Radio Free Bard

What should I put in my first draft?

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 24, 2008

Everything.

Remember that idea you had for a sex scene that you decided wouldn’t work? Write it anyway.

Remember how the story was going to branch off to deal with the father’s abusive wife but you felt it was too topical? Write it anyway.

Remember the scene that added colour to a character but had very little to do with the plot? Write it anyway.

The idea with a first draft is to build a block of granite from which you will chisel your masterpiece. A larger block of granite will allow for more creativity and more options in your final draft.

Write the scenes that come into your head. Write the characters that you might not need. Don’t start the editing process prematurely; you’re kidding yourself if you think your first draft will have any need for polish. I may have mentioned this in my post about curing writer’s block: your internal editor is only going to stop you from writing what you need to write.

A difference between a first draft and a block of granite that is worth noting is your ability to seamlessly attach parts that you had chiseled away. This may be important when it comes to your third or fourth draft. It’s much easier to rewrite something than it is to write it in the first instance. If you realise that something is missing from later revisions, it helps to know you have raw materials that, with the right type of editing, can be reintroduced to the whole seamlessly.

At least two of my favourite short fictions written by Brisbane authors were sections cropped from earlier novels and subsequently re-worked. If you want to be a writer, write then edit. If you want to be an editor, teacher, critic, proofreader, agent, unemployed, edit then write.

My first attempt at a novel became the blockwork for my first collection of short stories. The ones that were published were the ones that I hated. I still dislike them.

What should you put in your first draft? Everything.

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SAP: Standard Author Profile.

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 19, 2008

I’ve spent most of today looking up at storm clouds and wondering about what today’s post would be about. I’ve had a few ideas yet all of them seemed contrived and of limited value. The idea I’ve settle with is not one that falls outside either of those categories, but is one that has consistently tapped me on the shoulder and demanded I write.

Questions of a standard nature.

A CV is something that most people, including authors, have. It is a standardised way of displaying one’s usefulness to prospective employers. What I’m proposing is somewhat different and would exist more as a standardised mental excercise and less of a burden of red-tape. My mind has been playing with itself all day imagining a list of questions that would apply to all types of author that would not only give people an idea about whether or not an author matches their reading habits but would also force an author to put serious thought into where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

I’m open to input on this but I project that the appropriate goals of such a profile would be to:

  • Inform readers
  • Guide writers

I’m usually against applying any kind of taxonomy to the arts, but the niggling sensation in my mind will not abate. It whispers to me that input from fellow writers would be desirable.

I ask two questions:

  1. Is a Standard Author Profile a good idea or a bad idea?
  2. What information would it contain?

Even if your response to the first question is that an SAP is a bad idea, I’d still like to know what you believe would be useful information for it to contain.

Proposed SAP, a work in progress.

Name:
Pen-name(s):
Gender:

Primary style(s):
Secondary style(s):

Primary Genre(s):
Secondary Genre(s):

Dominant Mood(s):
Dominant Theme(s):

Primary Preferred Audience:
Other Preferred Audience(s):

Stylistic Influence(s):

Content Influence(s):

Note: I will be updating the SAP as people comment.

Why write?

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 17, 2008

A regular reader, the lovely Carmen Forward, ‘tagged’ me in the comments of my last post. This, upon further investigation, means that “I have to list 6 or 7 random things about myself, link back to those that tagged me and tag 6 or 7 more people.”

I’ve never subscribed to any form of chain-letter or chain-communication and so won’t be ‘tagging’ anyone. Despite this I am eager to write something about myself that may be useful to others.

I’ll explore my reasons to write so that the territory doesn’t feel so unfamiliar when you trek through it yourself.

Why do I write?

I am a storyteller. I primarily write to tell a story and to cause an emotional response in the reader. I feel that what I have written is useless if I fail in doing so. This is not an expectation I apply to other writers; we all have our own reasons for writing. I remember the books where I cried, where I laughed, where I felt erotic. I keep the books that can generate those emotions the second, third or fourth time I read them.

I write to chase the glory I heap upon my favourite authors when I respond to their work. I know the deep emotional appreciation I feel when an author gently reaches into my chest and then rips my heart out. I know how alive I feel when I join a character in maniacal laughter. I know how grateful I feel to have a part of me come out in a character. I want to learn that process, master it and offer it to others in the same spirit as it was offered to me.

