Wednesday 30 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 4)

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1) we asked how could we, as authors, pursue excellence?

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 2) we explored how we pursue excellence in our writing by preparing the mind.

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 3) we began building towards excellence.

And, in today's post - the last in the series - we will learn how to realise excellence.


Consistency: Write with consciousness, not habitually. It’s important – particularly in the editing process - to be aware of how our writing habits affect the level of consistent excellence in our work. Inconsistent writing means that there are parts of our story that are less than excellent and we need to root out those parts and rewrite to a consistently high level.

Balance: The pursuit of excellence is not free of its own dangers. We can become so hooked on checking this word and on searching how to improve that paragraph, that we expect perfection before we dare let others see our work. Keeping a balanced view is essential or else we can use our search for excellence as an excuse to procrastinate. Strive for excellence, but always remember that there comes a point where, on our own, we can do no better than what lies before us on our page. There comes a time we need to accept that we’ve done the best we can for now. And that’s when we must send our work out into the world, to stand alone and face the test of the unknown reader.

Resilience: If our manuscript comes back to us with the dreaded word “Rejected” on it, we need to be able to bounce back and start again. And again. And again.

Life isn’t about how hard you can hit;

it’s about how hard you can be hit...and still get up.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone)
Team Spirit: In South Africa, we are sporting mad. Rugby, soccer, cricket. We love them all. Currently, our rugby team is riding high. Our Springbok captain, John Smit, having led the team through record-breaking international victories starting with the World Cup Championship in 2007, led his team to an unprecedented victory in the 2009 Tri-Nations competition. Two cups were up for grabs.

At the awards presentation, Smit went up to collect the lesser valued Freedom Cup. Then, unexpectedly, he called his vice-captain, the bearded giant Victor Matfield, up to the podium and indicated that he must have the honour of lifting the more coveted Tri-Nations trophy aloft. In doing so, Smit proved he is a leader of excellence: confident, yet humble, he leads by example and knows that the victory is not his alone to savour.

Every writer who pursues excellence in the writing craft must realise that, on the day our debut novel is birthed, the triumph is not ours alone. Ours may be the name on the cover but, surprisingly, writing is a team effort. In the same way that John Smit acknowledged the help of his team in winning the trophy, we should acknowledge that we need the help of crit partners, blog friends, agents, editors, marketers (and even the publisher's tea lady) to get our stories into the hands of our readers. All that can be truly ours in the writing process is the continued pursuit of personal excellence in our craft.

Without a doubt, technology has made our lives as writers easier. It also, however, tempts us into forgetting that every book, every word we write, demands the very best of what we can do.

When a flower blooms deep in a forest, its fragrance unnoticed, is it any less beautiful? So to our manuscripts. Even if we are the only ones who ever read our stories, remember this: the writer who constantly pursues personal excellence in every aspect of his writing craft is the writer who has the best chance of eventually being published. And he may even become the Ernest Hemingway of this generation.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 3)

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1) we asked how could we, as authors, pursue excellence?

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 2) we explored how we pursue excellence in our writing by preparing the mind.

There are still two steps needed before we can call ourselves excellent writers. We need to:

• Build towards excellence

Realise excellence

Today we will explore how we can build the foundations of excellent writing.


Goals: Set realistic writing goals, which allow you to produce the maximum result with the minimum of effort. Have a clear vision of your goal and focus on that. I have a photo of Margaret Atwood at a book signing. I cut out her face (sorry, Ms Atwood) and in its place I stuck a photo of my face. I look at that photo every night before I go to bed. It reminds me of my ultimate goals: to be both an excellent writer and a published author. Have the courage to hold to that vision of your goal even if others don’t see it.

Commitment: Excellence requires commitment. Whether we make a commitment to ourselves (write x-number of words a day) or to others (Mr Editor, you’ll have the revised manuscript next week), keep that commitment. Because if we don’t meet the commitments we make, how can we build writing excellence?

Expect much of yourself and little of others, thus you will be spared much vexation. (Chinese proverb)

The Challenges: Pay attention to details. Be persistent. Persevere. Never give up. Never. And don’t settle for lesser quality in your writing because you’re exhausted or have to go to work or you’re dispirited because (in the dank, dark cellars of your mind) you’re beginning to think you’ll never be published. Accept nothing less than excellence from yourself. All the time - every time.

Take Action: Strive for your personal best at all times. Cultivate the intention of doing better than you did last time. Strive for impeccable writing and, if later you find you made a mistake, or didn’t do your best, learn to accept that you win some, you lose some. Failure is not to be feared, but rather something to be embraced as just another experience. Move on to the next project. As a writer you always have another chance of achieving excellence, for the next sentence you write may be the best yet.

Any foundation must be sturdy and strong. The foundation of writing excellence is no different. Take the time to ensure your writing foundation is well-built and excellence will become an inherent characteristic of your writing.

Monday 28 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 2)

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1) we asked how could we, as authors, pursue excellence?

We pursue excellence in our writing by:

• Preparing the mind
Building towards excellence
Realising excellence

Today we will explore how to prepare our minds for excellence.


Self-examination: As authors, we need a strong ego to survive the rigorous journey towards publication. But, as far as our writing goes, we need to put those same egos aside. We must put the needs of the story and the reader above our ego desires. That means when an editor, a critic, or a reader tells us something we don’t want to hear, we need to develop the ability to examine our inner self, as well as our novel, objectively.

Perhaps the results of this self-examination will be that you disagree entirely with the critic. But unless that decision is based on a healthy self-belief rather than a distorted ego, the chances are you won’t be able to accept constructive criticism that can help improve your story’s excellence. The irony of a writer’s self-examination process is that we need strong egos to be able to transcend the emotions engendered by criticism, but we also need enough humility to accept and use any valid criticism.

