Visit to An Author’s House

July 30, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

The author's home I visited

A few weeks ago I went to visit an old family friend, an ex-neighbour who has retired and moved down south to live by the beach.  He’s been a family friend, our closest family friend, for as long as I can remember.  I grew up with his son and in many ways he’s been like a father to me.  He also happens to be a published author (a novel, a few novellas, short stories and poetry), a fact that didn’t mean much to me throughout my childhood.

The last time I went down there to his new house (a couple of years ago), it wasn’t even close to being finished.  This time, it still wasn’t, but at least it’s getting there.  I recall the last time I saw him — it was just before I was about to leave for the UK.  At that time I hadn’t decided writing was what I wanted to do, but by then I already had a keen interest in it (and was secretly plotting my escape from the law).  Even back then, we talked a little about writing and what it was like to be a part-time writer (he did have a full-time day job).  The only thing I came away with was that it’s very very hard.

This time, things were different.  I had finally made the decision to give the writing a serious go, and our conversation naturally gravitated towards that.  Over a long lunch, dessert and tea, we talked about what it was like to be a writer and how to become one.  These are some of the pointers I took away from that day.

Write what you know

He said it was important for a fiction writer, especially writers just starting out, to write about what they know.  By this I don’t mean writing narrative non-fiction or anything like that.  It means using your life’s experiences and things that you know about to form the foundation of your story.

Fiction, naturally, is about making stuff up.  But it helps to start off with something you are familiar with and branch off from there.  It’s doesn’t even have to be something you have experienced personally.  It can be something you read in the paper or a story you heard from a relative or friend that you thought was interesting.  Steal bits and pieces here and there to create your own reality.

Sounded like good advice to me.  The problem is, I always feel like my life experiences and knowledge of the world are somewhat limited.  I was fascinated to learn that he has held dozens of jobs throughout his life and had plenty of amazing experiences as a youngster.  For example, he travelled to Europe as a twenty-something kid.  With hardly any money in his pockets, he purchased a bike and rode it from Paris through Belgium and Germany all the way up to the Netherlands.  He relied on a book that taught him how to live off a pound a day and slept wherever he ended up for the day.  Of course, it was a different era back then, but I could only imagine the type of things he would have seen, the people he would have encountered.  Similarly, when both his parents passed away, he travelled to India to get a better perspective on life, and came back realising just how lucky he was.

Me?  I’ve lived in four countries at various times in my life but I’ve only worked in one full-time job (that clearly was not for me!).  I’ve travelled to many places but always as a sheltered and ignorant tourist.  I’ve worked hard but have never tasted any true hardship in life (and continue to hope to avoid it).  No wonder I can’t come up with any good ideas!  Looks like I’ll need to either get out a bit more or start stealing.

Characters make or break a story

This is often said but not appreciated as often as it should be.  He said it’s always his aim to write interesting characters — characters that are real, characters that connect with the reader.  Characters with special quirks that readers are likely to remember.

He listed a few writers (I won’t name them) who don’t necessarily write the best books or come up with the best stories, but have succeeded over time because of an endearing character they’ve created.  I thought about it and knew it was true.  Sometimes all you need is a unique character with memorable traits and you’ve got a book franchise!

He acknowledged the success of crime fiction at the moment and suggested perhaps I could create a quirky detective who happens to be an ex-lawyer!  Mmm…maybe he’s onto something here…

Read, read and read

Another piece of advice that writers hear all the time.  To write, you have to read.  To become a better writer, you have to read as much as you can.

He told me that even the crap books you read will help you in some way (because they help you realise what NOT to do).  Everything you read will help you (consciously or subconsciously) when you write, but it’s good to read the classics.  Read the Russian greats, read Dickens, read Shakespeare.  These are classics for a reason.  Learn their techniques and harness them.  He said a crap writer can make the most exciting event boring, but a great writer can make the most boring event exciting.

This is a person who left school in the eighth grade (to make money) but is a terrific writer because of the amount he reads.  At one stage, he told me, he would read one book a night.  He’d start reading and he wouldn’t stop until he finished it, even if it was 3 or 4 in the morning.

I don’t have the attention span to read a single book in one sitting, but it wouldn’t hurt if I read more.  Or at least tried to.

Planning

It’s good to plan your story out in advance, but it’s even better to let the story take a life of its own.  Let the story guide you.

I still have trouble with this planning business to be perfectly honest.  When I don’t plan, the story or chapter simply becomes a complete mess with no direction or structure.  But no matter how much I plan, when it comes to the actual writing I always end up breaking away from the plan.  I wouldn’t say the story necessarily “takes a life of its own” because I usually end up getting stuck and not knowing what I should do next.  That can be really frustrating.

Poetry

Write poetry only when you feel like it — then use it to wipe your bum.

It was a great day chatting like we had never chatted before.  He told me that the publishing business is all about making the right contacts.  It’s hard to get through that door, but once you do, things get much easier.

The biggest shock of the day?  He told me that he really only had one proper novel published and it was the worst piece of shit he had ever written.  The reason?  He co-wrote it with some stupid moron — his editor.  He developed the plot and the characters and wrote the first half of the story and he/she extended it and wrote a second half.  As a result it was obvious that the two parts of the book were written by different people.  And he/she insisted that his/her name should be put first on the novel.  He said he didn’t give a stuff so he agreed but it annoyed him.  And when he showed me the novel I was stunned to find that the co-author was my lecturer!  How’s that for a small world?

Descriptions in Writing: Love it or Hate it?

