My Writing Advice to Self of the week is this: whatever the genre, pack the action in!
A lot of my lovely readers are older and don’t care much for technology. I’m not stereotyping here – my parents, in their 80s, love a bit of tech. and are rarely seen without an iPad – but lots of their contemporaries like paper books best and wouldn’t know what to do with a phone that didn’t have buttons.
Fair enough, I say.
These dear readers, when they like the books, tell me so in offline ways: face to face, by handwritten letter, or in an email their friend has helped them send, all of which I appreciate hugely. What they don’t do is write online reviews, because – well because they don’t come from the review culture. In their day, if you bought something; you just bought it. You weren’t expected to give it stars or tell them the packaging was or wasn’t up to scratch!
But we hungry writers need online reviews. It’s how the algorithms work. So a little plea: if you enjoyed a book (any book!) please leave a little online review. A passing young person, or your nearest tech-savvy great-granny will help.
I loved the “great post-operative” one above.
Oh, and a few copies are in a give-away offer at the moment (see above).
I’ve been giggling this week about a tick I noticed in my own writing and other people’s – the tendency to sit down too much!
I don’t mean the authors; I mean their characters. In the half dozen books and manuscripts I’ve read in the past three days the characters spend an awful lot of time sitting about.
It’s not that the books are without action, there is plenty elsewhere, it’s just that between vivid scenes they all tend to sit down and (this being England, my dears) they often have a nice cup of tea!
As soon as you spot something like this, of course, it jumps out at you whichever book you pick up. Plots need pauses and a cafe or pub is a handy place for characters to meet and share vital information. People do chat over coffee and meet in tea shops – it’s perfectly realistic – but my resolution for Nanowrimo and beyond is to put a stop to all this comfort and get my characters moving.
They can talk plot lines and establish character out in the fresh air. They can reinforce their conflicts or mention that crucial detail whilst driving, walking, riding, break dancing, roasting an ox, drying their hair, shark wrestling or getting a tattoo, but they will definitely not be doing it sitting in a café.
I’m guilty of ignoring the Muse as a concept. I fall into the Get On and Do It school of thinking, generally, where writing is concerned. I’m practical: sit down; write this many words in this many hours; edit it for this long; send result out to this many agents/publishers/magazines etc. I’ve never had much time for the idea that there might be some external force – some fleeting, enigmatic abstract involved. Pah! I thought that Muse stuff was for people who like the idea of writing, but didn’t fancy doing any actual work. “Ah,” they could say, after a convenient half-hour at their tidy desk in their well-appointed study, “sadly, no luck today. The Muse wasn’t with me.”
If you read internet writing advice (especially the sort that comes in curly typography over dreamy pictures of moonlight or lakes) most of that ignores the Muse too. Mostly it talks about “turning up for work” and “getting your bum on the seat” and “putting in the hours” and so on. Basically the meditative photos offer sergeant majorly get up earlier; work harder advice. I’m fine with that. It is hard work.
But. I hate to admit it, but I increasingly believe there is something else. Here is a terrible truth: you can work really hard for a very long time and still produce a poor result; you can also work in a playful way for not very long and produce something fantastic. And the Factor X that makes the difference is what for the sake of convenience we might call the Muse.
I’m only just getting to know this creature. I don’t really trust her. She is female, Greek and mythological, which always means a lot of complications. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:
- she is very badly behaved
- give her the perfect conditions, sit and wait, and she probably won’t be arsed to show up at all, but when you’re doing twenty other things and don’t have anything to write with she’ll be there in your mind’s ear, whispering
- she is a bit of a thug
- you will have careful outlines and plans; she will spit on them
- she is a dangerous influence
- she doesn’t care if you work hard or not, but her ideas stick in your brain like chewing gum sticks in your hair and will not, will not go away
- she sneers at all sensible advice about, say, what the market likes, or what agents are looking for
- many of her ideas are so outrageous they must have come from outside your own head (surely!)
