Don’t Tell me What, Tell me How

Hello, Happy New Year, sorry for not posting in a while and all that.

Something’s bugging me, so I’m going to get right down to business.

It’s business time.

Blogs about writing. I’m not talking about updates on the blogger’s writing, here, but advice. From writers to writers through the medium of a blog.

The problem I consistently have is this:

The blog describes your problem. (Unless it has a misleading title or is poorly tagged or you’re just having a stupid moment and forgot how to read and interpret words. But no, let’s assume the blog is written about the problem which you are currently facing. In my case, this would be discipline/self-motivation – surprise surprise. How’s my New Year’s Resolution to write every day going? *High pitched* Well…)

As you’re reading the description of your problem, you find yourself getting your hopes up. Yes, you think, that is exactly the problem I am having. It’s like this person is reading my mind right now. This is amazing. They are going to cure EVERYTHING.

(You assume that because they understand your problem so completely that they’ll be able to tell you exactly how to overcome it. Perhaps this isn’t reasonable but you’re desperate. You’re done trying to solve it alone. You’ve googled this shit. Maybe you’ve gone a step further and used some kind of writing advice search tool.* Either way, shit has got real.)

You keep reading. The blog moves on to tell you what you need to do to solve this problem. Write every day. Silence your inner critic. Set yourself a deadline. Whatever. It’s the usual crap, you’ve heard it all before. But maybe…maybe there’s one special piece of advice. The golden nugget. The magic key. It will be here. At the end of the blog post. You know it…oh.

It isn’t there.

You re-read. Did you miss it? Was it tucked away somewhere?

No.

Because the problem is they’ve given you a list of things you should try. What you should do. But they haven’t told you how.

How do you write every day?

Er…hmm…no I don’t know. Can’t manage it, myself. Some people seem to just…do it. Could those lucky people please tell me how? Please?

Maybe they do it by silencing their inner critic.

Again – how? Is there a switch somewhere that I’m missing? Behind my ear? No? Sorry – can’t do it either. Except for those rare occasions when it just…happens. If there’s a way of making that happen or at least encouraging it, that’d be good to know. Not much good you telling me to do it, though, unless you tell me how.

Maybe setting yourself a deadline would help you silence your inner critic and write everyday. But, again, how do you set yourself a deadline? OK, this one is actually easy. You write it in your calendar. Stick it on your wall. Set a reminder on your phone. Easy peasy. Right? Thing is, though, who’s making you keep to this deadline? What happens if you miss it?

Nothing.

So why should you care?

You shouldn’t. There is no reason to. It doesn’t matter if you miss your deadline – there will be no consequences. OK, there’ll be the consequence of you not writing everyday and not improving as a writer and not getting one step closer to your goal. But really, is that a noticeable consequence? I don’t think it is. It’s actually very easy to ignore.

The real question is: how do you set yourself a deadline and stick to it? How do you create real consequences when there are none? You can make some stuff up about rewards and punishments but, at the end of the day, who’s dishing those bad boys out? You are. You could reward yourself if you fail or – no idea why you would but it’s theoretically possible – punish yourself when you succeed. No-one’s going to stop you from eating that brownie a little early or catching up on your fav. TV programme when you haven’t written a word. I sat at my desk and opened my laptop! I showed up! That’s totally a step in the right direction – I should reward myself and watch Bob’s Burgers NOW. I can write later. After I’m all inspired.

Yeah. Cause that’s gonna happen.

I don’t have the answers. I’m not pretending to. And yes, I appreciate you trying to help but the thing is…you’re not.

Because I have heard that advice before and it didn’t help me any of those times either and, while, yes I can see that it is theoretically a great idea and would completely work…I just can’t make myself apply it. In, you know, the real world. It just doesn’t happen.

Maybe I should just stop whining about it. Maybe I should accept the fact that every writer is different and what works for you may not work for me and I just have to find my own way of doing it. But then again you’re someone who’s had my problem and has overcome it and all you can tell me is the same old advice I’ve heard over and over again? What about personal experience? How did YOU overcome it? How did YOU make yourself follow this advice?

