follow a rookie writing his first novel

Back story blues

As well as the psychological makeup a person possesses, it is often their personal history that provided the reasons for their actions. In writing, this personal history is sometimes called the back story.

While back story may be necessary, dumping it on a reader in one go can make them feel like they have had to stop at a train level crossing with the lights flashing and no train in site – frustrating.

The clever writer drip feeds it, a little at a time, only so much as is necessary for the current action and not so much that the reader notices.

But then there is another dilemma. What if the back story has actually been told elsewhere. The knowledgeable reader would already know it, but could we rely on that? Could we just point the reader to the fact of its existence and expect them to go off and find it out for themselves? Hmmm.

Well, this was my main problem this week. The characters are norse gods, plotting to liberate Baldur from Helheim. You see, some of you do know the story, but some of you wont. So what’s a writer to do? It isn’t a main plot of the overall story, in fact it is only a device to introduce a very pissed off Hella and give the main character another problem along the way, so I don’t want to spend much time on it and that makes the drip feed approach to the back story difficult.

At the moment I have settled for a brief (and hopefully) humorous account of how he ended up there in the first place and why he can’t come back which turns out to be about 800 words. Being a first draft I can get away with this but I’m sure there must be other ways to skin this particular cat.

So, what would you do?


Ways of editing

This week I have become fascinated by the various ways people say that they edit their work. I know, a bit presumptuous you say, given that I’m only 20.000 words into my novel. With about 60,000 to go, received wisdom says that I needn’t trouble my poor ageing brain with the problem of second drafting for at least, oh I don’t know, at this rate, a couple of years.

But, I came across something where the writer claims to do the editing as they go along; paragraph by paragraph. Heresy! But they have written several books and had them published, so whatever they are doing is clearly working for them.

Looking a little further, I then saw that some people need to actually add words to the second draft, rather than the commonly held opinion that a machete needs to be taken to the first draft (or at least pruning shears) because we always start off by adding extraneous detail that ought not to be there.

This actually resonates with me because looking over what I have written so far it does lack some detail as I fill in the plot scenes. I suspect that my second draft will add more than it subtracts. I wonder if this is a common problem with plotters and perhaps it is only pantsers who need the ‘edged weapons’. What do you think?

Another approach seems to be a combination, based more around time than progress, in that they spend their most creative part of the day getting words down, and the less creative editing what they have written; the writing always pulling ahead of the editing.

So, I am becoming convinced that there must be nearly as many ways to arrive at the second draft as there are writers. How do you get there?


This is not a lizard

My plastic lizard

Hat Tip to Renee Magritte for the title of this post.

You may be wondering what I’m talking about and why on a blog about writing am I showing you a picture of my pet Iguana; all in good time my friends, all in good time.

When Magritte called attention to the fact that his picture of a pipe was not the pipe itself but a representation of a pipe he was making a sound philosophical point. So, when you look at the picture of my scaly friend, you are looking at his image, at a point in time – even the image itself being  rendered from binary code; artifice upon artifice to produce an illusion of a lizard.

Now when I tell you that it isn’t even a real lizard, but a 16″ resin replica of a lizard, we are one more step removed from the truth – the original lizard, which by now is most likely dead and ceases to exist at all. Immortalized in resin. The symbol of a lizard, displaying ‘lizardness’. We do not neutrally see the picture, instead we interpret it, possibly loaded with emotion – perhaps it even reminds you of a lizard that you have known; I can’t know this, I can only provide the stimulus in the form of the image and attempt to guide your response with my words.

In our own writing we also intend to paint pictures in the mind’s eye of our readers. The very best writing goes beyond the immediate story and symbolizes something else entirely – think ‘Animal Farm’.

You might have also wondered why do I have a large replica Iguana anyway – after all, it’s not everyone’s choice of home decoration. Well, this is a special resin lizard. Once on holiday, when my daughter was a little girl, she got it into her head to win me a prize at bingo. You know the sort of thing, where you get points for a line or house that you can convert into a gift like key rings or chocolate bars. The large lizard however required a lot of points and took her many hours over the course of the holiday to win it; as you can see, she succeeded.

So when I look at the resin lizard, I don’t see a plastic monstrosity; I see the proud little girl offering it up to me. A symbol of a different order. And priceless.


On plotting and pantsing

It is a question I’m sure you have seen or been asked many times in the past – ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ I’ve given this question some thought too and have to conclude that I’m a bit of both.

It’s like this. At the start of my story I have an idea; it is often vague and not well-formed. The idea might be a plotline, but equally it could be a character or a place or sometimes just a line or two of dialogue that pops into my head.

I might flesh this out a little bit by writing a scene or two. A great idea for a start or an ending might occur to me so I write that too. Before long I have a collection of fairly unrelated scenes, some of which are sketchy at best and others fully written and edited. I have a few notes and ideas as well; possibly even pictures that look like they might be of interest.

