I’ve moved this blog to The Write Place and I’d love you to pop over and see what I’m up to there.
When an idea has been living in your head for a long time and you sit down to write it, but find you can’t, don’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that you’re suffering from writer’s block.
What may be holding you back from writing might well be fear. But fear of another kind. Fear that you won’t get it right. Fear that you haven’t quite got character X’s arc down pat, or fear that your sentences won’t be as crisp on paper as they are in your head. Welcome to analysis paralysis. It’s a curse and it’s a significant reason why so many writers don’t pick up their pens or don’t finish their stories.
It’s a good idea to let the little fish of story ideas swim about in your head for a while so that they grow into bigger fish from complimentary ideas that come from rumination. But you don’t want to overthink the story ideas to such a degree that you’ve overfed them into monsters before you even get writing.
Writing is an organic process, don’t kill that little fish by over-feeding it. As soon that small fish starts swimming about in the sea of your mind, start writing. Let it swim where it will, don’t try to direct it. Think balance. Think a little bit of structure and a little bit of spontaneity, you might give the fish a tank and a few toy castles to swim through, but you can not determine whether it will suck on the sides of the tank for a week or if it will dive in and out of the bits of seaweed. Likewise, let your story grow organically.
Often when we overthink a story, it doesn’t grow into our idea of what we thought it was going to be. While it’s all good and well to know your genre, have a strong cast of characters, and an exciting plot, don’t over-plan. Sure, you want to know where you’re going, but be open to surprise. A surprise in the writer will stimulate a surprise in the reader. Readers are smart and they don’t like predictability. If they wanted predictability they’d be doing maths. They’re reading because they want to be taken on an adventure. If you don’t go on an adventure, how can you expect them to enjoy the ride.
Some writers report that they knew the beginning and the ending of their stories and the middle just happened. Other writers get heart palpitations at the very idea of not being in full control. These are the control freaks and they suffer the most from analysis paralysis. Of course you can plot out every single scene of your story, but if you don’t allow for the creative inputs that come during writing, you’re going to short change not only your readers, but yourself as a writer. Don’t be a slave to your story, instead, think of writing as taking your story’s hand and walking along the road together to discover where it is that you want to go. There is nothing more stifled or strangled than a story that’s forced in a certain direction.
There’s no place for the analytical mind in the drafting experience. In those early drafts where you just want to get the story down, it doesn’t matter if you have lapses, inconsistencies, crappy grammar, or two characters with similar names. Just allow your thoughts to put themselves on the page. Once you’ve got down a basic draft, the revision can begin, and that’s when you get to invite your analytical mind to the process. Revision is where you can deepen characters, tighten the plot, and correct your abhorrent spelling mistakes.
How can you force your analytical brain to take a step back during the creative process? If analysis paralysis stymies you during the pre-writing phase, stop trying to get it all write. Make notes of your ideas, it doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, don’t judge them, just get them down. Research if you must, but avoid becoming so overwhelmed by information that it smothers your idea. Research shouldn’t be evident in your story, it should inform your story.
Most people claim to suffer from analysis paralysis once they start writing and get frustrated that they’re not getting all the stuff into the story, or that as soon as they put down a word they start judging themselves. Try these remedies. If you type your draft on a computer then set the font to no colour and just allow yourself to write whatever comes. Not being able to see what you’ve written allows your brain to face a blank welcoming page instead of a critical one staring back at you with errors. If you write long-hand, tuck a piece of carbon paper between two sheets and write your story with a pen that’s run out of ink so that you can’t see what you’re writing. Afterwards, when you’ve got the whole story down you can go back and revise on the carbon copy. By freeing your mind from judgement you can allow your creative mind free reign, and let your story find its natural form, and avoid analysis paralysis.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER – SHORT STORY COURSE
Successful short story writing is a mixture of ability and technique. The “Brief Encounter – Short Story Course” will teach you how to develop your skills and improve your chances of becoming a published writer.
The course will cover: Planning, writing compelling openings, constructing key moments, satisfactory endings, allowing characters to reveal your plot, creating 3-D characters, effective dialogue, establishing viewpoint, creating credible settings, the importance of drama and conflict – all the building blocks that develop good writing.
Date: Saturday, 1 December 2012
Place: Bedfordview/Edenvale, Gauteng, South Africa
Cost: R1200 includes manual, tea and light lunch.
