Essential writing skills: plugging on, even when it’s boring

One of the biggest challenges in writing is producing even when the well’s apparently run dry. As anybody who’s worked in a newsroom will attest, deadlines don’t wait for the muse.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s true of book writing too. Some authors perhaps enjoy the sounds of deadlines whistling past, but that’s not likely to please publishers.

Publishing is a business, you see – a serious one, with low profit margins. Production is dovetailed, and if a book misses its slot, that’s actually significant.

This is where contests like National November Novel Writing Month come in – apart from a challenge to write to length, they’re also a challenge to write to time. On average, 1667 words a day – though, in reality, some days would doubtless be more productive, others less. Remembering always that word count is a tool, not a target.

So how do you keep going when the muse has left you and gone to Mars? How about trying one or more of these?

  1. Sit down with your story plan – er, you DID plan it, didn’t you? – and look through what you’ve done, then what you have to do. Find another part of the story, yet to be written; write that and then back-fill.
  2. Re-read what you’ve written so far. Even revise it. Does this inspire enthusiasm? Some authors – and I think Roald Dahl was one of them – do this routinely as a way to get their mind back into the track of their work.
  3. Brute force also works. Sit down, start writing a sentence. Then another. Then another. Yes, it’ll likely be dull plod prose, but that’s what word processors are for.
  4. Do something even more boring, like cleaning up the kitchen or vacuuming. Don’t think about what you’re writing. Not for too long – maybe 15-20 minutes. Let’s say just long enough to earn domestic brownie points. Then get back to the writing.
  5. Run a contest with yourself – can I write the next sentence? How quickly?

The fact is that writing’s hard work. But even the dull patches can also be made fun, if you let it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the importance of styling

I’ve always argued that to write quickly and well means getting the fundamentals right first – the structure – and worrying about the style later. It’s a technique that’s really only come into its own with the advent of word processors – though, and without any sense of paradox, I also believe it’s important to at least plan using pen and paper, because of the way that different thought processes emerge.

Wright_Typewriter2Once you’ve got that draft, of course, the issue is that styling – and, in its own way, that’s as critical a part of the whole process as the structure. So what do I mean by styling? This is the front end of the writing; the way in which an author adds meaning, nuance and their characteristic ‘voice’. It can change the way the work is received – can drive readers off, or pull them in, depending on how it’s handled. It is, in short, a very powerful tool.

Styling involves getting the right words, the right phrasing, the right vocabulary and the right tone to the sentences. The word ‘right’, in this sense, is relative; it’s a value judgement. Different authors have different preferences – and so they should. If we all styled the same way, life would be boring. That said, a consistent style is often used by commercial magazines as a part of their branding. Take Time or National Geographic, for instance, where different contributions are re-styled in editorial to be consistent with the corporate ‘brand’.

In these and other magazines – including some I’ve written for – the author’s contribution is re-worked to meet a style without changing the meaning or content. And that principle also applies to your own novel – where the end point isn’t necessarily a ‘corporate’ style, but where you are trying to get it into a consistent shape that reflects your desired ‘voice’.

Some writers look on it as ‘re-writing’, but it isn’t – using the approach I recommend, it’s integral to the process. The time and effort required to get the styling right is often at least equal to the time and effort required to develop the structure and prepare an initial draft. The art of styling is also the art of preservation – keeping tight to the structure and themes you’d originally worked into the book.

If the book has been structured correctly – in the case of a novel, around the character arc with the narrative events and setting acting as backdrop – there should be no problems with extraneous scenes or extra characters, or padding, or any of the other irrelevancies that detract from the function of the character arc as the key device for capturing and holding readers.

Sometimes, of course, issues crop up structurally along the way as you review the work – meaning some re-work. But ideally, not too much.

So how does ‘styling’ work in the specific? More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: keeping focus as you write

It’s often difficult to keep the focus going as you write. Apart from the creative muse running dry there’s the relentless call of – well, everything. Noises outside, social media, The Internet and all the rest.

None of it is helped by the fact that these days we’re conditioned to have an attention span of around – OOOH, POSSUM! – fifteen seconds.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

That’s one of the down-sides of the internet where, according to the figures I’ve seen, the average user flips between media around 27 times an hour. That’s a little over two minutes per interaction – Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, texting, messages and so on. We are conditioned to have an endless hunger for new, an endless quest for instantly gratifying entertainment.  All of it shallow, transient and brief. And even brief sometimes isn’t brief enough. I’ve seen stats for YouTube videos in which, typically, viewers last about 90-100 seconds into a four-minute video before flipping off to something else.

It’s not limited to the web either. TV scripting usually demands an ‘action moment’ every eight seconds or so – a hook – as a device for capturing channel surfers. That’s had its impact on the pace and rhythm of the stories which, by earlier standards, can best be described as frenetic.

