Monday, May 30, 2011

How Do You Write a Novel?

The writer's group has just started on a hurculean task: writing a novel.

We have decided that, as a group, we should plot, plan and provide a synopsis for a novel in order to improve our writing and planning skills. Tonight we examined the pros and cons of four ideas and made a decision on which one we should take forward as our first project, and came to a conclusion.

One idea was a comedy about a teenage wizard. Although we liked it, there wasn't enough of an outline or an idea of where the plot would go to make it immediately workable. It would take a lot of effort to work out where the conflict was and what the boy would do, so that one has been put on the backburner for a while. Another one was about a series of murders, but seen through the eyes of people feeling threatened by the killer's presence. As this would be more of a character study, we have left that one for later too.

That left us with two viable alternatives: a murder mystery and an SF action adventure. Of the two, we plumped for the murder mystery as it is more straightforward to plot out and we know tha the murderer will be revealed by the end, even if he/she/it isn't caught and jailed.

Between now and next Monday we are all tasked with a job to either give more background to the story, or to come up with plausible plotlines and characters. Once this is done, we shall move onto a more detailed plot summary followed by character timelines and a full synopsis. We don't envisage actually writing the book, but it's not an idea we're rejecting.

I shall keep you up to date on how we get on and what lessons we learn along the way.

Friday, May 27, 2011

10,000 Hours

Apparently 10,000 is the number of hours you need to put into something in order to become an expert.

10,000 hours sounds like a lot of time and an unachievable goal, but it isn't. On Wednesday I listed the things that writers can class as work and it's a long list. If you add up all the time you spend doing that, then you're very likely to find that you are spending anything between 10 and 25 hours a week on your 'writing'.

At 10 hours a week it'll take 1,000 weeks to amass the required number, at 20 hours a week, 500 weeks, or about ten years. Behind those frightening numbers lies one very important point: you may become an expert at 10,000 hours, but along the way you'll become competent, good, very good, great and superb before you reach the level of expert. In short, 10,000 hours is a goal, but there will be many achievements along the way and you may end up with a book deal long before you reach it.

Your task for this weekend is to list all the hours you spend on writing-related tasks, using the list from Wednesday as a guide. If you think that some of the items on the list don't count, then don't include them in your tally of hours.

Here's my list from yesterday.

Reading: 3 hours
Writing: 2 hours
Planning: 30 minutes
Cogitating/Dreaming/Thinking: 1 hour.

6 hours 30 minutes in one day is pretty good, but most days I do half of that, so I average about 25 hours a week as I write at the weekends too.

Do your list and you'll be surprised at how time you spend writing and how close you are to the magic 10,000

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Working and the Writer

What defines 'work' for a writer?

1. Writing. D'uh. Emails don't count, but blogs, short stories, articles and novels do. What also counts is writing out story ideas that you file away for later use.

2. Dreaming. Some will argue with this, but if you don't free your mind sometimes how are you going to have ideas and inspiration? Other people will call it the muse or some other name, but dreaming is a pleasant word to use and will annoy non-writers.

3. Planning. This could be post-it notes stuck on a wall, a floor full of bits of paper, or even just scribbling in a book.

4. Reading. Anything that helps you write. It doesn't need to be in your chosen genre, to get ideas for articles in other magazines or to get a feel for a particular magazine, but it will teach you about, or reinforce your knowledge of, writing.

5. Talking and Listening. To other writers naturally. Not necessarily face to face, but in blogs (like this one, so count it as work), newsletters, tweets, messenger services or facebook...and I mean facebook groups, NOT family and friends.

6. Shopping. In a bookshop, not for anything else. Not just buying books either, but seeing what's available, who's writing what and seeing what types of books dominate the shelves and the displays.

7. Researching. Background psychology for characters, walking around the streets of Rome to get a feel for the setting of your next novel anything that helps you to convey the look of feel of a place or character.

Most of the writer's life isn't spent writing, but researching, learning and reading in order to become a better writer and it's a process that never stops. What work have you done today?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Famous Island

Next Play: Famous Island
Date: 23rd June 2011
Place: St Albans festival of new writing.

Just under five weeks to go and we've started rehearsing. To be fair, we had said we wouldn't start until the last play had finished and we got down to it immediately, finishing the last performance on Saturday, then starting again on Monday, casting roles and doing a readthrough.

Last Thursday we had a rehearsal where we worked out where the lights would come on and go off and where the props would be and managed to get it all down on paper.

There's no rehearsal tonight as people are away, so on Thursday we get back into the groove, hopefully more aware of our lines, so to say we are cutting it close is an understatement. However, deadlines are great for concentrating the mind.

Watch this space for more news.

On the writing front I sent an article idea to Christian Writer and got a positive response. After sedning it off with all the biographical details and flattering photo (HAH!) I was told that it looks good (the article, not the photo) and they would get back to me if any changes were needed. The subsequent lack of emails since tells me I should be fine.

