Friday, December 31, 2010

In with the new

The new year is so close it fills the horizon. 2011 will see some exciting changes to this blog. With the addition of two new bloggers we'll be going to five days a week. Pamela Turner will be posting on Tuesdays, and Nerine Dorman will be here on Thursdays. You can also find Write Club on Twitter now so give us a follow.

Have a safe and happy new year celebration and see you back here in 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Finding Time To Write

I complain frequently about how difficult it is to fit writing time in around the day job.

It is rare for me to have a day I can dedicate completely to writing, as all my weekdays are spent at work and my weekends are then spent doing those chores I don't have time to do during the week.

This time of year, however, I usually have about ten days off work. Even accounting for the madness of the Christmas festivities, that still gives me several days I can spend at home, dedicated entirely to writing if I chose to do so.

But do I get more writing done on those days? Sadly, no. If I spend the day at home, I find too many distractions. I waste time watching TV or playing computer games. When I do put my butt in the chair in front of the computer, I find myself stopping to make myself endless cups of tea, or wandering off in search of biscuits. Or one of the cats will come along and sit on my keyboard, making it rather difficult to get any typing done.

I seem to function better with the pressure of deadlines. Those mornings I crawl out of bed at 5:30am to sit in Starbucks for an hour before work I get more words written than I do sitting at home for an afternoon. Knowing I've only got an hour makes me obliged to write the words. If I know I've got six hours with nothing more important to do, the pressure is off and I'm much more inclined to get sidetracked doing something less important.

It seems I'm not yet disciplined enough to be a full time writer. I'm only an effective writer when I have deadlines. When I know my writing time is limited, I have to get on and do it.

Perhaps there's some truth to the old saying, "if you want something done, give it to a busy person". And perhaps I should stop whingeing about not having any time. When I have time, I am more inclined to waste it. When my time is limited, I make better use of it.

So I shall keep up my early-morning writing sessions, because they are proving to be the most effective time to write. I shall endeavour to complain less about not having any time. After all, we all have the same number of hours in our day. It's how we use them - there's the trick.

Perhaps one day I shall be ready to be a full-time writer. Until that time, I've got a lot more to learn about discipline.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A little holiday cheer

My favorite thing about the holiday season is hearing some of my favorite Christmas songs. I've got a playlist we'll listen to a few times before retiring it for another year. It's fairly diverse and includes both old classics and new songs. Here's three of my favorites.

Elvis Presley and Martina McBride, Blue Christmas

This was created by taking footage from the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special and combining it with new video of Martina. The song Blue Christmas is an old favorite of mine but this video is a favorite because my uncle, a music video producer in Nashville, was one of the video producers.

The Killers, Don't Shoot Me Santa

I never get tired of this one, both the song and the video. The hideous Christmas sweaters alone make the video worth watching. The song is catchy as can be, too.

Jackson Browne, The Rebel Jesus

Full disclosure: I'm not a Christian. However, I do find it sad that the name of Jesus is so frequently used to justify hatred, bigotry, selfishness, and greed. This song is a beautiful reminder of an alternative view of the teachings of Jesus, one that even an agnostic like myself can be moved by.

Whatever, however, you celebrate in this time of multiple holidays, large gatherings, and time with loved ones, I wish you peace and joy. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Over-Writing Vs Under-Writing

In the January 2011 issue of 'Writing Magazine' (a mag I would, incidentally, recommend all writers read), Lorraine Mace discusses the fact that writers fall into two categories when it comes to writing first drafts: over-writers and under-writers. The former group end up with a first draft containing too many words; the latter end up with too few.

Over-writers end up having to murder their darlings in re-writes. Like Lorraine Mace, I am an under-writer. My first drafts are rarely more than 50,000 words. I tend to stick to the facts in the early drafts. I don't worry myself with little things like description in the first draft. Or sub-plot.

So, serial under-writers like me have to spend several drafts fleshing out the story. It's one reason why I don't let anyone read my first drafts. If my first draft was a person, it would not only be naked, but have bare bones visible through the flesh - a stark and somewhat scary being really not fit to be seen in public.

Over-writers on the other hand have to go at the manuscript with a sharp object, hacking away all the excess flesh that's dragging down the plot and making the manuscript unwieldy and unmanageable.

