Monday, 27 February 2012

Writing Detox! AKA Clearing my Desk and my Head.

I've been rather productive lately, which is good but bewildering. However, I have to submit a 2000 word story next Wednesday, as a formative assignment for my MA course, and it's not going well... I know my plot, my characters, my setting and my theme. When I come to actually writing the story... Nothing.

Do I have too many projects on the go? I asked myself. I had 2 stories that needed redrafting and polishing, plus one that needed a little more work. I decided to have a writing detox and finished the 2 stories that were nearly done. Still couldn't write anything but a half-decent opening paragraph followed by a page of crap.

I worked on the story needing more work and managed to find solutions that had hitherto eluded me. I finished that story. I've even entered all three in competitions, so I don't have to think about them for a long time.

And I'm still having trouble!

I do feel better for being able to focus on a single story, but the clear headspace and decrease in bits of paper fluttering around has not resulted in progress on my assignment story. I'm doing a lot of freewriting around my story and characters, which I hope will soon yield fruit.

I'm only a couple of days into my writing detox - I'll see how it goes!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Top 10 Writing Tips from Top Tennis Players

Well, kinda. These were gleaned from watching tennis rather than asking tennis players for writing tips!

1. Consistency and endurance are key.

To be ranked in the ATP or WTA top ten, you need to win a lot of matches. Winning the odd title and exiting in the first round of most competitions isn't good enough. To write well and have a long, successful career you need to write a lot. Don't write one great novel/story and quit: keep writing as you're entering competitions and querying agents. Aim to do your best in everything you write. It's an obvious point, but it's easy to get complacent when you have some success or to lose motivation when success doesn't come. Keep going.

2. Chase down every shot.

Andy Murray fans will be familiar with his shouts of 'chase it down!' when he's not playing his best. They will also be familiar with his spectacular returns when he does chase down shots that seem impossible. You may avoid submitting work to some competitions/journals/whatever because you think there's no chance of success, but you're wrong: as long as you submit, the chance is higher than zero. So what if you miss? The day may come when you make a spectacular return.

3. Make your own luck.

Part of making your own luck is chasing down every shot, but it also involves taking responsibility. Complaining about your lack of success isn't productive - if you need to vent, fair enough, but there's no point in constantly whining about the unfairness of the publishing industry. Did Novak Djokovic waste time moaning about how Federer and Nadal are blessed with talent? I've no idea. But I know he worked damn hard to become world number 1 and achieved it. Are you doing everything you can to ensure success? If not, stop wasting your precious time complaining and get to work! If you said yes, stop lying!

4. Act professional.

Apart from possessing awesome tennis skills, what do Nadal, Djokovic and Federer (for the most part) have in common? They act professional on and off court. Nadal, in particular, does not smash tennis racquets and is very gracious about his opponents. So are most of the top 20 players - regardless of whether they're winning or losing. It's hard to remain cool and gracious when things are stacked against you, but it's essential. Don't slag off other writers/editors/agents; don't take rejection personally or begrudge others their success. It's a massive waste of time and could damage your future prospects.

5. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

All professional tennis players train hard, for years. They receive coaching/advice to improve their cardio fitness, strength and flexibility, adjust their diet, practice techniques and tactics... You get the idea. Writers can do the same: take courses, get critiques, do writing exercises, read good stories, listen to what successful writers advise...

6. Keep match-fit.

Don't let your form slump when you're not actively submitting work and make sure your preparation results in working to the best of your ability. Edit your work thoroughly, even if you plan to leave it a while before doing anything with it, so it's polished and ready to go. It will probably  still need a quick read and some adjustments, but no major changes. If an unexpected opportunity arises, your work is ready to wield the racquet!

7. Know your opponent(s).

Okay, so you won't be facing another writer on the court. But you should still know their strengths and weaknesses - and learn from them. How can you improve your work? Do you offer something different to other writers in your genre? Can you copy their tactics to create publicity and sells? Imagine a reader in a bookshop with just a ten pound note to spend. What can you do to make them buy your book?

