Wednesday, 25 November 2009

If at first ...

Do you ever feel like the universe is trying to tell you something? This quote from Beckett has been appearing everywhere, and last night I opened an old favourite 'How Writers Write' to find this engraving in there. So:

'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'

There are plenty of talented people out there, but at the end of the day if you don't keep working if you don't 'fall down seven times, stand up eight' you aren't going to succeed. You have to be willing to fail - and learn from your mistakes in life and work, and do better next time. It's the way we learn as children - no one can walk, let alone write a symphony or paint a masterpiece at first go. Maybe as adults we have our eye on the goal so firmly we forget how much joy and learning there is in the journey to get there.

Well, I've learnt a lot editing the new book this time. An old friend used to regularly quote a phrase she picked up living in Rome: 'pazienza e coraggio'. It seems appropriate.

One day at a time ... and coming up are two child-free days, and the goal is transcribing 20,000 new handwritten words (knew all those months getting my Pitmans would come in handy). Do you reckon I can do it, 10,000 words a day? Can only try ... (flexes fingers). Perhaps those of you also typing like crazy in the closing stages of NaNo are feeling more like this other comment from Beckett:

'I can't go on. I'll go on.'

You're in the home strait - you can do it :)

TODAY'S PROMPT: We could all do with some motivation around about now - NaNoers are powering on through the last few days, some of us are attempting to set the land speed typing record ... What are the great quotes you turn to? your favourite sayings by other writers? Why not put them in the comments box and we can cheer each other on to the finish line?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

It's in the stars ...

Do you read horoscopes? When I was at school I remember someone had a well-thumbed copy of Russel Grant's 'Love Stars' - we spent hours poring through it, seeing how compatible we all were with the boys we fancied. These days I read the stars each week in the Times, but when I was thinking about this post, I had to laugh when I read Leo's prediction for 2009 this morning: 'Get real. Stay real. Then get ready for one of your best years ever.' Um, no. To put a positive spin on it, this year has been 'challenging' shall we say. In the UK Jonathan Cainer's predictions are entertaining and thought provoking, but do you think horoscopes can tell you anything about a person, let alone what the future holds?

If you take a look at Cainer's site you can see how your zodiac sign should define you. For me, Leo's have 'a head full of application and dedication plus a heart full of loyalty and generosity'. Or if you prefer Chinese astrology, you can check your sign here. Apparently I'm one of those honorable generous Pigs (no jokes please) who have 'hearts of gold and love their family'. So who are you, according to your horoscopes?

I read the other day about a writer who uses the Enneagram system to build her characters, and decided to buy one of the Institute's books to give it a try. The premise is that there are nine basic personality types. When I took the test I came out as a 3 (The Achiever: Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type:Adaptable, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious), which really surprised a friend who works with the Enneagram professionally advising corporations. (It could have been the 'image-conscious' part - I'd just walked the hound and was covered in mud ...) The interesting thing about the Enneagram is it allows for outward factors - so for example, under stress a 3 can act more like a 9 (The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type:Receptive, Reassuring Agreeable, and Complacent). If you're developing your characters at the moment, why not take a look at their site - it's certainly a good way to build emotionally complex individuals.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you're currently battling with developing resonant characters (as I am), why not check out their horoscopes, or Enneagram personality - it may just give you what's missing? JK Rowling (another Leo), famously gave Harry Potter her own zodiac sign - if it worked for her who are we to argue? For those of you who prefer something more practical in terms of character development, have you thought about making a one-page questionnaire for each of your characters? I do this for every character, no matter how minor they are, and find it really helpful especially in the early days of writing a novel when you're still getting to know them. It's probably best if you come up with your own questions, but to get you started here are some of the questions I 'ask' my characters:
  • Name
  • Nickname
  • Age
  • Belief set in the beginning
  • Belief set at the end
  • Extraordinary skills
  • How are they related to the hero/ine
  • Character deficiency
  • Favourite thing
  • What do they like to do best
  • Dislikes
  • Physical attributes
  • Mode of speech
  • Hopes and dreams
  • What makes them laugh
  • What makes them cry

... and so on. Once you've come up with your own questionnaire you can save it as a template and use it again and again. So today, why not get to know your characters a little better and see what's in their stars?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Love, Hope, Dreams

"We dream the dream, and we want it to be easy. But it’s not that simple. It’s not always easy. It’s hard work, it’s perseverance, it’s making sure you’ve got the goods when the opportunity comes along.

