Getting started as a writer

Or what I know now that I wish I knew then (and what I’m still learning) as a writer.

1. Believe
Many new writers don’t believe in themselves when they get an idea that they want to be a writer. You have to doggedly hang on to that tiny spark of belief that you will be a writer/write a novel/collection of poetry/memoir, whatever you want to achieve and even when doubt sets in, hold on to that dream.

Also, believe in your unique writing voice. You notice this immediately in a group of writers reading their work. Every writer is different, just because you don’t write like everyone else, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. It’s your writing voice that comes across in your writing. And everyone hears this even if you don’t.

2. Learn
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.

Join a writing group to get support and feedback (and I mean support – if your writing group doesn’t make you feel supported, leave it, and find one that does). A good writing group has writing sessions that prompt you to write quickly without edit and usually read out the work in the group. Don’t be scared – the few rushed words you’ve written contain nuggets of phrases and ideas you might expand on or use in other works. Use the opportunity to release your voice when you read your rough work in a group – thank yourself for being brave when you do.

Read books on writing. You may not understand all the techniques or ideas being delivered but hey, they’re going in and they will come out in your writing, improving it.

Find a good creative writing course, one that gives you confidence in editing your work. If you can’t find a course, read about editing. Browne and King’s book ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ is a good start. Read it a couple of times, or more, so every concept sinks in.

3. Write
The more you write, the more you learn about writing.
But also, the more you edit, structurally and line-by-line, the more you learn about editing and how to improve your writing.
Read your work out loud and you’ll hear when a sentence needs to be adjusted.

Keep writing, keep learning, and keep believing.

Character, Situation, and Plot

Building a story is more than Character or Plot. At the heart of it is the Situation that the main character is in before a plot can unfold (or needs to be developed if an idea for a plot has already been thought of). I heard somewhere that Alice Walker spent a year with her characters of ‘The Color Purple’ before writing about them.

The Seed
In the seed of an idea for a novel, both a flash of character and a smidgen of plot will jump into your consciousness. You can already imagine bits of your character’s situation that will lead into the plot.

The Growth
In order for the idea to grow, you must spend time developing/thinking about your character and the idea. And to build a solid plot, you need to understand the current situation, where the character is at the moment and the start of the story. If you are a writer that hates the idea of plotting a novel then chances are you already think a lot about your character and their situation before you start writing. Or you start writing hoping that you will hear and find your character as you write, and also find out where the story will go. First drafts are good for that.

The Simple Formula for a novel

Character + Situation + Plot = Novel

So by developing your character and their current situation, their ordinary world (as named by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey’), you can build ideas for the plot, if you haven’t already done that, and in turn create your novel.

Of course, you could have a fantastic plot idea and use that to develop a character and their situation to make the novel idea work.

The Character
Spend time with them, talk to them, imagine you are sitting next to them, and write down what they say to you. Walk with them, wait for them to speak or not speak, sometimes a character doesn’t speak immediately to you. Listen to them and write down what they tell you. It may not make sense at first but it is the beginning of hearing your character’s voice. And their situation plays into how they talk to you e.g. a character fighting with inner demons may say very little but when they do speak it may flow out in a torrent of words.

The Situation
1. Their World. Imagine the world your character lives in. Its planet, country, town, village, countryside, home, work.
2. Character’s Background – defining moments in their life and the decisions they’ve made because of them.
3. Their People. The people they interact with and how they behave around these people. Family, friends, work colleagues, all the people in their world.

Every character will view their situation differently. One might see their town as a nightmare, another may view it as amazing. Your character’s voice will also play in how they speak, what they think, how they view the world around them and details that one character will notice, another may ignore e.g. crumbs on a kitchen table may be viewed as cosy and familiar while another may see it as a mess and disaster.

Plant the seed of your character and their possible situation into your mind and let it build there. Come back to it by spending time with your character and letting their thoughts and words come out onto the page. Brainstorm or add your plot and start your novel.

Releasing some words into the world

Why do I fear stepping into the limelight and releasing my writing, my words, my voice into the world? I’ve delayed the launch of my novel ‘The Alien Eve’ from October last year and every step of the way I’m fighting with myself to just do it. Filled my time with studies, doing Nanowrimo for my fourth novel and getting a short story and poetry ready for another anthology but that’s no excuse.

I know it’s a good novel. Every time I’m proofing it, I find myself re-entering the world I’ve created and I’m once again there standing beside my characters, feeling their anguish, fears, joys, worrying for them. Until I catch myself and remember that I was supposed to be checking the novel, not reading it.

