Tag Archives: writing advice

Writing Tips 3 (Your Slow Writer)

The end is here: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. Part 1 discusses my thoughts as a reader while part 2 is a contemplation about how language study and writing practice overlap.

Fear not, in this final (and world-rocking) post, I’m going to espouse on what I discovered with my writer hat on this year.

Part 3: The Writer.

Plan your project based on your life as it is. 

In the arts (and sometimes teaching), everyone is an expert. Even your uncle, aunt and rarely seen Facebook friend from high school has an opinion about what makes a great author. They’ve all got ideas about how much you should write, how much you should read, what ‘evidence-based’ activities you should undertake to spur on your creativity.

Plus, there are professional writers’ opinions. People who have ‘made’ it and sit at home while spraying fountains of words on their adoring fans. They’ve all got their TIME-TESTEDtm advice. Write 2,000 words a day. 3,000. Don’t call yourself a true author until you’re doing  60 crunches while spitting hot prose to a stenographer. “Don’t even compare yourself to me,” a stray-author might say. “Or pat yourself on the back until you’re churning out 67 books a year.”

Let me brag a little too: I’ve produced 8 books (50,000 – 100,000 words each) and 3 novellas (20,000 – 40,000 words a piece) plus too many short stories to remember. I have two out in the public sphere. This discrepancy between published and unpublished is probably not good for my career. Hell, some of those have even been re-written from scratch. For example, one of my novels was so bad that I wrote it again (another 80,000 words), but only count it as one in my quota.

So I don’t know everything the cosmos has to say about production and work ethic, but sometimes I can make it happen. Thank you very much straw-person author. And what I believe is that there’s so much pressure on aspiring writers to meet some subjective standard of production.

2,500 words a day is a fine goal, if you’re a full-time author. (Although, even they often struggle with it.) Or if you’re single and are taking it easy on a redundancy payout. Or if you’re not studying a foreign language. Or if you’re not moving to another country, starting another job, or working extra (unpaid) hours for your ‘vocation’.

Some person out there, in the void, might argue I’m rationalising why I don’t have time to write. Or why I haven’t written that much this year. That’s fine, I am lazy. I struggle with motivation to do more than one serious thing in my free time. I either study or I write. Right now I’m studying Japanese, and working, and married.

Yet, I still sometimes encounter wagging fingers about how if I want to be a ‘serious’ author then I need to produce more. Usually by those who don’t have a job (nor understand that work doesn’t end at 5 for most teachers), and are not in a relationship. They raise their fist to the heavens and give you pat speeches about how you have to tick all the appropriate boxes to consider yourself a certain kind of author.

Maybe you’ve ran into that person on your writing journey? I don’t know. I hope you never do, but just in case, here’s the thing: I like being married. It’s more important to me than a chance at success in the future.

I like my job. It’s not the greatest workplace in the world, it doesn’t pay oodles of cash, but it’s not terrible. I keeps me from living on the street because I don’t come from an upper-middle class family where they’ll subsidise my life so I can ‘become who was born to be’. Also, I want to look after my wife. (Who doesn’t?) That means a job, it means money, it means paying bills and smiling at difficult customers.

So these are things that are real, and they take time. Whoever you are, your life is also full of choices. Full of decisions. You can be an asshole to your loved ones and focus only on your career. (Some published writers are.) You can put yourself first and skimp on your responsibilities at your job. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and everyone will understand; they’ll put up with your shit until you become enough of a success to quit. Maybe even your first book will be a hit and the strain you put on everyone else won’t be that much, who knows? Life is random.

For the rest of us though, we make small and difficult day-to-day choices. We want to be a full-time author but there are so many other things which we need to balance. So many other tasks that need to be completed if we hope to keep our life in harmony.

So, here’s a not-so-pro tip from someone with 8 books hanging from his belt: choose a project that fits your time schedule. Think about how much time you actually have to write. Can you produce one story a month? A novella a year? Three books in three months?

People want consistent output. Something that’s regular and expected. Think about what you can deliver consistently to your audience and then design a writing project around that. You don’t have to write novels. Or novellas. Or short stories. You just have to produce consistently to an expected schedule. No matter how slow or fast you are, consistency is what wins fans and readers over. It even soothes debt collectors.

If you do that, and are a professional, you’re an author. A serious one. It doesn’t matter what any other jackass on the internet says (including this one).

Be a professional

Hey, customers are hard work. Remember when you were a kid and disliked school? Or your job? And how you wanted to join the circus, become a famous TV personality, or start your own Norwegian jazz and salsa band?