So, when do you quit?

You quit when you want something else, more. You quit when you have another dream that means more to you.

I kept writing. There were days when the economy here was so bad, there was very little work, and we dug the change out of the sofa to get enough money to put enough gas in the truck for my husband to get to work, and he had to get paid before he left, or he wouldn’t have had enough gas to make it home. I understand hardships and heartbreak, depression and frustration. But “no” is not an option. It is only an obstacle."

- Toni McGee Causey

Does this speak to anyone? I read Toni's post on the Novel Racers site - she could be writing about my life (you have no idea of the pilot's fascination with Jerry cans - it's like Mad Max around here). A lot of us are up against it right now - perhaps more than ever. So when the world is falling down around your ears, how do you keep going?

You write because you love it. Because you can't imagine doing anything else. You write because you hope that love, that passion for your story will come through loud and clear to a publisher, an agent, an editor - and most of all to your readers. You write because you hope things are going to change.

When I was looking for a video clip of 'Accentuate the Positive' for today's post, I came across this ad for an Australian insurance company. Apparently it was such a successful pitch for the brand they released a CD of swing music. What does that tell you?

Brand is it. If I've learnt anything in the last few weeks, it is that writing your heart out isn't good enough. As a new author, you have to be relevant to your readers - you have to build a brand that people will follow because somehow they feel you 'get' them and they 'get' you. I've gone back to the drawing board in the last couple of days, and dug out all my old marketing files from when I built the brand that was my art company. I figured maybe these tools could be applied to a person and their creative work as well as a business. I think it can.

I'm rewriting, and Stephen King's advice has been ringing in my ears: in the first draft you are figuring out what the story is. In the second you are making it clearer. He also said something along the lines of characters can be as much of a surprise to their authors as they can be to their readers. So true - I had Evie down as Ava Gardner, but re-reading she's definitely a Vivien Leigh. And frankly my dear, I do give a damn. Everything else may have fallen apart but Evie's story is going to be my best yet.

I've done my brainstorming this week, and I'm clear - whatever else is going on in life, I want my work to be original, romantic, uplifting. I believe in all this, (just watching some of the Remembrance services this weekend I saw what I've been writing about echoed - 'old fashioned' values like bravery, sacrifice, hope, decency). I've always had this reader in mind, someone who is going through a tough time, hustling on the tube or bus to work, and she's reading my book. What you want is for her to miss her stop because she's so carried away (and then not to mind walking an extra block back to work). As Mr King said: 'make your reader welcome and tell a story. Make him or her forget. Writing is seduction'.

Writing is also about enriching lives - yours, your readers, everyone who comes in to contact with your book. 'It's about getting up, getting well, getting over, getting happy' (King). So, who's with me? To love, hope and dreams ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: One of the single most useful exercises I went through building the company was working out a 'brand pyramid'. I've adapted it to writing (I hope this works as I converted the text to html but if it doesn't and you want a copy, email me!):



Values: what does the reader value (1)

Values: what does the reader value (2)

Values: what does the reader value (3)

Emotions: what does the reader feel (1)

Emotions: what does the reader feel (2)

Emotions: what does the reader feel (3)

Benefits: to the reader (1)

Benefits: to the reader (2)

Benefits: to the reader (3)

Attributes: what are the unique features of your writing (1)

Attributes: what are the unique features of your writing (2)

Attributes: what are the unique features of your writing (3)

NB In a traditional brand pyramid the ‘reader’ is the ‘customer’. ‘Personality’ is the person or character who embodies and exemplifies the spirit of the brand – in terms of writing it could be you, your main character, or someone inspiring.

The idea is you start at the bottom - what's your USP? Then you figure out what that gives your readers, what does it make them feel, what do they value about it? Then finally you say who embodies all that? Is it you? Is it your protagonist? Is it a person (famous or un-famous) you admire? Sometimes it really helps to set things down in black and white - you know why your work is unique, but until you get your message clear, maybe other people won't see that.

