Fantasy writer. English teacher. For‑the-fun-of it photographer. Typography lover. Decaf drinker. This blog is about my journey as a writer—you’re welcome to come along for the ride.

Stuff I Read

Favourite authors

Orson Scott Card
Sherwood Smith
Robin Hobb
Shannon Hale
Brandon Sanderson
Guy Gavriel Kay

Writing Craft

Advanced Fiction Writing
StoryFix.com

Writing blogs

Juliette Wade, TalkToYouniverse
Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds (Warning: strong language) 

Publishing blogs

Jane Friedman
Kristin Lamb
Anne R. Allen

Word of the Week

unasinous (adj): Being equal to another in stupidity.

For quite a nice-sounding word, the meaning is rather amusing. Could obviously be applied in such areas as politics, reality television and profanity against the written word.

Thursday
Jan132011

Powerful emotional experiences, or a semi-review of 'Tangled'

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I intended to write a blog post before January 13th, but of course, best intentions don’t equate to words on a computer screen. It also doesn’t help that best intentions’ older brother, procrastination, likes to take advantage of the fact that I’m on holidays and feels perfectly entitled to walk into my house and make himself at home on my very comfortable couch.

I’m not sorry that I took a break, though. As much as I love writing, I think there are times when the brain needs a break from endlessly composing perfect sentences (I wish). Now that I’m back from my holiday, though, I’m ready to get back into routine. Well, as much of one as is possible when one isn’t working.

For the past few months I have been anticipating the release of Tangled, Disney’s new animated feature that is a re-telling of the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’. The trailers were enough to whet my appetite, and after reading a few positive reviews following the US release in November I was convinced that this was a film I would enjoy.

Since it’s release last Thursday in Australia, I’ve seen the film twice—once in 3D and once in 2D—and I loved it both times. The 3D version wasn’t distracting or over-the-top (thankfully), and the story was so good that I had no problems shelling out twice to see it. (Considering I saw each of the Lord of the Rings instalments… seven times each, twice is nothing. Yes, I’m not joking—I saw Return of the King twice on opening day. I’m still not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed about that.)

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I enjoyed Tangled immensely. I’m not going to give a full review of the film here—there are plenty of decent reviews on the web already, Orson Scott Card’s being one of them—but I am going to segue into the topic that is kind of the point of this blog: writing.

I’m not exactly a stone-cold person, but I was surprised at myself for shedding a few tears while watching Tangled. And those tears—shed during each screening—made me marvel more than a little that an animated feature, whose characters were beautifully rendered but still not really life-like, could cause such a powerful emotional response in me. One of the scenes where I showed my soppiness involved no speaking at all: just a mother and father looking at each other, grieving over the loss of their child. The emotions portrayed by those pixels were so real and so human that I even feel a little misty-eyed just recalling it.

It makes me wonder, though, about exactly how a writer (or in this case, an animator) creates a powerful emotional experience. Randy Ingermanson, whose blog and e-zine I have been following now for almost a year, suggests that the point of writing fiction is about giving the reader a powerful emotional experience. In his book Writing Fiction for Dummies he says: ‘You do this by showing your PoV character having a powerful emotional experience and then convincing your reader that he or she is that character.’

At first glance, this explanation seemed a little too simple. Yet, as I reflected on my experience of watching Tangled I realised that he was exactly right: I cried in that moment because those characters cried, and because for those few moments I was those characters.

What is it that allows a reader to become so involved in a story that they not only enjoy the characters they are reading about, but they become them? I’m going to be honest enough to say that I’m not entirely sure. I’m pretty sure I’m a character-focused writer, and yet much of what I do when I write my characters still feels instinctive to me. I think it would take a lot of thought and deconstruction to figure out exactly what it is a writer does when they create a character that leaps off the page and connects with a reader. Perhaps one day I’ll give myself the time to sit and think that through—or else find someone else’s thoughts and have an ‘aha!’ moment and have all the hard work done for me.

In the meantime, though, I can hazard one guess about one of the ingredients of a powerful emotional experience: going through a powerful emotional experience yourself. That is, if I want a reader to connect with my characters and feel their emotions, then I have to connect with my characters and feel those emotions first.

