Saturday, 26 July 2014
As writers, sometimes we don’t feel like writing. Often it seems our creativity has crawled off, our inspiration has gone on vacation and our brains just don’t want to bother. Our ‘mojo’ has done a runner. Some days, we just don’t want to write.
This is completely normal.
Writing isn’t just a hobby for some, it’s a disciplined form of art and it takes a great deal of commitment, time and hard work to do it, so it is no surprise that some of that discipline and commitment wavers and wobbles from time to time for various reasons.
The thing to remember is that we writers are not robots, and sometimes, after a long day at work, writing is the last thing on our minds, especially if we have to sort the kids out, tidy up, do the dinner and feed the cat. Sometimes the mind and body are too tired. The motivation just isn’t there.
Life in general gets in the way sometimes. There is just so much going on that you don’t have the time to dedicate to writing, or it seems that way, whether it’s a full workload in the office causing you stress or running around looking after the family – the school run, shopping, errands, appointments etc. Motivation tends to vanish when we’re busy with other things and other people.
Distractions are another cause of lack of motivation to write. Social media soaks up motivation – and creativity – and drains your willpower. It’s easier to procrastinate than write meaningful narrative. We all do it.
Other times, we just can’t be bothered. The pub, the football match or the movie seems a better option. Any excuse for not sitting down and getting some writing done, or even finishing off what we started.
So how can writers find the motivation to write? How do writers stop the motivation from vanishing completely?
There are plenty of things that we can do to spur ourselves on and not fall into a laissez-fair attitude.
1. Tiredness can crush creativity and motivation. Writing doesn’t work when the brain needs to shut down. Get some much needed sleep and come back motivated and energised for writing. You’ll find it works.
2. Make some time for just you and your writing. Even if it’s just for an hour to jot down ideas or observations or do a little planning. Whether it’s early in the morning, during the day when you have the house to yourself, or whether you’re a night owl type, there is always a time to write, so don’t make excuses. Make it a habit.
3. Switch off all electronic communications such as phones or emails. Don’t go anywhere near the internet. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by social media.
4. Make to do lists. Use it as a motivational push, whether it’s a word count list, an ideas list, a planning list, a chapter list etc. They are visual reminders and help us to stay focused and disciplined and to stay on track.
5. Allow yourself plenty of breaks. It’s proven fact that rest increases productivity. Not just longer rest periods, but little rest breaks throughout your writing sessions. Allow your mind to breathe and reflect. Go take five minutes in the garden. Walk the dog. Go stare at the stars for a little and let your mind wander. Go take a short walk in the park.
If you think your motivation is on the wane, it’s a sure fire signal to take a rest and refocus.
5. Do some reading. Reading your favourite authors has this magical quality of igniting your enthusiasm and making you want to write – it motivates us to want to be like our favourite authors, to be the best we can, it spurs us to get on with the job of writing.
6. Imagine someone, somewhere, is writing the same book as you, but they beat you to publication with it, leaving you in the starting line. So, what are you waiting for?
7. If you like to set yourself goals or targets, then do so. Set yourself a word count target per day, or a chapter, or whatever you feel you can realistically achieve. And stick to it.
NB - Don’t set yourself goals or targets if they cause you unnecessary stress. It’s counterproductive.
8. Set yourself a writing/reward system. It works in the same way as setting goals and targets, but by getting things done, you can reward yourself at the end. You have to do the work, however, to appreciate the reward. If you cheat by bypassing the work and going straight for the reward you will simply disappoint yourself and accomplish nothing.
I use this when my motivation feels depleted. If I write something – it might be 500 words or 1000 words of a story, or it might be an article – then I reward myself with some time playing computer games. That way I’ve accomplished something and I get to relax afterward.
For you it might be feet up, a drink of your favourite wine and a movie. Or it could be dinner out somewhere. The reward is whatever you make it, but you have to earn it first.
9. Enter a writing competition. This helps you concentrate on something different, away from the usual projects and it gives you a deadline to work to. Plus, there is always the prospect you might win something.
10. If you haven’t joined one, try joining a writing group or an online writing forum. There will always be somebody willing to help motivate and spur you on with advice and encouragement.
11. Music is known to help plenty of writers who use it to inspire and motivate them. I use this method all the time, because the right music can help create mood and atmosphere, it sets the scene to write, it creates the right frame of mind.
12. Have friends read your work and provide feedback. Whether it’s positive or negative, you’ll find yourself wanting to improve even further, it will make you want to write, because they are discussing your work.
Motivation isn’t something that materialises the moment we start writing and stays with us for the duration. It’s like sunlight; it comes and goes, it fades, comes back, but it never truly vanishes. It’s always there, but sometimes we just have to find it.
Remember that somewhere, somebody will be working on an idea similar to yours. They might become successful at it than you, they might not, but as writers we have to acknowledge that we’re the only ones that can make it happen.
