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.

 

 

Inciting incidents

“You’ve lost me,” I said. I pressed HOME on the Kindle, a few other buttons and deleted the book. I felt bad, but then no one would ever find out.

Except – then I decided to blog about it. But why?

On Sunday just gone, I read the start of a book by a self published author. I picked up on the author from Google+ (which by the way is an amazing social media platform). Interested in their posts and the occasional link to their writing, I investigated, which led to a free sample of their book from Amazon.

Because their posts were lucid and well written, and because they talked about the publishing industry, I settled into their book with positive feelings. Here I could learn from somebody.

The book started with description, it described a scene. A quiet scene, and by the end of the first page, when nothing much had happened except the scene establishment, I was starting to waver. Don’t get me wrong, it was well-written, it’s just… nothing was happening. But I’d been reading this person, this author’s posts on Google+ for some time, so I wanted to like it. I persevered.

Finally there was some dialogue between two characters. Ah, was this going to lead somewhere? Would it give us the all important inciting incident? That thing which happens which is the cause of the story.

No. It was a minor exchange, which was probably meant to be tense, but because of the scene establishment – all rather bucolic, thank you very much – the dialogue came across as incidental. The scene moved on rather pleasantly and ended. And then we were somewhere else, where not much else was happening, other than a list of things in a different scene, and some one-sided dialogue in which a character listed things incidental to any story.

I ploughed on for a couple more pages, still hoping, and still nothing happened.

Which is when I decided to stop reading the sample and delete it from my Kindle. The writer had lost me. Or perhaps in retrospect it’s fair to say they’d never found me. I wandered, waiting to be found, but remained lost.

I used to do the same thing. It’s not always natural to start a story with an inciting incident. Sometimes as a writer you want to create the world first, so that when your reader finally gets to the story they get it. I mean, they really get it, in the same way the writer does in their head.

But here’s the rub: “…when your reader finally gets to the story…“. That’s what the reader’s there for, the story. Writers need to get to the story quickly. Pick up a book and read the first two pages. When does the story start? When is that all important inciting incident?

There is a great story about Ernest Hemingway setting a challenge  to write an emotionally affecting story in as few words as possible. He came up with, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (And from there we get the game of “six word novels”.)

Bang! Those final two words out of six suddenly reveal the full horror of the story. We are set up by the first two words, “For sale:”. This is the inciting incident – something has been put up for sale. It’s the cause of the story. The middle two words give us some description, “Baby shoes”. At this point we don’t know why they’re for sale, but we know that the story has started – something has been put for sale by someone, and we are interested in what. Then we know that it is baby shoes for sale. These two words open up the reader’s emotions, making them vulnerable to the story. Babies are cute, babies are sweet, babies are delicate and need protecting, and babies can sometimes be annoying. So where are we going? We’re waiting for input, ready to invest ourselves in what comes next.

The final two words say everything that’s needed. “Never worn.” We don’t need any other description. We no longer need a description of the “for sale” sign, where the advert was placed, what the baby looked like. We don’t need to be told anything. We don’t have to know who wrote the advert, or when or in which country. Those two words, “Never worn” finally make our open minds do all the work in the story. We fill in from our own knowledge of the world.

Knowing when to give and leave out description comes from experience, of course. And some readers like more description and some less. Writers also have preferences with description. I prefer to give as little as possible and leave the reader to fill in the blanks so that the literary world becomes personal for them, whereas other writers are sumptuous in their scene descriptions. Eventually it comes down to a matter of taste and some compromise. Description is needed occasionally, and it has to be relevant and well written.

But regardless of where we lie with description – colouring in the universe in which our story is set – we still need the story. And stories need to start.

I’ve made the same mistake myself. My first novel, planetfall (currently with agents under the name All Fall Down) started with a couple of pages of slow description, where I tried to re-create a cinematic shot I could see playing in my head. It was sweeping, it was visual, it was beautiful. But there was no story in it. The story started, eventually, about ten pages in. That’s a lot to ask of someone, to read through pages of world creation without giving them a story.

So what can we do about this? If we’re amateur writers, and we want people to be interested in our stories, then how do we start our story, while also creating a world that people are interested in?

The best thing is to benchmark our approach with those already successful. I’ve just pulled four books at random from the bookshelf here. I’ll quote the inciting incident from them, and tell you where it is in the story:

James Joyce – The Dubliners: the very first line of the book. Here’s the first few sentences to show that the first line is the inciting incident

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true.