Exactly how that happens is probably different for every writer. For me, it involves a mixture of visualisation—like watching a movie in my head from my character’s point of view—and instinct. Sometimes when I write I get the feeling that I am this character, that I’m standing in their shoes watching and feeling the same things they are. A little creepy perhaps, but I see it as an extension of the ability to empathise.

This is not to say that I hit the mark every time. Sometimes I fail miserably. So too in life. As much as I might try to see something from another person’s point of view, I don’t always get it right. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to empathise, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to experience and then pass on the emotions of my characters. If I could create the same emotion in a reader that I myself have experienced countless times reading the books I love, then the effort will have been worth it.

This is what stories are about, for me: spending time inside the experiences of others, understanding a little more about someone else’s life, and so understanding a little more about myself. (Because heaven knows, I often don’t understand myself at all.)

And if you haven’t seen Tangled yet, then do yourself a favour and get to your nearest cinema as soon as possible.

Friday
Dec312010

Resolutions

Resolutions-head-2010-12-31-20-04.jpg?fileId=10016812A wise friend said to me earlier in the year that, even though the workload that I took on was quite large (i.e. crazy), I would be able look back at the end of the year and see just how much I accomplished. Well, it’s the end of the year. Looking at the list of everything I’ve done, I feel a little amazed that I’m still mostly vertical. Here’s the list:

  • Started a Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing (7 subjects in the year, out of a possible 10)
  • Finished another course of study (that I started in 2001!)
  • (Re)-started my blog
  • Set up my website
  • Re-started work on a collaborative novel project, now well underway
  • Photographed a number of functions for friends
  • Created media for a number of special events, including video and print promotional materials
  • Read the usual amount of books—one every week or two
  • Adjusted to moving out of home
  • Quit drinking coffee
  • Slept and relaxed in the few hours left over

I’m sure there are a few more things I could add in to the mix, but I won’t. Mostly because I already sound like enough of a brag. Looking at that list, though, I am realise that the limits I sometimes place on myself aren’t so much about what I’m capable of as they are about what I think I’m capable of.

Next year my workload will be slightly less than this year, as will my study load. So what am I going to do with all those extra hours? I know how easy it is to waste time (I still manage to do plenty of that), but I don’t want to waste time next year. Here is a short list of some of the things I want to accomplish next year:

  • Finish the first draft and the revision of my current collaborative novel project
  • Start working again on my solo novel project—to expand my worldbuilding and plan the novel
  • Create the website that I’ve envisioned for a number of years now (the Fantasy Writer’s Library)

There are other smaller things on my list, but those feel big enough now that I won’t add anything else yet. The main thing is that I believe all three are those can be accomplished next year, which is a lot more than I thought myself capable of at this time last year. When I check back in at the same time next year, I hope to be able to say I have accomplished at least one of the above points, if not all of them.

New Years resolutions can grow old fast. I know that not many people stick to them. But I feel optimistic that my goals for this year will stick because I already have the processes in place for them to succeed. I just need to put in the hard work of getting them done. Writing them here will help to remind me what I’ve committed to, but it’s the time and energy during the year that will make the difference. If this year is any indicator, I have all the time and energy I need.

So bring on the new year. I’m ready for it.

Thursday
Dec232010

eBook frustration

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Last month I wrote about my happy discovery of eBooks, and how much I was enjoying purchasing digital versions of my favourite books. It is just so convenient to have one’s favourites on hand at any time—while waiting for someone in the car, waiting in the doctor’s office, waiting for the start of a movie.

My experience in the past week has taken some of the sheen off my eBook joy.

One of the reasons for my (relatively) late uptake of the eBook format was that, for a long time, there was no eBook reading device that particularly appealed to me. Amazon’s Kindle has only been available in Australia for a little over a year, and I didn’t really want to spend money on a device that was designed solely for eBook reading. Hence my interest in eBooks didn’t reach critical mass until I discovered that a number of apps were available for eBook reading on Apple’s iOS platform. I have an iPhone and will soon have an iPad, and they are the primary reason I am now very keen to read eBooks. I can enjoy the experience of reading a digital book on these devices, but each device is not limited to that use alone.

For a number of years now I have found that my book purchasing tends to happen online more often than not, primarily because the authors I want to read are not available on bookstore shelves in Australia. Amazon has been one of my favourite stores, particularly with the Australian dollar doing as well as it has this year. The beauty of the eBook format is that it is available anytime, anywhere, and at a low cost. No longer do I have to wait three or four weeks for my desired books to arrive.

