Unsticking My Story

During the summer, I started writing a new YA (young adult) novel. The idea came suddenly, and the first 8000 words came flowing out. But then they stopped. I sat looking at my screen, not knowing what to write next. How had my story, that had spilled out of me like monsoon rain, suddenly gotten stuck?

The idea for the story had come organically, and I had begun writing it with no plan. I had written the opening chapters with plenty of feeling, but with very little thought. Once the initial excitement blew over, I was left with empty pages and no idea how to progress.

The problem with losing confidence in one piece of writing, is that the lack of confidence spreads. I was afraid to write anything, in case I would find myself stuck again.

I needed to unstick my story. So I followed a few steps, to get my confidence back.

1) Rewind

Firstly, I went to the beginning of my novel and read what I’d written. I questioned myself, at what point did the story stop working? I went back to the last point that the story worked, and restarted from there.

2) Why did it start to fail?

I considered what had made the story begin to fail? Had I filled my chapters with back story instead of action? Had I forgotten to include any conflict? Did I lose sight of the character’s motivations? By becoming aware of what not to write, it helped me see what my story needed to stay interesting.

3) Alternative story lines

I considered alternative story lines. I made a chart of different routes the story could take, and then decided which way appealed to me the most.

4) Character Study

When I really couldn’t see what I wanted to happen next, I took time out from the story and made a number of character studies. This included making a character sheet for the main characters, learning their fears, their experiences and their goals etc. When I had a clear image of my characters, their natural motivations guided the story.

5) Take a Break

It’s often when I stop thinking of how to the solve a plot problem, that the ideas start to flow. I find going for a walk, or doing something physical, helps to shift my focus from my mind. Releasing the pressure on my creative mind gives it room to breathe.

6) Talk About It

I am lucky to have some super writer-friends, and to attend a brilliant writing class a few times a year. When I get stuck, I look to them for motivation, for problem solving inspiration; even for opinions on my plot. This helps enormously.

7) Find Inspiration

I used to wait around, believing that divine plot inspiration would shine upon me. But this is not a good plan, because it doesn’t work. I accepted that I have to find my own inspiration. Creativity needs to be fed, and sitting a room with no art, no beauty, no nature, is not the way to feed it. So I went out, I read, I made a conscious effort to stimulate my desire to create.

8) Day Off

I occasionally need to take a day, or two, or a week, off writing. This helps reduce the pressure I put on my writing. It also gives my brain a wash out so it’s ready to start again. And rather than dreading sitting down to write after my day off, I often find myself refreshed with motivation. It also helps me begin again with fresh eyes and a fresh head.

So now I’m back on track, and the words are flowing again. I have a clearer direction, a better understanding of my characters and I know what I want to achieve with this book. I took the pressure off myself and gave myself a break, and found my motivation again. And once the words started flowing, my confidence was rebuilt. Believing that I can write this novel, is the most important step to reaching those precious words, ‘The End’.

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Dealing With Dialogue

One of the hardest things for me to write is dialogue. Too often my dialogue comes out clunky, unrealistic, boring or lacking a purpose to the overall story. As a result, it’s the dialogue that requires the most work when I edit.

So I started thinking, how can I change this? How can I improve my fictional conversations so I don’t break out in a sweat every time my characters need to talk to one another.

And here is what I did.

1) Learn to Listen

When I started to listen, really listen, to other people’s conversations, I was surprised by how differently people spoke, compared to how I thought they spoke. Eavesdropping is part of being a writer, as it opens your ears to words, voices, and human interaction. Studying how conversation flows, helps me get across what I want my characters to say in a more realistic way.

2) Turn a Scene into a Script

If I’m struggling to make the dialogue in a scene work, I sometimes turn the scene into a play script. I basically turn the whole chapter into a conversation. I then highlight the main lines that get across what I want, before I re-insert all the description, action etc.

3) Read Great Dialogue

I often know that a book is wonderful, when I realise that I was so carried away by the story that I forgot to study how it was written. I think this is particularly true with dialogue, as it is such an important part of learning who the characters are. When I finish a book and can’t remember why the dialogue worked, I know that the dialogue must have been so well written that it fused perfectly into the story. Then I know I need to go back and study it.

4) Read Bad Dialogue

When I read a piece of dialogue that jars and sounds unrealistic, I pause and consider what it is that makes it fail. A big step in learning what does work, is learning what doesn’t work.

5) Rewind to a Piece of Dialogue That Did Work

If I can’t make the dialogue in a scene work, I often rewind and find a chapter that I know it did work in. As I read it, I let myself get into the voice of the character again, which helps me to write the new conversation with that character’s way of thinking and talking fresh in my head.

