Tag Archives: Technique

Writing tools

When setting yourself up as a writer there are many things you convince yourself that you need to be properly prepared to write. Some are actual needs, like a computer, some are more nice-to-have needs, like a room of one’s own. But there is one thing that I think many writers overlook; the ability to touch type.

I learned to touch type using a free tutorial that came with my computer back in 1995. It felt like a long, slow process, but after forcing myself to do it several times a week for about ten weeks I one day sat down at the computer and something just clicked. Suddenly my fingers knew where the keys were even when I didn’t. If I looked at the keyboard I got lost, but if I looked at the screen, or even out the window, the words came out just as I had thought them.

This has been invaluable for my creative process. When I hand-write my ideas my hand can never keep up, and I have been known to forget what the end of the sentence was going to be by the time my pen got there. But sit me at the computer and my fingers lag only marginally behind the sentence that forms in my head.

If you are serious about your writing I cannot highly enough encourage you to learn how to type without looking at the keys. I know a lot of you are probably pretty fast and think you are too old to learn new tricks, but the benefits far outweigh the effort in my experience, and even when you have long breaks away from the keyboard you never seem to forget how to type, you might just slow down.

Just as an aside, it has also been ridiculously useful at work, but that was entirely a by-product or my desire to write.

So use one of the many free online courses, sign up for adult education classes, or check out the software that came with your computer –whatever you think is going to work best for you. Touch typing is like any other skill you learn, it feels awkward when you start, but eventually you end up doing it without thinking.

Give it a try, your writing will thank you for it.

Writers write

Sometimes writing is like pulling teeth. You clear out your requisite two or three hours of you day, you make sure the room is warm or cool enough, the tea supply plentiful enough and all your housework is complete so it won’t nag at the back of your mind…

And then you stare blankly at the screen for the next two hours. You are unable to squeeze out a word, more importantly, the next word. The word that will lead you to the next sentence which starts the next paragraph that takes you effortlessly into your next 1,000 words. And no matter how many false starts you make, that word eludes you for your entire writing break.

Don’t panic!

Maybe all those false starts needed to happen. And if there were none, I can promise you the thinking around what should happen next DID need to happen. It also sends a message to your subconscious mind that you need an answer, so could it please go off and work on it while you do other things.

This time is never wasted, but it does prove one point which I learned a long time ago, but still do not heed; you need to give yourself more chances to sit and not write.

You need to make writing a priority. A couple of hours every Sunday morning is not going to cut it if you want to do more than short stories. You need to say no to the needy partner, to the social invites, the dirty floor, the Master Chef inspired dinner for friends, and most importantly, to the TV. Explain what you are doing and you might just find they support you. Well the TV won’t support you, but its complete indifference should indicate where you are in the TV’s priority list (the floor will always support you, dirty or otherwise).

And right there you have the difference between those who write, and those who want to write. Writers write.

Nearly here

In the past 5-6 years I’ve read more fantasy novels than in all the previous years of my life. I think all of us could really get into fantasy novels (just look at how popular the movie equivalents are) as long as we are introduced to the genre by the right author. For me that author was Robin Hobb, followed by a heavy dose of Jennifer Fallon.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, the right fantasy author is different for every person depending on what fantasy trope you dislike most (hot tip for any new fantasy writers out there; females whose only purpose is to be rescued is not a good selling point for a book).

Now that I can see the possibilities of fantasy, I can look past the tropes that I dislike and see the rest of the story. For me it is the ‘nearly Earth’ thing. When an author throws strange food names into a sentence, without describing that food and not having it sufficiently different from, say, an apple, I get ripped out of the novel and think ‘Oh, that’s the author telling me we are not in our world’. I already know it is a fantasy novel, I know it is not real world history, I don’t need people to be eating limots and greegaws to tell me that.

Worse still is the momos running with the elephants and the description of the momos being exactly that of zebras. You either have to name all the animals the same, or all different, or make them different animals. Don’t just randomly change a cat into a pipaw if your dogs are called dogs. A pipaw has to shed its skin or something different if in all other respects it looks like a cat. If not, it’s a cat.

None of the examples I’ve given above are actually taken from the books that inspired these comments. I don’t want to identify them because other than these crazy near-world things I’ve really liked them, so I don’t want to seem to be bagging them. As I said, I’ve learned to look past it and see the promise of a great story instead.

But before you all jump on me and tell me that fantasy novels should be allowed to change names, I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree, so long as it is done well and with purpose.

I read a great book last year where people drank something called Karv, the description of it made it clear it wasn’t coffee and it wasn’t tea, and by the end of the book I desperately wanted a cup of it myself. That is a good way to introduce other worldly things without the author hitting me over the head and putting a neon sign around the words NOT EARTH. That’s the mark of good fantasy world building.

