Sunday, 8 April 2018

Writing for beginners (39)

Using the pressure cooker

A good friend of mine, always claims to work best when he’s under pressure. He’s not a writer but a home renovator, and the pressure comes from his own sense of perfection... and a little bit from his wife.

But even that lady admits that when he has only a few hours left to do what he’s been faithfully promising to do since last Michaelmas, he goes at it like a whirlwind and does a marvellous job. As she says afterwards, it’s not always pretty to watch, but the result is spectacular… unlike when he takes his own sweet time and ends up fiddling about until he trips over the paint tin or falls off the ladder.

Many professional writers also claim to do their best work when under pressure. In this case they’re not simply talking about being under the cosh from their agents or editors. Some will be referring to the pressure of knowing they have a piece to do, yet not having a clear idea of how the story or article will pan out - because they haven’t written it. They will, of course, because they know they must.

While it’s not a good idea to put yourself under this kind of pressure too often unless you can help it - or you’re one of those strange beings who enjoys the stress - setting your own deadlines can occasionally be a useful device to kick-start those creative juices where sitting and thinking about it at length will not.

It’s what some might refer to as controlled panic.

It's also a handy way of getting used to writing to a time limit, which could serve you well when taking on future commissions.

Writing for competitions (such as in those in Writers’ News for instance) is one way of introducing yourself to working to deadlines. They always have a date by which your story has to be in or it will no longer be eligible. Not that I’m suggesting anyone should deliberately leave it to the last minute before making their submission just to motivate a great story; the organisers get plenty of late entries already. But the deadlines are always fairly generous, some of them several months ahead.

And this is the problem. For some serial prevaricators, anything which smacks of several weeks ahead may be too generous; with a date you can’t see because it’s on the next page of the calendar, there’s a tendency to cogitate a bit or go for a series of long, writerly walks and talk to the trees, searching for that perfect plot, that un-rejectable idea. The inevitable outcome is that three months shrinks to two, then one, then two weeks, then… Suddenly, the deadline is gone and you’ve missed the boat.

If, however, you can get accustomed to shortening that deadline yourself, by working to get your entry off a month before the absolute last day, then you may find you can generate the determination to complete the job instead of staring blankly at the wall for weeks until you’ve cogitated yourself to a standstill.

As with my builder friend, when he knows he simply has to paint (or not eat - the choice is stark), a deadline can help develop a real focus - even a crispness - about your work which may be lacking at other times when you can take a more leisurely approach.

By way of another illustration, in a recent wildlife documentary, a lioness was shown chasing a variety of game in a very half-hearted and therefore unsuccessful manner. The reason? She wasn’t actually all that hungry, but simply going through the motions. (Well, she was a lioness, and when a springbok goes pronking by without a care in the world, what’s a self-respecting big cat to do?)

The missing ingredient was hunger - ie: urgency. The moment she began to feel hungry, she regained her role of lethal hunter.

We, too have a similar instinct when responding to urgency, and there’s no reason why we can’t apply it to our writing; in other words, we can do it because we must. There is no time to waste on choosing that elegantly descriptive word or that neat bit of dialogue, you simply go for it: open with a bang, then onto the next sentence, disregarding any waffle. Before you know where you are, you’ll find you’ve done something that any manner of studied thinking would not have accomplished so quickly. Sharp, incisive, uncluttered. Finish off with some honest editing and the job is complete.

Of course, setting your own deadlines demands discipline and planning, along with the ability to brush aside distractions and get on with the job at hand. And there are ways of doing it which will fit into your everyday life. Before going on holiday is one good way; by the end of a holiday is another.

Before the end of a quiet weekend and a return to the hectic day job can be useful, too, as can a day at home with nobody else around, if you can manage such a luxury. Anything, in fact, that you can use as a device will work, providing you stick to it.

As my builder friend's wife says, it may not be pretty to watch, but the results can be spectacular.

