Margaret Atwood’s 10 pointers for writers

back exercises, Canadian, editing, laptop, pencils, prayer, publication, Uncategorized, writing on a plane
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is best known for her novels and short stories and has also written fifteen books of poetry. She has won many accolades throughout her writing career, including the Booker Prize. She has 10 pieces of advice for authors which she articulated to the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2010:
1.     Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
Surely they haven’t banned pencil sharpeners on planes, have they? Nowadays, I reckon many writers would be using a laptop anyway. In any case, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable writing a work of fiction on a plane where everyone around you can see what you’re writing. Of course you could always use a very small font so that the guy next to you can’t quite make out the words on the screen. Then again you may have a problem if you can’t read the words on the screen either.
2.     If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
Still on about those pencils, Margaret?
3.     Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
Of course, when it comes time for you to submit your masterpiece to a publisher it might be difficult to send your arm through the mail. I’m pretty sure the postal service draws the line at handling body parts, no matter how many postage stamps you use. Same goes for lumps of wood, which, depending on their size, you may have to check in along with your bags anyway before you even get on the plane.
4.     If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
She forgot to mention that you shouldn’t keep the memory stick in the same place as the computer. Otherwise, when a fire breaks out you may lose your computer and the memory stick, and then where will you be?
5.     Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
Now this I totally agree with. I threw my back out when I was eighteen and ever since then I have had more or less constant back pain of one kind or another. Back exercises definitely help. Of course, it’s difficult to do them on a plane. People might begin to complain if you start bobbing up and down in the aisle, touching your toes, sticking your feet all over the furniture and stretching ostentatiously.
6.     Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
This is somewhat disturbing. How does she know what shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark is like… unless she’s tried it? Apart from that it is certainly true that if you can’t hold your own attention and get excited over what you’re writing, the chances are that that you won’t endear yourself to the reader either. And if what you have written does bore the pants of B, then B should think about reading in private somewhere, in order to avoid embarrassment.
7.     You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Who’s whining? I wasn’t whining. Were you whining? On the other hand, it’s true. Nobody is holding a gun to your head to make you write. Perhaps she comes across writers regularly who moan about having to write novels, short stories or poetry and wail about their lack of pension plans. Writing is hard work at times. But it is also very enjoyable to do. So stop all the whining, will you?
8.     You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
This, at last seems to be good advice. Getting somebody else to read your work is essential. And provided it’s someone who is skilled and experienced in reading the same kind of work that you have produced then you are onto a winner. But I agree; it is a delicate matter. When you have slaved over a chapter and put your all into it, it can be difficult to take criticism. I also find that if I leave a piece of writing for a while and then return to it later, I can usually view it much more objectively than I could just after having written it. Sometimes that’s a better option than punching your loved ones in the face.
9.     Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Perhaps sitting down in the middle of the woods is where Margaret gets all those pieces of wood for taking on planes. I once wrote the entire first half of a novel before I realized something was drastically wrong. At that point, I decided to let one of my editors take a look at what I had done so far. She told me immediately that a whole plot strand was simply too outlandish to be believed. What I had done was include a character who, in an attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a building, had got himself tangled up in the mechanism of a crane (as you can see Buster Keaton had nothing on this guy). He stays up in the crane for days and I don’t really remember what happened afterwards. Anyway, the whole thing looked like a pile of garbage. Crestfallen, I abandoned the manuscript and moved on to other things.
Then a few months later I decided to have another look at it. As it turned out, most of the unworkable subplot was confined to a series of separate scenes. I decided to cut them out, just to see how the plot looked without them. Lo and behold, the whole thing looked much better. A few tweaks here and there, and I was back on track. I took my outline and edited it; then worked on rewriting the remaining sections that made reference to the weird crane scenes.
10.  Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Sometimes I have some of my best writing ideas while I’m trying to pray. It’s a distraction. But I’m not sure whether the idea is distracting me from prayer or the prayer is distracting me from writing. If I dwell on this problem for long it distracts me from what I’m really supposed to be doing, which is driving down the freeway at seventy miles an hour, dodging traffic and generally trying to stay alive until I reach my destination.
Reading something else, also works. The only disadvantage is that later, when I am writing, some of what I’ve read begins to leak into my text, but I put it in there because I think it’s original, only to discover that I have been plagiarizing like mad. I then have to carefully go through what I’ve written and excise all the stolen treasure from other authors. It’s demoralizing.
Or would be demoralizing if there wasn’t that Holy Grail of publication waiting for me at the end of the line. Ah yes, eagerly sending out a manuscript, waiting eagerly for months, eagerly ripping open the return envelope, eagerly reading the rejection letter and eagerly throwing it in the trash, then eagerly sending out another manuscript. Who says that writing isn’t the best profession in the world?

