Word up! Rulz No.1

More by using Less: Dump your Darlings

There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.

At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason). For now, learn your craft.

Lets look first at the “rookie mistakes” – probably the most common is to cram sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. By all means, use adjectives but go easy and be clear. An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume. I would pare the sentence to the following:

‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’

I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”).

Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


Veritably Verbose

 

Street Graffiti, Norwich, March 2014

 

I speak English, Hungarian, French and Irish and I write, ergo  I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers. Lack of confidence in writing skills will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – resulting in a lot of bling and little substance. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation in a pared down manner.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many descriptive words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted in the English language’s parentage:  French and German, and also the English language’s absorption of words from a multitude of other tongues.  Thus, there  are many English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French), so it is easy to get carried away and over do it, with such a lavish spread on offer. But in order to improve, you need to exercise restraint.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. Most of my favourite words are loan words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, “hobo”, “gansey” and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – I’ve just got to be careful about stuffing my prose with too many descriptive and exotic words. Less is usually more. I like to use the painter’s palette analogy – if you add blue to yellow, you get green. If you add blue, yellow, red, green, gray, you get mud. Too many descriptive words, as lovely as they are on their own, will muddy the picture you are trying to create.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


On Your Time

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Evening on the Danube, Budapest.

It is said that the closer the brain is to the sleeping state, the more creative it is. For this reason, many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write.

The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. Some writers say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.

Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state.  Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.

And just to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

So, I guess the point is that different times of the day work for different people and it is really of no consequence whether you are a morning, day or night writer. What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Find whatever works for you.g


Them Writin’ Irish!

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You don’t have to be Irish to be a great writer, but it helps. An oft debated point is the essential ingredient that has given the Irish the edge re the written word ever since the Book of Kells. There are many takes on the matter. Some say it’s because although most Irish writers write in English, they use the syntax, structure and playfulness of the Irish language which gives a mastery and an unusual manner of wielding English that results in, well, pure poetry.

Others suggest it is our tradition of story telling, living on in our sizzling and stinging pub banter. Some put it down to our sad history, allowing for a depth and pain to infuse our written word.

However, I’m with the crowd that says its simply because we’re a race of geniuses. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís…

Famous Irish writers: Sebastian Barry, Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bowen, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Dion Boucicault, Roddy Doyle, Emma Donoghue, Maria Edgeworth, Brian Friel, Oliver Goldsmith, Neil Jordan, John B. Keane, Colum McCann, John McGahern, Iris Murdoch, C.S. Lewis, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Iris Murdoch, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, Molly Keane, Hugh Leonard, Martin McDonagh, Frank McGuinness, Sean O’Casey, Joseph O’Connor, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Colm Toibin, Oscar Wilde, WB Yates, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift… to name but a few.


Send me the Displaced

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Sit at computer, bring up blank page, make a cup of tea. Sit at computer, look at blank page, do the washing up. Duration: 1 hour. Word count: 0

If this sounds like your typical writing pattern, you’ve got company. The sudden urge to do housework, rearrange books, check your bank statement- when you really ought to be writing is known as ‘Displacement activity’.

Displacement activity, all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing, is the bane of a writer’s life. Avoidance is probably a more readily understood term, but doesn’t sound half as writerly. What happens is a little ‘displacement monkey’ in your mind distracts you from the task at hand, by urging you to ‘make another cup of tea/check the TV guide/your bank account/ebay/post on this blog : ) rather than crack on with that difficult piece of dialogue you’re trying to get down.

I don’t believe displacement activities are wholly bad. They sometimes happen for a reason. Perhaps what you’re working on needs time to settle, or percolate in your mind and, after you’ve bought those gloves on ebay, it will all come together. However, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office.

Still, I know a few writers who keep their displacement activity on hand – as another creative hobby such as painting, and they believe one such activity complements and feeds the other. So, they may start painting and then half way through THAT activity they’ll turn back to their writing as a displacement activity for their painting and so on…

As with everything in writing, if you find your displacement activity works for you, then go knock yourself out with it. If it is a hindrance, then find a way to stop it distracting you such as getting a room with no internet connection. I recently heard of an app called ‘Freedom’ which will block your internet connection for an hour, making you get on with that section you’re meant to be finishing today… maybe I need to try it out right now… bye…


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Delighted to post this review from Waterford Today Newspaper for my radio play ‘The Daffodil’ which broadcast on KCLR 96fm at the end of February.

