Wednesday, 30 April 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing

This is an old book by the Editors of Writer's Digest called "The Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing",published by Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 1992, ISBN: 0898795079

The book has been lying unread on my shelf for years, so perhaps if I’d read it when I bought it, I might have found it more effective. Still, there were some good parts, but also some awfully stodgy parts. Made up of just under 40 individual articles by various authors (including big name genre authors Tom Clancy and Dean R Koontz) about different aspects of writing, shortest about 5 pages long, longest about 15 pages. Covered a range of writing related topics, from “Five Questions every novelist must ask” to “Negotiating your Book Contract”.

The format had both advantages & disadvantages: in its favour, it was easy to start and finish a whole article in a limited amount of time (e.g. waiting at the dentist etc). Against this format, it was too easy to finish one story and then read something in between articles, so ultimately it took me months to finish the 250 pages in this book. Also, some articles were so negative, they almost seemed to be saying, “don’t waste your time”. Perhaps the authors thought they’re giving the reader (who is likely to be an aspiring author) a realistic view of the publishing industry – which, no doubt, they are, but who needs to be told that when one is following a dream?

Some highlights from the articles might be of interest:

• Write every day – this came up repeatedly, in all different articles. If you are serious about being a writer, MAKE TIME TO WRITE was a mantra throughout the book. Obsess about getting the book finished.

• Turn an idea into a story by developing characters, creating action, and having consequences to the actions.

• Talent + craft = published novel

• Be ambitious, but set realistic goals. State clearly in one sentence what your story is about & where it’s going. Know your characters. Know your genre of choice. Be passionate about your story.

• You can use personal experience in fiction, but it must be:
o Objective
o Have artistic unity
o Have causality
o An awareness of background info

• A novel is about creating a believable facade so that you can tell your story – but learn what to leave out

• Concentrate on finishing one scene at a time – but retain overall unity in your story.

• To create characters readers care about the characters must:
o Experience pain (emotional and/or physical)
o Be in jeopardy (to build tension)
o Have heroic proportions
o Be believable in both past life and motivation

• Use flashbacks sparingly
o Flashbacks stop action
o Can be overused
o Must be brief
o Must be used as little as possible

• Point of view
o Affects everything else in story
o Sets boundaries for stories defining what is possible
o Affects credibility of story (must lead to the willing suspension of disbelief)
o Can be first, second or third person, or omniscient narrator.

• Dialogue
o Presents info succinctly
o Brings immediacy to prose
o Is informal
o Provides change of pace
o Creates character

• A novel must affect a reader. The novelists job is to elicit the required response by selecting & rearranging aspects of reality

• Know your theme:
o Escapism/entertainment
o Emotional effect (e.g. horror = fear)
o Style what is your personal style (e g e e cummings)
o Character (drives story, is plot & action)
o Idea (moral statement, human dignity, social comment, human nature, human relationships or coming of age story)

• Have a scene, and then follow it with a sequel. This gives fiction coherence, moves plot forward and adds suspense

• The art of writing consists of hiding technique. Truly first class work makes the craft of writing invisible.

• Sex scenes must be a natural culmination of what has gone before:
o release of tension between 2 characters
o complication or expression of emotions
o a unification of 2 demanding elements of the story

• Remember not all readers are as verbally orientated as writers are. They don’t want to be impressed by your writing they just want to experience the story vicariously

• Writing is rewriting – always search for perfectionism, the improved way of saying it.

• Do not measure the worth of your writing by money. It is a labour of love and a challenge to your spirit and should be respected as such.

• Novel writing is a marathon of endurance, discipline and heart.

• And finally, from Tom Clancy’s article: Success at novel writing is looking failure in the face and tossing the dice anyway. You may end up being the only person who knows which way the dice came up, but in that knowledge you have something millions of other people will never have, because they were too afraid to try.

### THE END ###
The author asserts all moral rights to this work, except where otherwise indicated by reference or link. Copyright belongs to the author who is the original creator of this work, except where otherwise indicated by reference or link. Should you wish to use any portion of this article contact the author at

2008 Biamer: Day 1 to Day 10

On Monday 21st April 2008, my on-line writing group and I started our annual BIAM = "Book in a Month". Now, it's certainly impossible for me to write a book in a month, but that's not the real purpose of this project. The real purpose is to crank up those creative writing juices and get us all writing as much as possible, as regularly as possible. At the end of the month we then add up our word counts and are usually amazed at how much writing we've actually completed. Part of my task for the BIAMer month is to post a daily motivation to keep the team active and enthusiastic. I'll be posting these daily motivations on my blog.