Remember how close you came?

Being an author can be a little like that. The author lifestyle can be the rockstar dream for those comfortable in a shirt and jeans. Think about it. Thousands of people praising your novel and telling you how special you are. Filled up panels where you’re asked penetrating questions and hold forth on complicated topics. Where people listen in rapt attention as you speak out your wisdom to the ages. A place where you are respected, not for your looks or slow smile, but your innate personality and knowledge.

Just me thinking that?

In this bubble you are free to be that special, amazing, and wonderful person you could be if all those other people weren’t keeping you down. Weren’t negging you out. If you didn’t have to bend backwards to meet stupid demands / needs / ideas of your boss / senior staff/ customers.

FREEDOM!

Bullshit.

Writing is no different than any other professional endeavour. Everyone has an opinion about your skill set. Whether or not they publish it online (so you can see it), or talk about it with their friends around a coffee table, they have an opinion. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes they tell it to you, and sometimes they are writing for their friends / readers and you just happen to stumble onto it when you’re slightly tipsy at 4:00am in the morning.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a professional. People are willing to pay you money for your skills. You need to treat them with respect (even if they don’t deserve it). It doesn’t mean you have to change for them. It doesn’t mean you have to write for them. What it does mean is that you need to handle them in a way that shows you understand what they’re saying and are (kind of) grateful for their input.

And like most professionals, you’ll have to tell a few lies to make your customers happy. Say that you did love their comment about your missing comma on page 9. Or how you are appreciative for them publishing a snarky article comparing your book to a Hitler / Justin Bieber mashup. It’s okay though, lies are our business. After all, that’s what storytelling is, isn’t it?

Everything is practice

Sometimes when I commune with the universe on top of a mountain while stroking a goat’s beard, I think about boxes. What is the purpose of the metaphysical genre box we built between fiction and non-fiction writing? Or between essays and short stories?

Are we not attempting the same thing? To communicate an idea in a palatable way to the audience? To find a way to sneak past their defences and lodge our own flag in their brain space? Isn’t that our job? To be the greatest advertiser ever known to humankind?

Probably.

Think of a book review and a book blurb. What’s the diference? Both are trying to effectively communicate to the reader what they will discover inside of a novel. A 5-star review should be (almost) the same as its blurb. If someone reads your reviews of another’s novels, they should come away with several things:

  1. What the book’s about.
  2. Does it achieve its goal of entertaining the reader?
  3. What the reader (you) thought of the work.

That’s it. Point 1 is exactly the same as a blurb (kind of, without the marketing gimmicks). So each time you write a review, you are practicing for your own blurbs.

Essays are the same. They expressions of your ideas put into words. They increase your vocabulary, give you a chance to find out how to engage readers and practice editing skills.

Everything you write is practice. Every interaction online with a friend. Every blog post about your day, every email to a friend is a chance to hone your writing skills. Think about how you can say something differently, think about how you can switch up your styles so your friend isn’t just honour bound to read the email but loves getting them.

Don’t waste these opportunities because there are so many. They’ll help you hone your style, develop the rhythm of your prose and expand your toolbox to contain a variety of screw and driver sizes.

Then, finally, when you come to your novel — you won’t have to start from scratch. You won’t have to reteach yourself things you’ve let go rusty over the years. They’ll be honed and the words will pour out onto the page in a torrent.

Maybe. Or perhaps you’ll hide under the covers like I do and play The Witcher 3 in the dark. Both are okay options because it’s your life. Live it. 😉

Picture:

Young girl sitting on a bench writing in her diary (C) andreaxt. Used under standard license from Dollar Photo Club. 

Writing Tips Part 1 (Your reader in-house)

It’s the end of the year so I thought I’d give those budding writers out there some not-so-pro tips about writing. I’m going to do this in three sections: as a reader, as a language student and as a writer. I can also do it as a top-hat wearing movie addict, but I thought that was too much. Although, after deep introspection, how does one know if they don’t try?

That’s enough intro though. Let’s get down to it.

Part 1: The Reader.

 

Long debut novels are not (this) reader’s friend. 

There’s no way to be empathetic about this so I’ll just say it: there are a lot of good authors out there. From the classics, Jane Austen, to the modern classics, Kurt Vonnegut, to the current Japanese sci-fi authors being translated, Project Itoh, there are numerous people I want to read. There are perspectives from immigrant cultures, feminist writers, non-feminist women and hard-core right believers that are all profound and are all waiting to be enjoyed. And that’s just in novels, that’s before we get to non-fiction.

