them just a year earlier. The so called friend had had a nervous breakdown and seemingly had no idea that they had done something wrong.

If you had the money to sue, you could. You might get back your expenses or even a share of royalties. You don’t get your book back though.

Protect your work by sharing it when you are close to finishing the draft cycle (within 3-6 months of your completion date). This makes it harder for someone to pip you at the proverbial post. This has the added benefit of putting some time (and therefore some objectivity) between you and your writing.

Take comfort in the fact that you are a writer, not a one-hit wonder. You will have other novel ideas.

Where to begin? 

Contact your national or regional writer’s centres to find out about active writer’s groups in your area.

Or start your own.

I would love to hear about other writer’s thoughts on writer’s groups. Any catastrophes? Any triumphs?

I’ll leave you with a quote from E.M. Forster:

‘Either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life.’

Time to print out copies for my next meeting…

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

Warning: Contains mild coarse language that may offend.

When I felt unwilling to put fingers to keyboard a couple of weeks ago (more writer’s avoidance than writer’s block), I turned to another writer for advice. More specifically, to another writer’s book about the craft.

I reopened Stephen King’s On Writing. I read it years ago, at time when I fancied the idea of being a writer someday, but wasn’t yet ready for what that actually means.

All I remembered from that reading was the admonishment against adverbs.

I had been giving myself a hard time mentally because of what I felt was imperfect prose. I’m on my first draft of my first novel.

I’ve read great literature. I have a degree in it and am pursuing a Masters right now. I feel suitably qualified to criticize my own work.

So I turned to an incredibly successful mainstream author for help.

You can’t imagine my relief when I came to this nugget in King’s book:

‘In the first draft, I’m telling myself the story. It’s the following drafts that I’m telling the audience.’

(I’m paraphrasing to avoid wasting the half hour it would take me to find the page number when I could be writing more).

I took this as permission to bang out the first draft and not worry about the fact that I know this will probably take many more drafts to pass my standards.

Today, passing my enormous bookshelf on the way to make another cup of tea, I noticed my motley collection of writing manuals.

I’ve actually stopped buying them. I’ve read enough now to reassure myself that what I most need is just to get on with it.

Here are some books that have helped me along the way:

  • S. King – On Writing
  • W. Strunk & E.B White – The Elements of Style
    A set of rules to make your grandmother sound positively uneducated. Short sharp smacks to the head. For example “Meaningful – a bankrupt adjective. Choose another…’
  • S. Stein – Stein on Writing
    Includes a formidable table of contents and an entertaining version of the Ten Commandments for Writers. Number 4 “Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.”
  • J. Wood – How Fiction Works
    Just a bloody good read.
  • J. N. Frey – How to write damn good fiction
    The Seven Deadly Mistakes address ways to avoid stuffing up your own writing life. These include timidity, trying to be literary, ego-writing, dreams, faith, lifestyle and failure to produce.
  • D. Gerrold – Worlds of wonder: How to write science fiction & fantasy
    I’m not sure I’ve actually read this – an old book mark was stuck at chapter two. The bookmark had a great quote though. See below.
  • R. Silverberg – Science Fiction 101

Let me know if you have great writing manual which really helped you on your journey.

My random book-mark quote find:

‘We are made whole /

By books, as by great spaces and the stars.’

Mary Carolyn Davies, Poet.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

I’m not a starving artist, I’d never let it get to that stage. I’m also not flush with cash.

I’m of the belief that you do your best work when you’re not distracted by hunger, family dramas or daytime soapies.

Saturdays are splurge day. A recharge day which is not as frugal as the rest of the week.

It starts with a sleep-in. Strangely I need much less of a sleep-in since becoming a full time writer even though I’m working harder than I did in my demanding corporate career.

Next I have a real coffee from the local cafe. Smooth thick crema. No more than a hint of bitterness.

Saturdays are not all relaxation and rainbows (although yesterday I saw a double as the rain cleared).

I have to run the grocery gauntlet, but Connor does the heavy lifting, so it’s not so bad. In fact this weekend’s shop is likely to be the most enjoyable all year – A4 paper was on special. I now have a year’s supply.

Saturday night dinner is the most extravagant of the week. It involves a bottle of wine and a dish that takes longer than you’re prepared to spare of a weeknight.

Last night was grilled salmon with potatoes dauphinoise accompanied by corn and glossy green beans.

I can highly recommend the version in The fundamental techniques of classic cuisine by The French Culinary Institute.

We’re talking creamy cheese potatoes but more decadent than a simple au gratin.

