Writing persistence

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Leonid Pasternak

 

I’ve never read any Stephen King novels because I don’t like the horror or dystopia genres, but now I shall, starting with The Stand, (the novel he rates as his best.)

Why?

I just finished his biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which reveals Stephen King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. Such a guide soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. The first half of the book is less about writing than about Stephen King’s early life, hardships, and above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before the time when he can prioritise his writing. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel).

‘This is such a nice guy,’ you find yourself thinking, ‘I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why.’ That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. Essentially, what he says about writing comes in the second half. It is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.fountainpenpaper

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes and despair that their organisation and acquisition of techniques will never be sufficient.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing, getting the story down ‘as it comes’, ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters, similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  His stories all stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. Add to this the imagination to latch on to a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing. What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money or intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

This book cleared my mind and stopped the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.

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It’s not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this.

However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It’s changed me from avoiding his novels to seeking them out.

 

 

 

Authors’ stimuli: preparing for that blank moment

PERFUME                                 SMELL                            STINK

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In a previous post I suggested that, at the point of urgently scribbling down that new idea, it may be worth exploring what actually prompted it.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. I believe it is much harder to ‘dream up’ an olfactory experience than a visual or auditory memory that might affect the character in your story. For  a visual stimulus we have Art to display ideas, perspectives, narratives, symbols.  We have Theatre and Radio to present ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_opt

There is no equivalent for smells. The writer may sit, pen raised, summoning up exactly the right sound or sight to cause his hero to pale with emotion, and the reader to imagine this accordingly. Far more difficult to write more than ‘the smell/scent/perfume/stink of’ (whatever) caused the emotional impact. How much of a struggle to work out what might have been recorded in long term memory.

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It might be a good idea to be prepared for that blank moment. Perhaps the answer is to note down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant, listing the source for each but avoid the obvious like dog poo. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a down-at-heel great aunt; the scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs.

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With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you. Easier then to strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

Affordable writers’ services

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I take reviewing seriously. A few months ago, a writer seeking my independent review will have been disappointed. I read it and commented, but didn’t publish any review.

My policy: if my rating would be 3 stars or less (Goodreads, Amazon) I don’t publish. I send the review privately to the author. I’ve never seen the value of a highly negative review. It’s not as if the general public are rushing out impulsively to buy a novel from which they must be protected. The prize for the best hatchet job leaves me cold, in the same way that putting an obese person naked in a crowd of jeerers would.

The point here is that the fore-mentioned author had not used an editor.  The novel was full of factual inaccuracies about the main dilemma, which made the plot unworkable. The first chapter alone would have caused any editor worth his/her salt to advise the author not to go further until the necessary research had been carried out. Furthermore, the minor character in Chapter 2 had a different personality when he sneaked in again in Chapter 11. Finally, there were two chapters in the middle that were not relevant, let alone essential, to the plot. They needed cutting. The writing itself was fine, so was the original story concept. Shame. I hope that writer took the advice.

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RULE: Never submit any novel until it has been edited.      

I always read and re-read and constantly correct my own work, yet a proof-reader will find several things per chapter that I need to tweak. It might be a lettr missed out, or a, comma misplaced or even word missed out.  Once spotted I can’t imagine how these errors escaped me.

RULE:   Always use a proof reader, even for a short story.

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When you decide to publish, you’ll need to convert your book into e-pub and e-mobi formats. This is not an impossible task, thanks to Calibre but it is time-consuming and fraught with potential error-making. You can land up with ?eft? #blb instead of the word you wrote. The headaches this formatting task may cause you, even if you overcome your fear and time problems, can be eradicated by using a conversion service.

RULE:  Even if your printed book is absolutely perfect, every page needs checking again in its e-versions.

Such services can stretch the writer’s budget unbearably but they are vital services. Without access to a known editor or proof-reader, it is safest to go to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders Directory of Editorial Services who will charge about £21-28 per hour according to the extent of textual work required (e.g. proof-reading alone would be at the lower end of this).