 


The Godlike Mystery of Creative Writing

Adam, creation, creative writing, fMRI, Martin Lotze, Michelangelo, Uncategorized, University of Greifswald
A couple of years ago researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, ran an experiment which monitored, using an fMRI machine, what happens in the brain when someone is composing a work of fiction. The subjects being tested were given the opening sentences of a story and asked to come up with what happened next. They first had one minute to brainstorm ideas and then two minutes to write down what they came up with.
What they found was that the areas of the brain that came alive during the brainstorming part of the experiment were associated with vision, as though the subjects were “seeing” the story in their mind’s eye. The hippocampus, which deals with retrieving factual information, also came into play during this period. However, Dr. Lotze was not satisfied, mainly because the people being tested in the experiment had no previous experience of creative writing. So he ran a second experiment on a group of experienced writers and found that a completely different area of the brain was activated, to do with speech, as though the subjects were forming words in their mind. The two groups also differed when it came to the actual writing part of the experiment, the more experienced group activating a region related to practice and repetitive action.
The experiment has received some criticism because some think that the type of activities tested were not focused enough. It should have been testing the difference between writing a story and writing a fact-based essay.
In a sense, experiments like these can never really uncover the mystery of how someone can sit down at a desk and come up with a story that no one else has ever written before. We know this instinctively without having to conduct scientific experiments. When you are “making stuff up” there are a huge number of interrelated details held in your brain that you combine in a unique way to produce story elements. And of course none of this even touches upon the skill involved in retrieving the information you need to form words and write in complete sentences with correct spelling and form those sentences using logical grammar. It is clear to anyone who has ever made up a story and written it down that it is a complex task involving multiple skills that have been learned and new images and ideas that are the product of combinations of information in your brain.
There is something mystical about creative writing. We could even go so far as to say there is something godlike about it, in that the writer appears to create a whole world and peoples it out of more or less nothing. It is a strange but happy thought that in some way we can come closer to God by participating in creation through creative writing.

 


Formal poetry or free verse?

