PROCRASTINATION

I don’t normally watch videos of ‘writing advice’. It seems the wrong medium somehow – a bit like listening to a podcast about how to paint. Although of course both can work within their limits quite well.

So it was with some surprise I came across this YouTube video of one Alexa Donne. Entitled:

HARD WRITING ADVICE‘ (Mostly for new writers).

I nearly clicked on to whatever it was I was originally looking for, before I paused at Ms Donne’s enthusiasm and surprisingly ironic approach.

I was glad I did.

Most of her advice is fairly self evident to an old git like me – I have never posted on reddit – but for my children’s addition to YouTube compilations I would barely be aware of it much less post complaints about why I’m not being published more or ‘brainstorm’ my novel (who works out plot and character with strangers in a public forum?). The ‘just write advice’ is good and she puts it over in an amusing, ironic, yet oddly supportive manner. I am ashamed to say I have not read her books, perhaps as she is a Young Adult author that is not particularly surprising. Who knows though, as part of my ‘read wider’ campaign I may take a look.

While on that theme I looked back at my rambling on that idea and was very surprised how narrow my ‘canon’ seemed. Checking on accepted versions of the ‘western canon’ I was reassured my version is wider than that but I should have included more women and foreign language writers, it’s not like I don’t read them, but I appear to be as guilty of unconscious bias as any. I’m not sure Georgette Heyer and Austen get me off the hook here.

Also, who gets in the more modern lists? I need to look at more American authors for one thing and South Asian and African books.

But in the words of Ms Donne that is procrastination – go and write!

WHICH WAY?

You aren’t interested in the writing process, or at least my writing process. I know because I’ve just read a blog by a writer of fiction who has published and knows and who told me (and anyone else who logged in) that was true. Apparently.

Which is odd because I’ve just read another blog by another writer, freelance but doing okay by the look of things, at least writing telling others how to write, that that is exactly what you want. They went about finding out in an apparently more scientific way by asking via a survey on facebook and on Twitter what people wanted to read on their blog. Some of the answers were scripts, templates, and workbooks, which let’s face it appear to be somewhat related to the writing process.

I occasionally do this: search for what people who write about writing and what people who read blogs of and about writing want to read. I want to grow the numbers of people who read what I write on here. So any hints I can get about what people like to read about are very welcome.

As you can see from the above and those are polar opposites picked from a lot of samples out there that illustrate the vast breadth of different opinions about what works, there is no consensus.

If one of the two extremes shown were an outlier, I’d be content to go with the other extreme. The problem is, the recommended paths are about equally divided between these two polls and all shades in between. If there were one true path I’d probably take it. But there isn’t. Now I don’t suspect either of these bloggers, nor many of the others out there between their positions, have a particular axe to grind that makes their opinions or findings dubious. In the myriad blogs out there telling you how to get more readers, make money, improve your seo profile, build a base etc. there are obviously some trying to make a fast buck and hang the consequences. But most are genuinely trying to pass on knowledge they believe to be true. Wisdom that they have gleaned from experience. What has worked for them.

Now not all these pieces of advice are mutually exclusive, you may want to see script development in all its glory and want to know about the writer as a person, but some of these bits of advice can’t all be right.

I’ve been told to avoid too much ‘me’ in blog posts, make it about the story. Don’t give too much away about my work, make it about me as a person and build a base for publication.  Post example short stories. Remember that’s the first publication rights b******d, don’t post your stories for publication. Post excerpts, don’t give plots away, protect your ideas, tell people about your family, make yourself human, don’t tell people how difficult the publication/agent process can be, you’ll look needy, like a loser, expose your soul, project the person you want to be.

I guess a lot of it depends on what you want your blog to be; what is its purpose?

I like writing and want to share that with people.

If they get to know a bit about me at the same time, that’s good.

So although I’ll keep looking for insights into what other people think I should be doing I think I’ll just keep writing what I like and what I can, and hoping you like it too.

Thanks.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a5/abe729″>Dan Guimberteau</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re7/4f99c40b”>VisualHunt.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”&gt; CC BY-NC-SA</a>

SHIBBOLETH

My daughter just opened an amusing can of worms for me. Possibly even a box of frogs. Nay, a bag of spanners or even maybe nails.

What is this hate filled container of vitriolic differences?

How many spaces to put between sentences.

I know. A minefield of typographic horror.

