Sunday
May092010

Lazy sentences (lazy author?)

When editing my own work, the following words keep popping up and are almost always indicators of a sentence that just isn’t right or is carrying a few too many kilos:
- here
- there
- though
- now
These are worse than adverbs for me and deserving of instant death.
I blame the sentences. Tisn’t my fault.

Saturday
Mar132010

raison d'ecrire

I’ve finished my first (and second and third) draft of my novel. The first draft took me about 3 years, the next two a few months, and I know I’m not there yet, I’m not at that finished product that I would feel confident in submitting. In fact, I may not be able to get there at all.

I’ve written YA novels before and found that, right or wrong at the time, I didn’t need to redraft a lot. I wrote them, I sent them off soon after, worked with an editor and they were done. Short, sharp, satisfying. For a while. Now, I look back and wonder if I spent enough time on them, if I couldn’t have worked harder on redrafting to a standard that will keep me content to look back at those books and be happy with them. Or is that a pipe dream? Am I always going to look back and see the errors, inconsistencies and literary solecisms in my work ?

This time around, with a manuscript the same length as my previous three novels combined, redrafting is essential. Quite frankly, I’ve overwritten the beginning and underwritten the ending in my rush to finish it. I know what the problems are, I’ve had some feedback from readers that ranges the gamut from compelling mastery (yes, that was from family) to finding it difficult to read (someone more objective). The problem is, and will always be, resisting that intense urge to finish it, wrap it up in a bow and send it off right now. Common advice publishers, agents and established authors give aspiring writers is to rewrite more; you’ve spent all that time writing the first draft, so why not spend a little bit more and polish it up?

So, looking down the barrel of three years of working on a single project, I start to wonder if it’s even of a standard that will be acceptable in a professional market, even after the rewrites. What if it isn’t? Can I accept that it was something that I used to further hone my skills? Can it be a stepping stone to (fingers crossed) future success? To be honest, that’s bloody hard to accept. I don’t have that many books in me and this one took a lot out. To think that all those hours won’t result in a shiny new novel in my hands is very hard to take. And I’m not talking about money (not only). I’m talking about the recognition and reinforcement and validation that comes from having your work accepted by other professionals. It’s easy to say that I write for writing’s sake, for the story, for the act of creation, for the achievement, but I don’t. I write to create stories that others will enjoy. Money may follow, but it hasn’t yet, and may never, so I can dream of it, but I think I have proven to myself that I’m not writing for money.

These are common themes for authors, I would guess. And for artists of all kinds. They are the core of why writing novels can be so demanding. It’s easy to see the final version of a story and be in awe of an author being able to write something so good. In reality, he or she probably didn’t. It was built up, a layer cake of work that resulted in the final version.

So, on that note, in an attempt to aspire to a certain level of quality, I redraft.  

Monday
Feb082010

Diffuse(d) intensity

I’m now in the final stages of redrafting my fourth novel, tentatively titled “The Bhel Sea”. I previously wrote a YA trilogy squarely based on Nordic mythology, but for this latest story, I wanted to create my own world, own peoples and histories. A big ask, and overwhelming at times, but satisfying when little parts of this new world become filled in, bit by bit. On the other hand, this has been the source of a universe of frustration for one (or actually two) big reasons*: my wife and I had a baby just after I started planning the novel. Then two years later we had another one. All of a sudden, my consistency in producing a novel a year nose-dived. I’m absolutely sure this is the same for most people, if not with kids popping out, maybe with other life distractions and interludes and events. But for me, having now finally completed this new, longer work of fiction, I can look back and see just how amazingly difficult it can be to adjust a writing habit around family. And that’s how I thought of it, which already shows the difficulties I had. You don’t adjust anything around family, not when it arrives in the form of newborns. Family was it. Basta. Period. At least at first. Gradually, over weeks and months I found time around work and home to plan some more, write some more, create my world some more. But it’s tough, and frustrating (really? only 30 minutes this week?), and guilt-inducing (shouldn’t I be spending time with daughters/wife/parents instead? shouldn’t I be working on my novel instead of just spending time with daughters/wife/parents?) and the fear of failure and of writing drivel and of never improving sufficiently is ever-present. I guess I had to learn a new way of finding time. I call it “diffuse intensity”.

- think about the story most days, particularly while commuting to generic office job that isn’t particularly fulfilling
- take notes and record ideas at spare moments
- wait days, sometimes weeks
- then write your butt off when you get half a day or even a few hours.

