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Confessions of a lapsed writer

twatt1

I am supposed to be taking part in NaNoWriMo. But I have to confess, I’ve been backsliding. First part of my romantic novel; a breeze. They meet, he’s handsome she’s starchy, they cross swords (not literally, but actually…that’s an idea) they kiss and then…..oh, I dunno. It’s not got enough oomph. So, naturally, I’ve been displacing like mad.

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I have cleaned the picture rails in the kitchen. (Why? Who looks at them?)

I have cleaned the oven (actually I got my husband to do that, while I had a cup of tea and supervised. It’s very therapeutic watching other people work).

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I have been watching Strictly Come Dancing It takes Two on Catch Up TV. (How sad is that???) But really, Judy had to go, for the good of the collective. She was stiffer than, well, a stiff. And if you get to the point where the only thing in your favour as a dancer is your mum’s shortbread then, really, it is time to shuffle off.

I have been wandering through YouTube, looking at all those Armstrong and Miller pilot sketches. This one has to be my favourite:

But really, there is nothing to beat looking up pictures of all the silly place names in Britain.

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I know, I know. Back to work.

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Write on

nanowrimo2

On Saturday I signed up for NaNoWriMo. On Sunday I wished I hadn’t. I haven’t written a full length romantic novel for nearly 20 years, and I’ve begun to think that I should try to write another one, simply to see if I can still do it.

I always tell my students to plan; to think about their characters, to have some idea of what is going to happen. Did I do this? No. I did not. I just woke up with a vague idea of my hero and heroine meeting in a car park (yes, really) and charged straight into it. First page, great; second page, okay; third page, blank.

I hadn’t realised, at first, that when you take part in the National Novel Writing Month, you:

  • actually sign up to a website;
  • enter your target length;
  • are given daily target of words to complete.

And get this; there’s a little window where, every day, you log in how many words you’ve done.

nanowrimo1

So there I was on the morning of November 1, thinking that I was just going to coast along in a dreamy sort of way, writing an unspecified amount every day (so, nothing, then, ed) until I contacted Tara Sparling and she put me right on the details. (Now there’s a girl who is on fire –well, not literally, you understand, because that would be somewhat inconvenient, but she has a great idea and she is, as they say in Ireland, away on a hack with it).

A few hours later (she must have hypnotised me, guv) I found the website, signed in, put in 50,000 words as my target and the NaNoWriMo computer helpfully told me that my average of words per day should be 1,167. On Saturday I wrote 867 words. Yesterday I deleted quite a lot of those, and wrote 871 more. At this rate, the computer has informed me, I will complete my magnum opus on January 26 (what year, ed?).

Trouble is I have no idea what my characters are going to do next. They’re just sitting there, like dummies in a car, and there’s no oomph. I’d like to shoot both of them, but I’m not writing a murder mystery. It’s all very well having a target average and a deadline, but since my characters are so wooden that they’re giving my brain splinters, it might be time to rethink my strategy.

It’s odd to think of writing in such a clinical way, but when I used to write full time I sat down every morning and aimed to write 2,000 words, even if half of it was rubbish and I had to scrub it. Overall I still achieved something, to the point where I ended up with a complete book. And then I had children, and stuff happened, and writing romantic novels rather fell by the wayside.

I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo because I need to get that discipline back. I’m determined to get to the end of another book by November 30. So, I’m going to be ruthless. I’m leaving my frustrating pair of no-hopers outside a Hollywood motel, with their fuzzy backgrounds and unplanned future and I’m going straight to Plan B. I’m going to resurrect my plans for a book I began to draft this summer, which lapsed because summer and a lack of self confidence got in the way.

I really think I might make it to the end of this one. I have a cunning plan, you know.

Pictures via Creative Commons, via:

http://www.toyota-4runner.org/attachments/5th-gen-t4rs/63794d1336528966-snorkel-update-baldrick.jpg

https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/103/310384366_82db45b278

Perfect? Who cares?

dog eyebrows

I was leafing through one of my daughter’s fashion magazines yesterday and I came across an extraordinary article by a woman trumpeting on about what a perfectionist she was. She is such a stickler for detail, it appears, that she once ran out of an eyebrow salon with only one eyebrow plucked because she didn’t like the way the beautician had shaped it. Like that’s really going to improve your looks.

