Sunday, 29 November 2015

A description of my writing process. by Matthew Presley

My writing’s terrible.

When I first write down an idea, I’m usually rushing through to get it down on paper before I forget things. My sentences run on, description becomes a torrent of florid adjectives, as superfluous and unnecessary as X-Factor contestants in February. Dialogue isn’t there; I have lines of exposition between speech marks, but characters aren’t talking to each other. They’re talking to the script, hitting a bunch of marks before the next set piece lumbers in. Because I write by hand before typing up, I’ll equate that 1 page will be 500 words, but this is rarely the case. Speech lines of two or three words are common. Hyperdense black holes of description can be so tightly written as to exert gravitic mass. I’ll write scenes out of order and guess what the characters will be talking about, or sometimes who’s in the scene, so the first draft is often an incomprehensible mess of one liners and exposition over the same point as well as sentences going on for too long while making similar points to however I started the sentence.

So once I’ve got the first full-length run-through of the story, I print out the lot, and edit. Once I’ve got a sense of what the story is and where it’s going, I know which bits to cut. Sometimes information needs moving round; plot important knowledge is needed at a certain point in the story, so I have to find a space to slip it in. One thing I’ve found recently is that I’ll repeat the same idea. For instance;

                Run Away! => Escape => Caught => Escape => Caught => End of Chapter

I do this when I’m writing a scene and I’m not sure when the chapter ends going to fit in. It can be simplified to;

                Run Away! => Escape => Caught => End of Chapter

No matter how interesting the second escape and capture are, they’re not needed for the story. I might even question if the character should run away in the first place if they’re going to be captured again in the same chapter.

Also once I’ve got a full run-through of the story, ideas may change. Characters won’t blindly follow the story just because it’s the simplest course of action. Occam’s Razor has no personality. It doesn’t get angry, frustrated, scared, or doubtful; it just does. Unless you’re writing about Terminators, your characters should have their own downfalls. As snappy as the one-liner I wrote a year or two ago was, if it doesn’t fit the character, it goes. Lines I stole wholesale from somewhere else? These don’t often fit what’s happening after rewrites. And then there’re characters who, in the grand scheme of the story, are utterly pointless. Plots that go nowhere, or little details I added thinking it’d lead into something else, often have to be cut or reworked to have a pay-off. Sometimes its intentional; a character will be working on something meaningless to the story, a gunsmithing contract for some guy called ‘Chekhov’. Other times, it’s more like Chekhov’s discarded armoury. Sometimes a character in story one is more important in story two; either they should be made important in story one, or cut out entirely.

At this point, I’m ready to read out my stuff at writers group. I have deemed it not as terrible. If I have time, I’ll do minor adjustments before the read-out. Sometimes stray run-on sentences crept through. Sometimes a suggestion was made in group at the last meeting and I decide to follow it. Often I’ve changed details in the previous chapter that need changing from that point on.

Then comes read out; I have to say, even though the writers group is very supportive and encouraging, until I’ve read something out, I don’t know if it works or not. I’ll never forget the first major time I read something out that fell flat; it was the first scene I’d written in that story, and the point to which the story had been working towards. I’d been so happy with it, and in my arrogance I thought ‘this can’t be improved!’

I read it. There was an awkward silence. I recognised that silence immediately; everyone was trying to think of an encouraging, constructive way to say ‘that was terrible’. It was a wake-up call, and that’s when I started editing and redrafting as heavily as I do.

I rewrote the whole scene; all the dialogue changed, for a start. I thought hard about each line the characters said; each line had to be important. I cut out an unnecessary description at the start, to make the scene flow a bit faster. The ending punchline remained the same, as did the basic topic of conversation, but there was more character to it. I reread the same scene at the group a few weeks later, and got a much better reception. Since then I’ve realised that yes, my writing’s terrible. That’s why I keep working on it until it’s not terrible, occasionally to the point of being okay.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Distractions - The Shiny New Toy

So I have reached that point of nanowrimo in which I now know, unless some kind of writing miracle happens that I will not be achieving the goal of writing 50,000 words in the 30 days. I will most likely be coming in with a word count of 30,000 to 35,000 by the end of the month, which if it wasn’t nanowrimo this month would be a very good word count. In fact if you could hit that word count every month you would be looking at 360,000 for the year, which is not a bad yearly goal at all. But the fact is that nanowrimo, you end up focusing on the fact that you are not going to meet the goal and you face the problems that can arise whenever you are set to miss a deadline – if I’m not going to achieve this then maybe I can stop pushing myself and focus on other things and namely get distracted.

