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Category Archives: writing hints and tips

Cutting what you love

book-375456_1280I’ve been absent from here for a while. Basically my time has been eaten up by the fact that this ‘slow author’ got a lot faster at the end of last year. I joined in with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November and completed my 50,000 (their word count threshold for a NaNoWriMo ‘win’). I wrote a kids book, it’s out on kindle and in paperback now, and you can find out more at the official website for the series. The first book only added up to 40,000 words, so completing the 50,000 even left me with a head start on the next book.

As soon as ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’ was written I moved on to ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams’. It’s now in the middle of second draft stage and once again I’m feeling like a ‘slow author’. The raw wordage wasn’t as hard as I had expected, ever since I stopped micro-editing as I wrote (a great way to end up with a pile of half-written books).

I used to meticulously go over old material, editing as I went and adding more material at the end. As the text got larger this process would take longer until I struggled to get past chapter five or six. Do NOT do this, you will learn to hate your book, get so bored of your characters that you change them and then have to rewrite the achingly small portion of text you already have.

Almost every professional author ever, when asked, says that the only way to write a book is to ‘just write’ and it really is that simple. Just remember that what you make when you first sit down to write is like a sculptor selecting their rough stone. Simply make sure that the story you want is in there somewhere. From that rough draft you can hone something great: renaming characters, rewriting clunky scenes, even changing whole scenarios. We all write nonsense, we’ll sprint and polish off a few thousand words in an hour or two, write bleary eyed (and blearier brained) at two in the morning, or even simply fit in patchy ten or twenty minute bursts where we can. Just write, sort out the mistakes later. The honing, the majority of the research, the careful selection of names for characters and places, all of this is draft number two stuff and even when you’re on the second draft don’t forget that you can still move into a third draft if you’re not happy.

The toughest rule I set myself was purposefully making my chapters longer than they needed to be. Trimming five-hundred words takes me almost as long as writing two thousand but its necessary. Each of my chapters should be around two-thousand words but I purposefully write the first draft at two and a half thousand per chapter. Doing this makes me certain that my second draft will make the best use of its word count. It’s a good habit to get into and it lets ‘writer John’ enjoy writing, safe in the knowledge that ‘editor John’ will sort it all out on the second pass.

It’s not easy and sometimes I have to cut whole paragraphs that, despite how great they may be, do nothing for the book as a whole. If I was offering up advice I’d follow the ‘just write’ part with ‘and trust that you can edit later’. Anyway, I’m off back to my editing, thanks for stopping by and feel free to share your own writing experiences below, Cheers, John

 

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Animals in fantasy

This intelegent-looking hellhoud is a sculpture found at 'Teves Design Studio'

This intelegent-looking hellhoud is a sculpture found at ‘Teves Design Studio

How do you write a convincing animal in a fantasy novel? Is it OK to take some licence and anthropomorphise the beast like crazy, giving it a human degree of cognition and emotion? And if you do what do you do with these creatures as the story progresses? Can an animal character develop an d progress?

I’ve just introduced a mythical-style creature into my children’s fantasy book that I’m writing for National Novel Writing Month (currently at 20,000 words and counting) and I’m finding it to be a very unusual experience.

I’m finally starting to understand why Enid Blyton utilised ‘Timmy’ in her ‘Famous Five’ books, and why the various owls and other creatures feature so much in Harry Potter: writing animals allows you to add emotion with minimal wording and no dialogue.

In short a dog can catch the emotion of a whole group of people with some perked ears or alternatively with a drooping tail.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of owning animals but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them, I’d just rather see them in the wild or at least with minimal human supervision.

However it’s precisely the humanisation of pets and domesticated animals that makes them so useful in fiction, they’re like miniaturised versions of a human self: they express emotion, they form social attachments, and they can perform important roles within a group.

To an extent they’re characters that don’t need too much writing to make them feel real. This can make it difficult to demonstrate subtle things like allegiances and it can hinder your ability to predict their behaviour, but even these elements can be strengths.

I’m very pleased with my new wee character ‘Sparky’, she’s becoming a very easy character to deal with and of all of my characters, she’s in the top four that I feel i really know well already (and she’d only been in the story for three chapters so far).