I should have known that it was too good to be true.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been re-reading one of my favourite series, Inda by Sherwood Smith, in the eBook edition. I already own the entire series in hardcover—these are a minority in my collection of mainly paperback books—but I wanted to read them again and I didn’t want to have to lug around the huge hardcovers in my handbag. Oh, the miracle of having a book on my phone!

I had no difficulty purchasing the first three books (out of four in the series) from Amazon’s Kindle store. The price of each was incredibly reasonable, and with the exchange rate as low as it is I had no problem shelling out another $7 or $8 for eBook versions of something I already own. When I finished book three last night, I jumped onto the Kindle store to search for the last book (Treason’s Shore) and was disappointed to discover it wasn’t there. The book was only published late last year, so I thought that perhaps it hadn’t been released in eBook format yet.

To double-check, I did a search of the whole Amazon site for the book and discovered that yes, it is available in a Kindle version—it’s just not available to me here in Australia. Why the hell not?

This was not the first time I have come across this dilemma. I have searched for the eBooks of a number of my favourite authors in the past few weeks, and the two most common results of my searching are: 1) the book is not available in eBook format anywhere yet, in which case I tell myself I can wait patiently because everyone else is waiting too; or 2) the book is available in eBook format, but only if you live in the US. The message seems to be: Sorry, little plebs from that land down under—you can purchase the hard copy of the book and have it shipped to you, but you’re not allowed to purchase the eBook version.

Last night, when I was searching for Treasons’s Shore, my frustration reached boiling point. Why oh why was I unable to purchase the eBook version of a book that is part four in a series when I had no trouble purchasing the first three books from the same store? It seems ludicrous, and as a consumer it is just plain annoying. I felt so fratchy I wanted to throw my phone across the room.

So I did some internet searching to see if someone could explain to me why there are such restrictions on eBook content being delivered to Australian residents. The best explanation I could find was this article: The Smell of Books—Where in the World is Lisbeth Salander?. What it boils down to is that the publishing industry in Australia (and elsewhere) still hasn’t figured out how to licence eBooks in Australia. There are laws in place to protect the Australian publishing industry, which I understand and I don’t resent at all, but it also means that there are a lot of books that fall into the grey area of ‘not yet published as a printed book by an Australian publisher, but available in eBook format elsewhere’.

If there was a company in Australia that was publishing eBooks by international authors and making them available here (at a reasonable cost), I would purchase those books. (Actually, I did find Treason’s Shore available in one place in Australia—Borders online—but the eBook version cost $22 AUD. What kind of crazy price is that? The point of an eBook is that it’s cheaper than a paperback, not the same price.) But no such company exists (or no such large company exists that can compete with Amazon’s prices), and so it is highly frustrating that I can’t access an eBook version of something from an overseas company even though I can purchase a paperback version of exactly the same thing. I’m not causing the Australian industry to lose money because these books aren’t even available in Australia. I don’t understand why I should be denied the opportunity to pay good money for something I want to buy when it hurts no one, and allows the author to benefit from my purchase just as much as if I bought a paperback.

Yes, I understand that uptake of the eBook format by publishers is slow. I should probably just be patient. I predict that the market will eventually force these location restrictions to be removed, just as the digital music market has removed restrictions due to consumer demand. But knowing it will happen eventually doesn’t ameliorate my frustration now. I want to spend money on eBooks now, damn it, and it feels like I am being actively stopped from doing so just because of bloody red tape.

*end tantrum*

In all seriousness, though, I sincerely hope that the Australian government and the publishing industry will wake up to the potential of the digital revolution that is going on. I don’t want to resort to measures such as setting up an Amazon account with a US address, just so I can access their full database. That feels dishonest to me. So why won’t someone wise up and let us honest, eager Australian eBook buyers access the same books already available to so many others in the world?

Wednesday
Dec222010

Fantasy fiction—art or not?