So we know that someone has died, there is a change in the quality of light, and that this had long been predicted. But we don’t know why, yet. There is some tension to be resolved.

Christos Tsiolkas – The Slap: a little tricky this one. It’s not as immediate as The Dubliners, but we are drawn into a world with tension from the first page. Here’s why:

…Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up.

We already know in the first three lines (as printed on the page) that Hector is happy to wake up alone. Then we build further down the page,

Sweet young cunt. He’d spoken out loud.

Connie.

At the thought of her, sleep surrendered its grip on him. Aish would think him a pervert if she had overheard him.

Now we know something else. This man, Hector, slowly waking, has said “Sweet young cunt,” out loud, and thought immediately of another woman, Connie. And we know that Aish, the woman he’s glad wasn’t in his bed when he woke, would think him a pervert. We are setting up dramatic tension. The inciting incident is established – Hector has woken, his private thoughts have leaked out, he is thinking of another woman, and he is suddenly glad his wife, Aish, isn’t with him in bed. We are now just before the end of the first page.

AS Byatt – Possession: this starts by quoting a poem, and then by establishing a scene. But buried on the first half of page is the inciting incident:

The librarian handed [the dusty book] to Roland Mitchell… It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no.5

In the opening lines we are in a world where books are locked away, rarely seen, and handed to people. The transfer of knowledge is the inciting incident. The opening of a book will let us – and Roland Mitchell – learn something. Over the next few lines we learn that this dusty book

sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement.

The world is established. Secret knowledge has been locked away, the librarian, the keeper of the secret knowledge, has handed it to Roland, and the book has sprung open, eager to disgorge what it contains.

Iain Banks – Espedair Street:

Two days ago I decided to kill myself.

Bang, straight in with Mr Banks.

Here we have different examples of inciting incidents: A light in a window showing that someone has died; a man waking alone and thinking of another woman; a book being passed over and springing open; a man deciding to kill himself. They all start on the first page and are fully established within two pages. Some start without description (Iain Banks), while others are prose-like (AS Byatt).

If you’re writing – short stories, novellas, novels, reports, articles – read over your recent works and try to establish if your inciting incident is captured within the first page or so. And if it is within the first page or so – is it obvious to the reader? Does it create some kind of dramatic tension, to which we need resolution? Who has died and why is it important? Why has Hector woken thinking of another woman, and who is Connie? What is in the book and why is it important to Roland? Why did the man decide to kill himself, and was he – or will he be – successful?

Try a few different versions of your inciting incident, and see what works for you. And importantly – ask someone to read your opening few pages, and ask for some feedback. Good luck.

Editing planetfall

The last blog post was a little light relief, a short description of the pens and notebooks I use when I write. (But hey, you got some photos with it.)

This blog post follows up on that, and will lead back to the technical issues of writing creatively. I’ll get back to writing about particular characters in planetfall after this blog post.

I normally start writing long hand. Not always, but most of the time. I do this for several reasons. First, writing can be quite lonely, and writing long hand is best done in a cafe where I can be surrounded by people (ha! and look mysterious and author-ly). Second, when I’m trying to find those first few words, the mechanical nature of moving my hand back and forth across the page feels more interactive than having my fingers hover over a keyboard, watching that blinking sentinel of a black cursor on a white laptop page glare at me. Third, I like to draw.

Now let’s explain this drawing thing. I can’t draw like an artist. There are no secret sketch books filled with pen-and-ink compositions waiting to be discovered. No, in that sense, photography is my creative, visual outlet (see my photography on Flickr). Ever since I was a teenager writing in English Language classes, I have doodled first before starting to write. I’ve written previously about storyboarding planetfall, which combines my habit of doodling with my approach to starting writing.

When I start to write a sentence in a fresh writing session, I often sit and doodle. But these days, in my Moleskines, I doodle without touching the page. I wave the pen nib over the paper and sketch invisible patterns. I see blank lines form traces over the yellow-ish page of the Moleskine, and as quick as they’re formed, they fade. This, combined with the hubbub of background chatter, forms a sort of audio-visual white noise, quietening competing thoughts and dimming distracting inner eye pictures. At some point while waving this pen-as-magic wand, the nib will be attracted to the page, the doodling loops will form the recognisable sigils of letters, I will see the scene in my head, and it will download to my hand and onto the page.

