To Read or to Write?

This is a question I’ve found myself pondering lately. For years, I’ve had a rule that if it’s a choice between reading or writing, the pen (so to speak) takes precedence over the book. This has been especially so in recent months as I push to finish my latest novel. Reflecting on having finished writing a chapter of my own book is a whole lot more satisfying than having finished reading someone else’s, so the rule has stood me in good stead (albeit not as stringently enforced at all times as it could have been).

Yet now, when I have also been filling my night-time reading with research books rather than fiction, I’m rethinking this strategy. I find myself wondering how other authors handle the dramatic power of the hero’s point of no return, or the heroine’s dark night of the soul. I want to be able to hear other writers’ voices, in order to better understand my own. I need to place other novels in the field in which I’m writing, in order to see where mine fits. All this is difficult without reading widely.

I guess it’s like chocolate, it’s a question of balance. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Building craft includes learning from those who have gone before, and there’s only so much you can learn from books on writing or courses. Even learning by doing has it’s limitations, in that isolation can make for an ordinary novel that is narrow in scope and naïve in expression. I want to be the best writer I can be, and to do that, I need to push myself and overcome my limitations.

So I am officially giving myself permission to read again! What a joy. And speaking of chocolate …

Worldbuilding 101

This is a post I’ve been meaning to upload for a long time. World building is an important aspect of all writing.  Fantasy usually involves maps, and I’m sure we’ve all done plenty of those.  It’s important to have a basic understanding of geography and climate so you don’t make a mistake and have two things together that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. We all suspend our disbelief for some things (eg the possibility of space travel, or indeed, existence of magic), but there’s only so far you can push this. Best to reserve your reader’s goodwill for the big stuff.  I would recommend reading a textbook on it aimed at the primary school level – easy to understand and hopefully not too dense!

Think about aspects of your world such as landscape features, food sources, trade and technology, and resources that might become a basis for trade or war. Other aspects include political structure, spiritual framework and social class. All of these things will impact on the people who live there, will shape who they are and influence who they will become.

How your protagonist and antagonist are placed in terms of these things will determine how they act, what they say, even what values they have. And you’ve probably spotted it already – they can yield the conflict that will move your story forward and make it compelling.

Of course, there’s a trap too. I have to carefully time limit my world building phase, as it’s a really lovely way of putting off writing! How much of it you need depends on the writer, but I would argue you don’t need much to start your first draft. You can always drop the detail in later, and it’s just so satisfying seeing that word count go up, isn’t it?

The Bear Emerges

It’s spring here in Australia, and I’m emerging from my writing hybernation.  For the past year, I’ve been concentrating on writing purely for entertainment.  My goal has been to get words out, without caring whether they’re good bad or indifferent.  Story is king, but I’m not allowed to think too much about it.  I can’t worry whether I’m writing something meaningful, or I get caught up with ‘what’s the message here?’.  Conversely, I’m not allowed to think ‘this is rubbish’, or I stop me writing ‘forwards’.  All of these judgements have to be left to the next draft.

It’s been hard work!  It’s amazing how often self-doubt and concern about brilliance (or lack thereof) crowds into my creative space.   But it’s been fun, and while I haven’t written as much as I would have liked, I’ve got a couple of finished shorter pieces and another on the way.

I’m also starting to notice something.  The faster I write, the better it is.  Starting something is usually clunky (although my current project is just singing along), but after I’ve warmed up a bit, the words start to flow.  The characters speak for themselves, the events lead one to the other and I’m driven to finish the event or scene I’m working on until the whole thing is finished.

I don’t know why the writing gets better.  It could be because I stop running interference – I can see an end in sight and start bolting for the finish line instead of holding myself up double guessing what I’m doing.  Or maybe it’s because when I get to a certain point, the weight of the story drives it along despite any interference from me.  Definitely passion has something to do with it – I get caught in the story and all I have to do is sit down and pick up the pen.  Whatever it is, I now know it will happen and feel more grounded having experienced it a number of times.  I’ve hit a bit of a flat patch in my current project, but I know if I keep going, I’ll get to the flow again and can worry about the less than brilliant parts in a redraft.  That might mean EVERYTHING gets worked over, but hey, it’s a lot easier to edit than to produce!

And above all else, while facing the blank page is something I dread, nothing beats writing ‘The End’!

My Short Story is Growing

I’ve been working on a short story lately, which I’ve been enjoying although I’ve also found it challenging.  One of the challenges I’m facing is how much story to put in a short story.  At the moment, I’m about three quarters through my original story plan and I’m around 6500 words.  When I look up short story competitions in the newsletter of my local Writer’s Centre, they’re generally about 2000 to 3000 words.  Clearly, mine doesn’t fit into that market.

