Tag Archives: writing

It’s How I Roll, baby

writing woman

I’m at my professional best when I’m stressed, with a to-do list in hand and no time to take a break.

We all work in different ways. Some writers need planning and easy, soft pacing. My approach is broad stroke, manic, if slightly anarchic – but I get stuff done. Likewise, we all perform better at different times of the day. 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, hoping the dream state will have left a creative legacy. 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. There are writers who 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 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).

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. Manic or meditative, find whatever works for you.


Saying Goodbye!

bedroom

Today, the last of my belongings were moved from my first ever property, a flat in Budapest. It was my first home, and in many ways, my first ever major art project. It breaks my heart see the keys handed to the new owner. However, I hadn’t even been inside the flat since 2009, and it was a headache to manage it from where I live now in the UK. So, when a very reasonable offer came my way, hesitant though I was, I knew I would have been dumb to say no. When it’s time, it’s time. So, today I say goodbye to Baross utca!

Saying goodbye is equally important when you are writing. It’s crucial to know when you’re done writing your particular text, be it a play, short story or novel… there’s only so much mo tweaking you can do, you’ve sometimes just got to say “it’s done” and send it out there. Here are some tips to help you decide if you’re done:

1) Have you read through your piece a number of times, each revision focusing on different aspects (character, theme, structure, tone, language, punctuation, grammar etc…)?

2) Have you shown your piece to at least one person and received informed and HONEST feedback, and have you then addressed any issues that have been highlighted?

3) Are you now re-reading your work, doing nothing but shifting around commas (and back again)?

If the answer to the above is ‘Yes’, then you’re done and the only reason you’re hesitating sending it off to the agent/theatre/broadcaster/publisher/magazine/competition, is that you’re scared of rejection.

Get over that. If you’re going to be a published writer, you’re going to have to suck up a lot of rejection. Be brave. Take the leap. And good luck!


That’s Pathetic!

Image

What’s happening here? Storm over a street fete in Monte Carlo.

It was a dark and stormy night…

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – think of Thomas Hardy. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description. It’s taxing for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer beloved in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. If your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a PF weather report, that’s just pathetic : )


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…

 


London (and Mayo) Calling

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Exited to learn that the inaugural Fizzy Sherbet evening of new writing by women, features my 12 minute play “Lakukuku”. The seven rehearsed readings will be presented at the Hackney Attic on January 24th – if you’re up that way, do come along!

And, and, and…  A 30 minute play of mine, “The Dog in the Tree House” is a finalist for and will be presented at the Claremorris Festival, Co. Mayo this March (date TBA). By happy chance, I have a two week residency at the Heinrich Boll cottage in Co. Mayo at precisely that time (sweet serendipity) so will definitely be in Claremorris to see the performance.

If any of you are in London, or Mayo, I hope you can make it along!


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.


Gradgrind’s Corner

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Once you’ve had your feedback and have chopped, pruned, rewritten and reshaped your work, you’re ready to go, right? Wrong. Next, you need to don your pernickety gloves and work on grammar, spelling and punctuation.

This type of revision is called a proofread and it is separate from the critique your friends gave re characters, story, POV, tone and structure. A proofread regards layout and correct use of language. A proofread is the final polish.

Never hand in a submission blighted by incorrect or inconsistent punctuation, bad grammar and misspelled words – thinking the story will shine through. They (the slush pile readers) will be turned off by your sloppy copy and will probably never read on into your story, so it won’t get that chance to shine through. If you’ve spent a year writing a novel, respect your work enough to spend another couple of weeks proofreading. It’s only common sense.

As you’ve probably read your own work countless times, you may be blind to copy mistakes. A keen eyed friend is invaluable here. Also you could cut a sentence sized gap in a blank page and place it over your text to check every sentence individually, with the rest of the text blanked out. This may sound painstaking but it is a very good focusing tool.

Many emerging writers are concerned about grammar, unsure of their own knowledge and application. I’ve been an English (as a foreign language) teacher for fifteen years and can recommend the following grammar self-study book (known in the TEFL world as ‘the grammar bible’): Raymond Murphy Grammar in Use. You’ll be able to pick up a cheap copy on Amazon. Spend a night or two doing the exercises, it’ll stand to you.

Also, I could wax lyrical about whether to use double or single quotes for dialogue (or to use any at all) and the difference between US and UK conventions regarding the same. However, I think the best is for you to take ten novels down from your shelf and see how the majority of them format dialogue and then apply the same convention to your work. Whichever you choose, ensure it is then consistent throughout your text.

Finally, here are some of the most common problems:

****Are you using the right “Its”?

“It’s” (with an apostrophe) is short for “it is”.

Its” (no apostrophe) is possessive (ie: the dog lost its bone).

NOTE: somewhat confusingly, when you want to use the possessive elsewhere, you do use an apostrophe: “Mary’s coat”, “John’s golf club”, “the dog’s bone.”

 

****Same sound, different spelling (homophones).

“They’re”, “Their” and “There”.

They’re (they are) sitting the car. They’re listening to their (possessive) music, they’ll be fine there (preposition of place) for a while yet.

 

****Using “done” instead of “did” and vice versa.

“Done” is the past participle of “do” and is normally used with the auxiliary verb “have”.  “Did” is the past simple of “do”.

(And if you have no idea what any of that means, you really do need to order that book).

So, you say either “I have done my homework” or “I did my homework” – and never “I done my homework,” or “he done his homework.”

 

****Saying “could of” rather than “could have” when using the second conditional tense or “could” as a modal verb in the perfect tense (yeah, see that grammar book).

“He could of gone to the shop,” is wrong.

“He could have gone to the shop,” is correct.

And please accept sincerest apologies for sending any of you off into a coma of boredom with this grammary post – believe me, it hurt me more than it hurt you.


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.


You Are Here

Interior location – my bedroom, Flat 1. Budapest, Hungary -photo Nannette Vinson

The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.

And a surprising literary setting can make your story all the stronger. Agatha Christie stories work so well because in every quaint vicarage with its lace table cloths, jam, Jerusalem and glasses of sherry – there’s a body under the table.

A New York Street

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.

A picture from home… A cave. Dunmore East. Co. Waterford, Ireland.


Being Pathetic

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It was a dark and stormy …

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – I always think of Thomas Hardy when asked to give an example. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is a little out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description and frankly, how dull it can be for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer de rigueur in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. For example, if your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.

Personally, I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a “pathetic fallacy” weather report. That’s the biggest cliché in the cliché box, it’s just pathetic …