Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Room to Write

Should it make a difference where you write or how you write? Would it make any difference to your work if you were tucked away in a little cubbyhole under the stairs and surrounded by a mound of clothes that need ironing, or in a well-lit spacious area and sitting comfortably at a desk?

Writers are very good at adapting to their environments in order to write, and sometimes there is no choice, but is it enough to be creative? Not all writers are lucky enough to have an office to work in. Most have to make do with a corner of the dining room table or the kitchen counter or even the bedroom, but do small spaces crammed with junk or toys or boxes or clothes provide a productive environment for creativity? Some writers say they don’t mind it, while others wouldn’t be able to open their minds if surrounded by clutter or cramped by lack of space to work.

The way we work as writers is important, and where we work is just as vital to how we work.

All writers are different; each of us has a preference to what works for us. Are you one of those writers that can work through all sorts of noise, like a café, a bustling street, or on the move on trains or buses? Or are you a writer that prefers the solitude of peace and quiet to get things done? J.K. Rowling famously created Harry Potter in Edinburgh’s coffee shops, after all, and seemed to relish the sounds of cafe life.

How important is a quiet writing space?

The space to write is as personal as a fingerprint; it’s a place for thinking, motivation, brainstorming, creativity and productivity. Are you really able to formulate ideas in the kitchen while the TV in the next room is blaring and the kids are running amok? Probably not.

Writers often they have to share their space with family members and so thorough, productive writing can prove difficult to achieve. Every writer should have a space of their own to create and write; otherwise there may be a tendency to produce work that falls short of their ability. Of course, this ‘writing space’ isn’t always possible and some writers are quite happy working while on the move or in crowded, busy places. Ted Hughes wrote in a small hallway with a small table and chair, but maintained this space was incredibly productive. Nabokov wrote standing up, at a lectern, and penned his work on index cards. Philip Roth also works at a lectern, turned away from the view of the city so as not to distract. There is no right or wrong in terms of how and where you work.

A quiet working space, however, provides somewhere to reflect and work. The solitude is sometimes actively sought by writers. Many escape the bustle of family life and spend a few hours working in the relative hush of a library. Ernest Hemingway preferred peace and quiet to push out just 500 words a day.

Capote preferred lying down when being creative. He wrote while in bed, or on the couch, while others such as Agatha Christie, were said to have been inspired by having a bath or doing the dishes.

Then there are those writers who really enjoy going out to write. The outdoor sounds and scents of busy towns and cities, or indeed the countryside, can get those creative juices flowing in different ways. Rather than prove a distraction, they inspire and aid imagination.

Does the writing space have to matter?

It’s not vital, because a writing space doesn’t necessarily mean you need a well-organised office with all the mod cons. Many writers are happy to use converted lofts, sheds, cabins, huts and garages as writing spaces. Edgar Allen Poe liked to write in the attic. John Updike preferred different settings to write. “A few places are especially conducive to inspiration – automobiles, church, public places...”

Some writers - myself included - prefer working in a space where there is nothing to interrupt the energy of the work. That means no clutter, no noise and no interruptions. Erica Jong once said, “The most important thing for a writer is to be locked in a study...”

Whether it is an office, café, the garage, the kitchen or the basement, use the space that works for you, if it really does help you write, but very often having the room and the comfort to write will help the creative process in so many ways.

Problems of not having room to write:

• Frustration can easily set in and writers quickly become bored with writing.
• The lack of a distinct writing space can restrict creativity and productivity and result in the inability to focus.
• The work produced falls short of your ability.
• Not having clearly defined spaces for you and your family can also cause frustration and friction from constant interruptions.
• You haven’t defined working times with your family so they constantly interrupt you.
• Difficulty with organising and finding your work in the piles of junk you’ve amassed on kitchen counters or the dining room table.
• Not sitting correctly or comfortably while in cramped spaces can cause health problems with your back, wrist joints and neck. If you’re working at the kitchen top or on the bed, your posture might suffer because of it. Give your back a break and make sure your posture isn’t going to cause problems later.
• The area is dark and not very well lit or has no natural light. This can cause eyestrain and headaches.
• Working in untidy, cluttered spaces prevents the mind from focusing. It makes it hard to find the files or books or papers that you need, you have no room to actually contemplate or work.

Having the room to write, having the space to think, having the freedom to create. These are as individual as writers are, but these are more conducive to productivity than they would like to admit. A space away from distractions and noise, somewhere that relaxes and helps to produce words, somewhere to provide respite and reflection can be a necessary means of writing to the best of your ability.