Referring to a writer’s marketplace reference book shows that some magazines and journals have a much lower word limit (under 1000), but others have up to 10,000.  This sits more comfortably with my story.

Now, when I consider how this story is going, I can see opportunities for a more complex plot that will round out my characters and make for a more satisfying read.  This will add more words, of course, perhaps bumping it up into the region of a ‘novella’.  Is there a market for that?  A quick internet search says yes!  Particularly on the e-publishing side of things.

Now, you are no doubt wondering why I’m writing a story without knowing if there’s a market out there or not.  Is it worth putting time and effort into something I may not be able to sell at the end of it?  Well, this is about me stretching myself and developing craft, so no matter what happens I’ll be growing as a writer.  I’ll get experience, and the act of finishing something and submitting will inspire me to move on to the next project.

And that’s the life of the writer – one foot in front of the other.

The Challenge of Writing for Entertainment

This writing for entertainment is fun, although challenging.  I’m finding it difficult to disengage my ‘deep and meaningful’ tendencies from getting the words onto the page.  Just as I think I’ve got the hang of it, I find myself slipping into worrying about what ‘higher truth’ my story will hold.  Once that happens, I start to doubt everything, from my craft to whether anyone will truly be interested in this story.  Next thing you know, I’m bogged.

I won’t call this ‘writer’s block’, because I refuse to experience that.  I think writer’s block happens to me when I break my ‘just keep writing’ rule.  It usually happens because I’m not using the magic words ‘work in transition’ or ‘insert a bit in here about…’.  These are my writing fail-safes, and they work every time.

There is a school of thought that if you’re not passionate about your writing, the reader will know.  I used to think this meant you needed to have something important to say, but in this world where we’re challenged so much by things beyond our control, entertainment and escapism have become important survival mechanisms (when used in moderation).  So I’m finding the older I get, the more passionate I’m becoming about fun.  It requires reworking old habits of thought, but it’s also freeing.

So I’m going to keep going with this, even though it’s taking me a long time and my masterpiece is waiting.  I think it will make me a better writer in the long run, and that’s what keeps me going when I have a crisis of faith in what I’m doing.

Just needed to remind myself!

Technology and the Writer

We all know that writers need to be aware of the Internet and social media.  Not only are we talking marketing tools, but as writers our craft relies on understanding the social fabric of the communities we live in.

In the four years I’ve seriously been engaging with this side of modern life, things have changed so much.  With every new tool I find, I have to spend considerable time learning how to use it.  And just when I start to feel comfortable, the program changes and I have to discover anew where everything is.

Now, I may not be as IT savvy as some, but I’m not exactly IT illiterate either.  I just find that with a day job as well as this writing gig, when I sit down to my computer it’s often a choice between social media and writing my own work.  When your spare time is split across running a household, socialising and writing a masterpiece, it often feels like none of it is getting done well.

So what’s the answer?  Sometimes I think I’d like to give up the Internet entirely until I’ve finished a major work, but when I connect with the virtual writing space, I find I’m inspired.  Writing is a solitary occupation, and for an extravert, that’s a difficult thing.  But I don’t need to engage with everything.  I can pick one or two tools and have a play, within an allocated timeslot.  As usual, it seems that discipline is the key.

One day, I’d like to find something that requires a total lack of willpower and dedication.  I’m sure I’d excel at that!

The Importance of Dilemma

I was talking to a writing buddy the other day about the tome and how I’d gone wrong somewhere with the plot.  She offered to look at a synopsis for me to see if it really didn’t work or whether I had just lost perspective on it.  This was a good opportunity, so I went home and starting working on it.

In revisiting the book, I suddenly realised something.  I had solved the dilemma my protagonist is facing too early!  And I solved it too easily for her.  Instead of increasing my protagonist’s difficulty to a crescendo at the end of the book (remembering this is book 1 of a trilogy), I allowed her a small hissy fit halfway through.  No wonder it fell flat after that!

Just goes to show, sometimes it pays to give things a rest and get some perspective.

My Writing Turning Point (I hope)

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  So what have I been doing all this time?  I’d like to say that I’ve been writing furiously and have lots of finished novels to show for it.  Alas, that isn’t the case.  I’ve been having a writing crisis. 

The problem is that the structure of this book has undermined itself at every turn since around 80,000 words.  I knew it wasn’t working, but I thought I could just keep going and deal with the mess later.  Your first draft is like that.  The second draft can do it as well, right?  Wrong. 