And whether sometimes we don’t want to, we can only make it happen if we simply get on with what we love to do - writing.
Next week: Everything you ever wanted to know about subplots
Saturday, 19 July 2014
If you’ve read a book and guessed what was coming, or if you’ve seen a movie and guessed the outcome way before it finishes, then it’s generally a sign that the plot is predictable.
Perhaps you’ve read a book that seems quite similar to another book you’ve read. The same happens with movies; some feel very similar. That’s because their plots are similar, or the same. The only difference is the story is written lightly differently.
But that’s the thing with plots; most of them are a variation on each other. They’re the same plots, or share the same plot points, but written in many different ways, and that’s because there are only 36 basic plots (as described by Georges Polti). Anything else really is just a variation on a theme.
But the way we write our stories is what sets them apart from others. Whether there are only 10 basic plots or 36, every story you write should be different enough from all the other stories out there.
That is down to how your structure your story, the characters you create, the themes you explore, information that you provide for your reader, the subplots and of course, the outcome you choose to end your story.
If your plot does become predictable and boring, then your reader won’t be that impressed with the overall story.
Take love as an example. Plots involving love, in particular, can be very formulaic and therefore somewhat predictable: boy meets girl, girl isn’t interested at first, boy then does something heroic and impresses her, girl changes her mind and falls head over heels in love with him and they live happily ever after.
Another predicable one is the thriller genre. They inevitably involve a hero, a villain and a love interest. They are so commonplace that it has become expected. But unfortunately they are also formulaic and boring.
Writers are not trying hard enough to be different.
So how do you prevent your plot from becoming so predictable, and tedious? How do you make your story different from every other story out there?
1. Consider a different approach – in other words, throw in some unpredictable plot twists, the kind that your reader won’t be able to second guess. Writers love to wrong-foot their readers, so don’t be afraid to thrown them off course.
2. Try to be fresh and different with your themes – readers like the unexpected. Be political, be controversial; themes are there to explore.
3. Ask provocative questions about your story – What would the main character really do in a given situation? The predictable action or the unpredictable action? Sometimes the unpredictable works better.
4. Add in some surprises. Again, readers love surprises – they make for the unpredictable. As the writer, you can create any surprise, but just make sure they are not too far-fetched that the reader thinks they are silly or ridiculous.
5. Avoid clichés. Does your detective have to be male, with a female sidekick, usually seen as a foil to the main character? Then reverse the roles. Have a female detective, with the male foil. Are your female characters generally written as weak and sometimes stupid? Have a reality check. Not all women are weak or stupid. And not all men are heroic and strong. These are all clichés.
6. Don’t be afraid to take a different direction with your story – keep your reader on their toes, so don’t be afraid to take a risk with the story arc.
The idea with writing is to make it different from every other story out there, and we do that by being fresh and original and unexpected.
With only 36 definitive plots, writers might think they are limited, but in fact, there is a wealth of stories we can create, just by shaking things up, being different or provocative, by putting a new spin on things, by approaching the story in a new and fresh way, by creating unique characters and by taking risks.
And besides, being unpredictable is so much more fun.
Next week: Finding the motivation to write
Saturday, 12 July 2014
What does it actually mean?
There are quite a number of devices available to writers which help them enhance narrative and emphasis certain things within it. One of the ways writers do this is by placing strategic dialogue – this is dialogue that is repeated several times in the novel, like a message, a constant reminder for the reader, and is based on the main theme running through the story.
It also appears at opportune moments in the narrative - hence the strategic placement. This is more commonly known as a motif.
Motifs are recurring themes, ideas or elements that carry significant meaning and are always brought to the forefront by the writer at strategic moments in the story, to remind the reader of the importance of the theme. It works because it is subtle, almost subliminal, and forms an integral part of the overall message at the heart of the story.
Some famous movies have used this method quite effectively – The Wizard of Oz uses the ‘there’s no place like home’ motif to push the theme that the home is where the heart truly is. This is the main theme to the entire story. Despite the exciting land of Oz and all its colourful characters, Dorothy is constantly reminded that there is ‘no place like home’.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club uses motif when talking about the rules of Fight Club. Several times the characters talk of rules: ‘The first rule of fight club is…you do not talk about Fight Club.’ This is repeated as a reminder to the reader (and the audience in the film version) how secretive and exclusive the club is.
Stephen King has used strategic dialogue with many novels, but one very memorable novel is Misery. He repeats Annie’s phrase, ‘I’m your number one fan’ several times throughout the novel as a motif, because it directly relates to the primary theme of control and misplaced adulation. He uses the phrase to open the book and then cleverly uses the same phrase at the end of the novel.
