Tag Archives: writers

Look Ma, It’s Spidergram!

Spider grams – a source of ideas…

Write a word in the centre of the page then think of a word that you associate with the first word.

You might start with “coal” and you might associate “fire” with “coal”. Then think of what you associate with “fire”, perhaps “passion”. Link these three words with a line. Return to the original word and think of another association and make a second branch. “Coal” could prompt “miners’ strike” and then maybe “Margaret Thatcher”. Again, link these words. Repeat this action. Perhaps coming up with “coal”, “canary”, “dead singer” and so on and so on.

Now study all the associations you’ve come up with, you’ll probably be quite surprised at the diverse words on the page. Spidergrams allow you to make creative and often intriguing associations.

Occasionally, you’ll find that you’ve mapped out an entire story by doing a spidergram. Often, writers will do a spidergram and then take the words and freewrite a story with them. Spidergrams can be a rich source of ideas.

Do your own spidergram using one of the following words as a nucleus:

1)       Family

2)       Friendship

3)       Fame

4)       Rivalry

5)       Getting older

6)       Conflict

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Stranger than Fiction…

liverpool1 liverpool2

Writers are sometimes the least imaginative people around – we consistently use true stories we’ve been told, overheard or are part of our own histories, as springboards for our fiction. But hey, no one can come up with ideas better than real life.

If you base a story on an event in your own life you can lend your work real emotion to your work, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader.

However, real life is often so bizarre that you’ll often have to tone down the story to make it more believable (avoid real life co-incidence stories). Also, a straight account is reportage, not fiction. You need to add colour and description, internal thought and other aspects to make it more real…

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names, nationalities and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others…

 


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.


What’s the story, Rory?

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What’s the story?

Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.

Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.

Structure

A typical story structure might be plotted thus:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

 

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.

That’s all that’s in it.

 


Character reference

What’s their favourite pizza?

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height, posture and walk.

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

What is their natural scent or preferred perfume or aftershave.

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


Your Fertile Hour

Inspired by the midday sun

Inspired by the midday sun

There is a theory that the brain is more creative in the morning, especially in your waking moments. 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 jot down the very first words that come to mind – however nonsensical. Some writers say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “writing rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind. When writers write in the morning, so the theory goes, they are closer to their sleeping state and the mind is more imaginative and/or receptive to ideas.

Nontheless, there are plenty of writers who write late at night – for the same reason that they say the closer to sleep they are, the more creative their ideas. Then there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

Therefore, it is clear 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 and find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write, but do write.


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.


You On Your Rocking Chair, Me On My Bench

Van Gogh’s Portrait of Gauguin’s Chair

Setting and character description are linked. A man who favours a torn leather armchair filled with cushions is  quite different from a man who rathers sleek minimalist designer furniture. The setting should complement and reflect the character.

It is often effective to draw around the character, sketch them in their absence. What type of chair do they favour? Wallpaper? House? What book is left on their bedside table? Is their office desk obsessively orderly or natty and neat?

I have a background in fine art painting and I find painting is a great way to understand this aspect of character description – the concept of describing your characters by drawing around them rather than delivering a direct portrait of the same. I like to compare these two portraits by Vincent Van Gogh: one a self portrait and the other Van Gogh’s portrait of Paul Gauguin.

What do you think Vincent is communicating regarding his own and Gauguin’s character and personality?

(Bear in mind that Van Gogh and Gauguin were close once but their relationship became strained when they house-shared at Arles – when these portraits were painted.)

And how would you paint these two portraits in words?

Van Gogh’s Chair, Self Portrait


The Agent Secret

Image

There’s a crackle in the air this morning, kids are back at school, autumn is here and it’s time to take stock. I’ve had a high gear year so far. Having won the Escalator Award – a professional development scheme for writers – I was determined to use 2013 finish my novel with the encouragement and direction of my Escalator Mentor, the novelist Tobias Hill. And I have.  The time and investment the scheme afforded me has not only resulted in a completed MS of ‘The Hole in the Moon’, but also a screenplay of the same (and the screenplay has now been selected for further development with the Script Hot House scheme).

Next step for the novel is to find an agent. This is not the easiest step. As an Arts Council funded Escalator Prose Artist and a UEA Creative Writing MA graduate, who is also an award winning writer with a long list of short-stories published, plays broadcast and staged – you might think that I’ve automatically acquired the secret handshake that allows entry into the exclusive world of agented writers. This is not the case. My track record makes it likely that my submission will achieve some attention when submitted, ie I might make it to the top of the slush pile that week, but only the quality of my writing will result in an agent contacting me re representation. 

I’ve been researching the subject of agents over the past week and it makes for sobering reading. Most agencies in London will receive an average of 450 manuscripts a month. From this figure, they might contact 3 or 4 regarding representation. And from those, perhaps one will go on to be published. Yes, it’s that competitive so don’t approach an agent lightly and send them you work only when you feel it is perfect. Tips on approaching agents include the following:

1)      Finish your novel before you contact an agent.

2)      Buy the lastest Writers and Artists Yearbook (if in the UK or Ireland) or the US/Can/Aus equivalent and make a list of agencies/agents who might be interested in your work. Think of an author whose work yours resembles and find out who their agent is (usually mentioned in “acknowledgements” page in a novel.) Research – make sure the agent you contact is interested in the type of book you are proposing. Check the “Yearbook”, if the agency states ‘no Romance’ don’t send them your love story. If they say no email submissions, do not submit by email etc… Make a list of twenty suitable agents.

3)      Most agents (but do check first) should be approached with a cover letter of not more than a page in length, outlining your project and a brief bio. Also attach a one page synopsis and the first three chapters (or first fifty pages) – but as I said, do check with the submissions guidelines on their website.

4)      Be polite and business like. Don’t adopt a grovelling/humorous/aggressive or any sort of extreme tone in your cover letter. Don’t send pictures of your cat or try to be cute.

5)      It has now become acceptable to send out multiple submissions to various agents however, if you are doing so, it is only polite and respectful of agent time to let the agents know you are doing this. You might want to limit this send out to three agents at a time.

6)      Some agents will get back to you within three weeks, others might take up to six months. Some you’ll never hear from at all. I feel that if you’ve not heard back after three months, it’s unlikely they’re digging your manuscript. It is acceptable to send a nudge email at this point to clarify but don’t be terribly surprised if you don’t even get a reply then. This happens, don’t take it personally.

7)      If a number are interested in your work, make a list of your specific needs and choose the agent who might best meet them. However, your choice may all come down to chemistry in the end. Do meet them personally.

8)      If you’re turned down across the board (say 20 or 30 rejections) you might want to rethink your project, put it in a drawer and get started on another. Some agents may have been generous enough to give you feedback re why they didn’t feel the book was right for them. Take note and come back to their comments in a few months when the raw disappointment has eased. If it is any consolation, I don’t know a published author who hasn’t got at least one unpublished novel languishing in a drawer. Put it down as part of your training as a writer and get cracking on your sophomore MS.


The Divil in Displacement

Interesting displacement activity…

 

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 plenty of 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 is the bane of a writer’s life. It’s the phrase writers have for all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing. 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. I feel 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 admit, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office… 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…