Tag Archives: Literary Issues

SHARKS IN YOUR HEAD

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.

sharks

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.

 

 

 

Too Sore to Read; Too Sore to Write

I was pacing around the garden, admiring the blooming agapanthus and sipping a cup of tea, ruminating about things and finally settled on the South African stories that I read in New Contrast and New African Writing and then I considered some of the things that I haven’t written about. I don’t mean the gender-appropriate, or race and religious related literary no-no’s – I mean the ordinary every day things that happen in our country.

Nadine Gordimer recently accused South African writers of failing to write the stories that are happening now. A common cry from South African readers is that they don’t want to read another damn story that takes place during the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid.

In fairness, many of the local novels have themes that have moved beyond apartheid; but rainbow-nation-weary readers aren’t prepared to even read the blurb. And who can blame them, when they’re faced with international novels that completely convey them to another place, another time, another life.

I tried to consider some of the contemporary issues in our country and wondered who might be interested in hearing how repatriated refugees are tasered on the flights to their countries of origin, who might be intrigued by the porn-star whose daughter attended my own daughter’s private school and was rejected by her peers because the car-park mommies didn’t want their children attending a party at a porn palace.  Such stories, who’d believe them, I thought to myself.

Living in South Africa is a challenge. I doubt there is a resident of South Africa who doesn’t have a crime story to tell. In less than twenty four hours I had been told about or the following stories: The home invasion where a woman watched a thug holding a gun to her son’s head; a grandmother who had to leave her job two years before pensionable age to look after her orphaned grandchildren; a woman was ambushed while driving under the bridge situated 2km from our house, killed by the thugs who dropped a cement slab onto her windscreen.

While these stories might appear on the daily broadsheets and on TV news, they’re not the subject matter I, nor any South African reader, I imagine, want to be clutching when we get into bed at night or when we’re waiting at an appointment. No, I want subject matter that transports me from the horror stories that punctuate daily life for many South Africans.

So where do I find the stories that I write; well personally, most of the last twenty stories I’ve written have not been set in South Africa, simply because I am a travel writer and travel has provided me with an opportunity to look for stories elsewhere. I grasp this opportunity with both hands because I find that when I’m writing about another place or about the people that inhabit them, I am able to get the critical distance that I don’t achieve as easily when writing about South Africa. I’ve written short stories set in Mauritius and Thailand and a novel set in Morocco. The short story collection I’m compiling at present is set in Egypt as is the novel I will begin working on in June. The novels I plan to write after that one is set in Singapore, and the one after that in Japan.

I don’t think for a minute that there aren’t wonderful, spirit-lifting stories to be told about South Africa; I just don’t believe that, at the moment, I can emotionally detach myself from the grime of the crime to polish up the pretty.

The Stories We Tell and Those We Don’t

I remember standing in a bank queue with my two youngest children when they were about six and seven years old. The queue was long and there was an elderly man standing in front of us; I can still smell the grease in his hair and see the dandruff embedded on the neck of his brown jersey; he turned to me and we had a conversation about his war experiences. In no time at all, it seemed, we’d reached the front of the queue; the electronic board above the teller station beeped and the man proceeded to Teller 5. My son tugged my sleeve and I looked down at his earnest blue eyes. “Do you know that man, mommy?” He asked; I had to admit that I didn’t. My children were perplexed that a stranger would share his story with me and as explanation I told them that my mother had said I would always hear the life-stories of people because I had a face that strangers trust. I now know that if I don’t want to hear every stranger’s life-story, I follow my husband’s advice and avoid eye contact.

Seeds of story are scattered everywhere and often I scribble down a word or a phrase or impressions in my notebook that I overhear or observe. Goldie stood sobbing in her bare feet, wrapped in a pink gown at a phone booth in a hospital waiting area. Natalia confided how her sister wouldn’t eat broken food – crumbs of crisps or biscuits. Michelle told me she was heartbroken when her next door neighbour stopped playing with her; Michelle’s mother tried to cheer her up by saying, “You’ll be friends again once she’s stopped being Jesus’ new best friend.” Carrington told me how he spent a summer in Harare converting the school playground into a golf-course and how thirty boys played golf with one broken golf club. Each of these incidents are seeds that I have been able to use as starters for my short stories.

Other stories are delivered to me – sometimes with the written permission from people to tell them. An immigrant wants me to expose corruption at a world-renowned medical training institution. It is an alleged tale of academic corruption, mining-bosses, xenophobia and American spies. A lady once phoned to say that she had the solution for South Africa’s political problems – God had given it to her – and she wanted to relay the solution to Thabo Mbeki who was the South African president at the time. There are of course legitimate people who contact me from time to time, and after deciding not to take on their stories, I have, with their permission, passed them on to colleagues who were more inclined to their stories, or who had the necessary expertise to write them.

