Tag Archives: Writer Resources

Challenge ‘Literature’ – Write in the Margin

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I think you can learn as a writer isn’t one of technique, or how to come up with ideas. It’s something more subtle, but it affects how you approach writing, and how you feel about it.

Chances are, if you are a writer, or reading this, you love books. For some reason or another, you love books. Bound in leather, paperback or hardback, perhaps even an ebook. You have an appreciation for the written word. The worst thing then, is to be in awe of it. I’ll explain.

I’m a writer, and studying English Literature. I scribble in the books I read. I underline things. I write in the margins, and make notes inside the text itself. Other students give me strange looks. They don’t want to make a mark in the books. Some wish to sell the books on once they’re done. Others, for lack of a better word, think it’s sacrilegious. If you respect a book, if you love literature, you revere it by keeping it free of marks. You don’t write in it, you don’t bend the spine back, you don’t fold pages back. You try and keep it pristine.

However, I think this only creates a barrier between you and books. You can end up making the written word become something sacred. And as such, you unconsciously see it as something untouchable, and unobtainable because you won’t mark a book. Scribbling in margins de-privileges literature. Instead of having a work and solely bears the author’s words, you place your own voice in it. You end up demonstrating that your voice has a place in the bound text, that you have an legitimate right to comment upon it. It is no longer untouchable.

This is important when most fears about writing centre around your writing not being up to par, that your writing is not worth reading.  Writing in a published book breaks down the barrier, the idea that what’s in print cannot be challenged, and what isn’t in print is worth nothing. It challenges your thoughts about literature. It’s no longer authoritative. What’s bound doesn’t dictate how literature can be. You’re free to challenge it.

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Sitting on a Story – What Frustrates You Most About Writing?

The question is, what is the single most frustrating thing about writing? Is it writer’s block? Motivation? Staying positive? What is the the absolute thing that makes you gnash your teeth or your stomach turn?

For me, it’s sitting on a story. And I hate it.

By default, I’ve always thought myself as a novelist. My very first forays into writing were not short stories or pieces of poetry, but attempts to flesh out entire novels from the start. I just leapt into doing it, and it feels right for me. I’m a sucker for character driven narratives, so when it comes to developing characters I’m straight out there using the longest format that allows me to develop them. In fact, the very first novel I finished (just in terms of writing the first draft) was a first person present narrative that took over 140,000 words to get to the final word. Writing that was tough, it had its issues, but what irritates me most is now having to sit on a completed work, either editing it or just leaving it to gather virtual dust on my computer.

Part of the reason I write is because I enjoy telling people stories. I quite simply like it when people like what I write. Sometimes I have an idea that I’m really buzzing about, but I’ve got to sit on the story for various reasons. I want to hear what people think. It’s what makes writing rewarding for me.

The solution should be simple. Post it online. Publish. Self-publish. I should have no excuse to sit on it. But there’s a number of reasons why I’m not. I’ll be brief, but my head tells me to wait. I want to finish my course and university without having publishing ventures worry me. I also want to wait for all the issues going on within the publishing industry to work out.

So in the mean time, I’m here writing novels that no-one else can read.

The Point of Words

I’m quite a cynic when it comes to popular ideas about literature and being a writer. Such ideas are mainly ones that tend to write an unrealistic cheque about the importance of writing and other such topics. In essence, if it paints a picture of writing that casts it as some important activity, I’ll question that.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

For me, this exemplifies the over-zealous and grandiose claims writers can make about their own importance. I don’t think it requires much explanation.

However there is an importance to writing that should be acknowledged and it’s not so straightforward. It has nothing to do with writers having some vital importance in society or the stories they tell, but simply their ability to be perceptive to the intricacies of words and how they interact with each other. In short, the main skill of the ‘writer’ is being able to select, arrange and order words in order to as accurately as possible to convey a message or rouse a desired response. It sounds rather banal, but it’s actually more important than you might think. Recently I’ve been involved with working on a film project at university with bioscience students, and it’s been my job to use my skills with language to convey what they want to say as accurately as possible. Sometimes it was small things like cutting down words and refining scripts, to more subtle things like choosing the correct verbs, arranging the syntax and grammar in the way that will best emphasise what they want to convey. In essence, it is editing – but it takes language and brings it into a state that is smooth but concise enough to emphasise a message.

