Week 2 in Iceland: Notebooks & flower crowns

This past week has been about exploring. I’ve been hiking the local hills, walking to dairy farms and tiny churches, testing out new flash fiction ideas and completing old stories that I thought I’d abandoned. I’ve also put into practice what I learned on a recent travel-writing workshop (with the incredible Phoebe Smith – if this is something you’re interested in, I’d highly recommend her) and finished my first travel article, a second one on its way. And yes, I’ve got past the fear of the unknown that was so prevalent last week and allotted time to figuring out which new novels I would like to work on. The week was a slow burner. Not my usual outpouring or word count, but it’s been necessary.

IMG_2156 (2)After being under deadline for so long, one of my hopes for this residency was to discover play again. To experiment. I recently realised that I’ve been using notebooks a lot less for capturing ideas, doodles, etc; everything I wrote down had a purpose and was linked to editing my books in some way. The novels combined with my workload left little time for short stories or flash fiction, so at some point, I somehow stopped collecting random ideas. I had intended to remind myself how to play with words and ideas, but when one of my fellow residents suggested weaving flowers, how could I resist? We spent a relaxing few hours in the wilds, and it was exactly what was needed. In fact, it unexpectedly triggered a story that may or may not work out, but that’s the beauty of it.

And so, the notebook is once again in use. I’ve been collecting sounds, scenery, conversations, people’s faces and habits, random thoughts, possible titles. The notebook has travelled to little churches, up hillsides, and to the thermal spa. It has collected facts and whimsies and everything in between. I’ve allowed myself a slower pace to pick up the missing threads again – and it feels really good. Some of my notes are, of course, linked to my new WIPs, but not all – and that for me is the magic ingredient. Allowing myself room to let ideas grow or fail.

IMG_2047Because writing is an odd beast in that unless you have a finished product, or you create goals like daily word count, it’s difficult to see progress. We’re used to progress being measurable – in daily life, in education, in business, in language – and when it isn’t, it can sometimes feel like we’re flailing. Or, indeed, failing. And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that failing is OK, especially if it means shedding an idea that doesn’t work or a voice you can’t get quite right, so you can move on to something better.

It’s difficult to allow the play side to come to the fore, yet it’s a necessary part of the process. Ideas are everywhere and in abundance, but capturing a really great idea and then forging the links and pathways that lead to great characters and story is not a linear journey. There needs to be blips and sidesteps and ravines to fall into. And this comes through play. Even though the progress may not be felt, it’s there.

So although I was struggling at times with the slowness of last week, I’ve come out of it in a positive space. I know what my next definite projects are and the bonus of discovering new flash fiction and completing old stories I’d given up on is a pleasant surprise. And the notebook becoming a habit again has made things soar. Now, it’s time to continue to play while getting deep into the novels. For my children’s manuscript, I want to get some decent word count down, and for the adult manuscript, I want some serious world building in place – deep breath, I’m going in.

Looking for writing advice? (Part 1)


Over the last month I’ve received over forty emails/tweets/messages asking for advice on writing. This is a pretty high number – and more than I’ve received before in such a short space of time – so I’m guessing there’s something in the air that’s making people feel extra frustrated/blank/exhausted/lost.

mayaangelou

Although I’m hardly an oracle, I love that people feel they can come to me and that I can help in some way. It’s a real honour and a pleasure every time. But I suspect that for every writer that manages to ask another for support, there are several others struggling with aspects of their writing career suffering in silence.

I know that I’ve relied on other writers to vent frustrations, ask advice, get a second opinion. But I also know that I’ve worried/stressed/suffered in silence from time to time. I can’t say why exactly – I don’t know why but sometimes, that’s just the way it is. I’m guessing fear is probably the culprit. Fear of failure, of success, of *insert worry here*.

So, in an attempt to help anyone that’s feeling a bit lost but doesn’t know where to turn, I’ve compiled a list of my most popular posts – the ones that seem to be helping people most with the questions/difficulties they’re facing – below. I hope they help.

