The mind of a writer

Something popped into my mind the other day and I think I need to expand my idea of the mind of a writer because behind the skill of learning to be a writer I think that there are three aspects that get developed: our creative side, our ability to write and to edit the work.

The creative or imaginative side, of us is incredibly powerful but it is only a small part of writing, we have to write those ideas down and then be able to edit them to produce work that will generate something close to what we imagined in the first place for the minds of our readers. We learn the skill of:

1. Creating the story, from our dreams, from our imagination, usually using one of two ways or a combination of both.

We can write with the inner critic switched off and then figure out what the story is about through an analysis of the chapter and scene intentions (see use of a beat sheet described in ‘Nail your novel’ by Roz Morris)

Or decide on the story we want to write first, what will happen and the backgrounds of characters, write a synopsis or plan, and then write it.

2. Learning the craft of writing, the ability to find and place the right words down to produce the illusion for our readers.

3. Editing the story, analysing the plot and subplots by scenes and chapters, and beginning the re-write by moving into the writer/creator head again. Read and analyse the second draft. Re-write again. Analyse. Re-write. Back and forth.

 

I think we move between three minds as a writer and each mind can be learnt and developed:

The creative mind: free spirit, creates ideas, keeps the prose flowing, free-writing.

The writing mind: masters the craft of writing, finding the right words to place on the page.

The editing mind: critical thinker, analyser who can understand the overall imagined structure, the overall plot arc, the chapter arcs, the scene intentions, the layout of a scene, its paragraphs, sentences, specific detail, and the words that make the story come alive.

 

And then when we take our writer’s hat off, we become the person we are to the rest of the world.

When writing stops in turmoil

Up to last Sunday, I always found that my writer’s block came from within me, from a fear of not being able to write or writing properly or writing wrong or the wrong thing or the constant interruptions of everyday life that jolts me out of the writing routine, but now I add another one – fear of losing a loved one – from something that happens externally that cannot be controlled.

I heard that my dad, who has cancer, was really unwell and in pain for over a week. My mother defied his request not to tell ‘the children’ (the youngest of us is thirty-six) what was happening to him and called us when the worry became too much to bear on her own. What made the situation worse was that they live in another country and between Skype and texts we found out how serious everything had become.

By Thursday, ten days after the problem started, my dad was admitted to hospital and eventually, the news came that we wanted to hear; he was conscious, drinking and could eat by Friday, and now he’s coming home today. He may not be the same again or this was just a blip.

Over the last week, I was in shock at the possibility of losing him and I felt paralysed, could not think about anything except the routine of life and within that routine, writing did not feature. I couldn’t face conjuring up a scene in my mind or placing the next words down on the screen because all I could do was wait for the next text from my mother, after a visit to a doctor or after visiting hours in the hospital.

The fears dropped bit by bit with every sliver of good news that came in over the weekend. Until, at last, this morning, I knew I was ready and started writing again.

So writer’s block for the most part is within my control, when I conquer my own inner fears, the so-called inner critic, I can use basic ways of getting the writing going again e.g. planning small tasks, switching off doubt or writing out the problem, but getting writer’s block when you are worried sick for another person, I’m going to have to figure out how to move beyond that one because it will probably happen again.

 

Getting over the initial fear

Getting over the initial fear of putting pen to paper, placing my fingers onto the keyboard, opening up the last draft, checking my notes, starting the corrections, adjustments, editing my work, working on the millionth (it feels like it) revision of a chapter or a scene, some days feels like the hardest thing in the world.

Knowing that the chapters and scenes that I’ve looked at and edited will work better, read better after their revisions and convincing myself to keep going because this next chapter, this next scene, after I put in the changes I’ve identified that it needs, will be better. It will sing, exactly right, exactly the way I want it to. I’m getting there.

So, today, I feel the fear, the worry inside that tells me ‘what if you are wasting your time, what if this novel is crap?’ and I try my best to ignore it, that malicious little voice, and I shout back ‘But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the precious fragments in my writing that tell me I’m mastering this craft, I’m doing this, I can do this’.

