Good, better, best

Writing a story is not the defining aspect of what makes ‘a writer’. When you type those words ‘the end’ it is really just the beginning for that story. The first draft is just that, the first of (often) many drafts. Every scene, every sentence, every word then goes under the magnifying glass. “Does it contribute to the story, is it clear what is going on, is there a more eloquent way to say that?”

The editing process can take as much or as little time as you let it. No writer will ever read a piece without spotting a little typo, or turn of phrase that they would tweak if it was on their computer screen.

So when do you know when you are done?

Generally you have a gut instinct about when your story goes from being ‘okay’ to being ‘good’. As for when it is great, well that will depend entirely on your mood. Great is not so easy to spot. This leaves the writer with the question; when should the editing stop?

We all want to put our best work out there, but given that we will always change a story when we re-read it, it follows that we can never actually attain ‘our best’ work. It is a moving target with no solid definition.  

For me, when I feel like my edits stop growing the story and I am getting caught up in semantics, I know it is time to set the story free. Is that a good yardstick? I really don’t know. I would love to know how others know when they have got their piece to be ‘the best it can be’ and (more importantly) when they know that it is still not quite there.

Nat

Breaking the rules

A few years ago a major book retailer ran a survey of its customers asking for their favourite book. These were then collated into their ‘Top 100 books of all time.’ Clearly the marketing department did not look far enough into the future, as every other book store, including the original one involved, went on to release a ‘top 100 books’ every year after. At least they dropped the ‘of all time’ on subsequent lists.

I have slowly been making my way though that original list ever since. The most recent book I read was “A fortunate life” by A. B. Facey. This book was originally written by Albert for his family, so his story wouldn’t be forgotten. When he sent it to be printed (20 copies for his family) the publishers asked if they could publish it as a novel, and so an Australian masterpiece was born.

I say masterpiece because I loved the book. I read it with wonder, and awe and all the things you want a book to bring to you (and some you didn’t know until you got there). The thing is the book is not ‘correctly’ written. Conversations between different people are on the same line. The same word starts every paragraph on two concurrent pages and there is a lot of exposition. But it was wonderful. If you want to know what it was like to live in Australia around the turn of last century, this is a superb and entertaining way to learn about it.

This reading experience reminded me of when I was reading Cormac McCarthey’s “The Road” –where I was at least 15 pages in before I realised there were no paragraphs. For me it didn’t matter. When someone has a great story to tell, and they know how to engage you, then clearly the rules do not apply. This takes great skill.

Breaking rules for the sake of it will, I’m sure, ruin a story. But when it comes naturally, or is committed with an educated eye, then I think it can work. Having said that, I do like paragraphs, and I like separate lines for each person talking. Often rules are there for a reason, so make sure you know why you are breaking them if you decide to go down that track. If people don’t notice when they read it, then that’s a good sign that it works with your story.

Nat

The Rapture

Just in case you didn’t venture onto the internet over the past two days, yesterday was predicted to be ‘The Rapture’. For those of you heathens who don’t know what that means, the Cliff notes version is The Rapture is when the ‘good’ people are taken up to heaven, leaving the rest of us behind to face the apocalypse.

So it has to beg the question, was there really NO Rapture, or were we just not good enough? I’m waiting for the reports of piles of clothes or missing people, but they haven’t surfaced yet. I guess the 6pm deadline is still sliding across the globe so we may not see anything until tomorrow, but I’m sure we’ll see something, possibly someone disappearing while planking.

I’m not sure if it was just the short lead time I had (about 24 hours) between finding out about this prediction, and when it was meant to play out, or maybe I’m just getting a little immune to the internet sensations. Whatever it is, I forgot to look at the clock at 6PM and pay attention to any feelings of tingling.

The thing is, now when someone survives for 100 days eating only the juice of squeezed bugs and their own snot, you wonder who their agent is. Are we being inoculated against amazing possibilities by the very tool which is making it so easy to find out about them?

Anyway, for all you other not good enough’s I don’t want you to have a completely Rapture free weekend, and if it means anything, this was the only Rapture I got to experience as well;

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Finding new words

I’ve had a lot of time to write in recent months, but I’ve mainly spent the time editing – something I usually put off as much as possible. Recently though, I’ve had three deadlines which all required new words. Amazingly enough I made all three!

The thing that strikes me is that often I have wanted to write new words, but when I looked at the screen nothing would come. So I turned back to the editing, something for which I had hard deadlines which also counted as writing. What changed between then and now to see the new words flow; it was having externally set deadlines.

One of my favourite short stories was a competition entry (which didn’t win) that I started writing at 8:30PM on the night it was due. I entered the story at 11:45PM –apparently it was the last submission before entries closed. Yes it could have (and has since) benefitted from a solid edit and a 24 hour rest, but without that external deadline it would never have been written.

