Monthly Archives: October 2018

My 5 Top Tips On Writing

1. Plan Everything

I’m a planner. Ask my friends, ask my family, ask my neighbours, ask that bloke I sat next to for six hours in the library. I’ve got lists on lists on lists, planning out every hour of a stressful day. As you’d expect, this bleeds into my writing.

I know people that sit down and write, straight onto an empty Word document, with nothing around them except their own thoughts. It freaks me out just to imagine it, writing without guidance. I’ve got handwritten notes barely three inches away from my right hand at this very moment, planning out the subtitles for this piece and a loose outline of what to include in each section. It might sound a little bit controlling, but you’re wrong. It’s very controlling. It steadies my heart to know I’m not diving into the deep blue unknown.

Obviously, some of the best work in the world has come from writers who held a pen in their hand and let the inspiration flow. And I’m not saying I’ve never come up with an interesting thought – mid-way though writing a paragraph – that’s then led me into an entire subplot I’d never even considered. But, if I have a plan, I know that the risk of writer’s block is slimmed down by a few pounds.

Ultimately, I blame my mother. I picture the kitchen at home and I know there’ll be a magnetic pad stuck to the side of the fridge as well as a narrow, floral notebook beside the coffee machine. The calendar will have her tidy scrawl all over it, and there will be more than a few post-it-notes in the conservatory and strewn across the dining table.

 

2. Take Inspiration Where It Comes

I learned this trick from my best friend. I remember, I was in bed at the time, sitting bolt upright because I had suddenly realised how my protagonist would get from one scene to the next. I excitedly texted my friend, at 2am in the morning, and she immediately encouraged me to write it out. One thousand, nine hundred and seventy three words later, I looked at the clock and it had barely been half an hour. The words my friend sent to me will remain with me forever.

Take inspiration where it comes.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. What if you get hit with an epiphany just as you’re queueing up to buy your lunch? What if, like me, it happens in the middle of the night and you’ve got to be up early the next day? My simple advice is: WRITE! You can make a memo in your phone and quickly type out the idea buzzing around at the back of your mind. You can grab a notepad and outline whatever revelation it is that’s overcome you. Don’t ignore it. Become like those writers in movies, where they have a montage of writing and end up with ink stained hands and scrap pieces of paper, all with random thoughts and prompts scribbled across them.

One of my biggest inspirations is feeling like I’m on camera. I’m always overly impressed with the writing process of people caught on film. I love showing people my work and plans – not for them to read, but for them to look at. For them to admire to beautiful complexity of it. I want my study to be a tomb, collecting my every thought for later reflection. And even if you don’t end up using every single idea you think of, keep them tucked away inside a file for later. Then, when the next inevitable bout of writers block hits, you can peruse old musings and, possibly, find the answer to your problems.

 

3. Only Worry A Little Bit About Copying Someone Else’s Work

I love to write Science Fiction and Fantasy. There’s no other way to put it. But, something I’m always worrying about is whether or not it’s been done before. If you’re writing a romance, or a mystery, then there are tropes you can use over and over again, and know that everyone else is doing the same. But for me, I’m constantly wondering whether or not someone has designed an alien to look like this already. Or if I give someone special powers, am I just copying the companies that sound like marble and BC.

The answer is maybe. I’ve spent countless hours going over my work, looking at it from seventy different angles to see if it’s a little bit too similar. Most of the time, I realise that I’m fine. That there are enough differences to make it my own. But if you realise the only difference between your work and someone else’s is the gender of the protagonist, then you’ve got a problem.

Plagiarism is no joke. It can be the difference between a healthy career and being that person with a rubbish reputation because ‘do you remember that one time they stole Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipes for their cookbook?’

I’m a natural-born-worrier, so I always check, double check and triple check things, just to be sure. But I’ve learnt that in the writing business, there are no original ideas anymore. Everyone is inspired by something, who was inspired by something, and so on for the entirety of history. Your best hope is to not compare you work too soon, it can put you off a good idea before you’ve had the chance to make it your own.

 

4. Don’t Preach To The Choir But Play Them A Song They’ve Heard Of

Perhaps the title for this segment should have been, ‘don’t use obscure metaphors you came up with at half-one in the morning’. Basically, what I mean is, show don’t tell. You can tell the reader that there’s racism and sexism in the world you’ve created on the page, or you can show them. I, and every writer out there, know that it’s better to read an uncomfortable scene that shows you something, rather than being told. We’re not idiots and we don’t need to be treated as such. Telling can be saved for children’s books.

I read back over my work, even stuff that I wrote in my first year of University, and it makes me cringe to see how dodgy my writing was. When I read stories I’ve written more recently, they’re absolute gems in comparison. I know that in five years, when I’m rereading my work again, I’ll realise that I was still writing poorly. But all this just goes to show how, the more you write, the better you get. I’ve read a thousand ‘how to be a better writer‘ lists, and every single one says that the only way to become a better writer, is to write. You probably don’t believe me, which is fine, but reread you work in a year and you’ll see how you slowly begin to fix your undesirable writing habits. Even if you’re just writing for a personal journal, or stories you don’t plan on showing to anyone, it all helps. There’s no other way to put it. Practice does make perfect, after all.

 

5. Pen and Paper vs. Computer

It’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not computers are better than pen and paper. I know people who have the most beautiful, cursive handwriting and others whose penmanship looks like a chicken had a fight with itself. My personal opinion? I like them both in moderation.

