Who am I?

I am a writing and publishing guru. What I dont know about the market just isn't worth knowing. So what if I'm unpublished? I choose to give other writers the gift of my wisdom and experience* that the other 500,000 writing blogs out there fail to give.
* No actual experience

Monday, April 30, 2012

Writers Rock

I was going to start my blog entry this way:

If you hear a thumping sound, please don’t worry. It’s probably just the sound of me repeatedly banging my head against the wall. Nothing to worry about, really.

It was going to deteriorate from there into a wholehearted whine. I’d had one of those weeks, due to both writing and non-writing related angst. And the writing-related issues would basically have justified tattooing the word idiot on my forehead, because it was due to my own stupid fault and could be summed up thus: failed to read submission guidelines. Yep, the number one reason for form rejection of manuscripts. No more to be said.

Just as I was wondering why I even bothered, something happened to lift my spirits.

I was randomly selected for a 1000 word crit by the highly talented Janice Hardy from her blog. Not only would I value her input into my work, but the sheer big-heartedness of this gift made my day. She might be busting a gut to finish her own MS, but still found the time to offer three readers her personalised input. That’s the sort of generosity evident in the writer-verse.   

So instead of detailing evidence of my own stupidity, I’ll sing the praises of the resources freely available to writers in the blogosphere. Mainly because it’s far more interesting, but also because I have gained so much, and been so inspired by the generosity of writers, it’s high time for some appreciation.

Now, eighteen-odd months ago, I had no idea that writers blogged. Yep, and I’d never heard of the Beatles either. Or that amazing wheel-thingo that might just catch on as a useful tool.

Writers’ blogs have been a source of Ah-ha moments. The publishing industry might be cut-throat and unforgiving. But instead of taking advantage of any opportunity to slag-off the competition or jeopardise others’ chances of reaching the holy grail – writers’ (and agents’ and editors’) blogs are a shining example of sharing the skills needed to make a piece of writing shine.

So, in order of discovery, the amazing blogs that changed my approach to writing. And my heartfelt thanks to all.

I’d never heard of a query before hitting her home page. After a few days of devouring every entry and comment, my neurons went firing in entirely new directions. I thought I knew how to summarise a plot. I thought I could write a plot. This blog taught me I was wrong. If I can’t answer these questions (Who is the MC? What do they want? What’s stopping them getting it? What decision do they need to make to reach their goal? What will happen if they don’t?) then there really is no plot. Simple? Yeah. Obvious? No way.

Oh, the hours of mirth! He taught me to not take my plots too seriously. I have posted queries on his blog – not that any stories were actually ready to query, but really to test how well my plot held water.  The guy is a genius for identifying holes, (and lampooning them). Any he misses, his minions will happily point out. I’ve been both a minion and a querier. And both experiences have left me richer.

Not as well known as the others, but honestly – a must-bookmark site for anybody considering self publishing on Amazon/ Smashwords and so on. She has detailed her forays with unflinching honesty. With the analytical brain of a scientist, she outlines her marketing strategies, and demonstrates their effectiveness. I’m not ready to launch my babies into the Amazon jungle – yet  – but when I do I will go back and memorise her approaches.

Hilarious grammar advice. And no, those aren’t three words randomly selected by one of those poetry-writing programmes, I mean it. Check it out.

For a fresh take on the fundamental skills of writing and self editing, Janice Hardy’s blog is the most comprehensive, simplest and fresh blog I’ve seen. It’s as informative as a writing course. I especially like the “red flags” she suggests one searches for in one’s manuscript to identify areas that need tightening. I’ve followed her advice and strengthened my writing immensely as a result.

This lady, the anonymous Authoress, must be an Olympic-level networker, because she has enticed a truckload of agents to come to her blog and take their pick from fifty hopefuls’ queries or openings in her monthly Secret Agent comp. You’d expect the agents to shy away, given they have slushpiles the size of Everest, but, no. They actually read through them and post comments about why/ why not. Fascinating – particularly as a lucky writer might actually end up with a deal as a result. Real-life drama!

Any blogs you care to add to the above?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Multi Myth

Too many competing demands? Twenty four hours not enough? Your solution is easy - Multitask!

What a lovely, seductive word it is, suggesting that if we were just a little more canny, we would be able to juggle our responsibilities in a smooth synergy.

Which is crap.  

Whenever I’ve tried to speak to someone watching their fave sport on tv, I’ve had the wonderful experience of being both invisible and inaudible. Whenever I’ve been on the phone to someone and an interesting headline popped up on the screen, I’ve turned deaf for a few seconds and had to ask them to repeat themselves.

Sure, the human brain is a complex machine capable of deep insights and creativity. But it evolved to control only one set of legs, one set of eyes and ears and a pair of hands, which often worked in collaboration.

I don’t know if the research evidence ever supported multi tasking as a worthwhile way to process information, but recent research into productivity and output has been very clear. Multi taking is multi time wasting.

But that’s not really new. Back in the 30s when workplace psychology was still new, the studies into the stress-effectivenss relationship revealed a clear trend – low level stress led to minimal output. Increasing the stress increased output. When stress reached a particular point, effectiveness plateau’d off. When more stress was added, output took a nosedive.