Although I majored in Literary Studies at university, I often felt that my enjoyment of the fantasy genre was a nasty habit—something that I had to hide from the Establishment because it wasn’t suitable to talk about polite company. On the few occasions I did share my love of fantasy with someone, I was faced with the raised eyebrows of, ‘Oh, you’re one of those.’ Only once did I meet someone who raised their eyebrows with a look of, ‘Oh, you’re like me!’ This person was a kindred spirit during my university career. Although we were both majoring in Literary Studies, we felt like we knew where the Good Stuff was found, and we didn’t care what the literary types thought about our tastes.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t dislike my choice of major—in combination with studies in Linguistics, I know it gave me a firm grounding for teaching English—but the thing that always bothered me about studying Literature was the attendant attitude. It was never really articulated (and I am happy to admit that my perception may be wrong) but I sensed that the works we studied as ‘literature’ were seen to have more value than ‘popular fiction’. Fantasy was incapable of literary merit or being considered as ‘art’.

I still think about that attitude of superiority that surrounds literary fiction: as if writing that has gained this classification somehow has more value than any other type of writing. Yet my sensibilities as a reader (and a writer) revolt against the notion that writing that has gained a particular label is per se better than other categories of writing. I have read numerous works that fall into the category of fantasy and science fiction (i.e. speculative fiction) that have more ‘merit’ (in my humble estimation) than many of the works I was forced to read as part of my university study.

In one sense the discussion comes down to how one defines the terms ‘popular fiction’, ‘literary fiction’ and ‘art’. Here are the definitions I use when I think about the topic:

  • Popular fiction: fiction that fits into a specific genre (e.g. Romance, Western, Fantasy) [‘Genre fiction’, Wikipedia]; fiction that focuses on evoking emotion [Shelley Thacker Meinhardt]; fiction that focuses on narrative or plot; fiction written with the reader in mind.
  • Literary fiction: fiction that does not fit into a specific genre; fiction that focuses on psychological depth, character and style [‘Literary fiction’, Wikipedia]; fiction that focuses on ideas [Shelley Thacker Meinhardt]; fiction written with the critic in mind.
  • Art: ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’ [New Oxford American Dictionary].

Of course, these definitions are not mutually exclusive: popular fiction can focus on characters or ideas just as well as literary can evoke emotion or focus on narrative. These definitions are just a starting point.

I’m not saying here that all popular fiction should be classified as art—that would be a ridiculous claim. What I am saying is that popular fiction should not be excluded from consideration as art. Many of the fantasy works that I love fulfil the definition of ‘art’ used above—works appreciated for their beauty or emotional power—just as well as the literary works I enjoy. (I freely acknowledge that there are many works of fantasy fiction that don’t fulfil the definition of art—but the same can be said for many works of literary fiction.)

I think one of the most interesting parts of the definitions given above relates to the intended audience. The primary audience of popular fiction is the reader, but the primary audience of literary fiction is the critic. Orson Scott Card’s essay ‘Fantasy and the Believing Reader’ discusses this difference at length.

I suggest that it this aspect of the dichotomy—the intended audience—that creates the greatest divide between popular fiction and literary fiction. There are examples of literary fiction that fit the category of ‘written primarily for readers’ (anything by Jane Austen, for example—although I suspect that, when written, Pride and Prejudice probably fit the category of ‘popular fiction’). However, I struggle to think of an example of popular fiction that is written primarily for critics.

Perhaps this is why popular fiction is disdained by critics: because it is not written for them, but for readers. And perhaps this is why I dislike the attitude of a critic: because my first experiences of the power of the written word were as a reader, not as a critic. (Which is, of course, the experience of every person—no one is born a critic. I hope.)

The difference between participatory reading and critical reading is exactly what Card talks about in his essay. Participatory reading seeks to involve the reader in the story; critical reading seeks to detach the reader from the story.

Some of the most powerful memories of my childhood and teen years revolve around the stories I read, in which I participated. The most memorable of these was The Lord of the Rings, which I read in my second-last year of high school. This reading experience was the start of my love of speculative fiction (and fantasy in particular). No other genre has given me that feeling of being fully immersed in the reading experience (I do believe other genres can create that sense of immersion; I just prefer fantasy). With every new book I read, I am seeking to fully participate in the story being told. (And it is my hope that, one day, my own writing will create that same feeling for other readers.)

If we classify art as ‘creative or imaginative works appreciated for their beauty or emotional power’, then works of either popular fiction or literary fiction can be considered art. The intended audience for a piece should not influence whether something is eligible to be judged as being beautiful or having emotional power.

