Monday, 18 January 2016

How to get the most out of writing groups

Just to be sure we're all on the same page (see what I did there?) here's a bit of clarification: When I say "writing groups", I mean "a group of writers meeting to exchange feedback on each other's work".

So there you are at your writing group. It's you and a bunch of other equally scruffy writers. (Okay, just kidding, not all writers are scruffy!) Each person in turn shares stuff with the group and receives feedback.

In my humble-and-probably-wrong-opinion, here are the tips! There are more tips for "feeding back" because it's a skill I think most writers are actually pretty crap at! We spend all our time locked in a room staring at a keyboard, and so our social skills are not necessarily very well developed :-)

As the writer:
  1. Bring printouts! At least one copy per person in the group - and a few extra just in case! You're there because you want people to critique your stuff, so make sure your text is put in front of them. Personally I have a dreadful memory so if you read me something I will have NO IDEA what you said fifteen seconds later.
  2. Give everyone a bit of context. For example, if the piece is for a competition that's asked for comical stories about treacle, then say so. Otherwise you'll lose 15 minutes of your time to people saying, "So why's it about treacle?" ... and you'll realise that they now have to re-read your work, because they didn't spot anything in it apart from wondering why it's about treacle. 
  3. As a side note to #2: It's always useful to stick a line (just one line - don't go mad!) at the top of your work, explaining what you want from the critique... otherwise you'll get told about typos when you really want to talk about plot structure, and vice versa. You might think you can explain before people start reading, but in reality the second you put a piece of paper in front of another human being, they will start reading and stop listening.
  4. Have the work read aloud. You can read it yourself, or you can ask someone else to. Hearing it will help you spot problems with the rhythm, with the phrasing - with everything! You'll spot things you'd never have noticed in a decade of silent re-reading. Listen out for where people stumble over your words, or where you've used the same word ten times in the same sentence, or where they automatically correct/adjust what you've written etc.

As the person feeding back: 
  1. Listen to what the writer wants as feedback. For example, if they're asking about plot then they probably want you to help them with structural editing, and therefore are highly unlikely to care about typos. Or - if they say the piece is being sent off next week for a competition - then they probably don't want you to say things like, "you should try rewriting this from the washerwoman's point of view".
  2. Remember that scribbles are useful! You may prefer to speak your crit aloud, but it's hard for the person to note all your comments in the allotted time. You've been given a printout and you are holding a pen. Make some notes!
  3. Shush! :-) Seriously, please make sure you're not the guy who talks too much. There's one in every group - and the more they talk, the less the "quiet ones" talk... which is a horrible shame because the quiet ones are usually the more intelligent people in the group! There's one group I go to where I always end up having to beg the quiet person to talk - because they're too damn shy to speak until the noisy ones hush.
  4. It's okay to say you don't like a piece, but please try to give a reason. If you don't have a reason then it's not worth saying, "I don't like this," because it provides no useful feedback to the writer. Let other people talk.
  5. Be aware of how sensitive the writer is about their work. Everyone has different levels of writing confidence, regardless of ability or level of success. You might be proud of yourself for being able to receive harsh feedback, but others have not reached that stage yet. There's never a good reason to attack something. Looking back, I'm embarrassed at how much negative feedback I used to give. It's much more fun to find the positive stuff!
  6. Say something positive first. This is probably the most important point of all. There is something good to say about ALL writing. If you can't spot anything then it's your reading skills at fault, not the writing. Personally, I'm still learning this, but I know someone with the most amazing talent to immediately spot the positive. And I've seen that every time they do so, the writer in question becomes more confident, and gets better at writing.
  7. As a side not to #6: End with something positive as well, if you can. People take crit much better if you sandwich it in the positive. So say 3 things: (i) something that you like, (ii) something you don't like, (iii) something else that you like.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

A million words in 2016 (January)

I'm writing a million words in 2016!

Below is January's progress diary (I'll be updating it as the month goes on). If you're interested, here's the intro.

The red number in the right-hand column is the total word count. Please wish me luck in watching that number tick up to 1,000,000 over the rest of the year!

The Million-Word Diary: January

1st Jan 2,848
New Year's Day is a terrible time for New Year's resolutions. Seriously, who came up with this crazy notion? You go to a party, get drunk, wake with a hangover, and then try to change your lifestyle in some new and radical way. Insane. 