And then I tell myself.

‘Do not be afraid. Write. You deserve to have your voice heard and your words deserve to be read.’

P.S. I feel like I’ve been editing forever…thank goodness I sorted out all the plots and subplots, this should work better now. All I have to do is keep going, with a little faith…No, with a lot of faith.

Reading while you’re writing

When I first started writing, I noticed that whatever novel I was reading had a heavy influence on my own writing. I seemed to imitate the style of the author in my own prose which was a tad frustrating when I read my work back and noticed it – and then had to correct for it. I particularly remember reading ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ by Anne Enright, the narrator of the story has a really strong voice, and I began to write in a similar writing voice in a couple of chapters of my first novel (the practice novel).

So I came to the conclusion that I had to avoid reading fiction when I was writing my own novels, actually whenever I was writing anything because it seemed to affect even short bits of writing as well, and I decided to only read non-fiction books instead e.g. on aspects of the craft of writing. Bizarrely, when I made that decision, I did most of my fiction reading during periods of writer’s block, like cramming the goodies in when my own writing was driving me demented.

Over the last couple of months, I started reading novels and short story collections again, despite writing on the same days, and, low and behold, I’ve just realised, my writing has not being affected by what I’m reading, which is such a relief after two and bit years of worrying about it. I wonder if the initial problem was because I was only starting out and absorbing different author styles as I learnt, or perhaps it’s because through all the writing I’ve done over the last two years, my own writing style has settled down and I’m naturally moving into it – after writing 4×80,000 drafts, numerous short stories, pads of pads of notes, pads of writing at writing workshops and writing group meetings – it all must have helped cement my own writing voice.

Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome shift and a relief. I can read without being affected!

So finally, at long last, my reading has the desired effect. It stimulates my learning of the craft of novel writing and helps me generate ideas for short stories and other novels, adding to but without infecting my own style.

At last.

Starting as you mean to go on

‘Nothing so solidly anchors a work of fiction in readers’ minds as knowing when and where something is taking place.’ Ron Rozelle, Description & Setting.

Nancy Kress says in Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, ‘The truth is, you have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture that editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story…(so) incorporate the qualities that make an opening interesting and original: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.’

Perhaps it’s just me but when I start reading a story I lose patience very quickly if I can’t figure out what’s going on, where it’s happening and who it’s happening to. Even feeding in something like the character’s name helps make a connection for me because I want to empathise with the character as quickly as possible, or the situation, or else I find the story a struggle.

I made a faux pas recently with a submission, realising at the last moment that I had introduced a new character in a scene, someone who was going to be there to the end of the novel and I didn’t even feed in any details of what he looked like leaving the guessing of who he was to the reader by his conversation with one of the main characters. Even though I gave his name and characterised him through dialogue, I knew I should have wove in a few more details.

I definitely do not want to get to the end of a short story or chapter and find out that it was not set in modern times but actually sixty years ago or a character looks nothing like I thought they did. Feeding in details about character, location and period as soon as possible assists the reader. For example:

‘While they drink vodka and orange juice in the trailer park on the cliffs above Lake Huron, Neil Bauer tells Brenda a story.’ Opening line in ‘Five Points’ by Alice Munro, Friend of my youth.

‘She said she didn’t care where he let her off. ‘Just wherever you’re going,’ she had told him as she climbed in, and the indifference with which she’d spoken left him uncomfortable. He turned back to the road and didn’t say anything more until the truck rounded the dusty track leading up into the Andalusian village he’d lived in all his life.’ Opening paragraph of ‘Free’ by Claire Wigfall, The Loudest Sound and Nothing.

‘Shortly after the priest died, a woman moved into his house on the Hill of Dunagore. She was a bold spear of a woman who clearly wasn’t used to living on the coast: not five minutes after she’d hung up the wash out on the line, her clothes were blown halfway up the bog. Margaret Flusk had neither hat nor rubber boots nor man.’ Opening lines of ‘Night of the Quicken Trees’ by Claire Keegan, Walk the Blue Fields.