Who else out there in writer land is writing an animal character? Are you finding them to be a blessing or a curse as your story progresses?

As I said, Sparky has only been with me for three chapters at the moment, and so far I’m loving having her around, but has anyone found a animal character getting in their way as they get closer to the end of their novel?

I look forward to hearing from you, thanks for reading, all the best, John

 
 

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Dealing with disability in fiction

Got this image from 'silver collection'

Got this image from ‘silver collection

One of my main characters (Justin) is disabled and I’m finding that this provides an interesting challenge for an able-bodied writer like myself. To write about a disabled person’s life, even in the third person can be tricky but one of the key issues I try to keep in mind is the difference in the capacity for movement that any individual might display from one day to the next.

Though the nature of my character’s disability is quite complex (and it would reveal a lot of the plot of my book if I discussed it here), I can at least touch on the basics. His movement is limited by degrees. I’ve purposely decided not to give him a fixed and unchanging degree of movement, this is for a number of reasons but primary among them is realism. From my experience, when I think of people with disabilities and incapacities that I’ve known, or that I currently know, I’ve seen a surprising fluctuation in both in their capacity for movement and level of discomfort from one day to the next. For example, someone with enduring back problems may have fairly fluid movement one day, only to stiffen up in pain the next.

I want my characters to feel real, I want Justin to be able to surprise himself in the heroics he can achieve, just as much as any hero I write. For this I need adrenaline to be able to help him when he needs it but I also want to point out the increased pain and discomfort which may plague him in the aftermath. If I just decided that he can only move so quickly, or that he can only endure so much then I’m putting limits on his character that I wouldn’t put on an able-bodied character. In fiction your heroes need to be able to surprise the reader in the deeds they can perform. If I were to limit any character in a fixed way it would detract from that, and worse still, it would exclude the character from the standard behaviours expected of a hero/ine.

All of my character’s difficulties are physical (in a general sense), in terms of his mental capacities they’re around average, though Justin is very wise. I imagine the formulation of their character would take a very different form for a character with a mental disability or one who suffers from mental illness. I’d be very interested to hear any other writers’ takes on this. Have you written a disabled character before? How did you deal with their limits? What form did their character development take? Are you disabled yourself, if so are there any aspects of your life/experience that you feel should be present in the characterisation of a fictional character with a disability? As always thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you either here or over on twitter, All the best, John

 

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Birds do it, bees do it, but should fictional teens do it?

aguttes-chastity-beltWhen writing a book for young adults, as I am, there comes a point where you have to deal with the inevitable: the truth of the matter is that teenagers have relationships, and a difficult issue when it comes to depicting modern teen relationships is sex.

So what do you do if you want to write a book for young adults, that appeals to the realities of their lives, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of making more chaste teens feel alienated? Basically, an issue I ran into a few months back, like a solid brick wall, was; should teen characters have sex?

My two characters are hardly even teens (they’re both almost twenty) but in the end I decided to take a route for them that walks a subtle line between an actual real-world physical relationship and something less overtly sexual. I definitely don’t want the two of them to be ‘just friends’ but I also have to be careful not to make things too intense for younger readers. I only recently realised that my books might appeal to a younger demographic and keeping them in mind has forced me to make some pretty hefty changes.

One of the key issues I’m having to deal with are the difficulties in plot points that are dependent on their sleeping together. When I say ‘sleeping together’ I don’t mean anything sexual, I simply mean that on a number of occasions a key plot point is dependent on them staying over at each other’s houses.

I pondered this problem for a long time. Originally my main characters had a physical relationship and back then I planned out chapters and chapters of plot based around the two of them being present at the same houses at various times of the day and, importantly, I just assumed that they would be sleeping at each-others’ homes.

However, through the course of time (and after having my wife proof-read my first few chapters) it became clear that if my characters’ sexual relationship remained as overt as it was in earlier drafts the book(s) would be unlikely to be appropriate for/appeal to the teen/pre-teen demographic I’m now hoping to reach.