So which is it people? One or two spaces? Let’s not trammel with the insanity of none or more – that way madness lies.

I grew up with one way – I’m not going to tell you which just yet, you can sweat a little. Let’s just tease you for a second or two and say that my age has something to do with my initial preference but that is not the end of the matter.

I laboured under this misapprehension of spatial insertion orthodoxy for years until I read the MHRA style guide, as you do. Okay it wasn’t a light recreational reading choice I confess, it was for my Masters. And there it was, the awful truth that I had been doing it wrong all these years. And I shall now reveal the answer to the question I posed…

It is one.

Apparently it was the manual typewriter that introduced the heinous aberration of  double space between sentences into the world of typography. I’m not going to labour the point about monospaced font – manual typewriters usually, versus proportional fonts, computers and trad typesetting. You can go and search for it online, trust me it is there in all its glory. The reason I learned to put two spaces was because of the mechanical and typographic idiosyncracies of the typewriter. The demise of that  beast and monospaced type meant the the return of the single pace, which real typesetters had never abandoned. Apparently.

 

So if it is one space now we have done away with the temporary glitch of manual typewriters sticking the extra space in to counter their abysmal fonts, why did my daughter spark such a trail of devastation throughout the Farrish household?

Because despite the change back, yes single space was the accepted norm before manual typewriting apparently, to single spacing between sentences, her academic writing guide suggests, possibly more than suggests, double spacing!

Hence my sudden trawl through the backwaters of typographer hell. They are quite vehement in their condemnation of the double space on the whole. Not merely suggesting it is preferable to use a single space but utterly consigning to the outer darkness those who would toy with the wasteful concept of double spacing between sentences.

So MHRA, typographers of the world and space savers everywhere or her University style guide?

(Sorry, no prizes if you got the question right, and I suspect no thanks from my daughter if you would like to suggest which route she should choose. Currently I believe she hates everyone associated with typographic rulings. Keep your heads down!)

RTFQ: READ THE QUESTION

I was reading an article that popped up the other day when I was doing a search for something else (procrastinating as it happens, but not for once about writing- ironic the theme of the article was: why writers procrastinate). http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/why-writers-are-the-worst-procrastinators/283773/

I got to the bit where the author said re authors: ‘We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class.’

And I nodded sagely and was about to pass on when I thought – ‘hang on I got a 3’

I probably need to clarify for those younger than me –nearly everybody – GCE O Levels, forerunners of GCSEs were graded 1-6 pass (GCSE A-C equivalent although you aren’t supposed to think like that) and 7-9 fail and then a whole series of other things about unclassified or too horrible to sully the markers pen. (Nobody softened the blow in those day – pass/fail/beyond the pale). I had been tipped for a 1, equivalent today of an A (I know it’s all about to change back to numbers again – plus ça change and all that).

Come the day of the exam however and I sat down and looked at the paper and answered the comprehension, and then the composition based on a drawing, and then a whole raft of other stuff, and my hand was flying. It needed to. As I looked at the clock, my calculations that this was going to be very tight, were proving correct. I finished, just, but my handwriting had been reduced to a horrible scrawl by then and my hand was in spasm.

As we walked away after the exam, the chatter was about what a fair paper it was. I was a bit bemused; I had thought it a complete *******. ‘Oh no, it was great!’ my friends said before asking: ‘Maybe you picked a different bit. What did you choose for Part II?’

Pick?

Choose?

I scrabbled in my pocket and turned to the relevant bit of the paper: ‘Choose ONE section only of Part II and write…’

ONE! I’d answered it all! No wonder my hand was doing an impression of the Monkeys Paw (Brilliantly scary little horror/supernatural story by WW Jacobs- if you haven’t read it yet: read it- preferably on a dark winter night by a fire side – but lock the doors first!).

I had a horrible summer waiting to find out the damage. There was a tale going around that if you ignored the instructions they failed you stone dead, without even reading the rest of the paper. Fortunately that turned out to be a schoolboy rumour on this occasion and they must have taken the first bit they got to, and could still read, as my answer. On the whole I thought a grade 3 for being an idiot and not reading the question was pretty good.

This was made all the more relevant because my daughter got her GCSE results last week (she heeded my dire warnings re reading the question – mostly! And is going to Sixth form next Monday)

I did have some very good advice in later years from a lecturer. If only he could have passed on this little acronym before my English O Level:

RTFQ: Read the Question.