Now, distractions can hit at any time and missing a deadline is just one of the reasons that you can be distracted. Other reasons can be:

Middle of the story – You’ve hit the middle of the story. You have written this exciting beginning and you have a great end in mind but you are now stuck in the middle. There is a series of practicalities or dots that need joining before you hit the end and for one reason or another, you are ploughing through mud to get there. Again, you can’t see yourself getting there, so you are hitting the what is the point, I’m never going to finish this story, the oh look there’s that programme on the tv that I wanted to watch.

I’ve had a new fabulous idea – You’re a writer, you will always be getting ideas. And those ideas will always seem better than the story you are currently writing. There are two key reasons this – First, when the story stays in your head it is in its purest form, it is your baby and hidden away from any criticism, everything is possible at this stage and don’t underestimate the fact that this idea is shiny and new. The second reason, is what you start writing an idea and developing it, it becomes hard work; if writing was easy then everyone would do it. This means that you are comparing something that is hard, the piece you are currently working on to this new fabulous ideas with no issue – no wonder this is a distraction.

Research – This is the most noble of all distractions because you are still working on your story. That programme was essential to watch, you needed to search for that fact on the internet and that new link that you had just clicked on was essential. And before you know that quick research task for ten minutes has just lasted an hour and you have just clicked on a cat video.

Whatever the distraction, whatever it was, you are now not writing and your story is not progressing and you are hit with the hard part of writing and that is getting started again once you have been distracted. And the hard and fast rule of this is that there is no short cut to this. Like I said on an earlier task, you just need to get your bum in the chair and start writing and not listen to the excuses forming in your head and reset your goals. 30,000 words is a good monthly word count. And so without further ado, I’m going to get back to the work in progress and remember whatever is hard to write now can always be edited later.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Taking Inspiration by Matthew Presley

Water from one source is easily poisoned. Likewise, taking inspiration from only one source skews a written work. If you’re only drawing from one experience to write a scene, how do you distance your character from being an Author Avatar? You might love the Dresden Files or Discworld; how do you stop your story being rip-offs of them? Want to build a world, but the only fantasy world you’ve experienced was through Warcraft games? It’ll show quickly.
The easiest and best way to stop this is to take inspiration from multiple sources. Not just other written work in the same genre as you’re writing; that’s still water from the same source. Here’s some examples;

Music: More than any other media, music is the fastest inspiration. In four to five minutes (prog rock/Primal Scream are exceptions) the musician/s have to convey their emotions. While with a lot of music, the emotion is ‘that guy/girl is hot! I would like to kiss him/her’, music is a broad church. Listening to disparate music genres can influence your writing. When I’m writing, I think what songs best convey the emotions I want in the scene. What’s your character’s favourite song? If the producer making the film adaptation asked you, what songs would you suggest for the score? Don’t just listen to music you like either; power ballads or teen-pop have their place in the world too.
Sometimes the connections are easy; writing about a relationship breaking up? ‘Kayleigh’ by Marillion! Other times, multiple songs can go into a scene, especially if the mood of it shifts around. Writing a complicated break-up? Well ‘We used to be friends’ by Dandy Warhols is about a close relationship long past. ‘Leave right now’ by Will Young is about someone wanting out of a destructive relationship and vicious circle. The first verse of ‘Work it out’ by Jurassic 5 is about realising after the fact how poorly you treated someone. The score to the final scene of ‘Return of the King’ evokes a separation for the better, difficult as it is. Mixing all these together helps take the character’s experience away from your personal one, and makes the character less of an avatar.

Films/TV: My first drafts are often littered with Princess Bride lines. It’s going to get me in trouble some day. Other times, I want the pace of the scene up, so I start thinking about David Tennant’s Dr. Who and how he’d rattle through an explanatory staccato monologue as fast as he could before making the same point in conclusion; pick the pace up!
Films and TV offer a lot of visual and audial inspirations to put into your story, but don’t make the mistake of plagiarising scenes without any alteration. Some authors can get away with it, but it can break the dramatic tension if a story turns into parody or pastiche. Adding the idea of a scene, however, and changing it to fit your characters and story, will make it unrecognisable. One thing I do is listen to directors commentaries. Finding out the thought behind a scene can help understand it and write something similar, but not superficially the same. How would your protagonist react if thrown into the Rancor pit, or was chased by the T-1000? What the film does and how your story progresses are two different things.
Like music, watching films from different genres can influence a scene. While watching rom-coms is, for me, an excruciating way to deplete my finite lifespan, I can appreciate that, when writing romantic plots, there are certain notes you have to hit. I don’t much care for Disney films, but some of them have inventive or memorable baddies. And even though kung fu films don’t translate into novel form, watching how a clever choreographer can tell a story through the fighting can be inspiring to writing.