- she hates being bossed about
- the second you think you’ve worked her out, she’s off
- time is different for her
- your time, your deadlines or schedules are irrelevant; in Muse time things are done when they’re done.
In short, I thought the Muse would be like this: gently kissing inspiration onto the author’s fevered brow. (Paul Cezanne’s Kiss of the Muse)
It turns out she’s more like this:
a frolicsome party animal. Not what I was expecting at all!
(Original Blousy Muse artwork by Grannywritesbooks, as you probably guessed!)
I know that painters suffer a terrible temptation to re-work, change, add to and generally interfere with a painting that is really finished. Watercolourists, in particular, have to beware. Because of the delicate nature of the watercolour wash, they are very limited in the number of changes they can make without destroying the fresh beauty of the medium and wrecking the whole painting. They have to be disciplined; make the right decisions early, then stop.
But what about writers? We can make a million changes and nobody can tell. When should we walk away? How do we know when a book is finished? It’s not as obvious as it sounds.
Stop when: 1. You’ve finished the story.
When’s that? When they all live happily after? After the ball? After the Prince finds another princess with the same size feet and better monarching skills?
When is a story finished?
Maybe when you’ve finished telling the part of the story that interested you (this time – there are sequels, remember).
Stop when: 2. It’s long enough.
No, that won’t work. It’s the piece of string thing. 100,000 might be enough, but so might 50,000 or 75,345 or 23,479. (That’s art for you.)
Stop when: 3. An external factor prevents you from continuing.
There might be an editor or agent waiting. A publisher may be scheduling the cover design and printing. These are excellent reasons to stop writing and send it on the day you said you’d send it. They may not continue to love/pay you otherwise.
If nobody on earth is waiting or cares about anything you write, find someone. It can be a friend or relation. It can be an online writer-friend of some sort. Set a date. Tell them they will have it for their birthday/your birthday/Christmas – whatever. Then send it on time. If you don’t do this your ghost will haunt libraries screaming ‘Here! Here is the shelf where my poor novel should have been!‘ forever.
Stop when: 3. You can’t think of a single extra thing you could do to make it better.
You will think of something the moment you click send. You have spent a huge amount of time and creative energy on this book. It is lodged in your heart and soul and psyche and will probably not move into its next phase without waking you a few times in the night, but the time has come. Every last possibility for improvement has been exhausted and so have you. Send it. Now!
The following are not signs that your novel is finished. You should ignore them and carry on.
1 People keep saying ‘you’re not still working on that are you?’
2 You’ve begun to hate the title (and perhaps the whole book).
3 You’ve begun to despise the whole idea of writing books. Other people go out/have friends/eat in restaurants, for heaven’s sake!
4 A tidy house and clean laundry are a half-forgotten dream, and who, exactly, are those other people living in the house?
Many people, as they grow older, begin to show symptoms of conditions that, in their youth, they were able to manage or suppress. Writing is one of these conditions. In the past it may have been a very slight disorder, masked perhaps by employment or caring activities, but in older age, perhaps as a result of a change in one of these areas, it becomes more evident.
The sufferer, might, for example, begin to write more during the day. They may talk about their writing openly, in company. They perhaps seek out, and show signs of enjoying, the company of others gripped by the same condition. They may begin to send their writing out to competitions and sometimes, in extreme cases, they may even write whole novels and try to have them published, or to publish them themselves.
Life with such a person presents many challenges. The sufferer will, for example, almost certainly feel the urge to stop doing anything useful such as housework or shopping. They will lock themselves away for hours and sometimes emerge in a less-than-sunny frame of mind.
The partner of someone who is undergoing this condition – whether it is sudden-onset or slowly developing – is in a difficult situation. Their loved-one has begun to live an inner life that is completely unknown to them. One moment they show a passionate interest in the variety of birds found on islands off Mongolia; the next it is the effects of undercooked beans on the digestive system; or the likelihood of delay on the sleeper to Inverness on a Wednesday that is all they can think about.
