You’re a Writer, So Admit It!

Patrick

 

I know that this blog is supposed to be about writing but the film ‘Patrick’ does have some relevance, so bear with me.

While on the subject of Patrick, I urge you to watch it. Take the whole family. Believe me you’ll enjoy it, perhaps in spite of many misgivings. It’s a brilliantly gentle British comedy in the best tradition of all that’s good in that genre. The sort of film that amuses, entertains and leaves you feeling uplifted.

As I said though, this isn’t a film review column, it’s about writing. So where’s the relevance?

Here it is.

I have found that I possess an inherent reluctance to admit that I’m a writer. I don’t think that I’m alone in this feeling. Perhaps it’s a fear of being harshly judged. The response to an admission is usually something along the lines of ‘Oh, really? Have I heard of you?’ or ‘Are you as good as Stephen King and have you sold as many books as J K Rowling?’ At least that’s what I hear, even if the actual words are less specific.

While on holiday in cloudy Dorset, escaping the rigours of the harsh Lancashire sunshine, I met a lady who said she was a writer. I plucked up the courage to admit that I was also a writer. She told me she wrote films. I said I wrote crime thrillers. I told her my name and she went away and bought Due Diligence, the first Jenny Parker book. Next time I saw her, she told me she was reading it and enjoying it. Then she invited my wife and I to a special showing of her latest film, Patrick, where she introduced the leading lady to an audience of her friends. It was a very good evening and talking to her has given me a valuable insight into the film world.

I’m not implying that Jenny Parker is going to be gracing the silver screen any time soon but I’m very glad I admitted I was a writer because otherwise I wouldn’t have made this exciting connection.

It takes courage to admit you’re a writer, I know it does. It takes even more courage to engage with other writers but I strongly advise you to do it. I’m a member of my local writers’ group and this has been an enormous support to me from my first tentative attempts at writing to becoming published.

Meanwhile, enjoy the movie.

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Writing Tips

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Someone has asked me to write down my writing tips. So I have.

My first tip is: Write

This is so bloody obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it does. It took me ages to realise that’s what I needed to do.

For years, I wrote very little, preferring instead to prepare for that wonderful day when I would be free from all encumbrances, released form inhibitions and have the swathes of time I needed to write.

Poppycock. Baloney.

This was self-sabotage of the worst kind.

A writer needs to write. The thing that has helped me more than anything has been the development of a writing habit. This began when I managed to persuade myself that writing was more important than watching Coronation Street. As soon as the theme music started, I left the room, went to my quiet place and sat down to write. My wife and family became used to it. They were distracted by the TV and I claimed an hour or so of peace. This was my big breakthrough. I ‘came out’ as a writer as a result. I became a writer at last.

Now, my practice has shifted to early morning but remains an overt one. My wife doesn’t expect to see or hear from me until about 11am. By which time I have done my writing for the day.

Writing every day is good for my soul. It provides me with nourishment and contentment. On days when I can’t write, the ensuing day seems to have less sparkle.

However, if I don’t write, I’m gentle with myself.

Writing every day (or most of them) brings another benefit. Productivity. A morning’s writing can produce a thousand words. If I do that every day, we’re talking about three hundred thousand words in a year. Five hundred words a day would still produce the raw material for two or three novels.

The maths are compelling if you write every day. Two hundred and fifty words, a page, accumulate nicely to a novel a year proportions.

It’s doing it every day that makes this possible.

Quite honestly, I couldn’t write any more than I do. Writing is hard work. Exhausting work, physically, mentally and, if you’re having a good day, emotionally.

My advice is to write, then. Whatever you’re writing, write until you’ve finished it. Don’t look back. Don’t try to judge it. Resist the urge to throw it all in the bin.

Put it away for a while. Some like a month, me, I prefer a year.

photo credit: Brett Jordan Word (lock) via photopin (license)

Nowt on Telly

If you’re like me, you’ve spent a fair amount of time watching things on TV that, in hindsight, seem a complete waste of time. Then you watch the next instalment if only to see if this one’s any better than the last. Perhaps, as I have, you’ve become inexplicably hooked by a couple with more money than sense being filmed looking for a property in the country.