However, the author was obviously not such a perfectionist that she could see that her piece, which droned on for another whole page (wtf?) was the most self-obsessed drivel I’ve ever fallen asleep over  read.

perfectionism pic b

But. It got me thinking about perfectionism. And what a terrible thing it is. Perfectionists, it seems to me, worry so much about the detail, that they forget about the big picture. They’re so worried about a wrongly shaped eyebrow, they ignore the overall look.

I remember one of my children going to school with a brilliant story and coming back utterly dejected because the only comment the teacher could make about it was that the capital letters were all in the wrong place. Perfect teacher? I don’t think so.

perfectionism pic c

Perfection is an impossible dream. When we plan to be perfect, it generally all comes apart at the seams. And if we place too much importance on perfection, we miss the little unplanned things that make life so sweet.

Perfectionism is a pain in any walk of life, but it absolutely kills creativity. Nothing is worse, when you’re in full flow, than to feel that you’ve got to stop and alter what you’ve already written, because it doesn’t read quite right. Or there’s a spelling mistake, or….whatever.

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That’s why free-writing is such a brilliant idea. It means that you can just get your stuff down on paper and forget about form and structure. New ideas and phrases just appear, and you’re amazed how they got there. And when it’s all over, and your creativity has run into a wall, then is the time to go back and fossick about with the they’res and theirs and there theres.

Having said that, I did find myself self-correcting all the way through this piece. Not that I’m a perfectionist or anything…

Images via Creative Commons, from:

http://crazyninjacupcake.deviantart.com/art/Those-Puppy-dog-Eyes-Color-276759208

http://www.flickr.com/photos/richardmessenger/2827614283/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/clintjcl/3988067181/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevedinn/sets/1067665/detail/

100 posts! Ain’t that dandy?

dandelion

This is my 100th blog post. Can you believe it? (No, ed) I find the fact that I’ve kept on writing, reasonably regularly since last September, utterly amazing. Me. Who would rather do the ironing than face the prospect of sitting down at a blank screen and thinking up something to write about.

One hundred posts. That’s (quick pause while I consult calculator) about 40,000 words. Wtf! That’s nearly a novel! And that’s not counting the (sometimes lengthy) conversations I’ve struck up with all the interesting people I’ve met here in the blogosphere.

It’s been interesting, and exciting and, at times, it has to be said, rather discouraging. Nobody read my first two posts. Which was not surprising because they were rather dull and worthy efforts on how to write an essay. I had just finished my OU degree, and they were really instructions to myself in case I forgot how to treat an academic subject (dunno why; can’t see anybody suddenly wanting me to knock out 3,000 words on Shakespeare).

In September I posted every day, and when I got 12 likes for Wtf? Guys, listen to yourselves. I thought I was really motoring. In October I missed a couple of days, but my readers slowly climbed. And then I wrote a piece about my mother playing Scrabble, Out of the mouths of Babes and Grandmas and was astonished when one of my students told me she’d read it out loud to her daughter. In a café. In London. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t really pictured anyone reading my stuff. Certainly not anybody I knew. I mean, like buttons and real people aren’t the same at all, are they? (You are naïve, ed).

Things dropped off a bit after that, and my posting became rather haphazard, and I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere (not that I knew where I wanted to get to). I had started blogging with the intention, as a professional writer, of handing out advice to aspiring writers (whether they wanted it or not). And I couldn’t understand why nobody was coming by. And then I read a piece by Opinionated Man on blogging, who said that bloggers are all, if you like, a field of dandelions.

field of buttercups (couldn't find one with dandelions)

 

Nobody wants advice from people who think they are roses. They want to know how other dandelions are doing. And he was dead right. In any case, my stuff couldn’t really be compared to a rose. More like the stuff you mulch them with.

So I stopped and I wouldn’t have come back, if it hadn’t been for Bruce Goodman sending me a lovely email asking when I was going to post again (thanks Bruce!). And, when I did sign in, I found a really nice message from another fellow blogger, MikeW. So, that was how I discovered this place is a community. An odd one, since the chances are we’ll never meet in person; but, looking at it another way, it has the advantage of allowing you to talk to people you never would otherwise meet.

Then my daughter took me in hand. She showed me how to take advantage of Twitter; how to tag my tweets and told me also to tag my posts on Facebook. She also told me off about the dullness of my stock pictures, and that I should take my own at all times. I signed up for the WordPress 201 tuition, and everything kind of clicked. I realised I couldn’t bang on about writing all the time.  I wanted to write about family life and everyday stuff that was on my mind. And more people began to drop in.