2008 Biamer DAY 1: 21 April 2008

LADiiieesss AND Gentlemen....HEEEeeeerre'sss.....D-DAY !!!!

That's right! Today is the day that we've all been waiting for. D-Day has arrived and it's the first day of the rest of our lives as PUBLISHED AUTHORS!! Whether we only write a 1000 words or 100 000 words over the next month today is psychologically significant to all of us as by doing this BIAMer we are committing ourselves to accept the joys and responsibilities that come with being published matter how far (or near!!) in the future that wonderful day is, today is the day we re-affirm our intentions of reaching that goal!

Some technical points about the BIAMer.

My daily commitment during this month is:

1. to write minimum 350 words per day every day
2. to submit my daily word total (even if 0) every day
3. to do a (short) daily motivation (we'll all be too busy writing to have time to read long emails!) :-)
4. to collate everyone's daily total and submit a word count schedule (probably sometime during the next day)
5. at the END of the BIAMer I will submit a detailed schedule of weekly and overall cumulative totals, average daily word count etc

Your daily commitment is:

1. to attempt to write your minimum words daily
2. to submit your daily word count (even if 0) to me (to keep the anticipatory excitement up for the end of the BIAMer, please may I ask that you only submit your daily word count on line, not the cumulative count - ta muchly!)

And that's it ladies! Are we ready? Let me ask that again, in case no-body heard...


Yes? Here we go, then...the third RWSA BIAMer has officially begun! Good luck and may the Muse be with us all !!!

2008 Biamer DAY 2: 22 April 2008

CONGRATULATIONS to all our busy little Biamers!!! Everyone got some words done and finished the day in various states of exhaustion and/or exhilaration!! WELL DONE to everyone, rusty or not,ready to delete the lot or not, or not meeting target.

Well, I'm THOROUGHLY exhausted! This writing is hard work!!! And as stiff and boring and stilted as they are, I've managed to eke out about 653 words so far(including 210from last Saturday)!! My Muse is extremely creaky, I can tell you! But I was surprised to find that, although the day's writing didn't come easy, and the writing is not going to set the world on fire, I did come to a glimmering of understanding what Ursula le Guin says in the epilogue of her book "Steering the Craft(ISBN-13: 978-0933377462) (slightly amended):

" ...some people see art as a matter of control. I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It's like this: in me there's a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story tells itself. [One must be ready] to let the story tell itself; having the skills, knowing the craft, so that when the magic boat [the Muse] comes by you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go."

What I found was that as I started to think "oh no this is AWFUL!!!!" I put my ego, my mental junk,out of the way and remembered that it doesn't have to be good writing, it must just be fun. So I stopped worrying about how good it is and just wrote and ended up with nearly double what I expected. Quite a good start I thought!!!

And well done again to all of us on our GREAT productive start to our BIAMer '08! Let's let the stories inside us tell themselves!!

2008 Biamer DAY 3: 23 April 2008

WELL DONE on everyone's word count!!! Yesterday (Tues 22/4) I managed to do 397 words.

Being so rusty and out of practice I'm not sure how many of the words I've written so far are real writing or simply "warm up" writing!

In Jack M Bickham's book "The 38 most common fiction writing mistakes", he lists mistake number 5 as "Don't warm up your engine"

He likens this to a story that starts in the same way the old cars used to have to be started in the early winter mornings:by keeping the engine ticking over until it's warmed up enough to actually drive somewhere. He suggests that a story must start moving with the first sentence and to do that the writer must recognize three facts:

1. Any time we stop to describe something, the story has stopped moving. Description is necessary to fiction, but not right in the beginning, then it is deadly.

2. Fiction looks forward not backward. Background information is pointing the reader in the wrong direction; it's old news, the reader wants to know what's happening now.

3. Good fiction starts with - and deals with - someone's response to a threat. For example, a coming change can be experienced by the character as a threat; it is at this moment of crucial change in the character's life (and that can be an inner or outer change) that the story must begin. Opening the story at any other point is either irrelevant (description) or boring (background info) or confusing (change has already occurred).