HOW?

Ahem.

So, in conclusion, my message is this. If you’re writing a blog post about how to overcome some common problem we writers face (and let’s face it – we’re a problematic bunch) don’t just compile a list of what to dos that the person will have already read/absorbed through the ether, explain how to do them. Or, better, yet, explain how YOU did them. In practice. How YOU REALLY overcame the problem. Give it the personal touch.

And, finally, to the people who can do discipline and self-motivation and writing every day, I implore you: tell me how!

*I use Writers’ Knowledge Base but I’m starting to think it’s more a curse than a blessing. My first creative writing tutor said that thesauruses are a curse. Why? Because they send you off on a crazy rabbit hunt in search of the perfect word. That word doesn’t exist. But the thesaurus says otherwise. It makes promises it can’t fulfill. Now, I love thesauruses and therefore cannot agree with him – I guess he hates them because he has a problem with them which I don’t have – but I’m starting to think the Writers’ Knowledge Base (I’m using it as an example because it’s the one I use – I don’t mean it specifically) is my thesaurus. Hummm…

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Writing and Wimbledon: 4 tips from tennis

For the non-British readers out there who may not be as obsessed with Wimbledon as the majority of my country, Wimbledon is a tennis tournament and it’s a pretty big deal over here. Which is why when Andy Murray, a Scottish player, won Wimbledon earlier today and became the first Brit to have done so in over 70 years, it was also a pretty big deal. OK it was a massive deal. I had tears in my eyes. Happy tears, unlike last year when he lost to Federa and he made that devastating speech which reduced me to full-on crying. But enough! I think you get the background now. Andy won. It’s a big deal. Let’s move on to what writers (and perhaps everyone) can learn from today’s amazing match.

1) Training
The match was physically gruelling. Lots of long rallies, dashing all over the court, long points, long games, all in the burning sun (I read somewhere it was as hot as 40 C – 104 F). If Andy hadn’t trained really hard to get his physical fitness as it was, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. Writing is mentally gruelling and you can’t pull out a decent novel just like that. You need to put in the hours first. You need to train.

2) Team
Andy was alone out there. How he played was up to him but he had a great team who helped him get where he was and supported him all the way. From the background provided above, you can imagine the level of support he got from the crowd. As writers, most of the work is done alone. How you write is up to you but you need a good team behind you. You need feedback and criticism and you need support. Someone to cheer you on and talk you through the hard parts. You need a team.

3) Tenacity
What really struck me about today’s match was the tenacity of both players. How even when Murray was 40 – 0 on the championship point, Djokovic just would not give up. Throughout the game, the mental upper-hand – who seemed more confident and in control – switched so many times as each player fought back against their mental demons and refused to give up. This is particularly meaningful during Camp NaNoWriMo. It teaches that even if you seem to have lost and it seems completely pointless carrying on, you shouldn’t giver up. At the least you can go down fighting. And even if you don’t win, you’ll have achieved more than if you had stopped part-way through. The only way to lose NaNoWriMo, in my opinion, is to be a quitter. If you keep persevering, right to the end, surely that makes you a winner. So be tenacious.

4) Talent is Not Enough
I would argue that with writing, talent is largely irrelevant, but you need to be talented at tennis to get as far as both of the men’s finalists did. That said, it doesn’t matter how talented they are: if they hadn’t sacrificed what they have and trained as hard as they did and had a good team and persevered, they wouldn’t have got where they are today. Talent alone is not enough. And with writing, it really is more about the other stuff – not giving up being the most important of all. So if you think you’re not talented, as long as you don’t let that stop you, it makes no difference. You’ll improve with training and the support of your team, and if you’re tenacious enough to never give up, you’ll get there. I mean, look at Dan Brown, he’s a shit writer but he doesn’t let that stop him becoming a best-seller, so why should you?