Ben Jonson, Ezra Pound, formal poetry, free verse, rhyme, rhythm, T.S. Eliot, the Waste Land, Uncategorized
The days of the sonnet, the villanelle and the ballade are over. The what? you say. You know, formal poetry with strict rhyme schemes and regular rhythms and stuff. That has been the mantra among the echelons of the poetry world for as long as living memory can stretch. Ever since T.S. Eliot stunned the world with the Waste Land people have been tolling the death knell of formal poetry and nowadays nobody writes formal poetry any more, do they?
Well, in actually fact, the Waste Land is peppered with formal poetry elements in disguise, and nowadays there is a growing battery of “new formalism” poetry journals and magazines that publish nothing but formal poetry. Formal poetry still doesn’t have the punching heft or the inviolable, lofty status as free verse, for most people, but it is making a come back.
T.S. Eliot himself was heard to say: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” That in fact is what happened to The Waste Land, his epic masterpiece. In its original form it was a sprawling mess of a poem. As Ezra Pound (who eventually managed to edit it down to half its original size) mentioned to Eliot, he had written “the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic].” The poem turns out to be mostly free verse with formal elements infiltrating it all the way through. Another gnomic utterance from Eliot states: “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” This still stands today as an indictment against would-be poets who never really take the trouble to learn how to practice the rules of formal poetry but stick to free verse all the way through.
So which is better: formal poetry or free verse? Well, it depends on a number of things, including the subject matter, the occasion and the audience. Sometimes rhyming poetry works best and sometimes free verse does.
I have found Eliot’s comment about working within a strict framework producing the richest ideas to be true, for the most part. Writing rhyming and scanning poetry forces you to concentrate. It’s a bit like working on a cryptic crossword puzzle. It can be fun, but it can also be infuriatingly frustrating. You have to think more carefully about your word choice, make sure you don’t add extra syllables to a line, make sure the rhyme scheme is adhered to (even if they are only slant-rhymes) and in some cases (for example, with sonnets) make sure you have finished what you want to say by the time you run out of space and reach the end of the poem. Of course, it is possible to write a technically brilliant poem that doesn’t say anything much…
Free verse, on the other hand, by definition doesn’t have the constraints of formal poetry. You can literally write anything you want. But because of that a free verse poem has to stand on its own two feet without the surrounding support of a structure to hang your thoughts on. It is easy to waffle. It is easy to produce flabby lines that lack concision or thought. It is easy to produce a poem that sounds just like prose. So why do so many people prefer it to formal poetry? Poets prefer it because it appears to be relatively easy to write (although not so easy to write well). Readers of poetry prefer it because often it is easier to understand than the alternative.
But even if you are writing free verse, it can help to put some formal constraints on what you write, such as making each line a set number of syllables, having stanzas that are of a uniform length, or using an iambic rhythm in each line. It can help to add a little discipline to what you write. Similarly, if you are writing formal poetry you still have some latitude to depart occasionally from the scheme you have chosen if it helps get the meaning across or emphasizes certain words. In actual fact, the more you look at it, the distance between formal and free verse gets closer and seems more like a continuum rather that two discrete styles.
Formal poetry gets the reputation of being stuffy and, well, formal. Free verse gets the reputation of allowing the emotions of the poet to come out, well, freely.
So just to mix things up a bit, here is a formal poem that exudes poignant emotions but still manages to do it within the rules of the form: Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Sonne.” It is an incredibly touching poem set down in rhyming couplets – lines which rhyme in pairs – which you would not have thought at all suited to powerful emotion. It was written on the death of his little son, on the child’s seventh birthday. The little boy was named Benjamin after his father, and Benjamin, in Hebrew, means “child of my right hand” hence the opening line. There are three short verses:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.
And here’s part of the aforementioned Waste Land, which is written in free verse but is still concise and compelling:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Free verse does have a value and can be used to devastating effect. But, as Eliot says, it is much better to learn the rules of formal poetry first before you decide to break them.

 


Character Profiles… or not

background information, character development, character profiles, novel writing, outline, Uncategorized
There are all sorts of preparatory exercises you can do when planning a novel. As well as drawing up an outline, chapter by chapter, and researching times, dates, places, people and things, you could also come up with a character profile for each of the main characters. This sort of approach is recommended by many teachers of creative writing. The idea is that you write down everything you know about your main characters: where they went to school, their favorite color, what they were like as a child, whom they dated, where they went on vacation, and so on. What this is aiming to achieve is twofold. First, you get to know your characters intimately so that you know how they will react when they meet each other, and that keeps your story plausible. Second, you can use the character profile as a fact-checking mechanism so that if you, for example, refer to something in their past you can keep your facts consistent.
It sounds like a good idea. But there are other people who maintain that nailing down all those fact about your character can make them predictable and one-dimensional. It’s the same argument that is used by proponents of the “no outline” stance and it does have some merit. They also say that it takes all the joy out of writing if everything is predictable. After all, part of the excitement in writing a novel is the thrill you get when your character says or does something that you had not foreseen. In that case, the novel takes on a life of its own and the author is just as surprised as the reader by the direction the character development is taking.

             I can’t really make my mind up about it. I suppose it depends what kind of novel you are writing. If you are writing an action-packed thriller in which the plot speeds along like a freight train, then perhaps deep character development is not necessary. Sure, you need to give some complexity to your characters, but not so much as you would if you were writing a romance novel.

I once tried to draw up a character profile for each of the main players in one of my novels and found it rather difficult to come up with a lot of intricate detail on their backgrounds. One method that has been suggested is to imagine you are in a room together with one of your characters. Then you simply sit down with them and ask them a list of questions. In other words, you let them do the talking. For some people that might work well. Others might find it difficult to imagine sitting down with a fictitious character. And yet others may be so good at it that they have to see psychotherapeutic counseling for multiple personality disorder. I suppose one aspect of interviewing your characters that might work is that the more you get to know them, the more you will end up liking them. But the reverse might be true also. Once you get to know some of your characters well you might just as easily hate their guts. And that would be bad news for your novel, especially if they happened to be the protagonist.
Another aspect militating against character profiles is that characters in a novel can develop and change according to the circumstances they encounter as the plot unfolds. If you have already decided everything about them from their shoe size to when they last had a haircut then you may find yourself with fairly static characters who remain the same no matter what gruesome experiences you force them into in the course of the novel.
            Maybe next time round I’ll take the character profile method for another test drive and see if it helps my next novel or hinders it. Maybe I’ll write a romance novel. And maybe tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and Donald Trump will be bald.

