Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Deep and Meaningful Conversation with my Dogs

Once upon a time there
was a dog called Bodger...
Recently, my dogs asked me why I liked writing stories.
“It’s fun,” I said.
“Do you write about talking dogs?” they said.
And I said, “No, I write about things in real life.”   
“Why would you do that?” they said.

And you know what? I didn't have an answer.

So I've been thinking and googling and reading a few books about it
since, and what I've learned isn't rocket science, but it has helped me to put this whole why-I-am-a-writer thing in perspective.

Telling stories is the language of being human; always has been and always will be. We are hard wired for story. We think in story. We talk in story. We make connections in story. We want to know what happens in the end.

... who met a dog
called Summer...
Take these real life episodes…

1. A man walks down the road and falls into a hole.
“Where? How? Was he hurt?” I hear you ask.

2. The kid next door to me left her tooth under the pillow and her dog ate it…
“Was the kid upset? What happened to the dog? Did the tooth fairy still visit?”

3. There was a woman on the bus, crying into her shopping bag.
“ But why? What about? Did anybody help her?”

See? We want to know all about it. We want to know if things can change. We want to know the outcomes.

We are emotional beings, and stories are about negotiating emotions in a never-ending number of scenarios. Stories give us a framework to understand what’s going on.

Beginning - Middle - End
Conflict - Climax - Resolution

Stories are like a map of the unknown, showing us a path through experiences and emotions that might otherwise leave us feeling lost.  And the world’s a scary place, right? All sorts of shit can hit the fan when you least expect it. And if we don’t have a model of how to deal with it, then what do we do?

Us humans, we don’t like change. We’re goal driven and don't take kindly to detours or dead-ends, and some of us resist more than others. But in all cases, stories help us to plan change, to imagine a different future and how to deal with it. They help us solve problems and develop empathy. And they open our minds to new possibilities and new ways of seeing the world. They may even alter our perception of reality…

But that doesn't really answer my dogs’ question. Why we do I write real life stories?

And I guess the answer is, that I like real people. Escaping into a fantasy world just doesn't work for me. I’m the stranger who sits on the train and watches what others are doing, thinking, and feeling about their life. I’m the weirdo who never forgets a face, and remembers every piece of information I've ever heard about your personal life. I can tell you who ate what at play group,  who was friends with whom, and who bit Toby’s bum. I can tell you who's related to him, what he said when her  mum died, and who's bringing up their baby now. I can even tell you what star signs they are. 

I've got a qualification in psychoanalytical observation, so people watching is just grist to the mill for me, a writer. 

...and 9 weeks later,
Bear was born.
In a previous life, I was a teacher and a hypnotherapist, because I genuinely want stuff to work out for people. I want them to be happy, even though I know that sometimes that’s really not on the cards in the short term. In real life, I don’t always know the way to help a person be happy.

But in a story? I do.

“One last thing,” said my dogs. “Why children? Why write stories for children when there are so many dogs out there looking for answers?”

And do you know what? I'll save the answer for another blog post.

Monday, 14 January 2013

My Life as a Zebra, by Arthur Dog (The Catch 22 of Planning)

After writing my last book using the Splurge Method, I decided to do something different this time. My new book was going to be planned to the last detail, because proper and meticulous planning is surely the short-cut to success...

The inspiration for Arthur's
 new novel
I had a title, and an idea; all I had to do was fill in the blanks.

And so, in the post Christmas brain drain, I sat down with my pen and paper and an empty space in my head, raring to go; raring to plan. I was excited about the possibilities and wondered what marvelous thoughts would flow onto the page.

But then, instead of writing down a hundred genius ideas, I found myself staring at a blank page whilst slowly losing the will to live.

How could I plan if I didn't know what the story was about?
How could I plan the actions and reactions of my characters if I didn't know them?
How could I get to know them without writing about them?
How could I write about them if I didn't know what the novel was about?

Also by Arthur Dog
"My Life as a Panda" 
Getting, nowhere, and fast, were the only words which sprang to mind.

Other writers don't seem to have problem writing detailed plans, sticking their plot points on an ever increasing number of little cards and putting them in order. Other writers re-arrange those same little cards as more plot points emerge, and alphabetically file the unused cards for later books. Other writers plan in fluent prose, with detailed lists and elaborate pie charts, flow charts, Venn diagrams, plot chains, event bubbles, picture boards, character studies... and so on.

And in the end, I decided to throw rules, planning and caution to the wind and do just what I've always done. I.E. Let my imagination run wild and SPLURGE.

After five days of early mornings and a realistic target of 500 words per day, I  reached the giddy heights of 2,737 words. I kind of know where I am heading with this book now, and as I write, the characters and the plot are taking pretty good shape. I know it will need a massive edit when I get to the end, but hey, writing is re-writing whichever way you start the ball rolling. 

How do you kick start a new writing project?
Just be yourself, Deer. Do whatever
comes naturally...

Monday, 7 January 2013

Reading Out Loud

(This post was originally published on my Magic Beans Blog, but is repeated here because it's so darned important.) 

Before you get to the point of paying someone to edit your manuscript, here is my number one tip for helping you to take your own edits as far as they can go.


You don't have to read your work aloud to an audience,
but if you do, pay attention to their reaction.

Doing this will allow you to see (and hear) all sorts of potential problems. When reading out loud, you must read every single word; when reading silently to yourself, there will be words, sentences and even whole paragraphs you skip over. You might not even realise you are doing it, but you will.

When reading aloud you will (in no particular order):
  • pick up on the natural rhythms, language, speech, sense of time and place and so on
  • get a sense of what feels right and wrong, much more readily than if you keep the words to yourself
  • notice the words you overuse
  • become acutely aware of clumsy expressions
  • know which sentences are too long when you run out of breath before you get to the end
  • have a more immediate feel for the pacing, either because it moves too fast or too slow, with not enough beats for you to take a moment’s rest from the plot
  • notice problems with your characters (eg, are they distinguishable from one another?) 
  • notice information dumps; the places where you do too much telling and not enough showing
  • feel bored if there are no, or too few, variations in tension
  • know if you really like and identify with your protagonist, over and above your minor characters
  • notice if major plot points are not given enough prominence
  • know if you have tied up loose ends
This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but it should give you a better sense of what you are looking for, and hopefully convince you that reading out loud is a good thing.

Of course, you might not find any problems with your manuscript and feel that the whole experience of reading aloud was a waste of time… but then you have probably written the perfect novel. Well done.