Why do they do it?

Afraid this is just a rant – no insights into my writing habits in this one. A couple of hours ago I received a Whatsapp message from a friend warning me that the service is going to start charging from this weekend. I had a pretty good inkling that it was probably just a scam circulated by some fool who likes to clog up the internet or gets gratification from seeing how many people have been duped into circulating his/her nonsense.

It took me less time to check it out than it would have taken to send messages to all my contacts. And yes, it was a pathetic chain letter type message which has been circulating for at least three years and Whatsapp are not beginning to charge.

So why do people still circulate this stuff rather than checking to see if it’s real first? Is it due to fear or lack of knowledge on how to look it up? ( I use Hoax Slayer or Snopes, or even just a Google query).

Why does it bother me? Because every little bit of stuff circulating clogs up the internet and makes it slower. If someone sends a message to 50 contacts, and 10% of those then send to 50 contacts, and the same again, it works out, if my maths is correct, at over 3 million pointless and incorrect messages whizzing through hundreds of servers. One day it will all break down.

What’s the secret?

As a writer I struggle, like many others, with maintaining momentum. In fact, for weeks, I’ve written very little except when I’ve been in coffee shops, as I mentioned in my previous post. There are, of course, the usual distractions – Facebook, emails, cutting the lawn, etc – but there’s also something which, for me, always seems to put up a barrier to moving forward.

Stephen King, and a great many other writers, say that to write well you must read a lot. But how does that help when the books you read end up being poor – either poor prose, poor plot or poorly edited, sometimes all three? I’ve recently read three novels, which I won’t name because I think writing is hard enough without getting bad reviews, that had one or more of these attributes. One of them was in the top 20 sales on Amazon Kindle, yet I struggled to finish it because the writing was so bad. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of opinion. Last month I led a discussion on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of my all-time favourites, and other readers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, though none of them said it was badly written, and I can live with that, we all enjoy different things in novels. Similarly, a friend recommended a book which I read and didn’t like stylistically, it just wasn’t for me, but I admired the way it had been written.

With bad writing it’s possible to pull out a couple of positives. Firstly to identify the things we should avoid, like inaccuracy, bad punctuation, ‘he said, she said’ sloppiness, and so on. It’s much easier to see these on the page than in some theoretical class. Secondly, I expect there is some comfort to be taken when you notice that the writing is poor – at least some of the lessons have stuck.

writers tears

However, the barrier for my writing in these badly written novels is that they’ve been published, so the punctuation, lack of historical/technical accuracy and plot holes should have been picked up long before they hit the bookshelves. Even so, they still seem to sell well. So what am I doing wrong? My first novel found a publisher after a number of rejections but my second has been turned down by lots (and I mean lots) yet I know, and I hope it’s not just arrogance on my part, that the writing is better than my first and better than some of the offerings I’ve read lately. Do I expect the world to be fair? To be just? No, I don’t. It’s only that I sometimes become discouraged and it makes me want to give up. Is it any wonder I feel like turning to the bottle – especially this one?

Where do I write?

Every time we sit down to write, our objective is to let those good old creative juices flow and the perceived wisdom seems to be that the more comfortable we are in our space, the more likely this is to happen. For many years, after the word-processor became accessible, my writing place of choice was at a desk-top computer. I usually had access to a laptop as well but this didn’t provide me with the discipline I was looking for. Perhaps it was due to me primarily writing non-fiction at the time, where I needed to be more structured in my approach.

Capture

That’s not to say that I didn’t find other places to write which suited me very well. My favourite, of all time I think, was sitting in the sun outside a waterfront bar in La Rochelle with a glass of wine, a notebook and pen, working on a draft guidance booklet for a Government department. Unfortunately, access to that particular space was limited to a couple of afternoons in the middle of my holiday.

