Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Power Of The Warm-Up

Does anyone else give great advice and then not follow it themselves? Only me?

I've been editing my next writing book, The Five Day Writer's Bootcamp, and in it I stress the importance of a writing warm up. 

Had I actually been doing writing warm ups myself? No. 

Do I still firmly believe they are a good idea? Yes. 

So, for the past week I decided to implement a warm up before my sessions. It isn't long, probably 5 minutes, I don't really time it, I just go until I finish the idea and feel ready to write.

I decided that I would use the warm up to get to know my characters and story better. I know a lot of people feel that reading over what they did last session is warm up enough, or they spend time planning what they'll write today. I don't do that. I put absolutely no pressure on my warm up to be directly improving the story. Instead, it's a chance just to play and have fun before getting down to work. I want to give my genius time to say anything it wants to, even if it's not what I had planned. 

What did I actually do?

Well, I'm writing a chick-lit, so the first day I decided to put my girl and three main guys in a room and see what happened. I presented it as a cocktail party where the three men meet for the first time. It's never actually going to happen in the book in this way, but I wanted to see how they would react to each other. It gave me great insight into each of the men, and reinforced why I liked two of them over the third. (Though hasn't helped me choose which of the two she'll end up with. I'm 90% sure I know which one, but the other keeps being so darn sweet!)

The second day I decided to work out what was the worst possible thing I could do to my main character, and how would she react. If I made her lose her job and get kicked out of her apartment, would that be enough? No, she would feel she could still be supported by her family and friends. So I had to dig deep. Where is she prideful? What does she base her self esteem on? And how could I destroy that? It seems a cruel task, but it is a really good challenge to work out if you have a large enough climax, and ensures that you've really targeted the centre of the character. 

I've also spent time interviewing my characters, and mapping out how they could react to different events. I've asked them about this biggest fears, their deepest desires, and some of their answers have surprised me. I've put them in new situations, and I've got them to interact with other people they might never meet. All this so that when I start my writing session, I'm in tune with them.

And the result?

Well, aside from any potential plot twists and character info that usefully arises, taking out the time to warm up I still get more written per hour afterwards than I did using the entire time to add words to the manuscript. 

So, I highly recommend you give it ago. Get into it, and get to know your characters and setting. 

ROW 80 Goals:

Last week I set myself the challenge to write 5,000 per day. 

I am proud to announce that other than one day, I've succeeded! A few days have been only 4,600-4,800, but other days have been 5,400-5,800. So on average I'm ahead.

I'm now part way through episode 10. I'm on track to finish the first draft of all the episodes by the end of June. Not only that, but things have arisen that I could never have predicted. The tale has taken a bit of a twist, but it is such a compelling twist that I'm going to go back and rewrite it more fully into the tale in the second draft.

I would like to thank the warm ups for helping in achieving this goal. 

Though I've also not been to the gym for most of those days, but that was because I thought I was coming down sick. Still not feeling 100%, but with plenty of sleep and fluids I seem to be staving off a full blown attack. 

Goals for next week: 

Continue with the writing frenzy, but try and start going to the gym as well. 

I'm currently trying to read about five books at one time, so might need to focus down and finish one off at a time. I just can't decide which one!

What would you want to know about your characters, if they could tell you just one thing?

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Fear and Comfort Of A 90:10 Ratio

Do you ever have those instances where it feels like the universe is ganging up on you to make a point?

In the last week someone has been fiddling with my life to teach me the 90:10 Ratio, a rule I wouldn't otherwise subscribe to.

It started a few days ago when I was listening to a podcast on writing. The presenter was talking about drafting, and the need to overdraft and then cut back. I am, in general, happy with this rule. Stephen King says a second draft should be your first draft minus 10%. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. You write a bit extra, then pare out the unnecessary words.

This is not what they were talking about. They mentioned Hemmingway. His basic approach was this (please excuse the language): 

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” 

They were talking about writing so much you could throw 90% out and keep the good 10% (or about 1% in Hemmingway's case). That just seemed ridiculous to me. While I'm all for writing as training, the thought of having to write even 180,000 words to pare down to 90,000, a 2:1 ratio, seems too much.

Then I was reading Story by Robert McKee (which, if you were wondering, is really good. Highly recommended, even if you only want to write novels). McKee argues:

'If your finished screenplay contains every scene you've ever written, if you've never thrown an idea away, if your rewriting is little more than tinkering with dialogue, your work will almost certainly fail. No matter our talent, we all know in the midnight of our souls that 90 percent of what we do is less than our best. If, however, research inspires a pace of ten to one, even twenty to one, and if you then make brilliant choices to find that 10 percent of excellence and burn the rest, every scene will fascinate and the world will sit in awe of your genius.'

