Tag Archives: Technique

Lists

I love task lists. Their big brothers are Excel spreadsheets, which I also adore, but task lists hold a special kind of magic for me. They are a promise of achievements yet to come. Just writing the list gives you a taste of what it is like to complete them.

I have an ongoing list of stories I want to complete. Each title has a box next to it for me to tick (in red so it stands out) when it is completed, and a space for the date. This list is constantly growing, but also looks very nicely actioned. That’s probably my favourite list.

I also have a weekly list of 20 tasks; 10 personal items, 10 writing items. Anything not completed by the end of the week gets rolled over to the following week. I try to always achieve a pass mark, but sometimes I only scrape a ‘C-‘. I’ve been doing these task lists for over 10 years.

This week I ramped it up a notch. After writing my 20 tasks I divvied them up into daily tasks and allocated them to each day of the week. This was in an effort to stop me from getting to Sunday and finding I have 15 things to complete (as is often the case).

I still have one day of the week to go, but it has worked brilliantly! Even on days when I thought I had my evenings free, but then they turned out not to be so, I still completed my tasks. I skipped out on most of my usual TV viewing for the week, and got to bed a little later than usual on two nights, but the tasks got done.

I won’t lie, it was a lot of work and a bit of stress, but as I ticked off those tasks at the end of each day, I had an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. Not only that, but for the first time in months I’m going to be getting at least an A level pass even if I do nothing for the rest of Sunday –and that feels fantastic!!!

For those not used to task lists, a good way to set them up is to think about your major goals (finish writing your novel, go back to Uni, whatever) and then break those down into smaller and smaller steps toward the big goal (write novel plan, find academic transcript etc.). Those are the steps you put on your weekly task list. If you find you are not getting around to ticking them off, break them into even smaller steps. It is amazing how much you can achieve. Try it!

A title is the ultimate flash fiction

I sometimes have a problem coming up with titles. I pretty much know that if the title hasn’t come with the idea (which sometime does happen), then I’m going to struggle with it. Titles are important for conveying a little bit of what the story is about, so you need to get them right.

I have heard a few writers say that if they can’t come up with a title, then it means the story is not working. I think that is just one of those quirky superstitions that writers like to embrace. I’m not bagging them, I’ve got a million crazy superstitions around my own writing, but ‘trouble with titles as an indicator of value of story’ is not one of them.

Thanks to Adelaide writers’ week, I now know that other authors also struggle with the title. One mentioned that she came up with about 50 titles and all were rejected by the publisher. I’m impressed she managed that many, I normally give up at about 10, 15 tops, and then I pick the best of the bad bunch.

My approach to the title is similar to how I attack flash fiction or Tweeting. First I write down everything I want to say, and then I work on making it shorter… And shorter… And shorter. If I can get it down to one word, fantastic, but I think I’m doing well once it under three words. It may have lost some of the meaning by then, but I hope it at least gives a hint of what the story is about.

I think a really good title can pick up a few readers you might not otherwise have nabbed, but I think the title would have to be pretty woeful to divert someone who might otherwise have checked it out. But given my last three publications were entitled ‘Glide’, ‘Glow’ and ‘Life’ you might do better to get advice elsewhere when it comes to titles.

What to leave out?

I’m writing a fantasy story set in a desert. This has presented a number of problems; what do you build your houses out of when you have very little wood, where do you get water, what do you eat? I have spent a very long time working out the answers to these and many other questions. So how much of that does the reader need to know?

Obviously the first thing to consider is the length of the work. If it is a short story you probably don’t need to go into detail about the politics of the day and how the city is physically able to run if those things are not pertinent to the story. On the other hand, if you are writing a novel then you may want to sprinkle at least passing references to those things.

The story I’m writing is a novella, so I don’t want to over-burden the reader with proof that I’ve thought about how the world could work, but I also don’t want to bug the reader with them thinking what I’ve got happening isn’t possible in a desert. It is a fine balance to strike, and I’m pretty sure that what is enough for one reader will not be enough for another.

Perhaps in future, along with the map and the cast of characters that some fantasy novels are adding these days, you can have an appendix of how the world works? You could attach all your notes about the reed species used in the water filtration, the method of creating durable building materials and the political set up. Then again, maybe that stuff is best left in the bottom drawer?