 


Dante’s Inferno

Clive James, Dante, Dante's Inferno, Ezra Pound, hell, quatrains, rhyme, T.S. Eliot, terza rima, translation, Uncategorized
I have just finished reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Clive’s James’s entry in Wikipedia begins thus:

“Clive James AO CBE (born Vivian Leopold James on 7 October 1939) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1962.”

Anyone familiar with James’s television work would probably be astonished to find that he is a poet and translator. Yet these are the two key skills needed to tackle Dante’s humungous 34-canto epic.
Dante composed Inferno in terza rima, which is poetry written in groups of three lines, especially in iambs, which rhyme aba bcb cdc. This particular form is rather difficult to keep up in English because, as you can see, in order to do it properly you have to come up with line endings containing three words that rhyme. In Italian, which is the language the Inferno was written in, that’s not so difficult since most of words end in one vowel or another. So James uses a much easier form for the translation. He divides the text into quatrains, that is four-line groups which rhyme abab cdcd efef. That way he only had to rhyme two words together at the line endings. (I trust I make myself obscure.) It is an inspired choice and enabled him to proceed with the translation without bending over backwards to accommodate a difficult rhyme scheme.
Most of the time James’s translation is superb. But he alternates between a “high” style of writing and a “low” one and usually this works – usually. To give you an example, here are some lines from canto 2:
And then Paul’s ship,
The Chosen Vessel, came to Rome as well—
The vessel, in a sense, that Faith might sip
Renewal from, and did. But now, pray tell,
Why me? Who says I get to go there?
Do I look like Aeneas? Am I Paul?
See what I mean? He juxtaposes the rather archaic “pray tell” with “Who says I get to go there? / Do I look like Aeneas?” which to modern ears sounds distinctly colloquial. It’s a style that was used successfully by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and ultimately by Dante himself.
James had to make a number of choices when writing the translation, leaving out parts of Dante’s text and adding other parts here and there in order to produce something that worked as poetry. He has been criticized for that, but I think it makes the whole thing much more readable in most cases. He also does away with footnotes, preferring instead to incorporate some of the external material into the text itself, which of course is another stroke of genius.
What he doesn’t stint on is Dante’s gruesome imagination. As the narrator is led through hell he comes across various atrocities as individuals and groups are punished for their sins, usually with a punishment that bears some relation to the sin they committed. We see people wandering around with their entrails dangling out, giants munching away at various sinners, one guy gnawing away at another guy’s head, and everywhere demons with whips strut around to make sure the crowd keeps moving. Dante was not kind to some of the people he knew and places them down there among the nine levels of hell to endure their punishment for past sins.
The book is, in fact, a great read and has something of the flavor of a thriller about it. It may not be a word-for-word translation of the famous text, but it is compelling enough to keep you reading and has all the drama needed to offer new and exciting manifestations of brutality on every page! All in all, I’d recommend it.

 