Admit it, don't you want the world to sit in awe of your genius?

Why does this 90:10 keep coming up? What's wrong with just editing 10% of it? What about the inspiration that's gone into that scene?

According to McKee, 'more often than not, inspiration is the first idea picked off the top of your head, and sitting on top of your head is every film you've ever seen, every novel you've ever read, offering cliches to pluck.' So he suggests that once you get an idea for a scene, you should then sketch out a list of five, ten fifteen different versions of that scene.

I find this idea a bit scary and overwhelming. Not only do you want me to write a novel, but you actually want me to write about ten novels and then perfect it into one?
Deep breaths, deep breaths.

But, on the other hand, it is liberating. When I'm drafting, it doesn't matter if 90% of what I write is crap. I just have to keep going and I'll be able to cut out all the stuff that isn't good later. It's by trying to write 100% perfectly every session that I get caught up. If I only need a success rate of 10% to be up there with Hemmingway, then I think I can do that. (Though don't be surprised if I start bring out novellas!)

The challenge now is to spend the time editing it down to that 10%. I have the growing fear that I may not have edited After The Winter as much as I should have. While a lot of people love it, I've also received the feedback that in parts it's slow and the language a bit flowery. My poor little criticism sensitive writer's soul wants to pull it off the shelves and hide it away forever. But, instead, I'm going to take my lesson learnt and see if the next book can be better. And the one after that. And maybe one day I will come back and do a second edition of ATW with all that I've learnt. But for now I feel I need to keep moving forward. (That is the one problem with self-publishing, very few people are brave enough to tell you you should hold it back just a bit longer. And even if they did, you often don't listen. Sorry Mum and Anna!).

So, I'm not sure I will go as far as the 91 to 1 or even 90 to 10 ratio just yet, but for Virtually Ideal I'm drafting out 14 episodes. I then plan to try and pare it back to 10 episodes, and then 7. I am going to overwrite to give myself more room to play, more ideas to choose from, and less cliches to get stuck in.

ROW 80
There are just three weeks left in June. My overambitious goal is to get all 14 episodes drafted by the end. I'm currently working on episode 8, so just over halfway. And I have no idea what's actually going to happen. I think I know which guy she's going to get in the end, but one of them keeps surprising me when I try to write him out. Also, her mother has just announced there is another big family secret, I just wish someone had told me this!

 So for this week, I'm aiming towards 5,000 words a day and an episode every 3 days. Wish me luck. (Yes, I do still have full time work, and it's the end of the term so everyone is tired and grumpy. But if I can make it through to the 27th of June, then I get three weeks holidays, though I have writing plans for July as well).

After July I'm going into editing mode again. I think.

I'm currently ahead in my reading challenge, but still working through The Aeneid and also Story. Though, while I read Story, I keep getting great ideas to put into Bootcamp, so that slows down the reading process a bit. But I'll hopefully finish one of these in the next week.

So, what's your genius to trash ratio?

Monday, 2 June 2014

Cure For Frustration

Over the last few days I've been doing a bit of research into being a literary agent and a book editor. No, not because I'm planning on moving to the other side of publishing. It's research for my serial. Laurie in Virtually Ideal starts off as an unpaid intern at a literary agency, and so I needed to know what exactly they do on a day to day basis, how networking with editors works, and what a new agent would need to learn. It's fascinating looking into exactly what they do, how much they get paid (or really don't) and how much work it all takes.

My research extended to include which parts of contracts agents need to be especially wary of, and why they need to double and triple check all royalty statements from publishing houses. (For all those without your own agent, or who want to understand some of the pitfalls better, I highly recommend you take the 10 minutes or so to read this article on Royalty Statements by Richard Curtis.)

Doing this research produced two effects in me. The first is that I feel sorry for publishing editors, but not at all sorry for publishing houses. The editors appear to be vastly exploited, working long hours for what is basically a graduate level pay. The publishing houses, probably their financial division, on the other hand appear to employ a number of very dodgy and at times possibly illegal activities. Between badly reported royalty earnings, misrepresenting sales, not declaring reserves and never paying back reserves, it all becomes a bit scary. I highly recommend all writers do their research into these things so they know what they should be looking for.