“A very funny play, ‘The Daffodil’ nonetheless dealt with a number of serious global themes which impact contemporary Ireland: alcoholism, closeted homosexuality, the dangers of celebrity culture, loneliness, misplaced nostalgia and denial. However, the work is essentially entertaining and its sparky dialogue combined with a significant musical aspect to lend it a broad appeal.”

Please note: I don’t know when/if there will be a podcast – but I’ll keep you posted. Please see the side bar for a link to listen to my previous radio play ‘Cow’.

And if any of you are in Cork, Ireland, please see if you can catch ‘Dreamland’ playing at the Everyman until March Sat. 15th. ‘Dreamland’ was written by one of Ireland’s leading playwrights and directors, Jim Nolan, who directed both my plays. Michael Power who plays ‘Liam’ in ‘The Daffodil’ and ‘Damien’ in ‘Cow’, also stars in ‘Dreamland’. It’s a great play and causing quite a bit of controversy in Ireland – which is always a good sign.

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What Writers Want

On Tuesday, March 4th, I was asked to give a provocation at Writers’ Centre Norwich (monthly salon) re what writers want. I thought it might be of use to publish the points I made here. Please feel free to comment.

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Writers want to write (usually). However, writers may also want a holiday in the Maldives, a Thai massage, to lose weight, to meet George Clooney and to win the Lottery. So, for the purposes of this provocation, it is probably best to concentrate on what writers need. There are three needs to which all writers must attend: to find time, to obtain honest criticism and to cope with rejection.

Time:

Individual writing needs are subjective, obviously. Stephen King likes to write with a wall of heavy metal music blaring in the background. Zadie Smith opts for a silent, darkened room, while J.K. Rowling famously favours bustling cafes and the motion of trains. Nonetheless, one need all these writers have in common is that they all need time to write. Virginia Woolf once said that a great obstacle for writers (particularly female writers) is a pram in the hall. Children are doubtless demanding of the writer’s time. However, Virginia was a wealthy woman and perhaps unaware that in the hallway lurks another time-killer for writers, one which probably didn’t bother Virginia that much – bills on the doormat. Yes, the need to pay rent, bills, feed and clothe yourself means that unless independently wealthy or supported by a generous, affluent partner, most writers will have to work to survive. This will result in limited writing time. Therefore, one of the first matters to address when you begin your career as a writer is how you are going to find and fund time to write.

Get a day job seems the obvious answer. Some writers opt for a writing-related gig such as teaching creative writing or journalism. However, both are rather stressful jobs and you have to be careful that you leave time for your own writing. When I worked as a journalist, a keyboard was the last thing I wanted to see when I got home. Therefore, there is much to be said for working in a monotonous job that requires no writing and little mental effort (on a factory line, for example). And such a setting keeps you connected to the real world and can provide good material for our work. The writer Nell Dunn chose factory work for this reason and her experiences translated into her landmark 1960s T.V. series ‘Up the Junction’. That said, taking a factory line means the loss of social status, which can be an issue for some, especially if they have spent many years studying for an MA etc… Alternatively, yo ucna investigate obtaining funding from the Arts Council which allows writers to buy time. As a 2013 Escalatee, I received an Arts Council grant which gave me the freedom to go part-time at work for the greater part of a year – the fruit of which was a completed novel and screenplay. Be aware that the Writers’ Centre Norwich will read over your Arts Council application before you submit.

Criticism:

Writers need objective criticism and your mum usually doesn’t provide the same. Rather, you need honest feedback from fellow scribes. It is an idea to approach writers in your community whose work you admire and offer to swap work for feedback purposes. It is not easy to take criticism onboard but to improve, you must. It is fine to defend your work or disagree with comments made but remember your critics are giving a reader’s perspective and if they’re confused/unimpressed, it is likely your readers will be also and you will not be able to phone all your readers and defend your choices. Learn to listen and consider the criticism you receive. You can contact fellow writers via writers’ groups, writing classes and the Internet. Also, there are commercial manuscript-critiquing services. The Writers’ Centre Norwich has some recommendations in this regard. Moreover, rejected work is sometimes returned with helpful criticism. Read it, consider it, re-work your piece and send out a better version. Your writing skills will improve with each new draft of your work.

