Posts Tagged novice writers

Three paradoxes of writing life

MC Escher Paradox of being a writerYesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.

1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.

Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)

Certainly, some books take a lot of time – but equally, you can tinker far too long and make a mess.

So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.

2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.

How did they do that? By reading with awareness.

Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)

Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.

You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books,  courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.

BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.

sidebarcrop3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.

Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.

But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.

(Pic by MC Escher)

That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!

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Are dream sequences in novels always taboo?

I’ve had a question from Mark Landen, host of the website Criticular:

‘I’ve had an idea for my book that I’m loving, but it involves a dream sequence. Is that taboo?’

Listen. Can you hear that seething noise? It’s writers, readers and other lit-minded folk sucking their teeth. When bloggers list the top 10 things they don’t want to see in a book, dream sequences are consistently there.

But smart writers know nothing’s forbidden. What those lists really mean is ‘handle with care’. So how should we handle dreams?

First of all, why are dreams so attractive to writers?

  • It’s the chance to be more creative with setting, language, reality, whimsy, imagery. A very tempting opportunity to luxuriate in prose.
  • You can explore issues the character may not want to face in real life, either to give the reader clues or to prod the character to a new realisation (or strengthen their denial)
  • You can dredge up forgotten memories or show flashbacks

Where do they go wrong?

  • On a practical level, the reader knows dream sequences are not ‘real’. They also know your book isn’t either, but you persuade the reader to go with you. But an extra level of fictionality can be a step too far.
  • Dreams often don’t change anything in the story (depending on your genre, of course). Scenes that don’t result in some kind of change or new understanding feel static – again the reader might feel like they’re wasting time. If the dream does cause a change, it might stretch credibility – when did any of us actually do something because we had a dream?
  • There’s usually a better storytelling solution. If you want a flashback, why not use a flashback? Or, better, find another way to show the information? Many novice writers have a particular intention with a scene but aim for it too literally. Instead of a flashback, could you use the elements in a more organic way? Have a character find an old photograph, or learn something from a friend in a way that deepens their relationship or causes more trouble? Or instead of dumping the revelation in one place, could you dissolve it more thoroughly through the story, tease the information into a mystery, perhaps?

The too-creative dream

Dreams in novels can get too creative. In real life dreams are so delicious – a jumble of memories from the day’s events, minutiae you never knew you’d noticed, wonky input from anything you’ve ever forgotten. Possibly brought to you by TooMuchCheeseBeforeBedtime.com.

What makes them involving is the vast, surprising sense they make to you – and they probably make no sense to anyone who doesn’t have your exact history. Certainly to create such an experience for the reader would be a creative tour de force. But the effect comes from context. Without that it is no more than an indulgent digression.

The truest representations of dreams are usually found in magic realism – where they are, in fact, part of the real action.

Should you use a dream sequence? A checklist

  • Be aware that the reader is thinking ‘do I need to pay attention to this’?
  • And ask yourself: ‘is there another way?’

But sometimes a dream is just perfect. Here are two of my favourites.

Two divine dream sequences

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca starts with a long, languid dream. That’s two taboos in one, according to the list-makers. So why is it justified? Because it’s very relatable – a puzzled visit to the burned-out shell of the character’s old home, Manderley, which would be impossible for the character in reality. It’s a startling moonlit exploration of memories and feelings and the romanticism of it charms us. It also sets up a note of tragedy for the story to unfold. And the character tells you up front that it’s a dream – whereas a novice writer might make you wander through the moonlit house and then pull reality away.

My other divine second dream sequence is from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Scattered, absurd and vivid, it’s a real cheese dream. Characters fade into each other, a butler announces that the only way to get to the dining room is to ride the pony there, a discussion of buses turns into ‘mechanical green line rats’. It comes near the end of the book, so the figures are familiar and it serves as a poignant wrap-up, and also marks the disintegration of the character’s life. Better still, because all good storytellers find clever ways to reuse their material, it has an unexpected consequence in the real world (which I’m not going to tell you…)

Do you have a favourite dream sequence in fiction? Or do you want to nominate a stinker? Tell me in the comments

Thanks for the cheesy moon pic, Davedehetre on Flickr. And in case you don’t know Mark, you might be interested in his website Criticular – a writing and critiquing community for fiction writers. Thanks for a great question, Mark!   

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2 misconceptions of new writers

People often ask me what advice I’d give new writers. Here are the two misconceptions I find myself tackling most frequently

1 Rules give you cookie-cutter books

On Facebook the other day, an indie author asked me for feedback on her back cover (bear with me, this is about writing, not covers or indie publishing). Having recently designed my own back cover I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t, so I could see quite a lot that wasn’t right about her back cover. After offering specific pointers, one of the things I recommended she did was look at books that would potentially be her shelf-mates in her genre and follow their style. She replied: ‘I feel my book shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of all the others… you know?’

I do indeed know. You are absolutely right that your book is not part of a set of tablemats. It is its own thing, written with heartfelt sincerity and mined from your perceptions and experiences. You have delved deep to make it individual and true to itself. It is not meant to fit in. It was written to stand out.

But if you throw all the rules away and try to reinvent what a back cover should look like, from scratch, unless you’re a genius you’re likely to end up with a mess.

And so it is with writing. This is the age-old problem for creatives everywhere. We don’t want rules. Of course we don’t. We make our books from nothing but the ideas in our very individual grey matter. We want to make something beyond rules. But many of the stories I see that don’t work because of the same generic problems.

Writing rules don’t fetter you. They are observations of what works. Think of them not as templates and strictures, but as the results of experiments, on millions of readers. Knowing the rules means you can use your material to write, more effectively, a great book.

You’ll have characters that readers care about. A story that unfolds at a pace that keeps their interest. A reason why the story has to be as long as it is, rather than a plot that seems contrived to fill pages. Surprises that are astonishing but play fair. An ending that feels satisfying and perhaps leaves the reader with a tear in the eye.

All because you did what other writers did.

2 The book is finished when you type The End

The first draft is just a first draft. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this: ‘I’m five chapters away from the end of my book, then I can send it out.’ Please: no.

Writers often think that because their sentences are careful and fluent, their novel is ready. But a novel isn’t an essay or a blog post. Under the words, there’s a whole machine that needs to run right.

So much of the valuable work on a novel can only be done once you have a full manuscript. Themes will take shape, plotlines will need to be destruction tested. Pacing and flow need to be assessed. Inconsistencies need to be sorted out, timelines unwarped. Characters may have developed their own agendas and you may need to revise the way you set them up. Motivations and developments that only revealed themselves to you in the course of the writing may now change the entire flavour of the book. When you finish the first draft, hard as that is, the real work starts. (There’s a lot more on this in my book Nail Your Novel.)

Repeat after me: your first draft is not your final draft.

Quick, but not insignificant announcement: I’m teaming up with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to produce a webinar series starting in November. How to write a novel will be three in-depth, interactive sessions from bestselling me and bestselling her. Cost $99.  Find more details and sign up here.

And My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hop over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

Okay, back to the post. First of all, thanks Toucanradio for the pic. And here’s my question: If you’ve got a bit of writing experience under your belt, tell me – what writers’ misconceptions would you tackle?

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