TOP TIPS

·        Set yourself deadlines, even if not required by your target magazine or publisher.
·        Bringing discipline to your writing sessions will help you make the most of the time available.
·        Be realistic about what you can achieve – but keep trying harder.
·        Imagine what each project might achieve to keep you focussed.
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This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.
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Saturday, 3 March 2018

My review of 'House of Beauty' by Melba Escobar

A change of pace for me - I usually review thrillers with more of a wham-bang pace about them - but

this translation of Colombian author Melba Escobar's 'House of Beauty' (with a stunning cover) was intriguing. It can be read in full on the Shots Magazine website right here:
 http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/book_reviews_view.aspx?book_review_id=1944

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Sunday, 25 February 2018

Latest Beginners article and New Author Profile

In the April edition of Writing Magazine, a must for all writers, my usual monthly 'Beginners' piece is called 'Ack Nicely'. (No, not a typo).

Ack, short for acknowledgements, is a question all published book authors might have to face. It's not as time-consuming or demanding as writing the book itself, nor as troublesome as coming up with a synopsis or even the jacket blurb on the back. It doesn't even come close to the level of research one might have to undertake.

But it can be very important.

Essentially, what goes in the book depends on detail; detail that comes from the author's imagination, from research or even the author's own experience. But most authors at some time or another have to ask someone for advice, be it details of a particular profession that is outside their own experience and essential to the believability of the character or storyline, or even simply checking some technical data.

And it's the person you have to ask for that information who should be given a nod of recognition for their help - an acknowledgement. They might not have helped with the whole book, they might have answered one simple - to them, anyway - question. But without it your book might have lacked that vital credibility of detail.

Do say thank you. It will help you go back to them in future, and might make the difference between your story being believable or not.

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New Author Profile.

This month's debut author is Stuart Turton, whose first book, 'The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle' was published by Bloomsbury/Raven last month.

Already optioned for television, it's described by Stuart as 'Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day in a stately home', where the protagonist wakes up in the body of a different houseguest every day.

'The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle' - available here.
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Monday, 5 February 2018

Latest 'Beginners' article in Writing Magazine

Showing Off

The March edition of Writing Magazine is out any day and my monthly 'Beginners' article is about knowing when less is more when it comes to your writing.


There are endless column inches about how you should 'show not tell' - where you take the reader through a scene (show), rather than merely say something is happening (tell). I've even mentioned it myself when advising how to give the reader more information about a scene and adding more colour and depth. 

However, sometimes you can do too much, especially when moving through a scene where you don't want to drop the pace by going into unnecessary detail. This can lead to over-egging the whole thing and can be a distraction to the reader.

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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Writing for Beginners (38)

Giving your characters their head.

I used to think, back in my early writing days, that when it came to portraying action and dialogue in a story, the approach had to be as rigorously controlled, say, as when describing scenery. And that these two more malleable elements of fiction writing had to be kept in check or, like unruly cats, they'd go off and do something else when you didn't want them to.

Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, controlling what happens on the page – especially in longer projects - needs planning and forethought. Without both, you can soon find yourself wandering off-track like a drunk after a Saturday night shindig. The consequences are, your hero or heroine might follow suit and do or say something you hadn’t planned, thereby ruining your whole idea.


Call me weak, but I gradually began to find myself relaxing my guard. Before I knew it, one of my characters had flown off at a tangent and begun to act in what building contractors refer to as ‘off-plan’, and typing dialogue or action seemed to be controlled less by me than by the story unfolding on my screen, with events occurring in a way which bore no relation to my original plans.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean I began communicating with the ghost of Raymond Chandler, or that Elvis started dropping by in the wee small hours to tell me he’d been a frustrated novelist all along. (I might get a little intense when deadlines loom near, but every one of the voices in my head is my own – I promise).

The nearest I can come to describing this is like skiing off-piste, which I’ve only ever done by accident. It’s interesting, if a little unsettling, because, like writing, if you veer off-course instead of following the flagged routes, you can never be certain where you’ll end up.