In other ways they may appear perfectly normal, but you will notice a tendency for note-taking at odd moments. They may seem drawn to anyone with a particular area of professional expertise. At social gatherings all small talk is cast aside as they plough into the relentless questioning of the wheelchair gymnast/deep sea diver/forensic accountant they need to pump for information for their latest fiction.
If it is crime writing that afflicts them, it will naturally be police officers, security staff and anyone associated with the criminal law they head for, but with romantic novelists things are not so predictable; it may be the broken-hearted or the fabulously good-looking, but it may also be the shy, the plain or the socially inept. Either way, as their partner you can expect long hours in the kitchen at parties.
Then there is the Google search history. The best advice is: don’t look. The same applies to their Kindle library. A glance at either will indeed offer an insight into the workings of the fiction writer’s mind, but not in a helpful way. It is very likely to lead to unnecessary suspicion and anxiety, but remember this: just because your beloved has spent several days Googling methods of strangulation or undetectable disposal of human remains does not mean they are planning a real-life murder – well, not yours anyway.
All in all, life with a writer is frankly less a roller coaster, more a long downward escalator, but as you plunge the depths of household disorder, poverty and social exclusion, remember there are rare cases of successful publication and even financial reward.
Obviously this is as likely as a lottery win (14 million to 1 last time I checked the odds), but when it does happen, writers have been known to buy champagne. They never go back to doing any housework, though.
Time-pressed writers – those whose creative work is compressed into short periods, need special techniques. Not for us the lovely luxury of whole days waiting to be filled with words; we’re the ones who through choice, necessity or devotion to something or someone else, have to squeeze our writing around time-gobbling commitments. There are lots of us. And we’re feisty.
My own problem is that when chunks of writing time arrive, it takes frustratingly long to get back inside the story and the characters’ heads. Hours I can’t spare can be wasted tinkering around, re-reading and generally fidgeting before I can settle. It’s unproductive, this re-entry process, so I wondered how to avoid it.
My sister is a life coach who works with writers and other creative people, so I asked her advice (I paid in dinners) and we came up with a list. I’m experimenting and the ideas seem to work.
Give it a try, hard-pressed author-types and let me know what you think. You might be able to add some tips of your own.
1 Steal tiny gobbets of time.
Don’t accept too easily that you can only work on the book in big several-hour chunks; try using spare bits of downtime time too. Even if you can’t actually write, you can devote, say, part of your commute or unavoidable waiting time to Keeping In Touch with the Novel (an extremely important activity hereinafter referred to as KITNO). The point of KITNO is that when you do actually have time to sit down and write, you can spring to the keys with your fingers dancing, instead of having to make the long mental trek across the barren wastelands of Now Where Was I?
2 Turn off the noise.
The friendly life coach has successfully recommended to people that they turn off their car radios/put away their iPhones or whatever, on the way to work. Emptying the head of noise is a good first step to KITNO. So is exercise. Walking works, but no earphones.
3 Ask ONE question.
Set yourself a single KITNO challenge to focus on. When you finish a writing stint, don’t pack up until you have singled out a plot knot that needs to be untangled or a character begging to be knocked into shape. Make that particular issue the one you play around with in the little spare moments you have before the next bigger block of writing time. It can help to write the question on a piece of paper and display it. This forces you to whittle it down to a few words. Family members may be puzzled by a post-it saying “Pavel’s connection with Ira Marciano??” on the bathroom mirror, but they’ll get used to it – if you’re lucky, they may even come up with some useful suggestions.
4 Night Work
Some wise life coaches suggest taking a little focused question about your book, like the one above, to bed and reading it immediately before you go to sleep so that you drift off with it on the mental To Do list. The idea is that it then goes into the brain’s night processing schedule and you wake up with an answer waiting. I’ve tried this and it works, but in a hilarious subconscious-mind-having-a-laugh sort of way. Nobody says the answers will be sensible, but they might be…stimulating!