This is a skill that I think is under-acknowledged. Having a good command of language is one thing, but an understanding of how to manipulate it to accomplish varying goals is quite another. Communicating well is not using a lot of long words and using lots of commas, but having short, sweet sentences that can be the equivalent of large swathes of text.

Therefore as writers, we should not just limit the well known ‘show not tell’ mantra to writing stories, but apply its essence to less creative pursuits. When should we try to show in language and when should we tell? When you are told to use ‘strong writing’ this doesn’t just apply to your novel. It also comes into all other applications of language. What we learn at first for creative endeavours are then skills we can then apply to other situations that demand language use.

 

Writing 101

Approaching Writing – A short guide to constructing ideas and dealing with writer’s block.

A tutorial on how to write – we’ve seen it all before. Why then, should you even bother to read any further into this one? I’m not just going to tell you how to write, but what I’ve learnt through experience. I’m also going to break a few moulds, and show you how some of the well known advice doesn’t exactly work in the simple way others make you believe. As a side note, this is a repost of I guide I previously wrote which got quite a bit of interest from people, and more importantly it seemed to help them. If you read this and find nothing here helps you, that would make me happy actually, as it means you’re beyond whatever help I can offer. Also, if there’s something you’d like to add, please share your tips!

1.The Idea

So, how shall we start? Let’s begin by examining what gets you writing in the first place. That of course is the idea.

It’s obvious, but often neglected when trying to provide advice on how to write better.  Your ideas are the single most important thing that will make your writing great. Being able to write grammatically perfect English doesn’t guarantee a good, thrilling read. Strong, technically flawless writing can’t make that promise either. People read because they love stories, not brilliant writing. I will admit though, the two go hand in hand. A good story is better when written well, and visa versa. However, my personal belief is that ideas have to come first over writing, simply because your writing can be improved by instruction and practice. Ideas however, don’t work in such a logical way. No one can teach you how to come up with a great idea.

Understanding this concept is all well and good, but it doesn’t help you actually come up with that story. Coming up with ideas is an illogical, haphazard process. A story rarely leaps into your head fully formed, and anyone claiming that they have is lying.  Unfortunately, you have to spend time thinking out your story. I’m one of those people who get ideas as they write, but every so often I get stuck too, and I end up needing to plan as well. This means I need to sit and brainstorm ideas down on paper. You can never rely on inspiration striking, because it’s a random and fickle thing. As tempting as it is, waiting until you feel inspired is a sure way to make yourself frustrated about your writing. Why? Because you’ll be staring at a blank document, wanting to write, but unable to because you have no idea where you’re going. It is a horrible cycle that is hard to break out of. The more frustrated you feel, the less you feel like writing. I’ll talk about this later.

Planning will give you the ideas and structure you need to continue writing. To plan out your story, I find it helpful to write down a few short statements that outline what you want to achieve in your book. It is best to have a number of these that differ from each other. Try to write down themes you want to tackle within your book, and any messages you want to convey. To give you some ideas, here are some potential statements.

1. I want to write a fantasy book.
2. I want to create my own fantasy races, not the usual elves, dwarves and orc races.
3. I want to write battle scenes as well as adventure ones.
4. The natural world is important to me, so I will write scenes that deal with nature vs. industry, or machines.

So, those seem to be fairly obvious, formulaic statements. The point of these it to serve as starting points for you to branch out from with increasingly complex ideas and statements. It’s obvious, but you must always deal with what seems glaringly simple, even if it feels stupid. It works as a focal point from which you can better elaborate and expand upon. This means that when it comes to writing you have an idea of what you want to write, and therefore will spend less time agonising over what to write in the first place. Hopefully then, the words will come much easier.

A crucial thing to understand about the planning stage is that it takes a while for ideas to come. Just keep brainstorming, keep writing notes. If you want to be more detailed, write notes for specific chapters, scenes and characters to help you get a better idea of your story. You must be patient and disciplined. Ideas develop over time, and you must be willing to invest time before you get them.