At first, discipline (or a carefully prepared plot layout) will probably ensure that you haul your errant ideas back on course. This usually avoids considerable re-writing and the frustration of feeling you’ve just wasted a lot of time and effort.

But if you think about it, while a structured approach can be beneficial, especially if you have a deadline to meet, it doesn’t have to apply every time. Why not let your writing become organic once in a while, allowing the direction of the words or action to be dictated by the subconscious?

I don’t mean chuck all your planning out of the window and abandon yourself to undisciplined scribbling – that would be a little too free-form, especially if you hope to earn money from your writing efforts. But if you try it when not too pressed for time, you might find that when you read over some of your unintended diversions, you discover that they aren’t necessarily bad, and have actually flowed effortlessly onto the page.

One explanation for this organic growth in the story may be down to the characters becoming fleshed out in your mind, and developing naturally into the sort of people you meant them to be, rather than simply following a clinical plan.

Nowadays, perhaps because I have learned not to be too straight-jacketed in my approach, while I generally have a vague idea of the direction I want to go in, I have a far looser hand on the controls when it comes to writing action and dialogue.

This came out most strongly in a one story, when my lead character, faced with the situation of rescuing a particularly evil individual from death, simply walked away and left him to it. Nasty ending, perhaps, but take my word for it, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

I hadn’t planned it; in fact, my original idea had been to have the villain done away with in a twist-in-the-tail scene by one of his equally vile colleagues. Yet when faced with the scene on the page, I found myself thinking that, given the kind of person the hero was, and what he knew of the villain, would he really risk life and limb to save him – or worse, chance him escaping the law and continuing his wicked deeds elsewhere?

The wonderful thing is, within the bounds of believability, you can have your heroes and villains do whatever you choose. They're your characters, after all, inhabiting your scenes and therefore subject to whatever you choose to throw at them. They don’t have to act, speak or emote in a conventional manner, and if you think they should behave a little off-the-wall, well, why not?

A bit God-like? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as part of the creative toolbox, where you elect to use a variety of means to achieve the finished product. It may not work every time, and occasionally the tried and tested methods may prove more practical. But every now and then, why not cut loose and give your characters their head? Let them speak or act in a way you hadn’t planned, to see where it takes you.

Live dangerously (on paper, anyway). You never know, it could prove liberating in all sorts of ways.

TOP TIPS

·       Be prepared to let a character dictate the action and see where it leads.
·       Don’t be too inflexible in how they speak, act or react.
·       Review your cast of characters and see if any of them could take a more central role.
·       If you find yourself automatically allowing a character their head, go with it.
·       They’re your characters – do with them what you like.
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This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.
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Thursday, 4 January 2018

Beginners article and New Author profile

February's issue of Writing Magazine contains my usual monthly 'Beginners' slot and my New Author profile of debut novelist, Lloyd Otis.

Beginners - 'See Through The Fog', is a driving analogy all writers can identify with quite easily. It's that state of mind where you can't see a way forward, and navel gazing becomes the norm. In short, instead of letting it overcome you, review what you've written so far, look for plot holes and potential links forward, and before long you'll see things more clearly.

The basic idea is, keep going. Your own storyline is more often than not the best guide to inspiration.

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The New Author this month is crime writer Lloyd Otis, whose novel 'Dead Lands' was published in October by Urbane Publications.

A 1970s-set crime thriller stretching from London, via Cardiff, Yorkshire to New Jersey, it follows the path of murder suspect Alexander Troy, who has a genuine alibi to prove his innocence... but can't use it and is forced to go on the run from the police.

Among Lloyd's tips for success is 'Polish off your final draft and get it out there.'

The best advice always. If no-one can see it, no-one can judge it.

And, as he also says, 'Stay Lucky!'

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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Writing for Beginners (37)

Be an active writer.

