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Posts Tagged creative writing
I’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com
I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?
You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.
I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.
None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).
Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.
Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.
Last word on courses
Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.
What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.
Again – which course?
Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.
It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.
Should you try to work in book publishing?
Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).
Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.
We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.
Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.
What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!
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I wrote it with an outline, but even so, it changed a lot in the telling – and this is what I want to talk about today.
Planning v pantsing
Hands up: who’s a planner? And who writes by the seat of their pants?
Planning versus pantsing is supposed to be one of the great divides between writers. On the one side we have systematic processes; on the other, an argument for natural connection and creative flow.
But it is possible to write with a detailed outline – and go with your instincts. An outline isn’t a straitjacket.
Indeed, Ever Rest started to bust its sleeves as soon as I got typing.
The first was the point-of-view characters. I originally nominated three. Pretty soon there were two others. Perspectives galore, who weren’t originally planned for.
Four main characters completely defied my expectations. I thought I knew who they were, but when they got on their hind legs and talked they acquired unexpected dimensions. They then did a thing they weren’t supposed to, which shook up the entire third act.
And this was a book I’d planned (more here about my writing process).
It might seem as though all that dithering with cards and marker pens was wasted. I might as well have made it up day by day. But no; I still stuck to the plan.
Before I put my cards into order for writing, I knew them very well. When my characters took me by surprise, I knew which scenes could be shuffled into better positions. I also found new gaps, and scribbled more cards. And I wrote the last section backwards from the end.
So an outline doesn’t bind you to one path through the story. It does, however, provide a useful framework. A lot of storytelling is form and structure, crescendos and revelations. Without this, you might write your way into an aimless wilderness – which is one of the dangers when we make it up as we go. An outline keeps that mechanism in order; it is a safe space where you can interpret, experiment and follow inspiration.
And despite my deviations, I realise the book is, in essence, what I was aiming for all along. My outline was a series of wishes thrown into a well. The writing made them come true.
My tips for using an outline creatively
- Stick with your outline – it was made with an awareness of patterns, structure and themes. It imposes coherence and shape. But adjust to take advantage of new insights. You may find you can use events you’ve planned in a better way – give them to different characters or shuffle them to new positions.
- If you want to make a drastic detour, make a list of the pros and cons. Is Mary the murderer after all? Spend five minutes making a list of the consequences if she is.
- Some writers use an outline up to a point – then abandon it as inspiration shows the true direction.
But don’t feel that the previous work was wasted. It wasn’t. It’s what got you here.
There’s more in Nail Your Novel about writing outlines and using them creatively.
Do you outline your novels? If so, how strictly do you stick to them? If you don’t outline, how do you work? Let’s discuss!
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‘I like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’
I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?
I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.
Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.
This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.
I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.
So far, so good.
But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?
Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.
First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).
If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.
And next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)
Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!
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It seems a simple thing to consider. Unless you’re me.
It’s on my mind because of a film I saw recently, where a couple of characters who were novelists singled out an all-time favourite work of fiction.
But… but… but…. (I informed the screen) that’s not how the writer’s mind works. And while we’re at it, novelists can’t usually quit the day job and they don’t automatically get launches at the London Book Fair.
But back to the original question. I don’t have one favourite book. I have hundreds. If I’m asked what books I’d take to a deserted island, I’d have to make up a fictitious compilation volume that runs to many roomfuls.
I’m aware I might be taking this too literally, but I think it’s an illumination of how a writer’s mind works, how we use what we read – and indeed how we choose it.
Non-creative people rarely understand this, but to a writer, the whole world is an aquarium. We are not spectators, we’re on a life mission to make stuff. Everything is a potential teacher or a trigger. We can’t turn it off. Anything might be significant and we might end up bonding with a book for the oddest reasons. One publication I’d put in my very enormous favourites compilation isn’t even a published book. It’s the colour chart of the paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball. The names of the paints (Clunch, Elephant’s Breath, James White) give me a world of delight.
Indeed I bet most writers have books they wouldn’t put on their public Goodreads profile because they don’t reflect their ‘tastes’, yet they keep them close at hand. When I’m researching ways to handle an idea I’m just as likely to seek out novels that treated it badly or ruined it, because I need to discover what mistakes were made.
And if the question is merely intended to discover what we read for fun, it’s daft to ask if I liked East of Eden better than Rebecca. You might as well ask me to make a league table of my friends. But perhaps that’s just me.
When someone asks you to name your favourite book, what’s your answer? And how do you choose books to help with your WIP?
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In infants’ school I remember being taught to write neatly. Servicably. We copied letter-forms. As we matured, certain pupils were singled out for approval and the rest of the class fell in with their styles. The Debbie – slanting copperplate. The Elizabeth – small and round. The Katie – wide and loopy.
Seeing this, I chose to invent my own.
I don’t know why. Perhaps because we spent most of our time all writing the same thing. Copying from the blackboard, taking dictation, answering questions – 20 girls all processing the same words and thoughts. I must have decided I had to do it differently.
I experimented with letter-shapes. One week, ys and gs might curl under the line in luxuriant loops. The next they would be jagged reversed lightning bolts. I might team this with a Debbie cursive slope for a while, enjoying the clash of styles. All possible Greek letters were tried, and for a while all Rs were small capitals (very time-consuming, so not practical).
Fascinated by a computerish font on the back of a sci-fi novel, I tried to emulate that.