Auden’s Daily grind

As I Walked Out One Evening, barbiturates, Benjamin Britten, bennies, benzedrine, drugs, funeral blues, Kirchstetten Austria, New York, September 1 1939, Uncategorized, WH Auden
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Wystan Hugh (WH) Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973) was born into a professional middle-class family in York, England, and grew up in and near Birmingham. After high school he went on to study English at Christ Church, Oxford, where he first started writing poetry, and subsequently spent five years (1930–35) teaching in English public schools. He then traveled to Iceland and China in order to write books about his journeys. He moved to the United States in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1946. From 1941 through 1945 he lectured in American universities. From about 1958 until the end of his life he wintered in New York and summered in Kirchstetten, Austria.
Auden’s life was to some extent unashamedly gay at a time when being gay bore much more of a social stigma. He was a serious scholar of poetry and English literature and spent an appreciable amount of time in coaching students in the art and craft of writing. He was a poet and playwright, and also librettist of considerable scope and skill, collaborating on numerous projects with such famous composers as Benjamin Britten. As a poet he was a natural, and penned thousands of poems with what seems like consummate ease – aware of the rules of formal poetry but without being rigidly bound by them.
What interests us is how he managed to lead a productive life, given his self-confessed often sybaritic lifestyle. There was a key to how he maintained his output and it came down to discipline – of a certain sort – and drugs.
Auden considered it a sign of weakness that he had to rely on artificial stimulants to maintain his workday discipline. Nevertheless that is what he did. He started his days with Benzedrine, or “bennies” (an amphetamine that at the time was a legitimate treatment for narcolepsy and lethargy in patient, but which was later used as an artificial stimulant that was used recreationally). This enabled him to be alert and active and to get through the work of the day quite productively.
In the evenings he would consume quantities of alcohol and barbiturates to calm him down so that he could eventually sleep: he called this whole regime “the chemical life.” The barbiturates helped him to sleep, but just in case he woke in the night he would have a bottle of vodka by his bedside to swig.
And so each day wound in with this lurching from extreme consciousness to drugged stupor, in and out, right up to his mid-sixties. Of course, the bennies, the alcohol and the barbiturates had a tendency to ravage the body. So, Auden’s death from heart failure at age 66 was, to a considerable extent, a result of his decades of practicing, with the complicity of his doctors, “the chemical life.”
It is a moot point whether W.H. Auden could have produced such marvelous poems as “Funeral Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” or “As I Walked Out One Evening.” without resorting to artificial means. He was an almost matchless technician when it came to formal poetry, so when he was on his game he was sublime. Could he have maintained his output in the absence of drugs? How much longer could he have been productive without them? Who knows? We have to be thankful for what he managed to produce in his – by modern standards – relatively short life.

 


P.D. James: 5 Pieces of Advice for the Writer

PD James, the English language, Uncategorized, vocabulary, whodunit, writing
Phyllis Dorothy (P. D.) James was the author of twenty books, many of which have been televised or filmed. She began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was published in 1962. Many of James’s mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which she worked for decades starting in the 1940s. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature, and in 1991 was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014. Here is the advice she gives to would-be authors.
1)    Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
By increasing your word power she does not, of course, mean simply poring over a dictionary and logging up scores of obscure words that you use indiscriminately in the course of your writing. It means when you write you have several alternative synonyms you can draw on in order to give your writing color and nuance. Whenever I discover a new word, I usually find it helpful to use it at the first possible opportunity, either in conversation or in writing so that it gets embedded in my memory. That way, I retain knowledge of new words and can use them whenever seems appropriate.
2)    Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
Here the focus is on reading good authors. But I also think it depends how you read. If you read for pleasure only and without any attempt to analyze the text then there is only a limited amount of benefit you can derive in terms of your own writing. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy what you’re reading. It just means that when you read you should also pay attention to how an author writes, how he or she achieves certain effects, how the book is structured and what kind of vocabulary is used. That way you can enjoy reading but also grow as a writer yourself, by trying to imitate the good aspects of another author’s writing.
3)    Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
Like any other skill, the more you practice the better you get at it. What definitely helps is if you build writing time into your daily/weekly schedule, instead of blitzing it twice a year. Steady progress helps you to develop as a writer, better than staggered and erratic effort.
4)    Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
That’s easy for her to say, you might think, since she has a steady stable of bestsellers to show for her efforts. On the other hand, if you are only writing what you think the public will buy in the hope of accumulating wealth, readers, more often than not, will notice your insincerity and steer clear. If you can combine writing what you really want to write with a popular genre, all to the good. Just don’t sell out to commercialism just because people seem to be buying a certain kind of book.
5)    Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
This also makes a case for not isolating yourself as a writer. Writing is a solitary occupation, and unless you can plug yourself into human experience in a meaningful way, by putting yourself into situations where you can interact with other people, gradually you will run out of convincing things to write about or become one-dimensional in your representation of human relationships. Again, it also makes a case for trying to see life through the eyes of the other people we know and using that in our writing to portray authentic human beings.

