Monday, 27 August 2012

Looking Back Down

Ten things that helped me write a novel

After just over two years steadily climbing towards this point, my first novel is finished and ready for the next step. It’s an odd place to be. Along with an odd sense of vertigo, I can see a lot from this hilltop: there’s the next book to decide on —all those other hills— as well as that publishing mountain looming on the horizon. But for now it’s just nice to sit here and admire the view, to look back down at some of those paths, guides and handholds that have helped me get to this point. The route hasn’t always been straight or easy, but I’ve found my way.

Here are some of the things that have helped me get here:

1. Doing a Course.
Doing some kind of course in writing, even if it is a short semester at the local community college, will provide invaluable grounding and experience, as well as offering a boost to the confidence of anyone thinking of writing professionally.
In 2009 I began a Masters degree in professional writing through University College Falmouth, I graduated in 2011. I cannot say enough about how much this has changed my understanding of writing, the industry and what it entails to be a writer. I feel privileged to have worked with the combination of staff and fellow students for that time.

2. Having Good and Supportive Mentors
Writing is a lonely activity; one in which self-doubt and second-guessing can creep into your thoughts as easily as over-confidence and blindness to fundamental errors. Having the right mentors at the right times will not only help you continue with your work, but will hopefully give you the right perspective on it. A mentor does not have to be the all-wise sensei of the martial arts films, simply a person whose knowledge and opinion you trust. Though, as in the films one should always respect such individuals and never pester them with trivial questions.
I was lucky enough to work with some first class tutors as part of my MA, but I’ve also had other mentors both from my background in the film industry and new ones I have encountered since starting out as a writer. Finding mentors is not as difficult as some might believe; experienced writers will often answer queries through social media and a little research can turn up a whole plethora of experts in various fields, who are often flattered to be consulted as long as you are sincere.

3. The Notebook
As an animator and illustrator I learned to use sketchbooks to record interesting things that I encountered as well as ideas as they occurred to me. My sketchbooks also were also where I worked out and developed rough concepts and images. I would also note and develop any script ideas. So much, in fact that I began to realise that I got more from the writing than I did from the drawing. But notebook or sketchbook, the point is the same; I have a lot of ideas, some good, some rubbish and some a little outlandish, but if I don’t record them somewhere I’ll forget them as soon as new ideas arrive to push them out of my head. Even if an idea isn’t going to fill out to my next novel it may still form a scene, make a short story or flash fiction piece.

4. Research
It goes without saying, but there are still times when I have felt unable to progress because I didn’t fully understand something. This has occurred both with the technical aspects of writing and also with such things as background for characters or places.
Public libraries, or better still sneaky visits to university libraries are always rewarding, buying the relevant books is even better if you can afford it. For some elements of research it is worth investing the time and visiting places, or interviewing people with direct experience. That said, we live in an era of unprecedented access to information and  it is possible to look many things up on the internet within minutes or visit a location through Google Earth. Such research should always be double checked, but it’s saved me a lot of time and frustration.

5. A Professional Approach
Though there are times when we all slip; when we could be more thorough, deal with people better or remember important details; everything undertaken as a writer should be with professionalism at the back of your mind. Whether tweeting, blogging, updating a website or sending an email, you should be conscious of who might read it.
It is not just the copy, the content, editing or structure that is important to being professional: it is how the process is approached. I made a decision early on that if writing was going to be part of my career, I would need to dedicate a portion of my life to it. For the last two years that is exactly how I have worked, dividing my day in two, with mornings reserved exclusively for writing. It is part of my job and I try to discipline myself to work as if I’m being employed to do so.

6. Understanding Yourself
This is an odd one that won’t appear in many books, but finding out about your writing foibles and working with them can help your productivity as well as avoid frustration in your work. I’ve done a fair amount of research into what makes writers tick (more about that another time) and the conclusion is that we really do implement different thought processes for different writing tasks. These can be divided roughly into freeform creative writing and analytical editing. Like many people I’m not able to perform the two at the same time. I’ve learnt to accept that my creative brain can’t spell, uses punctuation like fairy-dust and insists on inserting apostrophes into embarrassing places, but I can come back to the piece later and let my analytical mode give a long suffering sigh and sort it all out.
I’ve learned that I’m a very focussed writer, but a lousy multi-tasker: if I’m working on a project, I need to shut myself away from outside distractions. I also find it far too easy to jump between different projects then end up in a tissy about which to work on. To avoid this I’ve taken to prioritising my projects and keeping at it until I’m finished.

7. Keeping Going
I’m not a volume writer: Nanowrimo is not my thing, but I like to think I’m an inspired writer. Unfortunately there are inevitably days when the muse doesn’t feel like pushing me on to the next sentence or when the narrative demands I write an event or character interaction for which I feel no magic tingle in my fingers. Sometimes I’m not inspired, sometimes I’m daunted by what I’ve set out to achieve. My usual solution to this, perhaps after a short walk or a coffee, is to just get on with it and brute it down on paper with intentional recklessness. This sometimes yields surprising results. On other days I’ve sat and written a list of four very easily achievable tasks: write the next sentence, write what Mel says, check the time it takes to fly from Heathrow to Bordeux, finish the paragraph. Once the list is complete I can feel good, get up, reward myself with yet more coffee and then write another list.

8. Understanding Structure
Prior to my MA my knowledge of structure for both scripts and stories was a vague belief that there should be a beginning, middle and end, coupled with an instinctive seat-of-the-pants approach to the way a narrative unfolded. To be fair, my instincts weren’t too bad, but on several occasions I had to abandon projects that had gone awry. With hindsight I now know this was caused by a lack of understanding of the necessary structure. On my MA course, I had a genuine moment of epiphany when I realised how different narrative structures could be used to work through any story, novel or a script. Thanks Aristotle, Michael Tierno and Joseph Campbell.

9. Getting into Character
Characters are the story. It is their struggles and reactions to what gets thrown at them that make the magic happen; make the reader love them or love despising them. Trooping out a set of caricatures is passé for animation work let alone your novel. Characters take time to distil and develop. Research helps, but it can still tend to be a bit dry and remote. I’m lucky I have a background in nerdiness; I’m not ashamed to admit that I play roleplaying games; it’s an enjoyable and social pastime that also gives me regular practice of getting behind the eyes of different characters. I found it useful to develop back stories for such characters and have even created a questionnaire that asked for details of a character’s early childhood, adolescence and life as an adult. This works perfectly well for my book characters as well and can be used to develop character complexities as well as explain existing quirks. Getting a friend to hit you with questions while ‘in character’ can also throw up some useful material. Much of this will never actually come out in the book, but the more time you spend playing around in your characters’ heads the better rounded they will be.

10. Having a Story Worth Telling
Well, duh! But this is a more actively applied process than most people imagine. It is very easy to have a great concept, but a concept isn’t a story; it’s merely the premise to a story. I have notebooks full of such premises, I also have bits of storyline concepts, characters  or situations which are all good material, but not actually a story. Being able to tease a concept out into a worthwhile story is a good skill to develop. Being able to recognise which concepts to pursue; which will make a full novel, which a short story, which will actually be saleable and which a white elephant; is equally important. Developing this skill in choosing what to write next could make the difference between being an earnest hobbyist or an earning professional.

The route to the top of the first hill is probably different for each writer. Are there any hand-holds that have helped on your own journey? The gallons of coffee and small Chocolatey rewards, along with the support of family and friends all go without saying.

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