The problem I have with being an under-writer is that when it comes to the second and third drafts, in a desperate attempt to increase the word count, I will sometimes overcompensate by adding too much unnecessary padding (a fact I'm sure my editor can verify). The final draft has to be a careful balance - enough description to add atmosphere and flavour; not so much that the manuscript has become an unwieldy tome.

Thankfully, that's why first drafts exist. They're allowed to be rubbish. By the time it gets to the fifth or sixth draft, my WIP will emerge, blinking, into the light, hopefully a halfway presentable manuscript.

So over-writer or under-writer? Which are you?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Free is always the right price

I'm back from my mini blogging break with a short post about a couple of useful links for writers.

One of the most important things a writer needs to do is back up their files. Not once a month, or once a week, but every time you make a change in a manuscript. You can of course use a flash drive or external hard drive for that, but then you have to remember - and take the time - to actually move files around and/or copy and paste. When I relied on a flash drive I would constantly forget to back up whatever I was working on and would wind up deleting what I had on the flash drive and basically starting over with copying and pasting files every few months. Eventually I tried a service called Dropbox which provides free online storage of up to 2 GB, with the possibility of getting more through referrals. 2 GB is an awful lot of text files. It starts you out with two folders, one labeled for photos and one labeled "Public." Every folder you create will remain private unless you designate otherwise. I deleted both of those starter folders and all of my stuff is private. The easiest way to back up your files is to work out of your Dropbox folder on your computer. That way everything syncs automatically, so no more having to remember to copy and paste anymore. Take a look at Dropbox, and if you sign up at this link it counts as a referral for me.

Another great service with a free option is Mail Chimp. This one is for newsletters. Earlier in the year I toyed with using an announcement-only Google group as a way to do a newsletter but I didn't like it. I've tried to pay attention to what other authors do and found a service with a free option. I think I'm going to like Mail Chimp. You can customize what your subscription page looks like as well as the newsletter itself. Here's the link to subscribe to mine. I'm going to be sending out a monthly newsletter on the last day of the month and I'm hoping to have exclusive content every month. For my first one I think I will include an excerpt from a recently finished novella. I think it's a good idea to offer this option to readers. Some readers like to keep up with the authors they read via blogs, some prefer Twitter or Facebook. Some would rather have a newsletter, so it's a good idea to put a little effort into one. It doesn't have to be long. An update on your latest work in progress, maybe some links to some of those blog posts you work so hard on, and some exclusive newsletter-only content is a good idea. Excerpts or flash fiction would be a good idea. It's not strictly necessary, though. Mostly you just want to remind readers that you, and more importantly your books, are still out there, so don't forget the cover art and buy links for your latest release.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Beginnings, Middles and Endings

I have had many a discussion in the past about what makes a book "good". I am willing to concede this is a matter of personal preference. A book might be superior in its language, and win all kinds of literary prizes. But that doesn't mean I'm going to like it.

Other books might tell a great story, but the writing style leaves a lot to be desired. They still manage to be mega best sellers ([cough] Dan Brown [cough] Stephenie Meyer).

I admit to being fairly simplistic in my literary tastes. I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like things to occur in chronological order. I like plenty of action. There has to be death, and danger (and preferably a bit of gore). This is what draws me to horror, crime and urban fantasy - on the whole, these genres have plenty of excitement, the characters face danger, and blood gets spilled.

A few years ago I read - and really hated - Donna Tartt's "The Little Friend". It started off well. A 12-year-old girl goes sleuthing to discover who murdered the brother who was killed before she was born. A mystery, then. I got quite engrosed in following her journey as she picks up clues.

But the book comes to an abrupt end without revealing who the killer is. That's an unsatisfactory ending. Fans of "The Little Friend" tend to say that the book is not about the murder, it's about the main character's emotional journey through adolescence. But you know what? That sort of journey just doesn't have enough action for my liking. And to introduce a murder mystery in a plot and not solve it? Well, that's just cheating.

I may never win any literary prizes in my writing career. I'm not even claiming to be all that good a writer. I just want to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle and and end. And preferably a horrible death somewhere along the line.

'Genre' fiction gets bad press sometimes, perceived as somewhat low-brow. But I'm happy to stick with my crime, horror and urban fantasy stories. Generally I'm in for an enjoyable read. And I'm also fairly confident I'll get a proper ending.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing Lesson #6: Discovering Technology

Note: Sara is on holiday so I'm posting this on her behalf.