I'll post here when it comes out and also tell you if I got any money for it. I hesitated to ask if they paid for contributions, but I suspect not, though as I've given links to my blog and my book on Amazon in the biography the advertising will not hurt.

And therein lies something for all writers to remember: sometimes it's worthwhile doing things for free if it gives your name a boost. Blogs, book reviews, articles etc. Never take them, or your audience, for granted and pepper every blog or article with self-advertising, but remember that if you are in the eye of the readers they are more likely to buy your book. It will also help with any pitch you make to aggents and publishers if you can say you have a track record of articles and book reviews, especially if they are in your chosen genre.

Just don't overstretch yourself or make promises that you can't keep. I know I couldn't keep up with a twitter account so I don't have one.

Have a great week.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Things Writers Worry About...And Shouldn't

1. My chapters are too long/short.

I've read books with no chapters (Terry Pratchett) and 80 chapters (James Lovegrove). There is no hard and fast rule and breaking your book down into chapters is more of an art than science as well as being down to personal preference. As a corollary, don't worry about using numbers or titles for the chapters. Neither method is wrong or right.

2. I can always see something that can be improved or changed.

And you always will. Every writer can see things in their published books that they could change and improve, but you just have to let it go. If you're worrying about a comma or a phrasing, you're worrying too much. If you're concerned about whether a scene should be there or not then you may want to take a look at it. On the other hand, if your book's been published, just watch the money pour into your bank account and do it better next time.

3. My grasp of English (or whatever language) isn't good enough.

It is good enough. If you doubt me, read a Stephen King book and see how many colourful or long words he uses. It's not what you know, but how you use it.

4. My paragraphs are too long/short.

If you have one sentence per paragraph you are using journalistic style, whereas if you have one page per paragraph you are using academic style. How large a paragraph should be is another aspect of writing that is more of an art than a science and it depends a lot on your style and the context. If you want a rule of thumb, 'one thought per paragraph'. Finish describing an action or thought process before moving onto the next paragraph.

5. Should I use US or UK spelling?

If you live in the UK, use UK spelling, if you live in the US use US spelling.

6. How do I get ideas?

Look around you. See those kids walking to school: are they innocent or cooking up a plot to kill their teacher? Are they planning to bully someone or wondering what really happened to their friend Suzy at the party? What has an old tree seen happen under its branches? What is the REAL story behind the news? Take your time to look around, ask questions and the more you do that the easier it will be to have ideas.

Enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Philosophy or Sophism?

This is a big question in SF, believe it or not, but not one that people know about. It's between those who think we know almost everything about the universe, and those who are aware of how little we actually know.

The physics of Star Trek are laughed at by most Hard SF followers. Transporters, faster than light travel etc are seen as things beyond reality as they like their SF to be grounded in knowledge and science. They are Sophists, people who say that they have the answers.

The rest of us are philosophers, asking questions and theorising, aware of how little we know and that in the future our precious understanding will be seen as little more than desperate attempts to comprehend the world around us.

350 years ago, Newton proposed many theories about the universe, only a few of which are still regarded as true today, mainly because of the advance in experimantation equipment and space travel. That does not mean that he was a dunderhead, he came up with theories that laid the foundation of modern physics and is rightly valued as a giant in the field. It does mean that our knowledge has changed and our understanding of the universe is different and more coherent, but still not complete.

The point is, physics has advanced in those three and a half centuries and who can tell that human understanding of physics won't be totally different in another three centuries?

Those of us who write 'dreaming SF', follow in the footsteps of Verne and Wells, writers who dared to look beyond the technology of their time and imagine a different future. Those who don't are more like Asimov and Clarke, welded to what is known and, like many followers, miss the dreams that their idols wrote about, such as robots and satellites.

So I philosophise in my writing, aware that I know very little, asking questions that may never have an answer in my lifetime.

I dare to dream.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Small Successes In Life

In speaking to sports reporter Duncan Hamilton, Brian Clough reflected on his first European Cup win with Nottingham Forest and said that the triumph was partly due to winning the Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1976. It was the first trophy the club had won since the FA Cup in 1959 and Clough said, "Those who said it was a nothing trophy were crackers."* He went on to make the point that although the cup was small and not highly regarded, claiming the title proved to the players that they could win trophies.

It led me to think how many successes are played down because we perceive them to be too small to bother. An article or short story published in a small magazine? A joke on a professionally edited website? Someone following your blog and commenting favourably on it? None of these are large and will probably not earn any money, but they are still successes that we can build upon.

Never underestimate the value of small successes in your life and ignore those who only think large success counts, for once you get used to succeeding in small things, succeeding at the bigger things gets easier and more comfortable.

*Quote taken from 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me', by Duncan Hamilton.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Well, the first two nights have gone well, with only one slip up by me...getting my stage wife's name wrong. It wouldn't have been so bad if the name I used hadn't been the name of the wife one of the other characters. Oops.

