Archive for category Writing
I’ve been on a writing retreat!
Unfortunately it wasn’t a week in a glamorous, sunny location but two nights in a Premier Inn on an industrial estate near Warwick. It was an experiment with a writer friend to see if 48 hours away from domestic distractions would enhance our productivity and propel us into the heart of our plots.
We worked in two and a half hour chunks before meeting up for tea and homemade cake or a 30 minute walk round the block or breakfast or dinner. This method kept us well fed and there was always a break to look forward to. I found that after two hours my concentration was waning and I was ready for some company and chat (and cake!)
Did it work?
My companion was doing NaNoWriMo. On arrival she was behind on her daily word count, when we left she was ahead, as well as having done some character sketches.
I was trying to pull together a very wobbly first draft. Prolonged writing time on the retreat enabled me to see the plot as a whole and get some editing done. In our breaks we did a lot of writing talk and my writer friend gave me a new idea to increase the tension within my story. I spent time working out how to weave this into my existing chapters.
Yes, the retreat worked and was worthwhile. But we both agreed that we couldn’t maintain that level of work/concentration beyond a weekend. So a whole week writing in the sun would probably be wasted on me (if it’s sunny I’d rather be in the pool or sightseeing!) but another weekend on an industrial estate is something I’d consider …
As everyone’s gearing up for NaNoWriMo next month I thought I’d give you an update as to where I’m at with my own writing.
Around this time last year I signed with the wonderful Juliet Mushens of the CaskieMushens literary agency. Juliet liked the concept behind my novel and could see how it needed re-writing to give the story a much better flow. She had some great ideas and, together, we greatly improved the manuscript through three rounds of editing.
In July of this year the book went out on submission to publishers. There were positive comments about the writing but unfortunately it didn’t find a buyer. Obviously, after all the work, this was disappointing but I’m not the only author to get so far down the line and then come away with nothing. I knew it could happen, which was the reason I didn’t shout about signing with Juliet at the time.
Juliet suggested putting that manuscript to one side and getting stuck into the next novel. So that’s what I’m doing. I have a head full of doubts about my ability to actually create another full-length manuscript which will be of interest to anyone except me and my mum. However, having come this far and with Juliet willing to at least read whatever I come up with, I feel have to give it another shot.
I won’t be doing NaNo because I’m not at the right stage of the book for that but I am aiming to work on the new novel every single day in November and beyond.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the illustration on this post, it’s something which features in that unsold manuscript.
Good Luck to all of you aiming for 1700 words per day next month!
Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to get started on a new novel. My usual strategy is to create a quick list of scenes that get me from beginning to end and then I start writing.
BUT, invariably, as I get to know the characters and the story-line better, I go off plan. My narrative goes around the houses and there’s a lot of wasted time and much re-writing. This time I want to avoid all that. So, I’ve been using a couple of resources to help me create a proper story structure and character arcs before I get too deep into the writing.
The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method was pioneered by Randy Ingermanson and was recommended to me by children’s author Lorraine Hellier.
This method dictates that the writer should start with the simplest premise possible and gradually expand to create plot and character details. For example, step one is ‘Write a one sentence summary of the story’. Step two is ‘Expand to a one paragraph summary.’ By following all six steps, the writer ends up with character bibles, a four-page synopsis and a scene list. The Reedsy website explains how to use The Snowflake Method in an easy to follow way. In addition, there are lots of useful resources on Reedsy such as character and story structure templates to download, which I found useful.
5 Secrets of Story Structure: How to Write a Novel That Stands Out
At time of writing this is a free e-book by KM Weiland. It’s short and easy to read. Most of us will be familiar with the three-act structure but this book provides more plot points on which to hang the story. For example it talks about pinch points which are small turning points between the main plot points.
I found the book very useful.
If you’re looking for more reading on the subject of novel structure, have a look at the five recommendations in this blog post by Rachel McCollin.