Why do I write to be published

There is a difference. I write for one reason and yet my published work was written for a different reason. The reason for which my published work was written was contribution. I have always felt that one of the few obligations authors must accept is that their work must contribute to something. I can take my writing more seriously when I feel that I have given first and asked to receive second. This is not self sacrifice; I choose to have my work taken seriously by virtue, not by default.

All aspiring authors need to ask themselves why they should be taken seriously. If you can’t answer that question, think harder. If your answer is ‘because I should be shown that respect as a human being’, you are correct, but generally unpublished in today’s world. If your answer is ‘because my muse plus my talent equals something enjoyably significant for myself and others’, you will go far.

Don’t misunderstand me, I have written and been published for my own purposes as outlined above, but my primary source of work and income has been to write for somebody else’s muse.  I have been published twice before for something written completely of my own impetus but both times under pen names. Don’t bother asking the names of the books, I’m not here to impress you.

Why do I write instead of pursuing something else

If I could contemplate doing anything else I wouldn’t write. Bill Leaf was reported in this weekend’s Australian as having said something similar about his art. I write because it’s the only thing I look forward to when I wake up in the morning. I write because it’s the only thing that exists in both my manic and my depressed worlds. I write because it’s pure and it’s fun and it’s mine and it’s ancient.

I write for others but I weave stories for myself. I found style in the faith that my life was fertile soil for messages with meaning. I bow to the advice of those that came before me and I take that advice and hammer it into my own weapon. To do this well is to have an armoury. To do this poorly is to have artistic cancer.

I hope that this small and admittedly unrevealing insight into my life helps others with their own art. It took me a long time to discover where I stand on the topics in this post. I hope it helps.

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Be a better writer in one easy step.

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 13, 2008

I was told today that my article on curing writer’s block had made it to the top of Reddit’s writing section. Thank you to everyone that voted for or commented on the article. I’m glad people feel that there was something to take away from what I’d written. I’ll aim to be as useful in the future.

As you can tell from the title of this post, I’m about to claim that there is one simple thing you can do to become a better writer. Before I share with you my opinion on the topic, let me qualify my position first. The list of things you can do to improve your writing is limitless. The only limitation to this list of methods is your imagination.

There is however, one thing that you absolutely must do or none of the other techniques will work.

Write more.

There is nothing more valuable to your improvement as a writer than practise. Reading more will help, having more criticism will help, any number of activities other than actually writing will help. Keep in mind, however, that all they are doing is helping. An Olympic sprinter can eat all the fruit, work all the muscles or study all the theory that they are able to find. None of this will help if they don’t sprint. Likewise, nothing can help you if you don’t write.

The example of a runner is an apt one. Time must be taken from their day to run, it can’t be exercised without that commitment.  There are many types of running, from short distance sprints to long distance running. While the majority of their practise must be in their chosen discipline, they must train in all distances to a certain extent. There are many ancillary activities that can and must be done to improve a runner’s abilities as a runner.

I’m not trained in human movements and couldn’t tell you the exact physiological processes involved in a sprinter’s training. I know enough, however, to see the link between the mental pathways formed when an activity is repeated over and over again. A writer must write over and over again to reduce the mental effort required to write. That practise needs to be forming good habits and you can’t form good habits without consistent writing.

What to write and how to write it

If you’re just starting out as a writer, it may be premature to focus heavily on a single writing discipline. Too many new writers hold to a mistaken idea that there is a single ‘real writing’ and everything else is somehow less valid. The obvious problem here is that everyone has a different idea about what constitutes ‘real writing’. Is it novel writing or short stories? Is it poetry or is it journalism? Is it fiction or non-fiction?

Your credibility is greatly diminished unless you can capably write most, if not all, of them.

The great advantage in this is that it allows you to practise writing what your mood tells you is appropriate. Flexibility also increases your usefulness to potential employers; writer’s generally don’t start as chart toppers.

Several specific tools I’d suggest for keeping in practise include:

  • Keeping a daily diary or blog,
  • NaNoWriMo,
  • Writing a letter at least once a day or writing two or three lengthy emails a day,
  • Finding a household item and writing an advertisement for it,
  • Disregarding context and writing out whatever lines of dialogue pop into your head,
  • Watching a movie and writing a review for it,
  • Brainstorming a page worth of novel, story or movie titles,
  • Trying to write your inner monologue,
  • Having someone sit in front of you and painting a portrait of them using only words,
  • Decorating your body with words using a felt tip marker,
  • Forcing yourself to use Write or Die for at least 20 minutes a day.

