Sunday, January 29, 2012

From Small Things...

          It’s a forgotten art, that’s what I think.  That is what Stephen King thinks too—and he is always right.  I cut my reading and writing teeth on them and they have inspired me ever since.  There are a lot of writers out there who think a serious writer wouldn’t be seen dead with them.  I’m talking about short stories.
          My post, "The Big Secret" told of a woman I met at a writing seminar.  She had left her job as a journalist to finish her book but had not finished it yet. I’ll recount the story for you here: 
          ‘How long ago did you leave your job?’  I said to her, thinking a year.
          ‘Five years,’ she said.  ‘I’m stuck on a bit in the book and I come to these things to gain inspiration.’ 
          ‘Why don’t you give that one up and start a new book?’  I said.  ‘Even write some short stories, mix it up, and keep moving.  I won some competitions with my short stories.  They pay you money.’  Her tone changed then.  ‘I don’t care about money for short stories.  I’m a serious writer.’
           Her attitude garnered a lot of comments here and on Twitter.  Quite rightly, all we serious short fiction writers found her comment puzzling.  I can’t imagine how flat and frustrated a writer with a five year old half-finished book would feel.  You wouldn’t want to visit the thing.  It would be like some yawning monster with a haunting voice that kept repeating to you, ‘You’re not good enough.  You’re a failure.’
          No wonder she didn’t want to talk to the perky short story writer.  That monster book had eaten into her psyche turning her into an angry writer with blinkers on.  But if she’d taken the time to understand my message, she may have gotten that monkey monster off her back.


          Short stories are where you start when first studying writing.  In fact, let’s go further back; short stories are what you write in school in your first English assignments. 
           Then the book idea comes along and that is it.  The common thought would be, forget the short stories they are just little bits of fluff for those starting out.  Seriously can you really create deep characters and intriguing plots in five thousand words or less?

          Yes—hear that in a shout.  You can if you try. And you should try. Even if you don’t think you can, you should try because you will get a lot from short story writing.

You get to learn how to edit

          Writing a short story is no easy feat.  If you are writing to a word count, you always end up over.  Then you learn the ruthlessness that is required to bring it under.  At the same time you learn a skill that you should maintain in writing a book—if it doesn’t say anything about your character or the plot get it out. And if you’ve already said it, do not repeat.  This seems simple but you also learn the heartlessness required to do it because you have no choice—yes it’s a beautiful paragraph but you don’t need it (whether it’s a book or a short story).

You get to finish
          Unlike a book, you get to pat yourself on the back very quickly.  In a few hours you can have a story finished, polished and ready to go. You can hand it to your first best reader and your second and they can respond immediately.  Then you can go to bed that night feeling warm and snugly knowing you’ve done something and nailed it.

You get to record an idea 
          If you are like me you see stories everywhere.  “What if?” you think and then maybe even jot the idea down—for when you finish your book that still has another six months on the clock.

          But by the time you come to that idea the energy has gone.  Inspiration is fleeting and it has a timing that you don’t totally control.  But what if you wrote a few thousand words just to get it down?  Have that wonderful character interact with another.  Paint that mood you felt strongly you wanted to explore.  Record the moment.  Then it becomes like a photograph.  You can enter its space when your book is done or you have a free moment.

You get to solve a plot problem. 
         I’ve had an idea in my head for a book for a year but I’ve got two other book ideas, with stronger energy, floating in my mind and I want to write them first.  This book idea though is still good but it had a plot device I needed to find.  Occasionally, the story would alight in my head—crafty little butterfly that it was—and I would think, yes, you are interesting but we still have that plot problem.
          Then there was a 1500 word short story competition coming up.  I thought why not put it on paper and see how it looks.  It’s obviously a determined idea and is not going away.  And in one page my plot problem was solved purely because I was sitting with the characters and a key scene.  I didn’t have to think about it. It revealed itself in the writing.  Trust me this happens the more that you write. I describe it here in this post, Where the pen meets the paperIn writing that one story I eliminated probably years of an annoying interruption to my train of thought.  Possibly that unsolved plot problem may even have turned me off bothering with what could be a very good book idea.

You get to stumble upon a book concept
          One of my short stories about a future world where disabled children are made whole again by the insertion of a chip was created for an apocalyptic short story anthology.
          However, the surprise from this one was that several of my trial readers asked me to please write the book.  My husband was adamant the characters were fascinating and he wanted to know what happened to them in detail. 
           The chipped children end up on an island hiding away from a world which has turned on them and is now also falling apart.  One of my readers was desperate to know what happened to them on the island in their forty years of isolation.
          None of this I had considered when writing the story.  A short story is just a snapshot or a scene of a bigger story.  But here I now had a synopsis for a book.  It was like a little Easter egg hidden in my endeavour that I hadn’t noticed until others pointed it out.