Books: Literature beyond the genre you want to write can help write a better story. Not just classical or high literature either, though I’m not disparaging it. Low-end trash novels can be inspiring, even if the inspiration is ‘God that was awful; I can do better than that’. The worst book I’ve ever read had, I’ll admit, some very vivid descriptions and scene setting. Mistakes others make, in plotting or scene resolution, keep you sharp to when you do the same. Maybe one plot thread turns out to go nowhere and you’re thinking ‘well that was pointless’. When reading through your own stuff, you know what to look out for. Or if a sentence, while grammatically correct, when you read it you have trouble deciphering the sentence and, or perhaps or, the intent. I do this a lot. Now that I’ve noticed and been irritated by it in other works, I don’t do it so often now that I’ve noticed it. Writers group is a harsh lesson in sentence structure as well; when you read something out loud, you notice mistakes. Another writer at our group does hilariously overwritten parody; if I’m writing something and start to hear it in his voice, I know it needs work.

Art: Visualising your world helps make it more real in your mind, and so more believable when you write it. There’s a lot of art out there; chances are, no matter how new or amazing your idea is, someone’s drawn something similar. For me, seeing an idea lets me flesh out the details rather than plucking them from thin air. Art includes photography; looking at actor’s headshots can be inspiring as well. Who would you cast in the film adaptation of your story? Who would you contract as conceptual designer? Artwork and story can feed each other; a friend drew one of my characters on a birthday card, and drew her with pierced ears. A minor detail, but when I thought about the characters back-story I wondered ‘would she have pierced ears?’ What does ear piercing represent historically? In a fantasy setting, could it have negative connotations? My friend had just added it as a detail, but I went on to write a short piece about that character getting her ears pierced. Whether that piece would fit into another story or not, the art gave me ideas I wouldn’t have come up with independently.

Games: Computer games are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more cinematic in their presentation. While, like films and TV, these storylines can be inspiring, they’re very much set in stone; the character does this because the plot does that. Games offer other inspiration, though, when they present choices, more than what gun to fire or what swords to swing. Dwarf Fortress is nigh unplayable without a computer science degree, but when your game ends (that’s when, not if) you can have your failed settlement remain in the world as ruins; these ruins might by overrun with animals or monsters, or just be a stark reminder to the next doomed settlement. The graphics are non-existent, the gameplay is frustrating and the coding is bizarre and deliberately obtuse, in terms of building a world of collapsed empires, Dwarf Fortress can help fill in the blanks. Likewise, most MMO games exist in a state of quasi-choice; you can win the battle or lose, it doesn’t change the world. But what if it did? What if the dungeon was finally cleared out? What if the flag was captured for the last time, and the front line of the battle was shifted to a new arena? What if the world was allowed to change?

To conclude; everything is inspiration. Look for other things to put in your story; you’ll be surprised at what can fit.


Sunday, 15 November 2015

NaNoWriMo: Quantity over Quality by Matthew Presley

A mine doesn’t immediately dig up jewellery. First is the excavation; thousands of tonnes of ore, gravel and dirt are churned out, with no attempt made beyond the broad stroke of following a promising vein. Then comes sorting; ore is separated from rubbish, uncut gems from pebbles, and the rest is mercilessly thrown on the slag heap. Then comes refinement; ore is smelted to remove any further impurities and to strengthen it into metal. Gems are cut, polished and carefully graded. Finally, the fine details are added; rare metals are fashioned into trinkets, gems are set into them, and the final product is ready for the market.

National Novel Writing Month is stage one; excavation. You’re aiming to push thousands of words worth of ink and keystrokes out in a month. Your daily quota? 1-2k words. Don’t think about refinement till you’ve finished your quota. All that matters is word count. Follow the broadest strokes; got an idea for a scene? Write it down quick. Stuck on writing a scene? Move on, write something else. Not sure how the short story ends? Follow the vein; it might lead you to a number of conclusions. Write them all down.