6) Study Dialogue in Other Art Forms.

Sometimes I need a break from dialogue in books, and seek out other forms of inspiration. I’ve often been struck by scenes of T.V. programmes where the dialogue is so good that I go back to listen to it again. There are times I suddenly became aware that someone somewhere wrote the script, and I think wow, how did they write such a perfect conversation? I listen to radio interviews, radio plays, go to the theatre; all excellent ways of studying dialogue; what sounds real and what sounds fake.

7) Ask Yourself: Does Your Dialogue Fit the Time the Story is Set?

It’s important to be aware of the correct conversation for the time or genre of your book. Phrases do go out of date. I watch a lot of period dramas and have a fondness for old-fashioned and classic books. And although I write in the modern day, I often find myself editing out Enid Blighton type phrases. It sometimes takes an outside eye to spot this in your writing.

8) Get to Know Your Characters

It is much harder to write dialogue when you don’t yet know your characters. It took me awhile to realise this, and now I tend to go easy on myself on a first draft, and even a second draft. Once I know my character inside out, I find the dialogue comes naturally as I can hear their voice clearly. If I’m struggling with the dialogue of a secondary character, it often helps to write a character sheet on them, or even a quick short scene or story about them in first person, so I can get into their head.

9) Age-Appropriate Conversation

It is naturally easier for me to write a conversation between two women in their thirties than two nine year old boys (as I don’t know any 9 year old boys), or a group of teenager girls (as I haven’t been a teenage girl for quite a long time). Adult phrases can sneakily creep into dialogue between children, but it doesn’t belong. It is therefore essential to question whether the conversation is realistic for the age group having it.

 

All in all, the more I write, the better I get at dialogue. Practise is key. I once spent one month writing a play just to force myself to write conversation. I had no aspirations for the play, it was simply an exercise to train myself. It was difficult at the time, but when I then switched back to the novel, I found it so much easier to write the dialogue. The time between novel drafts, when it’s hiding in a drawer, is the perfect time to train up your skills, and hone in on your weakest areas. Your next draft will thank you for it.

Feedback Frenzy

image credit unsplash.comI recently went to my regular writing workshop. A couple of us meet every 2-3 months, to critique each others stories.

My initial reaction to my feedback was positive. Okay, so I had a plot problem. But at least now I knew, I thought to my myself. This will be great. Knowledge is power.

But then something strange happened. It was as though all those grey tubey-looking parts of my brain starting twisting around themselves, and I realised that fixing this problem was a mammoth task. How would I fix it? And if I did fix this one piece of plot, how would it affect the rest of the book? I had smugly thought the book was finished, ready for submission. But now here I was with a significant problem smirking at me, like a steamy eyed skull.

Hello feedback frenzy.

One little plot problem. A tiny bit of the story that didn’t quite work. If I’m honest, I knew it didn’t work. Every time I thought about it, I had a niggling feeling in my bones, that this was lazy writing, that it wasn’t age appropriate, that it needed to be fixed. The problem was, I didn’t know how to fix it. So I ignored the tug of the alarm bell-string in my chest, and kept on writing.

But when a room full of people (who know things) said that this needed to change, I had to listen. I had to stop seeing the problem part of the plot as a weak area, and start seeing it as anti-plot. But how?

When faced with calamity, I always go back to the basics. First, I thought about how I would fix a problem with something small, like a sentence.

For example, if I wrote this:

“The moon sparkles in the sky.”

I would quickly realise that I have a problem. I’ve written a cliché. If I try to fix it by altering what I already have, all I can think of are similar words;

“The moon shines/ twinkles/ glimmers in the sky”

The cliché remains, and so does the problem. So instead, I delete the whole sentence and start from scratch.

“Moon-rays frame the sky like bleached rainbows.”

It is much easier this time to come up with something original, because my brain isn’t trapped into the old phrase. Make sense?

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to fix a cliché, than a plot problem. I deleted the anti-plot from my text, and spent three days with no idea how my story could progress. Eventually  I stopped trying, and that’s when the Bing! moment arrived. On a long car journey, with a Roald Dahl audio-book sparking my imagination, I worked out how to progress my plot.

However, by starting from scratch and inventing a whole new reason that A led to B in my story, I caused untold havoc to the rest of the book. I didn’t just unleash a can of worms, I also chopped those worms in half, and had to watch as their tails wiggled off in the opposite direction to their heads. One tiny plot change, affected every chapter in the book. It led to two chapters being deleted, and one new chapter being written. It led to the entire sequence of the story being shuffled around.

Hours of work.

Hence the frenzy.