8. Change tactics when needed.

If things aren't going as expected, you need to think about the new situation and change your behaviour. Some tennis players are fantastic at doing this, switching to a more defensive/agressive game plan and changing rhythm with ease. Some are terrible at changing their tactics and continue playing the same when it's not working. Even top players can find themselves panicking as their game falls to pieces. Many veer between the two. Don't let this happen: devise new strategies. These could be minor, such as writing at a different time of day or in a different place. Or they could be drastic: trying a different genre, investing in a professional critique before submitting work, taking a course...

9. Don't give up.

Plenty of tennis players rise in the rankings against expections. Some enjoy their best rankings in their late 20s/early 30s, which is considered the twilight of a tennis player's career. Most writers find success only after years of struggle. Many writers hailed as an 'overnight success' have several novels published before one gets critical acclaim or popular attention. We know this, but it's easy to forget. So keep going - if you stop, you'll never know if success was just around the corner.

10. Have fun!

Tennis and writing both involve years of hard work. There are always difficult times when it's a struggle to keep going, but on balance, you should love what you do. I love writing and I've enjoyed many experiences that writing (directly or indirectly) has brought about. I hope this continues as my career progresses, regardless of my success - or lack of it!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Cracking On... The Middle of Writing

Writing, for the most part, is not about beginnings and endings. Middles form the majority of the work: adding, substituting and deleting words in an attempt to achieve the right pace/emotion/description/whatever. Writing middles holds neither the refreshment of beginnings nor the satisfaction of endings. Doubts don't creep in - they gush in a deluge that overwhelms.

I'm currently reading Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott. It's helping me to stay motivated and feel uplifted. The title comes from an anecdote Lamott tells about her brother, who left a school report on birds until the day before it was due. As he sat too overwhemed by his task to make any progress, his father told him to take it bird by bird. That's what I'm trying to do.

Under the umbrella term 'middles' comes 'middle drafts'. These are the drafts that come between the first draft, which usually involves mammoth changes, and the minimal tweaking of the final draft. I'm currently working on three short stories in this stage. Middle drafts are tricky because it's diffcult to maintain a sense of perspective. Many of the changes I make are reversed in the next draft. Often, it can feel like a waste of time.

But this experimentation is necessary. Finding out what doesn't work benefits both the individual story and my development as a writer. Writing middles and middle drafts is a lonely task, but it's important to keep going. So that's what I'm doing: cracking on, bird by bird, word by word.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A Strangely Productive Day

I feel disconcerted when my writing is going well. I'm used to struggling! Last week, I agonised for hours over a 900 word story for my MA class. Today, I've redrafted three stories and still have enough energy to do more writing. I'm a little worried...

Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that I have 600 pages of Earthly Powers to read before Monday's seminar... has it?

I'm feeling reasonably positive about life, the universe and everything at the moment. At least, compared to my usual pessimism/confidence bypass. I've entered two competitions this month and aim to enter at least four more stories in  competitions before the end of March. I was skeptical, but forcing myself to enter competitions seems to be a productive strategy.

What next?

My goal for the next couple of weeks is to keep going, alongside completing the 2000 word story and an essay on dialogue in Anne Tyler novels for my MA course. I would like to be more adventurous and write stories featuring magic realism and/or supernatural elements. I've been reading some of Kelly Link's short stories and feel inspired; she's one of those writers who I wish I'd read when I was a teenager, since it would have encouraged me to expand my imagination rather than rein it in, as my teachers said I should. I will also continue to redraft the three stories I worked on today - hopefully they will be as good as I can get them by this time next week.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

How to get Creativity Flowing

I had a deadline at the end of last week: I had to write a short story (800-1200 words) on the theme of 'unwanted guest' and email it to my tutor. I find writing to theme tricky at the best of times - unless I'm choosing the theme, it tends to confine rather than inspire me. Submitting my story to a writer who is far more successful than I could hope to be, a writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker prize, just added pressure.

I clammed up. I started three stories and none of them worked. I was paralyzed by my desire to do a good job.

However, I managed to get something handed in on time. It isn't my best work, but it shows some potential. I will probably develop it, although the finished story will be closer to 2000 words. My tutor's critique was incredibly helpful and I felt inspired rather than embarrassed, which is always good.

How I Got Going:

1. I went for a walk. As annoying as my mother is when she insists I need more fresh air, she's probably right. My mind was no longer focused on the empty computer screen in front of me. Most of it was focused on not falling over, since I was walking in a wood. The change of environment refreshed me.

