Sunday, 20 April 2014

My Ten Rules of Writing

Everyone else seems to do this so I thought I’d better do it too. I wonder, though whether this changes from day to day and I’d imagine it certainly would over a period of time. I wonder also whether one or two items are actually constants. Here’s today’s list of ten, anyway.    

1.      Write every day

Yes, write absolutely every day. To me writing is like cleaning your teeth – I feel uncomfortable if I don’t do it. I actually have a two hour rule – write at least two hours a day. It used to be one hour and / or 1,000 words. I upped it to two hours and 2,000 words when I got a contract for a non-fiction book. 
I started the one hour / 1,000 words when I still had a demanding day job and two teenage children. I managed it somehow. I’d say to those even busier – start really small. Maybe ten minutes a day. You’re less likely to talk yourself out of it as you’re more likely to find the ten minutes. More often than not you’ll manage more.
And every day means every day. Today is Sunday and I’m on holiday in Scotland.   

2.      Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t manage it one day

Life happens. I have a day job – one that is very apt for a writer and keeps me in contact with writing. Sometimes, however, the demands of that day job are such that I don’t get time for my writing. I don’t fret if there is day on which I really cannot write. I know I’ll be able to again soon.  There is no question of not being able to.

3.      Don’t wait for inspiration

Because it probably won’t come. It doesn’t usually come, anyway, when I’m sat at my desk. That is really an info dump.  I’ve done all of the thinking elsewhere and else when. It’s surprising, though, what does start happening as you hit the keys. Other ideas creep in round the edges.
And even on days when I think I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, I just start typing and out comes the story.  

4.      Writing is mainly rewriting

Such a cliché but it’s so true. What takes me three months to write takes me up to eighteen months to edit.  

5.      Write what you know

Yet I write fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction. However, I would still say I am writing what I know. I submerge myself into the scenes I am creating. I become at one with them. It almost becomes a form of method acting. I am writing from what I know, from what I am when I confront the monster, when I visit another world and when I’m in Nazi Germany.

6.      You never finish, you just abandon

There comes a time when you have to meet the deadline, when you have to send your work out into the world, when it has to become public. If you had more time you would write it even better. We are perfectionist and we never achieve perfection. Thankfully we continue to improve. Be pleased that all of your work leads to your best work. Treat earlier works kindly.

7.      Write what you love

Write what you are passionate about. Take care not to become a disillusioned jobbing writer. If you don’t like the compromise the market forces on you, then earn your daily bread another way. Don’t compromise, anyway. Find a third way that suits both you and the market.

8.      Don’t ever give up

You can make it as a writer if you really want to. It’s a big “if”, however. You’ll have to face rejection, self-doubt and even disappointing reviews once you are published. Keep faith with yourself.

9.      Take the time to do nothing

You can’t give and give and give. You need to nourish your own soul. You need some experiences to feed your writing. Take a stroll in the park, walk through a colourful market or sip a hot drink in crowded café.

10.  Read, read, read

You’ve probably picked up most of your writing skills by a form of osmosis from reading. Now that your inner editor has developed you’ll probably not enjoy reading quite the same way you used to.  You’ll notice the misplaced apostrophe, the clunky sentence and the strained dialogue but you’ll also notice the well-drawn character, the strong sense of time and place and the tightly written prose. Whether you label what you read as good or as bad writing you will still learn from it.                                      

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Balancing a story – story structure and more with St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Bath Spa

It was a fabulous sight. Practically every person, including all of the staff and the headteacher, were dressed up as characters out of a book. We had Puss-in-Boots, several Wallys, form Where’s Wally, a harry Potter and a Hermione or two, several Alices and many, many more. It was clear that everyone had gone to great deal of effort. The costumes were convincing. It was also good to see so many books lying on tables.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Getting there? How do you know when you’ve made it as a writer?

How is a writer defined?

That’s almost the easy bit. If you write, or at least if you write and take yourself seriously, you are a writer. But at what point do you become an established, professional or experienced writer? Let alone talented or skilled? (I actually argue you can’t help talent but you can always develop skill.)

Sunday, 2 March 2014

What if there were dragons hiding in the woods?