I’m lazy, and after an hour of writing by hand, I’ve got a cramp in my wrist and I’ve lost the day. However, I’ve also spent countless hours staring at a computer screen and I can promise you that your eyes get tired. There’s also something incredibly impersonal about typing out words onto a screen. You can’t feel the paper beneath your fingers. You can’t press at the smooth indentations on your fingers from how you’ve held the pen.

In all fairness, there are several things I really love about writing on a laptop. The fact that there’s a word count in the corner fills me with a sense of achievement, because how on Earth have I managed to write nine-thousand words? The idea of hand-writing that much makes me feel numb.

So, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, I’ve come to a happy compromise. Whenever I plan my work, I hand write notes. That way, I can scrawl and scribble, in five different colours, as much as I like until I get to my actual point. Once I’ve got all my thoughts and hopes and dreams for the story out of my head, I turn to my computer. If ever I get stuck, I either put a line of ‘XXX’s’ across the page, or copy and paste the last line of a paragraph and begin rewriting. There’s a certain beauty in being able to start again with hardly any effort, and it’s saved me from writer’s block more times than I can count.

Advertisements

Taking A Step Back From Your Writing

One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that it’s okay to take a step back. Perspective is such a useful tool, especially when it comes to writing. I find it so refreshing to take a minute or an hour or a day or a week to just reassess where my story is going.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in such an inspired state of mind. I’ve written near to 20,000 words and it was easy, something that surprised me. However, I got to chapter seven of my novel and I knew that my work was becoming sloppy – not something I would want to put my name to. I know that it’s only a first draft, and I know that it’s not going to be perfect, but as a writer, I also know when my work is good, with potential to be better, and when it isn’t.

I can plan as much as I like but my characters will often do or say or feel things that I can’t predict. Sometimes this works in my favour. For example, in chapter five, my protagonist, Ellen, and her new friend are getting to know each other. As I wrote, I had such a clear understanding of where I wanted their relationship to go and I found that their conversations were already so natural, despite it being the first draft. This is probably because I’ve already written a short story about Ellen’s new friend – Penny, from It’s A Gift. As I already know so much about Penny, it was easy to write her in a realistic way. She and Ellen bounced off of each other and that made it fun to play around with their gestures and ticks.

However, other times it isn’t so simple. My seventh chapter takes place as Ellen is meeting a new character, Henry. Like in chapter five, I know where I want their relationship to go but I hadn’t thought enough about how they get there. I have scenes that I’ve written or outlined for future chapters, but I’ve never focused enough on how their relationship would start.

It was when I got halfway through Ellen and Henry’s first conversation that I realised I needed to stop. It was annoying me that this scene was harder for me to write than the ones before, and I didn’t understand what was so different. Rather than continuing to write and hoping for the best, hoping that I would be able to get my characters from point A to point B, I stopped. Sometimes, that can be the hardest thing to do. I needed to think, to figure out how to make the scene unfold realistically. I had to look at what I wanted to happen and realise what I needed to change in order for that to occur.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about change as it was about planning. I probably talk about the importance of planning your work out in every other post but it really is, in my opinion, the key to good writing.

I made a list of all the things that were annoying me about the scene between Ellen and Henry, and I’ll copy it below so that you can see where my mind was.

  • Ellen and Henry are acting like robots – how to make them more natural and realistic???
    • List their feelings/motives for the scene
    • Henry is annoyed at being assigned to watch Ellen but he knows he doesn’t have a choice – he’s also curious about Ellen’s power
    • Ellen is tired, and cautious because of what Maggie said, but she’s still not going to roll over and let Henry walk all over her
    • Other thoughts in the backs of their minds? Brothers etc.
    • Give them small habits/ticks – can bring up in other conversations – what does Henry do when he’s nervous/angry/suspicious – what does Ellen do when she’s scared/annoyed
  • I hate the setting. I can’t picture it in my mind. Possibly plan a small map to track their route and use the setting to impact their discussion:
    • Cold/warm
    • Busy/quiet
    • Raining/foggy
    • Can they see the sky? What time of day is it?
    • Plan the map with the Embassy across the road from the hospital but the hospital entrance round the other side – I know what I mean

As you can see, the scenario wasn’t the problem. It was a lack of understanding. I didn’t properly know what my characters thoughts and feelings were in this scene – aside from the 2D and obvious – so of course they were stale and robotic. I didn’t really know the setting – just that they were walking through hospital grounds and out onto the street.

Once I had figured out all of the above, I sat back down, my laptop in front of me and my notepad open with all the important details. I had sketched a map of the hospital grounds and street outside, listed Ellen and Henry’s thoughts and motives and feelings about the situation, and got to writing.

It was easy again. It was easy because I knew exactly what I needed to write to portray Ellen’s nerves or Henry’s irritation. The setting helped break up the whole, ‘he said, she said, they turned a corner, he said, she said, they crossed a road,’ monotony. I could mention the way the yellow streetlights cast shadows across their faces, and that the sky was clear and dark, but any stars were drowned out by the obnoxious lights from the hospital.

I was worried when I lost that momentum halfway through chapter seven, that I would pack up all my notes and put them away and give up for another six months. But I think stepping back and figuring out what I needed to do in order to move forward was so much better than forcing myself to continue writing – writing something I knew was rubbish – and then get fed up with it.

So if you find yourself stuck – whether it be at chapter two or chapter twenty – all I can say is this: don’t force it. It will show in your writing. All it takes is ten minutes to figure out the setting and list your characters most pressing and relevant thoughts and feelings, and you have everything you need to make the scene come to life. That’s all writing is. Dialogue and setting.