You get to test yourself
          Although there are fewer opportunities for publication of short stories in magazines, there are now competitions and anthologies by independent publishers and websites that have opened up.
          Through these you can test your work.  Are you up to the standards demanded by some of these very professional publishers?  Of course, you can’t expect acceptance every time or even a short listing.  However, many of them now offer feedback for a small fee.  Then if you do short list or win, you certainly approach your writing with more confidence.  There are two anthologies containing my short stories sitting next to my computer—reminders that someone liked what I did.  More on entering competitions in this post, Are you up for a little competition?
You get to be a serious writer
          Despite what that woman said at the writing conference, I feel a heck of a lot better answering, “I’ve published some short stories in anthologies”, or “I’ve won a few competitions,” when people ask what you’ve published. 
          In the beginning, when I told people I was a writer, I would gloss over it—“I’m a ritder.”  I’d say it quickly because if they understood what I’d said, then I’d feel like I needed to explain that I took it seriously and I had a skerrick of talent.
          Now I can say, “Yes, a few short stories published whilst I’m finishing my book.”

You get to build a resume
          Picture this, your manuscript with query letter, containing the notation that your short stories have placed or published in a competition or anthology, sitting in a publisher’s slush pile next to another one with nothing. 
          Certainly, although I am not a publisher, I would imagine, yours will be read first.  Those stories might just be the sparkle in the slush pile that gets you noticed.


          My short stories are my little treasures.  As they mount up in my Completed Short Stories folder they become more than morsels of output. They’re my babies and each one taught me something about writing.  Plus they got those incessant ideas out of my head so my mind could rest.  They refreshed me on my road to writing a book.

         They’re my successes and my failures—and you need both.  Better to have the failures in a few thousand words than a hundred thousand word book.  
          And they are my cheer squad on the days when I am not the master of my writing domain.  On the days when inspiration is far away and laughing at my incompetence, they are there smiling at me. 
          I can touch the covers of the anthologies and flick the pages, knowing that in there are my words and they were good enough. Sometimes, that is all you need to write for another day.
          They are not just short stories; they are fabulous small windows into magical worlds, deserving the respect of all writersserious or otherwise.  Remember from these small precious things, big things grow.

P.S.  For those brave ones inspired by this post I have a page  of supporters of short stories now where you can submit your stories Short Story Opps  If you know of any others please let me know as I am happy to add them.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Secret

Google “Advice on Writing”.  Go on.  The result you will receive is about 258 million results in 0.32 seconds—that’s quick.  That tells me there are millions of people giving advice on writing to the millions who wish to write and are searching for the definitive answer.
There are a thousand books on it too, and do not forget the workshops—oh and the writing groups.  My lovely librarian recently walked me over to a poster on the library wall.  She knows I write.  I tell everyone I am a writer—I enjoy the funny looks I get.
So she pointed at the poster and said, ‘Would you like to come to this?  It’s a workshop on writing.  Only five dollars.’  We both peered at the poster.  There was another poster alongside it, on journaling for children, ten to fourteen years. 
‘The journaling might be better, I think—for the children.’  I wanted to say, I don’t do workshops but I thought that sounded a little arrogant.  Instead, I said, ‘I’ll check my diary.’
Fade out from this scene, and then fade in on Twitter this morning.  There was a tweet promoting a blog post about ten mistakes made by writers.  I think it was ten.  You could probably write one hundred if you set your mind to it.
It was a reasonable blog post, so I retweeted it, but added—without thinking—"The true Secret to writing well...Read.  Write.  Repeat."
And there you have it, whether you like that advice or not.  There is The Big Secret to writing well.  You must read and read and read and then, in between that, you must write and write and write.
Did I know this little gem two years ago?  No way.  When I decided I was going to take writing seriously and set out on my wobbly page-a-day goal, I thought, ‘Lets see how far I get before someone tells me I’m wasting my time.’  I didn’t know I needed to be toting up words like I was working out at a gym.
Fade out from Twitter and fade into a little coffee get together at one of those gorgeous book stores with its own groovy little cafĂ© nestled amongst the merchandise.  It’s a Sunday morning and there at a table is me, a Perth writing tutor and three other  enthusiatic writers in the making.

It was a free talk on ‘How to get published.’  I thought, it might be a great way  to meet people.  I’d actually won a writing competition on the Tutor’s website, so along I went  in support and for the fun of it.
An hour in, one of my fellow attendees commented, ‘I’m not very good.’ 