I don’t have enough time in the day. I don’t have enough time in my life.

And, here’s the thing, I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy your work until I read it. Sure, I skim the pages. I read the blurb. I raise my hipster glasses and snort my nose at your sweat and soul. However, I have no concept if I’m going to like it until I’m flicking through the pages on the train and imagination deep in your land of elves with laser rifles fighting zombie sharks.

Even if you’re super famous (and critically acclaimed), your thing of beauty might turn out to be zirconia in my hands. You can scream, you can yell, and beat the keyboard that I’m wrong but it doesn’t matter. In my house, in my tiny world, the only opinion that counts is mine.

And if I think your book is boring, then it is. A boring novel that I’m stuck with until I finish it. All 590 pages of your morbid, self-congratulatory text. All that time wasted which I could’ve spent, I don’t know, reading someone else.

Even a novel that’s mediocre-to-decent can turn infuriating after 200 extra leafs of prose. Here’s an example, I loved Catch-22, for the first 400 pages. Then I wanted it to be over. Except it didn’t end. It went on and on and on and on. Maybe the story needed those extra pages, maybe the narrative wouldn’t have been as satisfying without the additional troubles Yossarian goes through. Who knows? All I know is that I don’t want to read another Joseph Heller novel.

So, let me ask you a question. Do you believe you’re a better writer than Joseph Heller? Do you believe, with your whole soul, that your prose and wit is elevated beyond his? Cause he’s a damn fine author. If not, cut those pages. Cut your first novel into the tiniest of sizes.

Do you know whose books I love? Whose books I not only want to return to but crave? Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse-five (215 pages). Cat’s Cradle (206 pages). 

Do you know who else rips me to emotional shreds? George Orwell. 1984 (328 pages.)

Sapphire. Push (192 pages.)

I look at a 400+page novel with a sigh and a hint of resignation now. It affects my purchase choices too. As much as I love new authors (and I do, there’s so many freshly printed names on my shelf space at home), I hesitate when they creep over 400 pages. This means if your book is not super duper awesomely recommended, it gets the pass over. It gets the sigh and added to the bottom of the list.

This is from a person who (outside of comics and Harry Potter) hardly buys a second book from the same author. You may not think that counts, but it does. I’m not hanging out for my favourites, I’m willing to wade through sublime awful to get to that great tome by a debut novelist. As long as it’s under that word count.

My shelf is not infinite in size, width or depth. 

I don’t understand the book-marketing machine. There’s a chance that the Big 5 or 6 or 3 have some magical data analysis I don’t, but I as the Kindle has come to dominate the market, I doubt it. What I don’t understand is why so many of their books are of such varying sizes. Novels go from the tiny to the gigantic.

Why?

Do they think I’m a wizard that can change the size of my bookcase? Or do they think I’ll buy an entirely different bookcase to meet their new marketing strategies’ needs? Is their arrogance so all encompassing they imagine we use books for furniture? Large art tomes for the tabletop, inspirational / quote books for the legs?

Here it is: my shelf is 21 cm high. That’s tall enough for a DVD to fit into, tall enough for my Xbox One games and tall enough for my comics. There’s very little empty space between any of these and the bottom of the next shelf. It’s perfect. I can fit a lot of things in this space and it makes my apartment look tidy. Why should a book be any different?

Your novel shouldn’t be any larger than that. If you want me to keep it, make it 20cm. Hell, if you want me to buy it, you should make it 20 cm. I look at larger novels now with suspicion. I don’t know where I’m going to store them while they wait to be read. I don’t know where I’m going to put them (if they’re any good) after I’ve finished. So I just don’t pick them up anymore.

Maybe you like the larger look. Maybe you think it’s a ‘coffee table’ manuscript. Maybe you just want to irritate me. That’s fine, make it bigger. Make it 40cm high. Make it 100 feet high. Do what you want. However, if you’re an indie author trying to sell a few then think about where the uni student is going to store it. Where’s the outspoken female reader going to keep your fantastic adventure when she moves in with five other young women in New York? Where’s the father of two living in a small 1 bedroom, 2 bathroom going to stash your rip-rolling tale of love and abandonment when he has all his daughters things to find a place for?

Contemplate on these people’s lives before you decide on the size of your tome.

The bed is not my reading friend.

