Today I happened upon this quote. It spoke to my heart so I thought I would share it.
“At heart write always for yourself, not for family and friends, for admired teachers, for reviewers or publishers; but make sure you write from your real self, not that one besotted by vain glorious dreams of a future self. One day you will realize that the true rewards of writing lie inalienably in the writing itself.”
There really is nothing finer than writing – except perhaps reading. Both provide food for my soul. There are times when the words refuse to come, so I read. Then, there are the times when all I want to do is read, and so, I don’t write. They are two sides of the same coin, intrinsically linked by my imagination which flows to and from the words on the page and, as much as it pains me, I love it with all my heart.
Yes, dear reader, it pains me – big deep unabashed stabbing pains of self-doubt and inadequacy fill me. A sense of never getting it quite right sits on my shoulder in judgment as I type away. I often wonder where the words come from and at times am left questioning if it really was me that put them there! Perhaps the words are using me, not I them? A conduit by any other name but a conduit no less. Weird? Not really. Who knows where the words come from. All I know is they burn images and sentences within me that do not abate until they are released.
Each day is a battle to continue, to sit and know that most of what I will write will be dross and disappointing, yet it is because it is dross that I continue. It was Beckett who said ‘Ever Tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, and that is what I intend to do ‘fail better’.
Don’t get me wrong there are victories, small quiet ‘pat myself on the back’ victories and it is these that make my heart sing. Moments of self-congratulation, however, do not stay long, they are fleeting and come crashing to the floor at every given opportunity.
Sometimes the words I smugly admired not 24 hours before have, overnight, magically transformed into the worst sentences I have ever written! On rare occasions, the opposite is also true and I dance for hours, complimenting myself on such skillful wordplay. But…. when I am there, like really there, in the zone, allowing myself to freefall into the words, there really is no place I’d rather be. It is food for my soul and I love it!
There comes a time in every writer’s life when all good things must come to an end right? Ah, I see I have your attention ……
I’m talking about editing the beast of a novel I have just completed. Hold on, did I say completed?? Yes, yes I did. Since completion, I have randomly danced around the house teaching my dog 1980s dance moves and spontaneously burst into song. All done much to the embarrassment of above my kids. I have taken myself and above-mentioned hound on long bracing walks and eaten my weight in chocolate. I am soooo rock and roll.
Whilst one major milestone has been uncoupled, another has landed firmly in its place.This one is bright red and has the word ‘EDIT‘ written in big bold scary letters.This time I have decided on a different approach to the ‘E’ word. I have parked feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. I have ditched worrying about cutting too much or too little. I have adopted a different mind set.
In business, there is often talk of improving by 1%. Here’s the concept. Sir David Brailsford – coach to the British Cycling Team believes in a concept called “the aggregation of marginal gains”. He explains it as “the 1% margin for improvement in everything you do”. His belief is that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1%, then those small gains will add up to remarkable improvement. The British Cycling Team went from winning nothing to winning everything including the Tour de France. Now I am not suggesting I ride a bike, although lord knows I should after my calorific dalliance with cocoa based confectionery. No, I am going to adopt the 1% marginal gains principals for my editing.
The cyclists started by optimising things that were easy to improve. They changed their seats or improved their tyres that sort of thing. For me, that translated to checking my grammar and punctuation. The stuff I would ordinarily do, but my aim was to do it better. Are you with me so far? OK, next the cyclists looked at the small insignificant things. Things that were over looked that nobody really noticed. They looked at things such as the pillows in hotel rooms, were they comfortable enough to aid restful sleep? So how could I apply this to my writing? What were the small things I had overlooked that could be tweaked and improved? I had to be brutally honest with myself. Was every word needed? If I could answer yes immediately I left it alone. If however, the answer I gave was more wishy washy then I applied further pressure.
Here’s an example. Adverbs. Oh, I love them! I know I love them and I know I use them excessively. Here’s what I mean. Consider this sentence:
‘Anna ran quickly across the car park, she looked back fearfully’.
Now whilst there is nothing wrong per-say it could be better, way better. In its current form, it is bulky and clumsy. Now compare it to this:
‘Anna ran across the car park, fear biting at her back’.
I ditched the adverbs, the result is a much punchier sentence. My 1% was staring me in the face with a wicked ‘I told you so’ grin.
Two days in and I am happy to report the editing is going well. I have settled into a new routine and I may even have time to go for a out for a bike ride!
Now then you lovely ones, whilst you lot have been busy sunning yourselves I have been chipping away at the iceberg that is book 4. I am pleased to report progress is good. Book 4 is turning into a beaut. I’m over 70,000 words and estimate another 20,000 and I’ll be finished. Slashing and burning comes next (no it’s not a horror story), courtesy of a rather large red pen. Standing as judge and jury as each word fights for its right to be included is my least favourite part of the writing process. My approach of ‘harsh but fair’ should serve me well as I critically eye each phrase, each beat. Yes, these are fine words, the reality my friends is less so. Thing is, I’m a big softy. Each word will have me fighting for it too easily. The game of ‘keep or kill’ is never easy. It may take me some time, perhaps years, don’t hold your breath!
