Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Where do you get your Main Characters?

Aaargh! A dose of lurgi has stalled the writing so here I am wasting time instead...

Where do you get your characters? Are they really you in disguise?

It's an interesting thought. Some MCs I've read have very obviously been richer sexier versions of their author. For some people it's a good wish-fulfilment exercise. One recently separated middle-aged man of my acquaintance wrote an entire novel about a fabulously wealthy recently separated middle-aged man who did nothing other than have affairs with gorgeous adoring young women and bitch about his dreadful ex-wife. Some authors claim to be the antithesis of their MC - I'm thinking of Iain Rankin whose Rebus is based on men he grew up knowing rather than himself.

But aren't all our characters really parts of our own personalities? We need to get into their heads, so to some extent they must be part of us or we wouldn't understand them. We may not make the same choices they make, but that's where imagination comes into it.

The MC if The Bookseller is a man, so he obviously isn't me. I think I am in the book though, just not the main character. But I recognize his paranoia and neurosis - they are universal and why (I hope) people will read the book.

Monday, 24 November 2008

What are critiques for?

Following on from my earlier post about writers' groups, I got to thinking: what do we need crits for? OK, I know, I know. We need crits to find out if our story is any good. But do crits really tell us? All they tell us is what a handful of people think, after all.

I think critting is useful because it helps us to see our work more objectively. That's a hard thing to do when you're stuck in your little garret scribbling away without another soul for company. The story is part of you; you give birth to it and like your beloved offspring it is too close to your heart to see its faults.

But it's not just what others think of our work that teaches us objectivity. It's what we learn from critting other people's work. That is ultimately more valuable because spotting someone else's flaws is always easier and teaches us to better spot our own. And ultimately that is what we need to do to become professional writers. We need to see our own flaws and fix them.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Adverb abuse

Yippee! I have a follower! Cheers, Lori! :-)

Adverbs. Do you use them? Well go and stand in the corner you naughty writer, you!

I've seen so many heated arguments about Adverbs and their misuse, I've decided to start the Society for the Prevention of Adverb Abuse. We aim to rescue adverbs that have been overused or callously tossed aside by an uncaring society. After careful rehabilitation they will be rehomed.

If you know of an adverb that is overused or neglected, please post it here so we can stop this cruelty.

And if you can offer a home to one of our adverbs in your story, please call us NOW. (Or NOWLY)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

First person present tense

I'm delighted to say I've pretty well broken the back of my nanowrimo rewrite. It's a novel I wrote a couple of years ago, since when it's lain in a drawer. Written in a nano frenzy, it was very rough. It was only my second attempt at a novel. I chose third person past tense, with the POV moving around the three main characters, but one flaw I sensed in it was this dissipated the tension. So when I finally decided to have another go I chose to make it a kid's story, first person from the boy's POV. I also settled for present tense - can't remember why, although at the start it seemed to suit the vernacular way he spoke. You know: so I says to him sort of thing.

But it's been hard going. The new POV called for a completely new opening, no problem there. But once the action got tighter I found the limits of first person a struggle to overcome. You have to come up with ingenious ways for why he knows things, or how he discovers things that were taken as read with third person. And at first I kept slipping into past tense without realising it. Very frustrating when you have to redo a page changing all the verbs. But that's improved with practice.

So for a while I wasn't making much headway and really felt it was more trouble than it was worth. This week I seem to have turned a corner and the ideas are flowing again. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I still haven't resolved the big finale...

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Submission Yo-yo

It's now four weeks since my full went out to the agency. It's the weirdest sensation. I wait for the Postman, but dread his arrival at the same time. And then I think, if it's good news they'd be more likely to phone. And that scares me even more.

I don't know why it should. Somehow the immediacy of the phone is so much more intimate and personal. Not to mention immediate. What if I'm making the dinner or on the loo or trying to stop Theo tormenting my ailing cat? I'll probably go blank and sound like a first-class idiot and God only knows what she'll think. And I'll have blown my one chance to impress.

So, organise. Plan it all in advance. What is she likely to ask? Think of some clever and witty replies. (This'll never work - not unless I write them on the back of my hand - I can't remember what day it is usually!)

By the time I've thought all this I'm having a full blown panic attack. And now every time the phone rings I'm having palpitations.