2.When to Write

I briefly touched on this in the previous section, but there is in fact a time to write. For a lot of writers I’ve come across, most say they only write when they feel inspired. This is what I feel distinguishes serious writers from casual ones, but crucially writers who’ll never finish that book and those who will.

I used to subscribe to this style of doing things, but now I don’t. Unfortunately, writing when you feel inspired is a bit of a self-destructive cycle. I’m not being dramatic either. Most of the time, you won’t feel inspired to write. Let’s be honest, we’ve all told ourselves we’ll do it some other time. This means you will struggle to make any meaningful progress on your stories. This in turn, will make you frustrated, which will increasingly leave you feeling even less inspired than before. It’s an unpleasant cycle that doesn’t leave you with good feelings about your writing ability.

In my case, I spent two years writing when I felt like it, and I only came up with 40,000 words on my book. At first, that feels like a sizable amount, but when you break the years down, you realise how little that actually is. With some simple maths, it means that in 730 days, I would have written on average 55 words. Of course, you can’t write every day, but I did waste a lot of time doing nothing simply because I didn’t feel like writing, and then telling myself that any lack of progress was fine because I didn’t feel inspired or even in the mood.

The hard truth is, if I hadn’t gotten my act together, I doubt I would have finished it at all. I certainly didn’t feel good about it either. To me, the amount of time you spend working on a story is only justified when you finish it. If you quit before you do, then you’ve just wasted all the time you spent on it. Besides, if you want to be a published author, you can’t write 55 words a day.

The key to feeling motivated when it comes to writing is all about setting goals for yourself. You’ve got to be disciplined in order for this to work. Motivation is key. I work by writing a thousand words a day, for five days a week. This means I can have the weekend off as a break so I don’t get fed up with writing the same story all the time. It allows me some time where I won’t feel guilty about not writing. Furthermore, it will take on average around forty-five to an hour and fifteen minutes to write a thousand words. What this system means is that in two weeks, I can have ten thousand words written down. What would have taken me two years, takes only two months. So I neither get fed up with writing, nor frustrated with a lack of progress.

However, such a system should be tailored to what works for you. Find a balance between words written and time. For me, I put aside an hour in my day so I can write my thousand words, without having to worry about other obligations. It will probably be a different story for you. Just remember to make a target system that you are happy with, and most importantly, provides progress without making you feel like a slave to your keyboard.

In this part, I’ll also deal with writer’s block. I’m sorry to say, but it’s a case of tough love right now. Firstly, there is no such things as writer’s block. If you are disciplined and prepared, you will have no problems writing. In such, writer’s block really speaks of laziness on the part of the writer, because it is used as a way of justifying a lack of progress to themselves.

Yes, I realise I’m challenging the orthodoxy.

Why do I say this? Because I speak from experience. If I couldn’t be bothered to get writing, I’d just cite writer’s block to myself and hop off to play a computer game. It was an easy excuse, and one that I could use to not make me feel bad about writing. What made it worse was that I felt that I could only write when I felt inspired, because I thought that forcing myself to write would mean I would write badly.

I pretty much impaled myself on a double-edged sword.

Fortunately, I was wrong. As I said, with planning and self-discipline, I could write just as well as when I felt inspired. Sure, there were days when it felt like I was wading through waist high mud, but when I stopped, looked at my notes, I could get going a lot faster. Even if I wasn’t happy with it, I just kept going until the work I had to do was done. When I came back to read it, I realised that it was just me. There was no marked difference between pieces when I felt inspired and when I didn’t. Besides, you’ll always go back and make edits later, so you don’t need to worry about writing brilliantly first time.

That’s the hard truth of it, and it’s something not many people say. I only snapped out of such methods recently. I’d just watched an entire summer holiday slide by with no progress whatsoever. The truth was, I was disgusted with myself. I spent an entire summer doing nothing but lying around, being lazy and playing computer games but I still would call myself a writer. At the end of it, I had nothing to show for it, and that’s what made me feel bad. That in turn, provided me with the kick to actually get something meaningful done. Finding the time to write just becomes harder as you grow up, and life in general will test your commitment to writing. Sometimes, you’ll have to write while half asleep on the train back from work, or just before you go to bed. You might even have to understand that writing will have to fit around other more important duties, and this will test your motivation to do so in the first place.