The Magic Solution to Staying Motivated and Achieving Your Writing Goals

GET ON WITH IT!

Normally I don’t shout (use capslock) but this is a shouting situation. Because that really is the answer and if you want something more magical and simple and foolproof than that – you’re out of luck. Sorry.

And I know. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m there now. I’m writing a blog post about getting on with your writing to avoid getting on with mine. So I’m with you. It’s hard. And I too want a magical solution. The golden key to success. But you know what? It doesn’t exist. This is the closest there is – the cold, hard, ugly truth. And I know it doesn’t exist because I’ve looked. Every time I don’t feel like writing I think, ‘hey, you know what would be a great idea, finding out how to motivate myself by googling it’ and every time I look I find the same old bullshit.

For example:

1) Set goals. I know how to set goals. I’m awesome at setting goals. What I need help with is actually working towards the goals. You know – doing something.

2) Hold yourself accountable. Great. How? If I don’t have the self-discipline to not skip a day, do you really think I do have the self-discipline to punish myself in some way? I don’t even know how I could do that – not give myself the reward I already gave myself because I’ll probably do the thing I’m meant to do and I deserve it anyway? Which leads me to…

3) Reward yourself. This is great until you get your reward and it’s sitting there looking at you and you think ‘ah, I’ve started, I deserve one’ and before you know it you’ve eaten the whole box and written one word. If that. (Yes my reward invariably involves food. Usually brownie bites.)

The truth is if you lack self-discipline, none of these things will help you because none of them can actually force you to stop procrastinating and start writing. The only thing, in my experience, that has ever worked is a deadline. And when I say a deadline, I don’t mean a deadline that you made up and it doesn’t really matter if you keep it or not I mean a real deadline such as a coursework deadline that makes the difference between passing and failing a degree. That will motivate you. But at the end of the day, you’ll still procrastinate if you’re that way inclined, until the last possible moment, which varies – for me it’s about a week before, for others it’s more like 5 hours before. But you’ll get it done because you have to. If you don’t have to and you lack self-discipline you won’t. Unless you just bloody well get on with it.

So stop looking up tips and advice on motivation and finishing your novel. None of these will help you and you’re not helping yourself – you’re fooling yourself because, NEWSFLASH, you’re procrastinating and there’s only one surefire way to stop doing that and start writing and that’s to stop procrastinating and start writing. A.k.a.

GET ON WITH IT.

Why Charity Shops Are the Way to Go

 

Yes, I’m back. I have submitted all my MA applications (yay) and have a week off work (double yay). So far I have done very little. I haven’t written anything, which is a very poor effort on my part. I know, I know, I need to get back in the game but this is all beside the point.

On Monday I decided to wander around town because I have giftcards from Christmas to spend. I started off in Dorothy Perkins. My card had the value of £15. I figured that would be enough for a nice top or something. I was wrong. I found a few dresses that I loved but varied in price from £30 to £60. Now, I’m not going to use a gift card to spend money that I wouldn’t normally, that’s just plain stupid. Besides, it’s what they’d want me to do – they probably make loads of money from idiots spending over their gift card amounts. There’s no way I’m gonna fall in that trap, thank you very much. All I found that was less than £15 were boring basic tops – we’re talking no design whatsoever. Some were pretty colours but I was hoping to get something a bit more special, you know?

The gift card is usable for a few shops, including the one which happened to be next door to Dorothy Perkins – Wallis. At first I hated everything on sight – the materials were nice but the designs reminded me of pretentious house-wives or middle-aged retail workers (housewives with jobs to keep them from getting bored – it is perhaps no coincidence that the women working in the shop were both middle-aged and pretentious.) Anyhoo, eventually I did find a jumper I liked. Again, it was basic – no design – but it was so soft and warm. In the sale, it was £25. I would have been tempted to buy it and break my golden rule but when I tried it on, the colour made me look like someone who’d escaped from the hospital to die. Not exactly ideal. If it hadn’t been in the sale, they would have expected someone to pay £40. I don’t care how nice the material is – there’s no way I’d ever pay that much for a simple jumper.