 

PS: I like the idea that it is a fear of failing to live up to your natural standards that puts many writers off committing to paper/screen. I can definitely relate to that. The bit where it turns into yet another self improvement piece worries me. These things always turn into a ‘hard work will overcome all’ – ‘embrace failure to move on’ pep talk. This one does just that. It’s all about ‘Embracing Hard Work’. Now I’m not against hard work (I am but let’s pretend) but these pieces are so often part of an ethos that striving can achieve anything and (the sting in the tail) the unspoken (not always, sometimes its right out there) corollary is that if you don’t achieve you didn’t strive enough. Sometimes that may be true, but the impression (more than that – it’s the main thrust) of the attitude in these pieces is that you could have succeeded if you had ‘wanted it enough’. This ideology is so barren (apart from forcing people to work more for less).

People need to look dispassionately at why they are not achieving what they wanted. It may be impossible. It may be that they are using the wrong study method or approach. It may be that the advice they are getting is really bad.

It may be a case of RTFQ.

Smarter not harder.

 

 

ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA

So, and remember I know absolutely NOTHING! about this, I thought I might have a Facebook presence after all. I have avoided most social media with a vengeance for years. I have been online for 20 years and never felt much of an urge to post pictures of cats I have known, voles I have strangled or oddly erotically shaped vegetables I have found or grown. It all seemed rather purposeless, especially as my previous occupation didn’t exactly encourage publicity.

Recently however, I have begun thinking about how I can connect with more people to get them to read my writing. I’m still hooked on hard copy and eBook publishing. Hard to think that eBooks have acquired a sort of ‘traditional’, almost fuddy duddy, status already, but they seem to have passed into the realm of the staid almost before they became cool. I still like vinyl records and regard CDs as modern, but I know that makes me sound like a judge at the Assizes asking if the Rolling Stones are a ‘modern beat combo’. Streaming and downloads rule and many casual readers consume writing in a similar fashion (so my 16 year old daughter tells me – although not her she snorts in contempt, having now transformed over the last eighteen months into a hard back book snob). Now I can’t pretend that I am aiming at the 16 year old reading market, but I am aware that many people, some even older than I am, do pay quite a lot of attention to the various social media platforms, for a steer at least, on what to read. I have a feeling that I should not let this avenue of contact with readers pass me by, but I am, at the same time, aware that I sound less than enthusiastic about the idea. This is not true, I have bags of enthusiasm but my knowledge of what I am doing is in inverse proportion to my enthusiasm. I am fairly confident therefore, that I am likely to be barking up any number of wrong trees regarding which platform is appropriate for what I want to do.

Take Facebook. At last he gets to the point again! I read, online that Facebook was easily the best platform for a writer to use to put themselves out there. Then, in three Google results, I got three different sets of advice, all from supposedly knowledgeable and independent writing sources, about what I actually need. I just thought Facebook was Facebook but apparently within the house of Zuckerberg there are many mansions. I need a Page for professional look to separate my personal page, no I need to use my personal account to boost my immediate contacts and build my following, no I need a Profile not a page as it is more friendly and welcoming and can be extended by allowing followers and… Already in half an hour I am lost. I ask my daughter. She looks happy, Dad is moving with the times, and here is something where she is the expert and I the tyro. She gives me a completely different account of what I need.

I think I may take ads out in local newspapers instead, or walk the streets of Cardiff and Bristol wearing sandwich boards.

Watch this space: but don’t hunt too hard on Facebook just yet. I’ll let you know.

MOTIVATIONAL TOSH

I had a motivational missive from Linked In today. I keep getting these things and they are pretty much all the same. They are generally American, but you just know that the UK management guru types are lapping them up, nodding in agreement and forwarding them to their captive audience of puppets for their consumption.

It had, like all these things, a message. This was a tale of setback and redemption through tenacity, strife and the realisation that the psychopath who knocked them back knew best after all.  In this case an evil being, “Mr Rant”, was exceptionally rude and unpleasant to someone trying to get a job in film and tv. Later in life the victim realised how much they had to thank him for. His manner had caused them some distress at the time but it had allowed them to develop an inner tenacity, and make a change of direction which enabled them to find the right job in their chosen field rather than the dream job which was just plain wrong for them. And gosh goldarn it, how right he was to have identified that their own choice was incorrect.