If I see one more undercooked rack of lamb on Masterchef I may throw up.

There’s an antidote to the hollow feeling that comes from wasting an evening in front of the box. It might be hard to swallow for the first few attempts but it’s well worth persevering. If you do, a whole new richness will enter your life. Every day will hold the promise of discovery and excitement. Life will feel that much more worthwhile.

There’s a magical effect produced when a TV is switched off. Your attention becomes your property again. You can do with it whatever you wish without it being constantly dragged to the screen.

Then there’s the silence. Opportunity for stillness. Your mind relaxes, free from a constant bombardment of images and sounds.

So what do you do instead? What’s this magical alternative to relaxing in front of the telly?

Read a book.

It’s the best antidote to boredom and that empty feeling of having wasted time.

Ok, I’m an author so I would say that, you might think. There he goes, trying to peddle his books, you might say.

In response, I admit that I’m as affected by TV in all its forms as anyone. I waste vast amounts of precious time slumped on a sofa in a semi-comatose state.

As soon as I pick up a book and start reading, I feel so much better. Reading is a much richer experience than TV can ever be.

I’ll prove it to you, if you have any doubts. Read any book that has been adapted for TV, then watch the program or film. It’s become a cliche that the book is always better than the film but this just isn’t fair. A book is a book and a film is a film. They’re different media. You can do things in books that films, even using the most sophisticated computer generated imagery, can’t possibly display. The greatest actor on the planet can’t hope to communicate feelings with the same intensity that living inside the character’s head can.

Try Lord of the Rings, even if you’ve seen all the films.

Read The Handmaid’s Tale, even if you saw the TV programme.

Read The Shining, then watch the film.

Read anything by Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson.

Why not try the greatest crime writer in the history of the world, Raymond Chandler? His books have been made into films again and again. The Big Sleep is a particular favourite of mine.

You don’t even have to buy a book. We have a brilliant library service in Lancashire.

If you do want to make a purchase, support an independent book shop.

By the way, there’s a TV adaptation of China Mieville’s The City and the City coming on the BBC. Get the book. Immerse yourself. Then enjoy the program in a very different way.

Freefall Writing

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Without-Parachute-Barbara-Turner-Vesselago/dp/1785921711/

No matter how long I’ve been writing, there’s always more for me to learn. Reading other writer’s work is a brilliant way to do that. Writing itself, just putting words on paper is also recommended. However, a school teacher once told me that practice did NOT make perfect. ‘If you carry on making the same basic errors, you’ll never improve. CORRECT PRACTICE makes perfect’ is how he expressed it.

With that in mind, though they say you shouldn’t take any notice of school teachers because ‘those who can, do and those that can’t, teach,’ I try to take every opportunity to improve my writing technique.

Content isn’t a problem for me. I’m blessed with a very inventive mind that is harder to rein back than it is to get going. Getting it down on paper in a manner that will keep a reader engeged is the trick as far as I’m concerned.

Many years ago, I was introduced to Barbara Turner-Vessalago’s Freefall writing method and I’ve been attending her two UK workshops every year since.

My first attempts at novel writing are the stuff of legend. I wrote a SF trilogy with a casual, stand-offish point of view that was packed with self-conscious humour that didn’t work and served only to dissipate what little dramatic tension I’d created.

Barbara taught me to write from a more authentic place. To embody what I was saying. To feel in to the characters and the situation. To drop into a place, look around, see what was happening, smell the air, listen to the wind in the trees, watch my characters react to their surroundings.

Her workshops are wonderfully transformative. She is a supremely gifted mentor and the feedback she gives is always exactly what is needed. Unfortunately, there are only two courses per year in the UK and only twelve writers per workshop. Of the twenty four potential places, though, at least half are taken up by gluttons like myself. So the opportunities to attend are very limited. If you ever get a chance, I advise you to take it because you won’t regret it.

After much heart-searching, Barbara distilled her teaching into a book which provides a very cost-effective alternative to her workshops and is the next best thing.

With Barbara’s blessing, I’m going to be giving a short introductory workshop to Chorley and District Writers’ Circle on February 27th. Check out  http://www.chorleywriters.org.uk/ if you’re interested.

If you can’t make it, get the book.