In other words, there is an optimum level of stress that maximises performance. Don’t you love it when research results are perfectly consistent with your intuition? They even gave it an important sounding title – the Yerkes-Dodgson inverted-U shaped curve.

But what is stress, exactly?
Many things can create it, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on one important component - decision making. Making any decision at all is stressful. Anything that makes us stop and evaluate our options, consider the consequences and then choose increases our body’s stress response, even if it’s to a low level and beneath our awareness.

Here’s the bit that might come as a surprise: even making a pleasant decision creates stress. Cheesecake or chocolate mousse?  Which do I miss out upon? Do I want to appear to be a glutton and have both? OMG – the pressure – someone choose for me!

Another point about stress is that it cumulates as decisions accumulate. So I might be able to juggle three routine tasks simultaneously – eating my breakfast, with one eye on my kids whilst chatting to the hub is achievable, because there are few decisions in this process, and decisions are routine. That’s the extent of my multi tasking ability - and most people's, too.

But at work I have competing demands. Each of which requires a series of decisions. For example, I might need to write a report, try to catch somebody on the phone, prepare material for an upcoming meeting and deal with a new email that’s pinged into the in-box. Whilst politely telling a colleague that I’d be delighted to answer their questions (just not right now).

Fairly typical demands. My thought processes might go like this: does this sentence in this report sound like I’m blaming somebody? Oh, I really have to speak to x, do I leave another voice mail message or try phoning again in 30 minutes? I’ll phone later, so I’ll need to write a reminder to call again. Now, how much time before the meeting? I need to email everybody a copy of this information at least an hour before it starts. Which folder is that info in? Oh look - a message in the in-box. Should I open it now or later? The subject line is ambiguous. And what is my colleague wanting anyway?

A typical workplace will expect us to be able to glide seamlessly between such activities. The problem is - each time we swap from one to another, we need to re-orient to the task, recall our place, and organise the next step to tackle it. Every time we grapple with these decisions, stress rises, and time is wasted.

Chances are, I’ll forget to phone the person until 5 minutes before leaving, make a fool of myself at the meeting, miss an obvious error in my report, waste my time figuring out the email is totally irrelevant and snap at my colleague.

I guess that’s why the buzz words are shifting from multi tasking to prioritising. Most tasks involve many simultaneous decisions, so doing one at a time is far more efficient than three.

So how does that relate to writing?
Creating is a complex task. Even if the only thing you are doing is writing, it is still an exercise in multitasking. Think about the process: word choice is a constant question. Avoiding passive verbs and clich├ęs. Choosing the most effective punctuation (comma? Semi colon? Break it into two sentences?) Will another set of italics will make the manuscript look amateurish. How much internalisation is needed now? What about pacing? The overarching plot needs to be considered at all times. Every character’s motivation is there, too. Does this passage actually advance the plot or is it an excuse for a very clever joke?

Feeling stressed yet?

Writers live in the real world, too, and have other demands on their time and attention. If I’m stressing about the symptoms my cat was displaying (should I take it to the vet? They might not be able to see her for a few days, she might get worse), while wondering why my friend has not responded to a suggestion to meet on Saturday (did I miss a text response? – better check), keeping an eye on whether the carpet cleaner is actually having an effect on that stain (or will it discolour the fabric?), and that I haven’t spoken to my mother for a few days (she had a slight cough, has it turned into pneumonia?) – then my writing will grind to a snail’s pace.

What I’ve learnt is ... unless I focus totally on my writing, my precious time just runs down the drain. So the kitchen timer is my friend here. I set it for an hour, and in that hour I only write. (Ok, I pause to sip coffee, but I’m not allowed to make another cup). I’ve made a decision to delay all other decisions until the hour is up. If I’m fortunate, I can allocate another hour later in the day.

Roald Dahl apparently had a special writing hut, where he would sit for two blocks of two hours per day. He had five sharpened pencils ready as he began work, knowing that it would take him two hours to wear down the five nibs. This guy didn’t even want a break to sharpen his pencils! Way to go! 

Stating the obvious.
Sports Psychology experts train top athletes by stating what sounds pretty obvious. They train on focussing only on the one shot or move they need to achieve at that precise moment. That action, and only that one action, is their entire world at that second. To continually be mindful of the basics – eye on ball – before attempting any fancy stuff. To forget about the score and how the outcome of the game will affect them. To ignore the big picture and think only about what is to be achieved at this precise moment. These techniques are employed at Olympic level.   

What I’ve taken from that is to focus only one aspect of writing at a time. At first, just telling the  story in my own voice. And when I revise, I will only focus on the word choice and grammar, or the relevance of a section to the overarching structure. One aspect at a time during my alloted time.

That task is my life at that instant

The least helpful thing to do is to start questioning my decision to write, or asking "who would read anything I write?"  What a great way to sabotage the process. Shove these doubts to one side and keep going. The “just do it” philosophy is actually helpful. Save the doubt for when you're thinking of your goals.