But now it’s nearly finished. I’ve spent a week editing and can honestly say that the book is ten times better now than it was. Feedback may send an earth-quake through your text, but at least you know that all the good bits get left behind. And what you build after the earthquake is a stronger, firmer story.

So bring on the frenzy.

Make Every Word Count

When I began writing, I used to plough through drafts like a bulldozer, more obsessed with the word count than the quality of writing. Draft after draft, I’d rush to meet 1000 words a day, whether the words were good, bad or ugly. Now that I’ve calmed down about getting the novel finished, submitted and published (because what is the ACTUAL rush?), I’ve changed the way I write. This came from hearing many writers say “Make every word count”. It took me at least 2 years of writing to finally start listening to this advice, and here’s how I’m doing it:

Stick To The Story

One of the biggest writing sins I was guilty of, was going off in a tangent that had no relevance to the story. No matter how beautiful or funny your writing is, if you forget about the story, you will lose readers. I didn’t notice this problem in my own work at first; someone else had to point it out to me. But now that I know it, I stick to a story plan. If a chapter has no relevance and is not necessary to the rest of the story, then it has to go. No matter how beautifully it’s written.

Play With Poetry:

I started to write and read poems. This got me thinking about words in a new way. I started listening to their sounds, and experimenting with sentences. I let myself loose to play with words, and to trust my ability to get across my message without being blunt and over-obvious. This helped me bring out the beauty in a sentence, or the humour in a twisted phrase. Poems by the their nature are short, which meant I had to cut out waffle and too much description, and taught me how to get to the point in a neater, nicer fashion.

Study Other People’s Sentences:

I slowed down my reading. This helped me step back from the story, and allowed me to concentrate on what I liked in other people’s writing, and what I didn’t like. As I read, I ask myself, what makes a sentence bounce off the page and into my memory, and what makes it sink into the slush of ugly or over-used phrases?

Recognise Repetition

Becoming aware of words I used repeatedly, helped me think outside the box. This wasn’t easy, and I occassionally have to ask other people to read my work to spot my repetitive words. I also started looking out for words that other writers use repeatedly. Some obvious words and phrases I spotted again and again in other people’s work were ‘suddenly’, ‘my heart thumped’ , and ‘Oh my God’. The less obvious ones were ‘ochre’, ‘sepia’, and variations of the moon like a ‘torch in the sky’. If you don’t recognise repetition, you can’t avoid using it.

Originality

When you keep reading the same old metaphors and similes, you start to skim over them, and they might as well not be there. There is nothing as smile-inducing as reading a book and finding original metaphors. Discovering a new way to express a feeling or a vision is one of my favourite parts of writing, and if I achieve only 10 words in a day, but I know they’re absolutely original, then that’s a happy day for me.

First-draft Freedom

If I tried to make every word count from the beginning of my first draft, I’d never ever finish it. You have to pick your time to polish. I recently read an article by Ciara O’Connor, who concluded that when you stop trying to make your writing perfect, that’s when you find your flow. And I totally agree. I need to get my initial story down in a stream of consciousness, and then I can shape it. Just like a sculptor can’t start their work without a sizeable lump of clay. This might be two or three drafts in, once I know the story outline and the characters, and where I’m going with it. Only then can I start filtering the sentences until all the words left need to be there.

The longer I write, the better I get at making every word count. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a stage where everything I write is perfect. Does anyone? Have I ever read anything 100% perfect? Probably not. Art doesn’t have to be perfect to be lovely. Once I’ve got a piece of writing to the best I can get it, I recall my mantra “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Da Vinci) and then I move on with the hope that even more words will count in my next piece.

Writing as a full-time parent

(This article was first published on writing.ie)

This time last year I gave up my job to mind my kids full time. I had a pensionable permanent (and rather manic) nursing job; a job for life. People frowned at me, groaned at me, quivered as they experienced the spine shivers that I didn’t. People that knew me and my kids properly, patted me on the back and told me I was making the right decision. A large and very excited part of me thought, naïvely, that I’d have more time and freedom to write. And while I do have more time in the vicinity of my laptop, that doesn’t mean that I write more. Finding the time to write is now more challenging than ever.

I used to write in the evening, when the kids went to bed. But minding young kids all day leaves me mentally exhausted (let’s face it, conversations aren’t always stimulating with a three year old). By evening, all I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a book or the T.V, with no demands on me. When I worked 13 hour shifts, I often came home physically exhausted, but mentally fuelled with stories and interaction. I wrote every night, no matter how tired. Now I get up early to write, which is often impossible if the kids have been unwell or awake in the night, and my eyes hang from my head like someone snapped their strings.