Chekhov’s Gun

My wife had trouble sleeping and discovered that not watching the TV (or any other kind of screen) in the evening made a positive difference. It has also helped me.

In the absence of television to amuse us, we turned to reading together. A good book is a very rewarding shared experience. Even better, we find, is reading aloud. Most nights, therefore, I read to my wife who sits on the sofa in front of the fire with her knitting. We started with my books. It’s important for me to hear what I’ve written because it helps me eliminate clunky bits and also adjust the rhythm of the sentences. Reading to someone else also has the advantage of giving the opportunity for feedback, a valuable resource for any writer.

My wife is particularly good at picking up things that don’t work. Awkward sentences, inadequate explanations, lack of detail, that kind of thing. There’s a good adage when it comes to feedback:

If someone tells you that a piece doesn’t work they’re almost always right.

My wife is getting very good at helping me put things right.

Reading makes me a better writer. Writing makes me a better reader. I think it works for everyone.

In the days before television, books were the main source of entertainment and delight. There was a time, not so long ago, where not everyone could read and being read to was a valuable experience. Before that, storytelling was a purely verbal craft. I find that reading to my wife is wonderfully intimate and connective. It’s a joyful and rewarding experience that nothing televisual could ever match.

My wife doesn’t only have to listen to my books, though. We both delight in reading other things. Recently we’ve completed Peter Hoeg’s The Susan Effect and Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Currently we’re getting on well with The Paranormal Policeman by D J Harrison (which is yet another one of mine).

As a writer, I can appreciate the craft that goes into a good book. One of the things that I particularly watch out for is the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. This convention insists that something introduced into a story, such as a gun, must be used. Otherwise there is an element of dissatisfaction for the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of. In the Susan Effect there’s an actual gun hanging on the wall which is taken down, examined and put carefully back onto position. My experience tells me to watch out for it later on and sure enough, there it is, popping up at the end in a very satisfying conclusion. A popgun, you might say if you were a humorous writer.  I told my wife about Chekhov’s gun. She’s now on the lookout for more examples and says it makes reading (or listening) to stories even more enjoyable.

My editor once pointed out the way I was dangling items in front of my readers then never mentioning them ever again. She told me to cut it out, that it wasn’t something a good writer ever did. I had to mention the Sternwood chauffeur in The Big Sleep (Marlowe never finds out who murdered him) but her justifiable reply was to the effect that if I ever became as proficient as Raymond Chandler then I could please myself. Until then, I’d be best advised to knuckle down and learn my craft.

That’s what I’m doing and reading to my wife is a big part of that.

Growth

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Stephen King considers The Shining to be his breakthrough novel. Instead of doing more of the same that had earned him fame and fortune, he consciously decided to make the Shining something more. The way he did it was to concentrate on the character of the father and his upbringing so that the demons that afflicted him later on in the book are as much internal ones as the result of supernatural forces. According to King, being propelled by some external irresistible force provides too much of a comfortable excuse and dilutes the power of the narrative.

I found this insight extremely valuable and it has changed the way in which I view my own writing. My crime fiction books are primarily plot driven. Fast paced, breathless even. I try to pack as much story into each paragraph as I can. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Vonnegut advised, I try to spend my reader’s time as wisely as possible.

Lately, though, I’ve been working with my writing mentor on a project which is more an examination of character and relationships than whirlwind narrative. For me, it has been a completely new way of doing things. I’m a great proponent of the write the whole thing and don’t look back until you’ve finished method. It has served me very well in the past and has the great merit of not having to make any judgements as I go along.

For this novel, and it’s grown to novel proportions already, I’m constantly trying things out because I have the great benefit of someone I trust who can give me an opinion. There’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve submitted which hasn’t gone down at all well. Fortunately, I’ve sufficiently matured as a writer to view negative comments as even more valuable than positive ones. Sometimes I find it hard to agree with them but most of the time I’m able to reflect on the truth behind them and take them on board.

This has resulted in lots of rewrites, many versions of the same scene, drastic plot revisions galore. For example, an early version had the protagonist in a hospital bed paralysed apart from a couple of fingers on one hand which he used to type long accounts of early childhood. This might immediately seem cumbersome and overly melodramatic to you but it took me a while to get that myself.