But it’s done. Complete. Edited. Proofed. Beta read. Proofed a few more times.
And still I fear its release.

Tonight, I going with a friend to see about a launch venue in one of the local pubs. I’m hoping to get a young female singer, perhaps two, to perform after the launch itself. There’ll be tapas and desserts so people can eat and drink and relax and enjoy themselves. A couple of speeches and a short (really short, one page max) reading. I know the attention span of launch attendees is tiny (Well, mine usually is, why inflict a long reading on everyone?)

And then I’ll look back on my fear the day after and say to myself,
‘Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?’

Meet my character Blog Tour

In the eternal battle of character versus plot, I reckon no one wins. Why? Both of them are vital to a novel, and have to be developed together, because without either of them a story falls, meanders without reason.

Plot or situation forms and shapes the character and, equally, a character, their personality and background, will interact and think from their point of view to and about the situation and actions happening around them.

Three examples from my own work:
My first novel ‘The 13th Vision’ I focussed on plot with some development of my characters and the novel’s downfall? A too complicated main plot and too many subplots. And two parallel plot lines, one of which was not as well developed as it could be. I like the initial premise though so I’m working on a re-write.

My second novel ‘The Alien Woman’ – two fully formed characters Eve and Ben came out of this one and the novel was written from two POV’s. The plot? As before I got carried away with complications but when I finalised the decisions of how many subplots to use, the novel came together.

My third novel is ‘Things To Fear’ – The situation was formed in my mind and I worked with a character journal for a few days to get to know my character and then got straight into writing a first draft. This character came easily and whenever I get stuck on a scene, it’s usually because I’m fighting against going with what the character would do.

A bit about my character ‘Eve’ from ‘The Alien Woman’.

Who ‘Eve’ is and where she comes from is central to the story of ‘The Alien Woman’. This novel is set in present day and in a fictional south-east of Ireland.
‘Run. Learn.’
With two commands pulsing though her head, a woman is on the run at night in a strange cold world. She enters an empty shelter.
When he gets home, Ben finds her and lets her stay the rest of the night. By morning, he’s surprised at how fast her injuries are healing and lets her to stay in the house when she prepares to run again.
‘Eve’, as he calls her, doesn’t know where she is or how she got to this world. All she has are the commands coming into her mind. She doesn’t mind Ben calling her ‘Eve’, the last time she heard her own name was by the ones she loved and has lost. A new name may help her forget her past.

‘The Alien Woman’ is going through the submission process at the moment.

A big thanks to Andrea of ‘Harvesting Hecate’ for writing about me in her post about the character in her novel ‘The skin of a selkie’. Her post was part of a series in a ‘Meet my character Blog Tour’.

Here is the first writer I’d love to tell you about, J.C. Conway.

J.C. Conway
J.C. writes science-fiction, romance and fantasy stories for adults, young adults and middle-grade readers. He says on his bio, ‘I’m a fan of great fiction that stretches the imagination, probes the depths of the human condition, or otherwise illuminates the unknown or the misunderstood’. He’s a prolific short story writer and his debut novel, ‘Hearts in Ruin’, a contemporary romance, was published in May 2014 by Liquid Silver Books. His blog posts delve into a variety of subjects; science in space and archaeology, information on science fiction awards and events, and information for romance writers, among some of them.

I’ll feature other authors over time but for today, I’m going to pass the baton forward and I hope you’ll go over and visit J.C.’s blog.

The writer’s source

We are our writer’s source; the well spring from the conscious and unconscious elements of our minds. Our lives, our biology has fed into who we are, still feeds into us, every second of every day we are alive while we are awake and in our sleep from within, dreams remembered or not.

The minutiae of experiences we have had throughout our lives is imprinted into our brains; from what we may consider the mundane monotony or day to day grind, from childhood to adulthood, perhaps living in the same place all our lives, perhaps moving town, area, country, a wealth of formative and recent memories, the routines of life interspersed with unusual happenings, out of the ordinary events, anniversaries, celebrations, deaths, devastations and loss. All this has built a foundation of remembered and hidden memories from which our writer’s source is created in our minds.

Consider all that has influenced and shaped your writer’s source:

Our parents – their backgrounds and the effect this had on raising us, discipline, and our reactions to this.

Our interactions with other humans – families growing or shrinking, at school, after school, at work, every possible daily interaction we have with any other human being through our lives.

Our environment – every part of it from how the sun warms us, to the edge of the table we dig our nail in and make our mark, to the flavours of food prepared in childhood and what we try to make ourselves now we’re grown-up, to the hard mattress on the floor we sleep on that only becomes comfortable when we have to leave it in the morning.

