Saturday, 23 February 2013

Writing From Experience - Part 2

Experience provides writers with an understanding and knowledge of an assortment of subjects that would otherwise need a fair amount of imagination to convince a reader of the realism in your story.
Our personal experiences of life provide the perfect fodder for our writing, whether they are gained through working in various environments and with certain people, experiences of the ups and downs of family life, or through travelling the world.

Experience provides familiarity in writing.
If we have some knowledge of or awareness of something – whatever it might be – then as writers we can use those experiences to help build around our writing in order to may it more enjoyable for the reader.

I’ve been fortunate to have crammed in an awful lot in my life so far.  Some experiences have been fantastic and unforgettable, some have been hilarious, some joyous, and some just plain stupid, but they are all snippets that find their way into my writing because not only are they a rich source of ideas, but they give the writing a touch of authenticity.
I’m also lucky enough to have travelled the world and enjoyed all that it has to offer – that means all the wonderful things, the beauty and majesty, and the people, but also the terrible parts of it, such as poverty and cruelty. 

Every trip is stored in my memory, ready to use in my writing, whether it’s about ancient ruins in the Mayan jungle, the scratching heat of the Gobi desert, being up close and personal with the creatures beneath our oceans, or experiencing the deprivation of shanty towns in Africa.  Experiences such as these find a way into my writing.
And with those recollections, I can also share the emotions associated with these memories. Emotions are attached to all memories, and it’s up to a writer to exploit them.

Others experiences have been incredibly scary, tragic and painful, things like the death of a loved one for instance, but writers shouldn’t be afraid to visit those memories and include those emotions in their writing.  Sometimes, the benefits of such realism far outweigh the disadvantages of revisiting sometimes sad and painful memories.
If you are able to reach deep inside for those recollections, you’ll find that they add a unique insight to your writing, they add depth and perspective and richness to the narrative that imagination alone wouldn’t achieve.

In many of my stories I’ve looked to my experiences to add depth and to enrich the writing to achieve a sense of realism.  For example, in Dark Water, a short story about a shark hunting a diver, I used some real elements from my encounters with sharks and a few other sharp-toothed beasties while diving in Mexico.  I could draw on the emotions, the trepidation, the strained excitement and the imagined fears to add to and enhance the narrative and the descriptions.
Of course, not all recollections will be like that.  Even the mundane ones are useful, such as writing about a character that has crashed his car and has suffered a badly broken leg and he needs to get help – writers who have broken a limb will know what that feels like. 

Or maybe you have to write about lawyers or a courtroom, and you have experience of the profession or its processes.  Perhaps you worked in nursing and can use those experiences in a story, or you have volunteered to help homeless people, so have an understanding of that that feels like.
The reader might never have experienced the same things as you, so the depth of realism depends on the strength of your writing. Conversely, they may have gone through something very similar, therefore they should feel empathy and a shared sense of understanding with the narrative. 

The idea of using our life experiences in our writing is to help the reader feel like they are a part of the story, that it feels real to them.  The strength of your writing will convey that.
Summary - Writing from experience:

·        It gives a richer story, full with emotion.
·        It gives a unique insight.
·        It is more engaging, because it feels real for the reader, through your descriptions.
·        It adds perspective to the narrative.
·        It gives a sense of immediacy, particularly if readers have gone through something similar.

As writers, we have a rich tapestry to dip into – our life experiences. Don’t be afraid to use them, because it’s very true: You should write what you know.

Next week: Is it bad to have autobiographical elements in stories?

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Writing From Experience - Part 1

