Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Just Do It!

28 Feb

If there is one piece of advice I give to wannabe writers again and again, it’s “Write it and submit it.” If you don’t do it, you might never know failure, but you’ll certainly never know success.

I’ve known many excellent writers who have come nowhere near the success they deserve and the one thing they all have in common is that they either don’t write much or they do, but refuse to submit it. Of course, some of them have good reasons for not doing so – they may be busy with their family commitments or pursuing a career they love, or have other artistic talents that take precedence – but most fail to reach their potential because they just don’t believe in themselves. Perhaps, they worry about the quality of their writing and, so, just don’t put pen to paper. Or, they continually revise it, seeking elusive perfection rather than actually submitting it. Or, they produce reams of work, but, fearing rejection, put it to one side and write something else that nobody will ever read. Then, there are those who are too caught up in every day minutiae, the need to earn a crust, who put off writing till for a tomorrow that never comes.

This is the reason so much rubbish gets published commercially. Professional publishers need reliable writers who can produce to deadlines more than they need good writers. If only those excellent writers would actually write and submit, they would be successes. Instead, the mediocre writers succeed unopposed.

Hence my exhortation. Write your story, poem or article – and, then, submit it. It may be rejected. In fact, it probably will be rejected – even the best novels were usual rejected several times before being accepted for publication, and even well-established writers will sometimes have work rejected. That is a hazard of being a writer – but, if you can understand it has little to do with the quality of your writing (whilst paying attention to any feedback you receive), you will be well on your way to success. Those who submit lots of work and resubmit rejected work stand a much higher chance of acceptance than those who write little and allow rejection to stifle their work’s chances.

If you have written something, you have achieved more than many potentially-great writers. If you submit it, you’ve made the first step towards publication. Keep at it, don’t be scared, and success is likely to come your way. Give up, and you’re guaranteed to fail…

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Redundant Advice

29 Jan

There are many, many sites out there offering suggestions on improving your writing style. Most advice, if not applied slavishly, is well worth considering. Not every piece will apply to everything you write, but you will become more aware of what you are writing and why, helping you to improve.

As an example of why you shouldn’t just apply an idea without fully understanding it and when not to use it, I will take as my example eliminating redundancies in language. You are most likely aware of such things as ATM Machine (that is, Automatic Teller Machine Machine), but not all apparently-redundant words are actually redundant.

To consider just a couple of examples I found one site listing hundreds of redundant words they recommended writers should edit out, take ‘circle around’ and ‘climb up’. The site that suggests reducing ‘circle around’ to just ‘circle’, but this raises an immediate issue for me – the former implies 180 degrees (in the sense of getting behind someone), while the latter means 360 degrees. Of course, a sentence such as “circle around behind them”, could be changed to “circle behind them” and still make sense as it retains sufficient context. But,other sentences could be rendered gibberish or end up changing what you meant to say into something quite different.

It’s a similar problem with cutting ‘climb up’ to ‘climb’ – you can also climb down (as well as in, out and along), so it really depends upon whether the option is solely one way or not. Again, just assuming a word is a redundancy can lead to confusion.

In addition, a policy of redundancies also ignores the flow of the sentence. Sometimes a redundant word is present because it makes the sentence flow better. These can be removed without damaging context, but, sometimes, you may be left with a sentence that is less pleasing to the ear. (Of course, this can also work the other way – too many redundant words can make your writing clunky. Ultimately, you need to read aloud each variation and hear how they sound, not rely upon rules.)

So, consider the advice, but make sure you are applying it properly and you’ll produce better writing.

It’s Christmaaasss!

16 Dec

Yes, it’s the festive season and writers’ thoughts are turning to snow, decorations and Dickensian ghostliness. The problem is, if you’re writing a story or poem now, it’s too late to submit to an editor. Indeed, even if you submitted work in the last two or three months, it was probably too late.

Draw inspiration now, but you need to know when it’s best to submit your work (indeed, the same goes for other festivals, seasons and anniversaries – often you will need to submit three months to a year early). Most editors will want to receive submissions by September at the latest, some will want it by June. A few will want festive submissions as early as January or February. Keep an eye on their deadlines, but if a magazine doesn’t have a specific festive issue, look for ones planned for release in November or December and consider submitting something festive that fits with their theme.