Our learning to communicate – learning to talk, to write, to read, to create our own sentences.

The stages of our lives – pre-memory, infant, primary and secondary school, third level, the world of work, our own families (kids, pets, or none).

Our biology – female or male, the colour of our skin, the country of our birth, our economic circumstances, our beliefs or none, and the multitudes of ways that the society we were born in or live in tells us how or who we should or shouldn’t be.

We take all of this in, every second of the day whether we are conscious of it or not. Our brain processes and stores impressions, emotions, images, sensations into pockets of mind sometimes only released through writing (or therapy) to surprise or shock us when revealed.

When we write, we tap into this incredible vast source from within our minds, our brains, to create and what pours out of us onto the page, well, that comes from us, our rich, multifaceted source, our well spring, our writer’s source within created from every aspect of our lives, awake or asleep.

And all we have to do is find the words, from the languages imprinted within, to communicate what we want to say.

Writing and the human mind

‘…each of us who dares to reach in and pull out what is truly ourselves brings a new way of seeing into the world.’ Hal Zina Bennett, Write From The Heart.

Our minds are incredible. The power to learn and the power to imagine and create.
From birth, connection after connection is made in our minds of memories, conscious and unconscious. All this information from our bodies and our environment is pulsing into us and while it does our mind processes it and makes the best possible assumptions for us, for our survival, to make sense of the world.

Day after day, year after year, we accumulate an incredible amount of memories: images and sensations. Until one day, as the writer, we come to place the pen on the paper or fingers on a keyboard and unload one of the infinite things we have created in our lives through a sentence, a paragraph. A piece of writing springs up from the wealth of known and unknown (hidden from us, always in the background) knowledge within our brains.

In doing our writing, we reveal our uniqueness, gained through years of learning, conditioning, adapting, analysing, studying, being in this world and then released, tumbling onto the page. We create wholly from a vast source of impressions and information stored inside our minds.

The only constraint is the language – finding the right words to recreate our imagined worlds/scenes for our reader: ourselves or others. Words to make the dream or impression we want to recreate, to transfer from our minds onto the page so that a reader can journey with us when the writing is read.

The human mind is an incredible thing. Celebrate what yours is doing today in your writing. Realise your unique voice, your unique mind, there is no one else like you in the world, place your words on the page and create.

Lessons from the journey

I drew the line in the sand in my diary on the evening of Thursday 23rd December 2010 and decided I was going to write a novel. I’ve learned since that the writing life is a continuous journey of learning the craft of writing and learning to live as a writer. It will never stop and if it does, it will be because I have withdrawn from it altogether.

Dorothea Brande gives a warning in ‘Becoming a writer’ in relation to two writing tasks – early morning writing and writing by prearrangement:

‘If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.’

That is hard. Hard to read as a writer/wanna be writer. If anything, I must have ignored that warning when I read the book two years ago and ploughed on regardless. I’ve never done the early morning pages or turned up by prearrangement (well never on time anyway) and somehow pushed out three first drafts, one of which is now a completed novel.

Admittedly, I wish I could be more disciplined, I really do and I keep booking times in my diary to get organised and sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t. I’d say life and distractions get in the way. Them pesky distractions.

But how I got on and wrote more than the day’s date, I’d put down to a combination of things:

1. The decision to give it a go.
I’d written bits of two novels seven years before that date above, and then wrote another bit of a novel two years before the day I made my decision of ‘this is it, let’s just do it, prove I can do this or give up’.

2. Joining a writing group.
I joined one that started in September 2010 and bit by bit it found its feet. The short writing exercises were the start of recognising I could write even if it was only every two weeks. Support from a group is essential, if you don’t feel supported, find another group.

3. Taking a writing course.
The first one, a two day start your novel course, got me to write a first chapter. I wrote a couple after that; doubt set in and I didn’t continue. The second one, I got feedback on a short story and it made me think, perhaps I can do this. The third course I learned how to edit my work; made me realise what I was doing right. Teachers are critical to a writer – I’m glad of the ones I’m learning from, their challenges on how I view my writing and writing life, how I edit, and what I write (been writing performance pieces, one act plays etc… as well as the novel).

4. Reading about writing.
I read every book I could get my hands on about writing. I especially liked the Writers Digest collection on Dialogue, Plot & Structure, Description & Setting, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, and Revision & Self-editing. If I was starting again as a writer, I’d read those as well as: Self-editing for fiction writers, Browne and King; Nail your novel, Morris; Make a scene, Rosenfeld (I may be the only one who needed this). There are other ones on the shelf but these are the ones I’d read again.