The fact is, you as a writer know when you’re flogging a dead horse, so to speak, and no matter how hard you try to deceive yourself, your artistic heart just isn’t in what isn’t working.  There comes a time when you’ve got to be honest with yourself and cut something loose.  If you’re feeling the bottom drop out of your stomach every time you sit down at your desk, it’s probably a good sign something has to end.

I’m not saying this project is a dud.  In fact, I still have a lot of faith in it.  I just need some distance to get some perspective on it and work out what to do.  Since making this decision a month ago, I’ve already started getting some ideas on where things went wrong and how to move things again.  The problem is, I’m too attached to what I’ve written so far and I’m reluctant to cut the scenes out that have derailed the whole thing.  I’m not going to rush back to it, though, because I’m not ready to be ruthless with it.  This has been my baby for so long, and I’ve thought about little else. 

No, definitely a new project is needed.  I’ve got a few ideas, and I’ll learn a lot from writing something different.  My aim now is to build my skills, to learn how to get rid of what doesn’t fit into the big picture, no matter how good the writing is or how interested I am in what the characters are doing.  It’s daunting starting something new, but I feel I have to do it.  I just have to have faith that when I come back and work on this one, it’ll be better than it was before.

Battle Scenes in Fantasy

One of the biggest challenges in writing fantasy is the battle scene.  It presents an opporutinity for engaging drama, but how do you deal with it without turning it into a boring ‘blow by blow’ account (literally!)?

I’ve just finished reading the historical fiction novel Battle Flag by Bernard Cornwell, and I’ve learnt a lot about handling a battle scene.  Set in the American Civil War, this book is the third in Cornwell’s Starbuck Chronicles. 

Cornwell has a nice balance of factual info (eg guns, weapons and strategy) that is strongly grounded in the character’s experience.  This is the secret, I think.  Good research, sure, but a character centred perspective so that the reader really cares about what’s happening.  Cornwell might begin with a personal perspective of one of his characters, then move into the bigger picture of a large scale battle, yet he still manages to deal with this large scale on a personal level.  We see the expressions on a character’s face, or we hear the dying words of someone the hero happens to pass.  The emotional content is maintained even in the midst of action that could so easily be just a textbook rendition.

This is not to say I want a battle scene to descend into melodrama, with the hero overcome with grief.  The opposite approach could be the most appropriate.  Awful things happen in battle, and shock sets in.  The characters directly involved will be experiencing that shock, and it will show in their thought processes and actions.  They’re not going to be rational and logical all the time, but at the same time, they might not be feeling anything that can be easily identified.  If anything, they’re going to be terrified, and will be dealing with that fear in ways that may not always be consistent.  And they’re not going to walk away the same people they were before. 

As always, balance seems to be the key.  Do my research, then write it through the personal perspective of my character/s.  Think about where the story is, with whom I’m journeying, and stay true to them.  And ultimately, it’s the emotional experience of the character that’s paramount, and I might not need a lot of detail anyway.

Fantasy tends to be about ‘good vs evil’ on some level, and will inevitably involve a major fight between the two sides, even if the fight isn’t physical.  Handle it well, and it can be the pivotal point in my book, the scene that people will remember long after they’ve put it down. 

No pressure. ;-)

Excellent Resource for Writers

When I first started delving into the world of blogs, I came across Jennifer Lee‘s website for Artizen Coaching.  Jennifer talked about business planning for creative people, a concept that immediately appealed to me.  I’ve been waiting for Jennifer’s book The Right Brain Business Plan:  A Creative Visual Map for Success with much anticipation.  It’s arrived in my post box, and it’s an interesting read.

The thing that I like about The Right Brain Business Plan is the fact that it translates a left brain task like business planning into a right brain creative one for artists.  This is particularly relevant for writers, because while we are creative and therefore use our ‘right’ brains, we deal with words, which are left brain.  We necessarily straddle the brain divide, and I believe we need support tools that straddle this divide also. 

Maybe it’s because I have a day job, or maybe it’s because I’m a planner in my writing, but I love the fact that Jennifer brings business concepts to creative entrepeneurship.  It’s reminded me that there is a reason why I’m doing this, and it’s not just about having a hobby.  It’s about my life plan as well.  This is something that’s easy to forget when I’m in the middle of the humdrum of working, writing and sleeping.  Too often it’s too easy to let the writing go for a night or two, which could end up being a week or a month.  When you don’t get ongoing feedback from regular achievements, it’s too easy to forget you’re aiming for something here, even if it’s just some level of excellence in your chosen field.

I’m only up to Chapter 1, but I’m looking forward to the journey from here on in.

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