At some point though my inner plotter takes over and attempts to impose a state of order on the mild chaos. When it does I start to outline the story into chunks that may or may not end up as chapters, but they have a sort of logic between the scenes they contain. I then realise what scenes are missing and also need to be there and add these to the diagram.  Before long I have an outline plan consisting of scenes loosely grouped into blocks/ chapters. I then go on to write out the scenes that I now I know I need, from the plan.

You would think that was that, and with visions of my press interviews and award ceremonies that would surely follow I trot serenely to the finish line called ‘the end’ waving at the imaginary crowds there to cheer me on.

No. What actually happens is what happened this week. I was gaily knocking off about 1000 words per day (might not seem a lot to you, but given that I am pathologically idle it is a lot to me) when drawing towards the end of a scene the inner pantser who had by now managed to throw of his manacles and bonds that the plotter had thoughtfully tied him down with grabbed the mike. “You really need to add in a scene about that group of nobodies that you mentioned in passing about 5000 words ago.”

“But it isn’t in the plan” the planner says.

“Go on, it’ll be fun. You’ll love doing it.”

“But my plan, my wonderful plan, it doesn’t fit…”

Too late, I’m off writing the said scene with a sense of glee and the inner planner shrugging his shoulders and wondering how it might fit in. A while later and with another couple of notes about scenes that I have no idea how they will relate to the overall story, the inner planner has found a taser and the pantser has been restrained once more. For now.

The plotter strokes his chin and before long has a flash of inspiration and has inserted the new scenes, which he hates to admit, has added another dimension to the overall story.

So this is how it is. A constant interplay between pantsing and plotting all the way to the end. As for the accolades and awards, we’ll just have to see…..


Change is as good as a rest

Or so they say. This week I’ve changed my writing venue. From the office to the dining room/library. In reality this move is about three and a half yards but in perception it is indeed another country. I now have a large window to look out of; and look out of it I do! So first, here is a picture of my new writing space:

2013-01-20 11.12.20

Now, Scrivener is totally brilliant and I won’t hear a word against it but… it is a tad more complex than I actually require and being a Microsoft boy at heart I don’t find it particularly intuitive (probably because it has Mac origins). I came across a package called WriteItNow 4. This is a much simpler no-nonsense piece of software that is aimed specifically at novel-writing. It has a Microsoft look and feel to it and is so intuitive I didn’t have to refer to help files once. The other good thing (at least in my book) is that it saves your project as a single file – with Scrivener, I am never really sure which files are my specific project ones so I end up saving several of them and hoping.

So new space, new software, raring to go? Let’s look out of the window a little bit more first.

We have a lot of birds in our garden, largely due to my partners diligence in feeding them all year round. I have noticed though that there is one particular (very fat) blackbird who obviously thinks he owns the bird table. When he is not stuffing his beak he sits on a nearby pillar and guards it against the other birds. See the culprit here:

2013-01-20 11.07.48 Of course it is a losing battle and he expends much energy on this hopeless cause. Some of the other birds just watch from a nearby tree, waiting for their chance to swoop down mob handed and raid the table. Here they are:

2013-01-20 11.22.14

Right then, new venue, new software, window looked out of, and on with the actual writing. Well, after I’ve had another cup of tea, updated this blog and checked Facebook, Twitter and G+. Yes, then I’ll be ready…..

Unleashing the beast

OK so this week I need to start with a confession. Ahem. I haven’t actually done any writing – not a word. None. Do I feel guilty, of course mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! So why this sorry state of affairs – well in a word, social media (OK two words). Now you might thing I’m a tech savvie kind of guy, what with blogging and all and writing software that I go banging on about, but you would be wrong. Up until a week or so ago I had resisted the urge to plunge into social media; actually I didn’t even have an urge.

A week or so ago I decided to take a look, more out of curiosity you understand. Here is my experience as a complete newbie so far.

Lest start with Facebook. Now, I have a lot of preconceptions about this. Basically I see it as a raging monster, ready to trip you up – hunting down the most embarrassing features kept on your hard drive and publishing them to the world at large where they can laugh in your face, heap scorn on you and parade you naked through the virtual streets. Given that as my opening stance, I decided to only use it on my mobile phone. I tried to set it up on my phone. It was hard work and I wondered how anyone used this most unintuitive interface to do anything. Eventually I found out that there were some things that simply couldn’t be done on it. So I got out my old computer, and locked away in a room with no other technology in it and the curtains closed, so it couldn’t get at anything, even by osmosis, I set out to tackle the monster. I found out that it was a piece of pie to set up this way but got so over protective about privacy that no-one could find out I was on it nor see any of my posts. I relented (a bit) and voila, was bombarded with friend requests, more friend of friend requests and requests from people I had only heard of.

Then came twitter. No real preconceptions other that it was going to be so brief that I wouldn’t be able to say anything meaningful at all. The reality was – I loved it! got it straight away, and was tweeting with the best of them within five minutes.

Feeling bolder I tackled Google+. This was to Facebook as apple computers are to PC’s. A magnificent edifice of an interface, easy to set up, easier to use and the circle feature a complete revelation – now I could keep my contacts for writing, separate from fishkeeping aficionados and very separate from people interested in granny’s wrinkled stockings (oops, don’t tell Facebook that last bit!).

