Saturday, October 27, 2012

Week 44 - Time for Speed

28 Oct - 3 Nov: Excuse me, do you have the time? Or the speed?

Yes, I too have fallen victim to the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge. Blogs far and wide will spout news of the event, so I will save my words for my novel.

Or equivalent.

Let me explain.

I initially intended to write a light psychological thriller based on an outline from some time ago. Exciting stuff.

But then yesterday, I finished a short story that had been unfinished for too long. All it needed was an ending, and so I ended it. I knew what was going to happen, most of it was dialogue, and besides the catch-up reading and some minor tweaking, I wrote freely. A thousand words. That was all. I looked at my watch and was astounded to learn it had taken me two hours to reach The End.

1000 words in 2 hours? Seriously? It took that long?
500 words an hour. That's probably right now I think about it.
Okay, so my 50,000 word novel requires 100 hours.
Divided by 30 days. That's 3 hours 20 minutes per day, at least, to write the required 1666 words.

Now I'm not a terrible typist. Not great, but not terrible. And just for kicks, I took a typing speed test and found that I type at about 50 words a minute (with 99 per cent accuracy thanks to my pesky inner critic). So, theoretically, I could type my required 1666 words a day in about 33 minutes. Wouldn't that be awesome?

Typing speed: 3000 words an hour. Writing speed: 500 words an hour. Quite a difference.

And so I realised that my chance of writing in 30 days 50,000 words based on my psych thriller outline was slim at best. This story requires more thinking than writing than typing. I was kidding myself.

So now, I have decided to write a 'creative memoir.' (Just 'memoir' makes me sound like I think my life is interesting enough to write about - this remains unproven.)

I am writing about a roadtrip through Namibia with my sister: hippos threatening to tip our canoe in a storm; the lion three feet away from us; the sibling tiffs; all good stuff. Okay, so we were in a car when we came across the lion, but still....

My theory is that memory will get me through - the facts, the details, the feelings. I don't have to imagine a journey, because it has happened. I don't have to dream up characters, because I have met them. I have dot points about the trip's twists and turns as mini-cliffhangers and a map (literally) to guide me. Unfortunately, my photos and travel journals are a world away (except for the lion photo), but a part of my brain is alive with images of Africa, and I want to know if I can draw those images in words.

So that's my plan. Is a memoir a novel? Not according to's genre selection. Am I cheating myself of the creative process? I suspect I will be incorporating a healthy dose of exaggeration into my story, so fiction or not, count me in.

For those embarking on the journey, may you have the time of your life, and may the speed be with you. Good luck.

Exercise 87. Check or do your story outline for NaNoWriMo. Set your schedule. On 1 Nov, write like a cheetah runs.

Exercise 88. Get some fresh air. Go for a walk. Pull your shoulders back. Raise your head high.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Week 43 - Editing

21 Oct - 27 Oct:

You might not write well every day,
but you can always edit a bad page.
You can't edit a blank page. Jodi Picoult.

Julie Luek is editing, rewriting, reviewing, updating... whatever you want to call it. She asked for advice on how to go about it; I understand this, as I have also sat down with my completed draft and muttered, 'Now what?'.

I can't offer much from experience (obviously), but I like to steal the ideas of those who do have experience.

The technical stuff is down below and includes both general and specific advice. But first, I found an interesting psychological tip about editing in Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.

Elbow says: "learning to throw away more ruthlessly comes from learning to generate more prolificly." In other words, if we're scared we can't produce more and better, we will have a problem getting rid of weak work. Elbow's solution is to write like the clappers. 'Start writing and keep writing.' For those who think blog, journal, letter, review, and prompt writing threatens real writing, think again. The more confidence we have to produce, the more ferociously we can edit, and the better our writing becomes. Or so Elbow seems to think, and for what it's worth, I agree.

Have a look at Writer's Digest revision tips for more ideas about how to get the mind keen on editing.

Okay, now on to the stuffy technicalities. If you've read these a million times, reading them again can't hurt (or save your soul and skip it). If there's something new to learn - great.

