Back to Basics (Part II)

Still growing…you can’t rush nature!

This is the second looking at what my local environment has shown me as a writer. (You can read Part I here).

Rushing fails – This year, I had some flourishing courgette plants ready for the garden. At the beginning of this month, I planted them out, pleased with their progress. Within two weeks, they were all dead. I’d ignored the possibility that the shift in conditions may be wrong – and I paid the price. Likewise, there’s no point trying to suddenly bang out a 2000 word short story a week before a competition closes. I know, I’ve done it. The work was inferior and had no chance of getting selected. I might as well have donated the entry fee as a gift.

If you’re not so good at being rigidly organised, keeping a stock of half-finished stories is a good habit to adopt; you can pull out them for final shaping as competitions approach. But if you’re not happy with your work, don’t submit. It’s fine to decide not to enter a competition or submission because your writing isn’t quite ready. I’ve done that twice this year already. It’s better to get a piece of work right and rehouse it elsewhere at a later date than submit something that’s not good enough.

Flexibility rewards – Sorry to keep banging on about my courgette plants but once again, they’re relevant. I’ve been propagating more seeds in the tunnel and shoots are starting to show. Despite my earlier haste, I’ve given myself enough time to grow more. We won’t have as plentiful a supply as we would have had if I’d not rushed, ignoring the conditions and external factors, but at least I’ve come up with a solution that means we’ll have some produce for the table.

The infamous courgette (Round 2)

When writing, you need to stay flexible. After all, every time you share something you’ve written you’re open to criticism, rejection and opinion. Some of the feedback will be constructive, some useful and some not. But be ready to sift through the advice and take the relevant stuff on board, adapting your work accordingly. You also need to be flexible in terms of how you grow as a writer. If the narrative isn’t working in first person, try swapping to third person. If a character is proving tricky, figure out where the gaps are and amend accordingly. If you’re always writing prose, try poetry instead to hone different skills. Even if it’s not to a publishable standard, you’ll gain from the experience.

Learn from your mistakes – If you’re submitting a novel to publishers, for instance, and several editors suggest that the pace is too slow/your novel is too plot driven/a specific character is unbelievable – then guess what? They’re probably right. Several people noticing the same issue probably means that it needs work.

If you’re writing short stories or poetry and have spent months working on a piece but still had to rush at the end, make a note to give yourself more time in the future. If you’ve a story idea that just isn’t working, store it in your reserve file and work on something else. It may be that the timing’s not right or that the idea isn’t as good as you initially thought. You’ll know the answer when you revisit it at a later date. (And yes, you guessed it: my courgettes won’t be going out until June next year.)

What can your environment teach you?

(Huge thanks to @derekF03 for inspiring these posts. You can read Derek’s blog here.)

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Back to Basics (Part I)

Get it right & you might be surprised!

Moving from a city to a rural Irish village has been at once rewarding, demanding, surprising, tiring, energising and lots of fun. Inspired by a collection of blog posts by @derekF03 on what songs can teach writers (see end of blog post), I thought I’d take a look at what my new environment has been showing me over the last year and a half. 

What has country living shown me that might be of use to others? (This is written in the context of writers, but would be relevant to any vocation.)

Conditions need to be right – Countryside living has demonstrated that if conditions aren’t right, nothing will grow – that’s true for lambs, cattle, vegetables and it’s also true for your work. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; if you’re exhausted, hungry, cold, if you don’t have the right equipment or right working space, it will affect your writing. I’m not talking about creating perfection – otherwise you’d never get any writing done! – but about making sure that your environment/writing conditions suit you is the best move you can make. I’ve been experimenting with my timetable since moving here and still haven’t found the perfect balance; but I have figured that I’m better off getting up at 6am to do a few hours of writing before tackling anything else than I am trying to leave it until the end of the day.

Sometimes nature needs a helping hand too.

Timing is crucial – We’re planting vegetables on a much larger scale this year and we’ve carefully worked out how to stagger the produce so that we’ll have a plentiful supply for as long as possible. A similar approach is needed for writing. As writers, we need to be setting ourselves clear deadlines to make sure that we are working at an optimum level; especially if we’re working on multiple projects. This doesn’t mean fitting as much in as possible (though I’m sure that’s something we all do) but we need to manage our time effectively so that we can give our work the dedication, focus and time required.

External factors arise – With my courgettes, it was unexpected gales; but with writing, it may be that a character suddenly doesn’t work and you have to rewrite them from the beginning. Maybe a story you were going to enter into a competition needs to be longer than the specified wordcount? In that instance, you need to decide whether to shorten it, switch to another piece or not submit. External factors could be ill health, exciting news, a sudden move; but guaranteed, something will always arise unexpectedly. But it’s your approach to these factors that will affect your work. Tackle them head on and adjust accordingly – and if it means delays, or a change of direction, don’t worry.