Contact Isabella at firstname.lastname@example.org to book your place.
“Ah memories are made of this,” my grandfather used to say, usually after a family dinner on Hogmanay sitting under stars that he couldn’t see, in a country that he wasn’t born in.
“What exactly are memories made of?”
I decided to engage the scientific brain muscles. In order to deconstruct a memory I would have to establish a premise and settle upon a memory that is universally applicable. The hypothesis was scientific: Does place influence the event that makes an experience memorable or does the event influence the place that makes an experience unforgettable? The subject matter was purely sentimental and universally valid: A first kiss. In this experiment, mine.
Michael rode his Chopper bike with bare feet, a naked chest and a white smile. His long blonde hair blew in the wind. He smelled of chlorine and he wore a faded red Speedo; he should have lived at the sea. He kissed me over the handlebars of his bike, he closed his eyes and made it special. His skin was beach-sand warm and his mouth tasted of oranges.
To establish if the memory of my first kiss is memorable because of where it happened – on a sand road in front of a municipal swimming pool in Germiston, or, if the area is memorable because it was where I experienced my first kiss.
A car, a smile, and the indelible map of childhood inked into my memory.
The Electricity Supply Commission’s thirty-year old threat to churn up the wide island in front of our house and plant its monstrous power pylons next to our pre-cast wall has come to naught, but it is no compensation for the East Rand baroque palette that has been rendered to the down-pipes and gutters of my childhood home.
The shrubs on neighbours pavements have been uprooted along with the hiding places from which I observed Michael doing wheelies down our sand road before he skidded off right into his own tarred road.
The smooth pole around which I liquorice-twisted myself in an attempt to appear sexy and desirable has rusted bubbles underneath the municipal green paint. On the top of the pole the three street names are still displayed. Langdale leads westward to my house, or eastwards toward the railway line and an uninspiring view of the steel factory. Swannage dips closer down to the railway line and toward Michael’s house. Cheam Crescent snakes up to the swimming pool where we spent summer holding hands on thirsty orange beach towels nicked from the posh hotels, or sucking Jelly Belly ice-creams on fibreless towels with rows of faded palms.
The corner house has the same unpainted gates and dire warning to trespassers – an identical breed of pre-cast tooth-and-gum guard dogs straining against their own over-bred chests and forelegs.
Double silver gates that beckoned us to the pool that summer are closed for the winter. The pool that shimmered promises is empty; the sky-blue painted concrete confesses the secret of the brochure-blue water of my memory. A pressed metal timetable detailing opening and closing times offers no disclosure of the teenage planning that took place according to those firm times. Boarded-up ablutions guard the romantic conspiracies that were whispered behind their walls. Giggles echo in my mind. I drive away.
It’s difficult to calculate the effect of place on event, to equate the importance of the event to the place. The properties that one imagines place would bestow upon the first kiss are, upon close investigation, elusive as vapour. A kiss doesn’t make the shadow of the looming steel factory any less ugly; but a kiss that tasted of oranges is a lingering memory that owes its beauty entirely to the act of itself.
He kissed me over the handlebars of his bike. He closed his eyes and made it special. His mouth tasted of oranges
(First published in In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself – Volume 8)
Your bathroom at home has miniature-sized everything – shampoo, body lotion, soap.
You spend half an hour going through your dressing table at home trying to find the room service menu.
You speak in hushed tones when you walk down your passage at home.
You ask your housekeeper what else is on the menu for dinner.
You forget you have a car parked in the garage and phone for a taxi.
You dial 9 hoping to book an early wake-up call.
Every inch in your handbag is accounted for.
You go to the bookshop and head straight for the travel guides.
The rotator cuffs in your shoulder are stuffed from lugging heavy wheelie bags through airports.
Roam on / Roam off is no. 2 on the speed dial of your mobile phone.
The constant concern in your life is how many pages you have got left in your passport for foreign visa requirements.
You wear three watches – New York, London, Johannesburg.
Your wallet carries US Dollars, Egyptian Pounds, Euros and Thai Baht, but you have no Rands to pay the local car-guard.
You phone your friends and they say, “Isabella who? God, I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth!”
Every romance writer needs a survival kit to help them out when they find themselves in a romantic writing drought.
