29 January 2012

Twittering On

I enjoy trying out different forms of prose writing, and for the past week or so I've been practising the short-form. In other words I have a Twitter account.

Writing novels is great.  It gives you the luxury of thousands of words to build a world, create havoc, and then watch the characters sort it out, but I also like short stories. Those I've written have varied from around 500 words to 8,000 though I must admit to preferring the shorter length.

I think there is a real skill in developing a mood, characters, or place with just a few words. I don't suggest that I'm particularly skilled at this, just that I enjoy having these boundaries.

I had a 50-word story published in a book a number of years ago, but the 140-characters of Twitter is an even tighter limit. Comments or replies to other people are fun and reasonable within those confines, but in addition I decided to stretch myself and come up with something 'story-like' as often as I could. Hopefully practice will make, if not perfect, at least a little better.

Efforts tweeted so far:

Long ago summers. Car seat sticky against bare legs. Gravel car park, and then a long hot walk past stooped backs. Warm strawberries sweet on my tongue.

She used to run at life, too busy to enjoy the sun. Now frail and stooped she dances through each day.

I'm finding Twitter another amazing procrastination tool, and can see how addictive it could become, so if you'd like to practice the short form of writing you can find me @shaunabickley

27 January 2012


Many moons ago I used to be a trainer, business skills training as opposed to animals in case you were confused.

The sessions I ran at one training conference were interspersed with those of another trainer. For ease of timing and handover I sat in on the other session, which was on the subject of creativity.

The trainer explained ways in which we stop or limit creativity, and then demonstrated a number of techniques to help kickstart our creativity. The examples and activities centred around sales, but most of the techniques should be familiar to writers.

The most obvious ways we sabotage ourselves is by thinking we aren’t creative, and our fear of failure.
No point in entering the short story competition as I won't win.
If I don't send the manuscript to the publishers I can't be rejected.

We believe the rejection is saying we're no good, when in reality it might be that the publisher has just accepted a similar story, or they aren't taking on anything new. We've just struck the editor at the wrong moment.

We can stop our creativity by judging an idea too quickly.  As soon as it pops above the radar our critic jumps on it and says, 'What rubbish, you'll never make a writer.'

That's why something like NaNoWriMo is so great. We've told our inner critic to take the month off, and if it does make an appearance we don't have the time to listen to it and censor our ideas.

Among the creativity techniques the trainer presented, i.e. brainstorming, six hats, mind mapping etc. was one called something along the lines of 'getting yourself fired'. The technique was that when trying to solve a problem, you thought of the most outrageous way you could solve it, a way that would most certainly get you fired if you implemented it. Having come up with that outrageous idea, you then pulled it back a little to something that wouldn't get you fired, but was still way beyond what you would usually suggest. Using that technique the group actually came up with some really good ideas for problems that some of them were struggling with back at their office.

Often when working with plot, we know what we want to happen and push the character into making that choice. The problem with this is twofold. One is that the actions are often out of sync with what the character would do, and secondly, the plot point is often the first thing we thought of, and therefore the one the reader will be expecting because it is so obvious.

The secret then, is not to stop at our first idea.  We need to keep pushing our creativity, and with the character in mind, come up with all the different ways they would act and deal with the situation.  Have a creative day.

23 January 2012

Imagination vs Reality

There is often a good debate to be had on whether to read a book first, or see the film, which is swiftly followed by a discussion on whether the film is as good as the book.

We use more imagination when reading than we do when watching a film, (which doesn't stop me watching films), and even if a writer describes the characters, we can still imagine them as we wish. I've often been surprised on a second reading of a book to see a detailed description of a character, when I've imagined them very differently. And I'm sure I'm not the only person who has been disappointed at the choice of an actor, when they don't look anything like the character I've imagined.

With this in mind I kept physical descriptions to a minimum when writing, and tried to use descriptions that added to character, rather than merely being a police-type description of height, hair and eye colour, build etc., though I think this does vary depending on genre.

How much, and what type of character description do you prefer when reading?

