The joy of learning and the sadness of analysis

Neil Gaiman’s one of my favourite writers. I’m also rather in awe of his ability to tell a story and manage an audience. Put him on a stage and let him go – there’s an event, right there. Gaiman’s brilliant with kids and takes their questions seriously even when the adults around them want to groan. (Gaiman’s Edinburgh kids events are usually full of adult fans. I know: I’ve been one of them.)

I saw Gaiman when he was in Edinburgh earlier this year, at The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain. I really enjoyed the story, Gaiman’s reading, FourPlay’s music and Eddie Campbell’s art. (The marketing annoyed me a little: I wouldn’t call what is essentially a magic lantern show “a revolutionary new concept of synchronised multi-media storytelling“. But there you go.) It was a good show.

Writing: where do you start?

‘I’m not sure where to start’ said a friend of mine who, after a long hiatus, is getting back into writing. Like me, she wrote as a teenager but stopped when she went to university. There was so much writing to do, so much serious stuff to read and think about. Telling stories for your own pleasure suddenly seemed frivolous. And anyway, with writers like Shakespeare, Austen and Hemingway – never mind the alive ones – who does she think she is that she can tell a story anyone would care a fig for? What could she add?

But she misses the pleasure of writing and wants to tell stories again. But where to start? How do you know what length of story, or what shape of story to write?

How indeed. There’s no point in sitting at your keyboard, or with a pad and pen, waiting for inspiration. It might never come.

Fiction is play and as hard-working, serious adults, we need to learn to play again (well, I did). Stories come from imagination and imagination has to be nurtured. It seems to me that much of the training that goes into becoming an adult involves closing down the channels of our imaginations that are least likely to help us pay the rent. It’s hard work getting creative juices to flow is blocked-off channels but it can be done. The way to do it? Start writing, start playing with ideas, and other ideas will come. No, really, they will.

…if you reward your imagination by writing down your ideas and exploring them, even the slightest little fragment, your imagination will reward you with a more or less continuous stream of ideas. If you turn off or blunt the enthusiasm of your subconscious for engaging in creative play, the stream can dry up.
Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook

Find sites that offer prompts, like 101Fiction, or the Scottish Book Trust’s 50 word writing competition, and write on the prompts. Prompts, particularly ones with word counts attached, give you parameters to work within. You don’t have to come up with everything from length to topic to genre, ‘just’ the words. Very short stories are a great place to start because you can write several and see where they take you. Working with someone else’s ideas help you start having your own.

There are books that fill a similar function, like Bonnie Neubauer’s The Write Brain Workbook, which has 366 exercises to get you thinking and writing. Below are a few sites: a web search will find more.

Find Prompts and Themes

Sometimes you have to dig around to find old prompts, but it won’t take you that long to find them.  Some magazines publish their themes several months in advance, giving you several options to look at.

  • Liars’ League – accepts stories between 800 and 2,000 words. Use that limitation to keep the word-count down. (Remember: you don’t have to send the story you write, you’re just trying to get the idea machine running.)
  • Penumbra – takes stories up to 3,500 words but you can set yourself a lower word count to get going and have fun with the themes.
  • Creative Writing Prompts – short, to the point, prompts.
  • Writer’s Digest Writing Prompts – prompt and a bit of background.
  • Writing Prompts – a site of writing prompts that Luke Neff, a teacher, uses in his classes.

New year, new goals – new project

I’ve thrown out last year’s plans and started over. Plans are good, but I’m not sure that I’m in a position to make realistic ones.

Last year, my plans were numeric: this many short stories, this much income from writing, this number of performances. Not so this year. I want to write a few more short stories – it’s more fun to send out new stories than ones that have been knocking around for a while. But more importantly, I want to draft the sequel to my first novel. And I want to do it quickly. To this end, I’m changing my approach. A natural gardener, or seat-of-pants, writer, I’m going to try to develop a plan, a plot, an outline.

Novel the first, still not quite there, was only half plotted. A lot changed as I wrote – the killer, for example, and the structure. Novel the second will be fully plotted. I’m spending January outlining it and doing proper background work on my characters so that I can then spend the next four months writing. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m still interested in writing the story once I’ve worked out what’s happening when and how. Most of what I’ve written to date has been grown instead of being built and there are stories in my drawer without endings. Hopefully, this year will give me time to decide what to do with some of these, which to complete and which to retire.