Anyway, that's how my day started - feeling rough as old boots.

A friend had crashed over and he's a writer so (once we'd sorted out our aching heads) we spent a nice day chatting about writing. Then it was evening. I had the house to myself and it was time to start work on a crazy plan:

I'm going to try... no, wait... I will write a million words in 2016.

2016 is a leap year, so that's roughly 2,733 words per day (i.e. about 1,000 more words per day than NaNoWriMo requires).

It WILL happen (he said, confidently).

I'm working on a horror story called "His Angry List" (okay, crap title, but it's just a placeholder). It was meant to be about a normal-but-kinda-psycho guy who finally gets pushed too far and decides kill all the people on his "I hate these people and one day I'm going to kill them" list. However, I'm only a few thousand words into the story and already the characters have changed. Do you ever find that when writing? Characters are sneaky buggers - they ignore all of your plans and suddenly decide to have different voices and different scripts. Gits. So the story was meant to be about human beings, but now it's about some freaky water demon and his vampire-like creator/maker.

Anyway, it's meant to be a freaky horror story, and that's exactly what it's coming out as... so I guess I'm vaguely on target, even though the initial idea has already changed so much. Manuscript is now 2,828 words long.

2nd Jan 6,970
What's the best way to screw up a New Year's Resolution? Doing something that breaks your new routine, before you've even managed to make it a routine.

And today I had to go out. Aargh! Social interaction! Anxiety explosion!

Was invited to a friend's New Year party/gathering. It wasn't a party, as such. Proper "party" parties don't happen any more when you're 39. Instead you find yourself at dinner parties with people serving chocolate pudding while talking about the contents of their child's nappy. They are all lovely people, and of course there were other things to talk about (one conversation in particular involved a discussion of what bits might fall off if zombies were to copulate), but there was definitely chocolate pudding, and definitely several mentions of nappy contents. Blergh.

I expected to be back late, so knew the writing had to be done in the morning before I left. As usual, I left it all till the last minute and so I only managed about 2,300 words before I had to leave for my train. 

Had assumed I'd be back after midnight, but a friend was driving back towards London and was kind enough to drop me home... which meant there was plenty of time to carry on writing.

Am now a little bit ahead, but I won't feel entirely safe until I'm a few days ahead of schedule. Until then, I really have to buckle down. At the moment I can't tell if this task is a huge chore, or an amazing exercise in ensuring I write every day. Am trying to convince my brain it's the latter. Today saw 4,122 words done, so the total is now 6,970.

5th Jan 17,785
Have been cutting everything very close to the mark - leaving the writing to as late as possible in the day. (I haven't even had time to write anything in this diary!) Not sure if that's just me procrastinating or if I actually need a looming deadline to make the words flow. Either way, I've been scraping along. It feels like I'm limping my way through a marathon, with the ground crumbling into an abyss behind me. Does that sound melodramatic enough? What I'm trying to say is I feel like I'm setting myself up to fall behind.

I told myself that I have to do at least 2,733 words per day (that's the minimum word count in order to write 1,000,000 words in 366 days), and almost every day so far this year has seen me still typing at 11 p.m., desperately trying to hit the word count before the clock strikes 12. It's like Cinderella with a keyboard instead of a pumpkin. Okay, it's nothing like that but I'm saving my best analogies for the novel!

I really should have been trying to create myself a buffer zone. Sooner or later, life is going to intrude and I'm going to miss a day... and that will mean I'll have over 5,000 words to write the next day. With a schedule like this, there's a massive potential to drop behind very quickly. So far I've managed to stay on target and am actually now a day ahead of schedule. Still not enough.

Word counts for the 3rd, 4th and 5th were 3,376, 3,658, and 3,781 respectively, so the total is now 17,785. To be fair to myself, that's actually an incredible word count for only 5 days. If I wasn't trying to do this crazy "million words in 2016" thing, then I doubt I'd have written anything, let alone nearly 18k.

6th Jan 22,683
Almost every day so far has seen me leave the writing until the last minute. I faff around, procrastinating like mad, until the clock hits 10 p.m. and suddenly I have to type like crazy in order to achieve the target 2,733 words per day.

Today, however, I managed to force myself to start at a decent time! The word count definitely benefited. Final result was 4,898 words, so the total's now 22,683.