It is because of this process that I prefer to start writing stories and each fresh writing session by hand. I can get to a similar point on a laptop, but it takes a while. It’s generally only after having typed for some minutes that I can see through the laptop screen – well, let’s get this right, that I stop seeing the laptop screen and letters appearing one by one – to the movie playing out in my head, and can access that download sensation.

Which brings me onto editing.

Once I’ve written in long hand, I return to my flat and type up the writing. This allows me a first pass at editing. While reading the long hand and stumbling with my fingers over the keyboard, I notice missing words, clunky sentences, half-completed thoughts, uncompleted cross-references, areas where the scene is sketched but not coloured in. It is this process which acts as a first edit and a first chance at re-writing.

The second pass at editing comes in a couple of different forms, and neither is my preferred second option. The first way is to have a day or so’s break and re-read recent text on the laptop. This I generally do if I’ve written a new long hand scene knowing I’ve jumped a little bit, and need some filler sections. In those circumstances I will need to re-read the last couple of pages to get back into the scene and what’s come already, so I can properly fill in. Sometimes this fill in can be a line, a paragraph, or several pages. The second way, which I do for everything I write, is to print it and read it like a book, with a red ink Uniball gel pen to hand. I make editing notes as I go along. Quite often the editing notes consist of lines through entire sentences or paragraphs: deleting previous writing is a shame, but it is absolutely fundamental to producing the final text. Often I will change words or phrases, pick up my punctuation (I over-use commas) or write new sections. I deliberately chose red pen as it links back to those early days in school, and allows me to occupy another version of me, a separate, slightly more objective version, one that is modelled on teachers and is expected to criticise.

The third and final pass at editing (before the writing goes to other people to read) is the most critical and also the most painful.

I read the material aloud.

Every single word, every single sentence and paragraph and page.

This is a very powerful tool for self editing. I find it painful for two reasons. First, I don’t like my voice. Second, when I read my work, I can get a pretty good sense of how it would sound to someone else (with my voice included). The presumption of embarrassment of someone hearing nonsense is very strong. Yet this is a strong feedback loop. Once you hear your work out loud, you get a very different feel for it. You can hear the sounds, the rhythm, the way different words rise and fall and complement each other. You can finally hear the tone of your work, which can be fundamentally different to how it sounds in your head.

When we edit by reading, we use a limited number of senses. There is the look of the words on the page, and there are the sounds heard by our inner ears (by which I mean, the mental constructions of our internal monologues) and the spatial feel of the words and story in our head: the space it creates and the form that takes.

When we add real sound to this, coupled with the tangible, mechanical feel of our jaws and tongues moving, we add extra dimensions. The story comes alive (or fails to…) in different ways.

A poet would use the process to match sounds to each other within the metre of their verse. I do some of this, sometimes, if it feels important, although I am no poet and do not always have a sense of lyrical sounds in the text.

The simplest thing I get from reading aloud is how difficult it is to read the words. If my tongue really stumbles over certain word combinations, then it will be harder for someone else to read with their internal monologue. If I can smooth the sentence aloud, I know it will read more smoothly to someone else when they read to themselves. (I have had this direct feedback, unprompted, from a friend who proofread part of planetfall book 1: “It reads like someone’s reading it to you,” she said.)

The process is also important for creating a visual environment. Stories have an oral/aural history. The sagas of old were told around camp fires and in huts and caves in the dark. They had to create an inner, visual world for the listeners, both as distraction from the nightmares that stalked the night outside the protected circle, and also so that as many senses were utilised to help the listener remember the tale. I have a tendency to be a very visual writer, to rely on visual creations of scenes to transmit the story to the reader. If the work isn’t read out loud, if I don’t check how it hooks into those feedbacks between our sense of sound and sense of vision, then it will fail to make the final leap: to evolve that internal silent movie on the cinema screen of your mind, into a talkie; a moving picture with original soundtrack.

Editing is a very important process in writing. The writing starts – for me – with a connection between movement and inner vision. When I type I exploit the same mechanism. When I edit I edit visually. But when I do the toughest edit, I combine as many senses as possible – I add sound to the movement and images. This whole process always leads to significant changes to the text, and most authors at some point have spoken on this. To finish, here are two quotations from people deeply involved in (and far better than me at) the writing process:

Harry Shaw: “There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books are not written – they’re rewritten.”