Practice Breaks Plateau

At least I hope it will because I’m currently fighting my way through closing the gap between how I expect my writing to be and how it is in reality. You know how you get this amazing idea for a story and you can see how brilliant it will be written down but then you write it and it’s just crap. I have been for some time (we’re talking many years). Also, I feel like I’m not improving at the moment. I’ve reached this point of not being terrible: I know the basics – avoid adverbs, avoid cliches, show don’t tell, all that stuff – so I can write better than Dan Brown (let’s face it, it isn’t difficult) but I persist in this inability to be good. I’ll get occasional flashes of good – sometimes I’ll even write something really good (and we’re talking words, phrases, maybe sentences on a really good day) although, thinking about it, that hasn’t happened in a long time. Mostly it’s…not terrible. Bordering on OK but not even quite good enough for that.

So as always, when I get stuck, I have turned to google for the magic solution to my problem. And I may have found one. It’s called deliberate practice.

Now this is a new term to me and I’m not sure I’ve fully understood it but my interpretation is that deliberate practice is when you find an area that you need to improve in – something specific so, for example, I’m terrible at narrating events – just getting a character from A to B (I really struggle with this, I tend to over-do it so it gets all clunky) – and deliberately practice that area. I think the actual method is up to you but a suggestion I’ve come across is to read a passage you consider to excel at this area, compare that to what you’ve attempted and pick apart the differences – what makes theirs good and yours bad and how you can make yours better. Repetition is important, too, so keep practicing that particular aspect of writing. And another thing: it’s meant to be hard.

When I first thought about applying deliberate practice to writing I had a strange, dismissive reaction. It was like I almost-consciously thought ‘this doesn’t apply to me’ or maybe ‘this doesn’t apply to writers’. I think I’m embedded with this view that writers are ‘inspired’. They don’t practice – they channel the muse. It’s odd because I don’t really believe in muses and I’m very aware of how much hard work writing is. Yet something about the idea of ‘practicing writing’ rang false to me.

And yet if you think about a different skill – dancing, playing an instrument, sport – you would expect to practice. Why is writing different?

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just me because it’s not the sort of thing I think – this seems very much like a collective subconsciousness thing. A hangover, maybe, from the days when writers were seen as these magical creatures who lolled about waiting for inspiration, scribbled frantically for days on end then collapsed. Myths are hard to shake.

So…is it just me? Or does anyone else find the idea of ‘practicing writing’ a bit…inconsistent without a logical reason.

Also, anyone else having the plateau problem? (That can’t be just me: Ira Glass says everyone goes through it.*)

Well, anyway, I’m gonna give this deliberate practice thing a try. I’ve already identified my strengths and weaknesses and some books to learn from. Just need to get on with it, now.

Wish me luck (and inspiration!)

*I’ve shared this video before but it was hidden away in a ‘click here’ type scenario, and it’s something I keep returning to, so…here’s Ira:

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Just a quick one…

…to say I’m still alive and had a breakthrough on my novel today.

No, I hadn’t written since the last time (25th July). Yes, that’s terrible. I’m a terrible writer. So what’s new?

But I’m excited again and that’s the main thing.

Sometimes you need a break, you know? I knew something was wrong. I even knew what was wrong. I just didn’t know how to fix it.

And part of me is thinking: this won’t fix it. You’ll just hit another brick wall. And it’s probably right but you know what? That’s just how writing goes. It’s essentially problem-solving, always with another problem to solve . I wonder, do you ever get to the end? Do you ever reach a point where there are no more problems? I guess not because then it would be perfect. Maybe you just get so worn down by all the problems that you just can’t solve any more and you give up and throw it at an agent to deal with.

And then they point out more problems and this time you have to solve them because a professional pointed them out to you.