A quick glance backward confirms this has been my most challenging adventure to date. Let me explain, book 4 is a historical thriller. And your point is what? I hear you ask. I have never written anything vaguely historical unless you count writing about the 1980s in which case I’m an expert! Thrillers are my bag but not historical ones… yet. I have found a new appreciation for authors who write in this genre. In my small Devonshire world, I have elevated them to Godlike status. The sheer amount of research and tenacity needed is overwhelming. Book 4 has been a fascinating and exhausting experience.
It is set in 1912, a period of time which until recently I knew very little about. I had given up studying history at 16. My class had been too busy obsessing about the Tudors to pay any attention to something only a hundred years ago. As my protagonist kept piling on the pressure (‘are you going to write this book then or what? type of thing), I cast my eyes heavenward and set to it. My wish was and still is that my novel would be able to conjure up a real sense of the time and the place in which it’s set. I want my readers to get under the skin of the protagonist and use her eyes to see into her world. It is a world she has slowly been revealing to me. I had the story, a good plot and a very willful lead character, what I lacked was the historical accuracy. If I was serious about this book I had to do it justice. I threw myself headlong into every piece of historical anything I could find from 1900 to 1920. I wanted to immerse myself. If it hadn’t been for my protagonist Virginia Penrose taking up residence in my head and refusing to leave I would still be clueless. If like me your knowledge of this time period is woefully light then take a leaf from my book (yes, deliberate pun intended) and read everything you can. It was a time of great change, a time when women had the courage to stand up for themselves. It hadn’t happened in isolation. The volcanic eruption that ensued had been bubbling away for centuries. My book is completely fictional, however, the time line is real. I have had to walk a delicate tightrope of marrying my ideas with the age in which they are set. Did people really think like that, what were the personal challenges, what were the expectations? I wanted to make it as realistic for the time as I could. Some things made the cut some did not.The joy has been watching not just my protagonist grow but also myself. Trying to get into the mind of a twenty something is never easy. Coupled with a backward time jump of over 100 years could be compared to how our younger generation of teens now views anyone older than 30. We have grown up in a different age, with different world views and collective opinions, some would say a different language too IMHO – see what I mean!
I have felt privileged to have the magic of a new book birthed before my very eyes. The most surprising part has been the challenges it has thrown my way. I have been challenged to re think assumptions which I had held without care or consideration. I watched them crumble and fall as I realised they were incorrect. It has been wonderful. I hope before long I will be able to present book 4 to you, red pens and editors permitting.
Now then what of book 3?
Soaring ~ My collection of short stories is due later this year. It is bright and bold and would make a perfect Christmas gift. Christmas, did I mention Christmas? Shameless, absolutely shameless!
Today has been a very good day. Today I have managed to finish another 3,000 words and it is only 3 pm! Not bad, not bad at all. By way of a reward, yes I do need to reward myself, I have started on the chocolate. Lindt chocolate with hazelnuts to be precise. Now 4 squares in, I’m starting to feel a bit sick. I love chocolate but it must be said I am a light weight. The same is not true of wine. Wine deserves a blog post all to itself! I digress, now where was I?…Ah yes, today has proved to be a good writing day. If I had to sum it up in one word I would say ‘hooked’. Yep, that’s what I want my readers to be, hooked from the very beginning, in a way that is entertaining and keeps them turning the pages. Managing hooks and the expectations around them are never far from my mind. I worry a lot, about pretty much everything, but I especially worry about the beginning of a book and how much to reveal straight up. Are the first few pages interesting enough to warrant continued effort? Have I revealed too much too soon? It is a dilemma, a happy dilemma to have, but only when you get it right!
If you don’t get the beginning right nothing will fit correctly. Hooks are, in my opinion, inextricably linked to the first few pages. Of course, they feature throughout your story especially in thrillers and suspense novels. However, it is the beginning which will set the tone and pace, and push your story forward. You know when you’ve got it right because everything slots into place. Like a good solid jigsaw puzzle, the whole picture starts to emerge as each piece is placed correctly. Today has been a ‘placing the pieces correctly’ kind of day and I am over the moon.
I want my readers to open my first page and be transported into a personal version of the world I’ve created. Today my 3000 words flowed with ease because I reworked the beginning. Yep, I went back to the beginning, red pen and all. Earlier this week writing had been a struggle. I sat, looking at a radiant blank screen. It remained blank for the whole day! There was nothing for it but to go back to the beginning and try to figure out what was going on, and that’s when I realised some of the pieces had been misplaced. I shifted around a few key sentences and rearranged those opening lines and viola! Success!