I don’t know if this will be my breakthrough novel and, quite honestly, it might not even see the light of publication. What matters is that I feel that I’m growing as a writer all the time and that’s important.

photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA Vintage Movie Poster: “The Shining” via photopin (license)

Washy-Wishy

I saw this thing on the BBC website and loved it enough to want to tell you about it. As a writer, I love words and what they can do. I also recognise that years of practice have instilled in me some basic rules that serve me well. A writer’s job is to tell a story and not to advertise the way in which the story’s being told.

If I write a clumsy sentence, or even a single inappropriate word, the reader is immediately pulled out of the situation my protagonist is faced with and back to reality. Do that often and any reader will put down my book in disgust and give up. Having a compelling plot and interesting characters isn’t enough. The story needs to flow in a way that a reader will find comfortable and satisfying.

There are many craft books out there that help a writer to understand what works and what doesn’t. However, there are some extremely powerful rules that are instinctive and rarely expressed.

Take this, for instance:

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth


Break this rule and, as the man says, you’ll sound like a maniac. Which will be off-putting to your English wonderful readership. ARRGH! See what he means?


Of course there’s more too it, there always is. I can almost hear the cries of Big Bad Wolf. What about that then? Shouldn’t it be Bad Big Wolf according to the rule, even though that would sound pretty awful?


The brilliant Mr Forsyth explains:


Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.


So linguistic reduplication is so important that it outranks the adjective sequence.

We don’t have to learn any of this, it’s all natural. Which makes it so powerful because my readers don’t spot that I’m breaking any rules, they only know that it sounds wrong and they don’t like it. So they stop reading. And I don’t want that.


No more washy-wishy prose for me, I’m getting Mr Forsyth’s book. 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elements-Eloquence-Perfect-English-Phrase/dp/1785781723/






First Words

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

(Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

Whatever I’ve been writing, I find that the opening needs to be written last. That might sound a bit contrary but believe me it works much better this way.

I have a tendency, in common with many writers, to start a story with some stuff that is best described as ‘backstory’. Information that’s necessary for the writer but not needed by the reader. Things like what the protagonist looks like, what he had for breakfast and the number of the bus he gets to work.

These days, I try to write the whole story from beginning to end and then decide what’s needed and what isn’t. Then I have a go at the opening few sentences to see if they’re the right ones for the story.

Openings are of crucial importance. They set the style and tone for the whole piece. They also, crucially, invite the reader to read on. The best openings include enough information on character, setting and plot to engage readers without giving them indigestion.

My favourite opening paragraph is reproduced above. I love everything Chandler wrote but the beginning of The Big Sleep is quintessential Chandler. Here we meet Marlowe, perhaps for the first time. We learn a huge amount about this man from the way he describes himself. Neat, clean, shaved and sober might seem unremarkable but the fact that he takes the trouble to mention it indicates that these are not part of his default state. The details of what he’s wearing down to the pattern on his socks shows he’s been very methodical in deciding exactly what to wear. And that the meeting is very important. And that Sternwood is very, very rich. And so on. All shown to us in an effortless way that lets us form our own opinion of the protagonist. Awesome. I love it.

Oh, and the second paragraph is just as good. And the third…

If you haven’t read The Big Sleep then I suggest you do. If you have read it, read it again and this time remember to marvel at Chandler’s technique as well as enjoying the story.

Don’t Give Up

William Shakespeare was not impressed when we met.

Me? I’m trying to put on a brave face in front of the diminutive literary giant and failing badly.

It’s easy for a writer like me to fall into the trap of becoming overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy when confronted by someone I can’t ever hope to emulate. I’ve often felt like giving up writing after reading Iain Banks or Haruki Murakami. I can’t write like they do so why should I bother trying?

A couple of people in my writers’ circle have recently informed me that they are giving up writing. They both cited disappointment with their lack of success with books they had published. This has got me thinking about my own situation. The odds are stacked against me becoming a literary giant.

So why bother writing at all? It’s hard work, demands a lot of time and produces scant monetary reward. Putting in the same hours at work would make much more economic sense.

These are some of the thoughts I’ve had:

Writing is like golf.

