Tagged: Writing

The pen is mightier

BrendanBannonPenAlmost nine years’ ago my wife bought me a pen for my birthday from Brendan Bannon’s small shop in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. The body of the pen is bog-oak, estimated by Brendan as being between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, which means it fell to the ground to begin its preservation when the pyramids were being built.

I’ve carried it in my pocket every day since then, initially for work and latterly to help me write four novels and countless short stories. Two weeks ago I lifted some change from my pocket and discovered the cap of my beloved pen had broken. I fiddled with it for a half hour without success then contacted Brendan Bannon, asking if he could fix it or replace all the fittings. He got back to me saying he probably couldn’t replace the fittings because it would damage the wood, but he’d supply a new pen at trade price – a very generous offer. However, did I want a new pen? I wasn’t sure. This was an old friend. We’d been through a lot together, at least three murders and hundreds of thousands of words. So I thanked Brendan and explained my dilemma.

Today he’s sent me a message saying he’s fixed the cap and he’ll post it back. What a star!

The point of this story isn’t to praise a pen-maker in Northern Ireland, or to talk about a bit of old wood, but to show how important it is for writers to have routine in order to be effective. This routine isn’t just about setting word targets or the hours when we write, it is also about the mechanics (pens, paper, tablet, laptop, etc) and place (coffee shop, desk, garden shed, etc) where we feel comfortable. I wouldn’t have stopped writing if I’d been deprived of my birthday pen but it wouldn’t have been the same and it may not have felt right with a new one. At least not for the first 50,000 or 60,000 words.

What routines do you use to increase your production?

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Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.

Number Three

Finally. The writing of James Given number three has started. I’ve been plotting for a few weeks, and planning to start for much longer, but the actual words on the page have eluded me.

True, there have been a few changes in my life over the past few months (selling the house, moving country, etc, etc) and I’ve not quite settled in to a routine yet, but it’s not really a good excuse for not writing. I’ve still been sitting at the keyboard for a few hours every day reading those all-important Facebook posts, checking vital emails from holiday companies, and generally wasting time. I’ve told myself that if only I was still able to go into my favourite coffee shop (Mrs B’s in Killybegs, County Donegal if you’re passing) the prose would flow, though I know it isn’t the reason. The real reason is I’ve just been too lazy and easily distracted – not a good combination for a writer. I did have a traumatic experience in one new café though – I was accused by one of the locals of writing down everything that was being said. He might have been right but I wasn’t going to admit it!

So, to get a grip, I started to plot. I began with a vague notion of a body being found – there almost always is, you know – then asked ‘how did it get there?’. A chance encounter with a ‘what’s on’ guide gave me a murder weapon. Whilst thinking about who the villain might be, I wrote a ledger for the victim using some characteristics from someone in a newspaper article. The murderer came to me part way through the poor corpse’s scribblings so I wrote their journal next. Then, using a three act structure passed to me in a recent workshop, I sketched out the three main storylines.

Today, I wrote the end, then the beginning. At least it’s a start, and only 75,000 more words to join them together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Scrivener and multi-strand plots

It’s well known that Scrivener is one of the most versatile and useful programs around for creative writing, although it does take a little getting used to, and there are some annoying differences between the Mac version and the Windows version. Also the lack of an Android version is a distinct disadvantage if, like me, you use Windows and an Android tablet, so working ‘on-the-go’ can be fiddly and frustrating at times. It can be done, and given all the other advantages of Scrivener, perhaps one shouldn’t complain.

I’ve recently completed the first draft of my third novel, which has four story-lines over a hundred years, interspersed. So, I needed to check each story-line for consistency of language, voice, etc and ensure they followed naturally from one scene to the next (in the same story-line). This is where I began to discover the joys of ‘collections’ in Scrivener. One of these joys is that the collection is a virtual state – that is, the scene stays in the binder, even if you decide to remove it from the collection, but changes made to the scene in the collection, will be reflected in the ‘main’ scene in the binder. So no need to worry about which is the latest version.

I had, of course, every scene listed in my binder, so I created a collection for each story-line and popped all of the relevant scenes into each. This can be done in a couple of ways:

  1. Highlight each scene in the binder (using ctrl + left-click), then right-click for the context menu. Choose ‘Add to collection’, then ‘New collection’, naming it as you see fit. Or,
  2. Click on the ‘+’ sign next to ‘Collections’ at the top of the binder window, naming each collection as you see fit. Then right-click on each scene, choosing ‘Add to collection’ from the context menu, having chosen the collection you want to add it to. Again, this can be done in multiples.