I also try and snatch moments; ten minutes here, ten minutes there. I don’t allow myself get into episodes of extreme flow around my children, because it’s not fair on myself or the child that receives the blunt edge of my frustration when they interrupt me. Why would I create a situation that I know will lead me to fail, and get angry at myself and the kids? Young children have endless and constant needs, and they are my priority, no matter what.

But that doesn’t mean I must neglect my love affair with words and stories. In the stolen ten minute bursts, I have endless options. I can write a character sheet. A thought process. I draw graphs and charts, blasting out ideas of what might happen. I figure out plot problems in the shower. I string words together in the woods behind the house, while I walk the dog. I read articles, research my topic. I think, what would my character do in this situation? Would she like this dinner that I’m cooking? Keeping my writing at the forefront of my mind, makes my day run smoother. It also means that I know where to pick up the next time I get a solid chunk of un-interrupted writing time.

An unexpected issue that cropped up when I stopped working, was the lack of ideas. I didn’t realise how many ideas I got from working. Ideas and stories come from real life. From getting out there and interacting; from listening, seeing and feeling. Not from doing dishes, school runs and arguing over homework. I found that the routine of mundane tasks stifled my thoughts, and dampened my ideas. Particularly in winter, where I tend to spend weeks on end stuck indoors with asthmatic children. So 5 months after quitting work, I took on another small job; one or two shifts a month in a local nursing home. It gave me the small break I needed from the house. It’s often when I stop trying to think of ideas, that I get ideas. And there are few places better than a room full of people with a whole life behind them, to find stories.

I stopped waiting for inspiration to come to me, and started looking for it myself. I gave up the notion that a writer’s mind should brim with constant stories and perfect sentences. I refused to let myself feel like a failure because I didn’t always know what to write next, and instead I thought methodically about how to create ideas. Between reading, nature, film, the internet, people, art, I started finding creative beauty hiding all around me. I just had to learn how to find it, and trust that the days I don’t find it do pass.

The biggest challenge for me, as a writer and parent, is editing. While I have learnt to write surrounded by people and bustle, I still need silence to edit. I need to allow myself get completely absorbed to see the flaws. So I plan when to edit. I ask for help. I tell people how important it is to me, and I lock the door. I am strict with myself, and I am disciplined. But having children means that even if I do plan time to edit, I can’t always carry out that plan. One gets sick. One gets frightened. One hurts themselves. One needs me.

So I try, and try again, not to chastise myself if life gets in the way, and the story takes longer than I wanted. You need endless patience to be a writer; most of all with yourself.

Right now, I write this final paragraph with my daughter serving me a tea party. I drink from imaginary cups and type words in between sips. And look, I’ve got to the end of the article despite the lack of real tea. In a minute I’ll shut my laptop, so I can be fully present with my child, my priority. Tonight, when they sleep, or tomorrow morning if I’m too tired tonight, I’ll edit it in silence.

Paddlefoot (A story for the little ones)

Paddlefoot was feeling glum. He was tired of being the biggest dragon in the world. His enormous feet broke boulders every time he walked. When he sneezed, he blew trees right out of the soil. Worst of all, his wings were so big and heavy, he couldn’t lift them off the ground. Which meant he couldn’t fly. Whoever heard of a dragon that couldn’t fly? It was a terrible shame.

A tiny magician heard of Paddlefoot. He came to Paddlefoot’s cave, with his wand held high.

“I am Fionn the magician,” he said, “I’ve heard tales of your troubles, and I wish to help you.”

How can a tiny magician like you, help a huge dragon like me?” Paddlefoot asked, puffing steam out of his nostrils like factory chimneys.

“I will cast a spell, and swap you my size. If I was the biggest magician in the world, everyone would respect me. In return you will become as small as I am. You will enjoy the world without the fear of knocking it apart.”

“I really am tired of being so big,” Paddlefoot said, “Let’s do it.”

The magician waved his magic wand and whispered a spell beneath his breath. He didn’t want anyone to hear his words, in case they stole them. After all, words are very precious; especially magic ones.

A great flash of light made Paddlefoot close his eyes tight. He felt himself shaking and bubbling and shrinking. When the shaking stopped, he heard a loud swishing noise. He opened his eyes again, and realised the swishing was just the wind, now so much louder in his tiny ears. He coughed and coughed, until he got the hang of taking tiny breaths, now that he needed much less air.

He looked down at his body. His wings were as small as daisy petals. His tail was like a blade of grass, and his legs as thin as strands of hair. He laughed and yelped, for he was now the smallest dragon in the world. No matter how hard he walked, he would no longer cause any hurt to the world.