So, you know what? I'm going to wing it. For better or worse, it's the only way.

Ah, that's better. I can now go back to worrying about the postman...

Monday, 10 November 2008

To Peer Review or Not

When you've finished your story, how do you know if it's any good? Received wisdom suggests joining a writers' group to get impartial feedback from your peers. I've belonged to a couple of online ones and they can be very helpful up to a point.

But the problem is the whole business is so subjective. What I love could be dead boring to someone else, and vice versa. I once tried to review a sci-fi novel and couldn't make head nor tail of it, but then I don't usually read much sci-fi so is the fault mine, or theirs?

And these groups are peopled by a wide array of levels of expertise. From relative beginners to, if you're lucky, industry pros and published authors. Not all the advice on offer is worth the trouble. And who do you believe?

There are definitely some unreliable types to beware of. The embittered wannabe has been writing his whole life and never published a thing. He sees himself as the angry young man, although he's now well into middle age, and the publishing world as a greedy heartless machine intent on destroying his soul so he would rather starve than compromise with these monsters. The pseudo-intellectual who writes "literary fiction" that is so dense and pretentious nobody but him can make any sense of it. The perfectionist who never gets past chapter three before going back to rework the start. Criticism from these types can do more harm than good.

And because of this diversity flame wars can break out on these sites over crits. Some people cannot take criticism and react as if personally attacked. It can get bitter and nasty. Writing is such a personal thing, it's hard to take personality out of the equation altogether. (I'm more a sulker, really. Too much of a wimp to start an argument.)

There is often a trend towards conformity in these groups. Strong characters set the standard and everyone else falls into line. Before you know it your writing is being influenced by this trend and you're losing your individuality.

So, I would say join online peer review groups and take from them what you can, but beware of taking any critiques too seriously. Ultimately writing is a solitary activity.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Is there something in the air?

I frequent a couple of writers' forums and lately all hell has been breaking out. No one reason for this that I can see, but tempers seem to be fraying even more than usual. Perhaps it's another manifestation of SAD or the credit crunch or the prospect of another Christmas season looming.

A thread will start quite innocently; a question is asked or an observation made, and somehow the responses escalate into an unpleasant fracas out of all proportion to the issue raised. I see it on forums from time to time but just lately it seems to be breaking out everywhere and from the most mild mannered individuals.

The internet somehow promotes this literary road-rage. It brings out the Mr Hyde in us all. I'm not immune to the urge to let fly and in the past I've shed a tear or lain awake because of the turmoil it causes. Somehow, sitting alone at a computer, it's easy to forget they're just opinions. Our egos seem to hang on getting the last word, on scoring a point off some arrogant SOB who has inadvertently trod on our toes.

There's only one cure I know of. The off switch. But then, where's the fun in that?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Quotes about writing

Here are a few of my favourites:

Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.
Olin Miller

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

Writing is a cop-out. An excuse to live perpetually in fantasy land, where you can create, direct and watch the products of your own head. Very selfish.
Monica Dickens

Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It's like passing around samples of sputum.
Vladimir Nabokov

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
Oscar Wilde

Find more at:

Monday, 3 November 2008


I've signed up for NaNoWriMo this month. I've done it twice before, but never at the appointed time. By that I mean I've done it alone in another month, set myself a target of at least 1665 words per day and kept a running total to keep on track. It was back in the days before I discovered the joyous distraction of internet forums. I must say, I got a lot more written back then.

But this Nano excursion isn't the real MacCoy. Instead of churning out a new first draft I'm trying to rewrite an old Nano project, a kids romp involving armed robbers, cross dressers and grotesque teachers. So I'm not aiming for 50k (which I have already - I just want a new first person POV and a lot less back story) I want to get it finished and around 35k by the end of November. I'm hoping the Nano buzz will help keep me on track.

Some people get very uppity about Nano, but not me. Of course a lot of what's written is drivel, but then isn't every first draft? And there's no better way to stay focussed on your story than to get it down so fast, in an obsessional frenzy. When you're not writing you're thinking about it. Forget the fine tuning, you can do that later. It's a helter skelter of excitement and discovery and I love it!

For anyone who hasn't tried it yet, I recommend you have a look at the website (below) but I'd leave it until November is over. It's a bit busy just now.