This is a difficult decision and it’s meant that so many different things have had to change. Though the plot of my book is still very similar to what it was when I started, I’m still having to traipse back through old material to make sure that it doesn’t refer to what was previously a much more overtly physical relationship.

I definitely need them to be boyfriend and girlfriend, however the nature of this relationship has changed significantly. This can sometimes weigh a little heavy on me as I’m not sure if this makes me a dishonest author, pandering to preferred reader, rather than writing what I originally set out to do. That said, I have to be realistic about this. I want people to read my books and it’s no use writing a book that will only appeal to me. If my primary aim is to provide an entertaining reading experience for a wide range of readers, I have to at least avoid writing about things that are either inappropriate or unappealing for those readers.

To be honest I’m actually pretty comfortable with my characters the way they are now. This change in how I define their relationship means I can concentrate more on the day-to-day aspects, rather than trying to pay too much attention to the nature and language of their physical encounters (I have to confess, I’m not the best at writing sex scenes, I’m just going to have to leave that to Anne Rice). Changing their physical encounters, from being overtly described to simply existing as subtle hints, actually seems to have allowed me to explore a more realistic and believable relationship for my two main characters.

Despite this, I’m still concerned that there may be something less ‘literarily honest’ about the way I’ve written my redraft. Of those of you who do write I’m very interested to see what you have done (if anything) to alter your characters, and/or plot, to make it more readable for your target demographic. Am I alone in doing this or do other authors think (even occasionally) about their target readers when sitting down to write? As always thanks for reading and I welcome any comments you have in the comments section below, Cheers, John

 
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Posted by on 6 October, 2014 in writing hints and tips

 

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The realities of slow authorship

melting_clock_lifestyle_1000Everyone has a book in them and anyone can churn that book out, what differs from individual to individual are the limits that stand between them and that finished manuscript. For me that limiting factor is time, I work near-on full-time and, because my wife and I work opposing shifts, I also spend a considerable portion of my week as a SAHD (stay at home dad). Time is my nemesis.

My writing gets jammed in wherever I can fit it and I feel the constant awareness that I should be writing more. I rush to get the kids to bed, clean away supper dishes, and generally get the house in order with enough time spare before my wife gets home from work. During my days off there are things in the house that need fixed, groceries to buy, meals to cook and things to take the kids to and pick them up from. I am on a constant quest for some alone time in front of my computer.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. Though the individual details may differ I imagine that the demands of normal, every-day life will be one of the most tenacious challenges for most authors and would-be authors. However I’ve spoken to many other writers who suffer from a very different problem; the dreaded writer’s-block. This is a problem that I haven’t had in literally years, and I wonder if time and inspiration are linked.

Perhaps there’s something akin to the expression ‘absence makes the heart grow stronger’ that goes on with writing. I simply don’t have time to fall out with my muse: when I find the opportunity to write I grab her with both hands and the rest takes care of itself. Maybe it’s got more to do with the old adage that if you want something done ask someone who’s busy.

The sad fact might simply be that the blocked among us have too much time to avoid the pitfalls of procrastination and getting stuck in their own heads. Whilst those of us with too little time end up with so much creativity bottled up that when the time comes to write they never feel they’ve done enough, or that it’s been drafted enough to be any good.

Somewhere out there there must be authors who have by some means found themselves in the perfect middle, with just enough time to write but not so much that they get distracted. In the mean time the rest of us just have to envy one another’s glut of either time or inspiration.

My own approach seems to be working fairly well (if unnervingly slowly), I’ve already got a completed book under my belt (you can check it out here), my next book is almost past it’s first third in completed form, and I have two others with a few completed chapters and full book plans. These facts fill me with hope but I can’t help but be a realist about time constraints: this next book is taking a while (a long while). I promised myself back when I turned thirty that by forty I’ll have written ten books and have recorded an album, but with each twenty-minute writing session that counts as my entire authorship of the day, I feel that goal slip ever further. My only choice is to keep pushing and keep my fingers crossed, on top of that maybe I have to learn to make writing more of a priority in my day.

What’s been your experience of trying to write? Do you lack time or inspiration? What tricks have you picked up to get over these obstacles? Let me know in the comments below and as always thanks for reading. By the way, you can also follow me on twitter by following this link, all the best, John

 
 

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Long term romance or teen crush?