Yes, I think it is just me. As I looked for examples of intriguing beginnings in a variety of short stories, I found that I was drawn to the ones that introduced characters and characterised them quickly, along with hints about location and time.

The second draft edit

As we weave our way through the process of trying to get at least one novel published, many options are presented for editing that we try out to determine if they will work for us.

I watched a video about editing and in it an author said that you will have to cut out half of your book, cut out whole scenes, just cut, cut, cut. But he didn’t explain what you have to cut.

For a beginner novelist, I think that this is overwhelming advice. When I heard him say that, I thought why didn’t you tell them it like this, see below, which is a bit more realistic than just ‘cut, cut, cut’. So these are my thoughts…

During the editing phase of your novel:

1. You will cut, revise, and rearrange most of your novel to pull the best from it in the revision and editing phase.

2. Initially, using a top down approach, you will look at the structure as a whole, examining the scene and chapter intentions through the whole novel.

3. You identify which chapters and scenes were a nice detour during the first draft but now add nothing to move your plot along, unless part of interesting sub-plots. These will need to be cut unless they are revised to incorporate plot elements that move the plot forward.

4. You will look to see if additional material is required to improve missing sections or holes in the plot.

5. You will look at which scenes require revision of their structure to make the plot work better within them. Sometimes a scene can work harder by being combined with another one. This includes situations where you have too many characters – which ones can be combined into a single character.

6. When you have completed the overall rewrite to ensure a better structure for your plots and subplots, you analyse plot within each chapter and within each scene and then within each paragraph. Make every sentence in your novel work harder for every word contained within it.

7. And when your heart has stopped breaking with all the changes you’re going to make, then you will remind yourself that this can all be done in small bite-size steps.

8. You will learn how to flick between creator and editor continuously during this process.

9. You must also keep reminding yourself that you are a writer and you will complete this novel.

Does this sound closer to your editing process?

First novel going nowhere? Write another one.

If your first novel is driving you demented, stop and write a second novel. Even the act of writing the first draft of a second novel can be liberating. It tells you that there is more than one story inside you and you have the capability to produce it.

Now it doesn’t mean that you will give up on that first novel but you need a break from it and what better way to take a break than to keep writing, using the second novel to sketch out new characters and settings and plot ideas.

I was so stuck on the first novel. It dragged on for over a year and a half after I completed the first draft of it. But after writing the first draft of a second novel, I can say I’m glad I put that first novel aside and showed myself that I can write another novel, rather than what I was limiting myself to in the first novel.

Only you can judge what you want to do next. Stop with the first novel or stick with it. You know exactly what stage you are at. But if you are stuck, really stuck, and have been for a while, trapped with no pass in sight then you need a break.

In April, the Nanowrimo team are running Camp Nanowrimo. A whole month dedicated to writing a novel with support and pep talks from the Nano team. If you are still trundling along with the first novel by then, give yourself a break and let another novel or story flow from you during this month. It’s just one month, you deserve it, and you can go back to the first novel afterwards if you want to.

(I mention Nanowrimo because it gives you pep talks and you feel like you’re writing with other people and you get goals… and whatever, it made me write last November…)

Anyone I’ve told about Nanowrimo says ‘I can’t write 1667 words in a day’ etc…but this is not writing with editing, this is writing with the inner critic switched off. This is writing with only one thing in mind – What happens next?

So what happens next?

Characters made real

Getting sick and forced to stay in bed does have its advantages; I got to start reading books I have stacked in a pile of ‘must reads’. In fairness, the ‘must read’ pile has been growing for ages; it takes up a whole shelf in my study so it’s about time I made a dent in it.

I picked a collection of short stories called ‘Friend of my youth’ by Alice Munro. A member of my writing group mentioned that he found that she tended to span many years in her stories. I hesitated after the comment but was curious all the same and now I understand why she is such a phenomenal short story writer. Wow, the ease with which she weaves her characters lives, from present to past, is flawless, detailed, intricate. A comment by the Daily Telegraph on the back of the book says

‘The particular brilliance of Alice Munro is that in range and depth her short stories are almost novels’

and that’s exactly it. After each story you feel that you have read an entire novel and been with these characters forever. They are so real, unique and well defined along with the settings that I feel that I am with them, in Canada or Scotland, in whatever location, Alice Munro has set the short story.