There are many more but hopefully this list will keep you busy until the list is expanded. I’m going to post this list on a permanent page on this site so that it can be updated and added to as contributions from comments or my own ideas come in.

I would appreciate any comments or ideas for additional activities that could be added to the list. I make no promises as to whether or not any individual idea will be added but I do promise that any idea submitted in comments will be attributed to the person that made it.

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Curing writer’s block

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 12, 2008

There is a line that a writer crosses when they decide that they want to be a writer, not a hobbyist. The hobbyist can leave their writing for months on end and content themselves with the drudgery of their lives, never picking up a pen and never stressing at the vacuum of inspiration. When someone crosses that line into budding author, they are doomed to feel the invisible ropes of writer’s block tug them backwards from the page or the keys. They must face the hunger of the empty page without the food of inspiration.

This post is born out of writer’s block.

There are many types of writer’s block. In this post I aim to guilt you out of having them.

Symptoms: Unable to translate plan into paragraph. Can’t think of how to start the first page. Constantly crushing the page or deleting what you’ve written.

Cause: Your standards are too high and you’re trying to be Harper Lee on your first draft. Your perfectionism is killing your creativity.

Solution: Be willing to write crap. As Hemingway put it, “The first draft of everything is shit.” If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer, so write. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write it and don’t edit it until you’ve written more than you’re willing to discard. As a writer you have to have faith in what you can do. The day I knew I could become a writer was the day I realised I was supposed to edit my first draft, not publish it.

Symptoms: Constantly distracted, always finding something to do other than writing. Real life keeps getting in the way.

Cause: You’ve forgotten how easy it is to write. You’re either building it up in your mind as something horribly difficult or tedious or even worse, you just don’t care enough to hunger for it. This is made worse by poor organisational skills or thinking that being a writer is any less demanding than any other job.

Solution: Don’t tackle a big project as the first thing you do when you sit down. If you’re writing a novel, write a diary entry or a blog post first. If you don’t feel inspired by your first scheduled task, do the second. Whatever you do, write. If you’re at the point where you aren’t hungering to put down words and you haven’t written anything that day, start thinking about a nine to five job, it’ll either scare you back to your work or be preparation for when you realise you won’t cut it as a writer.

Symptoms: Don’t know what happens next in the story. Unable to ‘feel’ the story or some part of it such as characters. There is no logical next step that you can feel immediately.

Causes: Lack of emotional involvement in your work. Your mind is overloaded.

Solution: Step away from the page or keyboard, lock yourself in a room and just imagine the setting. Don’t think logically or structurally about the work, just get into a deeply mental space and let the parts of your subconscious mind that have been dwelling on this very question speak. Your subconscious knows where to go next, it knows what it wants to write. All story tellers, all writers, all artists have a part of their subconscious that will latch onto an idea and run with it whether you realise it or not. There’s a part of your subconscious for every idea you’ve ever had. Give it a chance to speak. You won’t hear it if your thinking, you’ll drown it out. Listen to some Eckhart Tolle.

Symptoms: Can’t maintain focus on a single project until completion. Started too many projects and can’t devote enough time to them. Always starting never finishing. This is a valid and crippling form of writer’s block.

Cause: Your muse is strong but you lack understanding of your muse and you lack discipline.

Solution: Get your life sorted out. Understand yourself or you’ll never understand what you are trying to say. Understanding what you are trying to say is just as important as understanding what you want to talk about. You may think you want to talk about pirates, space ships and goblins but what you really want to express is discontent at the treatment of women in the workplace. You may think you want to write a marketing blog but what you really want to express is your wonder at the human ability to socialise.

Symptoms: You can’t think of a single thing to write about. No idea about what kind of project, format, style, universe or issue you wish to tackle. You have nothing that needs to be expressed.

Cause: You’ve shut yourself down due to stress.

Solution: You were once a child with a boundless imagination, either a boy with a cowboy hat and a plastic six-shooter or a girl with a box full of mummy’s old clothes with which you would play dress-up. There is no reason for a person to be completely devoid of wonder unless they’ve shut themselves down from stress or fear or pain or any number of grown-up reasons. Chances are you’d be better able to write something pained and dark during these kinds of moods, even if you aren’t aware of the effect stress is having on you.