 

 

 

 

Some of these points apply more fully to writing fiction, but most of them have a bearing on any kind of writing – poetry, non-fiction, even business reports at a stretch!

How to Write a Novel in a Month

60000-word novel, blurb, chapters, finding time to write, NaNoWriMo, outline, summary, Uncategorized
National novel-writing month (NaNoWriMo) comes around once every November, the object being to write an entire novel in a month. But you could choose any month to write your novel. The possibility of writing a novel at all, let alone in one month seems beyond the bounds of reason. Yet, it is possible. A little bit of discipline goes a long way and if you are committed to the task, you will find that you can complete the novel in the time allocated without even breaking a sweat.
Before you start, there are a small number of things you need to do to prepare.
1.     Decide what the novel is about. Can you summarize the plot in 200-300 words? These are the sort of words that you might find on the dust jacket of a book. If you can’t sum up what the novel is about in a paragraph or two, perhaps you need to do some work to get it clear in your mind. Who is the main character? What are they trying to achieve? What stands in their way? How is their main opposition eliminated in the course of the book? Is there a satisfactory conclusion? Apart from the last one (which would involve a spoiler of sorts) these are the questions that the blurb – or short description – should answer.
2.     Do an outline. An outline is a document that contains a short description of what happens in each chapter. Some writers dispense with the outline and just start writing, making the story up as they go along. The disadvantage of this approach is that you can end up taking the plot down various rabbit holes and you run the risk of grinding to a halt. Another risk you run by not outlining is not really knowing where to finish the story. This can result in either an abrupt ending, or a bunch of loose ends that are not tied up by the time the novel finishes. So make it easy for yourself and work out the action beforehand for each successive chapter. For our purposes, divide the novel into 30 chapters, each of which will be about 2,000 words long. 60,000 words is about the minimum you need for a modern novel. Writing an outline also allows you to iron out any bumpy patches in the plot beforehand so that all you need to worry about later is writing the book.
3.     Write the first couple of chapters. This gives you a head start. The purpose of writing the first couple of chapters is to get you into the swing of writing. It may take you a couple of tries before you settle into a style of writing that you are comfortable with and that you can sustain throughout the length of the novel.
4.     Get the agreement of those you live with so that they can be persuaded to get behind the project and allow you the time you need to write. If you don’t, then expect the next month to be a rocky road!
These preparatory steps can be done over a period of weeks or even months before you even get to the writing part. They are important for leveling the playing field and making it easy on yourself when you sit down to write the novel.
Obviously, the biggest factor in whether you are able to write a novel in a month will be whether you can find the time (see my blog post on December 30, 2015 on FindingTime to Write). The proposition involves prioritizing writing time so that it comes relatively high on your list of daily tasks. In this case, you may find it useful to divide the novel into weeks. Your weekly schedule might look like this:
Weekdays: Get up early and write for 1 hour. In the evening skip TV and write for an further 2½  hours (at the reasonable rate of 600 words an hour that’s about 2,000 words per weekday). Of course, if it is impossible for you to get up any earlier than you already do, you could just transfer your writing time to the evening and work from 7 to 10.30 p.m. Or whatever combination works for you. Here, you can see that you are going to have to sacrifice some other enjoyable pastime, such as vegetating in front of the TV all evening. But it’s only for a month! There are 5 weekdays and, if you aim to write 2,000 words a day, that comes to 10,000 words, leaving you 5,000 words to write at the weekend.
Weekends: Weekends for many people tend to be the time when you lie in bed for longer and wander about in pajamas eating cereal at midday. What you have to do is come up with about 4 hours on Saturday and about 4 hours on Sunday and you will have hit your target of 5,000 words for the weekend. Getting up early might work. Working late into Saturday night might work. It’s up to you. Yes, it might be difficult because you will be out of your usual routine. But it’s only for a month!
With this schedule you will clock up 15,000 words every week and after a month you will have over 60,000 words to show for your efforts. There are other ways of doing it, of course. You could carve out every weekend and work from dawn till dusk, or even cash in a week’s vacation time and write 8,500 words per day to complete your novel. Any way you look at it, at the end of the allotted time you will have a fully-fledged novel manuscript in you hands and can then work with that.
So, say you somehow manage to get your family and those you live with to agree to giving you the time you need to write and you have enough discipline to stick to the task, what exactly do you do when you sit down to write? Well, that is easy, because you have gone through the preparatory steps mentioned above. You simply follow your outline, chapter by chapter, until you reach the end of the book. Don’t worry if what you are writing down does not appear to be of the best quality. You can always go back and edit it later. What matters is that you have a complete novel under your belt. From then on the task is revising the text in order to get it ready for submission to a publisher or literary agent. Or you could short-circuit that process and go ahead and publish it independently yourself.
This scheme allows you to write a whole novel in a month. But you could make things easier on yourself by writing 1,000 words a day and completing the project in two months. The choice is yours. If you have any ambitions as an author, what matters is that you give writing some priority in your day-to-day schedule and thus give yourself a chance of completing your writing projects.