And I don’t feel discouraged any more. I don’t have thousands of followers on WordPress, or more than 30 likes for any of my posts, but I do have a few close posting buddies who always drop by; there are others who pop in occasionally, and there are always new people popping into my reader, with new ideas and fascinating lives.

The most important thing is that, without a blog I wouldn’t write at all. And while I don’t like the thought of writing, I do like doing it.

So, thanks, WordPress, and here’s to the next 100 posts.

 

 

Fairy dust and farting about with plots

honymoonass

Here’s an interesting thought: lots of authors don’t like plotting their stories. They say they’re waiting to do it, they say they’re willing to do it. But when it comes to the moment with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, do they really want to do it? No, they don’t.

Look at me. All this stuff I’ve written. Have I ever plotted it out? No. Not properly. I’ve scrawled a few ideas on a sheet of paper and then thought, bugger this, I want to get started. Also, there seems to be a feeling that if you plan something out, you knock the fairy dust off it. You are turning what should be an artistic creative exploration into some kind of mechanistic plodding.

In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that I’ve got to get off my butt and write another romance. When it came down to starting, this week, did I plot it out first? Did I plan? Did I take any of my own advice, as given to everyone else in my blog posts? No, I bloody didn’t. I shied away from it. I decided, instead, to just freewrite; I wouldn’t , as I usually do, rewrite and rewrite,  I would just keep going until the end, which would probably be about 5,000 – 7,000 words, and then I would use that as my plot. Clever, huh?  Yeah, right.

And I suppose I would have gone on like that and probably got through, if it wasn’t for the fact that I teach a creative writing class and they’re all having some difficulty with giving their stories real narrative drive. I mean, making the reader feel as if the author is in charge, that they know where they’re going.

The research on plotting that I’d done up until that point hadn’t come up with anything that’s really useful. I wrote about it last week, about how you start with your hero wanting something, and then you keep putting obstacles in their way until you decide they’ve had enough and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. But it was all too vague. If I’m going to get advice, I want practical stuff. I want something that I can use, that is going to work for me.

And then, quite by chance, on Twitter, I found this brilliant website: thescreenwritingprocess.com. It’s for screenwriters really, (no shit, Sherlock) but they have step by step instructions on how to lay out a plot, and I read them and I felt as if I had discovered New Life.

You can get the whole bit, if you’re interested, by going to their site. But in a nutshell, the first thing they advise is to write a premise (or a logline as sreenwriters call it). This is how you do it: Describe your protagonist (cab driver, mother, superhero, whatever) then give them an adjective that sums them up (world weary, alcoholic, retired), then describe their aim (saving the world, saving a child, singing in Eurovision). Then describe who/what is standing in their way. Then put it in a sentence. Like so: World weary mother wants to sing in Eurovision, but has to fight off alcoholic superhero.

Try it with something you’re working on. It’s hard. I thought I would find it easy. I thought I had all my plot in my head. It was only when I attempted this, that I realised that my heroine was a wet blanketty drooping victim, my hero had no personality, and there was no narrative drive.

The trouble was, in many ways, I was rather fond of what I’d written. Promising myself that this was just an exercise, I re wrote my logline just so that sentence sounded good, and then I thought, half grudgingly, half excitedly, Hey, this might actually work as the basis for my story. Then, I followed their plotting instructions. I found myself sketching out a completely new story on the foundations of the old one, but one that now had structure and flow.

Then I took it to my class. I could tell that some didn’t want to do it at all (see fairy dust, above) but they all tried it, even if, for some, it was just as an exercise that they were certainly not going to let anywhere near their inky darlings. Some found the loglines really hard to complete. Some felt the whole thing was silly. Some felt that it showed their stories weren’t dramatic enough, but I don’t think this matters. A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow! You can apply a logline as easily to Pride and Prejudice as you can to X Men. The point is that you, as an author, know where you’re going. Then we went through the plot stages, with a similarly doubtful reception (see fairy dust, again)  but once started, I could see them beginning to think really hard about the structure of their stories and what needed to happen when. Now they’ve taken them home to complete. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Plotting – how hard can it be?

gargoyle

I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.

Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.

The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.

Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.

I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).

I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).

Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’

The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.