Spaces, rooms, areas, boundaries. Writers need them. “The really great writers are people like Emily Brontë who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination.”
James A. Michener.

Next week: Sentence styling - finding sentence rhythm and structure.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Tips to strengthen your novel or story

There are many things a writer can do to make a story stronger and more effective. This isn’t just down to the correct use of grammar or spelling, or about having the right theme and plot of story, but often it’s those overlooked little things that really count.

There is so much to remember when it comes to writing that it can be daunting trying to create that ‘perfect’ masterpiece. There are ways, however, to help tighten your prose and strengthen your stories, a general checklist that should prove useful whatever your story.

Realism – Fiction is about imaginary people, it’s make-believe, but within that imaginary world you have to create a sense of realism for it to be any good. It needs to feel real for the reader, whether or not the town or city in your story really exists or not. Characters, setting and events need to feel real, something that makes the reader think they are there, right at the heart of your story.

Make sure you have a strong plot – a weak plot invariably means you have created a weak story. The stronger the plot, the stronger your story. Don’t rush the development if a plot – take the time to think about it, how it will progress in your story, how it will evolve and how it might affect your characters. Don’t take it for granted that the plot is watertight, because sometimes writers can come undone halfway through a novel when they realise the plot isn’t working. They realise it’s too weak or ill thought out or it simply doesn’t feel right.

Strong characterisation is one of the most important elements in your story. Get the characterisation wrong and the whole story will suffer, but you can get it right with well-balanced, believable and often flawed characters; the kind of people that your reader can empathise with and understand and want to know more about.

Always think about how you will reach the conclusion of tour story and why. Writers often plough along with their stories and don’t realise until the end, or during editing, that they have quite literally ‘lost the plot’. This means the meaning behind the story, the theme, and of course the original plot premise, has been lost somewhere. The end result doesn’t bear any relation to the reason to the story. The best way to counteract problems like this is to always keep an eye on how the plot is evolving by having a clear indication of how the story might end. A little planning can go a long way.

There must always be tension and conflict in your stories. Never ignore the need for these. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, they are the building blocks of a good story. Think of daily life - nothing ever runs that smoothly, each day brings a challenge, whether it’s problems with the car, you’re late taking the kids to school, the washing machine breaks down, rows with your kids or partner, a fall out with the boss, traffic jams, the cat keeps clawing your leather sofa and so on…all these things happen in our lives on a regular basis and they cause stress and tension, often when we least expect, but it’s how we overcome those stresses and problems that count, and that’s exactly what your protagonist must do in your story.

Life is a continual cycle of problems and resolution, therefore your character’s actions must generate problems or obstacles and then they must overcome them. Just like real life. Think of your story as an elastic band. Stretch it and release it at regular intervals. This is the best way to create and vary tension.

Move the story forward at every opportunity. Whether that is through dialogue, action or description, make sure you keep the momentum of your story moving towards its conclusion. If you don’t, you risk the story coming to a halt.

Point of view - Once you are clear on a point of view, don’t deviate. Don’t start off in first person and switch to third person halfway through (not unless it is a clever addition to the story and you are an experienced writer.) Deviating from the chosen POV will weaken your story considerably and confuse your reader.

Make your dialogue count. Clear and strong dialogue helps to move the story forward and impart pertinent information, thereby involving the reader. Too much mundane waffle between characters will kill the story and bore your reader. Clever dialogue will not only imbue hints and clues to what lies ahead in the story, it also cleverly reveals character.

Symbolism is an often overlooked element in fiction, but careful use of this can help strengthen a story because it has the power to hint at things to come, embedded symbols within the narrative can foreshadow events. It also subtly reinforces the theme of the story or novel and involves your reader on a deeper level. The symbols can be anything you want them to be, as long as your reader will understand them.

Sentence rhythms and pacing play an important role within your story, because without varying the length of sentences and paragraphs, you risk boring your reader with a kind of monotone drone that could irritate or bore them. Sentences should ebb and flow with fluidity. Paragraphs should vary. You need a balance for the right about of descriptions, the right amount of dialogue and the right amount of narrative. The idea is not to have huge chunks of text – not without really engaging the reader – or massive amounts of white space that would make the reader think you can’t be bothered to write any description.

Make sure your character undergoes a change by the end of the novel. That can take on any number of meanings, but on the whole, it usually means your character has learned something about themselves, or they’ve perhaps learned an important lesson on their journey - they have overcome something to achieve their goal. If you don’t let the character blossom this way, then what point would there be to the overall story?