Go scream at the top of your lungs in an empty field in the middle of nowhere.

Top 10 things to ask yourself when writing

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 11, 2008

One of the most important aspects of writing is focus. The physical act of writing requires focus to to just reach the finish line but it also requires focus of intention, purpose and style. One of the first signs that you’re not well practiced as a writer is that you lapse from one viewpoint to another too quickly or swap from 3rd to 1st person half way through.

I find that asking myself questions about what I’m doing helps keep the focus. Every time I hit a certain character or scene, I automatically ask myself the relevant questions.

10: What am I writing about?

You should be able to answer this question at all levels of specificity, from the most generalised answer to the most specific. The more generalised the answer the more it will apply to the work as a whole while specific ones to individual scenes. Answers could range from:

  • National sovereignty,
  • The struggle of Tibetans against Chinese domination,
  • The Tibetan uprising of 1859,
  • The Initial acts of the uprising,
  • A young Tibetan man attacks a Chinese Soldier.

9: Who am I writing about?

The greatest element of literature, high and vulgar, is the human element. It is important to have a clear idea of who your characters are at the outset so that their actions, motivations and idiosyncrasies remain consistent and meaningful throughout your writing. Even when writing Non-fiction about non-human subjects, keep in mind that the most important element is the reader, and that the ‘who’ about which you are writing must have human relevance.

8: What does this character want?

When I first started writing larger pieces, I consistently failed to give my characters a motivation. They were often character foils for a protagonist or, sometimes, nothing more than eye-candy. I’ve written characters motivated to escape their past and I’ve written characters whose only motivation is their next packet of cigarettes. If your character wants nothing then your reader won’t believe them.

Everyone has a motivation in real life, even if it is the motivation to do as little as possible.

7: Why would someone enjoy reading this?

How many times have you read a book or a short story and been able to honestly say “I really enjoyed that book, I have no idea why though.” Even if you’ve said it before, upon closer reflection you would have realised that it was a certain character, a certain tension, even a certain scene that struck you. If you can write something and have a clear idea of what people might enjoy about it, it helps you focus on bringing out the richness of those aspects.

6: Who would enjoy reading this?

Your work should be targeted to a certain type of audience. This is always the case and only the deluded think otherwise. If you say “I’m writing this for me, not for marketing to an audience”, that’s great, you’re writing it for yourself and other impoverished Arts students in their early to mid twenties with the wrong idea about the social function of writing.

5: Who am I alienating by writing this?

A writer’s purpose is not to worry about who they are offending when they make a point or tell a story. It is, however, important to know who might be offended so that you can either make sure your message is strong, honest and needed or come up with your apology ahead of time. You will alienate someone no matter what you write.

4: Where am I going with this?

It took me a long time to understand and accept that every part of your work needs to be going somewhere; it needs a purpose. I was often accused of dawdling in my early work by adding pointless tangents. Tangents can be useful, keep them that way. This becomes vitally important in anything short of a novella. Once you’re down to short, sudden or flash fiction, every word must count.

3: Would anyone actually do this?

Your work needs to be believable in context. Tom Clancy once said that ‘The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.’ I couldn’t agree more. The benefit that we have as fiction writers, however, is that we can make things make sense in a completely alien context. If somebody in your story goes on a decade long crusade against another person because of a single remark, make sure that the culture/situation/backstory makes that course of action believable.

2: Does this make sense?

This one still gets me. I will write a short or sudden fiction and be completely satisfied with the imagery, the characters, the dialogue and the concept. I will then have someone read it through for me. Their response: huh? When you are writing, keep in mind that you have imagined a great deal of what is going on that you have not yet written.

You need to ask yourself this one continuously through your work and you’ll still be pulled up at proofing.

1: Why shouldn’t I just go play Fallout 3?

I take this question from the viewpoint of someone walking past my work. If my book was in the front window of a bookshop, assuming the front cover accurately depicted my book’s content, would someone stop to have a look? If my short story was on StumbleUpon, would a fickle stumbler stop to read it? If I told someone a single sentence about the work, would they ask to read it?

Or would they go do something else? If you want readership, write something with worth.

Avoiding good grammar in dialogue

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 10, 2008

Does anyone you know in real life use perfect grammar? If not then why would your characters?

One of the first things I realised when I started writing with a word processor was that the little green squiggly lines that indicate grammatical errors were intruding into the space between quotation marks. I felt violated. “Who are you to question my dialogue?” Then I realised that it made no distinction.