So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’

When the words won’t come, creating characters part 2

mills and Boon page

There are moments when you are writing a story and you are inside it and everything is falling together in this wonderful symmetry and your fingers aren’t typing fast enough to keep up with what is unfurling on the page. Unfortunately, there are also moments when your characters have disappeared off for a tea break, and you are left alone pawing uselessly at your keyboard. And everything you try just falls flat.

So, try Story Magic! One teaspoon a day and in 28 days you are guaranteed to write like a Nobel prizewinner. Available in Hemingway, Steinbeck and Greene flavours.

No. Really. I made that last bit up. But there are lots of ways you can kick start your imagination. I’ve already talked about creating characters through their possessions. But you can also create them by thinking of opposites. For example, start with a handsome man. Then think of an opposite. Maybe he wears scruffy clothes. Then think of a trait. He’s very kind to his mother. But then, maybe he beats up his wife. It’s quite an absorbing technique and it very quickly gives you a believable character, because most humans are a bundle of contradictions. Once you think you know your new character, you can supply more contrast by introducing another character.

Of course, you can’t write an entire story by introducing contrasts. You have to eventually flesh your characters out. But I’ve found that, after a paragraph, that you are so intrigued by this new person, that your words start flowing again.

Here’s an example I wrote:

Everything about him was a contradiction. He was fat and he walked with ridiculously light steps, as if he were twinkling along, his hands held up slightly, his fingers splayed. He minced along the street like a caricature of a Soho queen, and yet in the boot of his car he had a stack of dog eared porn mags. His car, too, was a contradiction. He was a detective, a private detective, mind, but whereas the other lads had cars that could pass for skips, his was clean, almost obsessively pine fresh. He hated the way the others kept their cars. Rab, would you believe it, even had a slice of bacon under the front passenger seat.

Not the most brilliant prose, but I hope you see what I mean.

Creating characters, part one.

pinocchio

Telling one teeny lie can get you into all sorts of difficulty, as I discovered when I began the process of buying a vintage motorbike for my husband. I had to get a friend of a friend to collect it and, not surprisingly, him indoors wanted to know why I was on the phone all the time to another bloke.

It all worked out ok, but the stress was tremendous. So why do we choose to write stories that are constructed from a whole pile of lies that all have to mesh seamlessly? Dunno, is the answer to that one. But I can say this, as writers, we have to tell those lies with the utmost truth, or the reader just won’t bother to keep reading. After all, if they are willing to suspend their disbelief, the least we can do is not waste their time. We need to take them into this world that we have constructed and keep them in until the end. We don’t, under any circumstances want them asking the kind of questions that begin with, ‘Yes, but why did…?’ or ‘Didn’t Lady Romilda have blue hair in chapter one?’ or ‘I thought Smithers’ mother was a wandering gypsy with a limp?’

There are exceptions to this rule. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was always forgetting exactly in which leg Dr Watson had been hit with a Jezail bullet in Afghanistan, and some really geeky types have proved that it is practically impossible to work out the room plan of Blandings Castle from PG Wodehouse’s descriptions. Neither of these points detract from the stories (the variations are visible from story to story not within each one), but you can bet your blog stats even these masters of storytelling got plenty of complaints.

Constructing characters can be the biggest problem for most writers, even though they are really the most important part of a novel, as they drive the plot. When I started writing Mills and Boon novels I would think of a sort of scenario; Caribbean island, pirate/property tycoon and virginal but feisty heroine and just go for it. Of course, by chapter three I was in a terrible tangle, because I kept changing my characters’ backgrounds, and by chapter four the whole thing was imploding. Was the heroine a librarian or a secret agent, and how could the villain be in two places at once?

I used to think planning was beneath me. I thought it would take all the spontaneity out of my writing. I thought I ought to be able to sustain a story from beginning to end without the need for notes. (Yeah, right, Ed.) Although it has to be said that you can do this if:

  • you are prepared to re-write your story from the beginning every time you work on it (which adds months to the completion date and years to your life);
  • you work out the entire story in your head before you begin (and even people who do that, such as JK Rowling, still make a plan).

Constructing characters can be really good fun, especially when you’re feeling really blank and dull. The first method you can use is defining a character by their possessions. Make lists of 20 things you might keep in your handbag, or your fridge, or the attic. Or make lists of expensive things, or creepy things (if you’re writing a horror story) or things that would fit in your hand or your pocket. This is surprisingly absorbing, there’s no pressure to write anything (which is always handy if you have writer’s block) and it really does kick start the imagination. Then all you have to do is choose two or three things, from each of the lists you’ve created, as possessions of one of your characters. It’s amazing what you can come up with.