As he was dancing on his little legs, the ground began to shake, and he was thrown from his feet. He couldn’t see what was causing it to shake, so he spread his leaf sized wings and flew into sky. At last, he was a dragon that could fly. He twirled and whirled in the wind. He had never felt so free.

But then he heard thunder. Loud and roaring, it smashed through the air. He looked around, and saw Fionn the magician in front of him; a huge giant tumbling about. His footsteps were the cause of the ground shaking, and the thunder was his laughter. Fionn blew out a great puff of air, and a gust of wind threw Paddlefoot into a cluster of trees, that were almost ripped from their roots. Fionn knelt down to a river and slurped it all up, leaving the fish jumping on the dry land.

“Stop!” cried Paddlefoot, “You’re ruining the world!”

Fionn laughed louder, and the mountains crumbled to the ground. He inhaled deeply, and swallowed all the clouds.

I said STOP!” Paddlefoot shouted.

“I’m the most powerful being in the world,” roared Fionn, and Paddlefoot had to hold onto a branch to stop himself being blown away, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Paddlefoot knew he had made a mistake. He loved being small more than anything. But he knew that if he stayed small and Fionn stayed big, then the world would be in terrible danger. When Paddlefoot was big, he had moved gently. He had learnt to be careful as he grew, to protect the world around him.

“Where is my wand?” Fionn asked, “I must have dropped it when I was growing.”

Paddlefoot scanned the ground until he saw the wand, gleaming from the grass. Fionn bent down and tried to pick it up, but his fingers were too big and he couldn’t grasp it.

“Who needs magic when you’re as big as me anyway?” Fionn said, walking away and knocking over a hundred trees.

Paddlefoot flew down and picked up the wand. He hid it behind his back and flew up to Fionn’s ear.

Your magic is so clever,” Paddlefoot said, “Please tell me the words of the spell so I can admire your greatness.”

Fionn smiled and puffed up his chest with pride, causing such a wind, that a passing seagull was knocked into space.

“I can’t tell you the spell,” Fionn said, “You might cast it on us and reverse everything!”

“Oh no, I want to stay this small and free forever. Besides, there can be no magic without a wand. And a little dragon shall never have a wand.”

You’re right,” said Fionn, “In that case, the words were:

Tricks Trocks Hicks Hocks,

Put me into that man’s socks.

With the words fresh in the air, Paddlefoot waved the magic wand with all his little might.

Back came the flash of light, the shaking and bubbling. This time Paddlefoot felt himself stretching and growing. Very quickly, he was back to his old enormous self. Fionn the magician had shrunk, and was shrieking and shaking his fist at Paddlefoot.

“You tricked me!” he cried, his face as red as lava.

Paddlefoot laughed, very carefully, the way he knew how to, so that he wouldn’t knock any birds out of the sky.

Power is safest with those who don’t crave it,” Paddlefoot said, throwing the wand on the ground.

He lifted his huge foot and stomped down on the wand, cracking it in two. A little earthquake cracked the ground just beneath Fionn and he ran away, moaning and sobbing. Fionn the magician was never again seen in that part of the world. And Paddlefoot never again wished to be smaller.

Why I go to Writing Workshops

I used to think I didn’t need to do a writing workshop. Sure, didn’t I know how to write? Hadn’t I been taught in school, and always done well in English? I was the girl whose English stories were always read out in class, with my face turning puce. When I started writing children’s novels, I didn’t have to stop and think how to write, I felt like I already knew how-that it came naturally to me. I was always a big reader, so I understood books. So what did I need a writing class for?

Fast forward two years and a bundle of rejections later, and I decided that I would try a writing class, see if I was missing an ingredient. I learned that I wasn’t missing any ingredients, but I didn’t know how to season my work. Bland stories don’t jump out of the publisher’s slush pile.

These are some things I’ve learned from writing classes:

Nobody knows everything, because everyone writes differently

I was probably a bit overconfident (okay, maybe smug, but confidence sounds better, and is absolutely necessary to make it as a writer) at first. I started my first class thinking I wasn’t going to get much out of it. Which is exactly the wrong attitude to have. I was thrown off my high horse fairly lively, and I came home after that class with my mind opened to new ways of writing.

It wasn’t mind blowing, it wasn’t like someone had just turned on a light switch. It was more like someone had exchanged the old low voltage bulb with a high power one, and I could now see the cobwebs. Sometimes it’s the littlest changes you make to a text that make it stand out. And how you make that little change is different for everyone, but the more ways you learn, the more likely it is that’ll you’ll find a way that suits you.

