Why do they do it?

Afraid this is just a rant – no insights into my writing habits in this one. A couple of hours ago I received a Whatsapp message from a friend warning me that the service is going to start charging from this weekend. I had a pretty good inkling that it was probably just a scam circulated by some fool who likes to clog up the internet or gets gratification from seeing how many people have been duped into circulating his/her nonsense.

It took me less time to check it out than it would have taken to send messages to all my contacts. And yes, it was a pathetic chain letter type message which has been circulating for at least three years and Whatsapp are not beginning to charge.

So why do people still circulate this stuff rather than checking to see if it’s real first? Is it due to fear or lack of knowledge on how to look it up? ( I use Hoax Slayer or Snopes, or even just a Google query).

Why does it bother me? Because every little bit of stuff circulating clogs up the internet and makes it slower. If someone sends a message to 50 contacts, and 10% of those then send to 50 contacts, and the same again, it works out, if my maths is correct, at over 3 million pointless and incorrect messages whizzing through hundreds of servers. One day it will all break down.

What’s the secret?

As a writer I struggle, like many others, with maintaining momentum. In fact, for weeks, I’ve written very little except when I’ve been in coffee shops, as I mentioned in my previous post. There are, of course, the usual distractions – Facebook, emails, cutting the lawn, etc – but there’s also something which, for me, always seems to put up a barrier to moving forward.

Stephen King, and a great many other writers, say that to write well you must read a lot. But how does that help when the books you read end up being poor – either poor prose, poor plot or poorly edited, sometimes all three? I’ve recently read three novels, which I won’t name because I think writing is hard enough without getting bad reviews, that had one or more of these attributes. One of them was in the top 20 sales on Amazon Kindle, yet I struggled to finish it because the writing was so bad. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of opinion. Last month I led a discussion on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of my all-time favourites, and other readers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, though none of them said it was badly written, and I can live with that, we all enjoy different things in novels. Similarly, a friend recommended a book which I read and didn’t like stylistically, it just wasn’t for me, but I admired the way it had been written.

With bad writing it’s possible to pull out a couple of positives. Firstly to identify the things we should avoid, like inaccuracy, bad punctuation, ‘he said, she said’ sloppiness, and so on. It’s much easier to see these on the page than in some theoretical class. Secondly, I expect there is some comfort to be taken when you notice that the writing is poor – at least some of the lessons have stuck.

writers tears

However, the barrier for my writing in these badly written novels is that they’ve been published, so the punctuation, lack of historical/technical accuracy and plot holes should have been picked up long before they hit the bookshelves. Even so, they still seem to sell well. So what am I doing wrong? My first novel found a publisher after a number of rejections but my second has been turned down by lots (and I mean lots) yet I know, and I hope it’s not just arrogance on my part, that the writing is better than my first and better than some of the offerings I’ve read lately. Do I expect the world to be fair? To be just? No, I don’t. It’s only that I sometimes become discouraged and it makes me want to give up. Is it any wonder I feel like turning to the bottle – especially this one?

Where do I write?

Every time we sit down to write, our objective is to let those good old creative juices flow and the perceived wisdom seems to be that the more comfortable we are in our space, the more likely this is to happen. For many years, after the word-processor became accessible, my writing place of choice was at a desk-top computer. I usually had access to a laptop as well but this didn’t provide me with the discipline I was looking for. Perhaps it was due to me primarily writing non-fiction at the time, where I needed to be more structured in my approach.

Capture

That’s not to say that I didn’t find other places to write which suited me very well. My favourite, of all time I think, was sitting in the sun outside a waterfront bar in La Rochelle with a glass of wine, a notebook and pen, working on a draft guidance booklet for a Government department. Unfortunately, access to that particular space was limited to a couple of afternoons in the middle of my holiday.

Now, I have two main spaces where I work. Three years ago, increasing pain in my lower back caused me to abandon the desktop for a laptop (literally on my lap). I sit in a club chair in our ‘sun-room’ with windows onto the garden on three sides. The time I tend to write is between six am and eight am in the morning, with the first, and possibly second, mug of tea of the day on the windowsill beside me. I’ve always found early morning to be most productive. Once or twice a week I also find a table in a coffee shop, where I write longhand in a notebook, using a pen made from oak taken from the bog. It pleases me to think I’m holding a modern ballpoint encased in a material possibly 2000 years old and I find that even if I can’t get the words down on the computer, the old fashioned pen and paper usually does the trick.

Most of my researched material is stored on my laptop and I use a mix of Scrivener and Word. The former for organising and drafting, the latter for later editing. I’d like to use Scrivener for all of it but I haven’t quite got the handle on all the skills needed to get to the finished product. I have Scrivener synced to Plain.txt on a tablet so that I can dictate from my written draft – it is possible to dictate directly into Scrivener, at a cost, using something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking but I haven’t got round to making that investment yet.

It would be nice to hear where other writers find they are most productive.

 

My cover story

I’ve been playing around with ideas for a cover for the second Inspector James Given novel – this is, of course, a delightful avoidance of doing any actual writing. It’s taken me into new bits of software – or should I say ‘apps’ now – like Scribus, and a free images website called Pixabay.

The four on my shortlist are above and I’d welcome thoughts on which one you might go for if you were looking on the crime shelves of your local bookshop, or Amazon. Drop me a note with preferences for A, B, C or D – I’d be most grateful. The main variations are the image (greyscale or muted colour) and the position of the text.

If you’d like to read a sample, to get you in the mood, have a look here.

Lost the plot?

One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.

Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.

Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.

Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.

Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.

Then ask the question: What connects these people?

If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.

Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.

Let me know if it works for you.

Learning from others

This weekend I attended the excellent Ennis Book Club Festival in County Clare and was treated to the thoughts of a number of writers. I attended sessions with Carol Drinkwater, Donal Ryan, John Boyne and Anne Enright, amongst others and it was fascinating to hear their insights on the writing process.

What was clear from all of them was that you have to work at it and you have to love it. John Boyne, for example, when asked about the opening sentence of his latest novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, said he’d redrafted it about 200 times. Even assuming he was exaggerating slightly it pointed to a degree of dedication to honing the work until it was as good as it could be. Several writers talked of redrafting their novel many times before sending it to an editor.

Two of the speakers talked about how they will sometimes write an event or character in a particular way without being sure why, then it makes sense later when the story is reaching a conclusion. It is almost as if there’s a precognition of where the tale will go, even if they don’t do detailed plotting. As a writer, I understood what they were saying although hadn’t heard it articulated that way before.

There was also an encouraging analysis of how to complete that novel, a task which at times can seem awe inspiring. It was explained, simply, that writing a page a day, that is around 250-300 words (the length of this post to here), gives a full-length draft in a year or less. So – go for it.