Friday, 19 September 2014

Fighting fear

Does fear of failure stop you from writing? I've been struggling to get back into my novel after the summer break, because I knew there was a lot of structural work to do. I was so overwhelmed, I've been avoiding it; I even cleaned behind the fridge.

But today I took my 2 year old and my notebooks to a play centre. I told myself a half hour would do, then I could stop, wherever I was up to. And, to my surprise, once I began it was painless. I didn't want to stop after half an hour, but then when I had finished my untangling, I realised it had only taken an extra ten minutes. All that procrastinating, and it was done in forty minutes!

As I unpicked and wove, I added in ideas that I've been jotting down all summer, and they began to take shape together and move the story in a better direction. It felt good; new ideas sparked and brought the whole to life.

When I put it down, I was fizzing with excitement. Today, my plot feels sweet; it is all singing in harmony. I'm still a little nervous about spoiling it when I try to capture it on paper but most of all, I can't wait to get back to it tomorrow.

So the cure for self-doubt is to push through it - must remember that next time! I wonder what the cure is for the guilt of putting writing time ahead of housework? And the guilt of letting my attention wander to made up people when it should be on my two year old?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

In praise of the adverb

I was reading The Welsh Girl (Peter Ho Davies) last night, and in the early pages I was struck by the description of someone as 'violently lonely'. There was something so wholly right about it, in context, that it made my skin prickle with delight.

What is it that makes a phrase like that so expressive? I'd argue that it's the addition of that beautifully chosen adverb 'violently'  - the perfect one, as it crunches too much to be a cliche, and yet has harmony, too. I set myself the task of trying to find a similar perfect pairing, and ended up reflecting instead on how delicate a balance it is.

For instance, look at the use of 'violent' and all it's aggressive connotations. Somehow, the addition of loneliness strips it of any threat in a way that many other pairings wouldn't. I tried to think about someone being violently sad, and my mental image was of ugly sulking and throwing toys out of prams.

I wonder if part of the beauty is in pairing words that have so little obvious connection..? I tried to think about being painfully lonely, but decided that that was too near a cliche, perhaps because it is so close to 'painfully shy'. That then discounted, for me, a whole raft of similar sensory adverbs, such as excruciatingly.

I toyed briefly with 'embarrassingly lonely', but the meaning changes so quickly then that the words risk whiplash. That would introduce a whole subtext (who is embarrassed by the loneliness?) and also, to me, it has a slightly comic flavour.

Which brings me to another thing - my perceptions of all these words is acutely subjective. Perhaps you don't 'see' the same thing as me at all in these juxtapositions - perhaps you like and dislike completely different ones. But it was interesting, exercising my brain to strive for alternatives that might be pleasing, and it challenged my vocabulary, too.

Have you ever found a particularly pleasing phrase in a book you've read? Can you find an adverb that can adjust 'lonely' in an even more interesting direction?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Holiday Reading

I'm still ploughing my way through Robert McKee's "Story", and re-plotting my work in progress as I read. However, I can't live without fiction, and as a nervous flyer I had to have a couple of gripping novels to hand to get me through a recent flight (well, any excuse will do).

One of the books I read was Liane Moriarty's Little Lies. I was deeply moved by another of her novels, "What Alice Forgot", which resonated deeply with my life at the time I read it. "Little Lies" didn't disappoint. It was a fascinating, pacy, humourful read - despite the fact it was about a murder. It takes an artist to handle the serious issues that Liane Moriarty raised, while still leaving the reader feeling amused and safe...She has a dry delivery that reminds me a little of Austen. There was an honesty that led to a few beautiful moments of, Yes! That is what life is like! too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

McKee says, on the subject of info-dump and backstory, that you don't keep an audience interested by telling them things, but by withholding information...until the right moment. Having just seen Liane Moriarty pull off exactly that, with aplomb, I really understand. Whether I can do the same is another matter...

Monday, 11 August 2014


Victor Hugo was exiled to Guernsey, and while there produced some wonderful writing. Tomorrow we fly there for a ten day visit with my sister and her husband; let's hope the break and the peace are inspiring and that I can get some decent day-dreaming done while the children build sand-castles....

