Thursday, 31 May 2012

5 Books to Revamp Your Writing

Since my writing seems to be going well this week, I thought I'd share the books that motivate me and help me get back on track when things aren't going so well.

1. The Write Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer
This is the closest you can get to an inspiration pill! The book is designed so that you can write inside as you work through the exercises, though I prefer to use my notebook (jotting down the page number for quick reference). It looks fun - colourful and full of pictures. As soon as I got it, I wanted to use it! If you're stuck for ideas, or just want to boost your creativity, this is the book for you.

2. Write Short Stories and Get Them Published (Teach Yourself series) by Zoe Fairbairns
At first glance, this looks like a typical 'beginners' guide' providing basic advice - not so. The explanations of every aspect of short story writing are simple and easy to follow, but comprehensive. Experienced writers will discover more than a checklist reminding them of what they already know. Every section is full of ideas, exercises and reading recommendations. Fairbairns encourages readers to experiment and not get hung up on the scary prospect of writing 'a story' - thinking about your craft is all very well, but it's essential to (in the words of a prominent sports brand) just do it.

3. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
This is a classic. It's the only one of these books on my Creative Writing MA reading list and it's easy to see why. Prose teaches readers to pay attention to every single word - and how the writer has arranged them. You learn how to consider the choices the writer has made and the effects of these decisions. I suspect the majority of writers are thinking 'I already do that' but I'd still recommend the book for its range and intensity. It's a rare person who won't learn something useful and inspirational from reading this book.

4. Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing guides) edited by Vanessa Gebbie
This is aimed at writers who are serious and passionate about the short story. It contains a range of essays by short story writers, all of which are inspiring and informative. It encourages its readers to explore the potential of the short story and appraoch writing short stories from different angles. I find it extremely motivating; not least because it reminds me that I'm not alone in wanting to write short stories for their own sake and there are other writers who are in love with the form.

5. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
I love this book. Not only does it offer strategies for systematically editing both macro and micro elements of your work, but it acknowledges that editing can be part of the artistic process. In practical terms, the development of the publishing industry over the past few decades means that, more often than not, writers are expected to edit their own work. The most they can expect is a cursory spelling, grammar and punctuation check. Bell shows how the legendary editors of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald worked and gives readers great advice on how to implement these skills. It's indispensable.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

I Ain't Got No Rhythm!

Are you regular - with regard to writing, that is - or do your stories progress with little rhyme or reason?

My prevailing mood of the week is... *drum roll* ...frustration. I can't seem to get into 'proper writing' mode, i.e. producing stuff that makes sense or editing stuff so that it makes sense. I have produced pages of freewriting, but the words refuse to assemble into stories.

I've been thinking about my last post, where I mention that Ray Bradbury set out writing a story a week. The way Bradbury describes it, this sounds like a mechanical method of writing that always produces a story a week. I'm envious: my writing is far more erratic.

Some weeks I seem to go into overdrive, producing drafts and editing and completing/polishing stories. Other weeks, I seem stuck. Guess which occurs more frequently?

The logical part of my brain says 'relax - it all averages out in the end' but my impulse is to panic. All I can do is keep trying and hang in there. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the glorious Devon sunshine!


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Does Quantity Result In Quality?

I read Zen in the Art of Writing this week, in which Ray Bradbury says his strategy as a young writer was to write a story every week. He believes that quality will emerge from quantity. This got me thinking...

There's no denying that practice makes perfect. But is 'practice' the same as 'quantity'?

I think 'practice' implies effort; striving to improve. It has connotations of gaining the knowledge and skills that enable improvement. For me, 'quantity' lacks these connotations: it suggests mass production with little attention to what is produced.

Examining my own work, there's no doubt that my earliest stories are much, much worse than the recent ones. However, the most dramatic improvements in my writing occur at times when I'm consciously trying to improve every element. It might be when I'm engaged with a particular author's work or writing manual, or during a writing course. It's no coincidence that the stories I've written as assignments are generally better than what has gone before.

So what do these stories have in common? I've pushed myself.