So what we have is a bully and probable psychopath who rather than find out what the talents of this person were, has a great time making them feel small and humiliated and destroying their hopes and shuffling them off into a second choice, at best, career. We don’t of course hear about all those who, whether really talented or not, were depressed, shattered and ruined by their repeated contact with people like Mr Rant.

Now it may well be that the person writing this (assume for a moment this tale is real rather than a parable for the work ethic and the boss is always right mentality) believes this analysis of their humiliation. That is sad. Not only are they a victim of bullying and aggressive defence of an established power in creative business but they are colluding in the perpetuation of this victimisation. They aren’t coming to terms with reality they are pretending that bullies and power crazed loons actually know what is best for us.

This tale would have been inspirational if the victim has kept their dream alive, found another way to get into their chosen profession and created material that helped push their detractor’s career into oblivion. It would have been doubly morally engaging if, when they succeeded, they offered helpful criticism and a hand up to genuinely talented people and helped the system, company, organisation, department, whatever it may be, to get better. Those who didn’t have the talent could be let down gently rather than being attacked and vilified.

A fairy tale perhaps, but no more so than the tidal wave of  tosh that flow through the management stroking machines of HR and PR at the moment.

FORMULAS FOR SUCCESS?

Last week I gave a talk to the writers group I attend (somebody different does it every month – it’s not that I am that erudite – just buggins’ turn). I talked about planning and plotting a novel. You could just about apply the method I discussed to a short story but it would be overkill I think.

I picked one particular way of identifying the main character, their journey to the end you decide (or they decide) their story takes them and the pitfalls and joys they experience along the way. There are various types of format for identifying your main character, describing this process and the ways the main protagonist progresses and struggles and the sidekicks who aid and obstruct them on that path. In the end however they are all much the same.

 

As I prepared for the talk I wondered how much I actually use these formulas (and that for me is one of their problems – their formulaic nature) and how much I use them, when I do, to deconstruct what I have already written and see if it hangs together and makes sense. This is a little cart before horse perhaps but I find it much more useful to take a segment of a longer novel (or the outline of it) and subject it to analysis, after I have done a fair bit of spadework. Is the main protagonist the person I thought it was going to be or am I more interested in someone who was going to be a side character (I always got bored with Romeo and Juliet after Mercutio bows out)? Is their goal what I thought it was or is it a minor peak in the journey to a bigger end?

I normally get a pretty good idea where I am headed instinctively after an idea pops into my head. It doesn’t always remain the goal, but I would probably lose all enthusiasm if I sat straight down and worked through the process of laying it all out as the various pro formas suggest one ought.

I have found JK Rowling style spread sheets very helpful in keeping me on the straight and narrow for plotting. I tend to use it as a way of keeping track of what has happened to now though rather than being too precise about keeping to milestones on a pre-planned journey. I generally know where I am headed but some of the byways are a surprise to me. However had I adopted this method earlier I would undoubtedly not have made what was, on re-reading, a fairly glaring plot error in my ‘Lagan Bubbles’ screenplay (nobody pointed it out at the BBC- but they didn’t like it for other reasons anyway so I wonder how seriously they read it). Re-write in progress (which I hate).

My concern, to which I alluded earlier, is that sticking rigidly to any of the plans and plotting course recommendations (web, college, correspondence course based etc etc) leads to very rigid formulaic stories. They may tick all the boxes but I’m not sure I want to read by the numbers novels.

Some of them do make a lot of money however. :^)

Elmore Leonard’s List

A friend from the writer’s group I belong to sent us all a copy of the list of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. I guess it has become more widely disseminated in the light of the great man’s recent demise.

I hadn’t realised it was Elmore Leonard’s list until I read my friend’s email. It is a list that has been knocking around the writers’ blogs scene for a while now. Sometimes there are more, sometimes less but I had never heard the list directly attributed to Leonard until his death.

It has the usual dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts. No adverbs, don’t start with the weather (this was on a recent Sins of Literature programme, not attributed I think) and watch the exclamation marks. Fair enough in general. As my friend said in the accompanying email, ‘You don’t have to agree with him.’