We live in a world where instant fun, instant gratification and constant novelty is expected, where any one thing can capture us for seconds or at best a couple of minutes at a time. A world of derp, not to put too fine a point on it. That stands in diametric opposition to the sustained single-thread concentration demanded of reading – and, more especially, of writing. But that conditioning is insidious, especially because we usually write on the very same tool we use to get that massive wealth of content flowing past us.

So how do we get around it?

There is only one answer. Ignore the distractions. Switch off the internet. Turn off your phone. Take yourself away from screens, except the one you’re working on. Or switch off the computer altogether, sit down with pen and paper, and get going for a solid planning session as a first step to writing.

Most of us have to wedge writing in around other things, and that can be turned to an advantage too. If you schedule your writing time – even a thirty-minute burst – it can sometimes be possible to also orchestrate it so there are no interruptions.

The very best writers do it. Jonathan Franzen apparently writes on a laptop disconnected from the internet, sitting in a room facing a blank wall. No distractions; just the inner voice.

It really is the only way to go.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: action, contemplation, or both?

One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is finding the elusive balance between action and contemplation.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

On the face of it, the split is easy. Novels that look inward – that appear superficially plotless, slow, boring and which rely on internal character mood as driver – are typically classed as literature. They are the sort of books that school curricula use to torture disinterested kids with. Such tomes have narrow appeal, often snobbishly asserted by those who like them for its supposed ‘high-brow’ nature, or used by the author as a device to validate themselves around intellectual pretension.

Tales with more action and an ability to capture the interest of a much wider audience are more usually ‘populist’, often dissed as ‘shallow’ or ‘pulp’ by those who imagine they have ‘higher’ interests.

Personally I don’t regard any of these things as ‘ranked’. Indeed, I don’t draw a distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘popular’ fiction. Really, it’s different aspects of the same thing – a way of taking a reader on an emotional journey. And from my perspective, populist literature is the way to go because it appeals to such a wide audience. But that doesn’t mean ditching character contemplation.

Want proof? Go read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. It’s a graphic novel – the bottom of the food chain as far as the literati are concerned. A comic. Er – isn’t it? Actually, it made Time magazine’s top hundred novels of all time, putting it up there with Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye and Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings among others.

Gibbons and Moore nailed it as far as I am concerned – producing characters who were rounded, multi-dimensional, and where the plot was effectively driven by their needs as characters. Why have a cardboard superhero when you can have a neurotic one? It could have been presented as literature – but it wasn’t. It subverted the whole genre of the graphic novel.

What does this mean for writers? It means that the onus is on all writers, whether aiming for a populist market or not, to build due contemplation and character development into their stories. The whole essence of fiction writing is the character arc – this is where the tension comes from. It is where the reader is captured. The narrative adventures of the plot, however exciting they may be, are backdrop to that arc.

That’s true of all fiction writing – literature or not.

Soon – how to make that work. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft

There is an old adage – attributed to Will Shetterly – that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. Something of a cliché these days, though it also happens to be true.

Wright_Typewriter01For me the more interesting point is why it’s true. And that comes down to the nature of writing, which is all about an emotional journey – both for the author and the reader. That’s true of all writing, fiction and non-fiction.

The challenge authors face is translating that journey into the written word. Ideas, inevitably, emerge as concepts. They have a crystalline clarity and perfection in the mind that vanishes in the effort to write them down. Part of the problem is that we usually think in simultaneous concepts, whereas writing is a linear thread. The art of writing is the art of translating from one to the other, and it’s difficult. But there is also the fact that words, themselves, are imperfect tools for expressing the inexpressible. For beginning writers, for whom words are not yet their servants, the task is doubly hard.

All authors wrestle with the issue – it is this, more than any other – that has prompted such remarks as Hemingway’s declaration that we are all apprentices. It’s true.

What that means in practise is that the transition from ‘no draft’ to ‘first draft’ is often a struggle, because the written words –which make the concept concrete – inevitably never live up to the imagined perfection in the mind of the author. A large part of that is because our concepts-in-mind always come with the emotional sense, a feeling, attached to them – and this is what has to be translated, somehow, to the page.

It’s that act of translation that is the challenge. But once it has been expressed – once that concept has been pinned down in the form of words, however bad or imperfectly, a draft can then be worked on. That’s especially true in this age of word processors.

So that, in a nutshell, is why a bad first draft is always better than none. It’s a first expression of that translation of concept to words – a first effort to meet the challenge. It gives a writer something to work from, to ponder. Even to throw away, if required. But it’s better than nothing, because a concept in the mind, un-expressed, will always be perfect in ways that writing cannot be.

Do you get frustrated with that transition from concept to word?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: fifty-plus shades of character

It was Ernest Hemingway, reputedly, who insisted that fiction authors should not create ‘characters’ – they should create real people.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He didn’t mean use real people – oh, except a bit – but he did mean that novellists, playwrights and the rest shouldn’t assemble ‘characters’, Lego-fashion. They instead needed to portray the smooth and complex dimensionality of real people – who come, needless to say, in far more than fifty shades of grey.