To which I offered, ‘Just keep writing.  Everyone goes through it—and read a lot.  You will get better.  It’s inevitable.’ 
Then I realised, when she looked at me like I had just said, 'Strip naked, spin around 3 times and yell hallelujh,' that  the ladies were waiting for the Big Secret reveal.  The problem is, it doesn't come at workshops.  I’m not putting down workshops.  I always say, ‘whatever works for you. Just make sure it is working for you.’
There is a point when you simply realise you are on a path, and where you are is where you are, until you write some more.   Writing experts will give you the answer for which you are looking.  But they won’t give you the answer you really need.
I am not saying you should not study the mechanics of writing.  I have done that and attended creative writing workshops decades ago.  It is important to know the basics, so that when your story is not working you have an idea where you went wrong.  If you are new to writing, do go and enrol in a creative writing course.  They are great fun.  You do learn important things and meet people with whom you can share your passion.  But eventually you don’t need them.
The three workshops I have attended in the past two years did teach me one thing: that I did not need to go to them anymore.  My husband knew that from the beginning.  Every time I would wave an ad at him and say, ‘This looks interesting.  Do you think I should go?’  He would say, ‘But you know what you need to do.  Sit down and write.  That workshop is time you could be writing.’
It took me a year to believe him and then the workshops cured me.  I kept meeting people at them who told me that if they didn’t go to a workshop or attend a writing group they wouldn’t write.  They were not there to learn.  They were there seeking inspiration and paying dearly for it—not just with money but in precious time.  
I even met a woman, who had left her job as a journalist  to finish her book.  She had not finished it yet.  ‘How long ago did you leave your job?’  I said, thinking a year.’
‘Five years,’ she said.  ‘I’m stuck on a bit in the book and I come to these things to gain inspiration.’ 
‘Why don’t you give that one up and start a new book?’  I said.  ‘Even write some short stories, mix it up, and keep moving.  I won some competitions with my short stories.  They pay you money.’  I am very enthusiastic in my encouragement and sharing of The Big Secret.
Her tone changed then.  ‘I don’t care about money for short stories.  I’m a serious writer.’
I wanted to say, ‘I don’t care about the money either.  It just gives you a deadline and keeps you writing, keeps your mind fresh.’  But she had already sidled away, pretending she knew someone on the other side of the room.  Maybe that person was also a stuck-serious-writer and they could commiserate together. 
Raymond Bradbury said that ‘to become a good writer, write a short story a week for ten years.  At the end of that, you will be good.’  I really wanted to yell that out to her, along with, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’
Now just for the record, in case you think as we near the end of this post that I will have any other ground-breaking revelations for you, I repeat:
To become a good writer and build a road to Great Writerdom-that’s not a word by the way but it sounds good—you must  Read, Write and Repeat. 
Stephen King says it.  Stephanie Meyers says it.  J.K. Rowlings says it. And Raymond Bradbury said it.  It is the worst kept secret in the literary world.  But nobody listens.  Inexperienced writers keep thinking there must be an easier way; a special wand at the workshops to transform you from blah to yeeha. 
Sorry no cigar there.  It’s not in the “How to” books either.  So close them up now.  Actually it is, you will find it in every “How to” book hidden amongst all the other stuff that you usually forget.
I have learnt this truth over these two years.  It is a hard lesson, and many will fall by the wayside.  There are thousands of writer’s souls strewn along the path to greatness.  The first two to three hundred thousand words will almost kill you.  That is a fact.

Along the way, you will cry—real tears of discouragement.  You will hang your head in shame as you read back the pulp you've produced.  Fear will grip you when you take more than a few days break from your discipline—when you return to the keyboard, will the muse alight upon your shoulder or will your mind be barren and desolate?  Will you ever write anything others will want to read?  These are the arrows and rocks hurled at you—by your non-supportive inner critic—for daring to believe you can write.  Especially in the beginning when you really cannot write a damn.
But when you hear that disparaging voice, when you feel disheartened, I want you to repeat these words.  ‘I will conquer.  I will succeed because I know The Big Secret.  I do not need anyone’s permission.  I do not need anyone else’s help.  I have The Big Secret to guide me. 
Now, with great conviction, like you really believe it—because deep down you know its true—repeat after me:
I will Read.  I will Write.  I will Repeat. 