Mustn't miss life while I'm dreaming, either, though. Happy holidays!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Studying Story

During a recent workshop with the YA author Emma Pass she recommended that wannabe writers try Story by Robert McKee.
She did warn that she'd read it with a notebook to hand - and it does require some serious concentration. But she also said that it had revolutionised the way she wrote - changed her life, in fact. So I bought it, and am making slow but steady progress through it. It is primarily written for scriptwriters, but there is lots of useful information for all writers.
Anyway, in the summer holidays, which are frequently a bit of an involuntary sabbatical in my house, I have to find other ways to work. One of the things I'm doing is studying this book. Already some of the insights have affected the way I'm thinking about my work in progress, to the degree that, when I get five minutes, I'm not rushing to write, but hurrying to read the next part of this book.
There is, of course, always a danger that you spend so long reading about writing that you never write; but I'm also afraid of then discovering huge problems with my plot and having to go back and unpick things that could easily be put right now.
So, here are two thoughts from McKee's book.
 He talks about the 'craft' of writing, and its loss. "If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: "I've heard a lot of symphonies....I can also play the piano...I think I'll knock one out this weekend"?'d head for music school to study both theory and practice...Too many struggling writers never suspect that the creation of a fine screenplay is as difficult as the creation of a symphony." I find it very encouraging, to know I'm not the finished article yet, never mind my work! And I also need the encouragement to push myself harder in order to be the best I can. It's easy to shrug and say, "That's the best I can do, so it'll have to do" when what I really need to do is say, "It's the best I can do at the moment, so I must get better"...
The other thing I've found fascinating is what he has to say about cliche (especially cliched ideas, rather than hackneyed phrases). This is something I worry about in my own work, and McKee suggests that the antidote is to know your characters and world inside out, and to explore those through memory, imagination and research. He says that those who don't know their world well enough, when they try to write about it,  'come up empty' and so they fill the void with experiences from TV, stories and movies, therefore coming up with familiar, cliched ideas. Some of his tips to combat that are really interesting, too, and I need to apply this to my work in progress and see what magic I can work, and if I can strengthen this weak area of mine.
I'm glad for this chance to improve myself, even though I'm not managing much writing time.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Surviving Summer

I'm sitting on my Aunt's patio on her weathered bench, balancing a cup of tea on the curved arm, and writing on a see-sawing notebook. The children are wreaking havoc in the garden. (The washing line has already fallen victim to the 7 year old experimenting with a pair of shears.)
Of course, I'll type my post up later, but a notebook is so much more portable than a laptop. (It's bad enough trying to carry three scooters and a skateboard.)
I'm not sure how well the technique - of writing long-hand, then typing up - will work for me, especially when writing sections of my novel, but the time has come to rethink my routines and writing habits. It is summer; traditionally a time of great stress and little work in my home. It is equal parts glorying in relaxing, precious family time and constant squabbling under my feet.
Writing long-hand in the garden is working well so far; all four are currently exploring a woodlouse at sticks' length, and I've had ten minutes peace. In fact, except for the two year old, the children are markedly more independent and trustworthy this year. I can physically take a small step away, and withdraw my attention a little, too, when they are all content like this.
On the downside, they're awake longer these days. In the stifling heat of the past few days, the 5 year old has been awake until 9 o'clock, or nearly 10. Even on the cooler nights, his big sister is always now still up until 9 o'clock, and my treasured evenings are shrinking. By the time 9 o'clock arrives, I'm past my creative best. (Past my best in every respect, to be fair.)
So I'm going to need to think more inventively if I'm going to get any work done in the next six weeks...and beyond. And if that involves writing at the park, then I'd better get used to it.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Feeding your writing

It's been a funny couple of weeks, with my sister visiting  for a few days and various other commitments tripping me at every turn. I've written thousands of words in reports as part of my teaching job, and still squeezed in the very occasional and disjointed session on my work in progress. Blogging has had to take a back seat.

I'm very aware, however, that little gets done in the summer holidays. I feel anxious about that, but can only make plans to try to write.

Today I had a little boost; an article I wrote (for no fee) for a tiny, local paper has been published and a copy of the magazine was posted through my door. I felt quite proud of what I'd written, and I've been asked to write more for the next issue - I might even ask for payment now I've provided two articles to the magazine on goodwill.

However, I also have a mountain of reading to do, from the pleasure of The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden to a recommended book on plotting, which I will blog about in due course, and a stack of writing magazines that have been piling up by the door. A few hours spent on these will help feed my writing, too, I hope, and might be something I can still do with ease, even while we are away on holiday.

Finally, I've also just finished watching Breaking Bad, which was a lesson in suspense and pace, and hooks and tight plotting...or that's my excuse for watching it, anyway!