Finally, if you’ve got a tried and tested plotting/structure technique, please add it in the comments below!
A few days ago I visited The Museum of Brands in London. The museum takes the visitor on a colourful stroll through the branding, advertising and consumerism of the last two hundred or so years. It’s a wonderful microcosm of British social history.
The visit left me with two thoughts. Firstly, it made me feel ancient. A large part of my childhood and the years beyond were in those glass cases. Surely I’m not old enough for my lifetime to become museum worthy! Who else out there remembers Spangles sweets, Jackie magazine, Philadelphia cheese wrapped in silver paper rather than in a plastic tub, Caramac bars (just discovered you can still buy those) and renting instead of buying a TV?
Secondly, it brought home to me how the long-lived brands had evolved over time in order to survive. Much of this evolution was done in baby steps – a change of font for the logo, moving from a metal to plastic packaging or updating the slogan. Companies like Sony have constantly innovated to ensure their products always offer the consumer something new and attractive. Unfortunately Kodak didn’t and was lost in the great tsunami of digital photography.
What has this got to with writing?
It’s a reminder that we should always be looking where we are going with our writing careers. For example the market for womag stories is rapidly shrinking meaning those of us who used to target women’s magazines with our short stories need to find new outlets or try a different form of writing. Attracting an agent for a novel is as difficult as ever – is it time to set a limit on the number of rejections and then start investigating other routes such as the growing number of new independent digital publishers like Hera who accept unagented submissions? Or maybe it’s time to try non-fiction or a different genre?
The important thing is to stay current with what’s going on in the writing world and be proactive to avoid being left behind. Be a Sony not a Kodak! Simon Whaley has been talking about a similar topic on his blog this week.
Incidentally, whilst going through my kitchen cupboards to take the photo accompanying this post, I discovered that most of my tins and packets were supermarket own brands. I wonder what that says for branding in the future?
It fascinates me how our past affects our present and future lives. The past might be our upbringing and parental influences, it might be something we did that makes us ashamed and secretive, it might be the impact of external events on our everyday lives.
Recently I went to see Chicken Soup in the Studio Theatre at the Crucible in Sheffield. Written by Ray Castleton and Kieran Knowles, the play focuses on three miners’ wives and shows the effect the 1984/85 miners’ strike had on the rest of their lives, their family relationships and on their enduring friendship. There are three acts, each one in a different year: a 1984 soup kitchen/foodbank during the strike, a 2002 Queen’s Golden Jubilee party and a foodbank on the day of the 2016 EU Referendum. To add to the atmosphere the audience are given vouchers to claim a free serving of soup in the interval – forced to form a queue at a makeshift ‘soup kitchen’.
By 2002 and 2016 the lives of the three women have taken different paths. Following the strike one has become more politically active and is now a councillor. One has bettered herself by taking accountancy exams and ends up a high-flying career woman. The third seems stuck in the past, still carrying a hatred for her brother who crossed picket lines during the strike. Each has been affected in a different way by the past.
This made me think about my own characterisation when I’m writing fiction. Do I think sufficiently about how each character has come to be where they are? Am I dropping the important parts of their past into the story subtley or am I shoehorning in great hunks of backstory? Are the characters acting realistically, given what they’ve been through in the past? Why are different characters affected in different ways by the same past event?
What about you – do you think about how the past is motivating your characters’ actions in the present? How do you tell the reader about that past life? Do you know their past before you start writing their present?
The concept of writers and other home-workers pulling out laptops and working in coffee shops is familiar. It lets us escape those same boring four walls of home and all the domestic distractions. And it makes us feel part of society, even if the only person we speak to is the barista.
UK Jelly takes this a step further. Their aim is to ‘to bring home workers, freelancers, small business owners and entrepreneurs together in a relaxed, informal, working environment to maximise creativity and minimise the isolation that being your own boss can bring.’ It is not networking to sell yourself or your business. It’s about having some company whilst you work and maybe exchanging help and advice. At Jelly events the venue, wi-fi and parking are free, the only charge is for refreshments.