As far as Atlantean Publishing goes, our primary festive publications are Christmas Chillers and Xmas Bards and I want submissions by October at the latest. Festive issues of Garbaj and Bard sometimes appear – based upon whether I’ve had sufficient submissions to warrant it – and the second Monomyth of the year is usually late enough that festive submissions will be considered. Likewise, there is an annual horror poetry booklet release for Hallowe’en and there are often issues of Bard (and sometimes Garbaj) that reference the seasons, Valentine’s Day, Hallowe’en, etc; I need to receive submissions at least a couple of months in advance.

So, put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and produce something seasonal and send it to Atlantean or another publisher when the time is right!

Where To Start?

7 Nov

“Where do I start my story?” must be the question writers most frequently ask, whether of others or themselves, yet it is impossible to answer, except with the vague suggestion to start with action. Not, of course, that you cannot start with a description or witty observation, but they will need to be very arresting to seize the readers’ attention.

Action, though, is a little misleading. People tend to assume action must be spectacular, a murder or an explosion, but even in a thriller, that isn’t necessarily so. Action can be low-key, too. Even in the case of an explosion, it isn’t necessary to start with the bang – you could begin with the bomb being planted or even a couple arguing only to be interrupted by this sudden blast: All that matters is that the reader is hooked. You could even cheat a little – rather than the main murder, you could begin with the killer offing an accomplice whose death will remain unknown to the investigators for some or all of the story.

Short stories and, especially flash fiction, are easier than novels as they usually consist of a single scene or a few closely-linked scenes: Begin at the beginning and continue till the end. In a novel, not only do you have multiple scenes to choose from, with the complication of flashbacks, flashforwards and subplots, but you need to maintain and build tension over a much longer span. A really powerful piece of action might make a great opening, but could leave the reader underwhelmed by what follows if you’re not careful.

Let’s imagine a murder mystery: Two friends have an argument, which leads to one being murdered; after the funeral, at the reading of the will, a discovery is made that reveals they were murdered and prompts an investigation. Now, ignoring other tricks, like starting with the ending or the murder of an accomplice, where do we begin?

We could ‘begin at the beginning’ – but, where does the story begin? The start of the investigation, or perhaps more effectively, the revelation at the will-reading, would work. Or, how about at the funeral, as a lead-in to the discovery, perhaps with some foreshadowing of the revelation? Or, we could start with some real action: the murder itself. Or, we could begin with the argument that sets events in motion.

But, those aren’t the only options. The story could begin with the aftermath of the murder or some way into the investigation. Equally, the story could begin between the argument and the murder. Or, we could start well before the argument by inventing some other event, probably a piece of fairly low-key action, for the opening paragraph, and then developing the characters and the reasons why they argue. That’s nine alternatives before we even consider anything sneakier.

But, which one do you pick? That’s up to you – you decide which one appeals the most.

HP Lovecraft made a point of creating timelines of events in his stories so that, no matter where he began the narrative and regardless of the order in which events unfolded on the page, he knew the actual order they occurred in, who was where, etc. Even if you’re not much of a planner, a loose outline of the early parts of your story can be a good way of identifying potential starting points.

Indeed, you could take this a step further and write your story in chronological order from the earliest relevant event, before going back and deciding where to begin the finished story. This might involve cutting some text, perhaps recycling some as backstory, or it could be relocated to serve as flashbacks; or you could move something back to serve as a flashforward. You will probably need to do some rewriting to cover excised details that are important to the plot and to make the new opening work properly as an introduction (you may, for example, find the descriptions of key characters are in earlier, deleted sections), but this is likely to be far easier than staring at a blank page, trying to envisage how to start.

Remember, once you reach the end, you can always rewrite your beginning. So, don’t worry too much. Get started, get writing and you’ll get there eventually.

Sourcing Inspiration

22 Apr

People often wonder where they can find inspiration. Other than the suggestion that they try certain discreet shops down dark side alleys, the obvious answers are from life, history and dreams. (Although as Neil Gaiman pointed out in an article on inspiration, dreams as a whole aren’t the best source of inspiration, given most follow ‘dream logic’ that makes little real sense and often only resonates with the dreamer, certain dreams hold within them the kernels, perhaps even the entire plots, of stories within them, while the stranger ones can still be a source for surreal and bizarre fiction.)

But, there is another source from which you can draw inspiration: fiction, poetry and song, even art.