Of course, just because something is classified as art doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. But I can still recognise that a piece of art has value, even if I don’t enjoy it myself. I hope—probably in vain, but I hope nonetheless—that one day the great works of fantasy fiction (and any popular genre, for that matter) will be able to stand beside great works of literary fiction as art that is valued for its beauty and emotional power, regardless of its intended audience.

Tuesday
Dec142010

Feedback

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As a writer, receiving feedback from other people about your writing can be both exhilarating and daunting. Exhilarating when someone reads your work and loves it and says, ‘Show me more!’ Daunting when someone pokes holes in your work and points out all the things you could or should do to improve.

The first time I shared my writing with someone other than my teacher or my parents was in an online writing community. It was nerve-wracking, showing my words to complete strangers and asking for their scrutiny. I was lucky enough to be in a community where the process for giving feedback was both honest and encouraging. Although my writing was at times raw, I never heard the words a writer dreads: ‘that was terrible’ or ‘make sure you find a day job because you definitely won’t make a career out of this’.

Every writer likes to have their bread buttered, to be told that their writing is fantastic or brilliant or perfect. Yes, there is probably a hint of ego-mania in all writers, penning words and then expecting people to read them, or even pay for them. Yet a writer’s life is not just about taking others’ time or energy or money—it’s about giving. Every word I write gives a little more of myself to those who read. The reading experiences that I cherish are those where the writer has given so much of himself or herself that I have absorbed that gift and it has changed who I am. Many a writer’s hope is to be able to give in the same way they have received.

Just like any craft, however, writing requires skill. Plenty of people speak of ‘one day writing a book’, but how many people actually do it? And how many people do it well? Research into mastery suggests that it takes at least ten years to attain a significant level of skill in any creative endeavour. Learning any skill obviously requires practice, but it also requires learning from others.

As much as I love to receive positive feedback from those I share my work with, I have slowly come to the realisation that the most valuable feedback is often that which points out weaknesses. One of the most valuable pieces of feedback I ever received was from an editor who looked over my writing as part of a community anthology project. The experience opened my eyes to the difference between good writing and clear writing. It wasn’t that my writing was bad—it was that it was padded with so many unnecessary words.

I can’t distil his advice into a few sentences because it was so specific to that piece of writing. Yet that copy edit did more for my writing than all the feedback I had received up to that point. It helped me to see my own writing more clearly and begin to pick up (most of) my errors along the way. I now use those skills every day, both in my work as an English teacher and as a writer.

The other lesson I have learned from receiving feedback is that no word is sacred. I used to hate deleting words; now, if it makes the writing clearer, those words will meet the delete key as swiftly and as hard as my fingers allow. Case in point: about a month ago I was working on a scene that played with multiple viewpoints, and after the feedback of an experienced writer I ended up deleting 900 words out of 3600. The improvement was so great that I wondered why I hadn’t seen the solution earlier.

But of course, that is why feedback is so helpful: because a different set of eyes will always be able to see something you can’t. That doesn’t mean you always need to agree with feedback, and it is important to make sure that you don’t let someone run over you with a steam roller. Yet the view through someone else’s glasses can help you understand your own glasses better, and to clear up any smudges that might be obscuring your own vision.

If you ever have the opportunity to receive feedback about your writing from others, I say embrace it. Yes, it could be painful, but it could also be the best thing that ever happened for your writing.

To all those who have been beta readers for me over the past weeks or months or years, I say thank you. Your eyes have seen my flaws and graciously showed me how to cover or remove them. And thank you for being willing—and eager!—to keep reading.

Monday
Dec062010

Reading or writing?

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Over the years I have had a number of conversations with writers about their habits when they write. I have noticed two types of writers: those who continue reading other novels while they are in the midst of their writing, and those who cannot read anything else while they write.

I fall into the first category. I always have at least two or three books on the go, usually a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I am currently re-reading The Fox, part two of Sherwood Smith’s Inda series. I am also reading Pathfinder, the first in a new YA series by Orson Scott Card. It is my routine to read a chapter or two before I go to bed, as it helps me take my mind off what happened during the day and what I have to do tomorrow.

Rather than take my focus away from my current project, I find that reading in the same genre helps to focus my attention on my own writing. When I read quality writing by another author, it inspires me to aim for the same quality myself. When I read writing that is not good quality, I contemplate what it is that makes it so and use that as a reminder of what to avoid.