Last year I managed 39k words in what added up to a 90k first draft. I’m not in the process of refinement and editing; chucking out the garbage, picking out gems and making sure each scene had more useful ore than pointless gravel. Refinement and manufacture are the hard parts of writing for me. It’s taken me a year to almost finish the second redraft of that story, and that was after throwing out the very very first draft as it was utterly unsalvageable. There’s still short stories hanging from last year which I put on the back burner till I’ve finished redrafting the stories I’ve got, which might take me another year if I’m lucky. After having an editor go through my first story, I’m faced with a completely redraft and rewrite of the first half. And I know that, if I let that editor (who, incidentally, is my brother) read any of my other ‘finished’ stories, I’ll be faced with the same level of rewriting/redrafting as well as potential familial arguments. Once I’ve finished the redraft of story 2, I might go back to fix problems with short story 1.5 before revising story 1 again, which I’m already putting off, in the same way I put off standing up when my bad knee seizes up. That’s a better analogy than I was expecting; yes it’ll hurt, and hurt for a long time, but as some point I’ll have to do it if I want to move on.

You might have noticed this post is pretty rambling and all over the place. Well, it’s NaNoWriMo, isn’t it? It’s not about quality writing; at this point, it’s about word count. I’m writing this in the cafe of my gym, waiting for an appointment. I’ll probably get more written in other spare half-hours along the week. When I’m looking for motivation (at the gym as well as writing) I’ll listen to ‘Moral of the Story’ by Watsky. Not heard it? It pretty much sums up what you have to do to be a writer, or an athlete, or anything which requires determination. Please listen to it on YouTube. If you’re still unclear what the moral of the story is, then I’d suggest listening to it again.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Continuing with Nanowrimo when you fall behind

So as expected this week, I fell behind with nanowrimo. In fact earlier this week when I found myself 7545 word behind where I should be and posted the phrase on my facebook status that nanowrimo was kicking my ass. But thinking about it that phrase wasn’t completely true, what was slowly down my word count was work getting in the way, the fact that the days were busy and sucking my creative energy and the fact that at the weekend, I had a lot of work related jobs to do instead of working on the book which were completely unavoidable.
Now the easiest thing to do at this point would be to give up. But I had a writing run to keep going and no matter how slowly the word count was growing. Writing 112 words is not a lot, and its 1555 words below the nanowrimo daily target but trust me it is better than no words. The important thing was that no matter how busy I was the words were going down and I know that my evening are due to free up a bit more in the next week.

So I guess what this short post is saying, is that no matter how hard it gets, some words are better than none. And that’s it for now as I’m cutting things short tonight as I have a chapter to finish and another 1420 to write.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Locked Room Policy – You’re not coming out until you’ve written something by Chris Joynson

Ah, Nanowrimo, I’ve never actually taken part in it before but I do appreciate the principle. It’s about forcing yourself to sit down and write something (even if 50,000 words is a bit excessive in my opinion), and sometimes you do need to force yourself.

Writing will hardly ever be your top priority, however much you love it. There will always be something to get in the way, be it friends, family, a full-time job or whatever tantrum the universe has decided to throw at you this week. You’ll just have to stand there and watch as your beloved book slips further and further down that list of things you have to do this week until it disappears completely.

Even if you do find the time to write, you can suddenly find that you’re just not in the mood. You’ve had a busy day, you feel completely drained and you just want to crash in front of either the TV or the Internet. If you do try to write your brain seizes up, the words won’t come and those that do manage to leak out are utter fertiliser (bargain budget fertiliser at that). It can be easy to give up and just say you’ll do it tomorrow, a tomorrow that never comes.

But you’re a writer, you’re doing this because you love the craft, because you have a story to tell, because you just get a kick out of hanging around with your characters. No one ever said it was going to be easy, and if they did you are within your rights to hit them for lying to you.

Sometimes you just have to lock yourself in a room, tie your hands to a keyboard (or pen if you prefer old school) and just write something. It could be a 100 words or 50,000, it doesn’t matter. You have to write, and keep writing. When you can’t find the words, you fight through it until they do come. It doesn’t matter if they’re terrible, you can always go back and edit them later, that’s fine, though I guarantee you that if you keep going eventually the words will start to flow much easier and you’ll be back to usual operating standards.

If you let yourself forget about your writing don’t be surprised if that brilliant idea you had ends up as a dusty light bulb somewhere within the shelf space of your mind. Just set aside a small amount of time each day, an hour or so should do it, and write what you can. Get yourself into a routine and stick to it. It will be a struggle at times, but we’re writers because we want to be, and it’s often the things we struggle with that are the most rewarding afterwards. (Also this is now nearly 500 words for my word count today, ka-ching!)