Romeo-meets-Juliet-in-the-1996-filmWhat to choose? What to choose? In basically all three of the books I’m working on at the moment I have a main character who (at least during the book’s opening) is a teenager. But what am I to do about romantic entanglements? You can’t miss this element out when writing a teen character without them looking a little robotic (I did try) so I need to include a romantic partner/love interest for my character to feel real. That part isn’t really a problem as simply exploring the differences between the two characters seems to help me to open out my main character’s personality with the use of a foil.

However, I hit a bit of an issue when dealing with the fact that occasionally their love interest is a secondary (or at least important tertiary character) who will feature through a large portion of the book and a sometimes sizeable portion of narrative time will pass through the course of the book. So here’s my question should I break characters up, even if they seem right for each other, just because my characters are young and statistically there’s little chance a relationship in your teens will last even into your twenties?

This can certainly be done to great dramatic effect (Shakespeare did all right with it anyway) but the thing is at least two of my books are part of a series so I’m a little apprehensive about killing off characters that I could use later. Something I love about Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ books is that you revisit the same world with many of the same characters each time. He rarely kills off a character off and seems reluctant to even allow a character to disappear entirely from the overall narrative of his world. This clearly saves him a lot of time at the start of a book that would otherwise be spent getting to know the characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that I’ll have to explain my characters a little in later books (at the very least I can’t guarantee my books will be read in sequence) and I’m honestly not trying to take the easy way out, it’s just that I’m in this series for the long haul so I’m loathe to dispatch a well-formed character who could otherwise prove useful in a later story-line.

The love interest angle is something I’m finding really easy to use as a means of moving the story on, developing emotional involvement and (possibly most importantly) highlighting the personalities of some of my main characters, but I’m feeling a snag coming up that I’ll need to deal with before I progress much further with these characters. If they’re to break up why do they break up? when does it happen? and why would they feel OK continuing to be around each other?

I know that in writing break-ups there’s the potential for some lovely moody moments, will-they-won’t-they plot elements etc. but to be honest I find the prospect a little boring compared to the narrative I’ve got planned. I think all the trappings of a break up would just get in the way. What do you think? Would a reader be able to handle a teenaged couple that stays together or would it seem a little too unrealistic/over-romanticised? Any opinion welcome, as always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

 

Keeping momentum

keep momentumIn the past few weeks I’ve somehow managed to start finding time to write again (mostly thanks to the fact that my wife and I have decided to take turns at getting some writing in down at the local library). One thing that I really struggled with was the fact that after a few months away from it I didn’t really know my characters any more. To be honest I spent a lot of time editing and then re-editing my first three chapters basically just so that I could get to know them again.

Some of the edits changed them quite a bit and I’ll now never be able to say how their original incarnations might have turned out if I hadn’t lost momentum. That said I like my characters as they appear now and I’m also aware that they’ll probably go through more alterations as the book progresses. The important development that I’ve made over the past week or so is that I now have a complete step-by-step chapter plan.

This existed in my head before but I started to realise that my characters were divulging to much about themselves in the first few chapters. Rather than getting to know them piece by piece I was trying too hard to fit in my character descriptions at the very beginning. I decided to take it more slowly and allow situations within the plot to work as a means of displaying the true personalities of my characters.

helen grant

Helen’s latest book ‘Silent Saturday‘, Secret societies, breaking and entering and mysterious disappearances.

I guess that’s the root of my tip for this post, don’t lose momentum and be sure to give yourself a pretty detailed guide so you don’t lose your way. Thanks to a wee twitter conversation with author Helen Grant I can safely say that this approach has backing from a successfully published author. Another thing to be said for detailed plans is that with them in place it becomes easier to figure out what you’re going to be writing when you sit down at the keyboard (your task is infinitely more simple; just flesh out your plan, piece by piece). So far I’m finding it to be a fantastic preventative against writer’s block.

All the best, thanks for reading and please feel free to let me know about any techniques you’ve discovered to help keep momentum going and prevent getting side-tracked. Cheers, John

 

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