Distraction Control: How many times are we distracted from our writing goals by Facebook, blogging, our work, our families, and even by life itself? We need to find ways to discipline our inquisitive writer’s mind so that its focus can be on the writing. There will always be outside distractions that have us cutting corners and hurrying through a set of revisions so that we can fetch the kids or finish that big work project.

Distraction control requires enough good old fashioned discipline to allow us to meet our personal writing goals despite the vagaries of life. Who knows when the next goal we strive to meet will be a deadline for a publisher? Part of excellence in writing is having the ability to meet goals and deadlines. No excuses, and no distractions, allowed.

Can you think of any other ways in which we, as writers, can prepare our minds for excellence? If you can, share them with us in the comments section and tomorrow we will look at how to build towards writing excellence.

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Tuesday 22 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1)

Ernest Hemingway may have had to struggle through his revisions in laborious longhand, but today’s technology has many advantages for a writer.

With the plethora of technical tools available – from supersonic computers to software programmes that offer help with plotting and characterisation - it’s easier than ever before to write that novel we’ve always wanted to. But there is one insidious disadvantage of writing in a technologically advanced era. It is simply too easy to become a lazy writer rather than striving to be an excellent writer.

Two of the many causes behind a lack of excellence in writing today are:

• Comparative competitiveness
• A publish-at-any-cost attitude

Comparative competitiveness is a death-knell to personal excellence. We can become so hooked on comparing our own writing with that of others we forget the only worthwhile comparison is to what we have written before. Ask not: is this novel better than that published novel? Rather ask: is this novel better than my last one? How can I improve this page, this sentence, this one word?

Excellent writing makes a unique contribution to the world. It can be funny or tragic; be genre or literary fiction; offer light-hearted entertainment or profound wisdom, but it is unique. Any imitative writing is naturally going to suffer from a comparison to the original. If comparative competitiveness is striving to do better than others do, then excellence is striving to do better than we did before.

Writers who pursue excellence should pay close attention to what makes others successful writers or not. But we should still write our own stories with a sense of pride and passion that constantly drives us to improve on all we have written before. And it is only then that we will begin to exceed our own expectations of personal excellence.

"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open." Martha Graham, dancer

Along the Eastern Bypass highway into Johannesburg, there was a recent billboard advertisement for the latest “Survivor” TV reality show. ‘Cheating isn’t allowed,’ it blared. ‘It’s positively encouraged.’ When did winning become more important than playing the game with honour and integrity and personal excellence? When did being published-at-any-cost become more important than writing the best story we know how to write?

As a driving motivation for writing, the dream of publishing fame and fortune is, per se, not a deterrent to excellence. But it can become a problem if one forgets to look on every book we write as a service we’re offering our readers.

We should write every story, not only because we want to be A Published Author, but also because we want to give our readers the best value for money that we can. Whatever the demographics of our targeted readers, we owe it to them to produce the best work we possibly can. Anything less is cheating. And, unless we constantly strive to improve the quality of our writing ‘service’, we are cheating ourselves as much as we are cheating our readers.

So, as authors, how do we pursue excellence? You can explore different ways of pursuing writing excellence by clicking on these links:

Prepare the mind
Build towards excellence
Realise excellence

Tuesday 15 September 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer

Although Ruth Sawyer’s quaint “The Way of the Storyteller” is more a book about verbal storytelling than it is about written storytelling, there is still much wisdom to be found in its pages.

Sawyer’s passion for stories shines through the pages and her rich experiences in interpreting the written word provide some useful guidance for authors. She explores the ancient roots of storytelling and shows how today’s stories are inseparable from the patterns of the past.

Sawyer talks of four invariables in story telling:

The Building of Background
The Power of the Creative Imagination
A Gift for Selection

Experience is what gives a story teller the ability to make the difficulties of her art seem simple; experience comes with writing and writing and writing until the techniques of the art are so ingrained they become invisible.

The building of background is what enriches a story; the opportunity to gather a wide and varied background lies anywhere one looks.

When an artist brings his creative imagination to bear on his material and – from something abstract, from something without form or meaning – transforms it into a real work of inspiration for others to enjoy, this then is the power of the creative imagination.

Sawyer talks of a storyteller knowing which stories to select before entertaining her listeners. There must be an acceptance that some stories are not yours to tell, but belong to another who can tell them better. This gift of selection, too, can apply to writers: what suits one writer’s voice may not suit another. And the gift lies in knowing which story suits your own writer’s voice.

Written in 1942, revised in 1962, what I found most poignant about Sawyer’s recounting of the art of storytelling was her concern that novels – stories told in written form – have become marketable commodities and, as such, have become commonplace. On completing this book one cannot help but wonder if the current woes besetting the publishing industry have their roots in the fact that, for both author and publisher, profit is now placed above the ancient art of storytelling. If the novel is good enough, it will naturally sell as many copies as any author or publisher could ever want.

The one thing I've taken away from this book is that - to be a true teller of stories worthy of all the story tellers who have come before us, from Homer to JK Rowling - the story itself is what matters most. What happens within its boundaries must be inevitable: every story must have an inner integrity and, to have a chance of being read and enjoyed many times over, it must leave the reader completely satisfied by a tale well-written.

Books are man’s rational protest against the irrational, man’s pitiful protest against the implacable, man’s ideal against the word’s real,… man’s revelation of the God within him…if the first Prometheus brought fire from heaven in a fennel-stalk, the last will take it back – in a book.”

John Cowper Powys “The Enjoyment of Literature” as quoted by Ruth Sawyer in "The Way of The Storyteller”