Avoid too many adverbs and adjectives etc. They are sometimes unavoidable, but your novel or short story will be so much stronger without too many of them. Let your nouns and verbs do the work.  Also, avoid using ‘was’ and ‘there’ too much. ‘There was a chair’ or ‘it was a dark night’ or ‘she was hungry’ etc. Try also to limit the use of modifiers, things like 'she bubbled' or 'he gushed' or 'she cooed.' etc.

When it comes to modifiers used as gesture tags, again try to limit the amount you use because very often it means you write the modifier and then you reinforce its message through dialogue, so you actually repeat yourself to the reader, e.g. He shrugged heavily. "I don't know” or She shook her head at him. “No.” As with all writing, they are sometimes unavoidable, but these are easily spotted by publishers/agents and they will think it a sign of an amateur if there are too many gesture tags.

Show, don’t tell – every writer’s mantra. Show something is happening rather than simply telling the reader about it. ‘Showing’ helps the reader become involved in the narrative; it creates a sense of immediacy with use of active description. Don’t just say ‘John was tall’. Show it.

Remember to use active sentences as much as possible, not passive ones. This still catches a lot of writers out. ‘He watered the plant’ is better than ‘the plant was watered.’ ‘He threw the ball’ is better than ‘the ball was thrown...’

One very effective way of strengthening your story is to edit and cut what you don’t really need. You will be surprised just how much that is. Boring scenes that don’t move the story forward, dreary and mundane dialogue that doesn’t actually show the reader anything and slows the story down, scenes that go on a little too long…you get the picture.

One other tip…try not to use silly or overly complicated names for characters and places (unless you are explicitly writing fantasy or sci-fi). Names like Glokirthrath or Mortgavarg will, within a page or two, irritate the reader. There is also a trend with new writers to make their characters sound interesting by giving them obscure names. Ripperton Jameson or Galitea O’Rocksville might sound interesting or cool, but it’s the characteristics of a character that make them interesting, not their name. Most people in the real world have oridnary names.  Your characters are not extraoridnary; they're ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

Lastly, try to finish your chapters on a great sentence. One that invites the reader to turn the page and continue reading...

Next week: The room to write – does this make a difference?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Why Research is Vital

How easy is it to just make everything up when writing? Very easy. But how easy is it to give dimension to what you are saying? How easy is it to back up your beautiful, vivid descriptions with the right facts?

As writers, we can create anything we want. We create the characters that inhabit our fictional world, we can create fictional towns or cities, we can turn the weather on and off, we can create life and we can destroy it, we can transport our characters anywhere we wish. What we can’t do (unless you are writing stories set in the future/sci-fi/alternative or fantasy) is change history, nor can we change places that already exist. If your story is set in New York, you must research and know your facts in order to bring your prose to life and make the setting feel real. The same is true of any city or country. Know your facts.

But is it okay to gloss over the reality that sometimes has to enter fiction, just for the sake of being creative and artistic? In other words, you’re making up lots of stuff because you don’t really know enough about the place, the people or customs, or the actual setting of your novel. Well, the simple answer is yes, you could do that, but it’s not the recommended route to take. Besides showing a lack of research and knowledge, by not knowing much about what you are writing about will make you look like an amateur. Agents will not take writers seriously if they can’t get simple facts right.

Facts from Fiction

The right facts help enrich a story. The wrong facts can kill it.

Whether you are writing about the present, the past or even the future, then some research to create a believable background and evoke the senses in every way is necessary.

Your job as writer isn’t just to entertain, but also to teach. The reader may not know anything about the exotic setting of your novel, but through your research (and perhaps experience) you will take them right there and they will learn about it through you. Research breathes life into your narrative and your characters and in turn, that breathes reality into your writing.

Get it right, not wrong

Research isn’t just about the place, the setting, the surroundings or the characters etc. It’s also using the right words, the right descriptions, the right meanings.

Here’s an example how the meanings change. How many of you use the word matador to describe a Spanish bullfighter? The original meaning has been a little lost in translation by writers, movie makers and tourists alike because most people refer to a bullfighter as a matador, even though, originally, it was a toreador that did the fighting (often on horseback).  The matador killed the bull, but the word has now become synonymous with fighting the bull as well as killing it. You can see how easy it is to get simple facts wrong.

We love to sprinkle our stories with the flavour and language of another country, but forget to explain what those words mean, e.g. you write about a character in Spain who drinks Café con leche, but you fail to say what it is. Not every reader will know this refers to coffee with milk. In France, you would refer to Café au lait. Again, there will be readers who will not know these little snippets, so let them know.