PS - yes, turns out the pyramid doesn't fit Blogger. If you'd like to drop me an email I'd be happy to mail you a copy :)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lights Camera Action

When I told the three year old I was going to be on TV he frowned. 'But how do you get in there?' he asked. It's rather wonderful to think that to him these little people really live in the box - I didn't want to disillusion him by telling him about TV studios. When we watched my heat of the People's Author he looked puzzled - how could I be sitting on the sofa next to him, and be on TV?

Thank you so much to all of you who have emailed, Facebooked and Tweeted - yes, I lost, but as the pilot said with a chuckle 'that doesn't mean you're like, a loser'. Fnaa. He also said 'don't worry - you don't really look like that'. Reassuring. My Mum's first words were: 'Oooh, the cameras really do add 10lbs don't they? Your face isn't really that fat'. Good old family - keep your feet on the ground don't they? Perhaps the best thing to come out of this competition is that after all the ongoing agony of not getting my novel published, ('Any news yet?' 'No, still waiting ...' - how many times have I had that conversation recently), my writing finally makes sense to my family - if I met Alan Titchmarsh it must be OK. Taking part in the show gave the people I love most in the world something to look forward to, and I was touched by how proud they were. It was lovely hearing the excitement in the voice of my 92 year old grandmother, and funny to hear how many people had rung Mum and Dad to say they had seen the show (I think Mum had mobilised half the country in preparation for the audience phone-in final if I'd got through).

I think they were more disappointed than me ... but anyway, your lovely words of support and the comments from the judges meant a lot. Marian Keyes said: 'on a sentence by sentence basis you're like a poet. Your descriptions are absolutely exquisite', Gervase Phinn 'loved it', and Amanda Harris said 'it was one of the most lyrical submissions we had'. Which was nice :) For anyone who'd like to read my submission and all the others they are up on the ITV site here.

I am useless at losing ... I won't pretend I didn't really want to win, but as always you pick yourself up and start over again. Being on TV for the first time was a great experience - the team were delightful and Alan Titchmarsh is just as he seems on TV, down to earth and charming. It was a long day (up at 4am, home around 9pm), lots of hanging around (Gervase Phinn kept us entertained with endless anecdotes). You feel a bit like a gladiator, cooped up in a green room downstairs until you are dragged up to the studio, sprayed orange by the make-up girls and thrust out in front of the audience ... Then suddenly you are there. Your are *so* nervous, and your bit goes by so fast you can't remember a word of it. Then you wait for the judges verdict:
And wait. At this point the sparkly gold envelope is handed over to Alan, and I'm thinking: 'whatever you do smile. No cursing or scowling if it's not you. Smile.' The waiting seems endless, they play music to raise the tension ... the envelope is opened (and in spite of your gut feeling that they are looking for something - or someone - that isn't you, you are thinking 'Pleeeease let it be me') ...

... and then the man with the rocking horse wins.

7/11/09 PS a friend just let me know you can watch the episode again here: (at around 9 minutes in)

TODAY'S PROMPT: You win some, you lose some. So, (dusts self down), the partially written memoir has been consigned to the basement. It's filed alongside all the filmscripts and future novels I plan to write one day. It will be finished at some point but the new novel is more pressing at the moment. For anyone who missed out on entering the ITV competition, the BBC have launched a similar show - why not check out - and write the story of your life. The People's Author was a blast, and having a go at non-fiction memoir writing for the first time a great challenge. The BBC entries only have to be 300 - 1500 words, so why not have a go?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Heavenly Guest Spot

Thanks for all your messages - after surviving being rejected in front of 3 million people I think I can cope with anything now, (kept thinking of those award ceremonies where the camera pans in on the nominees and their rictus grins as the winner is announced :) The People's Author was great fun and I'll blog about it at a later date - today, I'm delighted to welcome long-time blogging friend Cally Taylor to WKDN as part of her blog tour. Orion has just published her first novel 'Heaven Can Wait' - it has been wonderful following Cally's success story from the early days of landing a great agent to publication, and today she tells us how she wrote her novel. Congratulations Cally - I hope the book is a huge success, and the first of many.

When Kate asked me to write a guest post for her blog I wasn’t sure what to write about. I’ve already written about my highlights of the year (Karen’s blog), reward and motivation (Cathy’s blog), writing short stories (womag’s blog) and my 5 favourite books to curl up with (5 Minutes Peace), so what else could I write about? That’s when it hit me – the one thing I hadn’t written about was how I wrote my novel.