Once you have a character complete with stuff in his/her pockets/attic/fridge, then you can go on and give them an appearance, and a place to live in, and excitingly, a secret (This is important, because every good story needs conflict). By this time, it becomes easy to visualise this person’s family or close friends, and then you can start thinking of what is going to happen to them.

Try it. Let me know how you do. I’ll post some more ideas next week.

jkRowling lesson plan

JK Rowling’s story plan for The Order of The Phoenix, taken from Chandler Baker’s post

If you are a teacher and are looking for inspiration for a lesson plan, you can use the idea of telling lies as an icebreaker, with the students disclosing three things about themselves, one of which is a lie, which the other students have to guess. Making lists of possessions also works really well as a competition between groups of students (ie, the first group to come up with 20 particular things).

When you can’t think of anything to say

Gosh it’s nice to be back. I’ve spent the last week or so loafing about doing housework, filing paperwork and other pointless chores while my technical consultant, aka my husband, has been building me a new computer.  There had originally been hopes of a seamless changeover between the two machines, but my old computer had other ideas. It was getting cratchety, and forgetful, and if I used it for too long it would pick a letter and run with it for page after page after page after pageeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Oops.

But then of course, you don’t get a new computer and away you go. You have to find everything on your old one that you want to keep and move it over, and it’s all very tedious and time-consuming and when you think about your blog quietly languishing away, there’s a very strong urge to leave it for another day before you post anything, and the days go by and you can’t really think of anything to write about anyway, so what’s the point?

I didn’t really mean to write anything when I logged in today. I didn’t expect that anyone would have read anything I’d written in the dim and distant past that was the week before last. But then I discovered I had a comment on one of my posts (thanks, Mike) and by the time I’d replied to him, I just wanted to keep writing.

It would be so easy to stop posting altogether, because thinking about what to write can be rather daunting at times. But I think it’s important to realise that not every post on a blog is deep and meaningful and full of sparkling wit (just the one would be nice, actually). A blog, I think, is a conversation, and sometimes we just need to check in and um and er for a bit before we realise what we want to say.

So here it is. Nothing much. But I’m still going.

Don’t let the buggers get you down

There is a huge problem with characters once you have created them, of course: they go off by themselves. It’s supposed to be a sign that you have done your job properly, but there is nothing more annoying than a character who thinks he knows better than you.
Don’t be nuts, I hear you say, after all, aren’t you, the writer, in charge? And the short answer to that is, no. I quite often get to the end of a story, and I have no idea how I got there. Sometimes I just start with a really strong character and hope for the best, and I’m just led along, step by step to a conclusion I hadn’t expected, but which is so right. Other times, well.
The problem is the plot. You have to have an idea of where you want your characters to go. I’ve talked before about not shoehorning them into a narrow path, but you do have to have some kind of plan, based on their personalities and situation. If for example, you are writing a romantic novel, and you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, Mills and Boon are very happy to look at three chapters and a synopsis of the rest. The trouble begins when the publishers give you the green light and you get to the end of chapter four and then your characters turn round and bite you. They’re all set up to have a row, or a bit of sexual tension, and they basically down tools and refuse. They turn into those method actor types who suddenly want to know their motivation, and then you lose your nerve and you stop writing because, actually, maybe they’re right.
Maybe your hero doesn’t want a steamy moment in the shower with the heroine; and maybe after all the emotional rollercoaster stuff she’s been through since Chapter One (when her heart began thudding wildly and hasn’t stopped since) she’s got a thumping headache. Poor girl.
The first thing to do in this situation, is not to put it away and promise you will come back later; you won’t. Go back to the beginning and read through it. Writing is a lot like knitting in some respects; you can drop a stitch and not notice, and then it’s only after a whole lot of stuff has unravelled, that you realise that you are deep in the doo doo. With a read through, you can often see where your characters took a wrong turn, or where you can insert stuff that will bring them back up to speed again.
The most important thing is to finish your writing session on a high, rather than on an extremely gloomy, ‘I just can’t do this,’ low. Characters can get you down, but don’t let the stroppy buggers stand in your way.

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