Even the descriptions do not feel intrusive, they pull you in, make you privy to a range of secrets about these people, and the choices they make in their relationships to themselves, their partners, and the other people in the narrative. At the heart of each story is someone, sometimes more than one, coming to a stronger position of realisation of their situation, indeed their own future. In the story ‘Pictures of the ice’ even with the weaving of the stories of two main characters both is moving to a new decision that takes their life to a better (their choice) place.

Overall, the stories show people choosing how they live and the choices that have gone on before. These are not stock characters, they are living breathing individuals.

I fully believe Alice Munro knew her characters intimately as she wrote about them and this book is a master class in character development and the integration of ‘telling detail’ through a story that never holds up the plot. That’s what I want to achieve in my characters.

Struggling to revise

Revision is tough. I’ve done very little over the last week, couldn’t write at all for four days. Felt bad. Tried to be positive. Did not work.

I’d decided to aim for a target of 10,500 words to be revised every week and I’m not making that target. My aim was to complete the second draft in eight weeks but it’s not working out and I’m feeling a bit, more than a bit, de-motivated this weekend. I’m supposed to be at 31,000 by now and have only 25,000 worked on.

It’s a catch between – do I need a break or is the section I’m working on boring me senseless?

I decided that the idea was still sound and I needed a break. So I got four days and three walks in. Did loads of reading, a painting and free-writing. And telly and cooking and housework and general sorting out of things that should have been done if I wasn’t writing.

What did I get done since my break? Well, six pages of notes later and I suppose I did get two chapters written more the way I wanted them to be, new scenes added to reinforce one of the sub-plots and loads deleted and re-written. Revision is so gut-wrenchingly ruthless; cutting good writing because it doesn’t do its job. But when a chapter is revised and pulls the plot along properly, it really sings!

I’m not making my target but at least the chapters feel better written. I’ll tackle the next one tomorrow. Make a dent in it. Literally.

Scene intentions: or what I should have written in the first place.

Twenty thousand words into a second draft and I feel myself faltering. I look at the next chapter and think – what is the point of it? Honestly, what is the point, what is the intention of this scene, this chapter, what is supposed to be happening?

Scene and chapter intentions are critical. When I was attempting to do the second draft of my first novel I didn’t use them properly and I’ve had to put that novel aside because it’s not working. For the second novel, I’m using the information given in the book ‘Nail your novel: why writers abandon books and how you can draft, fix and finish with confidence’ by Roz Morris, to produce a sheet with a timeline, scene and chapter intentions.

Note: This book was recommended in another publication called ‘The new author’ by Ruby Barnes who was a writer who’d completed the same course I did in creative writing, a year or more before me.

Every time I get stuck trying to figure out what I need to revise in the next chapter, I write out a mini-plan for it, remembering that the chapter will have a natural beginning (draw the reader in), middle section and end (leave them wanting more) and I think of the flow of the scenes within that chapter. I write down exactly what the scene is for. For example:

Scene intention for Chapter 6 Scene 2: B interrogated by C and David, B finds out about E.

I also jot down reminders of what exactly needs to be covered in that interrogation e.g. C asks B why didn’t he say anything? David takes control, shows video of E.

(I use the first letter of each main character’s name, faster than writing in full)

Revising the second novel is working better than I thought it would. Even though I wrote the scene and chapter intentions for the whole novel after the first draft (remember first drafts can’t be held up, write them without the inner critic), as I approach each chapter I find that I may revise those intentions or the intended purpose of the scenes to make the chapter work better – still keeping in mind the build-up of the overall plot and subplots.

The other book which I use for editing is ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ by Renni Browne and Dave King. I’ve read it three times over the last year. I need that information firmly embedded in my brain.

So on we go…happy editing.