19 January 2012

Writing Time

I've never been brilliant at maths, but I must admit to liking numbers and stats - I feel almost guilty at admitting this. So when I first started writing a novel I kept a spreadsheet with items such as: date, number of words written, and time spent writing.

A lot of writers talk about being either a pantser or a planner, and often use the terms as if those are the only two options. I tend to think of it as more of a continuum.  I lean more to the planning side, but in rough bullet point ways rather than detailed plans, and certainly agree there is no right or wrong way, just what is right for the individual.

I've taken a little time over the past couple of weeks to think about the mechanics of how I've been writing, what I've learned about my style, and what works best for me.

In this post I talked about the time it took me to write Lives Interrupted and Driftwood. I wrote the first 30,000 words of Lives Interrupted sporadically over the period of a year, and then in the space of two months I added around 80,000 words and finished the first draft.

What made the difference?

My work situation had changed and I was able to work on it fulltime, but the writing flowed in a way I've rarely experienced before. The words were spilling out so fast I could hardly keep up with them.

At the time I was too busy typing to analyse it, but I've been thinking about it this week.

I had a gap of several months without adding to the word count immediately before the mad two months, but I was still very much with my book and characters. 

I was writing the book in my head. Planning the scenes, the actions, and how the characters would react to those circumstances and events.  Occasionally I made a few notes to keep things fresh.

By the time I came to write those 80,000 words I knew the characters well. I understood what motivated them, and how they'd react. On some level I realised this was planning, though at the time it was more like thinking of friends you haven't seen for a while, and wondering how they're dealing with the problems life is throwing at them.

What I've realised - yes I'm slow on the uptake sometimes, is that this is a productive way for me to work. I'm more of a planner than I thought I was. Planning before beginning the novel (which I did), but also planning before sitting down at the computer. Knowing where the scene is going, the character motivations and needs, and how they are going to react.

As I said in the beginning we all work differently, and can only go with what works for us, but there is as much time to be spent in writing when we're not actually sitting at the computer. I do some of my best thinking (and planning) when I'm out walking.

16 January 2012

Connecting with Ideas

Every now and then I get the impulse to sort through, and cull my 'stuff'.  You know the type of thing: those links, quotes, ideas and jottings etc. that we collect.  This particular stuff was relevant to my technical writing and online training work, but similar in composition to my fiction stuff.
I find culling takes sizeable chunks of time, as I have to look at the links, read the articles, and try to make sense of my scribbles.  Among the information was a link to a video.  My initial reason for saving the link was that I liked the idea of the 'quick time' drawing, and how the core principle could be used to make some online learning topics more interesting, and the information more easily recalled.
Watching the video this time I took more notice of the content - there must be a moral hidden here!  The talk is by Steven Johnson, and the topic is Where Ideas Come From.  It's given from the perspective of business and science, but is also very relevant for writers.
In the video Steven Johnson says, 'Chance favours the connected mind.'  We are fortunate to be living in a time when connected can mean social media, forums, blogs, email and so much more, as well as a physical connection.  Whether we live in an urban environment surrounded by others, or miles from a neighbour we can be connected.
Last week I met up with another writer friend, and was able to indulge in some writing talk.  During this time we came up with, and swapped, several great ideas for both writing and marketing.
Writing tends to be a solitary profession, and I certainly need quiet when I'm writing, but I also need that cross-pollination that comes from meeting with other people.
The other point that resonated with me was that ideas take time to mature. I have read many interviews with writers who talk about this - that they had the idea of a plot, or characters, for many months, or even years, before they started writing.  I've also found the same.  Also that an idea that has been lurking for a long time, but not going anywhere, can be revitalised or even take off in an unexpected direction, when it meets an idea from someone else, often on an unrelated topic.
Here is the link to Steven Johnson. 