An honest critique

Workshops are all different, but every workshop I’ve attended has provided some new way of critiquing my own writing. Sometimes it’s from just the facilitator, sometimes it’s from both the facilitator and participants. One of my favourite writing workshops is a “Children’s Fiction Workshop” in the Big Smoke in Dublin. This workshop is a critiquing workshop, and we all read each others work beforehand, and make detailed notes about what works, and what needs more work. The workshop facilitator, Claire Hennessy, runs a smooth ship, making sure there’s a good balance of praise (we need our confidence, remember?) and constructive criticism/feedback. I admit that my stomach squirms the whole way up on the train to Dublin when I’m going to this workshop. But it’s never squirming on the way home. The whole point is to improve your work and build your confidence; not to throw it onto the train tracks.

There is a lingo to learn

I am not good at grammar knowledge. I keep having to refresh my understanding of grammar; what is a pronoun, what is an adverb, etc? I don’t know why this is, but it’s just an annoying part of me that I have to accept, and to keep retraining.

But-grammar isn’t the only lingo that helps you in the writing industry. There’s a whole lingo attached to being a writer; voice, YA, arc, hook. It goes on. I didn’t know this until I started attending events, but sometimes this is an awkward place to learn the lingo, as you’re almost expected to know it. The lingo is thrown around like confetti, and you don’t want to be the one person in the room pretending that a piece of that confetti got stuck in your eye so you don’t have to answer a question that you don’t understand.

Writing workshops are a place where you’re very free to ask questions. You don’t feel the social pressure of knowing it all, and you realise the other participants also don’t know everything. You’d be amazed how quickly you learn the lingo, even for a grammar-dummy like me.

Reading is subjective

I once attended a workshop that squashed my confidence. My work was over-criticised and I took the teacher’s word as Gospel. But when I shared the story with someone else in the business, they were able to see where I coming from, and point out the merits and flaws. I realised that the first teacher hadn’t understood my angle, and hadn’t bothered to tread gently on my words (and words really are dreams when you’re an aspiring writer). Now, I admit there were flaws in that piece of writing. Reading it now, I can see where I went wrong. But it would have been helpful if that had been explained to me, rather than the teacher acting like the whole piece should end up in a rubbish heap.

So, just because the teacher is the professional, you still need to remember that reading is subjective. And just because the teacher doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean that no-one will. So go in with a thick skin, and take the critiques with a pinch of salt. You should never leave a workshop feeling worse about your writing. And if you do, take it from me, you just need to find a different class.

Techniques

Just because you know how to write, doesn’t mean that you know the best way to write. This month I did a workshop with Sheena Wilkinson through SCBWI. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really loved Sheena’s latest book, “Name Upon Name”, so I decided to go along. Also, there’s not a huge amount of workshops for children’s writing in Cork, so I wanted to show my support when there was one (Thanks Colleen!).

I didn’t know I needed to be taught techniques until this workshop. Sheena was very clear that what she teaches is what works for her, but I quickly saw that it was also going to work for me. Simple tips, exercises, graphs that made editing easier, to help you see if your text has the right balance of dialogue, action etc. Sometimes you just need to be shown. And even if you don’t find the techniques of one teacher/facilitator work for you, at least you’ll learn what doesn’t work. Since that workshop, I edit in a whole new way. I see chapters differently, always looking for balance, which has saved me time and improved my confidence.

I could go on and on about the merits of workshops. There’s the socialising (I’ve met a great bunch of emerging writers like myself), the kick up the arse you need, the ability to now see where you’re going wrong in a piece of text etc etc. But to really find out all the benefits of going to workshops, you’ll just have to go to one yourself.

Published writers have gone through all the sweat and tea that aspiring authors are going through now. So if they are willing to share their tips, short-cuts and techniques they learnt along the way, get going and soak that up. Learn how to season your text, and help it to leave a taste on the reader’s tongue.

Outside Opinions: On Writing

This month I had a writing revelation. I was at the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) conference, and the theme was “Better Together”. Everyone was talking about collaboration, and how projects can come to their full potential when people work together. There was talk of illustrators working with writers, writers working with editors and agents, etc. There was also talk about how authors pull and play with ideas during the writing process, getting ideas, joining ideas, smashing ideas, but most importantly to me, asking for an outside opinion.

Now, I’ve always known that writing at a professional level means getting outside opinions. I’ve read plenty of editor-feedback horror stories, with writers pulling their hair out (sometimes even teeth), because the editor wants a different ending or middle or entire story. If you have an agent, or pay for a Reader’s Report, that will also bring a whole pile of opinions and changes. And I’m fine with that. In fact, I embrace it. But I always felt like they’re allowed to change it, because they’re professional, they know what they’re doing. And your book is already at a fairly advanced and organised stage if you are handing it to an editor. Your idea is well formed. But the thought of getting an outside opinion on a young and fragile idea hadn’t really occurred to me.