It still adds up. It still got me to the end. Maybe half an hour every day of the week would have been better, but for me it just wasn’t possible.

Most of all, I learned something about what realistic expectations were. Maybe 500 words in a weekend was all that I could do and not the 2000 words I expected. Maybe the final chapters wouldn’t be done in 3 weeks, but would need 12 weeks. In fact, I originally hoped to have the story written in just under 2 years. It’s now almost 3 and a half. And all of it is OK. It really isn’t a race.

Let’s have another list and call them rules. Here’s my five for writing with a young family:

  1. Don’t start. Quit now.
  2. If you do start, don’t expect to get anything more than an hour or two clear in any day week.
  3. Don’t insist on a certain start or finish time. (You won’t get them. If you get a finish time, your 1 year old will bring it forward to 2 minutes after your start time.)
  4. Don’t think you can have special music, or quiet time. (You’ll almost certainly have Dora the Explorer, The Wiggles or Play School on in the background. These can all add flavour to that fight scene you’re writing.)
  5. Be grateful if your partner understands what you are doing, but don’t expect him/her to. Don’t expect him/her to read what you write straight away, or to even like what you have written. (Raising one child is a full-time job. Add more jobs for more kids. Reading a 145,000 word fantasy epic might be one job too many.)

Or just break all these rules, like I did.

*For the record, my kids are each worth a best-seller to me (i.e. true love). This isn’t a “oh-poor-me-who-has-a-family-whinge” but it might sound mighty close to it…. Maybe not three best-sellers though.

Friday
Jan082010

Feeling derivative

Borrow, steal, pervert.
Imitate, warp, combine.
Create.

Monday
Dec072009

Change of scenery

I’ve been working on an adult spec fiction novel for a few years now and finally have a completed first draft… and a list of intended changes almost as long. Redrafting is hard. Editing is hard. New words are much easier, much more attractive. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer, not an editor?

Getting motivated is the key. One trick that works for me is simply moving to another room without all the books, references, maps, notes cluttering up the workspace. Staring at a different patch of wall. Sitting in a different chair. Tis simple, but gets me out of the long write and into a different (and hopefully shorter) mode. Change the font size of your work, change the font, stick the words in a text reader program, and of course, print them out on paper (coloured?) and the words look different without being different. All helps. Can’t really hurt anyway.

Saturday
Nov212009

The Long Write

I often read other published authors talking about how they write non-stop, hours and days and weeks on end. While their writing flows erratically at times – say 2 hours per day sometimes or 9 hours at others – generally they will write every day. This is not my experience at all. I write sometimes when the words are flowing well, and not much at all when it just isn’t happening.

Yes, writing, writing and more writing is key to improving and is absolutely fundamental, but if you have a full-time job, a family, or both, then it’s going to come second, third or fourth. That’s life.

I recall reading about one crazy author who worked out that he could write through half the night to make up for lost time while caring for a newborn… that I found disturbing. No one should mess with sleep deprivation, particularly when sleep deprivation will be thrust upon you anyway with kids. I wouldn’t recommend missing out on real stuff to focus overly on a single aspect of life, such as getting down the required 1500 words that day (unless deadlines are looming!).

Writing is all about practice, so if you are able to write full-time then you will improve at a faster rate than if not, but that doesn’t mean much really for two reasons:

1.      It isn’t a race
2.      Writing is a long term passion.

Being a hermitic writer might be appealing, but perhaps to the detriment of your inspiration. Writers need life experiences to write compelling characters and scenes, don’t they? Writers also need money to live (job), relationships to be happy (family, friends, lovers) and other interests to find life interesting (other passions, hobbies).

To me writing is a part of who I am, but it isn’t the main part. I am not my job or my passion. I am a husband, father, sportsman, pet-owner, traveller, linguist also. Writing fulfils me (although not always) and gives my life meaning, but so do the other aspects of my life.

For the record, I write on average three times per week. Generally when I sit down to write, I bang out more than 1000 words. This works for me. While I’m working full-time and with a new family, my work rate plummeted to maybe once a week. It was frustrating, but this my reality of writing with a family. The prodigious work rate of those sans children is daunting for us mums and dads but the reasons are obvious, so don’t compare yourself to those with buckets of time. Don’t compare yourself to others at all.

Unfortunately I don’t practise what I preach – I compare myself all the time, but I try not to. I’m also trying to eat more vegetables.

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