As a bonus, I also started putting a spreadsheet together. (Yes, yes, I know... I should be writing rather than creating spreadsheets... but hear me out.) Watching the numbers tick up each day on the spreadsheet is amazingly motivating, especially considering I'm ahead of my target word count at the moment. And when I get a bit better at Excel VBA programming, I'm hoping to produce a graph of my word count (I'd like to emulate the graph that was so helpful on the NaNoWriMo site).

Some people reward themselves with little treats when they write lots of words. Me... well, it seems I'm happy if I can see a graph showing me I'm ahead of target. Treats schmeats.

Just to remind myself that this is all worthwhile: all the words so far have been written for a single project, which means I've written a quarter of a novel in only 6 days. Saying it that way definitely gives me a buzz :-)

I've not plotted anything out... just letting the characters take their own path. Apparently this is how Stephen King writes, so I'm in good company!

7th Jan 26,415
I'm definitely improving at forcing myself to start earlier. Managed to get going at 6 p.m. tonight, which I think is the earliest so far.

Unfortunately, starting early meant I felt there was more time to sod about, so the writing session was punctuated by lots of mucking around on twitter and facebook. That's not too bad - I still got the words done - but I'd be further ahead if I was a bit more disciplined. Then again, being able to muck around means I tend to focus more when I return to the writing, and I've noticed I also feel more relaxed. Perhaps that's the secret to keeping the words flowing - just don't take it too seriously.

Tonight's session netted me 3,732 words, so my total's now 26,415. My lovely spreadsheet is telling me I'm now 2 days ahead of schedule. A bit of breathing space at last! If I can push myself and get a whole month ahead then I might start feeling confident this crazy project is actually possible.

8th Jan 30,327
Cut it close today! Had to go out early (jogging with the awesome poet, Hilda Sheehan, no less!) and then it was all a bit manic. I was due to visit my folks, and my uncle and aunt were joining us too. Long story short, this meant I only had one hour - one single teeny tiny hour! - to get the writing done. So I arrived at my folks' house, apologised like mad, then immediately ran off to hide with my laptop.

Is it possible to write 2,733 words in an hour? Maybe it is for some people, but not for me. 1,983 was the best I could do. Smoke was pouring from my keyboard, the ends of my fingers were bloody stumps, and yes I'm exaggerating. Hyperbole's my middle name.

Luckily the night ended earlier than expected and I was home ready for more typing at 10:30 p.m. I got stuck in, and the final result for today was 3,912 words. That takes me over the 30k mark which is a lovely milestone to reach. Exact total is 30,327.

13th Jan 48,893
I'm still cutting it very close each evening. No idea why I do this to myself, but for some reason it seems easier to write when the clock hits 10 p.m. I think it's because there's absolutely no choice at that moment; two hours is the bare minimum of time I need to write 2,733 words. So far, I've been lucky and managed to get at least that much done every day.

It's been stressful, but I can't complain about the word count.

Daily counts for 9th-12th Jan were 3,809, 4,136, 3,054 and 3,698. Today gave me 3,869, which means my total's now 48,893. As long as nothing trips me up, this means I should hit the 50k mark tomorrow. That's a NaNoWriMo in a fortnight! It's an exhausting schedule but looking back at how much I've done is spurring me on.

As a bonus, I've also got my Magic Graph working. (Everyone needs a magic graph!) Yep, my progress spreadsheet now contains a lovely little chart which plots my word count against a "par" line (i.e. the line showing where I'd be if I did exactly 2,733 words a day). Happy to say I'm now 10,631 words ahead of "par", which effectively means I'm 4 days ahead of schedule. At this rate I'll be finished by... um... well, ok, it'll still be pretty much the end of December. (Sadly being 10k ahead of schedule is not very much when you're daft enough to try and write 1,000,000 words in a year. Why am I doing this again?)

I've written a few flash fictions here and there (and even a poem!) which has helped with the word count, but the main project I'm working on is still the "His Angry List" novel. (I really must think of a decent title!)

The story has got pretty weird, but I suppose that was the plan all along. Recently I met the horror author Graeme Reynolds (check out the High Moor trilogy!), and through him discovered the author Matt Shaw. There's a very comical dedication in Matt's first book that says he specifically wrote the book to gross Graeme out as much as possible. This amused me so much that I took it as a bit of a challenge; I'm now trying to write a book to gross-out both Graeme and Matt at the same time :-) I don't know if I'll manage it, but it's fun to try... and it's definitely helping the word count.

