An update from me.

Again, I am reduced to breaking a recent period of radio silence on my part with something mundane and boring, an update.

There are several new things to say: I attempted to have a manuscript published and was (very politely) rejected. I am not discouraged, though. I am, however, toying with the thought of a major overhaul of this story in order to, maybe, make it more marketable. I am not sure yet, though.

A second, more happy update comes from me having joined the Monkey Collective. They are a group of writers at different stages of their writing careers, and they share stories, advice, and pretty much anything on their platform; it’s pretty neat. I’ve not had any time to be a really active member yet, but that is due to update nr. 3.

The third, arguably most important update is that I moved and got a new job. Yes, I am once again a working stiff, even after my rantings about wanting to write for a living. I do have one thing to say in my defense: it’s an editor job. Yes, I am now an editor of translations and a translator (German to English), and that’s pretty neat. I do get to work with texts, and I am even fairly good at it, so I think I’ll keep this job for a while.

Well, that is all the important stuff I have to talk about, I am sort of internet-less here, which is the reason for my recent radio silence, but I will be back soon!

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” (Lao Tzu) Starting your story

Like anything, a story is born with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, out of which
something beautiful develops. Everyone has a different approach to the actual process of getting down to it and putting ink to paper (or binary code for words onto binary code for blank page), but that is hardly the true beginning of writing a good story. The story is born in our minds, of course.

William Faulkner wrote that “The only thing worth writing about iconflictss the human heart in conflict with itself.” Whether you agree or not, it certainly means that not EVERYTHING is worth writing about, unless it involves some greater meaning or a glimpse into the essence of being human. On the other hand, we are all limited to our own world of experience, does that mean that the housewife in the suburbs has nothing to say? or that the 9 to fiver from downtown with the house full of dying houseplants should refrain from sharing his thoughts? No, just so long as there’s a point.

A story is born in our head out of some observation. This observation might be very striking and bring a wave of (sometimes) melancholy contemplation. This is where the whole essence of being human comes from. A singular even mundane event might bring our proverbial housewife to ponder the concept of fate and free will (like her kid running amok in the supermarket and catching herself regretting starting a family) or the 9 to fiver might get stuck in traffic on his way back home and ponder the complacency of the modern day workforce in comparison with the American revolutionaries. These observations, but more so those thought, will make our proverbial Everyman and Everywoman want to share their experiences.

Now it’s time to get out the paper or laptop. But I wouldn’t recommend getting right into it, take it step by step!

  1. Take notes. There’s little more frustrating than having had a monuments idea when you set out and losing it between page 10 and 67 (Numbers are random, you might have had better luck keeping track of your brilliance). This can also help you separate reality from fiction. You might have gotten inspiration from reality, but we, as writers, are literally in the business of fiction, so don’t make fiction more realistic, more the fiction better.
  2. Build your characters in advance, at least the main ones. Like the beloved analogy pop-culture has found in Poochie the Dog for unwelcome half-@ssed characters inserted as an afterthought, any such character introduced too late in the narrative that starts to steal the show is going to leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth. Don’t confuse this with inserting an important character in a later chapter, sometimes a love interest or something similar does come in halfway through the novel, but it needs to be planned to look seamless and more believable.
  3. You’re not married to your first sentence/paragraph. I sometimes start a story with nothing but the first sentence that sounds really cool in my head. But as the story takes shape, I might find that that first sentence gives the wrong kind of vibe for the rest of the story. Even if your first line/paragraph are really great and amazing and clever, they might not best serve you as an opening. Consider moving them somewhere where they will have a better effect on the reader. But this of course, are thoughts for the editing process, my real point here is don’t sweat it if you’re unhappy with your opening, go back to it later. You’re the writer, and you have the right to change anything.
  4. At least broadly, define what it is you are doing. This might sound odd, but I found that setting goals is important, despite myself not knowing exactly what will happen with my writing as I am writing it (I am a little sporadic sometimes.) I just mean that you should know (again, broadly) how the story ends and what is its point, you should know if it’s science fiction or contemporary fantasy, you should know if your audience are between 15 and 20, or 50 to 70. Don’t try to dig yourself into a ditch at the very onset of your writing, it will crystallize into something more concrete as you go along, but at least have some sort of notion how that concrete is going to settle.
  5. Don’t start flooding your pages with motifs. This happens especially to those who are avid readers or have some theoretical background in literature. They’ve read all the greats and heard the praise on their use of stark motifs, ergo, they think motifs should be lavishly flaunted like some literary bling. It comes from a desire to seem clever and show off one’s knowledge of literature (this also goes for intertextuality), but sometimes, less is more. The greats are praised for the sparse and poignant use of motifs that are rife with meaning for the story and for the time those stories were written in, if you flood your stories with too many clever ideas, you just seem amateurish. That is why it is best to think about those devices at the beginning to help guide your reader to better see anything under your writing’s surface.