Of course, there are many tempting offers online but it’s a risk to take one up without knowledge of their quality. The dangers  have been outlined on other blogs I’m sure, so I won’t use space detailing these. What I can do is point readers to affordable and reputable writer/reviewers/editors. The following  people are all authors themselves and who offer proof-reading and editing. They charge about £4 per 1000 words for proof-reading, £5 per 1000 words for editing. A full structural edit is a long job so a 100,00 word novel will run you into the hundreds.

All the following people have different styles and strengths.

Firstly, there is multi-tasker Morgen Bailey, whose richly informative blog I have already mentioned in my post Towards a Superblog.  I can vouch for her outstanding speed and attentiveness and for the reasonable prices she charges for her editing and proof-reading.  She can rapidly spot where a story is going wrong as well as punctuation or continuity mistakes. Her work is worth every penny.  She will also offer a critique – a very helpful service for a writer wondering whether their piece is worth pursuing.morgenbailey

Morgen also constructs websites – a nightmare for many writers. See the one she did for the journalist and novelist Jane Wenham Jones whose articles you’ve probably read in Writing Magazine and elsewhere.

Secondly, there is novelist Karen Perkins (Thores Cross; The Valkyrie Series, etc). Go to her for inexpensive help for converting files to the required format for publishing as paper-back or e-book. Not only does she offer editing, conversion and other services but she has just published two really useful books: one on editing, one on formatting. If you want to be self-sufficient, these books certainly fill a very important gap in the market. I will be reviewing these books in the near future.

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Thirdly, there is Lucy Middlemass, YA author, with two books winners on the writers’ site Authonomy. Watch out for her lively character,  Jinger Barley, when her books are published.  She is a very good reviewer across genres. Her reviews are extremely thorough, helpful and fair, even when it’s clear she has not had a high opinion of a book. She manages a review thread for YA fiction where she encourages the same positive approach. Lucy similarly offers a thorough editing and critique of novels. It is clear that she has not only read thoroughly and made her line-by-line edit, but has thought out the writer’s intentions and can advise his best route forwards.  LucyMiddlemass

Finally,  Tony Foster offers full structural edits. Tony has a B.A. (1st class honours) in Creative Writing. He begins his Ph.D focusing on Writing Theory and Cognitive Poetics later this year. He writes across disciplines, including radio plays, screenplays and prose fiction. Tony’s edit includes a detailed critique and chapter-by-chapter analysis. He charges £10 per 1000 words, negotiable above 50,000 words, which also includes proof read, line edit and manuscript layout to publishing standard. He can be contacted here: blightersrock@gmail.com

DON’T FORGET:  You will need reviews for your book once it is fledged.

RULE: Never pay for one.

Not every reviewer writes to a high standard but you can look at their other reviews to estimate their quality. You can look at Amazon’s top 100 reviewers and hope to get a review. You can ask friends and family BUT have reviews that sing out what you have done.  The best reviews are those from readers who’ve read your book and constructed their own, independent opinion of it.

I may write a subsequent post detailing online reviews that have impressed me.

Novel Writers’ ten think points

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1. Write your target quota before entering any social media site

2.  Write from your instinct before reading writing advice

3.  Only seek feedback from other writers

4.  Only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section

5.  Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through

6.  Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly

7.   Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue

8.   Beyond halfway read the first and last lines of every chapter

9.    Read a highly rated novel while you take a break

10.   Care about your characters and write their future…NOW

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THE SECOND THIRD. Writing a psychological drama.

ONE THIRD THROUGH in the process of writing this novel, I thought I’d share something of the process.