This perhaps sounds like a fancy-smancy meal but it’s actually not that expensive. We go to the source for fish which means we pay at least a third less and it tastes amazing.

The Gruyère cheese in  potatoes dauphinoise makes the dish. It’s earthy and morish. In small quantities it’s affordable.

Similarly if you’re a meat-eating writer on a budget, don’t go the supermarket steak option. Make steak the special dinner it used to be. Eat it once a month and you can afford top-end happy cows.

If you don’t like food, I don’t see how you can be a good writer.

Good writers transport you into the character’s world. You can not only see and hear it, but you can smell it, taste it. Touch it.

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume is an extreme example of this. The protagonist has a perfumer’s nose so the olfactory is heightened in description.

I once read Helen Keller’s description of being stuck in a tree as a thunderstorm emerged. She used her other senses to make us feel the texture of her fear.

If you allow yourself to fully experience life, with all of your senses you can capture those on the page.

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.

How could an aspiring author take comfort from the words of someone who drowned themself?

 Cautiously. Gratefully.

I was reminded of Virgina Woolf’s lengthy exposition, A room of one’s own, just the other day in an unexpected moment.

If you’ve only heard of the famous title or even the quote that to write a woman needs money and a room of her own, I urge you to read it in its entirety.

My partner and I live in a modest two bedroom apartment. We’re yet to have children so have the luxury of a shared study. Our two identical desks line one wall, only you wouldn’t realize they were the exact same desk at first glance.

Connor’s desk is clean. You can see the glass desk top. Everything is masculine black or silver.

You can’t see the top of my desk.

It’s hidden beneath a burgundy woven tablecloth that I bartered with a woman in Cappadocia for. You can’t see much of the tablecloth though. It’s covered in earlier versions of the first five chapters of my novel. There’s a scarf that I wore three weeks ago that somehow hasn’t made its way back to my drawers. Roget’s thesaurus hides under a pencil case stuffed with markers in every colour of the rainbow. A pretty trinket that my father gave me for my twentieth birthday is luxuriating behind a pile of books. Really, I’m lucky to fit a mousepad amongst all this.

Unfortunately or fortunately there’s no view from my desk.

I’ll write anywhere quiet. Libraries are great (free heating and no shortage of reference books). Other people’s houses are great (it’s not your washing so there’s no way your going to waste time cleaning instead of writing). Parks are a good summer option.

Noisy funky cafes are for the cool writers (or those who listened to their Sony Discmans way too loud when they were teens and can consequently never be distracted because they are almost deaf).  

Today it’s been grey and dreary. I didn’t even go for a morning walk. I’m not one to complain about the weather (except for last year’s dust-storms which were horrendous). In fact I love the rain. It was just a whole lot easier to write at home today.

On days like this, I do feel as if I have a room of my own.

Back to Woolf. Her phrase has been bouncing around my brain for the last few days. Connor and I were both in the study, doing our separate things. I finished my word count for the day and triumphantly shut down the computer.

You know, we’re doing a good job of sharing this space, but one day, we’re going to get you a room of your own.

I don’t think Connor was paraphrasing Woolf at that moment. It was more a virtual pat on the back. Kind of like the time one mum said to mine (I must have been three or four at the time but I’ve got a great memory for odd moments):

Your daughter is a good sharer, for an only child.

She meant it as a compliment as well.

Adults are like the stereotypical only child. It’s all about me. Let me tell you about myself (my blog is a case in point). Me me me me more about me.

Connor’s comment was an insight into most people’s (and most couple’s) sad inability to share.

I’m not holding us up as some perfect couple who never fight. We’re both stubborn with strong opinions so we’re bound to clash horns on occasion.

One thing we do really well is support each other. We both know what it feels like to draw blood towards a goal. We both know how much better that feels than being denied the opportunity to give something your all in the first place.

This study is important to us both. It’s a shared resource for individual and team goals.

I hope I can continue to share well, even as finishing times get later and patience is tested.

Someday, when I’m a successful published writer, I will have a room of my own. I’ll make sure he has one as well.

Here’s my favourite quote from A room of one’s own.

‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’

Write well. Write often.

V.

(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.



  • None
  • Violet: Thanks Alannah :) Apologies for not replying sooner: I'm finally catching my breath and the year is almost over!
  • Alannah Murphy: I remember your first post, way back when I had my old Here Be Dragons blog, and I am glad you are still writing. We all find out, sooner or later, ho
  • Violet: Good to hear that Aaron. Good Luck with your work.