What can your environment teach you?

(Huge thanks to @derekF03 for inspiring these posts. You can read Derek’s blog here.)

Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 4)

Would you think the same sat here?

This week, in the final installment of my writers’ toolbox posts, I’m looking at how our general environment can help to build ideas, improve our current works in progress and give us the energy to keep going. 

  • Exercise – fresh air, heart rate pumping and a good stretch create a feel-good factor that generates more ideas & better state of mind. If you take your workouts outside, you never know what you might see; it could trigger an idea or iron out a kink in your WIP.
  • Conversation – being nosey is a great asset for a writer. You overhear amazing snippets of information and quirky detail; often in the form of fleeting mentions which you never hear the end of, so you can create your own.
  • Found items – Picking up stray items – e.g. a plastic horse discarded in a bush, a stone from a beach, a badge found on the pavement – can inspire new ideas or trigger a character trait for your WIP. If you’re a neat freak (like me) then store all these items in a box & stow away until needed. You can build a story around the item or use it to inject something into something you’re currently working on.
  • Local history – listen to/research accounts of the people who lived in the area, as well as strange events, traditions and hearsay. There’s a mountain of material there and it’ll be fun to research.
  • Ideas board – collect all your jottings on receipts, cut outs from newspapers/magazines, inspiring postcards/photos and plaster your board with them. Get other people to stick things on there too. Pull items out when a themed deadline comes up or an open submission has you stumped; this is also good just for writing exercises to get your brain geared up for the day. After all, not everything you write is going to be completed. Some ideas just have to be scrapped, seen as a learning curve.
  • Other hobbies/downtime – as I was discussing recently with @katyod, it’s taken me a long time to realise that down time is just as important as scheduled writing. Anything that helps you switch off so your brain can recuperate, preventing implosion, should be seen as useful, rather than as a waste of time. Painting, gardening, sport, dancing, jigsaws, litter picking, fishing – it doesn’t matter what it is that you enjoy doing, so long as you make time to do it!
  • Do things differentlychange your routine or try something new to get in the head of a character of trigger different thoughts processes.  Schedule a day every now and again when you say yes to all new experiences – routine is useful, but breaking it can also have positive effects.

What writing techniques/tricks do you employ to stay inspired and energised?

Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 3)

Step away from the computer...

This week, I’m continuing the idea of building a writers’ toolbox, but I’m now going retro and taking it offline; starting with a few select books and magazines. There are lots of books about writing to choose from and many are informative or useful. But these are my particular tried & tested favourites; the ones that I return to. Please add more of your own favourites below…

  • Story by Robert McKee – Even though it’s about scripts, it works perfectly for fiction.
  • Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul – Some sound advice for children’s writing, as well as a beautifully designed book.
  • Writing Magazine – includes the excellent Writers News as well as subscriber-only competitions: perfect for beginners or writers wanting to keep an eye on the submissions market  (@writingmagazine)
  • Mslexia – even though I usually shy away from gender-specific magazines, this magazine does offer great articles and features and clear submission guidelines (@mslexia). Plus, their Women’s Novel competition winner just got scooped by Harper Collins for a 6-figure sum!
  • Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame recommended to me by @STomaselli, a book that makes you cringe & smile in equal measure, especially if you’re battling to sign on the dotted line.

Do you know of any more good books on writing? Please add in the comments below: if there’s enough, I’ll collect and create a new post.

Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 2)

You'd never fish without a line

This week, I’m continuing the idea of building a writers’ toolbox, looking at some really useful and/or inspiring websites. Please add more of your favourites below…

Informative Websites

  • The literary hub of Ireland: www.writing.ie is essential for writing tips, news, competitions, articles, events coverage
  • Thresholds – home of the international short story forum full of submission and competition info (thanks to @averillB for pointing this one out)
  • Bookmunch – as writers we’re also avid readers – but it’s not always easy to select what to read. This corker of a book review site is full of ‘acerbic, pithy and/or witless book stuff’ – a really useful guide
  • The Short Review – the best place for reviews of short fiction collections – new and old.

Inspiring websites

  • Creative Writing Prompts – It sure is ugly, but hover over a number, read the prompt, go write! Useful for the morning pages or to inspire a new submission when you’re short of ideas. You can also find more ideas in the weekly write section of the Scottish Book Trust website.
  • www.triberr.com while I’m still getting to grips with it, this is a fun place to network, meet some cool people and get more coverage for your blog posts (as well as going to bonfires and earning bones…check it out to see what I’m talking about)
  • Prefer visual prompts? Try this Easy Street blog for ideas, or be get fresh ideas from Jason Lee (particularly good for characters & mood) or Gerry Chaney (think settings & space). Then, of course, there’s always National Geographic.
  • Authonomy – created by HarperCollins, a great community place to hang out, share ideas, get tips etc

Don’t forget to add your own favourites…

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