There seem to be two approaches to writing a novel: the planned and the unfolding. I so admire, no, emulate, the well-organised planned way, but I’ve consistently failed in my attempts. You can’t write against your nature.  I’m disorganised, I don’t often make notes in my specially bought Moleskin, I’ve never kept a diary. The calendar is not up to date – if indeed I have one this year. It isn’t something I’d buy. If I get given one, even if it’s covered with garage repair adverts and no pictures, I’ll use it. A bit.

Therefore, it won’t surprise you to learn that I’m an unfolder.  I start, and the plot unfolds gradually according to the characters’ nature. I comfort myself that this messy method is in tune with character-led writing. Since my characters have dominated me from an early stage in my Me-Time blog (http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com)   I do trust on or other of any newly created ones to direct the turn of events in my novels.

I’ll discuss the novel I’m writing now –  ‘Speechless’.                                                                       Notes about this cover in another post.

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I call it a psychological drama rather than thriller because no-one is murdered. There is some mystery over whether there is in fact a baddie lurking beneath one of the well-behaved personas inhabiting the drama.

My beginning was the idea of an unexpected behaviour in a normal child. The environment is that of a comfortable, stable, supportive family. The child’s behaviour causes concern, then confusion, then external investigation, and lastly, internal investigation. I don’t enjoy fantasy – I have to believe. Therefore, the aim of my novels is always for the reader to feel it could happen to anyone.

The next step was to start and develop each of the characters. There is a father, mother, older brother, grandparents. The way each of these decided to unfold in relation to the shadowy main character determined the first few chapters.

The central problem has to cause a series of new events.  These involve secondary characters. I’m not sure how far I will let these intrude, or whether they will allow me much of a say in this.

Planning ahead? I always know what the next chapter will be when I finish one. I do know the ending. It mustn’t be predictable, but it must be believable, so I have thought this out. I probably did this by the end of Chapter Three.

Now I’ve reached the point of writing in tertiary characters. The parents need to discuss their problem with friends. They are going to do this at a dinner. It’s a tradition that this group meet up monthly. I know that the help is not going to be helpful. Other than that I don’t know yet how the conversation will go.  I do enjoy writing dialogue (perhaps that’s why I like the retort style of Twitter rather than report style of LinkedIn). The dialogue will happen (unfold) of its own accord because of the nature of each friend.

For that reason, I have written a brief biography for these people. I need to know how and when they met the parents, what their work is and sufficient about their individual experience to colour their reaction, comment and advice to the troubled parents.

Perhaps I will write an update to the process of writing this novel at a later stage. For now, I must off and prepare the dinner the eleven characters are about to sit down to. Their reserved table at the Soft Swan is already laid.

STARTING TO WRITE

HOW DID I START WRITING?   Image

A very long time ago I was walking along the hallway between kitchen and study (my husband’s  – I didn’t have such a thing in those days) when a funny line occurred to me. Immediately, a character who had spoken it morphed before my eyes. I couldn’t help giggling at the line and I had to writ it down. I named the character Peggy, and she became responsible for many other lines that became Letters of Regret, a book I’ve never completed. This started my time as a writer.

Peggy determined what happened in her letters by her accident-prone life-style. In the same way, when I wrote novels, my characters caused the plot of their stories, not the reverse.  When I started a blog around my book of ironic short stories, Me-Time Tales, I let the characters take the lead. In fact they dominated, as you’ll see if you visit that blog. http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com)

Some writers plan in full for each novel. I’m full of admiration; I’d love to.  I’m a disorganized person so I’m afraid I just let the narrative roll out. By the end of each chapter I know what’s going to happen in the next and that’s about it. I might just write the ending fairly early on but I’m not a planner. (Groans of assent from those nearest to me).

I find that after reading a plot-driven tale I end up disappointed if I can’t visualise the characters. That’s because I don’t really care what happens to them.  I have to lose myself within the perceived experience of the person or persons I am reading about.

Hence the character-based preference and the chosen title for this website.  I am not sure how it will develop or whether changes will be caused by me.  Who knows, Peggy may seep out of the woodwork and force me to revisit Letters of Regret.