The problem then became my world was dominated by a phone bleeping, tweeting and generally going demented with updates demanding vital attention – hence the lack of writing. Now I’ve become a complete addict – anyone out there know of a cure….

Other altered states

Well, here we all are; apocalypse averted and raring to seize 2013 by the throat!

I thought I might start off the new year by revisiting one of my favourite subjects – sources of inspiration. Last year I spoke a couple of times about how stories can appear nearly fully formed in dreams. The dream state is not the only altered state of consciousness from which  to access good ideas though. Another state is that employed by shaman the world over, sometimes called journeying.

Shamanic journeying is a mental state similar to meditation and day dreaming combined and can be easily learned by anyone. The shaman believes that through this state they can access the spirit worlds in order to gain information that can be bought back into the everyday world for practical application. Commonly this might be information regarding cures for illness, but the technique is by no means limited to this.

As an example, I once journeyed in order to meet the spirit of my drum (shaman often use repetitive drumming to go into trance, and there is a special bond between them and their drums). This is what the spirit of my drum told me:

Once there was a tree; older than anything else in the landscape. The tree had a friend, a deer, who would come to browse on the leaves of his low hanging branches. One day the deer said “I envy you my friend. You have lived so long and seen so many things. You must be very wise in the ways of the world, I wish I could live as long”.

To the deers surprise, the tree replied “No, it is I that envy you. I have only ever seen this piece of the world as far as the brow of the hill and I have often wondered what lies beyond it. I would give anything to see for myself”.

The deer and the tree continued their conversation and devised a plan to fulfil their wishes. They visited a local shaman in his dreams and made their petition. The next day the shaman took his bow and hunted the deer, who readily gave himself up. He then took an axe and chopped down the tree, who was pleased to lie down for him. The shaman then fashioned the wood into a drum frame and stretched the deer skin over it to give it purpose.

Now at the sound of the beat, the deer and the tree travel the spirit realm together. as far as the shaman’s imagination can take them and for as long as the spirit realm exists.

Now, I haven’t edited or tidied this up in any way (what do you mean, you can tell). This is the story as the drum told it to me, but I think it could easily form the basis of a much longer work. So, happy new year and I hope all your writing projects are a success.


Frankenstein’s writer

No, I’m not talking about Mary Shelley; more about something her morally challenged creation might construct. Just imagine, what if you could take all the bits you admire in other writers and combine them in yourself.

For me, the content would read like a heady admixture of Paulo Coelho, Dion Fortune and Carlos Castaneda; although Dion would definitely not approve of Carlos – lots of inner conflict there, but hey, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing in a creative soul!

I think I would then need to add a bit of Tolkein for the sublime descriptions. Some Ford Maddox Ford for the characterisations. I’ll take a bit of Martin Amis crossed with Tom Sharpe for the acerbic wit. Then blend all this with Ian McEwan or possibly Aldous Huxley to add real class to the finished product. Anything else, hmm oh yeah, The prolific output of Enid Blyton. Yep, that’s about me done.

Now, I wonder how that would stack up? Unparalleled genius or hideous monster. Who would you include in your perfect author…

What do you like in a novel?

For some people it is the genre. A book just has to be crime/ romance/ fantasy or whatever before they get interested enough to read the blurb on the back cover. For others it is the storyline – it either has to be complex/ simple/ linear/ multiple strand or whatever before they reach for the wallet. For my friend I had this conversation with it has to have deep rich descriptions – well, each to their own I say.

For me, well, frankly its the language that matters most. A book just has to have those phrasings, often in metaphor, that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It can be pretty much any genre, it just has to have a plot (although I’ve read some really good writing that pretty much doesn’t) any plot will do, but without the clever turn of phrase it doesn’t really do it for me.

I know this is unfashionable at the moment, and the emphasis seems to be on short simple sentences. I don’t care. Last week, full of intent to write loads, I foolishly picked up a book by Ian McEwan – Enduring love. Its sort of about a person who is being stalked by someone with de Clerambault’s syndrome – maybe. Anyway, the writing is sublime and it ate up my week; ah well…

So, what does it for you. What is a ‘must have’ for your ideal novel?

The writer’s imagination

As writers, one of the most crucial tools of our trade is a well exercised imagination. Not just the imagination to fashion a story out of thin air but the imagination to see things differently; I suppose I mean the sort of imagination a child has before the world beats it out of them with denigrating comments such as ‘oh, that’s not real’ or ‘it’s only make believe’.

Well, I could go on about nothing being really real in the sense that comment intimates, but that’s a topic for a different blog such as http://talkingcurestraining.blogspot.com where I put my therapists head on.

With my writers head firmly screwed on for the moment, look at this picture I took in Sherwood forest earlier this year:

Old man of the forest

Old man of the forest

I see him as a huge tree spirit rampaging through the forest. Maybe we’ve disturbed his sleep, or unknowingly wandered onto sacred ground. Perhaps a sorcerer is using him as a guardian or for other nefarious purposes. The point is that until we write the story it may be just an old tree in the forest.

What does your writers imagination tell you…



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