In the past I found reading and writing at the same time caused difficulties: I would constantly compare my own writing to the published author, and the comparison almost always left me feeling dejected. Perhaps it is an increased confidence in my own ability that has changed this, but I don’t think that is the only contributing factor. Part of it is that I am more actively working on building my skills in the craft of writing, and so I see my reading as an opportunity to learn what could make my writing better (or what could make it worse).

Some writers, I know, find that they cannot read within the same genre (or at all) while they are working on a project because it is either too distracting, or else the writing of another author influences their style too strongly. I understand this paradigm because I have been there myself. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way—there is simply the way that works best for each individual.

One element that I think has influenced the change in my reading and writing habits is the fact that I have started planning my writing rather than writing by the seat of my pants. When I was writing as a SOTP, I was easily influenced by whatever I was reading at the time. Now that I am using the Snowflake method, I find that it is much easier to stay focues my own writing goals and style even though I am reading other authors on a regular basis. I get the best of both worlds: I can read new authors and authors I already love, and I can develop my own craft at the same time.

What type of writer are you? Can you read and write at the same time, or only focus on one area? Are you a SOTP writer, an edit-as-you-go writer, a Snowflaker or an Outliner? (See my previous post, Knots and plots, for a full definition of each of these terms.) Please feel free to use the comments section of this post to tell me what kind of writer you are—I would love to know how you approach your writing.

Wednesday
Dec012010

Knots and plots

In the past, all of the writing I have done that has been of a significant length (5000+ words) has been written with little or no plan. I simply began with an idea or image and then started writing, letting the characters and situation go where it wanted. This led, more often than not, to writing myself into a corner and feeling as if I had no way to extricate myself. In spite of the amazing buzz that the initial burst of creativity would bring, after I passed a certain point I always felt myself hurtling toward that corner with no way to backpedal. I suspect this may be part of the reason why I stopped writing for a couple of years I was sick of feeling tied up in knots with no way of unravelling the mess.

This year has been a revelation for me. Early in the year I started seeking out sources of inspiration and writing advice on the internet, and I came across Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing website. I had read Randy’s article on The Snowflake Method a few years before and found it interesting, but I wasn t at the point where I was ready to put those ideas into place.

Reading the article again highlighted in my mind the power of planning. One area of writing that I have always found difficult is plot: it has never come as naturally to me as characterisation, and I think that my struggle with plotting contributed to contracting writers block on a number of occasions. It may be that this year I was in the right head-space, but Randy’s ideas about planning a novel turned a light on in my brain.

Not long after this I decided to purchase a copy of Writing Fiction for Dummies (co-authored by Ingermanson). In one section of the book he talks about different ways of approaching writing, outlining four main types: the Seat-of-the-Pants writer (SOTP), who writes straight through without editing; the Edit-as-you-go writer, who writes without a plan but then edits thoroughly along the way; the Snowflake writer, who has a general plan that may change along the way; and the Outline writer, who meticulously plans details before starting and adheres to the plan at every step.

Looking at these four approaches, I realised that I had been a SOTP for much of my writing life. Yet experience had shown me that it actually didn’t work, for me at least. As a teacher of senior English students, I feel like a broken record when I tell my students to plan their writing before they begin, and yet most of the time my words fall on deaf ears. When I realised that I hadn’t been practicing what I preached to my own students, I decided it was time to try a new approach.

When I took up the opportunity to work on a collaborative novel a few months ago, my co-author and I quickly realised that, for it to work, we had no choice but to plan significantly before we began writing (especially considering the fact that we live on opposite sides of the world!). This included developing much more detailed backgrounds for our characters, as well as coming up with an outline of all the main plot points in the story, from start to finish. I feel incredibly grateful that my co-author is much better than me at seeing the big picture, and so I have been able to work with someone who is brilliant at making sure all the plot dominoes just work. The process of going back and forth between the details and the big picture hasn’t always been easy, but the payoff has been incredible.

Incredible because, after having just finished the first two chapters of the novel (now sitting at 11,000 words) I realise that there is no knot in sight. Even as I was writing, I always had clear sense of where the story was going, and yet the outline was general enough that I didn’t feel restricted and the characters were still able to surprise me (in the best possible way).