 


Shakespeare’s Daily Grind

Bard of Avon, Elizabethan poets, Jacobean poets, plays, poetry, Shakespeare, sonnets, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
William Shakespeare (April 26 ,1564 –April 23, 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in English. His works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, a couple of long narrative poems, and other verses, some of uncertain authorship.
Shakespeare was a genius. No rational person would dispute that. But how did the Bard of Avon achieve the fantastically inventive output that he produced between his debut in the early 1590s and his curtain call in the mid-1630s. He was an actor who understood actors and, more importantly, understood the dynamics of stagecraft and audience interaction. He was a member of a company of actors who performed his own plays many times for the delectation of the public. You might think that with such a task he would do what many other playwrights of the time did, which was to produce crowd-pleasers without any substance. Instead, what Shakespeare did was to produce plays that were stimulating on both the popular and the intellectual level. This was a choice of necessity for  him. He was in the acting and playwriting business, not just for laughs, but for some lasting legacy. He is, in fact, one of the few Elizabethan or Jacobean poets whose works are still part of the curriculum of any self-respecting English department in a university that values its status and academic standing.
The practicalities of how Shakespeare wrote his plays is lost to history, but we can assume, given the fact that he was an actor himself in his own plays, that he changed the script several times before the final version was arrived at. He would come offstage after a torrid performance of Henry V and bury his head in the text, striking out infelicities, and scribbling alternative dialogue above the main text. He would ad lib during the performance itself (how could he not, being such a dynamo of creativity) much to the annoyance of the other actors. He would elaborate, modify and fiddle with the script as the show went on, and subsequent performances would be impacted by the changes he had made, until the play was just right. It is amazing how a playwright under such pressure could still produce lines that are, at times, so sublime that they almost make you cry.
But William Shakespeare was also a poet. His 154 sonnets are a tour de force of invention. Working within the very strict formal conventions of the day, with which, in fact, every sonneteer was familiar, he managed to produce immortal lines that are quoted even now after five hundred years. Again, his work ethic and routine for writing sonnets are lost to us in the swirling mist of time. But many of his sonnets are intricate mechanisms of miraculous artistry and beauty that defy full analysis. Certainly, he must have penned some of them late at night as the mood and the ale took hold, but every one of them speaks of fine tailoring and meticulous polishing. So he must have continued to work on them during the day, in breaks from the performances, in the hiatus between writing and performing one play and beginning another.
He died at the age of 53. Not a bad stretch for somebody of the time. On the other hand, how much did the stress of juggling writing, acting, directing and the precarious business of staging and advertising plays contribute to what would be considered now an early demise? Shakespeare spent himself in writing works of genius, and thank God he did. But was the cost too great? Did the spewing forth of works of literary brilliance consume him before his time. Again, we will never know. But however he managed to produce his output we are glad he did, even if the weight of it might have felled him in the end.

 


10 Solutions to Writer’s Block

10 Solutions to Writer’s Block, deadline, journalists, muse, reading, the Guardian, the Independent, Uncategorized, Writer's block

 