Sooo... that means I'm specifically writing to fit the horror genre and, as a bonus, I'm also throwing in as many "gross-out" moments as possible. I'm surprising myself at just how gross I can be! The viewpoint character is some weird zombie-dog-man, and so far he's indulged in murder, torture and necrophilia. Charming, eh? And to celebrate all of that, he's just gone home with an 89-year-old for some rumpy pumpy. Truth be told, the whole thing is pretty grim and I'll definitely be publishing it under a pseudonym! 

14th Jan 53,195
When it comes to plotting a novel, I've always thought I needed a proper plan... but for this novel (and for the one I wrote in NaNoWriMo), I've just tried to let the characters do their own thing. Admittedly the things that they do are pretty weird, but they are definitely telling a story.

The plot has turned out to conform perfectly to the "growing disaster" method of plotting (the main characters screw up when trying to fix a problem, and that screw-up causes another problem which they also fail to fix, and so on until the end of the novel). Plots like this usually result in a very satisfying read because everything that happens is a direct result of the characters' actions (and there's no danger of deus ex machina).

Reading a first draft while you're still working on it is a terrible idea, so all I can do at the moment is hope that I'm producing a satisfying story. Satisfying in a "gross-out" sort of way, that is.

Random news from today: I've managed to wangle things so a mad old lady is now regularly singing bits of "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?". At some point I'm going to have to look up what the rights are for that song. Don't you get hideously fined if you use lyrics in a novel?

Today's word count was 4,302 so the total's now 53,195. That's a whole NaNoWriMo 50k in just a fortnight - go me! :-) 

*the lonely writer waves pompoms for himself in the silence of his room*

15th Jan 56,663
Had a real struggle today. Every so often in a story, I hit a point where I know:
  • where the characters are
  • where they need to get to
...but I have no interest in writing the bit in-between. However, that bit in-between has to be written. (Admittedly it might get cut down a bit in the edit, but it needs to exist in order for the story to make sense.)

So motivation was at a massive low today, but the Magic Graph once more spurred me on and I managed to force myself to keep going (even if I did once again leave the writing to the very last minute!). Today's word count was 3,468 and the total's now 56,663.

23rd Jan 73,872
Disaster! I've stopped writing! Three days in a row with zero words :-(

16th and 17th Jan gave me 3,381 and 3,535 words. Unfortunately, I then hit a point where I'd pretty much completed a first draft of the "His Angry List" book. Without a project, I floundered and came to a stop. Oops.

In a way, this was kind of expected. I tend to approach big projects "gung ho" and charge in... Then something happens, I skip a day, and *bang* come to a dead halt. 

Maybe writing about it in this diary will spur me to action?!

On the 18th, I found a new way of generating story ideas, via an app on my phone. The MagicStory app gives you a prompt, and then you just keep typing the story - occasionally being fed new prompts and/or suggestions of different directions in which to take the plot. It was working really well but then - more disaster! - I discovered there was no way to get the stories out of the app! Even cut-and-paste didn't work - how crap is that? Demoralised, I wrote a pathetic 39 words on the 19th, then wasted the rest of the day trying to find a way to use cut-and-paste on the app. No luck, so the 20th was taken up with typing up the work from the 18th. It took hours, but in the end I discovered I'd written 9,972 words and had material for 6 new stories. Not bad for a day's worth of typing on a crappy phone keyboard!

Unfortunately, typing up all those words kept me awake till about 6:30 a.m. I've been a zzzzzombie since then, and the past few days have been completely un-word-ified. Zero words done :-( 

The "par" line is fast catching up on my "words done" line, so I've got to kick myself into gear somehow. A new project is required! While writing "His Angry List", I had a few ideas for a sequel, so that's one possibility. Another is "Crimble's early life". I've planned sooooo much of my fantasy novel, that I'm wondering if I should just write the back story as a book, with Crimble narrating as if she's looking back on her life. This has several advantages: 
  1. A story purely from Crimble's perspective would nicely establish her character, and set a firm foundation for the subsequent "Crimble and Calvin go on adventures together" books.
  2. I can explain the world through Crimble's eyes; the reader will learn about it as she does. No need for exposition - we learn through adventure!
  3. In future books, there'll be less back-story to hint at (because I can just assume readers have already read Book One).
  4. Readers often assume Crimble is male (NB Crimble would not be happy about this!), so having her as a narrator gives me a chance to deliver a, "Hi, I'm female!" line to the reader on the very first page. That'll be a lot less clumsy than my current way of introducing her gender (it's buried in dialogue somewhere in chapter five!)
Anyway, I finally got myself typing today and managed 282 words. Not great, but at least I did something. (That was the last chapter of "His Angry List" so that book's ready to be revised now. A full first draft of a novel in 23 days. Kinda cool!) Total word count is now 73,872. That puts me 11,013 words ahead of the "par" count, which roughly equates to 4 days ahead of schedule.