We haven’t used every step of the Snowflake process, but we have taken the parts of it that worked for us and used them to create a solid skeleton to start building the story on. The thing that excites me the most is that I know, already, that I am not going to write myself into a place I can’t get out of. I may have to push through at some points writing really is hard work but I am not afraid of reaching those points because there is always the plan to fall back on. This approach to writing gives me the freedom to let my characters grow and develop in surprising ways, while making sure that the story is always headed toward a solid and satisfying conclusion.

When the time comes to focus again on my solo projects, I no longer have the nagging doubt that I will write myself into a corner. I know now what it will take for me to start the race and keep going to the end. And that thought is exhilarating.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every writer will work the same way. Plenty of successful writers have used each of the approaches outlined above. The important thing is to figure out what works for you. If, like me, you have struggled with your writing in the past, perhaps try a different approach for a time. Who knows? You might just write yourself a novel as a result.

Monday
Nov292010

Pushing through the wall

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This past weekend was the most productive writing weekend I’ve had in a long time, and yet it was incredibly difficult. For the past two weeks, since finishing my assignments, I have been struggling to find my writing rhythm and succeeding only in feeling like an uncoordinated failure. I could hardly bring myself to sit at my computer, let alone write words of substance or quality. It was writer’s block, pure and simple.

On Wednesday evening last week I forced myself to sit at my computer and continue with the scene I had been working on up until a few weeks ago. I managed 850 words in five hours and felt like I was trying to squeeze water from a rock. As soon as I finished I wanted to press the delete button and wipe the words from my memory and my hard drive because they just felt ‘wrong’. Thankfully my brain wasn’t entirely disconnected from sense and so I pressed the save button and hauled myself off to bed feeling discouraged and exhausted. I let the writing compost for a day and then returned to the piece on Friday, managing another 350 words and finally getting to the end of the scene (and the chapter).

On Saturday, with no other pressing commitments, I sat down again at my computer and started tackling Chapter 2. The first 1,000 words came slowly and with painfully. I felt as if I were trying to force my head through a solid brick wall. The resulting headache was no surprise. I kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing. At 2,000 words I realised that the end was closer than the beginning, so I kept pushing. Finally, at 2am, after 8 hours of fighting with a wall, I made it to the end of the scene. I re-read it, made some minor changes, and then finally gave my exhausted brain the rest it deserved. When I woke up on Sunday, I realised I was going to pay for my owlish hours the day before but I discovered that I didn’t care. I had come up against the dreaded writer’s block and I had won. Not only had I won, I had actually managed to write something decent.

When a friend asked me how I managed to keep going in spite of the feeling of the writing being ‘wrong’, the best answer I could give was that I forced myself to ignore the feeling and just keep going. Writing drivel might be painful, but it is infinitely better than writing nothing. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to figure out what wasn’t working until I actually had something solid to work with in the first place. I had to give myself permission to write crud.

I think there are two things at work when a writer faces the dreaded block: first is the innate desire to write well becomes so overpowering that the inner-writer refuses to pen a word unless it is incandescently brilliant. I liken this to something that happened to me in my first year of schooling (related to me by mother): I refused to write any word unless I could spell it perfectly, and so the teacher couldn’t get me to write. As a teacher of ESL students, every day I come across writing errors. Yet those errors are part of the learning process for students, and a big part of my job is to help students feel confident enough to have a go even though they will make mistakes. I help them by giving them permission to write crud—and I need to do the same for myself.

Second are the two hats that a writer has to wear: the creative hat and the editing hat. Both are important, but it is vital that a writer doesn’t try to wear both hats at once. In creative mode, getting down ideas and letting the flow of the writing move you along is paramount. If the editing hat interferes with the creative hat, the results can be painful at best and crippling at worst. If you have ever written a sentence or two and then felt the irresistible urge to go back and revise them until they shine, that’s the editing hat taking over. Don’t let it! The editing hat will be important later, but not now, when you’re trying to get those ideas out of your head and onto the paper. The editing hat can be a jailer that locks up your creativity and refuses to offer bail. Tell it to rack off, or if you’re the polite type, to go buy itself a latté and come back when you’re done.

Even though I managed to beat the block this time around, I’m well aware that it may return again in the future. I don’t expect that writing a novel will be easy or painless. Yet it is the difficulty that makes the reward sweet. I don’t want to be one of those people who says, ‘I’d like to write a book one day’—I’ll want to be someone who actually pushes through the wall and writes.