50 Essential Tools for Every Writer by Peter Roy Clark, suggests:
  • Cut big, then small, that is, prune the big limbs, (blocks of text), then shake out the dead leaves (individual words);
  • Cut out blocks of text, whole scenes if necessary, regardless of how pretty they are, that do not support the focus. Convince yourself that they can be used in a different story if you need to;
  • Cut out weakest quotations, anecdotes and scenes to give power to the strongest (this is perhaps more relevant to non-fiction);
  • Cut anything written for a critic rather than a reader;
  • Assess each word and sentence for usefulness, and then treat them appropriately;
  • Never invite others to cut for you.
Okay, so my story's probably half of what it was. Here's more from Clark:
  • Cut adverbs that intensify rather then modify (just, certainly, entirely, extremely, completely, exactly);
  • Cut prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious; e.g., in the story, in the movie, in the city;
  • Cut phrases that grow on verbs; e.g.,  seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
  • Cut abstract nouns that hide active verbs; consideration becomes considers, judgement becomes judges, observation becomes observes;
  • Cut restatements, e.g., a sultry, humid afternoon, and tautologies, e.g., final outcome, rise up.
My Delete key is starting to look a bit shabby. 

Bruce Caplan has a whole book of these in Editing Made Easy. These are some of his thoughts from a life of professional editing, newspapers mainly, so read with caution:
  • Write and edit to express, not to impress;
  • Beware the split infinitive;
  • Clutter slows pace. Try to avoid of the such as in, the cover of the book (the book cover), the captain of the team (the team captain);
  • Avoid overusing others and both. See if the sentence makes sense without it. e.g., A car crash killed two people and injured four others;
  • Try dropping that;
  • Avoid there were, there are, there is;
  • Know the difference between which and that;
  • Use short and simple over long and complex;
  • Be clear when using pronouns. e.g., He told Bill he thought he was going to the shop. Repeat nouns, reset the sentence or punctuate;
  • Be consistent with style;
  • Watch out for see (or saw), such as, January will see the start of work on the road;
  • Do not use contractions except in dialogue.

After considering these pointers (and a billion others - The Elements of Style is a favourite source), I am expecting my 80,000 words to whittle to 30,000. So that's what they mean by rewriting.

But I'm not scared. I can generate endless material, and it will be better.

Won't it?

Exercise 85. Microexamine a scene or a short story. Look specifically for adverbs and adjectives that could be replaced with more effective verbs and nouns. Look for other extraneous words such as those mentioned above. Look for passive voice and change it to active (unless passive serves a role).

Exercise 86. "Write a short story on any topic in 500 words. Then write the same story in 50 words – this is called a mini-saga." (From Joan Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Week 42 - The Magic of Travel

14 Oct - 20 Oct:
I've been around the world a couple of times or maybe more, I've seen the sights, I've had delights on every foreign shore.  Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees by Wally Johnson and Bob Brown

Château d'Ussé in the Loire Valley is the birthplace of Charles Perrault's (and Walt Disney's) Sleeping Beauty. You know the one: the princess pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and dozes off for a hundred years?
Okay, so that story's taken.

How about this one? A deformed bell-ringer of this stain-glassed cathedral gets into all sorts of strife with a woman named Esme.

Also done?

Yes, I have travelled recently, and I am determined to add the experience to my writer's toolbox, but when I was sitting in a cafe along the Champs-Elysées, trying to see something interesting about Paris besides what I can read in Fodors or Lonely Planet, I realised that I knew nothing about France. I will probably never know anything about France, about what it's like to grow up there, about national pride, about how the driver of a Ferrari can zoom past a beggar without faltering in her conversation on her cell phone. And so I sat back and enjoyed the wine. I didn't not write - I just didn't write about France. How could this be? I was confused.
But still, I am determined....
Upon arriving home, I was heartened when I read William Zinsser's On Writing Well. He warns us about succumbing to platitudes when writing about places. "Half the sights seen in today's sightseeing are quaint, especially windmills and covered bridges; they are certified for quaintness. Towns are nestled - I hardly ever read about an unnestled town in the hills."
And although Zinsser is focused on non-fiction, I think his advice is valid wherever setting is showcased in a story: "If travel is broadening, it should broaden more than just our knowledge of how a Gothic cathedral looks or how the French make wine. It should generate a constellation of ideas about how men and women work and play, raise their children, worship their gods, live and die."
Aha, so I was right. My tourist experience was far too shallow. But was it?
Zinsser suggests: "So when you write about a place, try to draw the best out of it. But if the process should work in reverse, let it draw the best out of you."
The Cats of Château Villerambert-Julien