5. Reading fiction, all sorts.
I read a variety of fiction, novels, short stories, poetry. Even snippets and samples of other writers, famous or otherwise make you realise your own writing voice. Sample the variety out there. My favourite novel is still Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’; I can dip in and out of it and find wonder at her descriptions, not static, moving, move the story forward.

6. Writing lots and editing.
Doing first drafts meant I knew I could get to the end of a story. Moving a novel from first to second draft meant I understood how to examine and revise the structure of a novel. From third to fourth draft, meant learning how to revise, cut, and reshape sentences to make the words and sentences work better. Fourth draft – read aloud to make sure that the ‘fictive dream’ is not interrupted for the reader. Fifth and beyond – feedback from Beta readers.

7. Believe.
The hardest one. Still learning.

So that’s my journey up to today.
What would you have said to yourself starting out?

Writers’ doubt and how to live with it

Doubt is normal. All writers have it, get it, live with it. Published, unpublished, still thinking about doing it and/or starting it one day.

But when it strikes, and I’m not talking about the little itty bitty strikes of ‘oh, perhaps if I change this one word, oh, yes that’s it, it’s perfect’, I’m talking about the ‘doubt doldrums’ (see Andrea’s post on this) and all the chaos and messing with your head that that involves. How do you move on and out of the doubt and the low level rumblings shaking you to the very core of your belief in yourself and your ability as a writer.

I suppose it’s the start of writers block, or the cause of writers block and I want to know if I can nip it in the bud. I’ve been dragging my feet (fingers on keyboard) for the last two weeks and all I’ve got is one poem to show for it. And the all pervasive feeling running inside my mind that I’m not good enough, what am I doing, I’m wasting time, this writing is rubbish, what am I thinking, how on earth could I think I could be a writer…it’s been running on and on and on…

But this time, I’m on to my repeating pattern and I want to stop it.
How do I recognise the pattern and nip it in the bud?
How long does it go on before I can activate some strategy to stop the doubt and get my brain back and focused on the problem at hand – writing the damn novel?

So strategy, what can be done as soon I know I’m going down the slippery slope, faster and faster, sliding down into doubt and how do I bring myself back to writing again, that carefree satisfaction that comes from enjoying the freedom of writing a shitty first draft.

1. Recognise the problem

2. Write about anything else but what you’re working on
Write about the problem. I wrote a poem. Even opening up your notebook and writing the date can be the starting point. Free write. Go to a café and write. Go to a beach and soak in the salt air and write. Write in any other place to your normal writing spot – I moved out of my office onto the kitchen table to complete the major second draft of my novel last year.

3. Get away
Do the housework, do the gardening, clean the gutters, spring clean (it’s that time of year when the light makes every bit of dust look twenty times bigger than it was in winter), walk, go for a drive.
Bigger budget – think bigger! Smaller budget, walk. Just walk. The rhythm of your feet on the ground works both sides of your brain – left and right.

4. Take a break
No, not a couple of hours. A real break, a holiday from writing. A free from ‘any writing pressure’ slot in time, marked in the diary, just for you to get a real, complete break from writing. All jobs give you holidays – writing should be no different. Know when you’re coming back.

5. Accept that writing is for the long haul
Disillusion can set in when we are in the middle of a project. Recognise that novel writing takes time, has its ups and downs, fluctuations, bursts, day dreaming times and it will get done. We are creating even when there are no words on the page. These moments, days of doubt are normal, meander through them and rest in them. Find the courage to see these days for what they are.

6. Come back to the page
Write the date. Write some rubbish, stuff you’ll never use for anything else.
Try the 33 minute productivity technique.

7. Read about doubt to understand it.

Dorothea Brande in her book, Becoming A Writer, says in the section entitled ‘The Slough of Despond’,
‘But then comes the dawning comprehension of all that a writer’s life implies: not easy day dreaming, but hard work at turning the dream into reality without sacrificing all its glamour…wonders how (s)he ever dared to think (s)he had a word worth saying…Every writer goes through this period of despair. Without doubt many promising writers, and most of those who were never meant to write, turn back at this point and find a lifework less exacting.’

I started this post to think of ways of managing moments, who are we kidding, periods of doubt and I’m ending it by saying, we need to recognise doubt as a normal part of being a writer. But in order to be writers, keep writing, we need to find our own way to move forward through moments of doubt and disillusion, to step out onto the other side.