Padding

All books can suffer a bit from padding, in fiction it is usually not too much of a problem; back-story we don’t need or world building that never gets used. Most of the time I don’t even really notice it, it just appears as a feeling that the book is too long.

Non-fiction books are not so forgiving. The padding is all too obvious, and the one I’m reading is actually putting me off by its frequency and irrelevance. The author of the book is telling the story of a famous author. To illustrate what sections are about he is adding in bold, large, widely spaced, lengthy quotes… but not from the author about whom the book is written. In fact, as far as I can tell the quotes are all from long dead authors whose copyright has run out, so permission to nab their words is not required.

These quote appear on every other page. Some of them are in such old English, and so out of place in this contemporary book that I cannot even see the relationship between the text and the quote. I have stopped reading them so as not to lose track of what is going on.

By far this is the most blatant padding trick I’ve seen, though I do think the book which re-printed all the end of chapter summaries to make up the final summary chapter, was perhaps stretching it a bit far. If I wanted to see the summaries again I could always flip back to them.

As much as I can understand that people like their books to look big, I think you are only going to do yourself a disservice if you pad out your book unnecessarily. I would rather buy a short book full of relevant information than a long book, which I have to wade through rubbish to get to the important stuff.

Books, both fiction and non-fiction, have a length that they should be, and the sooner authors and publishers recognise that this cannot be dictated to by word or page requirements, the better!

Corruption vs evolution

The English language, both written and spoken, is a forever changing beast, but perhaps more so for Australians and Kiwis. Our language is already a bit of a mixed bag, with mostly English English, but a sprinkling of culturally unique lexicon. But in recent years American English has been creeping in, with ever increasing vigour.

This begs the question of is this just a natural evolution, or is it the corrupting influence of American TV, films and literature that we should fight with every step? I think diversity of culture is something that we should protect, even the ‘dint’ vs ‘dent’ difference between Victoria and South Australia makes me smile, so I must confess I’m resisting this take-over of our language.

Evolution in language, as with any living thing, should take a very long time. It is something that people are not aware of, such as the generations of people saying ‘towards’ until that the majority don’t realise that (originally) there was only ‘toward’ and over the years the ‘s’ has been added.  

This cannot be said about our American English. I think even those of us who say ‘route’ rhyming with ‘lout’ instead of ‘toot’ know we have crossed over that cultural boundary. This is a change we are seeing occur in a single generation.

I have also noticed recently, with some confusion, that even when I buy Australian published versions of American authors (in my effort to support the local book industry) they will include American spelling –which makes me wonder why I shouldn’t just buy it off Amazon?

The really tragic thing is, I think most of the American spellings that are slipping into our newspapers and emails come down to one thing; most people don’t know how to permanently re-set their Microsoft Word language to Australian English, so we let our computers do our spelling in whatever language they chose, which is the default: American English. It doesn’t need to stay that way.

The original idea

It is said that there are only seven original plotlines that can be written, and every story out there fits into one of these. It is also said that each of us has a story in us. The only way to reconcile those two statements is to conclude that there is a lot of repetition going on out there.

But what is an original story? I don’t think it is a theme or story arc, I think it is all the facets that are brought together to make the characters breathe and the world feel really tangible.

I find it can often be the difference in the development of a character that can make one story bland when I read it, but sing to you when you discover it. If we laugh or cry, or throw the book across the room or simply keep falling asleep, it is the meat of the story, not its bones, that catch our hearts (or not).

To illustrate my point have a look at the number of different versions there are of many popular fairytales; Cinderalla, Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears.  Some are fantastic while some are horribly boring, even though they are telling the same tale. Deeper than that, some are terrifyingly dark, others laugh out loud funny, and more importantly some are great for sending little kids off to the land of nod, while others would have them so shocked they would not be able to sleep for a week! 

So don’t knock yourself out too much on looking for the original story, many would have you believe the search if fruitless Focus instead on the original delivery, find some wonderful characters, put them in beautiful well-painted worlds and find the right language to tell your story. That is where you get to really play with your craft.

Biggles never said

A friend of mine is a big Biggles fan and recently lent me a couple of books to read. The language is wonderful, and I love the way the author paints a picture, but there are some things about the writing style that really date the books.

The first thing that struck me was how long the sentences were. I was forgetting what we were talking about by the time we got to the end of them in some instances. This just shows how lazy I’ve become with my reading, so I was glad to get some practice in.

The next thing that struck me was how politically incorrect the books were, on more levels than I want to get into here. So we’ll just leave that alone.

The third thing to strike me, and strangely enough not until I was some time into the book, was how rarely the word ‘said’ was used. In the first three pages people chipped, returned, added, answered, stated, inquired, whispered, queried, ejaculated, muttered and even averred (I had to look that one up), but no one ‘said’ anything until page 12. Page 12!!!!

