Advice for the advisors

Don’t write, just write. But don’t write, because you’re not good enough.

Like many amateur writers, I follow a number of online writing tips websites. I’m sure you have ones you like. Some of the better ones that I know about include DIYMFA and Bang2Write.

I mention these two because they’re high quality, and give writing tips from different perspectives. DIYMFA from a writer’s perspective, from someone who’s been through a Master of Fine Arts programme (hence DIY MFA); and Bang2Write from someone in the industry who makes decisions on scripts, as well as being a writer.

The good thing about both of those is that, generally, they give this advice: just write. That’s all you need, really. After that, everything is style.

But some writing tips websites almost go out of their way to stop people writing. Which seems a bit bizarre. They say things like:

Don’t write prologues unless you’re highly experienced.

And

Don’t write cliches unless you’re a really good writer and make a really good job of it.

Have you ever seen this kind of advice? It’s nonsense. In the first one, how would one get to be “highly experienced” if one didn’t write with low experience? And how can one use a cliché in writing and make it brilliant, if one doesn’t use clichés in their rubbish form and learn why they’re bad? They almost say to a budding writer, “Don’t write, you’re not good at it. Leave it to the professionals.” And then off we trot to find out how the professionals became good, and their interviews says, “Just write. Make mistakes.”

 

planetfall update

More work on planetfall book 2 this weekend. I’m about 24,000 words in now, which is about 80 pages. It’s already shaping up to be an action-centred book, where the first one was more thriller-esque. The theme of revenge is strong, and I’ve somehow managed to set up four storylines (one major story, three sub-plots) in that time, which I’m pleased about.

My writing approach with this book is a nice mixture of planned and organic. I know, have known, the overall story arc, and roughly where each of the characters needs to end up by the book’s close. So starting with the end in mind it’s now a case of letting the characters explore their personal space and their narratives, and seeing what crops up. Undoubtedly I’ll be editing things out, putting new parts in, treating what I’ve written so far as guide text and adding more exposition and so on, but for now, it’s going very well.

Regarding book 1, it’s still out with agents, and I’m waiting for feedback from about 10 of them. I think I said that I’d received feedback that it “has a big sci-fi feel”, which isn’t seen much these days, but that agents are looking for different kinds of books for current market conditions. (That’s the same feedback I received for my other book, Backpackers – market’s looking for different kinds of stories.)

 

I’d love to hear what you’re working on. Drop me a line.

 

 

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planetfall – update

Years ago I started writing this little book and called it “planetfall”. And I failed. I failed to write it. I failed to make it happen, I failed to conceive of a decent story. I failed to have the ability and find a way into it.

But I learned from the failure. planetfall was supposed to alternate between two stories – how a war started, and the war itself. But writing from two different perspectives, with completely different characters, soon proved too much. I decided to split the story into two, and write ‘how a war started’ first. It took me just over four years.

Finishing that first book, which I’ve since named All Fall Down (though it remains Book One of the planetfall series), took a massive effort. I’ve blogged before about how much I taught myself and learned from others about plotting, character, editing and so on.

In the summer of 2011, with a finished draft of All Fall Down brimming with pride on my laptop, I sat down to write ‘the war itself’. And failed again.

So I wrote another book, called Backpackers. And a book of short stories, called Dark Things. I took a creative writing course at London’s City University. I joined a writing circle. I wrote an 8 minute film script, and then a 30 minute pilot sitcom script. And started a fanfic novella about Robocop.

Phew. I was busy last year, between Aug ’11 and Aug ’12. But then I was unemployed, so it was a good time to really improve my writing skills and achieve something.

Over that year I occasionally went back to ‘the war itself’ and tried to make it work. Occasionally I would have a little breakthrough. An idea for a scene. A line I’d edit which would work really well. And sometimes there’d be a big breakthrough, like finding the narrator’s voice. That, really, was the hardest part to get right – his voice, his view of the world.

“Voice” is an interesting concept in writing, and it’s not one that many amateur writers come across until they go on creative writing courses, hang out with writers more experienced, or really delve into the amazing writing tips websites now available.