I don’t play golf regularly. I’ve never been tempted to take it up but I have played a few rounds in my time. If I did play golf I would do it without the expectation of winning the British Open. So why expect to win the Booker Prize with my writing?

What would I do someone saw me playing golf and said that I could earn as much money as Tiger Woods and if I gave them a few thousand pounds they would show me how? Laugh in their face, of course. But what about those predatory publisher that make similar promises? What is it that makes us writers so vulnerable?

If I did play golf I wouldn’t expect friends and family to spend hour after hour trudging around after me watching me hack my way from hole to hole. So why do I expect them to drop everything and read whatever I write as soon as I send it to them?

Then there’s the issue of practice. If I want my golf to improve I need to take lessons, which I have to pay for. OK, I might get some help from a playing partner who couild make a few observations about my technique, or lack of it. Another golfer may be able to spot some obvious flaws but if I’m to remedy them I’ll need professional help. Writing is very much the same. If I keep on writing the same way for year after year there’s not going to be much improvement. Other writers might point out that I’m telling rather than showing, or that my characters are stereotyped but I’m going to need to attend some courses or get some coaching if I’m going to change things. Practice is essential, but it needs to be informed. The right kind of feedback is essential for progression.

Very few get to be professional golfers. It’s the same with writers. Yet golfers keep on golfing, they don’t give up just because the hurdle to fame and fortune is set unreasonably high. They play because now and again they hit an almost perfect shot and that gives them immense satisfaction. Nobody else needs to see their hole in one, though it’s even more fun if they do. Sometimes I write something that makes me sigh with pleasure or laugh out loud. That’s why I write. If it makes someone else feel the same way, then even better.

My advice is this. Write. That’s what writers do. Commercial success is an unrealistic expectation forced on us by a society that demands instant gratification.

Characters

There’s a big difference between central characters and minor characters. Here’s what I mean:

1. Getting punched in the face

Minor character collapses unconscious in a heap, never bothers anyone ever again.

Major character rides the savage blow, comes back for more. And more. No matter how often he’s hit, he keeps on going even though he’s obviously going to be battered to death. Then, just when you think he’s finished, he swings a hay maker of his own and his assailant collapses unconscious in a heap and never bothers anyone ever again.

2. Getting shot

Minor character dies without fuss from a single wound.

Major character staggers slightly, looks down at the blood seeping from his shirt then carries on regardless. May take several more bullets with similar minor effect. By the next scene all traces of injury have gone and he’s restored to full fitness.

3. Dialogue

Minor characters rarely speak and if they do it’s usually monosyllabic.

Major characters can’t stop spouting on. They have an opinion about everything and a back story that they can’t resist constant references to. Their speech defines them, makes them real and tells us what we should feel about them.

4. Names

Minor characters, like farm animals, don’t usually have names. The reader/viewer has enough information to take in without having to memorise names that may never be heard of again.

Major characters have memorable, carefully chosen, names. Like Bilbo Baggins and Lyra Belacqua. Or Milo Minderbender. Or even Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool.

I suppose you’re getting the drift, now. But, apart from the potential amusement, why am I pointing this out? I as usual with me, it’s a observation that might help my writing. It’s important for me to remember to make a clear differentiation between major and minor characters so that readers get a helpful steer on who to engage with and who to ignore. Otherwise, I risk overloading them with information and maybe get myself confused as well.

But how many major characters are allowed? As many as I can keep up with, I suppose. It’s a bit like spinning plates, if you’re old enough to get the reference. For the younger readers I should explain that it was once considered top class entertainment to watch a man keeping plates balanced on thin poles by keeping them spinning. The audience would gasp with excitement at such a wonderful spectacle, I’m surprised that nobody has been on Britain’s Got Talent with such an act. Problem with spinning plates is the ones that fall off and spoil the trick. If a character or plate is going to smash on the ground I’d advise making it happen rather than watching helplessly.

Did you recognise the names I used as examples? In case you didn’t they came from The Hobbit, His Dark Materials, Catch 22 and Neuromancer. If there’s any of these you’ve not read I suggest you stop what you’re doing and get reading.

photo credit: plynoi Why so serious? via photopin (license)