The upsetting thing is as I write this I realise that I've been warming up my engine in at least one way - I've got plenty of back-story in! And possibly some unnecessary description as well. Oh dear! But it's going to stay there and I'll do editing at the end of the BIAMer, because BIAMer '08 is all about FUN and NOT about perfection!!! So I'm going to carry on warming up my writing engine until its running smooth and easy and then I''ll get going in the right direction!

Hope you're all motoring along at a grand old pace!

2008 Biamer DAY 4: 24 April 2008

Yesterday (Wednesday 23/4) I managed to do 879 words. (but don't ask me where they came from or how good they are!) But I am having fun with this story! I'm just writing what I want, without worrying about how good it is!

And I suppose that's the key: attitude! When something is seen as a chore or a duty or a responsibility, then its easy to get into a bad mood or feel pressurised about what we're writing. And that just makes things worse. So shifting the perspective of writing from "must get published" to "just writing for fun" can only make the actual sitting down and writing easier. I suppose it's not so much what we do as it is how we do it that makes the difference! And then, from the perspective of fun rather then pressure, our daily writing target can be transformed from a burden into doing something because we love it!

So let's all write for FUN and LOVE what we write!

2008 Biamer DAY 5: 25 April 2008

Yesterday (Biamer Day 4, Thursday 24/4) I managed to do 557 words.

I could, in all honesty, have carried on writing but as I was already above my word target for the day I thought I'd do what Twyla Tharp (a choreographer) in her book "The Creative Habit" (ISBN-13: 978-0743235273) calls 'building a bridge' to the next day. She says that the only bad thing about having a good creative day is that it has to end and there's no guarantee we can repeat it the next day! She then gives examples of how famous artists create bridges between one creative day and the next:

* Ernest Hemingway always stopped working at a point when he knew what was coming next in the story.

* Twyla Tharp stops just before the point when her dance troupe still has enough energy to carry on dancing

* She talks of a comedienne friend who always stops telling jokes before the audience stops laughing. The point is, Tharp says, is that one mustn't drive oneself to the point of being totally spent. Stop while you still have enough energy in the tank so that the next day it's easier to get moving again.

* There's a writer friend of Tharp's who gives himself a "creative quota" for each day: either 1000 words a day, or the point at which the clock hits a set time say, 5:00PM, whichever comes first. He religiously follows this routine and mentally prepares himself for it by re-reading the last paragraph of what he's written just before he switches out his light at night.

Ultimately, what Ms Tharp is saying is that if, on a day when the creative juices are just flowing smooth and sweetly, you drink every drop of nectar the Muse gives you, the chances are higher that the next day, when you need to sip from that cup again, you'll find it dry and empty.

I find that for me a combination of the "quota" and Ernest Hemingway method of knowing what comes next works best. I could've written more than 557 words yesterday; I wanted to write more because I'm heading for a great moment in the story, but in the end it's more important to me that I write a little bit each day, rather than risking a huge burn out which leaves me with no words for days.

Think about how you prefer to write: taking small steady sips from the cup the Muse holds out, or drinking it all in one gulp, and then waiting until the cup fills up again?

Cheers/Prost/L'chaim/Salud and bottoms up!

2008 Biamer DAY 6: 26 April 2008

Yesterday (Biamer Day 5, Friday 25/4) I managed to do 385 words, but in all honesty they weren't "new" words. I was trying to tighten up my writing and spent my (very) limited writing time yesterday supposedly pruning my ms into a more graceful shape, but ending up with more words than I started and no time to write more!

William Brohaugh (in his book "Write Tight" ISBN-13: 978-1402210518 ) equates a first time draft to growing a bonsai tree. He suggests that writing a graceful ms is the same as growing a beautiful bonsai tree. Brohaigh says that it takes time, patience, skill and certain set steps such as:

1. Selecting what to grow (does your ms have freshness and value?)
2. Shaping the stems and branches (determine the primary plot of your ms. Are there secondary plots?)
3. Trimming the roots (Limiting the plot/characters)
4. Pruning the leaves and shoots (Check your ms for "flabby" writing, such as redundancies, overkill, passive, imprecise, nonsensical, evasive, empty words and so on)

Easier said than done. All I can remember are the dozen or so bonsai's over the years that I've managed to kill off through over-trimming and over-watering and over-everything! And I suppose a ms is no different - in the quest for the perfect ms, it is so easy to "kill off" its vibrancy, its newness, the energy that makes it your very own. And this BIAMer isn't about perfection - it's about FUN, so no more tinkering for me! From today I'm going to stick to new writing and worry about the pruning shears later!!