I went along to my first Jelly event last week. There were only a few of us and we had introductions and a bit of a chat before getting our laptops out to work. I deliberately didn’t connect to the free wi-fi because I wanted to do some distraction free editing. By the end of the session I’d done two hours solid work and met some new people. It beat coffee shop working because I didn’t feel guilty about taking up space for a long time with only one drink and I liked that I was part of a group. My local Jelly only meets monthly but I’ll definitely be going back in February.
Why not find out if there’s a Jelly near you?
Having a theme for a novel or story is something I’ve always struggled with. I can cope with the internal and external conflicts that a character must have and the plotting of the ‘journey’ each character must go on, in order to emerge, changed in some way, at the end of the tale. The theme is something much bigger but also much simpler than all of this other detail. The theme will not be mentioned explicitly in the story but will occur and reoccur subtly throughout the narrative in the actions of your characters. The theme will generally be something to do with being human, for example growing old, maternal love or keeping secrets.
I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the theme before starting a fiction project because often it will evolve organically. For example you may notice that your characters are all motivated by greed, be it in slightly different ways, maybe one is greedy for money but another is greedy for fame and attention.
So what made me start thinking about theme?
A friend of mine, children’s author Lorraine Hellier sent me a useful link to an article on theme on the Reedsy blog. The article compares the structure of a novel to an iceberg split into three sections:
- Plot i.e. the events of the narrative. This is the smallest part of the structure.
- Story i.e. internal and external character conflicts.
- Theme. This is the huge chunk of iceberg beneath the water and drives both the plot and the story.
I’ve found this a useful concept to muse on as I ponder over what should happen next or how a character should act/react in my current WIP.
Knowing your theme makes it much easier to tell others what your book is about. Instead of delving into the detail of the plot, start with a sentence on the theme, for example, “It’s about how power corrupts.” (Animal Farm by George Orwell)
Why not take a look at the Reedsy article and let me know what you think?
When I’m working on the first draft of something, I go for speed. There’s no time to ponder the best word – I just want to get to the end of the story before I forget what’s supposed to happen next!
However, as I work my way back through the manuscript, editing and re-writing, I realise that I’ve used the same words over and over again. This is not good and I have to start thinking of alternatives. That’s when an infograhic like the one below comes in useful and gets the grey cells checking out other suitable words.
The below infographic kindly supplied by Donna Norton of Custom Writing.
If you write for children it’s important to know that the language and sentence structures within your work are suitable for the age range of your target reader. For the rest of us, it can be useful to get an idea of how accessible our writing is, i.e. is it understandable to most people or are our sentences and words too long?
The children’s author Lorraine Hellier recently introduced me to a function within Microsoft Word that measures the readability of manuscripts. It’s very easy to set up. Within Word take the following steps:
- In the ‘File’ tab, click ‘Options’.
- Select ‘Proofing’.
- Ensure the ‘Check grammar with spelling’ box is selected.
- Select the ‘Show readability statistics’ box.
Next time the spell check facility is used within a document, at the end you will be shown a ‘Readability Statistics’ pane. Among other things this shows the Flesch Reading Ease Index, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and the percentage of passive sentences.
The Flesch Reading Ease index works on a 100 point scale, the higher the index, the easier a document is to understand. A score between 60 and 70 is acceptable for most documents.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level gives a manuscript a US school grade level. This link gives a conversion from US school grade to age and to UK school year. Roughly, the US grade + 1 = UK school year. For example 5th grade = year 6 = age 10/11.
Writers for adults will find the passive sentence percentage most useful. Eliminating passive sentences makes any writing more immediate and effective. We often write passive sentences without noticing, so this is a great tool for highlighting the need to go back through a story and rewrite these phrases.
How easy to read (and active!) is your work?