Each of these strategic dialogue phrases are examples that directly relate to the main theme of the story and yet they reinforce the message the writer wants to get across to the reader.
And the good thing is that such planned dialogue can be anything you want a character to say (as long as it isn’t cliché), and it is pertinent to the story.
Writers may not realise it, but the power of repeated phrases and words does have a subconscious effect on the reader, and because of it they are more likely to remember what your primary or dominant theme is about.
The clever thing about strategic dialogue placement is that it doesn’t have to be overt. You don’t have to beat the reader over the head every two pages with it. It should be very subtle. Strategic dialogue is not there to annoy the reader, but rather to enhance the narrative and story experience for them.
So how many times should you use strategic dialogue?
There is no written rule on this, but common sense should prevail, so don’t overdo it. If the motif is mentioned every now and then – say three times throughout the novel - it will gently remind the reader rather than irritate them. If you go above four or five times then the reader may become annoyed by the repetition. And repetition only works when it’s subtle and occasionally done.
Some strategic dialogue phrases are so well done that the reader doesn’t realise always they’re reading intentional dialogue, but the message behind it will still get through. That’s why it remains one of the least used and most clever of literary devices that writers can use.
Remember that if you do want to enhance the narrative and highlight your theme, and use strategic dialogue, make sure it directly relates to the story, or it won’t work at all.
Next week: Making sure your plot isn’t predictable
Saturday, 5 July 2014
This is a subject I get asked about all the time, especially from new writers anxious to write as much as possible in as many genres as possible, yet while many writers can and do write in different genres, and it’s not impossible, to step with ease from one kind to another isn’t as easy as it seems.
It’s a well known fact that writers start out writing in the genre that they most enjoy reading, and certainly their earliest influences may drive this tendency. If you enjoy reading thrillers, it’s most likely you’ll write in that genre, because you enjoy it and understand it. If you enjoy reading romance fiction, then the likelihood is that you’ll feel comfortable writing romance.
Of course, there are other things that influence writers. Watching certain genre of movies or TV shows that they enjoy may also influence a writer.
A writer will always write in the genre they feel most affinity with, one that they feel comfortable working with; the one they enjoy. And because of this ease and affinity, an author’s voice and style will evolve accordingly.
Does it Work?
It can, but sometimes it doesn’t.
There are many cross genre writers out there, people who can easily dip in and out of different styles. For instance, horror writers might also be able to write romance. Thriller writers might also write sci-fi etc. But cross-genre writing works only if the writer feels comfortable with it, they enjoy the subject and can build closeness with it.
A writer who hates romance will not be able to write a convincing romance story. Likewise a romance writer might not be able to write a convincing and scary horror story. The result might be something contrived, stilted or forced.
But often many writers do this in the belief they can write in any genre, and the result is always the same. If something doesn’t feel right, then inevitably it isn’t. The readers will notice this and they won’t enjoy the story.
I write dark thriller or historical thriller stories, but I also write horror. I don’t write science fiction because although I like sci-fi movies, I don’t have enough affinity or attraction to the subject to write convincingly and authoritatively about the subject. Likewise, I don’t write romance stories because have no attraction to the subject, nor do I write political stories, because I have zero interest in politics.
Instead of focusing on writing in as many different genre styles as possible and trying to ‘fit’ into one of them, write in the genre you feel most comfortable, one that you enjoy reading, one that you feel closest to – this is your primary genre. This is what your specialist subject.
Once you recognise that you can build your writing around it and gain experience (and hopefully success) from writing it. You can then explore other genres that you feel attracted to, or comfortable with or like reading. These are secondary genres.
When we think of some of our favourite authors, we usually associate them with one specific genre, but there are many who have written novels in completely different genres, for instance:
Ian Fleming is known for his James Bond/spy novels, but he also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is a children’s novel. We think of Stephen King as master of horror, with stories like Carrie and The Shining, but he’s also written contemporary thrillers such as The Green Mile, and science fiction based stories like Under the Dome. Neil Gaiman is known for his fantasy, sci-fi and graphic novels, but he’s also written children’s stories, such as The Graveyard Book.
Notice that these writers have a primary genre, written works that they are most famous for, but they also have secondary genres.
But what if I can only write in one genre?
Most writers can probably write two or three genres quite comfortably and successfully. Others can only write one genre only and that doesn’t make them any less different.
There is nothing wrong with only being able to write in one specific genre. Plenty of writers do, simply because it’s what they are good at, it’s their forte and they have been just as successful as multi-genre writers.
The thing to remember is that if it is a subject you don’t particularly like or understand, or you don’t feel affinity towards then don’t write it because the result will be a terrible, forced and unconvincing story. And that’s because your heart won’t be in it.
Write what you love, what interests you, what moves you, what makes you passionate. Write what makes you happy. Whatever the genre.Next week: Recurring themes and how to use them.