Those are the first things I do/think about when I set off to write something new, I hope it would help anyone out there to get better results in their writing.

Creativity never sleeps! Even though it sometimes should

No one likes a cough. It’s even worse when that cough is accompanied by a relentlessly runny nose and a constant gurgling sound emitting from one’s chest. As you can imagine, I’m talking about being sick and the various inconveniences it may cause. In my case, as I am sure it happens to many others, being in that state, I find it very hard to fall asleep, or go back to sleep once awoken at 3 in the morning.

Not too long ago, I was exactly like that: coughing, gurgling, runny nose, fever, and a delightful combination of nausea and a weird hunger. It was so bad that my partner had to sleep in the living room to get away from my constant coughing and gurgling, and other various noises. Other than the sad reality of her feeling it necessary to go to the other room (I offered to go sleep there instead, but she wouldn’t hear it), the was also the dull reality of having to lie in bed for long hours not being able to sleep, or, coincidentally, breathe.

Why am I telling you this? First of all, it’s my blog and I can do what I want. Secondly, it is very much relevant to the creative process and writing, which is, as you all know, the main point of this blog.

Lying there in the dark for long hours, needing to distract myself from how tired I am and how much my throat hurt, I let my mind wonder about. Naturally, my mind started making stories, and as hard as I tried, I could do nothing to steer my mind to continuing the story I was writing anyway for the past few months, no. My mind wanted new pastures to graze.

For close to what felt like an hour, I started a brand new story in my head. I created characters, a setting, even found some poignant points and overarching motifs. It was quite impressive if I may say so myself. It started as a game, really. I was playing around with more ideas for novels for several weeks before that night, and my brain just started putting some meat on the skeletons of those ideas. But it turned out good, very good.

At the end, I just couldn’t handle it anymore and simply turned on my laptop and began typing what I had formulated in my head just before as best I could, to the great surprise of my fiance, who was shocked to find me awake as she was getting ready for work at six in the morning.

I suppose this entry doesn’t really have a point besides being an anecdote on how a creative mind can surprise even itself. It did also teach me something, seeing as it provided me with the first three chapters for my next novel: Follow your creativity, let it flow before you put the breaks on it for the sake of convenience or self-censorship. You’d be surprised what comes out.

Shall I compare me to a summer’s day? The Pitfalls of comparisons in writing

Just like musicians, painters, sculptors, actors or whatnot, writers have their influences. Those influences on the artistic process of writing comes from those writers we read and admire most. We take ideas, maybe some of their style into our own, we take quotes sometimes, and quite a bit of inspiration from their work.

Luckily for us, scholars out there have invented the wonderful term intertextuality to make it sound better than stealing ideas and stuff, but we all know that that is exactly what we’re doing, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. It can only become wrong when those attempts at stealing/intertextuality result in hampering our creativity.

Writers, especially young writers pick out more than influences, they want role models. For many, including myself, there is a single author they’ve read that sparked that first foray into writing with that special je ne sais quoi, or mastery of the art. For me that was E.A. Poe who inspired me to write my first few poems and short stories, all unpublished, but of which I am very fond. I didn’t even try to get them published not because I didn’t believe that they are good, it’s because they seemed so small and weak when I compared them to the brilliance of the works that inspired them.

Of course it was unfair to compare the poems written by a 19-year-old to the most well-known works of one of the greatest American writers of all times and the de facto inventor of the short story. I knew that at the time, but that didn’t stop me from making the comparison, and that was unfair to myself, not to mention counterproductive.