One of the problems with novel the first is that I’ve forgotten what its all about. Because I’ve had long breaks in the writing, and because there’s no firm outline, I’ve forgotten about my characters’ motivations and I’ve forgotten things I meant to put in. What does that tell me? I need to work things out more fully before I start, and I need to keep better notes. To return to the architect and gardener metaphor, I’m going to try architecture for a while since gardening has proved too thorny.

Novel the first began as a job of joy and folly but ended up a mess. I’m hoping that a more structured approach will take the second one further. The process might also help me sort out some of the problems of the first one. It’s resting for now, but it will come out of the drawer at some point.

In the meanwhile, I will learn useful lessons about plotting a novel and have a lot of fun making life difficult for my favourite characters.

Getting on with it: how long can finishing a novel take?

I’m editing and kind of enjoying it. But it’s slow work. Very slow work.

It feels as if I’ve not achieved anything this year because I haven’t met my goals. In fact, I’m nowhere near my goals in terms of publication* and short story production.  This, I’ve come to realise, can happen when you work on a novel. It’s a big job and one that’s tricky to fit in around a full-time day job. There’s not that much time for short stories and other bits and pieces. Last year, I measured progress in completed short stories; this year, I count words. It might not be a great approach.

I started the year with 68K words and a mess of a manuscript. I now have 98K words and a manuscript that is two-thirds through the first edit. (That’s the edit that turns the thing into a first draft, something people are allowed to read.) I should be pleased that there’s progress but I wanted the first draft complete by the end of last year, so I just feel seriously behind schedule. I’ve been talking to my writer friends about my sense of frustration and my incomprehension that I haven’t finished the thing yet. How can it take this long? It’s not that complicated a story.

Of course, I know exactly why progress is so slow. It’s two things: firstly, I’m not working on it every waking minute. Part of me thinks I should, part of me knows that would be madness.

Secondly, I still have thinking to do. There are holes in my understanding of the world I’m building and until I plug those, there are problems I can’t solve. I think I should have had it all figured out ages ago and it pisses me off that I didn’t. But there you go. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until the problems presented themselves.

I’m practicing cutting myself some slack. It makes it much easier to just get on with it. Still, this was not the year of glorious achievement I had hoped for. It’s a good thing another one’s around the corner.


* I wanted to get four stories published, but got two: In Woodsmore Village was in the Scotman in January; Jack, the second, super-short story, was published earlier this month.

A short story a day for seven days – report from day four

I’m short of materials and ideas, so I decided to write a short story a day for the first seven days of this month. We’re on day four. How is it going?

It’s going great but not in the way I expected it to.

No, I haven’t written three short stories and I won’t write one tonight either. But I have written three scenes for my novel and a short story that is a prequel to the novel, about one of the supporting characters. I sat down to come up with new ideas and my brain started galloping around my magical universe, looking out different characters’ eyes, weaving in new threads and setting things up for the sequel. It’d be dumb to fight it.

It’s been difficult to get the last bit figured out and written. For a while, I thought I had lost interest in this set of characters, this entire story. It would seem I haven’t.

I can always write short stories next week.

Or the week after.

Stuff happened. It is time to review the plan.

I had a plan for this year. It wasn’t hugely ambitious, but it wasn’t laid-back either. It was a good plan, an achievable plan with enough challenge in it that I’d feel pleased with my self at the end of the year.

Somewhere about April, the plan went off the rails and there’s no way I’ll get back on track now. Things happened that took me away from writing, I completely lost my focus and now I’m sitting here, looking at the plan and sighing deeply. I don’t want to concede defeat, but if I don’t, I’ll be pissed off for the rest of the year as I try to catch up and fail.

So I drew up a new plan:

  1. Finish novel the first.
    My WIP is still without a title and needs a lot of editing, particularly towards the end, but apart from that – and about 500 words – it’s done. And months and months behind schedule.
  2. Start punting novel the first.
    There are some parts of the original plan I do not want to allow myself not to do this year. This is one of them.
  3. Draft novel the second.
    I had an idea, and I really like it but I need to develop it before I start writing. That’s annoying because I was going to use the first chapter for an application. There is no first chapter.
  4. Write one short story a day for the first week in September.
    To make up for the stories I haven’t written this year, and get something to work with, I’m writing seven stories very quickly. This project will hopefully give me material that I can then forge into short stories. Or it’ll give me seven pieces of rubbish. We’ll see: it’s an experiment.

And that’s it. I’ll continue to send things out, and I’m attending a one-day writing course later this year, but apart from that, all I have to do to be OK with myself for this year are four little things.

