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 …

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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!

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.

A Simple Way to Detect Passive Voice

A good grammar book will tell you what ‘passive voice’ is much better than I, but I’ll give it a go.  Briefly, it’s when the subject is having something done to it (passive), rather than doing something (active).  So what?  I hear you ask.  Well, in order to gain maximum reader engagement, you need maximum reader involvement.  The more action, the more your reader is ‘living’ your story, making it irresistable.

Passive voice describes things in a way that leaves the reader standing outside the story looking in, aware they are watching a scene unfold before them rather than losing themselves in it.  At first, I didn’t think this would make that much difference to me as a reader, but in reading through my own work after I’d put it away for a while, I really noticed the shift in my reading consciousness and level of engagement with the story.

So when I’m rewriting, passive construction is one of the first things I look out for.  I don’t look at every sentence and ask myself if there’s an active subject in it.  While I might have been OK at English at school, I mostly do things by feel.  If it feels right, then it is right.  I’m lucky enough not to have too much of a problem with grammar – cheers to my primary school education, despite moving schools mid way through my primary years!

I look out for any form of the word ‘be’, including ‘was’ and ‘is’.  If it’s with the past participle of a verb, it’s passive voice, but I don’t spend time trying to work that out.  When I spot the ‘be’ words, I just try and find another way of writing the sentence.  And do you know, I get the most amazing work at the end of it?  More action, more excitement, more plot.

Which is kind of ironic, considering all those self-help books I read tell me to stop ‘doing’ and start ‘being’.

Sometimes, you gotta do boring things

I’ve read a lot of writing advice over the years, and this weekend I decided to ditch a tenet that I’d previously thought was hard and fast.  You know that philosophy of ‘if you don’t want to write it, then others don’t want to read it’?  That’s the bit I’m talking about.

Let me set the picture.  There are some aspects of my novel that are powering ahead.  They’re mainly about my two protagonists and how they relate to each other, which I find really exciting.  And then there’s the other aspects, otherwise known as the bigger plot.  These are not quite so interesting to me, but are essential vehicles for setting the scene for the emotional life of my protagonists. 

Now, if I followed the ‘if I find it boring to write, readers find it boring to read’ thing, then I wouldn’t write the bits I don’t find as interesting.  But in reality, if I did that, I’d have a book only I’d be interested in!  That would be fine, if I was writing a book just for me.  Which I’m not.

The fact is, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do and you have to do them well.  This is with writing, as it is with life.  We as writers have to sit down and hone our craft until we can write the things that don’t interest us personally, but are essential for the bigger picture of our book.  If we don’t, then we stall and tread water in one place, without getting anywhere.  Ultimately, everything we write will be much better for it.

So I sat down this weekend and after a couple of false starts and getting thoroughly discouraged by the ‘boring’ chapter I had to write,  I hit my stride.  I feel much better about the chapter now, and have found it wasn’t so boring after all!