This led me to ask the question of why I respect my self-set editing deadlines but not the new word ones. Finally it came to me; I had committed to friends and family about when they would be able to buy my novel on line, so lots of people knew that deadline. My new words had no such external commitment, they were just numbers in a spreadsheet.

Lucky for me my writers group is about to start a new WriMoFoFo (write more for four) and while we run it anonymously, I’m going to use it as a way to make myself more externally accountable. I will publish my targets and my actual achieved figures each Sunday.

Please feel free to join me, it starts on June 11th –so you still have plenty of time to plan what you want to tackle. For more info about WriMoFoFo see my last WriMoFoFo post. Let me know how you are tracking, even just in vague non-numerical terms. Maybe we can all get a few new words written!

Nat

I’ve got a great idea for a story!

One of the most common things you hear from people when they find out you are a writer (after, “I want to write a book one day”) is “I’ve got a great idea for a story.” If they don’t want to write it themselves, they kindly offer it to you. It is amazing, though, how often the ‘story’ idea being passed on is not a story;

“A car chase with Mr Whippy vans,” was one story I was offered.
“So why are ther Mr Whippy vans chasing each other?” I asked, drawing a very perplexed look from my friend.
“Well, you’re the writer, you figure that bit out.”
–See that is not a story, that’s a scene.

Another;
“Cats take over the world, and it ends up being a better place.”
My turn to look perplexed. “How?”
“Dunno, but it’s a great story idea.”
–Again, that’s not a story, that’s a premise.

The easiest way to work out if what you have in your head is a story is to work out if it has a beginning, middle and end. There are many other aspects which are required to make it a *good* story, but without those first three elements you haven’t even got the skeleton to start with.

Let me add a rider that not everything that has been passed on to me has been bad, most are great ideas, but I usually make a point of only writing stories that form in my head. If I can be inspired by the idea, and by inspired I mean I will change many aspects of the original plot, then I might write it. But if the world of that story doesn’t take seed and grow in my mind, I’ll leave it to disappear into the ether, because at the heart of it, it’s not mine.

So if you have a great idea for a story, don’t tell people about it, write it! Your images and feelings will shine through so much better than someone else who is just trying to capture what they cannot properly see for themselves. I don’t want you to tell me about your story idea, I want to read it instead!   

Happy writing,

Nat

The dark mask of the internet

Dark mask of the internet

Have you ever noticed how even the most mild mannered person can turn into a screaming lunatic when you get them behind the wheel of a car? Well it seems the internet is having a similar effect on people.

Recently I have come across some nasty instances of cyber bullying or harsh judgemental attacks, and I refuse to believe that there are really that many rude people out there. I think the relative anonymity afforded by the internet comments and rating systems gives people free rein to let out all their personal frustrations on others who are simply sharing their art or feelings.

Kirstyn McDermott said it beautifully in her blog post about a girl who (possibly naively, possibly as a marketing stunt) had a go at someone for giving her book a ‘bad’ review. The personal attacks she has suffered are completely out of proportion to what she did and her Amazon rating has been trashed.

Rebecca Black released a song with rather silly lyrics called ‘Friday’ and as a result she has been subjected to abuse and death threats, death threats! But it doesn’t even need to be that extreme, just read the comments at the bottom of any of the Woman’s Day True Confessions and you will see people condemning others based on a 500 word write up of what is usually a very complicated and painful situation.   

It is heartening to see that in all these cases you also see other anonymous warriors in the comments line-up defending these people, but it is sad that it only takes such little things to fire people up to the point where this defence is needed. Criticism is just a form of opinion, which by definition can be neither right nor wrong, so it should be offered as such.

I remember not so long ago a song was released that made me want to rip my own ears off each time I heard it, I won’t tell you what it was, but it involved a frog whose sanity was in question. Did I threaten the producers of the ‘song’, did I send hate mail? No, I turned it off if it came on the radio, and I certainly didn’t buy it so I could give it a bad rating. I also, grudgingly, acknowledged that for some people it was not a torture to listen to it, so perhaps it did have a place in the world. Just not my world.

So far I’ve been lucky enough not to be subject to this sort of attack, but unfortunately it seems that anyone who puts themselves out there for long enough will eventually suffer this fate. Some even call it a sign of success. I would ask you though, next time you are so fired up to want to leave a critical comment somewhere, just think about how you would say it if you were talking to their face? Perhaps if we all did this then comments would be more about how to fix problems rather than pointing out perceived errors and the assumed character flaws that led to them.  

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now!

Nat

The rollercoaster of rejection

Each time I get that reply email in my inbox; RE: Submission; story title goes here, my heart skips a beat. My email does not give me a little preview of what the body of text says, so for a moment it can go either way. Is it an acceptance, or a rejection? I won’t know until I open it.

As you can imagine more often it is the ‘we enjoyed reading your story, but felt it was not right for our publication’ version of email rather than the ‘we loved your story and we want to publish it’ type, but for every sub there is a moment where in my heart it has been accepted. Especially when the email is about a novel.