Thursday
Nov252010

Roads

‘The Road Not Taken’, Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I have never been a great poetry fan. I have never actively disliked poetry, but my experience of this form of writing has often been one of perplexity. It is not that I dislike subtlety in words or images, but I think my early experiences of poetry were of frustration—of images too convoluted to create anything but vague or distorted pictures in my mind. I realise this is likely my own fault for not applying myself to understanding; I have to be honest enough to admit that when poetry was hard, I was found wanting.

Given this confession, it may seem odd that I began this post with a poem. Let me explain: during the years of high school, when I fully decided that writing was something I wanted to pursue, I took a class in Literature and was introduced to the writing of Robert Frost. The experience was like turning on a light. Not only did I discover words and images that I could understand, I also had the feeling that I had discovered something beautiful and profound, something that expressed deep truth in simple words.

As I sat this week thinking about writing and the choices I have made this year, the lines above entered my head quietly, taking up residence in the comfy armchair sitting next to the window in my mind. Even though I have already finished a year of my writing course, I feel as though I’m at that fork in the woods. Down one path is a wide, clear road; down the other is an overgrown, less-trodden track.

I have always felt a little guilty at the thought of wandering down the second road; and for practicality sake, I can’t abandon the first road entirely. Yet I feel ready to explore, to start wandering down the lonely road and see where it leads. Frost suggests that, as way leads on to way, one might never come back to this particular fork. That idea has the ring of truth, and the fearful side of me wants to take the wider road.

I don’t want to live afraid.

So I am taking steps down the second road—the road of a writer—and I admit am nervous about where it might lead. Yet I am not going to let worry rule. I will take the less-travelled road, looking past the undergrowth, in hope that it will make a difference.

Sunday
Nov212010

I think I can

Last week was the end of a rather gruelling period of study for me: I had seven assignments and a test to complete in eight days, plus my normal full-time work and other commitments. I’m still a little baffled that I managed to complete everything and not have a breakdown along the way, especially considering I am still not drinking caffeine (and haven’t done so for 13 weeks now). But finish I did, and the feeling of relief last weekend when I had no more pressing work to complete was euphoric.

A week later, though, I have come across an interesting conundrum: I have been intending all week to complete a couple of chapters of a novel that I had to put off during my studies, and yet in spite of my significantly diminished workload I haven’t finished it.

I asked myself this afternoon why that might be, and a truckload of excuses drove into my head: I’ve been struggling with hayfever that has affected my eyes (making me want to scratch out my eyeballs for half the day), I’ve had meetings and regular commitments, and I’ve simply been taking some time to rest. Yet those chapters are sitting on my computer with a puzzled look saying: ‘Why haven’t you come back? You promised.’

When I thought about it a little more seriously, I realised that part of me had suddenly decided that I couldn’t do it. That my first spurt of energy was just the blast of excitement that came with starting something new, and that this was now gone. The sense of ‘I think I can’ had looked at the steep slope above me and decided that ‘I think I can’t’ was much more reasonable.

What a load of rubbish.

I’ve spent the past thirteen weeks proving to myself that something that seemed impossible was actually quite possible—giving up caffeine. I spent last week proving that I could finish an assignment a day and not die. And I’ve spent the past two months working on this project, planning and creating in a way that I haven’t done in years, and everything I’ve done so far demonstrates that I can.

I can’t guarantee that I will never again feel that it’s too hard, but I do know that, with every step further down the road I have even more reason to keep walking, to keep writing. Every time I pen a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter (or a blog), I am demonstrating that I can write. That doesn’t mean it’s brilliant (in fact, more often than not it’s either ordinary or just plain terrible), but that’s exactly what is needed to work toward mastery. Any skill that is complicated requires practice, practice and more practice. The book I recently read about motivation suggested that a minimum of ten years of dedicated practice was required to begin to master any complicated skill—and writing is one of those skills.

So the next time I’m tempted to feel like I can’t, I’m going to look at all the steps I’ve taken so far and throw that despair out the window, because it’s not true. I am aiming to write a significant chunk of my current novel project in the upcoming holidays, if not finish it. I’m ready to put in the work required, and I don’t just think I can—I know I can.

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