The cats watched our rentals pull into Château Villerambert-Julien with the indifference that only cats have, but when the children bounded up the path to pat them, the cats disappeared into blackberry bushes and over stone walls.

The owner greeted us cordially and led us to the Old Chapel, the interior stonework painted white, barrels propped in the corners, the arched ceiling framing a modern chandelier. A long, black table, adorned with wine glasses awaiting the next tasting of the day, dominated the centre of the room.

Monsieur Julien tactfully suggested that the children play outside. "Zay weel get bored," he said, his smile as honed as the wines that bear his name. I volunteered to amuse the children, and to drive - a double blessing on any wine-tasting outing - and so the five youngsters, aged between three and ten, accompanied me in a self-guided tour of the estate.

The day was clear and warm, the children were bursting with spirit, and I was in a writer's daze. Our lively group marched past the processing shed where vats as tall as the roof loomed like thunder clouds. We surveyed the rows of vines from the bank behind the shed, an old, orange plough resting in the foreground the only sign of modern times. And when we had run out of places to explore, we turned onto the track behind the château that would lead us back to our starting point.

I glanced back the way we had come and saw a ginger cat dart across the track and bend itself under a wooden door. Returning my attention to the scenery, I scouted the horizon for an end to the vineyard, but the rows kept on going, around the earth to Australia perhaps. The children sprinted onward and the distant flicker of a brindle tail disappearing over the rise told me that the children were not interesting in grapes, or wine, or France for that matter - they wanted to meet the cats of Château Villerambert-Julien.

A pitiful meow tinkled through the country quiet. The children were huddled around a back door of the château, tapping the glass and laughing. A cat was stuck inside. Poor thing. When I reached the excited youngsters, I cupped by hands over my eyes and peered through the dirty glass. "Oh my God." The small room was flooded with cats. The startled eyes of fifty felines fixed on me from pet boxes stacked ceiling high against one wall, from litter boxes, and from atop a cupboard close to the door. But it was the table in the centre of the room, overflowing with cats like it was a life-raft and the tiles were the sea, that struck me. So many cats.

I nursed my fascination back to my taller travelling companions. "So how was the wine?" I later asked my brother.

"Very nice," he replied. "His reds have a distinctive taste that I can't quite place."

"Is that right?" I say.

Exercise 83. "Practice writing [a] travel piece, and just because I call it a travel piece I don't mean you have to go to the Mojave Desert or Mombasa. Go to your local mall, or bowling alley, or day-care center." "Find [the] distinctive traits." (From On Writing Well by William Zinsser.)

Exercise 84. For those not keen or not able to travel abroad, consider this: "What could be luckier for a nonfiction writer than to live in America? The country is unendingly various and surprising. Whether the locale you write about is urban or rural, east or west, every place has a look, a cast of characters and a set of cultural assumptions that make it unlike any other place." (On Writing Well, William Zinsser.) Write a story that takes the reader somewhere.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Week 41 - What Kind of Smoke?

7 Oct - 13 Oct: Where there's smoke... there's a character?

In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner describes a game he used to play with his boffin friends, called ‘What Kind of Smoke?’ The object is to guess the well-known figure being described through abstract association. Let’s see how I do….
Q: What kind of smoke?
A: Earthy clouds rising from a crackling campfire.
Q: What kind of car?
A: An old pickup, a bit beaten up, but still going strong and looking good.
 Q:What kind of animal?
 A: An Alsatian dog.
Q: What kind of sport?
A: Cross-country skiing.
Q: What kind of fruit?
A: Hmm… cantaloupe (rock melon to us Antipodeans).
Q: What kind of dance?
A: The classic waltz.
So who am I?