That, of course, is far easier said than done. Real people are tricky; they can say one thing and mean or do another. They seldom present as all-good or all-bad. They have motives. They have ambitions. They learn. From all this the author has to derive not only a believeable character – but also their character arc, their development as an individual. This is what the novel will be all about, irrespective of genre or plot.

And do you think the challenge ends there? Nooooo. You see, writing is always linear; you can portray but one idea at a time, in a sequence. What’s more, the surface narrative is always going to be at least one step away from the deeper character. Writers have to learn not merely how to unpick the deeper character, but how to portray the deeper character through a linear sequence of carefully selected narrative events.

The obvious word that springs to mind about this point is ‘aaaargh!’ – but never fear. It’s do-able. Yes, it takes practise – but then, everything does. And the results are well worth it. For now – with more detail to follow – try this:

  1. Think ‘real’, not ‘constructed character’. What motivates your character?
  2. What are they looking for – is there motion to their nature? This could offer clues to the character arc.
  3. What story or event might best suit this character? Yes- that’s right. It’s best to start with a character and believeable character arc first. Then look for a story for them. And yes, I know that’s precisely the reverse of the way most people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: learning from Heinlein about keeping that plot plausible

It’s at least two generations since science fiction became mainstreamed – no longer popularly viewed as mere kiddie fiction and fodder for nerdish drop-outs, but a core part of everyday fiction consumption.

XE atomic rocket motor - exactly as Heinlein envisaged - being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

XE atomic rocket motor – exactly as Heinlein envisaged – being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The cause of it, by and large, has been the combined impact of Star Wars and Star Trek – both so popular they’ve become culturally iconic, well outside the limits of the sci-fi genre.

So it’s OK to write science fiction, and a lot of credible writers do. For those writing sci-fi, of course – and I figure that a fair proportion of NaNoWriMo novels and other fiction will fall into that category – the challenge is always keeping the stories plausible. It’s this plausibility that establishes and then sustains the suspension of disbelief, however way out the setting might be. And that’s one of the keys to capturing and holding reader interest.

So how’s it done? To my mind one of the doyens of ‘plausible’ sci-fi was Robert A Heinlein, author of Stranger In a Strange Land among other classics, but also of a dozen ‘juvenile’ novels set in what – by 1950s standards – was a far-away future. But they were completely credible stories.

He did it in three ways. First off, he found a balance between wild imagination and realism. The realism became the foundation. In Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958) for instance, incorporated a very realistic description of a spacesuit, thanks to Heinlein’s own work designing pressure suits for the US Navy in World War Two. It was completely credible – in fact the A7L suits that NASA used for real on the Moon a decade later were pretty much to this specification. Much of his future was based on what he knew was plausible – and, from a 1950s perspective, on its way. His ‘atomic’ rockets used NERVA technology – a decade away from hardware when he wrote about them – to propel his interplanetary rockets on real-life Hohmann transfer orbits. His ‘torch’ ships employed the mass-energy equation E = MC <exp> 2, and were limited by Einstein.

This meant that readers didn’t blink when Heinlein also introduced an undefined magic space-drive to propel the Wormface ships in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, adding a plot revolving around multiple dimensions and time travel. In fact, given that he wrote some of the hardest science fiction ever published, Heinlein got away with a great deal of hand-waving – telepathy in Time For the Stars, ‘monatomic hydrogen’ and the ‘mass-converter’ in most of his books, the Horst-Conrad ‘impeller’ drive that ‘gripped’ the ‘fabric’ of space-time in Starman Jones (that phrase really is woo woo, as Heinlein very well knew), along with artificial gravity in the same book. And then there were the FTL ships that ended Time For The Stars.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith and wearing a A7L suit that, in engineering terms, was a LOT like the fictional suit Heinlein described a decade earlier. Photo:NASA.

But those weren’t the only ingredients for suspending disbelief. Into that mix he also stirred credible plots based around realistic characters. And that is the secret, because it grounds the story, however way-out the setting, in the real world. In a world the reader can identify with. A world that is ‘different’, perhaps, but not ‘too different’. It all comes back to the fact that writing is all about people – people that you or I might feasibly identify with – or get to meet and know – doing things that you or I might also, quite feasibly, also do.

It’s all about character arcs, which remain the back-bone of novels – even science fiction stories. Heinlein was very well aware of this. His ‘juveniles’ brought it out particularly, because they were all coming-of-age stories. A well-established arc, and one of which Heinlein had complete mastery.

That’s why his stories were plausible. And those ingredients for plausibility also made his tales much more than just science fiction – with their realistic characters, facing realistic human problems, his novels demonstrated that Heinlein was one of America’s literary greats. In my opinion, he was up there with his near-contemporary, Ernest Hemingway.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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