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Friday, December 16, 2011

The Cinderella Syndrome

You’ve caught me at a bad time.  I’m involved in the one thing I dislike about writing.  No, that’s not descriptive enough.  Given the choice between this activity and sticking a very long, pointy needle through the corner of my eye, I would choose the eye treatment.
I had no idea until embarking on this part of novel writing that it would be my kryptonite.  Each time I attempt it, I feel like I’m stumbling and falling.  After finishing the first draft of my novel, I breathed a sigh of relief—such a tough thing to do.  But nobody told me that that was the easiest part. 
It seemed hard at the time.  Some days facing the blank page of the manuscript's first draft were terrifying; so much so, I would avoid it at all costs.  Toilet cleaning and vacuuming moved swiftly higher on my priority list. 
There was even one section, where I had nowhere to go. This is writer’s block, isn’t it? I thought.  I did know where I wanted to go; I just couldn’t find the way.  Its times like this you wish you could just write,—characters go through some stuff here (imagine pointing arrows) then after a few chapters they end up here (more arrows) where the final climatic scene brings us to the satisfying end (big X).
But it wasn’t writer’s block.  There was just one week where I walked into walls, a touch vague, but I found my way.  I survived it and so did my characters.  In the end I didn’t need the arrows.
As I typed The End, as any author can tell you, an overwhelming sense of achievement came over me.  Typing those two words is an exhilarating feeling.  There were tears and celebrations.  I’d done it.
The Big Problem
My friends asked, ‘When can we read your book?’
‘I’m just putting it away for a few months to marinate,’ I said.  ‘Then I will edit it and it should be ready to go in about three months, which is how long it took me to write it.’
Move ahead four months and I’m only half way through the second draft.  Take out a month where the kids and I were very ill with Whooping Cough—to my surprise vaccinations only last a few years—and in three months I’m only managing around two thousand words a day of editing.  And that’s on the days I get to it.
There were a few short stories written in between, much blogging and reviewing of books and film, so it wasn’t as if I had lost my drive to write.  No, actually sitting my behind on a chair to face the editing was not as easy as I had first imagined. 
I thought it would be like turning up to a day job.  You know what needs doing.  It’s a technical thing now, not reliant on the unpredictable writing muse.  Take out the words you don’t need, colour in the words you do.  No more wondering what comes next.  No writer’s block to fear. No stress.
What puzzles me about my aversion to editing is that I know exactly what I am doing with it.  In the past year, having written eleven short stories to competition word counts, I have edited each one to within an inch of its life.  Some of them were flash fiction with word counts less than a thousand words.  The fewer words you have, the more difficult it is to create a fulfilling story with a twist at the end. 
All of my short stories in first draft were a minimum twenty per cent over, meaning I needed to be ruthless in the editing.  In a five hundred word flash fiction, I studied every single word for necessity.  It was tough and that one took me at least ten passes to get there. 
But these short stories only took a few days to edit.  When it comes to a book well, there are weeks and months of editing and rewriting.  Then once I’ve completed the first draft I know there are probably three more drafts waiting for me.
The Analysis
I’ve analysed this problem—too much according to my husband—and I think it comes down to my preference for right brain thinking.  Apparently, you write with your creative right-brain and editing is the domain of the left-brain. 
I don’t like that left brain much.  It’s the rational one that does all the analysing; most likely the one writing this now.  They’re a bit dry for me and I always feel their solid hands on my shoulders, insisting my feet should not be floating that far from the ground.  So it is understandable I don’t want to spend much of my exhilarating writing time listening to them analyzing my beautiful right brain prose. 
My other issue is I already have the next book ready to go, first chapter written, and story bubbling in my head, right brain side.  But starting a new book is my reward for finishing this book.  It’s the carrot and the whip.  The new book is dangling tantalisingly before me, and behind me is left brain demanding I finish what I’ve started. They have a guilt whip and aren’t afraid to use it.
 As much as I don’t like left brain guy—they’re very bossy.  I respect their determination and discipline.  Left-brain was the one who sat me down at the computer and got the first book finished when I wasn’t certain it was doable.
Cinderalla Job
Still, I don’t like the job right now.  It feels like cleaning, dusting and mopping, after a brilliant time was had by all at the night before party.  I just want to party with right brain. They’re light and breezy and take me on wonderful adventures to destinations unknown. 
I’ve had offers from freelance editors to help with the mopping.  But only I can rewrite the character at the beginning into the character he becomes at the end.  By the end of the book, I knew a lot more about him. So he needs some colouring and shading before he faces the challenges only I know are coming his way.
Many writers have difficulty in other areas—coming up with story lines, characters, dialogue, and the daily discipline.  But that’s not my stumbling block.  My challenges have never lain in creating story ideas, characters, or twisted endings.  Words fly off my fingertips at quite a pace. Give me four hours and I’ll give you five thousand reasonable words.  No, my Achilles heel is the editing. 

The Answer
So what am I to do? 
Keep going.  That’s all I can do.  The book needs polishing—even right brain agrees.  Apologise to my friends who are asking to read the book. ‘Sorry, I have a spoilt right brain that is not co-operating’.
I am trying to change my attitude, as all writers must when faced with their Achilles heel. From now on, I will face the manuscript and repeat, ‘I like editing.  Editing is good.’  Even if I don’t believe it, I know the only way to the end is the way I started; one word at a time, one page at a time, one chapter at a time. 
And then one day soon, after I’ve finished my Cinderella work, right brain and I can put on our glass slippers and come dance at the ball.

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