Material

I don’t normally go searching for material, it usually appears in my head as part of the story, but this week things have been different. I wanted to come up with a new story idea, so my eyes were open. It was amazing how many things were presented to me.

I watched a documentary on life in a desert, which created the perfect story location complete with geographical, geological and ecological set-up. I then did a tour of the state library and got a whole bunch of colourful stories about daily jobs that don’t exist anymore. Jobs I didn’t realise ever existed. Jobs I would never have been able to make up myself.

It makes me wonder how often I’m totally blind to these little pieces of seasoning that add that extra dimension to your work? I feel like I’m seeing a lot more things these days. I think spending so much time living in my head is good for me, or at least it is good for my writing.

 

Croquet writing

I’m in the middle of my next novel, and after the success of my last attempt at pantsing, I was tempted to try that again. This time, however, I’m on a very strict timeline, so I can’t run the risk of running totally off track. If I do that I might not be able to finish it before I’m forced to go back to work.

So in an effort to capture the speed and agility of pantsing, but have the dependability of planning, I’ve come up with a marriage between the two which I’m calling croquet writing. I’ve set some target events that have to happen, but how I get between those is anyone’s guess. So like the hoops on a croquet lawn, I know what I’m aiming for at any point in the story.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I haven’t invented anything, it is just planning but with a bit less plan, but it might be exactly what I need. So far it is working, I have the same feeling of having no idea what I’m going to write when I sit down at the keyboard that I had when I was pantsing, but unlike pantsing, I can clomp through a rough patch to get onto the next plot point and then run from there.

I suspect there will be a lot of editing required for the rough patches, but maybe not as much as for the pantser where I had to cut out whole chunks of stuff that went off on a tangent that was never realised, or where I had to go back and insert foreshadowing for stuff I didn’t know was going to happen.

I’m at the half-way point now, which is past my usual fall-over spot in a novel, so with any luck I’ll be writing those magic words soon; The End.

First lines

A piece of advice that all writers are given is that you should always grab a reader from the first line. While a good first line is a great thing to aim for, I don’t think it will keep a reader going if the second, third and fourth line are not much chop. I also find it hard to believe a reader would be inclined to put a book down after just the first line, even if it was staggeringly bad. In fact even then I’d want to keep reading to see if it got worse.

Here are the first lines of three of my favourite books…

“First the colours.” – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I do think the fifth line in this book is great; “Here is a small fact, you are going to die.”

“My name is Moon.” – Half Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer

“An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.” – The Long Walk by Richard Bachman/Stephen King.

None of those first lines particularly hook me, though I do like the imagery of Stephen King’s sentence, but the point is that I loved ALL of those books.

I think a well written blurb will always do ten times more to sell your book to a reader than a first line ever will. That’s no reason not to put a bit more effort into your first line, but I do wonder if it might just be publishers cold-reading manuscripts who care deeply about first lines.

My friend Liz explores more first lines here.

Continuity

I once got a gig on an independent short film as a continuity person. I went to great lengths to make sure the cigarette being smoked was always burnt to the right point in the conversation and that the girl’s scarf was worn consistently in each shot.

I got the job because that’s the sort of thing I pick up when I watch a movie. It’s a ‘skill’ I’ve rarely had to call on when reading a book, until now. This week I picked up a book that is full of continuity errors.

The character walks to another character’s house, and at the end of the chat he takes her downstairs to her car so she can drive home. She gets up early, describing the sunrise in detail, then goes to see a friend who comments that it is nearly 5:30pm so they’ll need to wait until the next day to go to a florist. It is as if no-one bothered to read the book after the first draft was completed.

I don’t claim to never make these mistakes, I can totally relate to changing your mind on something, going back to edit it, not remembering that you referenced the thing you changed later in the story. But that’s why you always do a read through when you think you have finished the book. That’s why you give it to your beta-readers, to pick up on all the little details you got wrong. That’s why you employ an editor if you run a publishing house before you commit the book to print.

This is not a self-published book, it is also not the first edition. I can’t see how it is possible that so many continuity errors have made it into the copy of the book I have. The story is well put together, so I want to keep reading it, but the errors really are starting to hamper my enjoyment because there are just so many of them.