Have great day watering your ms and watching it grow!

2008 Biamer DAY 7: 27 April 2008
Yesterday (Biamer Day 6, Saturday 26/4) I managed to do 438 words, but they are truly terrible. They are simply dead! dead! dead! There is no life in the words or the characters at all and I just couldn't connect with either my characters or their emotions.
Ann Hood has written a book called "Creating Character Emotions" (ISBN-13: 978-1884910333) and she identifies some problems in writing about emotion as:
1. The cliché trap (solution: avoid using the first words that come to mind; they're probably a cliché. Try to use the second thoughts you have)
2. Lack of specificity (solution: use specific, concrete details to indicate what emotion the character is feeling.)
3. Ambiguity (solution: do not vaguely label what your characters are feeling; clearly and honestly show what they feel, using your own emotional experiences as a guide)
4. Not trusting your characters (solution: allow your characters to have a range of emotion to give them depth and complexity. The character should move through a range of emotions step by step)
I'm not sure that I've actually found a solution to my problem with this research. Sometimes I think these "how-to-write" books just confuse me more!Maybe the best would just be to scrap the whole scene, rewrite it and see if it improves!
I'm off to find out if my characters are still living...! Hope yours are well and kicking!

2008 Biamer DAY 8: 28 April 2008
Yesterday (Biamer Day 7, Sunday 27/4) I managed to do 588 words.
Thankfully, the writing came easier than Saturday's quota, but I'm finding myself floundering. I'm sure that this story is non-publishable, and it feels very clichéd to me! I'm not sure whether it's because I'm so rusty I can't keep focus, or if I'm bored with my story, or if I just lack confidence. I find I'm very aware of the dratted super-critical "voices" of those (*&$%%*&) examiners from my Masters degree. So what I have to do today is to just try to turn off the throng of inner critics and keep focus on my story! Summarized from an article called "Writing Under Deadlines", here are some ways I can keep my focus:
Not interrupt my writing process to edit or research: I must avoid over-working a problem area and leave it to the revision and not get distracted by minor points--keep focus on the whole
Draw up a quick outline or concept map : be specific and suitable to the main scene topic
Introduce my scene topic in the first paragraph: and then build it up with basic, relevant facts and context: who, what, when, where, why, how; I must appeal to and involve my readers with these details
Development of scene: Anchor each paragraph with a sentence relating it to the main scene topic and revise later.
Revisit all comments when I revise: As I write, I must note in bold, or colour, what facts/points I'm unsure of, rather breaking focus to check as I'm writing.
Well, let's hope this works, because I can see it's going to be a long, l-o-n-g BIAMer if I don't get this story more focused and on track!!!!!
Hope you're all staying on the straight and narrow!!