There are stories that I know would be delightful to use as the foundation for my own short stories, but I have chosen not tell them and the reasons vary. These stories are usually very intimate and while they would offer great scenes for my fiction, my friends would recognise themselves in an instant.

It would appear then that I sometimes feel conflicted about what I do and what I don’t write. I guess I don’t want to be a peddlar of someone else’s pain. I can write about painful issues, but I can’t insert the real stories of friends and family because then it would cause pain for them. That said, I do admit to having included personal impressions in some stories or articles that have hurt some of the people I love and I’ve had to apologise for that. Choosing what to write then is quite a delicate balancing act. Yes, writers should be able to write uncensored, but then they must be prepared to pay the price of that choice.

At present I’m writing an inspirational biography. I was genuinely surprised that I was awarded the contract because I had researched and written a paper on biography during my masters degree, and I had been quite turned off the genre because it is such a contested genre and there are too many agendas to be served – at least the writer’s and the subject’s. The only reason I agreed to write the biography was because it is not intended to be sensational – I don’t want to dish up dirt on anyone. I’m writing the biography because the intention is to serve as an inspiration to youth who badly need role models and hope for a future that they might not be that hopeful about. That said, it will not be a sanitised piece. The hardships and the experiences of the subject will be discussed, but not in the Hollywood-Tell-All exposé way.

One of the major issues for writers is that of making choices. We all have to do it, and we all make different choices and these choices result in a wonderful diversity for readers.

(Image: The Storyteller 2 – produced here with permission by the artist Jamie Winter)

Ready, steady… win!

win1Contests 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.

RESOURCES

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.

PLAN

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.

TRACKER

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.

CHECKLIST

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.

Good luck.

Diary of a Romance Writer 2

It’s been almost a month since I went on the romance-writing course and I have to say that I am having fun. I’m halfway through the novel, just over 20 000 words and I am astounded by the positive effect it is having on all the other writing that I do.

I do the romance writing during the morning session of writing, and I am able to just sit down and carry on from where I left off the day before. I have found that writing the first few sentences of a new chapter helps to kickstart the session’s writing and I’m always rather sorry when I finish my quota for the day.

Unfortunately I have had to divide my day into writing projects so that they all get the attention they deserve – unfortunate in that I can’t just write until I’ve had enough or until the book is finished. But I think that the break from it also prevents me from just rambling on.

The most amazing benefit of writing a light romance has been the effect it has had on my other writing projects. I have been able to make a committed effort to shaping my completed novel into its final form to send to a publisher; it would seem that the light writing segues into the heavier novel, having exercised the writing muscles, making them ready for the serious writing that the completed novel deserves.

I have a smile on my face while I write the romance novel. My fingers fly across the keyboard as I capture the raunchy love scenes and the fabulous settings; it is fabulous to have fun when you write. The completed novel demanded so much research and reading and getting the facts absolutely right, whereas the romance novel just lets my imagination run wild and I think therein lies the magic for me: my imagination has been fired up again, dampened as it was under two years of research and writing the completed novel.

Oh, and I’m in love, with the escapism of the genre! Who would have thought that the Mills & Boons novels that I hid between the covers of my Afrikaans text book as Sister Margaret Mary pounded out our weekly woordeskat, would re-emerge in my life twenty years later.

Sloppy Slip-Ups

I’ve just read a book in which the author mentions Harry Potter in a novel set in the 70s and 80s. Definitely a throw-book-against-wall moment. It’s a sloppy slip up, it shouldn’t have happened, yet it is so easy for these type of inaccuracies to occur during writing.

When I was writing my own novel I wanted to have a certain character singing the Spanish anthem and I wrote an impressive emotional scene around this grave patriotic moment. When I was revising the novel, I took off my lovely, floppy, creative hat and donned the grim beret I wear as editor and when I went to download the lyrics of the anthem to insert into the manuscript, I discovered to my absolute horror that the Spanish anthem is a a march without any words at all.

So these slip-ups happen to all of us. The best way to avoid them is to do as much preliminary research as possible, to get your facts right before you start writing. 

The Spanish parliament is keen to remedy their wordless anthem – they’ve held lyric competitions, Placido Domingo wants to be the first person to officially record it and Alejandro Blanco, president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, is desperate to see the lyric dilemma settled in time for Madrid’s bid to host the 2016 games. And, in spite of my petition to Spanish Parliament to settle this asap to avoid a major rewrite in my own novel, the Spaniards still hum when their anthem is played. So, a rewriting I will have to go.