Visit to St Mark’s CE Junior School, Salisbury, Friday 28 February

I had a lovely time at St Mark’s on Friday. I was able to present some of my work. I read a little from Kiters and told the students about how I used to enjoy reading when I was their age and about how even then I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was so full of story.
I worked with one Year 5 and Year 6 group on Magic and Mystery and two groups of years 3 and 4 on Dragons.
I got to meet the resident dragon and to hear and see some of the work the students have been doing with other writers all week.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Some truths about being a writer

Similarities are perhaps more surprising than differences

I had the extraordinary privilege yesterday of attending one of our MA days with our Playwriting MA students. A colleague was ill and I took over some of the hosting duties. This is a delightful group of very serious, very committed students.  I joined in the discussion with them and three of the visiting playwrights. Although writing plays is in many way different from writing fiction, being a writer in both cases is very similar.

Turn up at the page

This was a big message. The fact that these students are on this course is a sign already that they have some competence.  They’re not terrible writers. They’re not yet great. But they can be and are more likely to be with continued practice. So, it’s important to set aside time for writing.  This time must be ring-fenced. Even on the days it is difficult, if you write you are a writer.

A vocation not a profession

You do this because you are passionate about it. You may not be able to earn all that you need from it – only a very few do. But you keep on. There are ways to manage this:
·         Stay with your creative project and find casual work to pay the bills
·         Compromise your creativity for the sake of commercial success
·          Join the academy (There is an interesting irony here – that is just as much a vocation though it looks like a profession.)
·         Take on some “jobbing” writing tasks
I’ve actually said all of this before. It was good to hear other “professional” writers say the same.
The value of networking
We’re handing some of this out on a plate to our students. But keeping a finger on the pulse is essential. Find out what’s happening out there. As one visitor put it, never turn down a cup of tea. There is an abundance of opportunities.
Small press is great
I’m small pressed published and I love it. The equivalent in playwriting is to find small theatre groups, consider doing something via You Tube or consider producing work yourself. Create your own opportunities. This leads to good lines on CVs.
Submission dilemma
One “publisher” looks as if they will accept if you totally change something which takes out the heart of your work. Another actually loves precisely this aspect but cannot at this stage make any promises. Is it here a matter of finding a third way and a third “publisher”? Been there. Done that.  Several times.
Ah, the writer’s life is a curious thing.      

Friday, 7 February 2014

Being a university lecturer – is this a help or a hindrance?

At least I’ll never have to retire

I met with a few colleagues in a local café yesterday.
“I’ll be retiring in two years,” I said but then added quickly “but of course I shall carry on writing so I shan’t really ever retire.”
We discussed this a little. There would be another advantage – there would be no pressure to write anything too commercial. Even though I’d still want to be paid, so that the writing gained some status, my teaching pension, my university pension and the state pension would pay for pretty well all of my immediate needs. Or is that an advantage?


Some other advantages

You are certainly taken more seriously if you say you have an MA and a PhD in creative writing and that you teach it in Higher Education. This isn’t necessarily by publishers – if anything they’re a little wary. When it comes to organising readings, festival appearances or school visits, though, it’s a good line on the CV.
The university gives me a reasonable salary for being a writer and doing quite a few other useful tasks for them – teaching some classes, completing some admin and as a writer being an ambassador for the university.  
Nobody bats an eyelid if I work on my novel in my office on the university computer.
I’m thinking, talking about and reading writing all of the time. That actually helps me to make my own better.


 Some disadvantages

Time often disappears and sometimes when there is the time there isn’t always the brain space. It is now 8.45. I’m working from home this morning. This is the best time for me to write. Often, if I can’t write first thing I don’t get round to writing at all.
There certainly isn’t the time for doing the marketing that will produce a steady stream of sales. I do look forward to having more time for that when I retire. But I’ll miss a tag, though I expect I can say “former university lecturer”.  
That advantage of not having to be too commercial can be a disadvantage too. There must be rigour in both cases. Lack of commercial value also, alas, can mean lack of visibility.
Creative wring in any case maintain a puzzling position in Higher Education. Even we creative writing academics ourselves can’t always define it successfully. Yet we have a growing sense that we bring genuine academic rigour to that discipline.  


The goal

For me personally this remains the same as ever: to write that novel or that group of novels that really make the difference. And so, inside or outside the academy that process continues.         

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A writer sandwiched between two artists

My father was a talented artist and would have gone on to study at a top art school if World War II hadn’t intervened. My son is similarly talented and works in the fashion industry but also illustrates books. They have a remarkably similar style even though they were taught in completely different ways.  My father’s education was very formal.  My son was just taught what he needed to know when he needed to know it. Both were found to be colour blind – my father mildly so, my son more severely. It didn’t stop them.
Their work is good, really good. So, I don’t bother.