Everybody has experiences to share. 
Sometimes, the best descriptions come from our personal experiences – the ‘been there and done it’ viewpoint.  There is truth in the adage ‘write what you know’.
The reader may not know you’ve survived a car crash, and used it in your writing, or that you flew over the Grand Canyon in a hot air balloon, and therefore were able to relay the rich descriptions in a story – the only thing that concerns the reader is that the descriptions are so vivid that they feel real.  They are there, in the action and the story.
Personal experiences add depth, perspective and so many layers to description.  That’s because we remember the happiness, the laughter, the sadness or the pain that accompanies those experiences. 
We remember specific events or moments – be them tragic or exhilarating – and store them away for when they could be used in our writing.
Most of our ideas for stories and novels stem from our past experiences, the kind of things we remember and observe, or things we hear, people we’ve met, our work situations; the kind of things we can weave a story around.
Our experiences, together with a healthy dose of creativity and imagination, create a sense of realism for the reader, and that is usually down to emotional impact.  Nothing heightens a reader’s senses more than emotion – it helps connect your reader to the story and characters, and it creates a sense of immediacy.
Memories and emotions are inexorably linked.
Opening Yourself Up
This is, in effect, what you have to do if you want to add those personal experiences to your writing.  You have to open up and let out the emotions and figuratively pour your heart out, especially if those experiences are particularly sad or tragic or eventful. 
Writing from the heart produces a rawness in our writing that evokes the emotions of the reader.  It makes it all the more real for them, and the story is all the more fascinating to read in return.  Our characters might not be real, but some of their situations could well be.
It’s up to the writer to make the story believable.
It’s also up to the writer if they want to open themselves up and share their experiences because there are advantages and disadvantages in equal measure.
There is one discernible advantage – it’s cathartic.  Reliving painful events from the past might hurt at first, but using them and moulding them into a story might help. 
It’s true that the more you revisit sad or painful memories, the less sad and painful they become.
One disadvantage is that you will inadvertently open the lid on emotions and memories you wouldn’t ordinarily share.  Not many people like raking up the past.  But it is entirely up to the writer whether they want to share and style such experiences into their writing.
Happy or funny events, on the other hand, tend to become even more of a fixture in our minds the more we revisit them, and of course they are much easier and pleasurable to share in our writing.
Of course, it has to be said that most of our descriptions in our stories come from our imaginations – that’s what writers do, since we don’t always have experiences to fall back on.  We have to imagine the scenes and events in a story most of the time, and we embellish the narrative to make scenes and characters more believable and realistic.
The point of using our experiences and memories in our writing is that we can take a huge dollop of imagination and creativity, add a pinch of reality, and create something that leaps from the page. It is something the reader will enjoy reading.
Writing from experience is not about being an expert; it’s about offering the reader awareness and a deeper understanding of a story, especially through the characters.
Next week, in part 2, we’ll take a closer look at the advantages of using personal experiences in our writing.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Dealing with Rejection – Part 2

As stated in part 1, there aren’t many writers who relish a rejection.  It’s a word that most fear, and some hate, while others – usually those experienced enough to have plastered an entire room with rejections – simply shrug and carry on.

But the thing to remember with rejections is that not all are bad.  Receiving one can be a positive experience – although it won’t feel like it at the time.

Turning rejection into a positive thing

Is there such a thing?

Actually there is.  Rejections can be, for want of a better cliché, a blessing in disguise. 

Without them, writers wouldn’t be able to improve and develop.  But how is that possible?

Rejections, on the whole, usually specify where the story lacks, whether it is weak, or needs stronger characterisation, or there maybe plot pitfalls etc. The editor might have taken the time to point out some possible improvements.  This means that the story could be strengthened rather than dumped into the nearest bin. 

Feedback should enable the writer to learn from those errors and improve their work.  This is a continual learning process – rejections means ironing out the flaws and making the work the best you can possibly make it.

It is up to writers to digest the advice and suggestions given by editors – if they truly want to improve and develop - and they should rewrite the story to make it much better and stronger.  They would then be in a position to resubmit work.

It’s not uncommon to receive several rejections for the same piece of work – but the idea is to remain positive, take on board any comments and edit the work, improving it all the time.  That’s how we learn and develop as writers.

There are occasions when you receive a summary rejection with no comments, so it’s very disheartening to know where you have gone wrong.  With these types of rejections it is best to re-examine the work and go through it thoroughly to see where you can improve the piece, because writers can always improve on their work.  Fact.

Always think like an editor, too:  Is the story strong enough?  Are the characters well thought out?  Is the plot water-tight?  Is there a balance of description, narrative and dialogue?  Is it believable?  Does it grab the editor’s attention?  Are there any grammar mistakes, etc?

 Reacting positively to rejection:

·        Be professional.  Always take on board any comments – editors are there to help you improve.  If you disagree with comments or criticism, then have someone else look over your work for further opinions – a fellow writer or editor. 

·         Make sure you are not overreacting or taking it personally.  You control the writing – the writing should never control the writer.

·         Always look over your story for ways improve it.  Think like an editor.  Don’t write a good story, write a great story.

·         Let it motivate you to do better.  Remember, rejections help create better writers.

·         Be persistent.  Don’t let rejections turn into negativity.  Pull your socks up and get on with the job in hand – making that story better and stronger. 

·         Keep submitting.  The more you submit, he likelier it is to get an acceptance.  Hard work does pay off in the end.

·         Self-revision is a key factor in recognising strengths and weaknesses in your creative writing, so make sure you revise your work thoroughly before sending it to editors/publishers.

·         Never give up.

Above all, plan to receive a rejection.  It is an essential part of being a writer. It’s less of a disappointment when it does happen, but a fantastic bonus if it’s accepted.