One of the early ‘rules’ of writing that I learned was you should try to use ‘said’ as much as possible because all the other options just get in the way of otherwise good prose, and the eye easily slips over the word ‘said’. I diligently went through all my stories and axed my answered’s and quelled my queries, replacing all with a nice soft ‘said’.

So did it irritate me when I was reading Biggles? Yes, a bit, but not as much as when I’m reading a modern story and someone does exactly the same thing. I guess it was just the style of the day to replace ‘said’ whenever possible and I was being more understanding, but when did that style change? More importantly –why?

Why was it determined that said was bad once and good later? Who decides on all of these rule?

It makes me want to break the rules,’ declared Natalie.

Unreal real

Next time you are on a bus or train, listen in on a conversation near you. Really listen. Besides learning that the girl behind you was too drunk on Saturday night to realise there was a cigarette butt in her champagne, so she skulled the whole lot, you’ll also notice that our speech is really messy.

People use phrases like “Yeah, no” and they’ll insert “um” or “like” into every second sentence, but you will rarely see those written in a book. The “hello’s”, “how’s your mother”, and “give my best to the boys” are all usually missing from the written page as well, because the fact is real speech is boring to read.

So how do you learn to write good ‘realistic’ speech if you can’t base your study on real people saying real things? The answer is simple; read books.

Writing is a craft as surely as any other artistic pursuit. You do not want all paintings to look like photographs. Likewise a book can present a story within the manipulated structure of the novel, showing us beautiful or awful things with enough reality to touch us, but enough craft to enthral us.

So now that you know that listening in on public transport conversations won’t help you write better speech, you will just have to keep an ear out so you can pluck out interesting stories instead. Everything is material.

Just a little OCD

We all suffer from a little OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). My personal demon is pegs. I have come a long way from my original affliction, where I had to match peg colours to the colour of the clothes that they were holding up. Now I just need to match pegs to the colour of their mate on the one piece of clothing. I love socks; only one peg. Sometimes I manage to use different colours, but I’m yet to be able to put a plastic peg with a wooden one. One step at a time!

Now while you might be scratching your head thinking perhaps I did all that psych training to cure myself (and I have come a long way) the truth is we **all** have our little OCDs or superstitions. I lump them together because often the OCD reveals itself as a superstition. The journey of an OCD starts as something logical; if the peg colour stains, it is best to have it the same colour as the clothing it is holding onto. It then grows into something almost pathological (see paragraph 1) and the final step is to go into the realm of lore or superstition.

For me this hasn’t happened yet with pegs, but in just three months it has happened with koalas. We have 2-7 koalas on our street at any one time (well, not on the street, usually in the trees that line it, but sometimes you do see them strolling along). My OCD started as just looking out for them as I went on my daily walk. Now it is a full blown superstition, where I’m convinced it will be an unlucky day if I do not see a koala.

Why am I confessing this? Well, besides the fact that I think that if you are going to have a mental problem, this is probably a cute one to have, the truth is it is these nuances that make us the 3-dimensional characters that we are. So if you are writing perfect characters with no faults and no quirks, then you are writing a fairytale.

So don’t necessarily make your character obsessed with koalas or pegs, but do make them irrationally scared of chickens, or when they go over a bridge they lift their legs, or when they pass a cemetery they have to block their nose!

I won’t tell you which of those I used to suffer from…

Nat

PS Share my koala affliction, can you see the koalas in this photo?

Koalas hidden in trees

Koalas revealed

I got the wrong ghost

I tried to channel my blog tonight. I just let my fingers hit the keys and hoped that something really witty would come out. It didn’t. I did manage three words that made sense: as, ale, & fie. I could probably turn them into a story, but it would involve a tavern, a beanstalk and lots of plagiarism.

Sometimes the words just don’t come.

What do you do when that happens? Well I can now tell you with confidence that you don’t just randomly bang away at the keyboard, unless you are after a sentence like this; Ncaieu as fie lai balie ale asei fo faiewnbix oain woine aosienaow’b. Then you hit some unknown combination of keys and minimise everything on your screen.

The best thing to do is just start writing. Write what you are thinking, even if it is about how much you don’t know what to write about. Describe the high level plot of the chapter or story you are hoping to start (or finish). Or tell the story of what you did this morning, even if it was something dull like going ballooning or juggling knives. Just write anything!

Will it be witty and wonderful and the best piece of work you have ever done? Not likely, but it will be words, and everyone knows that words lead to words. So while you might end up binning your first few paragraphs (or pages) before you get to the good stuff, at least you will be on the path to the good stuff, and that’s what counts.

So don’t let writer’s block beat you, and whatever you do, don’t let silly excuses stop you from writing. If all you can channel is an illiterate goat, then ditch the black arts and go for the literary ones, force the work out.

Happy writing,

Nat