Don’t be one of those writers who try to impress their readers by offering snippets of information that have not been thoroughly researched. In Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, (a 1987 Booker prize winner no less) she wrote that Muslims pray six times a day. She was born and raised in Egypt and should have known that Muslims pray five times a day. It seems no one checked the facts.

Some very famous writers have managed to turn fiction into what readers believe to be fact. One well-known sensationalist novel does this to such an extent that, while it remains an exciting ‘page turner’, the facts presented are not accurate and so it detracts from the enjoyment of reading it.

Many stories take place in the past. One thing to remember when writing about events in the past is to make sure that you accurately tie in the story with those events. Unless you are writing an alternative history/science fiction or fantasy piece, you can’t change past events in history. That means not placing something like the Watergate scandal (1974) against a story of your 1960’s happy hippy characters, or characters from the 1990’s referring to the discovery of AIDS, when that happened in the previous decade. Many writers still make these fundamental mistakes.

How much research should I do?

There are no rules about how much research you have to do. That is down to you as a writer. In any given novel or short story there could be dozens of strands of research. e.g., if you were writing a story about journalists on the frontline during the during the Iraq-Kuwait war, you will have to know the background of both countries, the landscapes, the major towns and cities, the economic background, the weather patterns, what the troops wore, the weapons they used in 1990, how they operated, the peoples, the cultures, the foods, the languages, not to mention the research you would need to do about journalism and war reporting...and those are just some of the research strands you would have to undertake if you wanted to give authenticity, depth, colour and richness to your story.

Where and how to research

The internet is a good place to start in order to gain the background information to begin with, however, be warned - unless there are citations along with the quoted information, don’t think that what you read on the web is 100% accurate. Check and crosscheck with other sites to make sure. While information is readily accessible on the web, I would still recommend visiting a library. It’s another way of verifying the information you need, but make sure you read recent publications which are up to date with current data.

Of course, if you’ve actually visited the places you’re writing about then that’s even better. It helps you to recreate the flavour and colour of your background and add a touch of authenticity. If at all possible or feasible, go and visit the place you intend to include in your story to gain valuable firsthand knowledge.

The wealth of online documentaries is also a great way of understanding the subject matter of your novel/story. I recently wrote a short story called A Stain on the Heart, for a forthcoming Static Movement anthology, in which a group of English soldiers find a lone German soldier after a skirmish in the Ardennes, against the backdrop of the Battle of the Bulge. I did painstaking research into the battle, the region, terrain and weather at the time, the movement of English, American and German troops, the weaponry, the uniforms, chain of command, the German language and even the type of papers the German character would have been carrying etc. I did this using the internet, military magazines, library books, watching films and watching many invaluable documentaries about the battle.

All that, for a story of 5000 words. Now imagine the research for a novel of 90,000 words.

Sometimes you may have to write to organisations or groups in order to get the information you require. Don’t be afraid to talk to local police departments, local government departments, emergency services, charities, tourist centres, historical societies or museums etc. More often than not, they are happy to assist.

While background information gives reality to writing, some writers make the mistake of filling the narrative with too many facts. As is often the case with writing, you must find a balance of the right amount of information, so unless a scene demands it, don’t pepper it with facts that could otherwise suffocate the creativity of the whole thing.

Things to remember when researching:

• Know your setting – General background details such as local area, street layouts, the surrounding region, the local people etc.
• Research languages if you have characters from different countries that will sometimes utter words which are not in English (or vice versa, if you are a non-English speaking writer who has an English character).
• Know the customs – Different areas, as well as different countries, have different customs and behaviours.
• Know meanings of words that are not always familiar, or are from another language.
• Know the eras when placing characters against events in history. Also, know the social and political history of the time.
• Know the economy and money of the time when your story is set.
• Know the technical and mechanical aspects, especially if you feature vehicles, aeroplanes/airports, ports, or things like weaponry, satellite systems, gadgets etc.
• Know the weather patterns of your place setting – Is the place susceptible to hurricanes, torrential rains, snowstorms etc?
• Know the systems in place for your chosen place setting – transport systems, government and political systems, educational and social systems etc.
• Know key features of place settings – famous buildings, civic centres, parks, museums, ancient ruins etc.
• Know the environment – the type of flora and fauna of your setting, the terrain etc.
• Don’t just window dress – Know even the minutiae of details, things like the livery colours of organisations or police/soldier uniforms, flags etc.
• Know the types of religions practiced within the setting of your story – don’t write about a character entering a church if the story is set in a predominantly Muslim country.