5 Harness the tech.
Gadgets might help with KITNO. One author I know emails her manuscript to her Kindle and carries it at all times. She can read it, but she can’t edit or be diverted by tinkering with details. Others use dictation apps or voice recorders to mull things over out loud. I love a gadget, but it wouldn’t work for me. I use the writing coach’s best ever advice…
With no time to write, it’s often oddly possible to draw. Not proper drawings, of course, I mean the scribbly kind you could never show, but which sidestep the part of the brain that slams on the creative brakes sometimes. Ten minutes doodling in my tiny storyboard Moleskine always, always helps. It easily fits in a pocket or briefcase and it has the sober look of something that might be Proper Work, so if you need to look busy in your workplace, you might get away with scribbling in it when you should be doing what they’re paying you for (I imagine).
7 The 5 minute rule (an extension of #1 above, useful in situations of extreme writing-time poverty)
Even when you can’t find any time at all to write in, you can still give yourself 5 minutes here and there to think about a particular character or plot line. Then, when you go back to your non-writing work, your brain will continue to ponder your writing question and when you least expect it, leaning over the frozen veg in the supermarket, or sitting in a budget control meeting, a solution will pop up. The trick then is to get the bare bones of it down (smart phones are a great way of doing this) but truthfully, the really good stuff needs little recording because it’s so good, you can’t forget it.
8 Work out your minimum writing needs and how to get them
Work out what you need to write well. It will be different for all of us. If you can only write on a clear surface, make sure you either keep your desk tidy, or have a clear surface somewhere else. You don’t want to waste 20 minutes of your precious writing time tidying your desk. (20 minutes? Who am I kidding? A couple of days would be be more like it in my case!) I use alternate surfaces. I have used an ironing board before now – it works!
If you need certain music, have it ready in a playlist; if you need a particular brand of coffee, get some in!
Set the bar low. I’d quite like a daybed overlooking the beach on a Caribbean island too, but I’ll settle for any old corner, as long as I have a working keyboard and can’t see any other paperwork or bills.
9 Don’t forget to feed the outer woman or man
Your minimum writing requirements probably extend to food. So it’s good to plan your writing-time food stocks too. At certain points in the writing process it’s very easy to scoff any food that can’t actually walk away, and the main craving seems to be for sugar and transfats. If you want to live long enough to publish a nice, fat Complete Works in several decades’ time, it’s probably better to stock the freezer with home-cooked healthy dinners and/or beg/bribe someone to cook your meals for you. Eat and drink after the writing, unless you really are Ernest Hemingway.
Once everything’s in place, you know you can just sit and write, write, write!
Oh, and 10 Remember, it’s meant to be enjoyable!
Writing is hard work, but it’s Elective Hard Work and that should be very satisfying indeed, if not actual fun. No-one is holding a gun to your head. If it’s not, in the end, rewarding, do something else!
One of the pleasures of this odd book-writing habit is being contacted by readers who go to the trouble of seeking you out and telling you what they thought. They send comments and reviews, they share news, they ask how the sequel is coming on. It is really a delight to have a sense of real, live readers out there, going about their lives and genuinely enjoying what you have written. I write comedy, so I have the lovely thought that I might cheer them up and give them a little laugh here and there as well.
It’s a strange transition when your characters move from your imagination to someone else’s. People you haven’t met before can talk about one of your characters as if they knew them. The first few times it happens you think – how do you know? – and have to remind yourself, oh yes, I wrote it down, other people know about Sister B, or Alphonsus Dunn, or whoever it happened to be. It’s like someone else talking about your secret invisible friend.
Then there are the special category readers. I was ridiculously pleased when someone who had been a nun wrote to say that she had loved the book (it’s about a little convent trying to survive against the odds) and was going to send it to her friends the Carmelites, who would identify with the characters’ struggles. And there is another lovely reader who knows Peru and another who buys ten copies at a time and sends them all over the world.
Writers complain sometimes about how isolating writing can be. I have a sociable day job and solitude for writing is a luxury, so that doesn’t worry me, but it’s a tremendous bonus to have the sense of a patient and receptive audience gently waiting.