You get one shot and one shot only at asking readers to invest their time and emotions into your book. They will want a return on that investment. Your opening is your big reveal, you do not want to disappoint. Being able to fulfill your readers’ anticipation and carry them with you as the story develops is the most amazing feeling, as I said, you do not want to disappoint. If you lose a reader at the beginning it will be hard to pull them back, first impressions really do count! So with that in mind, I have put together a few questions that I asked myself when I faced the dreaded blank screen! Challenge yourself and ask yourself the same questions, you may find they help you complete your own puzzle. Sometimes you have to write the opening last, sometimes you have to write it or rewrite it midway through, as in my case. Whenever you turn to the opening, make sure you give it your full attention.
Have I grabbed the readers attention within the first few paragraphs?
Have I grabbed them firmly or is it more of a gentle nudge? ~ If it’s a gentle nudge rewrite.
Is the opening talking to the readers I’m trying to attract? ~ No good telling them about lemons when the rest of the book is about pears!
Am I showing or telling? ~ Show, always, no telling…
Is there emotion? ~ Are my readers able to feel the pain, anger, happiness, envy, love etc.
Is my narrative voice compelling? ~ Can readers connect to my protagonist’s voice.
Why here? Is the starting point a pivotal moment.
Am I intrigued, do I want to know more?
My favourite opening lines are from Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, what’s yours? Please leave a comment below I’d love to know!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
I sit writing this blog post in the room pictured above. It’s a room I love, it’s my writing room. It used to be the ‘spare room’ but I have converted it into my little piece of bookish bliss! I am currently sharing my space with the contents of the bathroom due to ongoing building works. I think our tiny bathroom is, in fact, a Tardis judging by the amount of paraphernalia that surrounds me. Ah, the beloved foot spa, such a great idea, but sadly never used. Maybe I could use the foot spa and write at the same time? Now there’s a thought!
I am very lucky to have such a wonderful place to write. The room is at the front of the house. It overlooks a field of horses. It is a lovely place to write, and to daydream in equal measures. Most of the time I am joined by Poppy my English Springer Spaniel. She will do one of two things. She will sit under the desk at my feet or, she’ll look for adventure.Guess which one I prefer? I am ashamed to say she has mastered the art of bin diving! I can often be seen raising my voice and running across the landing, in hot pursuit of a dog with an empty ink cartridge or worse, a chocolate wrapper! She chooses her moments with absolute precision, running off at exactly the moment I need to apply myself to a particularly complex piece of dialogue, or a red pen edit. She is a cheeky madam!
I do like a reasonably tidy desk. The same can not be said for the floor. No, I will not take a picture of the floor – trust me you really don’t want that image in your head.The floor usually sports three or four pieces of research in the form of open books, sheets of handwritten notes and photographs. This is another part of the bored dog vs human adventure that regularly takes place. I have learned only to place items on the floor that can be easily replaced. Sprinting is not my special talent. Some of my books are literally ‘dog eared’. Well I had better get on…. that book won’t write itself and I need to provide some entertainment for the dog!
Showing character flaws helps to make a book believable. Too many flaws and you risk making your character unbelievable, too few, and readers won’t be able to connect or identify with them. I’m sure we can all think of someone we have known who comes across as just ‘too perfect’ – did you like them? I know I most certainly did not. There is no such thing as perfect. Characters have to be believable, warts and all! As in life, if your character is not believable (ie. too perfect), then you are already on the back foot with not too many places to go. Enter stage right…. flaws. Flaws within your characters give readers an opportunity to connect, to understand who your character really is. They allow readers to develop a picture of who he/she is. It is those unique flaws and traits that will breathe life into the bones of your story. Finding the balance is the challenge. In this post I want to share what has worked for me when exploring flaws within my characters. These are not ‘you must’ but just my ‘ might be helpful for you’ thoughts and ramblings: Continue reading “Perfectly Flawed?”
Yesterday whilst enjoying a morning walk with the increasingly energetic Spaniel, I came across a beautiful bouquet of flowers. It was labelled a ‘lonely bouquet’, what a fabulous idea.The note advised that I should take the flowers home and enjoy them.The note also suggested sharing the bouquets journey on a facebook page, which I duly did. I was struck by the sheer volume of kind hearted people out there. Photo upon photo of bouquets popping up across the land, for ignorant people such as I, to find. It warmed the cockles of my heart!. It reminded me of a group I belong to where we ‘pass the read’, leaving other authors books in random places,for fellow readers to find and enjoy. It got me to thinking that my ‘random’ book placements could, in fact, do with a bit of a kick up the backside. After all, if you can leave a bouquet on a bench in the countryside, why not a book? Henceforth I have challenged myself to become … let’s say, a bit more creative. With the weather turning clement, the possibilities are endless. So, if you find a jolly good book in a rather random place think of me… I shall be smiling. Feel free to steal with pride and let me know how you get on.