Focusing on each step, one word at a time, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, will get the narrative finished.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reading Like A Writer....The Princess Bride

Since starting to write seriously, I’ve noticed that my approach to books has changed. I still love to immerse myself in the author’s world. And have an immense sense of gratitude to all writers for their ability to transport me. But now, even when savouring the prose, I simultaneously take a little peek at the mechanisms employed. A look at how the magic works.

And I will share my musings with those who read the blog (yes, both of you!) in a series of book reviews, Reading Like A Writer. Reviews with an emphasis on what, as I writer, I have learnt from the author’s techniques.

And I’ll start with the classic fairy tale parody– The Princess Bride, by William Goldman.

Summary: Farm boy Westley seeks his true love, Buttercup, who has been kidnapped by evil Prince Humperdink.

“It’s still my favourite book in the world. And more than ever, I wish I’d written it”.
And so Goldman commences his story with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He claims to have abridged a classic story from Florin (where his father was said to be born). The first 35 pages detail his introduction to the story as a child, and how the story, read aloud to him, inspired his subsequent love of reading. It’s all plausible, and, had I known there never was a country called Florin, would have gone along with it. (By coincidence, I read it on April 1st).

Goldman describes his search for a copy of the long-out-of-print book The Princess Bride for his son’s birthday. To his dismay, it’s a dry tale. His father had skipped through the boring bits and read the adventure parts to him. Thereby inspiring him to abridge and release the new version to a modern audience (and add dry elements of his own). The plausibility is ramped up by Goldman weaving autobiographical fact in his fiction; his work as a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, and had written Marathon Man and other blockbusters. Easily verifiable.

The epilogue is a description of the legal battles between him and the estate of the ersatz Morgenstern, the alleged author of the piece, and excerpts from the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby. To be honest, a little tiresome.

I’m not sure why he chose this device. Perhaps he wanted to add a dimension to the parody by including a layer of pseudo-intellectualism? Or just test the audiences’ gullability.  At one point, he invites readers to write to the publisher and request a passage he wished to add to the narrative, but which the author’s estate barred. Wikipedia reports that “many” readers actually did so.

Narrator’s Voice
Between these bookends, is the story within a story, told by S. Morenstern; like Lemony Snicket, the narrator is a character in the story.

He tells a farce, a parody. An over-the-top adventure featuring larger than life characters and situations. Morgenstern’s voice is swashbuckling, bombarding the reader with one grand claim after another. Despicable bad guys, heroic good guys, landscapes lurking with danger. His descriptive sentences are adventures in themselves, long and winding. I’m surprised no kitchen sink was featured. The story grabs you by the throat and sweeps you in. And stands alone without the foreword and epilogue.

The prose is bold; the verbs, hyperactive. Goldman doesn’t shy away from the antagonists’ backstories. He describes their travails in detail with his usual gusto. And portrays them, not as stupid henchmen, but as the Best In the World at their particular  crafts – swordsman, wrestler, genius. Unbeatable. Higher stakes for our hero. Ridiculous, hilarious.

Writers are constantly told to avoid telling in favour of showing. This story can be taken as an example of “good telling”, simply because the narrator’s voice is so strong.

As an example of telling:
Fire swamps are, of course, entirely misnamed. As to why this has happened, nobody knows, though probably the colourful quality of the two words together is enough. Simply, there are swamps which contain a large percentage of sulphur and other gas bubbles that burst continually into flame. They are covered within lush giant trees that shadow the ground, making the flame bursts seem particularly dramatic. Because they are dark they are continually moist, thereby attracting the standard insect and alligator community that prefers a moist climate.”

This is reminiscent of the voice used in Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, when the Guide’s voice explained an outrageous point with encyclopaedic understatement.

Complications and more complications.
If, as a writer, you occasionally wonder whether you are making things too tough for your character, just flick through a few pages, and you’ll see, nah. Goldman demonstrates the maxim of constantly throwing barriers in the MC’s path. The stakes are continually raised. At one point, the hero dies. But that’s doesn’t hinder Westley’s success.

There’s the lesson, writers! Adventure involves creating brave, highly skilled, MCs with a noble goal... and torturing them, unremittingly. Hold their heads under water and as soon as they come up for air, give them another sound dunking. And make the water poisonous and inhabited with carnivorous fish and eye-sucking eels. Then give the hero the ability to breathe through his ears... then immerse the ears, too. And so on.

But it’s not all perfect.
My gripe is Buttercup, the heroine. She is nothing more than Westley’s prize, and really has nothing going for her other than her beauty. Passive and desirable, her role is limited to inspiring Westley to keep going and rescue her from Prince Humperdink. Ugh! Yeah, sure, the story is a parody, and she’s not the world’s first useless fairytale heroine. But this was written in 1973, not 1793. And if the reader’s prepared to swallow Westley becoming a master swordsman in two years when his opponent (the world’s best swordsman)  took twenty to reach the standard, then giving little Buttercup the ability to karate-kick her captors in the kidneys would not be completely out of synch with the plot, even if this was before karate. Especially as it was before karate.

Overall impression. Fun. Good to read as model for hyperbole.

And if you want to contribute a review in this style, please contact me at joann_s [at] yahoo [dot] com