In 1984, John Betjeman, the British Poet Laureate died, leaving the position vacant for whomever had enough scope and gravitas to fill it. Philip Larkin, the eminent English poet, who had written some of the most popular poems of his day, was offered the position but turned it down because he had written no poetry for years. The main reason for this was that he suffered from an acute and prolonged bout of writer’s block.
Writer’s block is something that afflicts all writers from time to time. It can be distressing, especially if you earn your living by writing. You sit down with your blank sheet of paper (or computer screen) and stare at it until, as they say, blood starts to appear on your forehead; you pace up and down your room waiting for the muse to turn up, but she is happily cavorting with other authors and seems to have forgotten your very existence; you try writing out a few words but all that you manage to produce is gibberish.
What is to be done? Is there a solution to the seemingly intractable tortures of writer’s block? The good news is that there are several things that can be attempted in order to get you back on the right track so that your writing becomes productive again. The main objective is to take the pressure off, to write without all the baggage and heavy consequences that we place on ourselves.
Ultimately, key to overcoming writer’s block is to write. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? But it’s true. There are various ways to write your way out of paralysis. Here are 10 possible exercises for getting you to the point where you can write again:
1.     Eliminate distractions from your writing. Set aside fifteen minutes to analyze your writing time. Is the seat you sit on pointed towards something that is distracting – for example, a window, or painting, or poster that has too much interesting detail to be resisted?
2.     Is your writing time the right time for you. Most people have peak times during a day when they are most productive, just as most people begin to flag at certain points in the day. Find the time when you are most alert and, if you can, use that for your writing time.
3.     Think about your writing environment. Is it quiet enough for you to concentrate, or are there extraneous noises breaking through? Is there anything you can do to minimize sound distractions?
4.     Write one word, any word. Then write another, any other word. Then keep going writing any word you can think of. After ten minutes of this, review what you’ve written. It’s probably gobbledygook – and yet, most likely, you will have written hundreds of words of that gobbledygook. That is better than you could achieve yesterday. I have often used this when writing poetry. I will write a few poems, which in the end turn out to be substandard and can subsequently be discarded, and these help me to get into the swing of how to write verse again.
5.     Open a dictionary and write any word on the page. Then write the next word in the list, then the next. After a few minutes review the results. Are there any connections between the words (apart from their initial letters) that spark your imagination and encourage you to write more?
6.     Find a cryptic crossword. Some of the best ones are on the websites of British newspapers such as the Independent or the Guardian. Look at the clues and see what images or scenes they conjure up in your mind. Then try to write about them in short paragraphs.
7.     Record yourself talking about how you suffer from writer’s block. Then transcribe it into a Word document and print it out. (You now have the beginning of a short story or even a novel.)
8.     Read books. Reading books helps you to hone your talent and eradicate the infelicities in your writing. It also provides you with examples to follow. Read a chapter of a book. Analyze what has happened in the scene you just read. Then try to rewrite the scene in a different way – from a different point of view, or starting from a different time slot, or even writing the scene as though two characters were describing it to one another in a slice of dialogue.
9.     Revisit old writing plans. If you want to be serious about your writing, it makes sense to keep notebooks of ideas. This is useful later if you are suffering from writer’s block since it gives you an initial start, a jumping off point that might inspire you to write the initial chapters of a novel, or the first couple of stanzas of a poem, or the opening scenes of a play.
10.  Do something that does not involve cerebral activity, something repetitive like washing dishes or mowing the lawn or sweeping out the basement. This has the advantage that while your body works away at some mindless task, your mind can explore other avenues, which ultimately might turn up some literary stimuli that help you to start writing again.
The aim of these exercises is simply to get you writing again. Once you can do that you can turn to the bona fide writing projects you were supposed to be working on. There are, of course, activities that are not conducive to helping your writing. Anything that engages your mind too much or absorbs too much of your attention is most probably not going to be an immediate help in composing startling prose or poetry. Writing is a delicate mechanism and needs to be given time, resources and thought in order to be productive. Setting aside a certain amount of time each day/week/year to write is crucial for the serious writer. Once you have done that, the rest will follow.

 

 

 

 

It is worth pointing out that journalists write regularly for a living. Writer’s block is not a luxury they can afford. They have a deadline and a set number of words they must mark up in order to continue to be paid for the work they do. The fact is, journalists write whether they have writer’s block or not. I found that myself when I wrote a column for a national newspaper. If you don’t write you don’t get paid. What I found was that even the stuff I wrote when I was suffering from writer’s block was of sufficient quality that it worked. That’s worth bearing in mind too. Whether you suffer from writer’s block or not, if you force yourself to write (as opposed to waiting for the muse to strike), it is quite likely that you will end up producing something of value anyway, even if you didn’t enjoy writing it.