Now, I’m not talking about fan fiction, but inspiration for your own stories. Fan fiction is when you play with someone else’s toys without their permission and, obviously, restricts what you can do with the finished story. Of course, there are intermediate levels involving shared worlds such as the Cthulhu Mythos and out-of-copyright works and humorous takes on in-copyright works.

Shared worlds are open to anyone to play with, although there may be restrictions on certain elements. Out-of-copyright works can (usually, unless trademarks are involved) be reproduced without restriction, meaning you can do things like rewrite endings, create sequels, change the format (such as from a play to a novel), add new characters, or recast the events in another era, genre or location, or add zombies to an existing work. Humorous takes, such as spoofs or using characters or a setting for satire, are generally acceptable.

But, what I’m most interested in here is the inspiration you can draw from in-copyright works. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from adapting a plot as you would an out-of-copyright one by moving it to another era, genre or location, given that you cannot copyright ideas, but it is a far riskier proposition as you may inadvertently infringe a trademark, plagiarise a scene or be accused of ‘passing off’. What is more practical is, as you read a novel or poem, listen to a song or watch a movie, to consider the ideas that it sparks.

For example, you may think characters make the wrong decision or ignored a better solution to the plot. Or, you might see a different approach to a setting. Or, you may wonder what the characters would be like in a different setting. Try to go for the less obvious. Elements from Harry Potter and the Fables comic inspired me to write an entirely mundane novel. George Lucas drew from samurai and cowboy films, amongst others, for aspects of Star Wars. Take elements from more than source and mix them up to make something original.

Even though they seldom suggest a whole story, poetry, songs and art can suggest characters and scenes. Anything can spark an idea and any idea can be sourced for a story. Keep notes and see what develops.

Set In Stone?

12 Jan

Reading Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn, I was struck by his oberservation that filmmakers tend to shun the test audience as interfering with their vision, whereas a new play will be given a test-run before being unveiled in London or on Broadway, allowing any flaws to be corrected before the big premiere.

This reflects a difference between film, television and novels on the one hand and stage plays and short stories on the other (although television once fell on this side of the equation, as any Doctor Who fan can tell you). Of course, any writing will go through some degree of polishing before being revealed to the public as the author redrafts it, test readers feedback and editors edit, but the first set aim at a permanent creation to which little change can be made, while the second set are more ephemeral and allow change to occur over time. (Of course, you do get ‘director’s cuts’ of films and, sometimes, revised novels, but these tend to reflect the effects of ‘executive meddling’ or, for films, changes in technology, rather than changes in the creator’s vision.)

The difference is that a film, television show or novel is intended as a finished product and, after being presented to the public, isn’t expected to change. A play, on the other hand, is effectively a new entity every time it is performed and as is a short story when published anew. The feedback of cast and audience may cause the playwright to rewrite their opus as they search for perfection, just as the edits imposed or suggested by individual editors and reader feedback can lead the short-story writer to modify their piece before it reappears in print. Unless a play is recorded or made into a film, even a version regarded as ‘definitive’ is just one among many, a suggestion rather than an immutable form, just as only a collected edition of an author’s stories offers any permanence of form (and, even then, may be superceded by a later collection).

This is not to say that one way is superior. While reworking a piece over time may lead to perfection, it is to be hoped that the road to publication or release for a novel or film will be rigorous enough to have much the same effect. (Although, of course, the lack of such a process is a risk that self-published novel authors must be aware of and compensate for.) Nor is it necessary that more feedback is always a good thing – sometimes a minority opinion may echo louder than it deserves or the taste of the majority of the audience may be at odds with what the author wishes to produce, and they will have to make a decision about how far to follow such suggestions.

But, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the differences between the two camps if you produce work in each, or are contemplating doing so, as some people are best suited to working in one way or the other. And, if nothing else, it’s an interesting comparison!

Christmas Future

24 Dec

Set aside Christmas present for a moment and turn your mind towards next year. As you doubtless are aware, Christmas comes once a year, which means now is the perfect time to be drawing inspiration for stories, poems and articles to submit to festive magazines and anthologies in 2016.

Remember, most magazines and many anthologies set their festive deadlines in the early or middle part of the year, so it’s worth writing your submissions now in order to meet those deadlines. If nothing else, remember that Atlantean Publishing will be looking for submissions for Xmas Bards, Christmas Chillers and festive-themed issues of Bard and Garbaj (details will be on the wiki in the New Year).

Merry Christmas to you all and all the best for 2016 – may it be an inspiring year!