So, I headed over the road to Topshop, thinking that they’d at least be more likely to have my sort of style (I used to shop in Topshop quite a lot before being a student and then an unemployed graduate drained my finances). I did like a lot of their clothes, even though a lot of them were so obviously ‘in style’ that wearing them would be to adopt a certain look and all the character traits that went with it – usually art student. On glancing at a few prices, howeverm it soon became obvious that I would not find anything of £15 or under in there. A flimsy scrap of fabric cost £30. I don’t even know what it was meant to be. Some sort of top, perhaps? God, this is making me sound old. In desperation, I headed for the tiny sale section. In January, the sale section encompassed almost the entire shop – a mess of clothes flung over the rails, their hangers abandoned on the floor with more clothes just dumped in heaps. I figured that, with the sale section so big and busy, it would be pretty much impossible for staff to keep it tidy. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered the staff couldn’t even manage to keep two rails of sale items in a reasonable state. Again with the jumbled mess of clothes – many of which had been damaged as a result. If you can keep the entire shop floor looking beautiful, how can you be so completely defeated by two rails? To the point where your goods are unsaleable? Is a disgrace, Topshop staff. I found something I liked – a grey, woolen jumper dress and was going to try it on when the madness passed and I had a moment of sanity – the dress cost £25 in the sale. I’d be forking out an extra £10 for it. £25 was overpriced as it was, let alone the £40 it had been before. I put it back and left the shop.

As I ambled home, feeling like a failure, I found myself stepping into a charity shop. On a quick rifle through I found a gorgeous dress. It was a wool-like material, white with flowers on but in a tasteful way and a simple, tight-fitting style. I tried it on. It fitted and it suited me. It was different to all of the stuff I’d seen in town, without looking outdated. It would be perfect for Spring. The charity shop demanded the ridiculous amount of £3.75 for it. If it had been in any of the other shops I’d been in that day it would have been £30 at least. Probably more like £40. I bought it.

Oh, so I got conned into buying something because it was in a charity shop, right? Something I might not even have looked twice at if it was in a high-street shop. This is possibly the case. I might not have looked twice at it in Topshop. I might even have dismissed it as ‘the girly look’. I definitely would not have bought it in a high-street shop, even in the sale it would be over budget. No, I would not have paid the £40 Topshop would have demanded for it but I didn’t have to pay £40, I paid £3.75. For that reason, I’m happy I bought it.

So, yes, charity shops are the way to go. Instead of buying an overpriced scrap of fabric that everybody has, you’ll end up with a very reasonable priced item that’s unique. Which would you prefer?

Have You Got Something to Say?

Well, fellow writers, have you?

No?

Then why on earth are you writing?

Now don’t go quitting on me – I don’t want to be responsible for crowds of ex-writers (although – less competition…); no, that’s not my point. My point is, you should have something to say. Chances are, you do, you just might not know it.

So, why should you? Why does writing have to ‘say’ something? Why can’t it just be for entertainment?

It can’t because that’s impossible. Unless you are some kind of machine programmed to separate your opinions and feelings from the process of writing, you won’t be able to avoid saying something. Everyone has opinions and feelings about something and they will leak into your writing, whether you want it to or not. You don’t have to intend to write a political or social commentary, you don’t have to intend to challenge views, you don’t even have to intend to offer an opinion: you will end up saying something.

Whether or not you decide to push this, intentionally, is up to you. I believe that writing with a deliberate message is more engaging, memorable and provocative but that’s my opinion. That message doesn’t have to be about some giant concept like ‘the corrosion of civil liberties for national security’ it can be something more local and directly familiar, like the relationship between parent and child – you’ll have an opinion on what that relationship should be like or what they tend to be like and the problems with this.