The second is something I've felt on a number of occasions; it is an overwhelming sense of frustration. Yesterday I found a perfect description of it by Adele Parks, now a best selling contemporary women's authors, in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2013:

"I clearly remember, before I was published, standing in a Waterstones bookshop on Oxford Street, London, literally weeping in frustration as I stared at the plethora of published works; I wanted to know, what was the magic ingredient? Why were those books published and not mine?"

Writing and then getting published is a long process. Even if you write very quickly, the editing process, then the production process, then marketing and getting people to actually buy the books takes time. Even with self-publishing. And that can be frustrating. Frustrating when other people seem to have it much easier, and their books aren't even that good! (I totally accept J.K.Rowlings, her books were wonderful, she turned them all out on time, and she managed to maintain the quality. Other people, however...)

Reading about the publishing industry, how much chance it appears to be, how difficult it all is, and how long it takes left me feeling like I would never eventually 'make it'. Even in self-publishing there is the same sense when reading about other people's successes, the sudden boom in sales and publishers knocking on their door. I wanted to curl up and cry and never look at my writing again.

Anyone else ever feel like this? (Don't worry if you don't answer, Adele has assured me I'm not alone).

This has plagued me on and off for all the time I've been writing. But finally, last night, I found a very effective cure.

In my last post I linked to a YouTube video on The Willpower Instinct (still highly recommend it if you haven't watched it yet. Is 50 minutes, but worth it). One of the exercises Kelly McGonigal recommends for increasing will power is to connect with your future self. Researchers found that students who were given the opportunity to 'talk' with their future selves, asking questions about how life turns out and realising that their future self will experience everything as they do, then showed greater ability to delay gratification in important areas such as setting up savings accounts, etc.

So I tried it. Last night I wrote a letter from my 41 year old self to me now. Ten years in the future, what did I want to say to the person I am now. It was an amazing message of hope and gratitude. In ten years my dreams of being a best selling author had come about. It might have taken longer than I thought it would, but the effort I put in when I was 31-32 now pays my kids' school fees and means I can take wonderful holidays with my family. Yes, it took a while to get a traditional publishing contract, but by building my collection of quality self-published work I had increased the value of that contract because of all the back sales. Taking that bit of extra time in editing meant that I was still proud of all the work I had produced. And the hours I spent at the computer rather than watching T.V. meant that I could now spend time playing with my children.

To your future self, after the event, it doesn't seem to matter if it happened after 1 year or after 5. The important thing is that you kept trying until it did happen.

So I highly recommend you try this next time you get frustrated. And yes, maybe I will need to keep writing myself letters of encouragement. I might need to be my own cheer squad for many years to come. But eventually I will be there, because I'm not going to let myself give up.

And having said all that, there are also sweet points along the way. I've received two reviews from individuals who won a copy of After The Winter, both 4 stars on Goodreads (which anyone who knows Goodreads will realise how great that is.) How sweet are these?

Rachael said: "If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, then you’ll love this book" (what more could an author ask for?)

And Kathryn said: "Lucinda is a lovely character who makes you just want the best for her. I wanted to give her a hug at different points and tell her that it would all be ok." Which is exactly how I felt for Lucinda, so I'm glad that other people feel this way too!

For the full reviews, see After The Winter on Goodreads. 

I'm now working on episode 6 of Virtually Ideal. Last week I had a few reasonable days of 3,500 words, and one or two great days of just over 5,000. Then I had a day or two like yesterday when I couldn't write anything fresh.

However, I did not waste that time. I spent two hours yesterday, and one hour the other day I couldn't write editing Bootcamp. I'm focusing on the manuscript section by section at the moment and going over each chunk to make sure it's logical, with the clearest possible examples, good connectors and says everything that I want it to. I can see that it still needs quite a lot of editing work, but every time I read it I'm impressed with the good advice I've given (some of which I then put into practice myself!).  

This week I want to finish episode 6 and start episode 7. Need to keep pushing ahead as I want to finish the series this month so I can do my own Nanowrimo in July to write a brand new contemporary romance: Five Days In Vienna (based on a true story... mine. But more about that later). But if I get too burnt out to write, then I'll spend more time editing Bootcamp.

My brother is sending me a copy of Story by Robert McKee, which is particularly for screenplays but my brother was so impressed with the practical information that he said I needed to read it. I'm really looking forward to it. 

I'm also ahead in my reading challenge, which is great. At the moment I'm working my way through The Aeneid, as I've never read the whole thing, though I had to translate Book IV for my Latin test in year 12, so have always felt a connection to the work. The translation I have is not the most fluid, so it takes quite a bit of mental effort to read, but is refreshingly vivid and varied in its language. 

Anyone else have a good cure for frustration?