At home I have many things to engage me. You may not like this, you may believe the written word is the highest form of art, but that’s in your house. In mine, I have a best-friend and partner who teases me and shares about her day. I have unfinished Xbox One games. I have unwatched movies bought years ago and Netflix.  There are shows I want to watch one more time, comedy hits on YouTube and iTunes music videos I love to scroll through. There’s TripleJ. There’s iMac apps.

Hell, there’s my writing. This blog. My Japanese study. There are things that I don’t even want to do like washing dishes and ironing shirts. All of those time sinks listed above gurgle with my chronos as it washes down them.

Yes, I do read at home. This is true. But only for the best. Only for most powerful and dynamic of word creators (see part 1 of this essay), or if I’m hate reading. Could be either really.

Where I truly read though is on the train. I get 40 minutes one-way. 40 minutes crammed up against some sweaty office worker who is as disgruntled as I am. I’m not reading to enjoy it (although I am), I’m reading primarily to escape. To escape from the 40 minutes and the bodies hard-pressed against me. I’m reading because I hate wasting time when it could be used better.

This is where your precious literature is consumed. Not by some elegant, yet down-to-earth, top-10% grad student who came from a humble background but still has enough money to go to Harvard. Not by a person with a slow smile, seductive walk and gangly arms. On the train, shoved against an overweight woman who isn’t sure why she had kids 13 years ago.

I do this because crap fiction is easier to read in 40-minute periods. I do this because it’s the only time I can spend focussed on a single world. I do this because … I think devouring ego-shattering ideas should be done without an escape hatch.

So, here’s the thing. Your novel should be designed for that reader. For the person who carries it. The person who trudges up and down the stairs in the rain and on humid days. I don’t care about your novel’s paper quality. Even though I’m a hobbyist typographer, I don’t care if the pages are 80gsm or 110gsm. I’m going to read your work and cram it on the shelf next to everything else I own. It’s going to be manhandled and mistreated.

I care very little about your precious love for the look of the work. I may not like the Kindle version because they hurt my eyes, but I like books that are heavy and awkward to lug around even less.

I read about so much hand-wringing in online communities when authors discuss ‘book quality’ and ‘production values’. What’s the right font? The right width to make it look good? The right paper thickness? For some sophisticated readers that might be a thing. Perhaps it is. Unfortunately for this pleb, none of that matters.

I ask if it’s cheap, if it’s expendable, durable and portable. If you’re designing a POD book (and I recommend you do because that’s how I purchase mine now), think about those things. The book industry forgot where its readers consume their material long ago and look where it got them. I recommend not forgetting it yourself  You might just pick up a new reader.

Introspection is not depth.

Let’s finish on something more friendly: story and character. I’ve read two books this year, Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the author(s) seem(s) to have gotten lost on the path of introspection.

It’s difficult to describe story, motivation and character. Cthulhu knows better writers and teachers have tried. It’s almost impossible to discover that sweet (and billion dollar) spot for people to love your work, but one thing’s for sure, having the main character describe their thoughts about something to the reader does not make it profound or deep.

It does not make me sympathise more with the main character either. The character must do something. They must take their knowledge that they’ve discovered by their inner-gaze and turn it into a weapon of action.

This is what motivates me to read on. It’s what galvanises me as a person to turn the page. Precious is introspective. She sees the world through her lens, but each revelation jolts the story forward. It tells us about her friends, her family, her obstacles. We see the way she navigates them (or fails to) because of her thought process.

In Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms we get to read a lot of thoughts that are just that … thoughts. Sure, they’re good thoughts. They might even be well-written thoughts, but as Stephen King said, “It’s supposed to be good. That’s your job.” You shouldn’t bore the reader with a character’s thoughts because they’re well written, that’s not what’s important. Do they add to the character? Do they layer them more? Do they change the course of the plot?

No?

Then out they go.

They’re not deep. They’re not profound. They’re not worth anything. They are a racket or static which distracts from the important parts of your symphony. They are the long lulls that make me disengage with the text because nothing is happening. If I want to hear a teenage girl’s thoughts without story, I’ll go talk to a teenage girl. If I want to hear a left-wing group of young women discuss gender politics, I’ll read Jezebel. It’Il be both more interesting and more enlightening  When I read a novel, I want those characters to be part of a story, a statement, a hook, an arc, and that means cutting things. It means making sure their voices add to the wild road of the narrative instead of overriding it.

Otherwise, what am I reading your work for? I should watch a documentary instead.

(Image by: CrazyMedia. Licensed under Dollar Photo Club’s Standard Agreement.)