Both of these are really the same, just in one the collection is created first, whilst in the other, the scenes are highlighted first.

My collections are shown below.

Collections

From here you can compile each collection for on-screen use, print it out, or export to something like Word. I compiled to Word, saved in Dropbox, and then have been able to read each story-line independently on my tablet. If I’d had an iPad, I’d have stayed in Scrivener and edited directly – putting comments in the document notes, so this is a bit of a compromise, but it works, even if I do have to then flip between Word and Scrivener later when I’m redrafting.

I’m looking forward to starting a new novel in a couple of months and using this feature from the start to plot the story-lines. I’d be interested to hear if other people are using this feature.

Another time, another place

Last weekend I took a trip to County Wicklow, partly to carry out some family history research, and partly to check locations for my current novel. I’ve already written around two-thirds of the first draft, imagining the street scenes and roadways, backed up by miles and miles travelled on Google StreetView.

On the ground, however, I discovered that so much needs rewriting because my understanding of the history of the places was distinctly under par. The period of the novel I was investigating covered 1847 to 1921, and, of course, much has changed in the intervening years. Houses that I thought of as old, were actually new or didn’t even exist in that time. The landscape must have been different because the trees lining the fields, or forming huge woodlands, though large, were nowhere near 150 years old. Even the rural roads would have been different, with little or no tarmac, and the town layouts have changed beyond recognition.

I’m not dismayed by this, it’s important to get it right, and the experience of getting the feel of the places; seeing the way the light fell, hearing the sound the river made over the gravel and feeling the wind blasting down the mountain, made it all worthwhile. Even if I hadn’t been researching, it would have been pleasurable.

The hard task now is to translate it all on to the page.

Adverbage

Two weeks ago several members of our writers group attended a day workshop on Editing Your Novel, led by Brian Langan of Transworld Press. The breadth of advice was immense and it prompted me to get back into gear with submitting my second novel to publishers – but not before a ninth edit.

I’ve written before about the excellent ProWriting Aid software (or is it ‘app’ these days?), and this was my first port of call – oh oh PWA would definitely pick that up as a cliché – and that one as an adverb. So, I ran the range of reports on my first ten thousand words and gasped at the number of adverbs, passive verbs and personal pronouns it highlighted. How could I get it so wrong?

Simple. We all use these devices every day in our speech, often as a kind of shorthand: clichés probably exist for that primary purpose, to avoid extensive explanations; adverbs help us avoid flowery imagery; passive verbs often sound more natural than their active counterparts in English speech patterns; and personal pronouns are almost unavoidable regardless of whether we’re writing in first or third person. I’ve given you seven personal pronouns to this point in this paragraph alone. However, I’ve dodged the cardinal sin here of repeating the same pronoun at the start of successive sentences.

Try a little test if you use Microsoft Word. Search your manuscript for ‘I’ (better to search for ‘. I ‘ – that’s: full stop, space, I, space – to avoid finding the letter as part of other words) if in first person, or ‘He’/’She’ in third person. See how many you find. If you miss out the full stop from the search you’ll be likely to find lots more.

Before going further perhaps a short explanation might be beneficial:

  • Personal pronouns are used to replace names and denote gender and/or number. Examples include he, she, I, it, you, they, them, us, and so on.
  • Adverbs are used to qualify verbs, nouns and adjectives. They tend to be frowned upon in creative writing. In most cases (or at least most cases I could think of) they end in ‘ly’. Examples include quickly, slowly, gleefully, quietly, etc, etc, etc.
  • Depending on where you use a verb in a sentence it can be active or passive. For example: ‘John throws the ball’ (active) or ‘The ball is thrown’ (passive). Both are valid but active verbs tend to give more movement and immediacy to writing.

Finding these little devils isn’t difficult, it’s fixing them that is. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can’t. A good thesaurus can often provide alternatives to adverbs, though we shouldn’t dispense with them altogether. They can be used in opposition to the verb to provide atmosphere where an alternative verb wouldn’t. For example ‘He laughed grimly’. The personal pronouns are like grains of rice dropped on the kitchen floor – you sweep and sweep but they still pop up days later where you were certain you’d got them all. Passive verbs can be so hard to fix – the ball was thrown and you don’t know who threw it, and you want to avoid ‘Someone …’ where do you go. Wholesale rewriting of the sentence is often the only option. Sorry folks, no easy options here.

So, I bounced into my novel, scanned the analysis from ProWriting Aid, wept a little, then set about reducing those low scores. The results, I think, are looking beneficial. Let’s hope a publisher thinks so soon.

 

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.