When you know you're going to get either validation (i.e. a good mark) or humiliation (i.e. 0% and a comment along the lines of 'I can't believe you wasted my time with this crap'), you realise taking risks can pay off.

A good teacher can also pinpoint the parts that don't work so well, which is invaluable and often hard to discern in your own work. Their critique will offer both encouragement and suggestions for improvement. Your story won't be hanging in limbo because you don't know whether the risks you've taken have resulted in something brilliant or terrible.

Of course, this is just an excuse.

Thanks to the internet and good friends, I know I can get any kind of critique I desire. I could shell out for a professional critique, if I was that bothered. The truth is, there is no excuse for not taking risks.

Thinking about the issue of quantity vs quality has resulted in some mini-epiphanies:

1. The effort you put into writing and improving your craft results in better writing. Even when it doesn't feel like you're improving.

2. Taking risks and pushing boundaries pays off. You might learn what doesn't work more often than what does, but it's just as valuable.

3. Writing more, (assuming a basic level of awareness of what/how you're writing - and how is it possible not to have this?), produces better writing. It might be such a gradual improvement that you fail to see it in your day to day life, but it's still progress.

I find this inspiring. And kind of annoying, since it proves what we knew all along: there are no excuses - all you have to do is write

(Which means it's time for me to quit writing this blog and work on my dissertation stories...)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

So Much To Read... So Little Time...

The mayhem is (temporarily) over: I have submitted my assignments for my taught modules and shall now be focusing on writing my MA dissertation. The dissertation consists of 15,000 words of fiction, plus a 5,000 word contextualising essay, with 10% leeway in word count. I'll be writing Gothic short stories linked by the theme of identity/self-perception.

Most of my short stories tend to be 2500-3000 words; it seems to be my natural groove. When I try to write shorter stories, they often come across as rushed or over-orchestrated. It depends on the story/subject, of course, but I expect my dissertation to consist of 6 or so stories.

The Problem:
I know nothing about Gothic fiction!

Okay, that's a lie. The truth is, I've read a lot of Gothic fiction and fiction with Gothic elements. But compared to the range of Gothic fiction that exists, I know nothing. My reflex ,when I feel like this, is to read - so I have a huge pile of books and am now anxious about not having the time to read them all!

So now I'm wasting time worrying that I don't have enough time!

Yup, I'm mad. But also, I've found that procrastinating is usually a symptom of lacking confidence - for me, anyway. So the real problem is the usual, banal, utterly boring one:

I'm afraid my writing won't be good enough.

Ugh. I hate that. I hate being an anxious mess, I hate doubting myself and I hate the fact that the only possible response to this problem is to write.

All I can do is write a lot (and make sure I read enough). Keep writing, keep rewriting and hope I can either be confident about my writing, or be content with not being confident and keep writing anyway. So screw that big pile of books - I need to concentrate on producing a big pile of stories!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

I Haven't Been Abducted by Aliens!

Neither have I been participating in a reality TV show, whisked off on an exotic holiday nor locked in a dungeon. The reason for my not posting is banal: I was working on assignments.

I had 2 essays, a 6000 word story and 30 page screenplay extract to get done. I was pretty well organised, but still managed to get incredibly stressed. For the past few weeks, the assignments have been foremost in my mind and when I went to my friends' house on Saturday, not having a draft next to me felt like an amputation.

Anyhoo, I handed the assignments in yesterday and am trying not to obsess over whether they are good enough. I feel strange: exhausted, slightly hyper and empty. I suppose I'm also relieved, but it's not one of my foremost feelings.

I don't know what to do with myself - not in an 'I'm bored and have nothing to do' way, since I have several bits and pieces on my To-Do List and loads of dissertation work to be getting on with - but in an 'I don't have an immediate deadline and having nothing to stress over feels weird' kind of way.

I'm trying to relax for at least a few days; reading books not directly related to my MA, baking, chilling out in front of the TV, watching some DVDs, wasting time on internet games, freaking out my dog by cutting her claws... I hope I start to feel more normal soon, whatever 'normal' is!