Now, I have two main spaces where I work. Three years ago, increasing pain in my lower back caused me to abandon the desktop for a laptop (literally on my lap). I sit in a club chair in our ‘sun-room’ with windows onto the garden on three sides. The time I tend to write is between six am and eight am in the morning, with the first, and possibly second, mug of tea of the day on the windowsill beside me. I’ve always found early morning to be most productive. Once or twice a week I also find a table in a coffee shop, where I write longhand in a notebook, using a pen made from oak taken from the bog. It pleases me to think I’m holding a modern ballpoint encased in a material possibly 2000 years old and I find that even if I can’t get the words down on the computer, the old fashioned pen and paper usually does the trick.

Most of my researched material is stored on my laptop and I use a mix of Scrivener and Word. The former for organising and drafting, the latter for later editing. I’d like to use Scrivener for all of it but I haven’t quite got the handle on all the skills needed to get to the finished product. I have Scrivener synced to Plain.txt on a tablet so that I can dictate from my written draft – it is possible to dictate directly into Scrivener, at a cost, using something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking but I haven’t got round to making that investment yet.

It would be nice to hear where other writers find they are most productive.

 

Lost the plot – finding your characters

One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.

Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.

Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.

Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.

Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.

Then ask the question: What connects these people?

If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.

Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.

Let me know if it works for you.

Learning from others

This weekend I attended the excellent Ennis Book Club Festival in County Clare and was treated to the thoughts of a number of writers. I attended sessions with Carol Drinkwater, Donal Ryan, John Boyne and Anne Enright, amongst others and it was fascinating to hear their insights on the writing process.

What was clear from all of them was that you have to work at it and you have to love it. John Boyne, for example, when asked about the opening sentence of his latest novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, said he’d redrafted it about 200 times. Even assuming he was exaggerating slightly it pointed to a degree of dedication to honing the work until it was as good as it could be. Several writers talked of redrafting their novel many times before sending it to an editor.

Two of the speakers talked about how they will sometimes write an event or character in a particular way without being sure why, then it makes sense later when the story is reaching a conclusion. It is almost as if there’s a precognition of where the tale will go, even if they don’t do detailed plotting. As a writer, I understood what they were saying although hadn’t heard it articulated that way before.

There was also an encouraging analysis of how to complete that novel, a task which at times can seem awe inspiring. It was explained, simply, that writing a page a day, that is around 250-300 words (the length of this post to here), gives a full-length draft in a year or less. So – go for it.

Today’s tips

I don’t consider myself skilled enough yet to give the impression I actually know what I’m talking about with this writing lark. Ten years ago I had the enjoyable experience of having a new house built and working with an architect to design our dream home. Even before we moved in we saw things we’d have wanted to do differently. When I was talking to a neighbour about this I was told ‘aah, you have build three houses before you get it right.’ And so I think it might be this way with writing.

I’m halfway through my third novel and am beginning to get the feeling that I have a better idea that I’m in some kind of control, but that’s only because (a) I’ve written a lot of words over the past five years and (b) I’ve read quite a lot on the craft of writing. One of the best guides I’ve read is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good NovelIn fact, I read his How to Write a Damn Good Mystery first because that’s what I was trying to do at the time, but he covers more of the fundamentals in the former and he’s such a good writer it was no heavy labour to read the two.

A few days ago I signed up to Jane Friedman’s newsletter which led me to her excellent video on audience development for writers. Check it out – I wish I had the staying power to follow it through.

Can writer’s block be selective?

I should be writing my novel. I added lots of words in November but hardly a paragraph since NaNoWriMo finished. At first I thought it was because the ‘flu and Christmas preparations were taking my mind to other places but I still can’t get started even though both of those have passed.

Yet I can scribble away on my blog with no difficulty. Hmm. Is it simply because this is an entertaining avoidance, stopping me from getting down to some real work? I think it probably is. I’ve reached a third of the way through my first draft of the novel, that notorious barrier watched over by the guardians telling me I can’t do it. “It’s no good”, “Stop, you fool”, “Who told you that you were a writer?” they shout. Unfortunately I’ve started listening.

I have techniques to battle this. I will deploy them. Soon. Honest.

CreateSpace vs IngramSpark

As an author I still believe that most satisfaction comes from having a novel accepted by a publisher who then takes it to a finished work on the bookshelves. For me, there’s a vindication in it that someone else is prepared to commit time and energy into something I’ve written. Also, the experience of working with a publisher to hone the writing is incredibly beneficial. When A Shadowed Livery was published by Grey Cells Press in 2015 it was nothing like the draft I’d sent to them a year earlier, I thought it was improved immeasurably.