I’ll give you a clue: I opted for very individual ‘traits’ rather than the stereotypical associations, that is, all things western and cowboy.

Give up? I was thinking John Wayne. Agree? Disagree? Whether my answers are accurate or not depends on how your mind works, I guess. How would you answer the questions for the Duke?

So what’s the point of this exercise?

Three things:
  • We should know our characters well enough to know what sort of smoke they are;
  • How we paint characters is limited only by our own creativity (as if that isn't stating the obvious); and
  • We can trust the reader to associate creative images with the traits of an individual or type of person.

Let’s try again because this is kind of fun. Instead of me describing these people as manly, sexy, evil, and homely, try matching them up to their kind of smoke, or think of your own:
Cat Woman
Osama bin Laden
Oprah Winfrey
A wisp of smoke that slinks from the tip of a panatella.

The black, odorous cloud from the tailpipe of an unmaintained lorry.

The steam from a fruity, homemade sauce simmering on the stove-top.

The heady smoke from a Cuban.
Exercise 81. Think of the main characters in your story and describe ‘what kind of smoke’ they are. Think of the actions in the story that will have the reader associating characters with their kind of smoke.

Exercise 82. Think about how you have described your characters. Are the descriptions original or unoriginal? Can creative word or image association, weaved into actions, dialogue, setting and narrative make the characters more real?

Next week, I will attempt to relate how and what travel can add to the writer’s toolbox (or not).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Week 40 - Self-Awareness

30 Sep - 6 Oct: Talk amongst yourself

In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande recommends writing a piece of dialogue between your creative self and your critical self. The objective of this exercise is to highlight strenghts, areas that could be improved, and general awareness of oneself as a writer. It's worth a shot, I guess.

Sometimes you get caught up with describing images to the detriment of action. This slows the pace and things become, well, boring.
What do you propose I do?
Keep things moving. Focus on effective nouns and verbs. Keep images relevant to the action. Be brief with images that are not relevant. When you notice inactive periods, rewrite and rebalance. And don't forget that all-important first sentence.
 What about my dialogue?
It's not brilliant, but it's okay. It moves the story in your longer works, but you seem to avoid it in shorter pieces in favour of narrative.
You're right. I'm surprised at how differently I approach dialogue in short and long pieces.  I think it's developing okay.  So what about my characters?
You need to focus more on what makes a character unique rather than fall back on everyday traits such as hair colour and build. Or else incorporate the description into the action.  For example, 'he lumbered' to indicate size and awkwardness. You are able to characterize succinctly when you need to. This is useful for giving life to minor characters. 
What do I struggle with?
The quiet bits, like transitions.  If you can't connect briefly, interestingly and meaningfully, just skip them with transitional words and phrases.  Look for them when you edit your completed draft.  Shifts of POV in your novel.  Decide who's scene it is, and jump into their skin. Balance of POV's when ordering and structuring chapters.
Anything else?
Yeah. You're a lazy researcher but thorough when you get into it (like doing tax returns). Also, try not to be too tied to reality. Let your imagination go. Originality is the key.
 What are some of my strengths?
You've got the basics, so your writing usual flows well. You're picking up on rhythm (by reading aloud), vocabulary, and am learning concrete things from reading a lot. Short stories are getting better and easier. And of course, you're writing whenever you can, and you have a good attitude about learning, experimenting and not being discouraged by rejections.
Where do you think I'm at?
Never stop reading instructional as well as fiction works, and collecting material. You've procrastinated about starting a proper journal. Do it. You have a lot of material. Polish them off and send them out, dude.
Thanks Eureka. This was fun. Maybe we could go it again some time soon.
 You're welcome, and I look forward to it.

Exercise 79: Look at the objective-self's comments and recommendations. Spend an hour focusing on those issues, whether they relate to technique or working habits.

Exercise 80. Complete the sentence: "I can be a succussful writer because...." Keep it private, post on your own blog, or post it here. Now complete this sentence: "I am a unique writer because...."