2. I played The Interview Game. This might sound weird and I've no idea if anyone else does it, but I find it helpful. The Interview Game is imagining you're giving an interview about your story. Simples! You can imagine the story is finished or that you're being interviewed about the process of writing it as it's being written.

Start by having the interviewer ask easy questions - what is your story about? What themes does it address? What can you tell me about this character? Move onto tougher, more specific questions when you feel comfortable. I find myself giving surprising answers that help me progress with my work. It also clarifies my thoughts so that I can focus on how to progress.

3. I decided to write crap. I got to the stage where I seriously saw myself handing in a blank page. Handing in any rubbish is better than nothing; I'd rather my tutor saw me as a bad writer than a lazy cow who is wasting an expensive degree. Plus it's easier to rewrite and edit crap than a blank page.

4. I changed my perspective. I realised that my tutor doesn't expect us to hand in perfect work. In fact, if I was a perfect writer (assuming such a thing could exist), why would I be doing an MA? I saw the assignment as an opportunity to get great feedback and stopped trying to be perfect. This gave me permission to write the type of story I usually write, making the theme fit my style of work rather than trying to change my style to suit the theme.

5. I read a good book and had an epiphany.Well, kinda. I'm reading a very good collection of short stories, Diving Belles by Lucy Wood. She did a Creative Writing MA and reading the book helped me realise that every exercise I do, every story I write, is a step on the journey towards my ultimate goal. If I want to be published, I've got to work on my craft and not be afraid of showing my work to people, which is partly what this blog is all about.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Invisible Writing... Or, How Much Writing Am I Actually Doing?

Much of writing is intangible. The arranging and changing of words on a page to represent a story would be a strange concept to anyone who hadn't been raised on stories. But at least you can see the words. The thinking time put into any piece of writing even more intangible. Inspiration tends to strike when I'm in the middle of something completely unrelated to writing - often in the shower, when writing it down is rather difficult!

Resting... or Slacking?

I think it helps to take a break from consciously trying to solve writing problems. Once I stop going over how on Earth I'm going to get this character from A to B, the solution comes to me. A great piece of dialogue pops into my head when I'm putting on makeup. An idea for a story comes to me when I'm cooking dinner.

The rest period is important. Ask any sportsperson. However, I'm also aware of how 'resting' can be used as an excuse to avoid work!

Writing is difficult to quantify: if I write 2000 words today and 1000 words tomorrow, it doesn't mean I've worked twice as hard today. Nor does it mean today's work is better simply because there appears to be more. The time spent thinking about writing often has an impact on the quality of the work, as does the quality of the thinking itself - this is where I slip up.

When I'm typing, I usually have my internet browser open and play games as I think/write. I usually choose simple puzzle games, so I don't need to be absorbed in the game and fall into a rhythm that helps me think. However, I confess that sometimes I'm not doing much thinking - I'm just playing games...

Finding a Balance

It's hard to catch yourself when thinking about writing lapses into thinking about getting a high score, or whatever else you should be doing. Sometimes I do the opposite: I berate myself for wasting time when I've actually managed to think through several problems. Trouble is, it's not always reflected in the page. That's my problem: working out whether the thinking is productive.

The only solution I can think of is to assess my writing habits over a long(ish) period: if I haven't produced any writing over the course of two weeks, for example, something's wrong and I need to change. If, on the other hand, I manage to finish stories and keep up with my MA assignments/exercises despite feeling I've wasted hours, I should probably cut myself some slack. It's either that or find work as a professional time-waster!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Fun with Word Clouds

Inspired by this post I headed to Wordle and pasted in my experimental fiction assigment from last semester.The blogger, Hope Roberson, does warn that word clouds are addictive...

It's a psychomonologue narrated by a woman whose life revolves around her anxiety and her boyfriend. I'm surprised by how 'normal' the word cloud looks: nothing shouts out 'experiemntal'. I suppose the sheer size of 'Luke' does hint at the narrator's obsession.

It's strange to see my story summarised like this - and strangely compelling. Might be an intriguing way to submit writing... Also a handy visual to spot over-used words. Most of all, though, it's fun!