Research your subject matter well if you want to breathe life into your novel and transport your reader right to the heart of your story, but remember, if you think you can just skirt around some aspects of reality in your novel with a bit of made up rubbish, think again. There will be somebody, somewhere, who is eagle-eyed and clever enough to catch you out.


Next time: Tips to strengthen your story

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Three R’s - reduce, reuse and recycle.

Most writers have, somewhere, a drawer full of stories or half-finished novels, not to mention numerous scraps of paper with snippets of story or plot ideas scrawled across them. Some writers still have their very first novel, written earlier in life, tucked away somewhere and collecting dust.

Early stuff, to give it a non-technical term, is the unpublished work you have produced since you began writing. Looking back on these stories and novels, you can probably see why the work you produced then was never published – poor writing, terrible characterisation, lots of telling and no showing – and yet for some reason you couldn’t bear to bin them. That’s probably because they formed the basis of your fiction-writing learning curve; they made you the writer you are now.

There is an important reason for not throwing any manuscript or half-finished story in the bin. In fact, the reasons are twofold: Firstly, by revisiting those old manuscripts and stories you will be able to see how flawed and raw your writing was at that earlier stage compared to the writing you can now produce. It provides a benchmark on how you have improved. Whether your work is 5, 10 or 15 years old or more, you will see just how much your writing has changed. What you wrote then will be quite different to what you write now and so it becomes a marker to chart personal progress. That’s because as writers, we are constantly evolving and improving.

(If you are completely new to writing, this will also be true in years to come, as you write more and improve your work. So don’t throw any of your work away.)

The second reason for not throwing early stuff away is that there are many elements of these previous unpublished works that provide a large creative pool of words, sentences, phrases, ideas, plots, situations...in fact, just about anything from which to ignite your imagination and write something fresh.

That’s what the three R’s philosophy is all about.

Reuse

This is very similar to recycling, but not to be confused with the same concept. Re-using work means you take sections or elements of previous unpublished writing and use them in your current writing projects, pretty much word for word. This could be a few great words from a short story, the kind of words that stick in your mind, or it might be a fantastic sentence. It could be an entire scene that you could use without much tweaking, or you can re-use your work as another writing concept completely. The latter is common with flash fiction, by turning it into short stories, or turning short stories turning into novels etc. Essentially, you are re-using the original material for another purpose.

Of course, it’s not just writing that we should reuse. Writers should do their bit for the environment by printing only when necessary. Some writers prefer to edit using a fully printed version of their book rather than doing so on screen, so when you’ve finished with the editing, use the reverse of the paper for something else rather than use up a fresh batch of paper.

Recycle

Unlike reusing some of your work, recycling means that you take some elements of what you have written from previous works and regurgitate the material to produce something completely new. This works with raw material like stories, novels, flash fiction, poems, notes etc, as well as concepts and ideas. How many of us have half-scribbled ideas, sketches and notes locked away, collecting dust along with unfinished novels?

Revisit your old stories to see what you can salvage and make anew. We all have stories that didn’t make the cut, or they didn’t work somehow – maybe at the time the concept just wasn’t right, or the story didn’t quite make much sense, or they were stories that were rejected so many times you just gave up on them. There could be ideas for poems, flash fiction, articles or new stories waiting to happen or there could be a new novel leaping at you from the dust.

You can pretty much recycle anything: characters, plot ideas, themes, dialogue; chapters, whole stories or novels – you name it - and turn them into something new. Maybe even a portion of your old unpublished novels or stories might even become secondary plots within your next writing project.

Reduce

This works twofold, too. Firstly, we all have to print from time to time, it simply can’t be helped, and this involves paper and ink and peripherals in varying quantities. An average 80,000 – 100,000 word novel could number 320 – 400 A4 pages. That’s a lot of paper when you’re editing. It’s very much as case of common sense, but only print when it’s necessary.

Secondly, you will also notice that, during the editing stage of your masterpiece, you will need to get rid of unwanted scenes, overly long chapters, boring dialogue and narration etc. You should aim to shave around 20 – 25% from your work in progress. The resulting novel will be leaner and tighter and a much better read. (This also reduces your printed page output).

The moral of the story is this: never throw any of your old writing out. You can find use for it. Reuse, recycle and where you can, reduce - get every last use out of your paper, books, notepads, stories, ideas and novels etc.

Next week: why research is vital.