Rejection:

Learning to cope with rejection is one of the most difficult, yet most important of the writer’s needs. You are a writer and you will fail and your work will be rejected. And you will be rejected again, and again. Not only do you need to keep going, you need to learn how to deal with these constant dismissals of your work. Having a brass neck would help, however writers tend to be a sensitive bunch. I’ve seen a number of very talented writers give up because they couldn’t hack the (seemingly endless) rejection. Equally, I’ve seen lesser talents succeed because they mustered the strength to suck it up and keep going. Some use drink as a crutch (probably not to be encouraged, but it can be fun in the short term). My own coping method is to send out so many ships, be they short stories, screenplay pitches, radio dramas, funding applications, that if one ‘sinks’ I hardly  notice and simply concentrate on launching more. As someone said to me once, if you knock on a door three times you might not get a reply, if you knock on a door three-hundred times, someone will hear you.


The Top 5%

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Good Valentine’s day news from the Beeb yesterday; of the almost 3,000 script submissions to the BBC Writersroom scheme, my screenplay, ‘The Hole in the Moon’ has now shortlisted to the final 5%  full read. Another month before final decisions are made – but I’m happy to have made it thus far.

With my radio series ‘The Daffodil’ kicking off next week – 2014 is striking a good pose.


Truth Will Set You Free

A Truthful Shop, Brighton.

Truth is not fact.  A fact is, well, a fact – something undeniable like ‘the sun rises in the east’. Truth is far less easy to quantify, to prove, to grasp. Truth is more subjective than fact, and depends on the belief system of the beholder.Truth is the reality you feel it to be and the artist’s job is to capture and communicate that truth.

Writing from truth, what you feel passionate about, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world, truth in hand. Truth is writing what you believe.

Writing from fact is reportage, when you write using ‘truth’ you add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, more interesting, and more moving.

And remember, an issue with writing from reality is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

So, be careful with facts… but always write with truth.


The Day Job…

The day job…

A wise writer once said to me that it’s not so much the pram in the hall that’s the impediment to a writing career, but the bills on the door-mat. Money worries are the bane of creativity. And unless independently wealthy, the emerging writer will have to make a living while waiting for that book/film deal (and probably for a while after that fact too). Writers need to work; the question is what kind of jobs are out there?

Many will consider other (more lucrative) forms of writing to bring home the bucks. Journalism is an obvious  choice and is still, probably, the most common second career for many creative writers. Moreover, a journalistic background provides marvelous training re editing and brevity of approach. Copy-writing, particularly website copy, is also a popular income booster for writer but both copy-writing and journalism are less satisfying forms of writing for the creative writer and spending all day writing on the day job can make it difficult to come home and do the same at night.

Teaching English and/or creative writing is another common earner for writers. My TEFL training and experience has given me a sound grip of grammar and the intricacies of the English language – all of which is of great practical use to a writer. A TEFL teacher also (usually) travels and such experiences can feed into your work. Teaching creative writing allows you to deconstruct the tools of creative writing, which may benefit your own writing. However, you usually need a track record of publication before you begin to look for work in this area.

It is not uncommon for writers to work a mundane job such as on a factory line or as a manual laborer. Such tasks sit quite well with a writing career as they give the writer time to think, to let ideas bubble and boil ready to write down after the shift has finished. Also, with a job so utterly removed from writing, you will be fresh and eager to sit at your laptop of an evening. The downside of any brain numbing, repetitive work is that it has no status. This fact should not be important but it is because writers are human, so for a writer to stay in a lowly job, s/he needs determination, focus and confidence in their reason for doing this type of work.

Writers, of course, come from all walks of life and all career backgrounds. For those of you who may be considering giving up your job to write full time, you need to remember that you’ll (most likely) still need to make a living. Maybe the job you have is not glamorous or interesting, but these are often the best complementary jobs for writing. So, if you really want to be a writer, the greatest sacrifice you make may be NOT giving up the day job -  but staying with it.


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