That’s how it goes for me at work, actually. I draft and I edit and then I get bored and I go ‘huh. Close enough.’ and pass it on to my boss who reads it and says ‘NO’ and points out all the things he wants changing. And sometimes they’re simple like ‘add a comma here’ but sometimes I have to think of a new word or a way of phrasing a sentence, just so it ‘works’, because even though I knew it didn’t work before I passed it to him, I wouldn’t actually do anything¬† until he underlined it and told me to. And so it gets a little better and then we both give up and that’s that.

Makes you wonder about self-published books. I guess the writers just pay an editor. Or have more staying-power.

Oh right, the breakthrough. Should I tell you? It might jinx it. Nah, it won’t jinx it. What a load of nonsense. It may make me look foolish when it turns out not to be the answer I’m looking for but hey. We’ve covered that. Mistakes aren’t stupid, they’re human and they enable you to learn and grow so nuuuur.

The Breakthrough

What is currently the prologue will be the epilogue. This means I can start with the dream as the prologue and then end the first chapter with Diana’s arrival. Boom! Straight in the story, cutting all the boring crap right out of there with a knife so sharp, it doesn’t even touch it.

Yeah? Yeah?!

I’m tired.

Goodnight.

Thoughts?

On Emma Chapmen’s How to be a Good Wife (not a review)

Last week I read Emma Chapman’s debut novel How to be a Good Wife. I say last week – it took me three days of last week, or six bus journeys to be precise.

It was about half-way down the first page that I realised: this was a book that would stay with me; a book I would, on finishing, instantly want to recommend to everyone I could; a book I would love.

I wasn’t wrong.

Something about the themes and the writing style just clicked with me. The themes are very similar to those I’m writing about in my own currently rambling mess of a novel, and the ending is worryingly similar (both protagonists head for the sea at the end, with an implication of suicide). One of the tutors of the MLit at St Andrews used to talk about synchronicity – when people start writing about the same things at the same time for no apparent reason – and I wonder if this has happened with us.

So, naturally, I feel a strange connection to Emma Chapman.

The first thing I did on finishing the novel, after the inevitable moment needed to take it all in and come back to the real world, was find her author bio. Turns out she’s a year older than me and also did an MA in Creative Writing, only hers was at Royal Holloway, which I did look at when deciding where I would go. It doesn’t say when she went but it is possible that if I had gone there instead of St Andrews, we would have studied together. How would this have affected our novels? Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t do our masters together – one of our novels might never have been started. It would be a crime if it was hers.

Of course, she probably studied at a different time to me, but it’s fun to speculate.

Anyway, I’m a bit obsessed with her, now. I found her and started following her on twitter (never before has that seemed so creepy to me!). I even tweeted her: ‘Just wanted to say, How to be a Good Wife knocked Anna Karenina off the top spot (of my favourite books of all time).’ I wanted to add more but twitter restricted me and I’m glad it did. I might have gone on forever.

So now I await her response. Perhaps she will reply and we’ll become friends, so much so that she offers to read Mother Stands for Comfort, seeing as the books share a lot of common themes. Perhaps she will ignore me forever. Perhaps she will respond but either I’ll be disappointed by it for whatever reason and won’t reply, or she won’t reply to my reply and the conversation will, perhaps inevitably, fizzle out.

Like so many things, time will tell.

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?

Today is the first day of JulNoWriMo,

so, naturally, I’m writing a blog post. It’s called procrastination. Don’t pretend you don’t do it – I know you do – everyone does.

Speaking of, my twitter updates have really taken off since I signed up. I just need to fill up the remaining minutes before my bedtime (or until I’m too tired to possibly write) and viola! I won’t have to.

Just so you know, I have decided to post once a week, on Sundays, so don’t go expecting more than that just because you’re getting a special extra one, today. This is procrastination, that’s all.