I guess if Leonard adhered to this list it may have worked. Of course that assumes that Leonard’s writing would have been either a lot worse or sold a lot fewer copies if he had ignored some of them. We don’t know whether that is true. That’s the problem with listening to good advice from successful people; it assumes they are as good at being self aware regarding what works as they are at doing it instinctively. If this is not simply a generic list slopped out at feeding time for aspiring authors, and is a list that someone as successful as Leonard lived by we still can’t say that makes it something we should copy. We can guess that a book filled with all these forbidden habits is likely to be terrible. If you want to read some, read Dickens, he commits at least two of them in spades, detailed descriptions of characters and going into great detail describing places and things. I happen to agree in this case. There are pieces of Dickens I find so moving as to be almost impossible to read for their poignancy and insight. There are other pieces I can hardly get through because of their tedious attention to irrelevant detail.

Leonard’s tenth commandment is supposedly the most important and is: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ (that in itself makes me wonder whether this is really Leonard –it sound very cautious for him.) I know Dickens was writing pot-boiling serials for magazines but wow! (sorry about the exclamation mark!) But this is good advice buddy.

So do I agree with Leonard? A bit I suppose (whether it is his list or not) but the  most important item that sometimes appears on the list (Elmore’s or not) is : Ignore all these if its right. I’m sure Leonard would agree.

Advice to those Contemplating Writing

ADVICE TO THOSE CONTEMPLATING WRITING

If you want to write – get on with it.

Sure there are ways to improve your chances of publication by reading about how to do it and getting advice on how to polish your work, but there is one sure way to NOT get published and that is having nothing to show an agent or a publisher.

 

So my main advice would be to write something every day if you can. If you can’t or don’t like writing like that, if you get a couple of days at the weekend when you are free to get into the mood – write more then.

I have read some bizarre, conflicting and plain stupid advice on websites and in books designed to ‘help’ budding writers. Sometimes they really are intended to help but the writer is just plain dumb, but often they appear to be there mainly to milk the poor tyro who doesn’t know where to go or thinks they don’t know how to start.

 

Take this, in a (successful) blog about how to write – recommended in a list of the ‘must follow blogs’ for would be writers.

Point one  ‘write for others’ – the point being apparently that if you are writing for yourself it is the literary equivalent of masturbation, fun but ultimately lonely and it won’t attract others.

However the key point made at the end of the list is that great writers write for themselves.

I think the point that the writer is trying to get over here, given that the last observation  was in a section called ‘Disregard all advice’, is that great (I would say all good) writing is not formulaic. You can learn to write material that will engage and probably even sell by following a basic formula but it will be competing with a lot of mediocre tosh out there, much of which is distributed for free these days.  The title of the last section is remarkably honest, given that the author is selling a book telling people how to get published.

Let me give you a piece of advice for free.

Presuming you can read and recognise good writing in your chosen language, stop worrying about the bits and pieces and write something. Then read one of the practical books or articles on how to get published – the practicalities of how to approach agents or publishers, or self publish online (not vanity publishing).

If you are worried about things like split infinitives… stop it! This idea comes from the late eighteenth century when people like Dr Johnson were codifying the language. The problem is that some of them took rules for Latin grammar and applied them to English (being Enlightenment scholars they tended to have a bit of a fixation about classical texts). The point being that you CAN’T split a Latin infinitive -it’s one word, whereas you can and often SHOULD split an English one … to boldly go on your way to writing something other than a text book.

Similar story with that most widely overused piece of writing advice for beginners, don’t use adverbs. Tosh. Utter tosh and drivel. Sure, don’t go mad with them but it would be a stultifyingly dull read without any modifiers of verbs. Would you read something with no adjectives? You will end up with a ‘Jack eats jam. Jack likes jam. Jam is made of sugar and fruit’ style of writing with this reductio ad boredom advice.

So go and read a few ‘how to’ books if you must – but only a few. Go to a local writers group for genuine helpful feedback. But remember don’t let the advice or the feedback become an end in themselves. Unless you like reading these books instead of the latest Dan Brown (remember how much money he’s made before you get too snotty!) and want a social life based around budding authors (neither necessarily a bad thing), write more than you study. You should be studying without noticing you are doing it most of the time – reading, listening to the spoken word and watching TV and Film.

In all that time you spend reading about plotting, rhythm, characterisation, punctuation, not using a preposition to end a sentence with, etc. you could have written a couple of novels, a handful of novellas or a collection of short stories.

So go write something. (But remember my advice to ignore advice doesn’t apply to my blog!)