May 27, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study

One thing I usually try and avoid as a reader and writer is description — character appearance and especially location.  As a reader, whenever I see a long slab of description that meticulously describes every detail of a piece of clothing or a room, I tend to scan over it or skip it completely.  As a writer, I struggle with descriptions.  I seldom know how detailed I should be, and I almost always have difficulty in choosing the right descriptors.

Having said that, you can’t exactly avoid it.  You can choose to be detailed in order to give a clearer picture, or you can choose to be sparse to allow the narrative to flow and make readers use their imagination.  Or you can be somewhere in between.  So where does the balance lie?

So is detailed description good or bad?  Why is it that I have enjoyed books at both ends of the scale?

Recently I’ve realised that I’ve been going about it the wrong way.  I was thinking about description for the sake of description.  When I wrote a scene, I would go: “Oh, I better add some descriptions in there because that’s what I’m probably supposed to do.”

As a result, I produced long, boring and unoriginal descriptions that I would be the first to skip if I came across it.  It’s something I’ve been noticing in a lot of what I consider to be ‘poor’ writing.  Okay, so we know what this person’s hair and eye colour is and what clothes they are wearing and what their room looks like — but so what?  What does that do for me as a reader?

Today in class, we workshopped a brilliant piece of writing from one of the other students.  It was fantastic because it managed to create incredibly vivid images in my mind by using just a few, but absolutely spot on details here and there to describe character and location.  It made me envious how she could pick and choose a couple of small things about a character that would give me a great idea of what they looked like and gave me clues as to their personality.

So it’s not about the amount of description — it’s choosing the most appropriate description for whatever you are describing.  It doesn’t matter if it is long or short provided it evokes the images you intend.  It’s not about how a character looks on the outside — it’s what message the appearance sends to the reader that is relevant.  It’s not about how a location looks — it’s the atmosphere the location creates and its connection to the characters that’s important.

Nevertheless, it’s easier said than done.  Some people seem to have a knack for description and I’m not one of them.  If you’re like me then I would advise putting down some basic words that reflect the images you want to convey and then come back to them during rewrites so you won’t be stuck on them forever.

Great Place for Free Writing Tips

September 5, 2009 in On Writing

I was scouring the ‘Internets’ for some fresh writing tips to help me move along in my fantasy novel, which seems to be stuck in the mud a little lately.  I’d write for a couple of hours or churn out a few thousand words, but somehow I’d still be writing the same scene, or even the same bloody conversation!  Arrrgh!  What gives?

Anyway, I came across the website of English-born, Australia-living cult fantasy/sci-fi author Richard Harland, who was benevolent enough to give out all 145 pages of his writing tips, absolutely free!  The best part is that you can download them all in a PDF rather than click on link after link.  It covers a broad spectrum of topics, from establishing good writing habits all the way to getting published.  I didn’t find all of it to be helpful, but a lot of it was.

Mr Harland is giving out free writing tips!

Mr Harland is giving out free writing tips!

For those wondering who he is and what he’s done, they can read it up themselves at his Bio Page here.  It seems he was always a gifted writer that just lacked motivation to finish what he started – but once he did start finishing things, his writing career took off.  Of course, there was a sizable chunk of luck involved, as there usually is.  I can only say I am envious and long for the day where I can write for a living without having to worry about paying the bills.

Oh, and here is his page of links to the websites of other writers of fantasy and speculative fiction in Australia, such as Trudi Canavan and Traci Harding.  Some of them (such as Paul Collins), also provide writing tips.

So thank you, Mr Harland!

Latest novel progress: overwriting is killing me!

February 10, 2009 in Novel, On Writing

writing2I’m glad to say I’ve still been working on my fantasy novel on a daily basis, and I’m now up to almost 63,000 words!

The plot’s also moving along now - the chase has begun and the protagonist has bumped into an old friend who will soon join the journey.  I’ve also started reveal a bit about the mysterious antagonist’s past.  Things are starting to build momentum and I can’t wait for more unique characters to make their long-awaited appearances.

However, things still aren’t moving as fast as I would like, and I think I’ve finally pinpointed the problem: overwriting!  I’m finding that I have a tendency to want to write down every single little thing that happens, make every conversation play itself out.  Apparently, it’s something that new writers often have trouble with.

According to this editorrr.com article on writing techniques, there are ways to tidy things up.  Here’s also a blog post I found about how to avoid overwriting.  Another article from Homeschool World (WTF?) also discusses the same issue.  The gist seems to be: avoid using adjectives and employ more verbs that encapsulate the adjective you want to use.   And with dialogue, you just have to cut out what’s not necessary to move the plot along or reveal things about the characters.

I must say it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re trying to write freely.  The last thing you want to do when you are trying to let your imagination flow is to stop to think of the appropriate verb to use instead of an adjective or how to end a conversation earlier than you want to.  For now, I’ll just have to suck it up and keep powering on, and leave the tidying up for the later drafts.

Update on Fantasy World Building

February 6, 2009 in Fantasy, On Writing

Just a quick update on my earlier posts about building/creating a fantasy world and how to create a map of that world.

Today I came across the One of Us creative writing website, which has a fabulous article called ‘How to Create Fantasy Worlds’.  It’s an introductory article but it has links to other resources, including mapping, information on mythical creatures, names and languages.  There’s even a forum on it.

The website also has separate pages on writing tips and a more general discussion forum with various writing sub-categories as well as specific articles.

I think it’s a pretty cool website and aspiring writers should check it out.

 
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