1. A great memory of a first kiss.
I kissed Michael over the handlebars of his Chopper bike. He smelled of chlorine and he tasted of oranges. The memory of a first kiss brings back the tingly sensations that you have to relate in your love story every time your characters kiss.
2. A vine of jasmine outside their writing room.
The surprising hint of a delicious scent titillates the senses and awakens your response to sensational writing. Make sure your readers are as sensually aroused as you are by including sensational details.
3. A bottle of their favourite male fragrance.
Does he smell of pine or moss, does he exude a woody scent or a mature scent that reminds you of pine cones crackling in the hearth? Make his scent attractive and alluring; make it so your reader also wants to rip his clothes off.
4. Chandeliers and long white curtains that billow in their writing room.
Crystals catch and deflect the light and creates a sense of luxury. Long white billowing curtains adds to that full sensuality.
5. A day alone with love songs playing loud.
Play your love songs from morning til night on full volume, choosing the sad ones for the “we’re destined to never be together again” moment.
6. The handkerchief you kept from your first breakup.
That handkerchief you kept has got salt crystals on it from all the tears you shed. Cry all over again and tell your readers where it hurts.
7. Calendar of male pin-ups.
You know you’ve got a favourite part of the male anatomy – share it with your readers. Is it that delicious line that runs down his tummy separating his abs, or is it the hollow in his throat above his massive pecs?
8. Catalogue of dates.
Make a list of great places to spend a date and then keep them on file so that you’ve got a brilliant candlelit dinner in a nature reserve or an evening star-gazing when you need it.
9. A best friend.
Best friends always offer a shoulder to cry on or great advice. Turn to her or him when you’re not sure what your characters should do.
10. A great relationship.
You can’t write about one if you haven’t had one. Use the highest and lowest parts of your most sizzling relationship in your stories to create a believable romance that your readers will enjoy.
The South African Centre of International PEN (SA PEN) is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Award.
The award for original short stories in English by African authors attracted an unprecedented 827 entries, 625 of which met with the rules of entry. Just under 200 stories were longlisted, and 34 stories were chosen as finalists by the PEN Editorial Board comprising Shaun Johnson (Chair), Anthony Fleischer, Justin Fox, Harry Garuba, Alistair King and Mary Watson. Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee is currently judging the shortlisted stories and will choose the winners of the first (£5 000), second (£3 000) and third (£2 000) prizes. The winners will be announced in May 2009. (Details regarding the announcement will be posted on www.sapen.co.za in due course.) The finalists’ stories will be included in an anthology of new writing from Africa to be published later this year.
The writers and their stories to have been selected as finalists for the Pen/Studzinski Literary Award 2009 are:
Ken Barris – The life of Worm; Nadia Davids – The visit; Ceridwen Dovey – Survival mechanisms; Joan du Toit – An informed decision; Graham Ellis – No match for Fanie Smith; Rosemund J Handler – Strident night; Jeanne Hromnik – Love In troubled times; Karen Jayes – Where he will leave his shoes; Suzanne Jordaan – Beulah; Bobby Jordan – Metalhead and Situation Orange; Chisanga Kabinga – Display cabinet; Ken N Kamoche – A kiss in Nanjing; Yvette Kruger – What I wore; Lauri Kubuitsile – Pulani’s eyes; Beatrice Lamwaka – The star in my camp; Jennifer Lean – To each his own; Irene McCartney – Pauline’s ghost; Jenna Mervis – The lives of dogs; Kirsten Miller – Only in art; NoViolet Mkha Bulawayo – Snapshots; Wame Molefhe – Rainbow-coloured dreams; Natasha Moodley – Spirit of Madala; Isabella Morris – Bluette; Kyne Nislev Bernstorff – The last supper; Naomi Nkealah – In the name of peace; Maik Nwosu – In Leopardville; Tolu Ogunlesi – River Falling; Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi – Area boy rescue; Andrew Salomon – A visit to Dr Mamba; Alex Smith – Soulmates;Dineke Volschenk – Glorious wounds; Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Keeping everything the same; Hayet Z – Flypapered days
The PEN/STUDZINSKI Literary Award has replaced the HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award and aims to encourage new creative writing in Africa. It is open to all citizens of African countries writing in English, and offers talented writers on the continent an exciting opportunity to develop or launch a literary career. www.sapen.co.za
Contests are a fabulous way to announce your presence on the local writing scene. If you are placed in a contest, it helps you to establish a writing cv or bio that many publications require and it also boosts your confidence. Not having a publishing record can be intimidating for beginner writers, but don’t allow yourself to be disheartened. A story well told will be enjoyed by an editor or contest reader.