Trying to get into the mind of a person and speak from their point of view, to find their voice, is difficult. And that’s what kept bringing me back to that original story, and sending me away. I kept coming back because if it was difficult finding this character’s voice, then it must be a prize worth achieving. And I kept leaving the material to rest so that I could develop my writing skills in other media, try writing in different voices, and bring them back to this original idea I had in 2007.

A couple of months ago I sat down and re-wrote the opening 15 pages of the original planetfall. And I found a voice. In truth it wasn’t so different from the one I started with originally; the changes really were that it had more hope in it, less misery, it had a pinch of vulnerability, but it was also confident. It was angry, remains angry, but there’s a sense, I hope, of it building to something. This soldier has a mission.

A few weeks later, though, still unsure if this re-write was working, I re-wrote the first 5 pages from a completely different point of view: 3rd person, near (or 3rd person, limited, as it’s also known).  This worked, and I had a voice in that, too. And of course a quandary: I now had two versions which worked, one in first person and one in third. What to do?

At this point I was just finishing my sitcom script, which follows two characters whose lives cross early on, and keep crossing despite neither of them wanting to. A thought struck me: I needed to pick up the events of book 1. I’d always intended any reference to book 1 coming through from the first person narrative, a very narrow point of view (POV). But writing the sitcom, where the viewer would need to know more than a single POV, gave me an idea. What if I could go back to my original idea? Write a first person narrative with the voice I’d found, and write a third person narrative which followed other characters, so that necessary plotting could be picked up there.

It’s a risky decision. It essentially means the chapters go like this (example text):

Chapter One – My team died that day, and it made me angry. Three months later, I died. And that made me angrier still. I vowed revenge.

Chapter Two – Kate was alone on the planet when the ship came to get her. After twelve years, her solitude was over, and like it or not, she was going to be plunged back into the war.

Chapter Three – …and so on back to first person…

So how’s it working out? Is it another failure?

From my perspective, it’s working beautifully. The change between points of view has unlocked so much of the story, and made it so easy to write, that I’ve gone from 15 pages to 65 in a matter of days. The third person narrative brings the events of All Fall Down into the new book, providing continuity for the story and reader. The third person narrative brings something new. It places the reader in two parts of the world: a god-like part, where plot unfolds and great events move forward; and a personal part, where we feel what it’s like to be on the frontline of the war, narrated by a soldier.

It is a risky approach to telling a story, and I’ve never tried swapping POV like this – or rather, I did, once, in 2007, and I failed miserably. And five years of writing experience has given me the ability to achieve my original ambition. From failure came a number of successes.

As writers, we need failures. We need to write crap and tear it up. We need to write awful dialogue and curl up with embarrassment when we read our work aloud when we vocally edit. And we need, importantly, to learn from those mistakes and failures.

I’d be interested to know what failures you’ve had, and what you learned from them.

Backpackers – deleted material

This week I returned to my completed novel Backpackers and re-wrote the prologue and first chapter.

It seems like a strange thing to do, considering I had strongly believed it finished and in its best possible form. I have sent it to a score of publishers. Oops.

Rather predictably I have fallen foul of the lesson that we all need to learn as writers – rest your material before you proclaim it finished. I knew this, but I was so intent on finishing the book and getting it to publishers before I went back to full time work that I blinded myself.

Lately, on my long commutes to my new job, I started running the book through my head, thinking about it, testing parts of the story. And I realised that the opening chapter was letting it down. The changes I’ve made aren’t enormous – it essentially amounts to a re-structure of the material, to bring some of the tension and conflict at the end of the chapter right up front, and cutting out 6 pages, and writing in 6 pages of fresh material.

The material I cut out was a “darling”. Most writers will have heard the editing advice, “kill your darlings”. My darling was the original short story which spawned the entire Backpackers novel. I had kept it in for a year, because it was the seed, and it helped set out part of Cath, the protagonist’s character. She’s a story teller, a mischievous fun loving party girl. What I realised was that the diversion into the short story (which is presented as a story that Cath tells) diverts the story from establishing the conflict it needs. The reader is set up with too many stories to think about.

But! Not wanting to lose it, I thought I would upload the material here and allow people to download it for free, specifically so that writers can compare the kind of material I cut out, and see how that applies to their own writing.

Here is the Backpackers – old opening file.