Posts Tagged poetry

How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years :)

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.

Honesty

This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)

 

What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!

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‘Music dark and soulful; rural and tough’ – Dave Malone, The Undercover Soundtrack

for logoMy guest this week is best known for his poetry collections, but has had a weakness for crime fiction ever since he was a 10-year-old, smuggling a radio to bed to catch Mystery Theater. Music – and a few fingers of bourbon – were his close companions when writing his first novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. The Hank Dogs made the main character a dark angel in a corrupt town. Billie Holiday stopped the romance getting too sweet. He is Dave Malone and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Neon, nostalgia, regret and joy’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dan Holloway

for logoAnother familiar face this week – one of the first Soundtrack contributors returns with a new poetry collection. i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you graffiti them with love poetry, which you’ll notice is be-eecummingly lower case. It’s a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous celebration of lost friends – with prog-rock tendencies. In a subversive nod to pink-hearts week, Dan Holloway is on the Red Blog with his latest Undercover Soundtrack.

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Stuck or blocked? How to keep writing anyway

2558534957_b675fe77a3You’ve got a gap in your story. Or you’re revising and it’s clear a drafted scene won’t do.

Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.

But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.

Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.

Seek inspiration

Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.

Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.

If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales.  Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.

Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.

nynfiller2Diagnose the problem

It also helps to define a few parameters.

  • Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
  • Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
  • Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
  • Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
  • Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.

Still stuck? Push on anyway

Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.

‘What happens now?’

‘Bah, I don’t know.’

‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’

When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.

Desperate measures

You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.

Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel. :)

Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik

Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!

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The long and the short of writing novels – guest spot at Beyondaries

beyondHow long does it take to write a novel? Years, months, a Nanowrimosecond? I’m riffing on this idea today at Beyondaries, the ezine of Port Yonder Press.

Port Yonder is one of those publishers whose remit I could have written myself. It looks for strong, original crossover books with award-winning potential. In charge is managing editor Chila Woychik, who recruited for her ezine a bunch of writers who like their rules thoroughly bent and kicked.

Among the other contributors is Dan Holloway, who often stops here with a challenging take on whatever I’m talking about. His video is about the music of words. Also at Beyondaries you’ll find Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talking about finding poetry in the everyday, and Grace Bridges comparing Witi Ihimaera to Doctor Who. And of course, Chila herself on the stubborn, self-driven qualities that mark out a true creative.

If you fancy a trip beyond the usual, pull up at Beyondaries.

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‘I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Catherynne M Valente

‘Music and fairyland go hand in hand’ writes my Undercover Soundtrack guest this week. After cueing up her playlist I can assure you this fairyland is not just rich and strange, but funky, cheeky, cheesy, sassy, riotous, ridiculous and whimsical. It’s hardly surprising then that her novels and poetry have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Mythopoeic, the Lambda, the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula. Deeply fond of writing to music, she’s also closed the musical circle by inspiring three albums by singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker. She is Catherynne M Valente, and she’s over on the Red Blog talking about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.

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Repetition – a two-ended hammer

We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.

One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.

(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)

So how do you tackle it?

It helps to know where the danger areas are.

Redundant words

Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly - these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.

Overused verbs

Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.

Try Wordle

A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)

Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur

We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:

1 very obscure words

2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.

To which I answer:

1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them

2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?

I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)

Repetition - the good side

Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable ­- which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.

It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’

Use with a light touch

Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.

Thanks for the pics CarbonNYC and sim, youn jim

What’s your feeling about repetition? Do you have any tips for spotting it? And any lovely examples of where it works well?

And have you any idea how few viable synonyms there are for ‘repetition’?

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Writing literary fiction – podcast and video interview with Joanna Penn

Today – roughly 24 hours ahead of schedule if you saw the note on the red blog – I’m at Joanna Penn’s online home, The Creative Penn. Joanna’s one of my favourite podcasters and her interviewees run the gamut of book marketing specialists to fiction authors to creativity consultants to anyone else you never knew you needed to know. A recent podcast of hers is on how to write fight scenes – which is cued up on my Creative Muvo to accompany my run today. (If you meet me, don’t get in my way.)

Earlier this year, when she was writing her best-selling religious thriller Pentecost, she interviewed me about my book Nail Your Novel. Now she’s invited me back to quiz me about writing My Memories of a Future Life – and we discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, developing characters, using research and honing prose style. We also laughed rather a lot.

You can read a text summary, listen to a podcast, or even watch us on video. Whatever your pleasure, come and join us for a jolly discussion.

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I’m in Everything

I’ve been interviewed today at a blog called Everything. Everything is the online home of Chila Woychik, writer, poet, outspoken blogger and mistress of an empty dungeon because she takes no prisoners.  Her collection of lyric essays and poetic memoir On Being A Rat will debut on Amazon on 3 October. One early reviewer writes:  ‘Her prose sings; her poetry plants tactile, unforgettable images in your mind:  “My tongue boils cold – it licked a star – .”

Chila (pronounced Sheila) also has her own publishing imprint, Port Yonder Press. What’s she looking for? The excellent, the evocative, the eclectic. If that’s you, go and say hi.

She also likes nifty boots, which can’t be bad. What do we talk about? Writing, of course. Englishness. Nothing and everything.

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