WHICH ONE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
It is important to be selective about which contests you enter. Without diligent research you could end up sending entries that don’t comply with the rules. If a publication says they only want fiction entries, then that is all they want. They will summarily reject poetry and non-fiction entries, no matter how brilliant they might be. A recent local contest received hundreds of entries, but about a hundred of them were rejected because the entrants did not comply with the rules. If a rule states that you have to be a citizen of Burramunga to enter, then that’s the rule, don’t waste your time or the contest organisers’ time by submitting anything to them.
If you’re serious about entering contests then you need to establish which ones are suitable for the genre that you write in. Good resources can be found in comprehensive listings in publications like The Writer’s Yearbook and Writer’s Market UK available at good bookstores, and obviously, the internet. Many writing sites have a listing of writing contests.
The best way to ensure that you enter the competitions that you are able to comply with, is to have a Contest Plan. In November/December every year, I spend about a week researching contests online and in the Writer’s Yearbook and Writer’s Market. I make a list of those I want to enter by listing them according to the earliest closing date. I cut and paste the submission rules of each into a Word document entitled Contests 2009. At the beginning of every month I see what’s coming up, trying to read three months in advance. If I feel that there is a contest I want to enter then I print that contest’s details and put it into the plastic folder. Date order is essential because at a glance I am able to see what’s coming up. Being forewarned, so to speak, gives me time to consider what story I would like to write, it also gives me a chance to check through unpublished work for a suitable story. This list is invaluable and can be added to throughout the year if new contests appear. It also provides a template for the following year.
KEEP A SEPARATE FOLDER
I have a plastic see through box where I keep all research material, contest rules and drafts of competition entries, this cuts out the confusion of having to remember where I have filed an article or an idea.
JOT DOWN IDEAS
In the plastic folder I keep a notebook for ideas that I want to jot down. An idea don’t remember itself, if you don’t write it down, consider that idea a cigarette that you enjoyed, but once it’s gone up in smoke, you can’t reclaim it. If all your ideas and rules and research are centrally located you won’t waste time.
If you’re going to be a serious contest entrant then you need to keep track of which submissions you’ve made to which publications. Many contests do not accept simultaneous submissions, i.e. it’s not protocol to send the same entry to several competitions at the same time. Knowing where your stories are is essential. A good idea is to download manuscript management software. The best tracker that I’ve found is SAMM which is completely free and downloadable at this link. It’s fabulous because you can customise it according to your needs and it’s unobtrusive. You can enter all your manuscripts, you can enter markets and market types. It’s a no-fuss application that will alert you with follow-ups if you so require.
Before you send your entry, make a checklist from the rules sheet. Have you double-spaced your entry? Must you include your name on the manuscript or mustn’t you? Have you included your contact details? It is so easy to avoid silly mistakes by using a checklist, but remember to be flexible because different contests have different criteria, some want three copies of an entry and others require only a single copy. Some contests allow email entries, others do not. Make it your business to establish the rules for your checklist.
New years are notorious for setting up people for failure, and writers are no different. A new year is a blank canvas waiting for you to fill in the colours of your aspirations, but it is easy to get carried away. With eagerness you allow the colours to swirl into each other so that instead of having a clear picture of what you’re hoping for, you end up with a chaotic picture full of muddy colours that have bled out your pure intentions.
There are a myriad of resources to consult in order to design a writing plan and books such as Maisel’s Coaching the Artist Within and Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach can also get you upright at your desk with ideas about how to best approach this business of writing. But there are some basics that you don’t need a book to tell you about. Trust me, this I know after years and years of making plans, or should I say, setting up the traps of self-sabotage.
Firstly, spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve as a writer. Do you want to be a novelist or a environmental journalist? You need to have your mind firmly set as to what it is you want to achieve. To establish a career as a writer, you can’t be a jack-of-all-trades. Case in point: I decided to go to the Richmond Book Fair. I approached a local newspaper to do an article on the fair, but the books editor didn’t want a general piece on the fair, she wanted a review on one of the books being launched at the fair. Interviewing the writer and going to the launch took all my energy away from the fair itself, and it took another two to three weeks of reading the book and writing the review. I am not a review writer, I don’t want to be one, I shouldn’t have agreed to do it! The review was okay, even if the editor didn’t like it, and yet it was a colossal waste of time and energy. Time and energy that would have been put to much better use at the writing projects that I’m committed to and passionate about.