Having said that, it might be fun to record the best excuses I come up with to not write. The current one is obvious: I need to write a blog post about this. Even though I published one yesterday. I’m also thinking I should really wash my hair – it’s pretty greasy. And I really should get an early night. In fact, I might just go to bed now, I’m that tired. Couldn’t possibly stay awake for half an hour to write (but I could stay awake half an hour to do pretty much anything else. That’s an obvious exaggeration – there are many things I wouldn’t stay awake half an hour for: skinning a rabbit; sky-diving; dyeing my hair black to name just three. I wonder how much time I can waste writing this what-must-be-AWFUL blog post and ruining whatever good I did with yesterday’s planned and thought-out one. A lot, probably.)

And just like that I’m out of steam.

Oh wait, one more thing: the ridiculously long word goal. No, I’m not planning on submitting a 300,000 word novel. Will it even be that long in this draft? I hope not because that would take forever to write. Well, 300 good days. It’s just…I had to guess based on something and it turns out 30,000 words later I’m one tenth of the way through the vague plan, so, you know, it makes sense to times that by ten and come up with a number. And yes, I am planning on cutting a lot of that 30,000, and indeed whatever I write after. It’s all pretty crap. And dull, which is probably why I don’t want to write it, but you know what? someone has to. All those lovely books didn’t come out lovely, they came out as pages and pages and pages of pointless drivel that someone had to write and then delete. That’s just how it works. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s to keep us writers on our toes. Maybe it’s to make it more rewarding when you do boil it down from watery blrgh to a delicious something.

Wow, I’m tired. Some say that’s a good thing – you’re more in touch with your subconscious and imagination and ‘the dreamland’ but I just end up rambling nonsense. As you can see.

So goodnight.

What is ‘Good Writing’?

Good writing is completely subjective. This is why Dan Brown is a best-seller yet I find him so unreadable I want to gauge out my eyes to avoid the chance of having to read even another sentence by him. If you’re a Dan Brown fan and you’re reading this – you’re proving my point. Some people think he’s a good writer. And I won’t apologise for not being one of them. When it comes to books, I’m a snob.

If this is the case, how do you know what good writing is? What are you aiming for, as a writer?

Something I’ve realised recently is that one of my writing goals is to write something I think is good. However, it’s likely that this is impossible. Writers often complain that their writing is crap – that it is painful for them to read – great writers like Kafka and George Orwell included. Therefore it would seem that, as a writer, you can never consider your own work to be good.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for that, though. After all, if everything you wrote came out perfect straight away, what would be the point? It’d be boring. If you liked what you wrote and thought it was good, would there be a point in writing anything else?

One of the reasons I write is because I know I’m crap at it and want to get better. The main reason I don’t write is because I know I’m crap at it and I worry I’ll never get better, which of course is true if I don’t try, but that’s a topic for another post. My point is, I, like all writers, want to be a good writer, whatever that means. The thing is, what that means is different for everyone. All you can do is aim to please yourself – to write whatever you think is good. Chances are you’ll never accomplish that goal but you will please someone else while you’re trying. After all, lots of people like Dan Brown.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Learning Through Doing

Camp NaNoWriMo is not just a writing race to the end of the month. It’s a journey. Through your novel, sure, but there’s more to it than that.

First, there’s the obvious question of can you do it? The answer is yes. The answer is nearly always yes. The real question is will you? And if you won’t or can’t, will you drop out early and give up or will you persevere? Writing right until the end even though you know you won’t succeed because it isn’t about winning, it’s about writing.

Which is it about to you?

Whether or not you persevere reflects how determined you are to succeed as a writer. How dedicated you are. You will learn what you are willing to sacrifice and what you aren’t. You’ll also learn whether or not you write well under pressure, with a deadline hanging over your head.

In fact, you’ll learn a lot about your writing process. When is the best time for you to write? Can you write every day? For how long can you write at a time? All of these little things that can lead to a more productive writing time. You learn through doing.

It may go deeper than that. You may discover your approach to writing novels. Your secret formula.

And of course you’ll learn about your novel: what happens, who the characters are, etc.

Really, it doesn’t matter if you won Camp NaNoWriMo or didn’t. What matters is what you learned through the process and what you’re going to do with that knowledge.

What did you learn?