  • For the love of writing, keep going! – a look at overcoming the feeling of failure by enjoying what we do.
  • The Wolf We Feed – a post about taking responsibility for our writing and writing career.
  • Is your routine good enough? – drawing on other writers’ experiences, this post considers how we write, whether it gives the results we’re looking for and what we can do to make positive changes.  (PS My routine has changed completely – maybe it’s time for an updated version of this post?)
  • Writing without payment – should we or shouldn’t we?
  • Thick-skinned – can rejection ever be positive?

Feel free to post links to some of your own useful posts below. Next time, I’ll be posting a list of recommended blog posts from other writers that offer further advice, inspiration and encouragement.

Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 1)

My home-made gardening toolbox

Like any other tradesman or craftsperson, writers need a toolbox. We need to have a store of useful items that we can call upon when needed. From interesting blogs to books on the art of writing, templates to brain teasers, there is a wealth of information out there designed to make our lives a little easier, or at least, more focused.

But as always, there’s the danger of procrastinating; searching the web or bookshelves for hours in the name of ‘research’ or ‘professional development’. So, here is a short series (3 in total) of a few useful/interesting items I’ve found along the way. This week: blogs that, as a writer, I particularly enjoy. This is, by no means, a complete list, so if you have any more suggestions, please add them in the comments so we can all share.

  • Cynsations – an amazingly informative and inspiring blog for YA/children’s writers
  • Photography by Jason Lee: particularly good for evoking mood, characters & ideas – this guy does some amazing stuff
  • The Vandal by Derek Haines: wit, stories, poetry, writing tips & more
  • Rant, with Occasional Music by Derek Flynn: fiction, music, reflections, writing, guest blogs
  • Catherine, Caffeinated by Cath Ryan-Howard: self publishing, self printing, reviews & tips
  • Pub Rants a straight-talking agent (of writers such as Sarah Reese Brennan) reveals all
  • Not for the faint hearted, this Evil Editor blog gives some straight answers on synopses and covering letters.
  • The Write Stuff – an amazing find, full of info gained from 30+ years as a freelance writer.

Please add more of your favourites below…

Characters

Our dog Shrimppot is a real character

Aristotle concluded that story is superior to character. In the 1800s, many thought that structure was simply a way to convey the fascinating characters that readers desired. But, as fiction continues to evolve, where do we stand today?

Looking at this from a writer’s perspective, I’ve recently realised that all of my novel-length pieces of work begin with character names/personalities; these create the initial spark that gets ideas flowing. The plot, the tension, the outcome – they all start to come alive as soon as a cast of names form in my head and are allowed to interact on the page. But when it comes to writing short stories, I get a sense of the mood that I want to convey first, and the characters come later. In fact, sometimes the characters come so late, I have to put the story aside for a very long time before they enter stage left.

Weird that both genres should be approached so differently – and weirder still that I’ve only just realised that this is how I work. So I decided to do a bit of investigating to try and understand what’s making me/my characters tick. Here’s my thoughts on some of the great advice that I found:

The best characters stay with readers and listeners long after childhood is over. Think about the qualities that make a character stick with a picture book’s audience long after the book is shut.” (Ann Whitford Paul, Writing Picture Books, p54)

  • Absolutely. I love children’s books and am in the process of writing some – they really make you think about the character on a larger-than-life scale because you’re trying to connect with the simplified, overly-honest viewpoint of a child. That character had better be memorable!

True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature… The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling. (Robert McKee, Story, p 101/4)

  • I find this easier to achieve in a novel when you have more room to develop your characters – which is probably why my characters come first and the plot second (in terms of development, not importance).

The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self…The function of character is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. (Robert McKee, Story, p 105/6)

  • Again, although this fits with all genres, I find this easier in a novel-length piece. The format (in my world) lends itself to more exploration and I find the structure/characters fuse more easily

The best modern short stories convey information by suggestion rather than by fact. Try to use suggestiveness and gestures to give a sense of character and story.” (Patricia O’Reilly, Writing for Success, p72)

  • I find this challenging. Perhaps this is why the plot comes first when I’m writing short stories?  Maybe I need to give myself a sense of character before the character becomes real? This can’t be a universal approach, so I’d love to hear how other writers tackle short stories.

As a writer, how do you handle your characters? And does your approach change if you switch genre?

Gustav Dore conveys character beautifully