At the conference, there was a very amusing and awe-inspiring panel titled “An Abundance of Katherines”, where Cat Doyle asked Katherine Woodfine, Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette, at what point do they share their story? Katherine Woodfine answered that she discusses as she goes, working out the plot and history, often with her husband’s ear (marrying a writer should come with an “I’ll use and abuse your ear warning”). While Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette hold their ideas close, for fear that telling someone will take the magic out of it, and they only show their story when it’s all worked out. But they both then share it, and take on board suggestions and make changes, even if it means huge plot changes (including alternative endings).

You sometimes hear of writers who don’t need to think about what they’re writing, that the story gets channelled through them. I’ll admit this happened me once, for a kid’s early reader. The idea just popped into my head and the short book flowed out of me in about 4 days. I thought “This is it. I’m a writer now. What’s the next story?” Alas, it was a one time lucky sort of thing. And so, I regularly get stuck on plot. But for some reason, I didn’t know I was allowed ask for outside help on a first draft. Now that I think about it, I realise how ridiculous that was of me. I mean, it’s not like there’s one rulebook for writers, and everyone has to follow it. More like there are loads of rulebooks and you pick which style suits you. A little bit from this, a little bit from that. Similar to becoming a parent and realising that all the parenting books give you conflicting advice, and the only way to get through it is to follow your gut and that’s the end of it.

I’m the kind of person that sorts out my thoughts by talking to people about them. My husband gets the brunt of this thinking jumble. But when it comes to my writing, I’ve always held back a bit. I’ll throw the main points at him, explain what I’m writing about and why, and occasionally bounce around the kitchen in excitement when some whacky idea arrives that I know will fix a big plot hole. But I don’t normally toy out my plot with him, because my diaphragm gives a little twist if he suggests a big change that I know will make my story better. In fact, I usually pretend I didn’t hear him when he does that. I want to play with my ideas, get an opinion on whether it will or won’t work, but I ultimately want the solution to be mine (my precious, baby!). More of a “Should I do storyline A or storyline B?” I absolutely did not want my husband (or anyone really) to have a brain-storm moment about my book. Because is that allowed? Can I call it mine, if someone else had an input? If he suggests an alternative ending, can I even use it, or is that a big juicy lie? Would I have to write on my submission letter, “This is my novel, but my husband came up with the ending.”?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I remember the first time I handed over my first daughter to be minded by someone else. The panic, the what-ifs, the “no-one can be as good as her mother” notion that swam around my under-slept brain. But as my daughters grew, I realised that they thrived from outside input, that it brought out new sides to them, and took the pressure off me to be superwoman. Being too closed off, up on a high pedestal with your writing, can give your book cramp. This “Better Together” conference taught me that you don’t have to be the one and only creator of your book, that the end story is the most important thing. And if that means calling in the village, then so be it.

Ignore Imposter Syndrome and Get Going.

Starting is the easy part. How many times have we all started something new with a heart full of giddiness? The thought that we can do it bouncing around our head, the imagined success and the wonder of the completed project a sparkling goal that seems within reach. And how long into a new project do we start to doubt ourselves? Or conveniently schedule other activities during the time we’d set out for this project. You just have to look at the spike in gym attendance every January to know what I’m talking about. A sky scraper of motivation knocked down when life gets in the way. But does life really get in our way, or do we get in our own way?

The two biggest reasons I have for quitting projects are laziness, and self-doubt. Laziness stops me exercising enough, going out in the evening to stimulate my tired brain, painting the shed (two-toned is in…right?). I think, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll have more energy, the weather will be better, I’ll make time. Procrastination defines my relationship with writing short stories. I go from writing novel to novel so I don’t have to face the challenge of short stories. I was always better at long-term relationships than flings. I find novels easier, less pressure to get each word right from the start. I can be lazy in my writing, because I’ll do a huge editing haul at the end and the main thing now is achieving my daily word count. It’s also a relief knowing what I’ll be writing for the next few months, because I’m writing a novel. Short stories end too quickly, they need a lot of thought and a big punch. And as soon as it’s written, I’d have to think of something else to write, and what if I can’t think of anything? What if I run out of ideas? What if I forget how to write? Imposter syndrome, anyone?