However, finding a publisher or agent is very difficult, the competition is enormous, so, in this digital age, self-publishing has become an option. It isn’t easy, nor is it a guaranteed route to fame and fortune, but neither is the traditional route. Having co-ordinated the self-publication of two pieces of work – a memoir and a collection of short-stories – using both Amazon’s CreateSpace and IngramSpark, I have a some insights which might be helpful to anyone considering this path. There are more extensive comparisons available but these are just some basic thoughts from my own experience.

When considering self-publishing, one of the first questions is whether you want a printed version or are you happy with putting it out as an e-book. This decision will affect the budget you require and also the marketing plan you’ll devise. I don’t think either is best, though there’s nothing quite like the feeling of holding a book, your book, in your hands for the first time.

My recent (Nov 2016) project on Ingram’s cost a little over €900 euros for printing and shipping (from UK to Ireland) of 200 copies of an 8″ x 5″ paperback plus setup costs of €49 and cover design costs of €135. On CreateSpace there are no setup costs, the cost per copy is a little less but they ship from the US so this can be considerably more if you’re in another country. The shipping costs of the books when I used CreateSpace was around 44% of the cost of printing. This compares with around 5% using IngramSpark. This can, of course, make a huge difference in the financial viability of the book.

There can, however, be a saving on cover design. CreateSpace has free cover templates to modify and the process is fairly simple. IngramSpark does not, and you need to design and produce your own cover. They do provide a size template in a couple of formats but the actual design needs to be provided by you.

There’s also a difference in the complexity of the process. CreateSpace allows uploading of Microsoft Word files, which is handy. IngramSpark only allows uploading of PDF files, which requires conversion software or add-ins, and can be a bit tedious when errors in the draft are spotted (as they inevitably will be). With both providers, the process for e-books seems to be a lot simpler. The most complex part with IngramSpark, I found, was the cover. This needs to be produced using the size template provided, with no variation, probably using something like Adobe InDesign, then converted to PDF format for uploading.

IngramSpark provides distribution to a wide range of on-line and physical outlets, CreateSpace, I believe, only goes through Amazon and affiliates, which is still substantial.

On the memoir I helped publish, I found CreateSpace easier to use, but the shipping costs were so high outside the US it meant we changed to IngramSpark for the second print run. I’ve also found IngramSpark’s support desk really knowledgeable, understanding and helpful each time I’ve used it – a massive advantage if you’re not an expert.

This is just a quick run-through of some differences. If you’ve any questions please feel free to get in touch.

Going off on one …

There’s always a tension in writing between enjoying the process and hitting a deadline, even if that deadline is self-imposed. I’ve written before in this blog that I’m a planner; I like to have the skeleton of the story and an outline of characters in place before I put metaphorical pen to paper.

In my latest project I’m writing a family saga covering over a hundred years, based on family history research I’ve carried out since the 1990s. The principal characters are based on several generations of family members and what I know about their lives. Their stories gave me the structure for my story.

So, as is my wont, I planned the novel from start to finish and sketched characters using the masses of material I had to hand. I then found it a wrench to depart from the facts to create a narrative which hung together. Every time I didn’t have the necessary information it gave me grief – I had to keep telling myself ‘it’s a novel, it’s a novel, make it up!’. I’ve written two earlier novels and lots of short stories which were, more or less, complete figments of my imagination so it shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. I’d become constrained by the truth. Day by day I started to make little excursions into fantasy, only small steps at first – the colour of hair, the description of a cottage – and I enjoyed it. Before long I was inventing new characters, battles, journeys and, best of all, conversations.

Then a new problem arose. I’ve been enjoying the trips so much that I keep on inventing more and more. I keep, as my wife describes it, ‘going off on one’, travelling paths which are not on my map, creating lives which never existed, just because they’re interesting to explore.

Is this what writing is all about, inventing and exploring the worlds of the mind? I’m beginning to believe it is.