2008 Biamer DAY 9: 29 April 2008
Yesterday (Biamer Day 8 Monday 28/4/08) I managed to do 472 words.
I was actually quite pleased with the day's writing. It flowed much easier then the previous two days, although I do still find my inner critic hard at work as I'm writing. But at least yesterday the voice was a bit softer and I could just concentrate on letting the words flow. I'm not yet writing as freely as I should be, or want to, but it's been so long since I did any creative writing that I'm not surprised that I'm stuttering and stalling. What I am pleased about, though, is that - even if this story is not great - I think the BIAMer is going to be good for getting me back into FREE WRITING. Here's a summary of an excellent article,  on what creatively FREE writing is all about:
F-R-E-E-Writing : F-R-E-E stands for Fast, Raw and Exact-but-Easy.
You write as fast as you can while remaining legible. Keep your hand moving: once you begin writing, you don’t stop until you have completed the time or page space you have allocated for the day. You don’t pause to reread what you’ve just written, because that leads to attempting to control or refine your first thoughts. At first your wrist or hand may be sore but don’t worry about that – just keep going. Your muscles will adjust in a few days. Write as fast as you can until you have completed the allocated time or pages. Let the words flow f-r-e-e. Lose control.
Writing raw has two meanings. On one hand, because you are writing as fast as you can with the aim of unleashing your unconscious mind, you can forget all about spelling, punctuation etc. This writing is for you; when you read it back you will know what you mean: so forget everything your English teachers ever told you and write as raw as you like. Pay no attention to style or expression, just write the thoughts that arise in your own, everyday language. Don’t cross out or correct or try to edit anything, either as you write or once it is written. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it stand.
The second meaning of writing raw is to resist any urge to self-censor. From time to time, you will find thoughts rise in you that you don’t want to write, thoughts that feel frightening or silly or disgusting or pathetic. Thoughts you don’t want anybody else to know you ever had. Let them come, raw as they are. Get them out of you. The words you least feel like writing are often those that are most significant. Don’t think, just write. Let the words flow f-r-e-e. Lose control.
What we mean by “exact” is that you should be precise about detail as you write. Not “some fruit” but “a bunch of green grapes”. Not “a man” but “a 35-year-old bricklayer”; not “She sat at her desk, looking sad,” but “She leaned over her desk, the book she had stopped reading discarded, her arms crossed, her head low.” Take the time and the extra few words it takes to be specific.
This is also a matter of using the original detail of your own life. Nothing links us to our own lives better than writing down the real and precise details of how things actually are for us: the sights and smells, the tastes and feelings. Everyone’s life is at once both ordinary and extraordinary, trivial and important. The trivial detail is always worthy of record: through it, somehow, we sense our own significance.
The challenge is to keep the writing exact-but-easy, specific and precise without stopping to chew our pen over details or slowing down. This sounds contradictory but in fact is much easier in practice than it sounds. Once you give yourself the instruction in advance of your writing session, you find it happens automatically. Don’t chastise yourself as you write for getting it “wrong”: if you write something vague like “flower” and notice it, just put the name of the flower – “a rose” - beside “flower”. Be gentle with yourself.
And if you do find yourself in a situation where you have to choose between speed or detail, choose speed: writing fast is the first requirement of F-R-E-E Writing. Take a moment, before you begin a session each time, to instruct yourself to write concrete and specific details. We all have the habit of thinking and writing in abstractions, but lived detail is what we’re after in our F-R-E-E Writing. Let the words flow f-r-e-e. Lose control.
I found this article really good and want to try to practice it in today's writing session. Although I'm not yet writing as freely as I should be, the one way to describe this BIAMer for me is from the old Kris Kristofferson/Foster song, Bobby McGee, when he sings that line "Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” At this point in my writing career I truly have nothing left to lose, so I may as well use as much freedom as I like in what I write!!! And that's what part of my writing goals for the rest of this BIAMer are going to be!

2008 Biamer DAY 10: 30 April 2008
Day 10 already!

Yesterday (Biamer Day 9 Tuesday 29/4/08) I managed to do 710 words.

And I'm beginning to get a bit worried about my characters! They keep changing all the time! Although that may not be a bad thing...

In her book "Dynamic Characters" (ISBN-13: 978-1582973197) author Nancy Kress writes about how important it is for a good story that the main characters change during the course of the story. When your characters do change, however, Kress states that we must:

1. Give the reader evidence beforehand that the character is capable of changing (show the qualities that demonstrate his ability to change through his thoughts, words and actions e.g. an apparently angry, cruel hero like my hero, Monte Wilde, can unexpectedly order tea for the heroine who has been caught in the rain)

2. Put sufficient pressure on the character to change (let story events make him act in a way which shows he has the potential to change e.g. fifteen years previously, my hero Monte Wilde had been a gentleman deeply in love before his betrothed betrayed him. Since then he hasn't believed in love...or so he says)

3. Dramatise the moment of change through what the character does, not through what he says or thinks. (Validate his new behaviour so that we know it is now part of his character) (Okay, my hero hasn't developed this far, but I'll have to remember it for the rest of the novel)

4. Give a reason to believe that the character change will last once the immediate crisis is over. (A changed man, left him now embrace his destiny. e.g. through the love of my heroine Delana, my hero will return to the path of his true destiny)

What I've learnt from today's motivation is that it is okay for characters to change, as long as there is a reason for them to change. Without wanting to give too much of my story away, I'm fairly satisfied that both my hero and my heroine are changing as the plot demands,.

Now I need to go and see what they get up to in today's writing session...I hope your characters are behaving themselves too!