About the time I started submitting short stories, I began to think about investing in one of those newfangled devices called a ‘word processor’.

In high school I took typing classes, and before I left school I typed out all of my stories. But once I started submitting, it didn’t take long for the copies to get pretty dog-eared. Unprofessional, I thought, and I was trying to build up a reputation as a ‘serious’ writer.

So, in the late 1980s, once I started working and earning money, I invested in my first word processor. It was an Amstrad PCW. It had a black screen and green type. It didn’t have a hard drive – instead everything was saved on three-and-a-half inch floppy disks.

As I’ve already mentioned, I was very well entrenched in a writing routine that involved hand writing the first draft. In pencil. When I got the word processor I began to rethink this. After all, it was so easy to make amendments on the word processor – everything could be changed on screen. Surely I would save myself time (and paper) by typing directly onto the screen, making amendments and then printing out the final copy.
Being a creature of habit, it took me a while to get used to doing things this way. Change is not something that comes naturally to me (I think I’ve mentioned that before, too).

But the Amstrad heralded the start of a new writing routine. The first draft got typed directly onto the computer. Because of the limitations of those early floppy disks, which really did not have much in the way of memory, I got into the habit of saving each chapter as a separate file. It took three or four disks, as I recall, to save an entire novel this way.

Now, of course, the modern PC will let you save huge files, But because I am a creature of habit, I still work this way. I still start a new file for each chapter when I am in draft stage. I start a new sub-folder for each new draft.

This has been my writing process for over 20 years now. I couldn’t go back to writing that first draft in pencil even if I wanted to – and yet I still remember how difficult it was for me to break the old routine and type directly onto the computer.

The next turning point in the learning curve of my writing processes came when I joined a writing group. That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Don't be this guy

This is painfully funny, but it's also an accurate representation of how some people view writing and publishing. Don't be this guy. You wouldn't want to make anybody's heart stop, would you?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Writing Lesson #5: First Acceptance

Note: Sara is on holiday so I'm posting this on her behalf.

When I finished school in 1988, I moved back to England, and began in earnest my quest to get my short stories published. I learned two things fairly quickly. First of all, the short horror story market was a rich vein (no pun intended) in the late 1980s, and there were a lot of magazines around – pro and semi pro – publishing the sort of nasty little stories I was writing.

Secondly, I was now in the grown-up world and things were very different. As a minor, everyone had been terribly supportive of my writing – presumably not wishing to crush my fragile adolescent soul. But once I passed the age of 18, I was an adult – at least in British law – and I was just one of many people writing and submitting. I was not a special little snowflake, and my form rejection letters reflected that.

It was a harsh lesson, but I’d been researching the whole process of submitting, and I’d come to understand that one must expect rejection, and not take it personally. I’d also been researching where to send my stories. One day browsing the newsagents in my lunch break (as I’d left school and entered adulthood, I’d also entered the scary world of Working for a Living), I came across a magazine called FEAR. As well as articles and reviews on books and movies in the horror genre – and covers that would offend most people of a fragile nature – they featured short stories by new writers in every issue. Aha, a market for me, I thought, and after buying and studying an issue, I sent to them a story called “The Top Floor”. I’d written it at age 17, and it was about a young man who goes to visit his friend in his new apartment, and stumbles across a ghostly re-enactment of a murderer who butchered his family in the apartment block years before.

It was a story with flaws, there is no doubt about that. But it was set on Friday October 13 (yes, it was also full of clich├ęs) and 1989 – the year I submitted it to FEAR – was a year that October 13 happened to fall on a Friday. I think this appealed to the editors. They accepted the story, and it appeared in the Hallowe’en issue that year. They also paid me £50 for this.

I admit I got a little smug. I was 19, I’d just sold a story for what was, I thought at the time, a considerable amount of money, and I thought I’d got it made.

Sadly, reality swiftly crept in. That £50 was a lot of money. It’s more than I’ve ever made, collectively, from my writing in the 21 years since then, including all the royalties I’ve had from SUFFER THE CHILDREN.

I learned I couldn’t give up the day job if I was to continue writing. But I also learned that what I was writing was publishable, and it paid to be persistent.

The rejection letters continued to come, but I framed that first acceptance letter and to this day it hangs on the wall in my ‘writing corner’, to remind me of the day I first became a ‘proper’ writer.