Finally, take heart that the vast majority of famous novelists have been rejected umpteen times throughout their careers.  They did as most writers do – they dusted themselves down, took on board the criticism, swallowed their pride an got on with the job – writing.

Next week: Writing from experience.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Dealing With Rejection

Where writing is concerned, there is something that is always worth visiting time and again; another chance to look at every writer’s worst nightmare – rejection.

Every writer will experience this – fact.  But it’s how we deal with the fallout that matters, how we prevent ourselves from feeding on the negativity it produces (or seems to) by seemingly giving up writing altogether in a fit of pique, or whether we spend months in our caves, sulking like children.  It’s all about how writers dust themselves off and carry on.

And most writers do just that.  They absorb the news, process it, learn from it and move on. 

To deal with rejection, however, writers must first need to understand what it actually means, because receiving a rejection isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s not the end of the world, it’s not the end of a writing career before it’s begun and it is not representative of complete dismissal either.  These are the instant negatives that writers assume.

Many writers find it hard to deal with rejection, either because they are unprepared for it or because they assume it’s a personal criticism.  Firstly, let’s dispel one of many myths – it’s not personal.  Rejection is about the work, not the writer.

The second most common myth is that your work is being rejected because it is complete and utter rubbish.  This is not always the case.  Work can be rejected for a plethora of reasons, and most of the time it isn’t to do with the story being rubbish. 

The third common myth is that all rejections are negative.  Most rejections are seen as negative simply by default, but on reading them again, plenty of them are actually constructive rejections.  In other words, the work might not be up to the standard required by an editor just yet; however with some improvements, it could be. 

Of course, most writers will only see what they want to see in a rejection, and most will see a complete dismissal of months of hard work and blood, sweat and tears.  They won’t see any constructive feedback with it (not all rejections come with feedback anyway), and they certainly won’t feel any positivity.

A rejection is not all bad news – it means the writer has planned, written and completed a piece of work, whether it is an article or story or novel, and subjected it to peers (editors, agents, publishers) for approval.  To have got that far is an accomplishment, because it’s a well-known fact that most writing projects are never completed because the writers give up at the first few hurdles.

To actually send something out is a landmark moment in a writer’s career, even if a rejection comes winging back. It takes determination, hard work and tenacity to send out your work.  Sometimes it’s accepted, sometimes it’s rejected. 

For those who are new to writing and haven’t yet experienced rejection, it can be a frustrating and painful process, and you might feel a range of emotions, such as these:-

·         Anger or frustration
·         Disbelief
·         Disappointment
·         Negativity
·         Self doubt

Anger and frustration is borne out of the initial shock of the rejection and is a normal reaction.  That’s because all writers become defensive about their work whenever it is criticised, and anger is a by-product of that natural need to defend.  The frustration comes after the anger subsides – all that work for nothing...

Disbelief comes to those who, again, assume their work is so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be rejected, and when it does happen it leaves them completely shell shocked.  Writers must always remember that no matter how fantastic the work might be, it may still be rejected. 

Disappointment is inevitable.  Disappointment happens because the work didn’t make it, but some writers become disappointed with themselves – particularly those who suffer from perfectionism - and if they are not careful it can lead to a negative thought process which can be hard to break.

Negativity, in its own right, comes about through the fact that writers think the rejection is about them. They automatically think “The story is rubbish, therefore I’m rubbish”.  This thought pattern quickly overrides any objective logic, and again, once embedded, it can be hard to break.

Self-doubt happens when the negativity gets the better of them and they think that the work was rejected because it was no good, therefore what is the point of writing in the first place?  And because it has been rejected, therefore everything else I submit will be rejected.  Or the writer thinks “I’m not good enough”.

All these emotions are normal reactions, but writers must accept rejections as an inevitable, if painful, part of the writing process.  You win some, you lose some.  But you never lose forever – the losing changes to winning in time, if as a writer, you accept the rejection, learn from it, and improve.

But why is work rejected?

Work is rejected for numerous reasons; not all are bad, and practically all of them simply require the writer to edit and re-write and make the work better. 

Work can be rejected because of messy grammar errors, or it doesn’t read very well.  Maybe it doesn’t quite make sense.  They might think the story is too weak, or the story doesn’t have believable characters.  Editors could reject a story if it doesn’t have enough description perhaps. 

And sometimes a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ simply means that your story isn’t what the agent or editor is looking for right now.  It may be that your graphic horror story doesn’t fit their readership or their current requirements.

In the second part of dealing with rejection, we’ll look at ways writers can turn the negativity into positivity and make that rejection a valuable part of the writing process.

Next week: Part 2 – Turning rejection into a positive thing