I thought nothing of it until recently I read some work by a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless, even though she’s known me since pre-school). There was something that didn’t quite sit right with me about her dialogue. It was screaming at me but I couldn’t tell from where. Then it hit me – they all had the same patterns of speech. On further inspection and after questioning the writer, I discovered that this was not any lacking on her part as a writer (much) but a function of her unwillingness to have those red and green squiggly lines intrude upon her drafts.

Stop worrying about those damn lines. For starters, I’m yet to see the main stream word processor that gets Australian grammar conventions correct. Secondly, you should be drafting on paper, it forces you to proofread and thirdly, keeping to correct grammar in dialogue is dishonest and unbelievable. Read anything by Iain M banks and you’ll see why it’s so wonderful to have realistic dialogue.

I think that the biggest reason why people are afraid to do this is that it forces them out into the great open space that is creative accountability. When you remove the rules, you loose some guidance. You are forced to bring your creative intent to the front and stand for how your characters are conversing. For some people this could also mean actually designing their characters. Wouldn’t that be horrible?

Dialogue is one of the hardest things to control in many ways. Syntactically the punctuation can become a nightmare; I’ve found myself completely re-writing dialogue just to avoid using certain punctuation traps. Semantically it can run away from the author and leave him well clear of his intended target.

The hardest part about dialogue though, is characterisation. Letting a person’s dialogue express their character without sounding stupid is hard. It comes down to use of stereotypes. People either go too far or not far enough. Stereotypes aren’t only a poor generalisation, they contain the recipe book for baking a character in the reader’s mind. This goes ten-fold for short fiction writers where words are at a premium and, especially in the case of flash-fiction, you may only have a single line in which to introduce a character and how the reader is to approach them.

Use of stereotypes in dialogue, and in description, needs to be deliberate and well planned. Over use will result in unbelievable characters and under use will just result in same-same characters with little soul. Only the soulless use perfect grammar in every day speech and therefore, dialogue.

Only the unpublished use it in anything else.

Where have the pen and paper gone?

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 9, 2008

Writing with a pen and paper is an activity that has been forgotten by most of my friends. Reliance on a computer has become commonplace and simply picking up a pen and jotting has lost its appeal to many.

I’ve been assaulted with reasons as to why writing with a computer is better. Copy-paste, delete, spell-checking, all reasons given for abandoning the pen and paper heritage of writing. The ability to copy paste an article written in word into a blog hosted on wordpress is compelling I’ll admit. The predominance of electronic submission and email these days is also a good reason to exclusively write on a computer. These arguements carry great weight with a lot of people. I am not amongst those people.

I find using a computer horribly restrictive for a couple of reasons.

I’m limited as to where I can write

A computer is stationary and usually in the stuffiest room in the house. If it’s not in some backroom study, it’s in a public area or office where there are too many distractions. You can’t move it easily. Laptops are not a solution, even the smallest laptop is heavier than the heaviest notebook and keeping them charged so that you’re not relying on a powerpoint being available is not always easy or practical.

With pen and paper I can write anywhere I like, whenever I like, and with far less notice than with a computer. I often find myself scribbling some fleeting story idea into my notebook with little more than a second’s notice. Inspiration won’t wait for Windows to start up on your laptop.

I can’t scribble notes in the margin

Word Processors are overly prescriptive as to where on the page you can write. If I have a comment to make on my own work, I’d either have to slot it in to the text somewhere, breaking the flow of the writing, or keep notepad open so that I can alt-tab. Either way, keeping my notes and comments unbotrusive and close to their appropriate sections are mutually exclusive efforts with a computer.

I’ve seen pages of my own work where I’ve scribbled more in the margins than I have on the main part of the page. Stick figures are common-place fare and I’ve often used margin comments as the basis for new work. There’s just so much more flexibility with paper than with a computer.

Paper doesn’t crash while saving

It doesn’t even require saving for that matter. I’ve lost count of the number of times my housemate has lost hours or even days worth of work due to a crash, failure or overwrite. Version control is so complicated that there are dozens of needlessly complex systems out there for keeping track.

I date the paper I use to write. Problem solved.

I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on the topic, I’m pretty sure the paper posse is small and getting smaller while the computer crew is large and almost dominant.

I wonder when there’ll be a paper based wordpress?