I’m including below a couple of hand-written reviews that were sent by readers who don’t usually write them, and aren’t users of Amazon or Goodreads, but who wanted me to know what they thought. I’m very grateful to them for taking the trouble. (I edited a bit. They’re long and thoughtful, but I didn’t change the gist.)
…To me, yes, unputdownable. The epistolary form, reminiscent of Jean Webster’s ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ of my schooldays, led me on, and temptingly on, to read one more letter, or chapter, and one more…
I congratulate Fran Smith on this, on its originality and delightfulness as we meet Sister Boniface and touch finger-tips with the much-travelled and adventurous Emelda. When I came, speedily but reluctantly, to the last page, I felt that the tale couldn’t end there. Hurry up, Fran, with Volume Two. Don’t disappoint the millions* of us out here.
And Jennie Rawlings – I just loved the cover.
I loved it – delightfully light touch. Elegant prose. Brought a smile. Beautifully wrought characters.
…liked how it was written – quaint, naive, commonsense; dealt with realistic current situations; well put together. Congratulations on the cover, it just catches the spirit.
* (I love the dear reader’s optimism here!)
Greetings from the Shed, Grannies*. I recommend a shed, especially one that is newly wind- and water-proofed. No gaping holes! The luxury!
If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, you can find all about it here. It’s a challenge to sign up and try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There’s lots of cheery support on the website and ways to contact other people doing the same thing. Some will be near, others will be on the other side of the world. It’s free – donations aside – and it’s a great way to take the bridle off your muse and get her galloping. The idea is that you don’t edit your writing at all, you just write and keep writing. Some people make meticulous and detailed plans, some have a rough outline to work to, others do no preparation at all. Your genre, approach and style is up to you; the results of your efforts are your own – you don’t need to share anything except the title and your daily growing wordcount, and even then only if you feel like it. I’ve done it several times now and have never come even close to completing the 50,000 challenge, even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first novel went from a vague beginning to a proper manuscript through NaNoWriMo. I’m using it this year to top up the sequel. We start tomorrow. Give it a go! Let me know how you get on.
I was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl this week. Why not? I’m an English teacher; the pay may be shirt buttons, but I have the perfect excuse to read anything at all. Dahl’s Granny is a wonderfully transgressive character. She’s mean and ugly, she’s rude to her grandson, she’s horrid about his parents and she has brown teeth and a mouth like a dog’s bum – a simile that electrifies every child I’ve read it with.
George’s granny made me think about plotting. Not plotting how to to do away with your granny – plotting as in making your story grab the reader and sweep them along. Dahl is terrific at action. The next step is never predictable. Mild little George is oppressed by awful granny, he feels “a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping.” And of course, he does. What keeps his young readers on the edge of their chairs is that every scene is a huge surprise.
My resolution for NaNoWriMo this year is, like George, to do something whopping with my plot. Nothing mild, absolutely nothing predictable, just one irresistible surprise after another.
Wish me luck!
PS this is one of the best blogs posts I’ve read lately. It’s from the Writer’s Workshop and includes a couple of really useful points about plots, as well as lots of other cringe-making mistakes most of us will recognize.
It should say ‘apologies to Quentin Blake’…
The discharge payment and the compensation meant she could afford to buy a place, a tiny city apartment or a small suburban house. She made herself visit a few, standing in empty rooms, trying to look interested as sharply-dressed salespeople enthused over the view or the closet space. So many dead; it was hard to care. ‘Depression,’ said her sister-in-law, ‘post-traumatic stress’, as if a label from somewhere on the internet could somehow contain the whole thing.
Then one day driving the hills she saw a For Sale sign and for no good reason turned off and investigated. A small house, needing a few repairs, in a big empty garden.They told her it was an acre.
When, a few weeks later, the truck drove away and left her alone with her few bits of furniture, she sat in the garden as the light faded and listened. Country silence; here and there an owl or the rustle of a tiny creature in the grass, the creak of a tree in the surrounding woodland, but in between something she gradually realised was the gentle, neutral silence of peace. Six months out of a war zone, it felt like a miracle. She still woke at night hearing shouts and missiles, but less often as time went by.