A perverse part of me enjoys that moment, and I have been known to put off opening the email so I can draw out the feeling a little bit longer. When I open it and get the bad news of rejection I used to feel hurt, but I’ve found a great way of getting over that is to have my next market picked out so that I can quickly crush the pain of rejection with the hope of a new submission (after re-reading the story, of course, to ensure I am still actually happy with it, it might be getting rejected for a reason).

Then there is the other side of rejection which is not so exciting, and that’s no response at all. If the market listing says they don’t respond but consider it rejected if they haven’t responded within a certain time frame, I’ll put a note in my submissions tracking spreadsheet so the date is flagged, then I take that as a rejection. But there are some places that just say nothing and give no hints about what they are thinking.

This is a bad position to be in. Do they like it and they are just finding the right time/place to publish it? Have they lost it? Was there a change in staff? Did they lose my contact details? Or have they dismissed it and just cheated me of the few seconds of hope with the response email?

Unfortunately this is all part of the process, and you need to have a plan. Mine is simple, for a short story; after three months query (unless their market listing says not to). If they don’t respond to the query, after six months consider it rejected (you may want to start sending it to other markets before you get to six months). I’ve never had a story accepted after six months with no contact from the publisher beforehand, so I think it is a safe to assume they don’t want it. For a novel I do the same, but query after six months, reject after twelve.

There is nothing wrong with being rejected, and generally you get a very generic rejection email, so you can come up with all your own excuses (didn’t fit in with the existing line-up, they already had a story with a similar theme, wasn’t genre enough etc.). But once you have had a story rejected a few times you would be wise to take a closer look at it, or give it to someone else to read and give you some hints as to why it was rejected.

Remember, each rejection is one step closer to that story’s acceptance! And I promise, even your favourite author has had good work rejected. Don’t let it get you down!

Happy writing,

Nat

But what if this happened instead…

Often when I’m reading a story I think I’ve picked where it is going, or what the twist is going to be, only to find that it doesn’t eventuate. Sometimes when that happens my idea is better than what does happen.

An example for me was when I was reading Twilight. I loved the way Stephenie Meyer was foreshadowing for the mother to have some vampire-related connection which explained Bella’s irresistible attraction. The mother was carefully kept out of the picture, only communicating by phone, and she had lived in the area where the novel is set when she was younger. Perfect set-up.

I couldn’t wait for the big reveal and what it would mean for Bella, but apparently it never happened. I say apparently as I didn’t get past the second book, so I had to ask a friend who had read them all. I was just so disappointed that such a perfectly set-up twist was squandered. 

So what is the etiquette on writing a story based on an idea you got from someone else’s story? The truth is it happens all the time, and people write the stories without any issue. In fact most of the time you could read both stories and have no idea that one inspired the other.

Where it can be problematic is when you get inspired by a submission from someone in your writers group, or from ‘the slush pile’ if you are reader for a publisher. If you are in either of these situations I think you have to let the idea go. In my writers group I’ll share my twist with the author, and if they like it they can have it, if not I wave goodbye as it disappears back out into the collective unconscious to be picked up by someone else.

So will I write the vampire story with the mother twist? Of course, in fact I already have. I just need to find a short story publisher without ‘PLEASE NO MORE VAMPIRE STORIES’ on its submission page and then I’ll send it off. Looks like quite a few people have been inspired by the Twilight saga!

Nat

If life as we know it ends today, I’m stuffed!

Yes, you would think we are all a bit stuffed if the world as we know it ends, but the recent change to winter weather has underscored how I don’t even have the basics of survival. I have built three fires in the past week and none of them have kept burning. Once the jiffy firelighter is spent, the whole thing just dies in a puff of stinky smoke. Who would have thought it would be so hard?

Perhaps I should have gone to brownies instead of ballet as a child, or watched a few more episodes of Bear Grylls, but at least I have come to this realisation before it is too late, there is still time to learn. The real question is; how many other things are there that I take so for granted that I am not even aware of my lack of ability?

I’ve never made a crystal radio set, so communicating with other post-apocalyptic survivors is out. I’m unable to weed my veggie patch at the moment as I’m not sure which of the little green bits are weeds and which are baby vegetables. And even if they do grow, I don’t know how to harvest the seeds so they will grow when planted the following year (which part of the plant do carrot seeds even come from). And that’s just for starters.

How ironic that in this modern age, when we are closer to the end of times than ever before (purely by virtue of the fact that the end is at the end and now is the closest we can be to that), we are less prepared than at any other time in history to take care of ourselves.

Perhaps I need to inject that little piece of information into some of my post-apocalyptic fiction as a warning to others. It might be a very cold day indeed on December 22nd 2012 if I can’t get my fire to stay alight. I suppose I could always just stockpile the jiffys!

Nat