We were all obviously inspired by something great, something that we saw as brilliant and transcendent, and of course that we will not be able to capture that same magic to our own eyes (especially when we just start out) so why let it discourage us? To put it simply: trying to capture the same feeling we got from reading those Greats and getting inspired to write is like trying to replicate your favorite cake that your grandmother used to make; it might be exactly the same in empirical reality, but that special feeling won’t, it’s a form of irreplaceable nostalgia.

To give another example: One of my favorite authors for the past six years has been the late Terry Pratchett. I often read his work and am gobsmacked at the ease and subtlety in which he took apart our world with all its problems, and made sense of it through satirical fantasy, especially in his Discworld novels. I am continually amazed at the eloquent way in which he takes real world issues, like the monetization of ideas and beliefs, or social and cultural phenomena like rock music or Hollywood, and brilliantly parodies and lampoon those things so cleverly.

Now, instead of reading the Discworld novels and saying to myself “Well, I could never do that!” I let that inspire me, unlike my comparison of myself to Poe. I attempted to write a science fiction satire along similar lines to the Discworld, and even though it isn’t as good (Pratchett did have a bit more practice than I did) I let others read it, and they thought it was funny and insightful, i.e. good.

So maybe that is the bottom line of this post: Let people read your work before you condemn it as mediocre. Don’t compare yourself, especially as a beginner, to the greats; no one starts a Shakespeare. Let yourself develop with your writing. Find your own voice, but don’t be afraid to take a few pointers from those who came before you, because that is what any art form does; it takes the old, and makes something new of it. It shows how the world, and the people living in it, change their perspective on things. Don’t believe me? Read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Now there’s a guy who wasn’t afraid to take on the greatest of the greats of English literature, and he came out of it pretty well off, didn’t he? So can we.

Fifty thousand and counting!

Okay, so unlike some of my other posts, which involved advice for those of you who are writing, this post is mostly self-congratulatory. I am taking this post as a tiny space for my vanity, which I think is a part of being an artist/writer.

I have begun writing another book, my first ever historical novel, some time in December, and I just reached my fifty thousand words mark! Hurray! I don’t usually give myself a minimum word count, well, maybe for short stories, so it’s not exactly the halfway point or anything, but it does seem significant for three and a half months’ work. Work on this book also involves a lot of research into the British army during the First World War, so that takes up some time as well.

My first book, Where Have You Been was about eighty thousand words, so having reached fifty thousand so quickly with this project does feel great. Of course, this being a historical novel it does mean that the word count on this needs to be much higher than eighty thousand, you know, common practice and stuff, so there’s still some way to go.

Anyway, this is more of an update on progress, and letting loose some vanity, I shall return later with more useful advice for writers!

Submissions, the most intellectual form of begging you will ever undertake

Okay, so you wrote an amazing story/short story/poem/flash fiction or whatever, and are now looking for a way to share it with the world. Where do you go? How do you find the perfect platform for your writing? How on Earth do you convince them to accept your work? These are probably some of the questions running around your head as the inevitable butterflies of crippling anxiety are fluttering around in your belly.

Submitting your work anywhere is a difficult process, and for me the most difficult part was to find the confidence to even try. Most people don’t automatically see themselves as marketable writers, and that giant leap that they take to reach out to publishers involves a lot of trust and overcoming a natural hesitation to expose yourself to possible rejection.

As artists of the written word, writers believe in and love their work; it’s our baby. So before I say anything else about the process of reaching publication let me say this: If you are reading this and trying to get your first piece published anywhere, well done. You are already courageous and are on the right track!

Unfortunately, you having found the courage to publish is not enough to get you on paper (or electronic publishing, welcome to the 21st century!). This is a tough industry, whether you are looking to publish a novel or any other format, you will need to work hard on it. There is an abundance of talented writers out there in the world, so you need to be the perfect match for your publisher. Let me illustrate a few points on this process:

  • Depending on your genre (novel, poetry, short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction, etc.) there will be different forms of publishing. Find out what is the best for you. It might even be that self-publishing is the best answer for you, do your research. There are a lot of online sources that outline popular publishers for different genres, for instance there are blog articles that provide names and links of magazines publishing short stories (e.g. The Write Life), or something like Journeywards for novelists, or when in doubt, google it.
  • Once you picked a publisher (according to what they say they usually publish) don’t just assume they’re right for you, research them further, look at their recent publications and see if it’s similar stuff to what you are writing. Also, check that they “legitimate”. By this I simply mean that there are some publishers out there that demand a fee from the author for them to even be considered for publication. By this I don’t mean a 3 to 5 dollars submission fee, which is fair enough, I mean a substantial reading and/or publication fee of more than a few hundred dollars.
  • If this is a novel, which you are trying to publish, look at what extra help the publisher is offering in the way of marketing. This is a big thing that most writers tend to either neglect, or they just don’t know enough about. Even if the marketing option costs you something, it’s better than having no marketing at all.
  • Take a good long read of the submission guidelines. Many publishers and magazines simply ignore submissions which do not follow the guidelines. Pay special attention to how much time they need to review submissions and make sure you document when you sent what to whom.
  • If you follow a good system of keeping track of your submissions you’d be able to find several publishers to send your material to and not step on anyone’s toes. Keep in mind which publishers allow for simultaneous submissions and which don’t and organize yourself accordingly.
  • Formulate a (pardon my language) kickass cover letter. Make it individual for every publisher, don’t fall into the trap of a standardized letter where you just change the names and a few details. The publisher wants to know why you’re a perfect match for THEM. Find something that connects you to them like having loved one of their books, a recurring theme in their published works, geographical affinity, anything.

These are just some points for the pre-submission stage. I’ll be back with some tips on dealing with publishers after the submission has already taken place.

It’s not time That’s you enemy, it’s your state of mind…Tips on how to buckle down and get writing!

I have a friend who worships authors. She’s a sort of author groupy. Yes, she might romanticize many aspects being a writer, but she sees all writers as a sort of rock-stars wearing tweeds and smoking pipes. Her greatest aspiration in life is to write, not even for a living, just to get a novel out there into the stratosphere of artistic expression and watch it gracefully float around. Problem is, according to her, she never has the time to sit down and write.

I often also felt that “if only I had more time” I’d be done with my book and could have it published. But is time really the problem? Now that I am unemployed, I am not necessarily writing more, when I was recovering from surgery in my bed, with my laptop, I still couldn’t get more than a few hundred words a day. While most people blame their falling behind on their writing, it is actually their state of mind that is to blame, even to the point that their state of mind tells them that what they are missing is time. Confusing? Let me help:

We, as writers, want to put something to paper, but find it hard for whatever reason. What we usually do in this instance is distract ourselves, often in the guise of looking for inspiration. We read, play videos games, watch clips of cats playing the piano on Youtube, whatever, so long as we don’t have to face a blank page. This is the fallacy, we avoid the page, it isn’t that we don’t have the time, we just can’t write.

The condition might persist for a long time and become “writer’s block”, or it could be just an off day. Either way, here are some tips on how to refocus yourselves:

  • Set a daily, or weekly, goal. Terry Pratchett, one of the most prolific science-fiction/fantasy writers of recent memory, used to write 400 words every day before he quit his job to become a professional writer. You can promise yourself something similar, either more or less words per day, or look at a bigger picture and work on a weekly word-count.
  • Don’t be afraid of your writing. I know this happens to me; I start writing, but what comes out doesn’t really stand up to par with what I had planned in my head, so I just stop. Well, don’t. Treat that first part you don’t like as a warm up to get the creative juices flowing, you can always go back and improve on that one paragraph later.
  • Make an evening of your writing. Let the family know you need to do this, and you might be surprised by the level of support they show you, take a nice tea to your work-room, maybe a sandwich, a beer or a glass of wine, make a whole thing out of it. Maybe even turn it into an after work relaxation ritual.
  • Moderate your distractions. Some distractions are good. They inspire you, help you get away from being too bogged down with something, or they might just get those creative juices flowing. But limit yourself to one clip, one match on a video game, 20 pages of a book, or just one or two news stories. You will need some discipline for that, but it will pay off.
  • Start your writing session by rereading the last bit of your writing. It will help you focus, remind you of what you were trying to say, and help you re-immerse yourself in the atmosphere you are trying to create.

These are just a few suggestions that work for me, don’t be afraid to share any ideas you may have on the topic.