13 January 2012

Small is Beautiful

Before querying publishers and agents about Lives Interrupted, I spent a huge number of hours over numerous weeks (get the idea!) working on my covering letter and synopsis.  I read everything I could find on 'how to' and my initial draft was way too long.  Gradually I whittled it down to the appropriate length. 
Writing the synopsis was harder than writing the novel.
Deciding to publish Lives Interrupted myself had nothing to do with the difficulty of writing a synopsis, but I do admit to a brief, 'Yay that's one job I don't need to do now.'
BUT there's that back cover blurb.
Distilling all those amazing characters, exciting plot twists, and incredible final page twist down to approximately 200 words is hard.  I think I could fill up my hard drive with the versions I played around with - okay maybe a slight exaggeration.
Here is an interesting talk on the subject of summarising TED talks in 6 words.  I'm not sure I'm any closer to finding an easy way to write a killer synopsis or book blurb, but it's a great talk.  Maybe I could plug my novel into the software Sebastian Wernicke used and get a book burb out of that.  Though I guess nothing in life can be that easy.

09 January 2012

What is Success?

Over the past few days I've been editing and putting together some short stories for a collection.  One of them, Underground, was my first piece of published fiction.
I first wrote the story in 2004, and sent it off to a literary magazine in New Zealand at the end of that year.  Although it wasn't accepted, Sue, the editor, was great and emailed me with feedback.
At that point, while I appreciated the feedback, I didn't really know how to implement the suggestions.  So in my ignorance I accidentally did the best thing possible.  I put the story away for a while and worked on other writing projects.
I must be a slow learner, as it was 18 months before I sent a reworked version of Underground off to Bravado!
I remember very well the day I came home from work, logged onto my computer, and saw the email accepting the story.  I danced around the room for ages, literally.  The joy and exhilaration were almost too much to hold in.  Then I grabbed my phone and rang a few people who knew how much it meant to me.
One of the things I hadn't done at that time was to define what success was for me.  That day having Underground published was it. 
To know if you've 'made it' you have to define what it means for you.  We'll all measure success differently.  It might be selling a million books, making a pile of money, great reviews, or winning a prize.
What does success mean to you?

06 January 2012

Small Tasks

I think almost everyone I meet talks about the difficulty of finding enough time in their lives.
Writing the novel, short story, article etc. seem just a small part of it sometimes.
Twitter, blogs, emails or marketing all eat into precious writing time, however, looking on the positive side most are activities that involve us practising our craft.  Though I do agree that if we spend all our time on the latter activities we'll never complete the former.  That's why I find it important to try and plan my time, though I'm certainly no master at this.
While I haven't formally set myself any goals (for so far at least!) I had a basic plan to spend the first two weeks of January finishing a few tasks that have been sitting on the To Do list for a while.
The biggest one of those was to revamp my website.  The pages are now uploaded, and you've probably noticed I changed the look of the blog as well.  On the website I've used some photos from my travels around New Zealand for each of the pages.  In Lives Interrupted I've mentioned pohutukawa trees several times.  They are out in full bloom here at the moment, and there is a photo at the top of the Novels page.
I've written a short article I've been thinking about for a few weeks and sent that off, and I'm now editing some short stories.  The stories have all been around for a number of years, and several have been published in literary magazines here in New Zealand, so I'm hoping to have those finished early next week.
I don't work well with physical clutter around me, and the same goes for mental clutter of jobs not finished, so I'm hoping that completing these tasks will help me get ready for the big job on my list.
I'm keen to get onto planning (or maybe that should be re-planning) the novel I partially wrote last year.  I've decided to work in a slightly different way for this book and I'm eager to see if it makes me more productive.  I'll let you know how it goes as I get into it.
Happy writing.

01 January 2012

Happy 2012

I've been reading my previous post again and looking at those goals.  There are more of the 2011 goals that I didn't achieve, than those I did, but overall I'm happy with the results.  Easy goals have never really motivated me.  At the beginning of last year I hadn't seriously thought of self-publishing, and now I have the experience of both print and e-publishing myself.
I'm revamping my website at the moment (nothing uploaded yet as I haven't finished), and next on the list is a marketing plan for Lives Interrupted.
On the writing front I'm editing some short stories for publishing, and I need to make a plan for an unfinished first draft of a novel that I started last year. 
Lots of work ahead and some serious goal setting required!