31st Jan 82,624
I've always been keen to attend as many writing groups and writing classes as possible, but recently it's all got a bit mad. Here's what I did in this final week of January:

  1. Tues morning: Seeing it through - a workshop discussing how to edit NaNoWriMo manuscripts.
  2. Tues evening: Swindon Genre Writers - crit/feedback session.
  3. Thurs morning: Met up with some fellow writers in a café for a (very productive) couple of hours' scribbling.
  4. Thurs evening: Lower Shaw Farm Writers' Café - crit/feedback session.
  5. Fri morning: Poetry Writing Groupcrit/feedback session.
  6. Fri afternoon: Met up with a pal who'd been kind enough to offer to discuss my terrifyingly huge fantasy novel plot with me. She was very patient with my hesitant explanations!
  7. Sat evening: Poetry Swindon meeting.
  8. Sun evening: The "52 Launch" - a poetry evening/party.

Eight separate writing-related events in one week is probably a bit much.

All of this time away from the laptop meant this week's words are either stuck in the MagicStory app, or scribbled in various notebooks. I can't count these words until I've typed them up, and so my poor graph is currently showing that I'm behind par. All very depressing!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A million words in 2016 (intro)

I took part in NaNoWriMo in November 2015, and it went really well. Thirty days of hard graft gave me a word count of 137,271. I'd have danced around the room in excitement if I hadn't been nursing my poor aching typing fingers.

But then December happened. Did I carry on writing? No, I bloody didn't. The thing is, NaNoWriMo is a great event but I think a lot of people feel pretty drained afterwards. I certainly did. However I reckon I'd have carried on if I'd still had some form of motivation.

Motivation to write - that's the real beauty of NaNoWriMo. If you're looking in the right places, the world seems to explode with positivity and joy. Writers are suddenly everywhere, galvanizing each other to keep writing, keep writing, keep writing... There are groups meeting all over the world, both in person and online. There are facebook pages and twitter feeds and a thousand other places to find encouragement.

In particular, there's the NaNoWriMo site with that wonderfully motivating graph! God I loved that graph. It seemed to drag me up the mountain by the throat.

And then suddenly it's December. The virtual cheerleaders disappear, and you find yourself just sitting there with your (probably awful) first draft of a novel. It's not surprising that quite a few NaNo manuscripts end up languishing in the darkest depths of a hard drive :-(

So I needed a new project. And here it is: A friend said he's going to write a million words in 2016, so I'm copying him! (Copying his idea, not his words.) It's a crazy task and maybe I'll fail horribly, but at the very least it'll get me writing. If all goes according to plan, I'll end the year having written at least 10 novels (i.e. 10 x 100,000 words). Admittedly they'll mostly be in first draft form, but that'll still be quite an awesome achievement.

To be fair to the NaNoWriMo organisers, they have lots of events to help with the "I wrote a novel! ...Now what?" question. That all happens in January and February, so fingers crossed it'll help me get my editing started.

In 2016, with any luck, I'll write, write, write all day long... and then spend my evenings editing my dodgy first draft from NaNoWriMo. Isn't that the sort of thing "proper" authors do? :-)

Progress Diary (the links will go live as 2016 ticks on)

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Spirit of the Beanstalk

Illustration by Michael Ilkiw

Story Shack Magazine have published "Spirit of the Beanstalk". It's a fun little piece that came about from an exercise in a writing class. The idea was to pick a well-known fairy tale and write it from the point of view of a different character. I choose Jack and the Beanstalk, and decided to write it from the beanstalk's point of view.

The fun thing with Story Shack Magazine is that they put you in touch with an illustrator. This was a new experience for me and it was great fun seeing what Michael came up with for the story.