City-raised, she knew nothing at all about gardening, but her instinct was to let the land alone. Mostly it was just grass, bumpy for lack of mowing, but over on one side was an apple tree, the grass around it dotted with fallen fruit. The apples were large and pale, almost square. When she cooked them, they turned instantly to a delicate mush. The tree had a gash, a fallen branch had left a jagged split in the bark of the trunk. This began to worry her. Should she intervene? Cut it away? Paint it with something?
In the window of the hardware store where she bought her paint she saw a poster for an Apple Day. Bring your apples for identification. It was at a specialist tree nursery, Runcie’s. Who knew there were specialist tree nurseries? So she went, with her pockets full of the pale apples. There in a marquee filled with their sweet scent, she found old Benjamin Runcie standing behind a table covered in neat rows of apples, each different, each labelled. Mr Runcie liked apples a lot more than he liked people. The Apple Day was not his idea, but he had to admit it brought the customers in. They came from all over. He took her apple and adjusting his glasses, inspected it, turning it over in his hand. ‘Lord Lambourne,’ he said, eventually. ‘Good for sauce. Won’t store, though.’
‘The tree’s split. A branch came off. What should I do?’ she asked.
He didn’t look at her, he was still examining the apple, taking his time.
‘They can look after themselves. Just tidy it up. They fruit best if there’s another apple nearby. If you have the space, that is.’
‘I have space, but how can I choose which variety?’ There were hundreds spread out there in front of them.
‘A Melrose or a Jewett Red. It doesn’t much matter, it’s for pollination.’ He looked at her for the first time. ‘We can deliver, if you want to order. Are you from round here?’
‘Kelsey,’ she said, ‘over beyond the river. I just bought a place over there.’
He focused on her properly now. This was home territory. ‘That wouldn’t be the old Hovey place, north of town?’
‘How’d you know?’
‘Not many places sold round here lately. I heard it was a veteran bought that place. Military man, invalided out.’
‘Well, that was half right. I just left the service myself.’
He looked at her steadily, then handed back her apple. ‘I believe we have a lot to thank you for,’ he said.
He came round the table, leaving a line of people to wonder who would identify their apples, and gestured to her, leading her from the tent out into the long lines of saplings of all sizes. He picked two pollinators, and handed them to her in their pots. ‘A housewarming,’ he said. ‘Just be sure to give them some water at first. They’ll be OK.’
They were skinny little things with just a few leaves. She planted them, by digging holes and stamping them in, apologising to them silently for not knowing any better. They grew anyway.
That was the beginning of the orchard. Whenever she passed Runcie’s she stopped in and bought another tree. By the time the nephew came, she already had fourteen of them, and more apples than she knew what do with.
The nephew was a bit of a revelation. He’d been a podgy baby and a whiney six-year-old. She wasn’t bad about birthday cards and so on, but they didn’t know each other. At seventeen the boy was tall and skinny. He arrived carrying a huge rucksack which mostly contained books: cookery books, on inspection.
‘I love to cook,’ he said, shrugging. ‘They want me to be a lawyer.’ They sat side by side outside her back door, drinking coffee. ‘I have a really good applecake recipe,’ he said.
‘Did you run away?’ she asked him. ‘Tell me.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just a time out. They know where I am.’
‘And they agreed?’
‘They didn’t try to stop me, put it that way. Besides, they wanted a report on you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said.
‘They worry, I guess.’ He looked out in the darkness. ‘I thought, with all the apples and everything, you might need some help. I can cook with the apples. We might even sell some stuff. We could just try it for a few weeks. What do you say?’
She said yes.
* big debate in GWB household: pollinators or pollenators – Cambridge academic says ‘en’ – retro-educated hack writer says ‘in’ – take your pick!
This was written as a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s challenges: use the names of three apple varieties in a story of less than 1000 words.