Sadly, there have been no reasons to break legs as no one has been throwing money on the stage. C'est La Vie, as they say in Moscow.

On another note, I have met the playwrite for the June production and her father. It turns out that she was looking for a drama group that was flexible and willing to do something different and we fitted the bill nicely.

Tomorrow's the last night and I can happily say that I am enjoying this play more than any of the others I have done for quite a while.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tonight's the Night

Thursday, 7.45pm
Knebworth, England.

Three one act plays, three nights, one excited actor...that's me by the way.

Tonight I get onstage and ham my way through 15 minutes of gun-toting enthusiasm whilst selling encyclopaedias to two miserable men with no jobs and no money. During this time I read about Florence, Florin, Flotsam and Michaelangelo's David.

After getting my money and admitting to having sex with a lot of women, I exit the stage, leaving the other two full of enthusiasm.

Thankfully I don't have to do the can-can.

I'll let you know how it goes tomorrow.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Another Week, Another New Start

It's Monday and the dawn of another week, and this one WILL be better than the previous one.

I didn't get into anything last week, what with the bank holiday and the mental dip mid-week. Then came the weekend and a client calling me to help solve a little problem of hers. She is the only person I have ever come across that should be locked up in a house with no technology whatsoever, and after speaking to her my mind was in a complete tizzy.

Normally I can calm down and let my mind rearrange itself into some sort of order, but with the boys round that wasn't possible and it also led to me being late for a technical rehearsal for the play.

However I have taken things in hand today by nailing the phone to the wall, getting myself organised for the dress rehearsal tonight, treating myself to a pizza for lunch and buying some biscuits to dunk in my tea.


The flat is empty, my eldest is at college and I have peace.

Today, I shall continue to chill, after having a shave, and then tomorrow I shall help a fellow writer with her book, go and get some financial advice and then go and have the second dress rehearsal. By Wednesday I will be back in the groove.

Have a great week.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Ending Better Than It Started

It's Friday, and although parts of this week have been rotten, it's ended quite well.

I have the kids with me this weeked, the sun is shining, I have money so I can go shopping, I've added another 2000 words to my novel and two consecutive nights of good sleep.

So, I am going to enjoy this weekend by writing, doing something with the boys and getting ready for the play performance next weekend. I have a technical rehearsal on Sunday, stage setup tomorrow and Sunday and two dress rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday evening.

Have a good weekend all. I will.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

One Of Them Days

Ever have one of those days when you can't concentrate on anything? Welcome to my Wednesday.

It's been a low day and I've not been able to achieve much. Two things I had planned to do didn't come off and then I discovered I'd run out of clean underwear...I'll let you guess what I'm wearing.

These days come and go, so I let them have their fun, knowing that after a good nights sleep I can start again tomorrow.

No writing done today, though I have added 5000 words to my novel over the weekend, but tomorrow I'll be back in the routine and won't stop until I can't write anything funny.

Sleep well. I will.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Book Review: After Tamerlane

At university, my history lecturer's first statement was, 'as you study history, you'll discover that most historians can't write.' Something that you can prove very easily by browsing through the history books at your local bookstore.

What historians have a tendency to do is known as an 'information dump'. They're not writing a book, most of the time, but an extended PhD thesis with all their research in the correct place. In other words, it's dull to all but those most interested in the subject.

John Darwin, the author of After Tamerlane is an exception to this rule. You will not find, except in rare places, all the research he has done, but his conclusions based on his research. If you want the detail of the research you can find it in the 60 pages of notes and other materiual at the back.

Essentially, the book is about the rise and fall of empires in Eurasia since the death of the Mongaol ruler Tamerlane. He covers not only Europe, but also the Middle East, India, China and the rest of Asia and their interactions through trade and conquest. Not only that, he questions some of the historical 'truth' that is currently taught and thought.

In the western world there is this idea that we have grown rich and had empires due to our superior attitudes in science, commerce and politics. He blows several holes in this by showing more advanced commerce, politics and science in the rest of Eurasia right up until the 18th century.

For most of the last 600 years, the Indians produced better cloth than the west and cheaper. China was a vast and mostly open internal market long before Europe, whilst the trade routes of the Indian Ocean were all but closed to the Europeans until the dawn of empire at the end of the 19th century.

In the military sphere, the rest of Eurasia were ahead or equal until the invention of the machine gun, and whilst we commonly think that the Europeans occupied China, the fact is that the western powers have had very few inroads into China at any time.

In short, this book puts into perpective the history of the world and shows the west its true place and its 500 pages of storytelling contain some the best 'world history' you will find anywhere.

What shines out for me, is that western domination is only a short period of world history and that it is reverting to its previous state of equality, and that is looking on the bright side. Given the rise of India and China as major commerical nations, alongside the power that is Japan, we may be seeing the rise of the Far East as the home of commerce, science and politics, to which the west will play second fiddle for the forseeable future.