In my experience, I’ve found that identifying my message helps me improve a piece I’m stuck on. If I’m working on something and I’m dissatisfied with it because it’s ‘just OK’ i.e. not bad but not great – just mediocre and maybe a little bland – I work out what I want to ‘say’ through it and how to better get that message across. If you have a strong, thought-provoking message, especially one that is involved in people’s everyday lives, you’ll end up with something engaging, memorable and provocative.

You will have something to say and you will be saying it, even if you don’t want to, so you might as well embrace it.

How do you Research Yours?

This kind of links in to my previous posts: Learning from Short Story Competition Winners and Read Yourself Free (perhaps I should have written these as a series…). After all, reading and learning from your reading to enrich what you’re writing is research. It doesn’t have to involve looking up a particular fact to make sure your writing is accurate.

Here are the methods I use to research:

  • Reading other stories, particularly competition winners
  • Searching Google for a particular fact (it’s not everything but it is an inescapable part of it.)
  • Google Images (especially for descriptions – I just find it helpful to have an image to start from.)
  • Google Maps
  • BBC News (also great for ideas – my last Friday Flash, ‘Just Playing’ was based on this news story.)
  • Going to the place my story is set (if I can – some of my stories are set locally.)
  • My experiences and memories and those of others (I don’t generally interview, as such, but will use what has come up in conversation.)

There are probably more that I do so naturally I haven’t even thought of them, but you get my point.

I might write a series about this – going into each one in more depth – but only if there’s interest, so let me know what you think. Also, if you can think of any that I’ve overlooked, please say and I’ll add them.

Read Yourself Free

Last week I posted about learning from short story competition winners, in general, but what about when you’re stuck on a particular story? Can you use them to solve a specific problem? Can you read yourself free of your trap?

As I’m sure you know, I am stuck. My Frog Prince is like a rock-face I’ve been climbing for so long I’m determined to reach the summit but I’m struggling to secure my next footing. I’ve been writing around the problem, which usually works for me, but this time I think it’s made things worse. I’ve become bogged down in first person. First person has become so complicated in my head, when it used to be just writing with ‘I’. Now I’m all tangled up in tense and interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness and direct thoughts and why and who is the audience. Who is this ‘I’ speaking to? Why is this ‘I’ narrating his story to this unknown audience? In what context does this narrative take place?

As you can see, when I said I was stuck, I meant it. So how do I free myself?

By reading. Where writing has failed, reading, I hope, will help.

I remember something the judge mentioned when introducing the winners of that Mslexia short story competition:

It is perhaps no coincidence that the three prize-winning stories are all written in the first person

Here I have three prize-winning stories written in the first person – the very thing I’m so ensnared in. Of course, I could read any story written in first person, it’s just that, these stories have been judged as ‘good’ – I can be safe in the knowledge that I’ll be learning from the best.

So I re-read the three, taking notes on their use of first person – the voice, the tense, how it worked. I’ve found they were all written in present tense (I’ve also read a couple of my other first person stories and discovered they are all in past – haven’t yet worked out what to make of this); they were all written as though the ‘I’ were recounting the story in his/her own words – almost like it’s being spoken out loud – and they are all completely frank – they don’t hold anything back – feelings and thoughts are weaved into the narrative. The reader or audience is never addressed or identified. The ‘I’ is simply telling the story – no context for this telling is given and none is needed. You don’t stop and think ‘why are they telling me this?’ or ‘in what context does this narrative take place?’ – it’s just not an issue.

The not addressing the reader thing got me thinking about Poppy Shakespeare. I’ve seen the TV adaptation and I’ve read the first chapter, so I am aware of the voice. Like the others, it sounds like the character is speaking to you in her own words. However, unlike the others, she addresses the reader with phrases like ‘do you know what I mean?’ Perhaps this is just part of her voice but it does give it more of a personal feel – like she is telling you, specifically you. That’s just another thing to think about.

My point is (I know this has been a bit of a rambler) if you’re stuck it does help to read stories you know to be good (because they’ve won a respected competition, for example) that are similar to your own, especially in the aspect you are stuck on.

Give it a try.