Wish me luck.

When plots go out the window

Yesterday, the wind swept the plot for a short story I’m planning to write out of my office window. I saw the A4 sheet, so white in the sun, turn a couple of times and then it was gone.

Two hours later, working day done, I flip-flopped down the stairs and out on Gorgie Road to look for it.

I checked our parking lot. I walked a block that way, and then back again on the other side of the street, looking over walls and into people’s front gardens. For possibly the first time since I moved here, I really looked at the houses and streets around me. I looked at people too, in case my sheet had stuck to their backs. People were walking home, enjoying the warmth and sunshine. Neatly arranged pots showed the pride some people take in their front gardens. There are flowers in the grass around here as well as discarded bottles.

I walked a block the other way, and back again. Then I walked around the corner. And there it was.

In the gutter, under a crisp packet, a little torn but not in much worse condition than when the wind took it, I found my plot.

I picked it up, read it, laughed when I realised I didn’t need it and carefully carried it back inside.

I learned three things from this experience. One: don’t keep paperwork on the windowsill when the window’s open. Two: keep notes in digital form, or make sure they are written on something heavy, like a notebook. Three: sometimes the process of looking is more valuable than the thing you’re looking for.

Returning to writing (I was only away for ten days)

I took a break from writing, but not from reading, not even my own work.

Over my ten-day holiday, I read my manuscript, deemed some of it OK and some of it rubbish but all of it mine. On my return home, I filled in all the bits that I didn’t quite finish in the first flush of writing: places marked [BRIDGE] and [ADD CONVERSATION HERE].

Then some stuff happened and the harsh realities of life took over for a few weeks. That stuff has now settled a little, and I’m back to working on my novel. I pledged to Gavin that I’d finish it on Tuesday and almost did – typing frantically in sunlit Harrison Gardens, C., strawberries and tea at my elbow – but not quite. I now owe him 25 burpees and myself a two-hour writing sprint to close out that last hole: [DENOUMENT HERE].

That’s the plan for this week: to finally finish the first draft of my first novel. Then, I’m letting it rest for a little while so I can get on with plotting and writing the first chapter of my next project. I had another idea, you see, and I want to develop it for a particular application. I do love a deadline.

If all of the above sounds vague, I’m not surprised. Everything is a little fussy at the edges. My writing to do list is a mess and my quarterly plan evaluation is almost three months overdue.

I have some catching up to do.

Taking time off from writing

I’m going on holiday. I’ll be away and then I’ll return, probably tired, but hopefully sun-kissed and relaxed. I can’t quite decide whether to pack one pair of flip flops or two. If we were going to Tennessee again, I’d definitely pack two. But we’re going to Winchester. Maybe one pair’s enough.

I’ve learned, the hard way, that a holiday is a holiday and not a time for hard work or achievement. The principles of  relaxation and attention on your loved ones and personal achievement clash spectacularly if you try to combine them. Each to their own, they are laudable and create happiness. Together, they are a guilt and stress cocktail that ensure that you come home frazzled and dissatisfied with yourself, your work, and the people you wanted to spend time with.

I say I’ve learned.

I’m writing this to the irritating sound of my printer printing the last two thirds of the first-ish draft of my novel. I am really, really close to finishing the thing but I need another read-through. Not of the whole novel, this time, just the bits less polished or missing.

Yes. I’m taking my manuscript on holiday. And I intend to read it. But it’s OK:  there are no goals associated with the print-out, no expectations.

I just packed sticky index notes (in fluorescent colours). Still. No expectation. I know better.

This is a holiday.

What editors want, and a reminder to just do it

Today I was reminded of two important things by posts I saw on Facebook and Twitter.

Firstly: there are no shortcuts. This came from an article about what editors want to see that Kirsty Logan shared. It reminded me that I have a long list of magazines I need to read because I think I want to submit stories to them. But more importantly, it reminded me that there’s no quick way of finding markets, or writing stories.

Secondly: stop agonizing and get on with it. Chris Scott, who took my lovely profile photo, shared a video with advice to artists. Watching it reminded me to stop worrying about whether my stories are original, or whether my novel’s the best thing since The Cloud Atlas*, and just get on with the task of writing.

(If you’ve got AdBlocker or a similar service, the video probably won’t show. Watch the video on YouTube instead.)


* Note to self: I’m not trying to write the best book in the history books, I’m just trying to write my first novel. It’ll be flawed and that’s OK.