Serifs were another passing phase, too fiddly for everyday use. An American girl arrived at the school who dotted her ‘i’s with a little bubble. A teacher told her off for it in front of everyone. Outraged, I adopted it immediately.
This makes me sound like a rebel. I wasn’t. You couldn’t have pointed to a more obedient pupil. I wanted a hassle-free life, even if the rules were bewilderingly dumb. But no matter how often I was penalised for eccentric letters or lack of neatness, I couldn’t toe that line. My identity on the page was not the teachers’ business. It was a sacred search for originality in world where everything else was repetition and regurgitation.
Freedom – or not
At least English allowed us to express ourselves.
In the middle school, that changed too.
One day we were discussing exams, and how to tackle the essay question options – factual, debate, true-life account, story prompt. ‘You mustn’t pick the story prompt,’ said the teacher. ‘They’re very hard. From now on, we won’t do them.’
This was ludicrous. I always, without hesitation, picked the story. I got high marks. (And I bet I wasn’t the only one.)
I didn’t want to write an account of a holiday or discuss the popularity of the motor car. Not when I was being invited to finish the story that started ‘I should never have gone for that bicycle ride…’ And if no one did these essays well, should we not be taught to do them better?
This was my second great disobedience. I carried on choosing the story option, as I always had. Again there were grumbles but it did me well enough at O level, if A is a respectable grade.
These tiny rebellions gave me habits that I now realise are essential to the creative nature, whether our weapon of choice is art, music, writing (or handwriting). This is how we do what we do.
- We will not accept the ordinary
- We dig for the remarkable in the everyday
- We ignore what everyone else is looking at and peer around the corners instead
- We collect what moves us, especially if we don’t know why
- We listen to our instincts instead of the voices who tell us we can’t
- We play endlessly
- We see expressive potential in everything
- To non-creatives we probably seem infuriating and insane.
What would you add? How did you first start being creative?
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I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.
Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.
But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?
Here’s a critical path.
1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.
2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.
3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.
Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.
4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.
What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…
5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.
Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.
With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.
Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).
Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.
Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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It doesn’t yet have a title, but I know its setting. So until something better comes along I’m calling it The Venice Novel.
I have a main character. He doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what he looks like or how old he is, who his friends and family are – except that these people will cause as much conflict as comfort, of course. They can’t be in the story if they don’t. Some of them will change, some will not.
For some reason he’s male because it feels right. This is not the time to interrogate my instincts, so male he shall be. If later he feels insistently feminine, I’ll switch him.
In any case, his gender is insignificant compared to his problem.
This problem is the touch-paper waiting to be lit and I understand it very clearly. At the moment, this simple-but-complicating problem is germinating the whole novel.
It’s too early to write formal scenes yet. I don’t know much of the plot. But certain essential beats have come to me in flashes. I’ve written them in a file called ‘Rushes’. One of them may even be the opening scene. Whether they make it to the final cut or not, they’ve told me a lot about him.
I’m reading other fiction with an altered brain, my invention function in overdrive. I’m second-guessing like mad. I read four short stories the other day and – without even meaning to – invented alternate endings for each one.
While driving, I surf radio channels for random ideas. I do that anyway because I hate being bored, but now I am on a purposeful hunt through the chattering spectrum of songs, interviews, reviews, current affairs and the whacky community radio station that sometimes plays recordings of trains. An undercover soundtrack is taking shape. The latest addition is Howard Jones. (Don’t ask. Yet.)
Today I left the house an hour late, and happened on a programme that gave me a sub-plot. It was a missing link, an extra lens for examining my theme. Less loftily, it’s a welcome source of humour and characters. A chance gift from the ether, because I left the house an hour late.
Where do novels come from? How often are writers asked that?
They come from moments as random and unrepeatable as snowflakes.
Thanks for the girl pic grisha_21
What do you do when you’re gathering ideas for a novel? Share in the comments!
If you’re hatching a novel too and are wondering what to do with all those ideas, you might find my book helpful – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Book 2 is in the works!
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‘He sees her playing wildly. She feels exposed. Ashamed’ – Jane Rusbridge, The Undercover Soundtrack
My guest this week was planning a novel about a cellist and imagined a romantic, melancholy instrument – until she sat in on a lesson at the Royal Academy. The young player’s gutsy ferocity was so electrifying that it threw the story into a different pitch – an exploration of wildness and taming. She is award-winning novelist Jane Rusbridge and she’s on the Red Blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for Rook
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This dress is special. It belonged to my great-aunt. It’s silk velvet, probably 1930s. Soft as a foal’s pelt, red as claret. It clings like cobweb but is now too fragile to wear. I was so happy to give it a new outing – with a few alterations – in a scene for My Memories of a Future Life.
Then later, with my ruthless editing head on, I cut the whole scene.
I’m at Creative Flux today, a blog curated by Terre Britton -painter, designer, illustrator, owner of Terrabyte Graphics, VP of marketing at Sirius Press, Inc and co-author of Energetics: The First Order, the first of a four-book sci-fi-thriller series. She asked me to talk about my creative process – and why I cut that precious scene.
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Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.
It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.
Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.
Establish a method
As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people
All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.
Make your muse work smarter
When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.
Ask yourself these questions
Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?
How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?
How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?
What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?
Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?
Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?
Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?
Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?
What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?
What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?
Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell October 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose October 26, 2014
- ‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick October 22, 2014
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
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