It really has underscored, for me, the importance of beta-readers. I know there are a lot of writers out there who shy away from showing their work to people they know, but will gladly send it off to a publisher. I guess the writer I’m reading was like that, and she managed to get away with it. But I think in 99.99% of cases where this has happened the authors have not been so lucky. In a world where publishers are looking for a reason to say no, it is best not to hand them this mistake. I’m sure that’s why I normally see so few continuity errors in books.

Planning

I know I seem a little hung up on the idea of to plan or not to plan. I write a list of 20 things I want to achieve each week in my day to day life, so planning is clearly something that appeals to me.

I’ve just been reading the approach of another writer who does not like to plan. He thinks it limits his creativity and runs the risk of forcing his characters into places they don’t want to go. I feel very strongly that I don’t push my characters into decisions or actions that don’t feel natural for them, they have freedom of choice, and yet I plan, so what is the difference?

I think it might be semantics.

I wonder if what I am calling a plan others might call a first draft, albeit an extremely short fist draft. The person I was reading about who doesn’t like to plot simply writes the scenes as he sees them, eventually writing enough to find the whole story, at which point he pulls it together and gets to work on writing the joining bits, what he calls his second draft.

Until I have a beginning, middle-ish and an end-ish in mind, I generally don’t commit an idea to paper, but when I do, I go through the discovery of those ideas in much the same way as I feel I did when I wrote my pantser novel, I just go through the process much faster when writing a plan.

Then, when I sit down to write the novel I have the plan in mind, but if things change I let them. So is that pantsing? Is that planning? Who knows, I think writing any story is magic at work, no matter how you get there.

 

Random writing

After the success of my pantsing trial and subsequent lack of writing over the past month, I’ve decided it is time to try out another method. A lot of my writing friends regularly use this one, but I’ve always been too afraid to give it a go, until now. This is what I call the write the interesting bits method.

In this method writers write the highlights of their novel, not necessarily in order, and then go back later and write the connecting parts to turn it into a complete novel. I guess the theory is that you’ll be more inspired and they are the bits you can normally see more clearly.

I’ve always thought this was fraught with danger because if you wrote an earlier scene after you wrote a later scene, things may come out differently to how you expected, and that might have a knock on effect. But I also thought pantsing had too high a risk that you might never finish, but I did.

So I’m going in with my eyes open, I can imagine there will be some massive editing involved when I’m finished. The project I have in mind is pretty well mapped, so I can’t see myself going massively off track, regardless of what order I write it in. My biggest challenge is working out how to save all the parts I write in a way where it is clear about what scene comes before or after the other scenes.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

 

Character descriptions

I read many novels which go into a lot of detail about what characters looks like. Some even go so far as to tell me what they are wearing and usually it does nothing to move the story on. If a person is dressed inappropriately or extravagantly that will tell me a bit about their character, but describing the softness of the shoulder pads in their shirt and the ripple of their stone-wash jeans when they are sitting around home just mires the story in a time period. Fine if you want us to be in the 80s, but a lot of stories could easily go across times if the fashion didn’t get in the way.

Then you get stories at the other extreme (which probably most of mine fall into) where you are lucky to get a name for the character. I’ve actually done it once where I was writing a first person story and didn’t even drop my character’s name into it. This can be done successfully (mine wasn’t), but I think there are two important things that you (usually) need to specify about your character; gender and approximate age. All the rest can be up to the reader.

The book I’m reading at the moment did not mention the main protagonist’s age, so for some reason I got it into my head he was a middle-aged man. It was only at the half-way point in the book that I was told he was in his early 20s. That went some way to explaining the excessive running and apparently inappropriate relationships with a (I thought) much younger woman. I wish the author had mentioned it earlier. The character underwent a painful morph into a younger self in my head, but he keeps slipping back to his portly, balding older self as I get back into the story.

Of course different readers want different levels of description, so all I can recommend is write what you like. I often get told off for not showing my readers what colour my character’s hair is, how tall they are etc. The way I see it is if it is important to the story, or if I’m going to mention it again later, then I’ll tell you when you first meet. Otherwise, make the character your own. Every book is experienced by each reader differently and that is part of what I love about books over movies.