A lesson I learned a long time ago was that activity is the key to most things. The more you do, the more you achieve. Not that rushing around like a chicken with two heads will necessarily breed success, but neither will too much navel-gazing about the art of writing (although it does have its place). It’s rather a question of making sure the activity you undertake is (a) focussed and (b) has a point other than simply bashing away on a keyboard and hoping you get lucky. So let’s take a pause from the mechanics of putting words on paper for a few minutes, and see how activity in writing generally can help you further your aims.

First of all, let’s take it as read that you are not a one-story wonder, with a single piece in you before the muse shuts down and goes into permanent hibernation. Assume, rather, that there is a veritable torrent of ideas inside you waiting to be unleashed… if only you had the time to do it. Welcome to the club, because that’s how most writers are. It’s why so many of us carry notebooks or recorders; if we’re not actually thinking about writing, jotting down ideas or noting overheard snippets of conversation because they may be useful sometime, then it’s only because we’re hard at work trying to fashion those thoughts, ideas and notes into something coherent… and therefore saleable.

Every writing project should, ideally, have a natural time span. Whether it takes a day, week, month or years to complete doesn’t matter - it should have an end in sight somewhere, because without that idea of completion, you’ll never truly let go of it. And you need to, in order to see it through and get on with all those other ideas bursting to get out of your head. True, you can put down one project and work on something else, but in your own mind at least, you should discipline yourself to finish each job - eventually.

Once you have done this, and have got it out of the way (hopefully, heading for an editor’s desk) GET ON WITH THE NEXT ONE!

Ideally again, a useful habit to develop is of working on more than one project at a time - or at least having notes in hand about future writing plans and projects. The reason is, if you happen to run dry on one, switching to another may allow your thoughts to flow more easily. Whether short stories, non-fiction or book-length works, there should never be a point at which you don’t have a fairly solid idea of what you intend to work on next.

This on-going activity serves three main purposes: the first is that waiting for the postman is simply counter-productive and depressing; you gain an intimate knowledge of the sound of your postman’s footsteps and how much junk mail comes through your letterbox, but that’s all. The second is that even when you make a sale, it can take months to come through - months when you should be working on something else rather than letting your writing ‘muscles’ go to waste. The third is one of morale: the more work you complete, the more projects you have out there, the easier it becomes to widen and vary your writing as those ideas start to flow onto the page rather than simply sitting on a notepad or churning around inside your brain. In other words, the activity of writing truly becomes part of your everyday life, each project potentially acting as a springboard to another idea, whether for the same market or an entirely different one. This springboard effect is particularly important if an editor likes what you have done and asks to see more. There’s nothing worse than being asked for more ideas and having to admit that you hadn’t thought beyond the last writing session.

The other side - some say the routine, boring side - to being a productive writer, is actually recording what you have done and tracking its progress. Get into a discussion with other writers and you’d be surprised how many don't do this as a matter of course, or at least, treat it with casual indifference. It’s like planting seeds in the garden but forgetting where you put them and hoping they’ll pop up before the slugs get them, to remind you where they are. How would you know not to go over the same ground again two days later?

The main function of keeping a good log is not simply a matter of paper admin. Routine it may be, but it’s an important part of the activity. First, it records your output - what you have physically produced as a writer - and should include title, word count, file names, etc. Second, it shows where you have sent your work, thus displaying the range of your target market and avoiding the embarrassment of sending the same work twice to the same editor (not a good idea if you want to be taken seriously). Third, reviewing your log on a regular basis will get you into the right frame of mind and motivate you to send out more work or re-write the material that didn't work first time round. Remember: what doesn’t press one editor’s buttons may well be just what the next one is looking for.

TOP TIPS

·        Set yourself deadlines to research and write your current work.
·        If not actively writing, at least be thinking about it.
·        When nearing completion of one project, start planning the next.
·        Log your submissions for motivation.
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This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~