A Novel Idea

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Tips

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.

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.

Last week I felt both relieved and elated to complete the first draft of my debut novel.

The week was made doubly sweet by Connor suprising me with a special dinner out to celebrate this accomplishment. We are living on one income while I finish my novel, so we both really appreciated a whiff of the good life. And the best red I’ve swilled this year.

I’ve been advised to let the novel ‘rest’, but due to our situation (and my desire to get this story polished and into real readers hands), I have every motivation to move into my second draft now.

Where are you at in your current writing project? Are there any tricks you use to keep yourself moving ahead?

Here’s my approach:

1. Rewrite the Synopsis

Writers seem to grumble about composing a synopsis. Call me sadistic, but I enjoy them. They force me to commit to a version of the story.

Today I reworked the amusingly ambitious synopsis I wrote about two months ago.

I aligned it with the actual plot of the first draft.

2. Prioritise Problem Fixes

One reason why resting a draft is a good idea (other than preventing the gag-reflex when you encounter putrid rubbish having mostly imagined writing perfectly ripe fruitful phrases) is to gain some objectivity.

Maybe I’m just naturally hard on myself, but I could tell you exactly what was wrong with my first draft as I wrote it.

Unfortunately that brilliance did not extend to fixing said mistakes at the time.

I keep a file called ‘Questions to Resolve’ containing all the difficulties I am struggling with. For example:

  1. Character A sounds like an English gent yet he’s a savage – fix it.
  2. You said object X was left behind, whereas it’s in the fight scene so you had better fix it!
  3. Writing group member quibbles over the scientific basis of occurrence Y – check your sources.

As you can see, they are more commands to self than courteous questions.

I find this a great way of freeing myself to move the text forward.

After a three day break from the novel I found more areas for improvement and can now edit with the cold precision of a surgeon’s knife.

This week I’ll prioritise the long list of 50+ grumbles and attack the worst offenders first (or the easiest depending on my mood).

3. Set a deadline

I intend to have a completed novel by early December (so I can enjoy the silly season wholeheartedly and give myself five months to find a publishing home). Five drafts seems like a reasonable figure. So I have just over a month per draft.

Am I crazy? Only one way to find out…

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.

Warning: mild coarse language.

I must admit that I am a lapsed diarist. I blame my mother.

In grade five or six I kept a diary (I can still smell its honeysuckle infused pages and see the shiny faux gold lock and key). It contained the minutiae of my friendships and primary school experiences. Maybe some drawings. 

Children are occassionally cruel and I carefully documented a colourful incident. Even then I was committed to an accurate portrayal, so I included a swear word.

It felt good to unburden myself on the page.

Unbeknownest to me my mother had either been regularly peeking, or was curious with unfortunate timing. She had opened my diary, read the offending material and metered out punishment.

My mother and the wooden spoon were good friends. 

To this day, I still remember the burning sense of injustice I had at her invading my privacy.

I stopped writing in that diary.

Soon after I found a way to write whatever I damn well pleased: cryptography.

It wasn’t a very elaborate system. I simply invented new symbols for each letter in the alphabet and wrote with those instead. I did this right until I left home. I never got into trouble again (for that).

Over the years life accelerated and my diary keeping became patchy.

I started this blog with the primary intention of documenting my journey to become a publisher author.

I have the distinct feeling that life is going to open further to me soon and I want to remember what this feels like.

Intention is very important to me. It is the guardian of integrity.

I attended a conference last week which included a session on authors and the internet. Blogging was central to the discussion. Rules such as blog regularly (at least twice a week) were touted. Be topical! Be controversial! Be clever!

Maybe this is good advice if you care about building a big audience you can sell to.

To blog or not to blog, is not the question for me.

Yes I blog. Yes I think you should too if you feel so inclined.

Blogging is the keeping of an online diary or simply a chronology of thoughts.

It is a very human thing to do – to talk about oneself 😉

The question for me is: why blog?

I decided to investigate the blogs of a few authors I respect and gain some insight. I went to my bookshelf and selected living authors where I have bought, read and enjoyed at least two of their titles in the last decade.

The results:

Peter Carey (‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ and ‘Jack Maggs’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Jhumpa Lahiri (‘Interpreter of Maladies’ and ‘The Namesake’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Tim Winton (‘Dirt Music’ and ‘The Turning’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Neil Gaiman (‘Neverwhere’ and ‘American Gods’) – has ‘journal’ on his website but hardly ever blogs anymore to the point where old posts are ‘reprinted’.

Mary Gentle (‘Ash: A Secret History’ and ‘1610: A sundial in the grave’) – couldn’t find a blog.

Perhaps my favourite authors are too busy writing to bother blogging?

Is there a point to this?

Yes, I present exhibit A, Derek Landy’s blog.

http://dereklandy.blogspot.com/

Landy writes the Skulduggery Pleasant series for kids. I saw him entertain a crowd of sub tweens during his visit to Australia earlier this year. I think he drank a bottle of red cordial before he presented.

Landy seems to be blogging with both personal and commercial intent. He writes great slabs of posts and I can imagine the delight he must feel when his ramblings draw hundreds of comments. His fans have even set up a separate forum to discuss his work. He includes them on decisions such as the next title of his series. He truly seems to have a community of fans.

The first book in his series is sitting patiently on my bookshelf waiting for me to read it. I suspect its violence is going to be beyond my tastes, but I am interested in what makes his fans so dedicated.

I present exhibit B, Philip Reeve’s blog.

http://philipreeve.blogspot.com/

Reeve is the author of many great books for children. While his blog smacks you in the face with big book covers and a web trailer for his latest work, the actual content is much more of the ‘look at this cool stuff I found’ rather than ‘look at how terrific my books are’ nature.

Reeve’s blog is more a monologue than a conversation as there doesn’t seem to be a way to leave comments on each post.

I blog to share, to learn and to make connections with like-minded people.

Why do you blog?

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.



  • 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.