I don’t just have imposter syndrome with short stories. I always start my novel with more gusto than a Tornado, but by the time I reach the mid-way point, I think it’s utter cow-dung. I suddenly don’t know how I’ve spent so many hours working on this smelly manuscript, and what is there to show other than some mouldy coffee stains? The first time this happened me I was devastated, sitting there watching flies hover around the manuscript, wondering how I ever thought I could pull this whole ‘writer’ thing off. I wanted to just go to bed, without even washing my teeth, so deep was my despair. Instead I printed the thing out, read through the hard copy, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t half as stinky as I thought it was (2 years later, I now know that it was actually dreadful, but that’s beside the point).

I’ve become used to this half-way doubt. And I’ve learnt that even if it is a total stink-bomb of a novel, the sense of achievement at finishing it is always better than quitting. I’ve finished writing projects and never looked at them again, knowing they didn’t work, but still been dead proud of myself for getting through a beginning, middle, and end. And that feeling of pride at the end is what propels me forward to the next project. As a general rule, I keep writing until it’s finished, because I never know until well after the ending whether it’s any good. My inner critic would have me abandon everything I write, because at some point I’ve thought everything was awful.

Laziness, I find, is the easier evil to beat. I just need to be willing, and thankfully I have some serious willpower when it comes to my dream of being a writer (it’s easier to find will-power for a passion, rather than say, jogging, which brings me little more than sweaty armpits). For me, it’s all about making a routine. A commitment, setting an alarm, telling people the resolution so I am held to it.

Getting to the end of your novel is one thing, believing in it is another. It’s hard to believe in your writing when you get rejection after rejection. Each polite ‘this doesn’t fit our list’ another piece of coal for the inner critic burning inside. So once you get to the end of a novel, and edit it, you now need to gather all your willpower. Forget about taking the lazy option and take your head out from under the pillow. Realise that the real imposter here isn’t you, it’s your inner critic. So tell it to go take a hike.

Finding Ideas

Cloud Idea Bubble - CC0 - pixabay-Alexas_Fotos-686414Ideas come to some authors as easily as sweat comes to armpits in the gym. I’ve heard of authors who have drawers full of ideas, note-books overflowing with anecdotes and stories just waiting to be used at a later date. There are authors who carry special fly swats to rid the air around them of new ideas, so that they can focus on their current book. Alas, I am not one of those authors. On the contrary, I have more next-novel-idea angst than a teenager in an existential crisis. Saying that, I’ve never completely run out of ideas. I’ve always found something to write, but I never know if the idea is good enough until I put pen to paper. I find it very hard to believe in a story before I’ve started it.

It takes me quite a while to finish a YA (young adult) novel, which means I don’t actually need a new novel idea until at least a year after I decided on the last idea. I’m a fast enough writer, though my first drafts are taking longer the more experienced I become at writing. I used to just vomit out the first draft, knowing there’d be time to clean it up later. But then I realised that I don’t really like cleaning up vomit, despite the day job rotating between being a nurse and a mum. Every nurse knows that it’s much easier to prevent the vomit in the first place. So I now take my time, write more slowly, carefully. This also helps to put off the next idea choice. In between editing drafts, I write small Chapter books for kids (ideas come easier when the word count is under 10,000), poems, I attempt to write short stories. I never commit to a new full-size novel until I’m finished with the last.

I’ve started many novels based on an idea. And I’ve given up on many novels, thousands of words in, because I knew the idea wasn’t working. Sometimes I don’t even have an idea, just a character, and it can be a real struggle to figure out who this person in my head is, and what is their story. I often start a story and have no clue where it’s going. I’ve tried to write about certain topics, only to realise that the words that flow are dry and boring. I can start a story for the sake of practising writing, and not have a clue what the plan is, and discover I’ve created a character I love and want to keep. My stories are not always predictable to me, but that makes it much more exciting to write.

I find that ideas for short stories and poems are easier to find than ideas for novels. I often flick through magazines, scroll down my twitter feed, eavesdrop on conversations, looking for shreds of inspiration. Sometimes I get an idea for a short story or Chapter book from another story or book. A line, an image, a piece of information that wakes up my imagination like an alarm clock.

Sometimes ideas come in round about ways. This year I did a creative writing class for short stories. I was the only person writing or reading YA, so I decided to try and write for adults. I enjoyed it so much that I even started a novel, based on a woman. This was new to me, as my protagonists have always been under eighteen. However, it didn’t last. You see, it turned out the woman had a teenage daughter, and after writing 10,000 words of the mother’s story, I suddenly found myself writing the daughter’s side of the story. And it was much more fun to write. And that is the where the idea for the novel I am now working on came from.

So perhaps I am not a writer who catches my ideas with a butterfly net. Instead I am a writer who just keeps on writing, whether or not I have anything to write about. And in that mine of words, I occasionally catch a sparkle out of the corner of my eye, and that next novel angst disappears. For another year anyway.