Secondly, take some time to plan out blocks of time to devote to the writing projects that you’ve chosen to do. If you are aware of deadline dates for short story competitions or for novel chapters, then you’ve got an idea of the amount of time you need to allocate to achieving each one of the projects.
Thirdly, don’t set yourself up for failure. If you’re writing erotic science-fiction short stories, don’t send them to You magazine for consideration. Don’t send a non-fiction book proposal to a poetry publisher. You must identify your markets so that your writing has the best chance of succeeding. Also, don’t over-extend yourself. If you’re a part-time writer, then your output is going to be considerably less than a full-time writer, so try not to be over-ambitious. Be realistic – the amount of time you have will usually determine how much you can achieve.
Fourthly, write. I am amazed at how many people consider themselves to be writers, but don’t actually write. They either read about writing or they have ideas in their heads! Neither will get you published. To be a writer you have to write – I believe every day, but you may disagree. However, if you’re not putting words on a page you cannot be a writer. Writers write, it’s that simple. And the more you write, the easier it gets.
Finally, if you don’t have the luxury of being able to share your writing with anyone, invest in Peter Elbow’s book, Writing without Teachers.
During each 8-hour shift I was expected to produce daily diaries for half of the contestants, write one feature article a day and one ‘he did, she did’ short per hour. If I was on a day-shift it was my duty to do a poll at a local shopping centre or write a quiz for online viewers, and if it was an elimination Sunday I had to interview the eliminated housemates and family members of other housemates present at the elimination. I also had to capture my own stills from the daily live feed. What a brilliant experience it was and I had great fun making up tittilating article titles and provocative photo captions.
It was chaotic at times and hilarious at others and the writing came easily when the house was full of housemates, each one eager to out-perform their competition. But once the contestants were eliminated, my shift-mate and I found ourselves writing about the house cats because the two remaining housemates slept the days away, and really the writers were forced, as our editor said, to make “koek from kak.”
Towards the end of the event, I was tasked with interviewing the mother of one of the contestants; the press had slated her for being a bad mother and so when I telephoned her, it took a lot of calm negotiating to get her to agree to the interview. She was embarrassed about the way her family had come across in the local sensationalist mag that had already interviewed her and she was eager to minimise her family’s exposure to public scrutiny, even though her daughter had already outed the family skeletons in such a public way. It must have taken me well over half an hour of just listening and reassuring her until she agreed to be interviewed.
Families are not perfect, parents are fallible. When I interviewed the contestant’s mother and when I finally wrote the story, I realised that as a writer I didn’t have to add to her pain and humiliation by continuing to present the hardships of her family in a judgemental way; there is more to a person’s life than some bad choices they’ve made. It was my first interview and an extremely valuable lesson: writing about other people demands respect and an ethical responsibility from the writer.
Since then I’ve written a few profiles of people and I’ve managed to present the people as I found them, allowing their own words and their environments to paint them, trying to minimise my own prejudices or views.
For one of the elective courses that I took at varsity I had to interview someone I didn’t know and I interviewed a biker who trawled our suburb like a contemporary cowboy. He agreed to the interview and all was going well until he launched into a sermon on Krishnamurti and then he reached across the coffee table and pinched me viciously on my arm – to illustrate a point about feeling. I was stunned at how he reached across the boundary of writer/subject; this wasn’t supposed to happen. He then told me that if I had not interviewed him that morning, he had planned to end his unravelling life! At the end of the interview, he gave me his card, I gave him mine, but neither of us ever used each other’s number again and although I wrote the article, I never attempted to publish it. The experience sort of turned me off writing profiles.
However, I’m still a voyeur, what with my Big Brother training and all that; but these days I watch and I write and I imagine and I use all of those imaginings in my fiction. Fiction is a much smarter genre in which to manipulate the lives of your characters without anyone really getting hurt.
For the record, I haven’t watched a Big Brother episode since I uploaded my last story on the Big Brother II website. But, I’m a girl in touch with my roots, and I know that I’m the writer I am today because of the lessons I learned in the green room at M-Net in Randburg.