I came up with the idea for “Heaven Can Wait” by thinking - what if a woman died the night before her wedding and refused to go to heaven?

I wrote that question in a notebook and jotted other ideas around it:

- What if she returned to earth as a ghost?

- What does she want?

- Why is she dead?

- Obstacles?

- What if she isn’t allowed to return to earth as a ghost?

- What has she got to lose?

- What does she learn?

I wasn’t able to answer all the questions immediately. I need to put my notebook away and go and do something else (going and doing something else is a great way of freeing up your subconscious I’ve found). I’d return to my notebook whenever an idea hit me and write it down. Slowly but surely the novel started to form in my head and I knew the beginning (the first 8 scenes anyway) and the ending, but I didn’t know what happened in the middle. Was that a problem?

Unlike a lot of other writers I’ve never been a plotter. I started my writing career by writing short stories and I never, ever plotted them. I’d get an idea or a character’s voice in my head and I’d just start writing, not stopping until I reached the end. Could I do that with a novel?

I decided I could - or at least I’d have a shot at it. For me one of the most wonderful things about writing is the element of surprise – when a character does or says something you don’t expect, when a twist suddenly pops into your head, when a new character walks into a scene and disrupts it – and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sustain interest in a novel if I knew what was going to happen for all 100,000 words of it. I needed to surprise myself.

I didn’t want my novel to meander all over the place however. What I needed was some kind of loose structure, but what? I searched the internet for articles and books on writing a novel and when a friend of mine suggested I follow the structure of the Hero’s Journey something clicked into place. At first I found it hard to translate the very fantasy-based hero’s journey to my own, very contemporary novel so I adapted it, picking out certain elements like the ‘call to adventure’, the ‘road of trials’ and the ‘refusal of return’.

I went back to my notebook and sketched out a very rough hero’s journey for my heroine and brainstormed what might happen during the different stops on the journey. Not all of them made it through to the final draft but some did. I started writing then, speeding through the first few scenes then pausing momentarily to think when I wasn’t sure what happened next, then writing again (letting the character lead the story).

On a very basic level the Hero’s journey is about giving your character a goal and then throwing lots of obstacles at them until they finally reach that goal. If you’re writing adult fiction the characters in your subplots need to have goals, and obstacles too.

In “Heaven Can Wait” Lucy’s goal is to be reunited with her fiancĂ©. Her flatmates in ‘the house of wannabe ghosts’ have goals too - Brian’s is to haunt Paddington station and Claire’s is to get revenge on the band that mistreated her before she died. My task was to throw as many obstacles in their path as possible. Obstacles are important for a few reasons:

1) They up the tension and conflict in the novel (and conflict and tension is what keeps a reader reading)

2) They reveal a lot about your characters’ personalities. A good character is active not passive. They won’t lie down and give up when they face an obstacle, they’ll plough straight through (or around) it and battle on to achieve their goal. I recently read that it isn’t so much sympathy that engages a reader with a character, but admiration for the strength they through the course of a novel – and showing them overcoming their obstacles is a very good way of doing that.

In the Hero’s Journey, and a lot of women’s fiction, most characters achieve their goals (aka a ‘happily ever after’ ending) but it’s not always the case. Sometimes the characters gain more than that – they gain a new understanding of the world, a sense or peace and acceptance, or they grow as a person.

When I was writing “Heaven Can Wait” I tried hard to make sure that each of the characters had their own ‘character arc’, i.e. how they changed and grew as people over the course of the novel. This was particularly important for Lucy, the main character. It’s not something you can necessarily plan but if you give your character a whole bunch of flaws at the start of your novel and let them lead your story the chances are they’ll go off on a learning experience all on their own.

So there you go. That’s pretty much how I wrote my novel. Some of it was conscious (i.e. roughly planning the Hero’s Journey) and some of it was subconscious (letting my main character decide how she got from A to B). I’m not suggesting that it’s the recommended way to write a novel (and part of me wishes I was a plotter so I didn’t have those “Urgh, what happens now?” moments) but it worked for me.

Cally Taylor

Author of “Heaven Can Wait”, a supernatural romantic-comedy.

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