As writers, does it serve us better to be an expert – an absolute genius within a limited field…
…or a multi-skilled ‘Jack of all Trades’?
Having asked that, I will immediately concede that in order to write non-fiction and instructional works, a high degree of skill or expert knowledge is desirable. But what about we writers of fictional works?
It took me a long time to reach my own conclusion on this. Throughout my twenties and thirties (oh, such a long, long time ago) I harboured a mild, jealous resentment towards those who constantly excelled in their field of choice, grudgingly wishing them well whilst questioning those that administrated the Universe why it was that I struggled to master tasks, gaining only a limited skill (consistently in the top 1/3) in anything that I attempted. I had immersed myself in many disciplines (mechanics, electronics, motor racing, sketching, painting, computer programming and numerous others) during those distant sepia-tinged decades, emerging each time without the satisfaction of having truly mastered the necessary skills.
It took me a long time to realise that whilst I couldn’t proclaim myself to be fully skilled in anything I attempted, I was able to turn my hand to a great many tasks – and take some pride at being reasonably competent at most of them.
Then I remembered a story my father told me about a pathologist he’d worked with. The man in question was an expert in human anatomy. He could dissect a body and proclaim cause of death without error time after time. Often he could estimate the cause before he’d even touched the body (no, really!). He would teach class after class of young proto-pathologists, leaving them staggered and wondering how they could ever match up to this great man.
He was an undoubted expert in his field.
But one day, following some car trouble and a rather large repair bill, he took my father (a mortuary manager and owner of a series of self-maintained cars at the time) aside, showed him the mechanic’s invoice and in a low voice he asked; ‘What exactly IS a spark plug?’
It turned out that he was super-brilliant, but also limited in scope.
I have since learned to content myself with the notion that whilst I know very little about a great many things, I do know about a great many things. The difference here is that, like a contestant on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ one who still has their ‘phone-a-friend’ option, I know that there many people, reference sites and numerous sources of information available to me in the world today.
I don’t need to be expert in any particular subject - I just need to know that the subject exists and where to find out about it. Then I can research it thoroughly enough to weave the facts discreetly into a story.
I have finally concluded that knowing even a little about a great many things is a very useful position to be in.
Makes me wonder if I’d been born with an ‘expert’ brain – would I have ever embraced writing?
How do you view this? Are you particularly skilled and able to use that skill to your advantage in your writing? Or are you happy to be a ‘trawler’ like me, sweeping the internet for information, happy to leave the specialism to other people?
I’d be very interested to know if I’m alone in this…
I’ve just completed the first part of an author interview with Draegon Grey. It surprised me how much fun something like this can be – almost like reliving the whole process of writing the novel over again. Happy memories, the small problems that seemed so insurmountable at the time and the joy of completing the work…they all came flooding back.
The second part, a character interview with Sara Finn, my protagonist, will follow soon.
In the meantime, you can read the ‘Author Moment’ interview here.
If you are a planner, I imagine that the answer to my next question will be obvious;
What inspires you to write that next post?
If you’re a planner, you’ve probably got a list of ideas to draw from, a sequence of posts that lead from one to the next to the next and so on. You may have a teaching plan that unfolds week by week to build into an exciting and informative series of articles.
But what if you hail from the Planet Pants?
What if you happen to be an impetious and spontaneous fly-by-luck scatterbrain like me?
I can often go for weeks without any idea about what I will post next – aside from my regularly irregular and often-late Six Sentence Sundays.
And then, without warning, an idea will strike, coming out of nowhere like a thunderbolt on a clear summer’s day.
Quickly, ere I forget the subject matter, I will fashion a post from old wood and used pieces of string - and as I write, I often realise that I am trying to cover several subjects, several concepts within the same post. Rather than (as they said in Top Gun) push a bad position, the disparate subjects will split into enough material to suggest several vaguely-related posts; In other words, the fledgling post will create spin-off ideas; it will have babies.
A half-dozen little pink and hairless posts will suddenly begin to mewl and squeak and demand to be considered as posts in their own right.
So the fresh flurry of fledgling posts will be nurtured. They will be a bit like my family - very loosely related and perhaps a little edgy. There may be very little to connect them to previous or future posts aside from a single word or a faint, shining thread of thought.
That is why, dear reader, you may see groups of related topics appearing from me – sometimes two or three in one week.
Despite my endeavours to hold them back and release them into the wild one at a time, they will often break free. When that happens, I am forced to watch helplessly as they circle the internet, scaring young women and inspiring modern Hitchcocks into making new movies a la noir.
But I’m interested to know; How does inspiration strike you? Your system cannot be as haphazard as mine…surely?
Do you have a rolling plan of posts that stretch towards a vanishing point on the distant horizon? Or is inspiration fired by a song on the radio, a news article or even another blog post?
Well, my confidence has taken a knock. I’m not afraid to admit it, although I do feel slightly foolish at having to retract my former statement.
The high wave that I had been sailing upon, fresh from the joy of having finally achieved a lifetime’s ambition of publishing a book, has now flattened and I feared that I was facing a spell in the doldrums, bereft of the guiding wind that was my Muse.
As the tale within ‘Construct’ drew to a close, I had a clear and certain idea of where the sequel was heading and I’d even planned the ending – something which had been of tremendous help when I’d initially drafted ‘Construct’.
But now that idea is wavering. I still know how the sequel (A Vengeance of Angels) is going to conclude, but as I passed 25,000 words, I lost focus, the thread and my sense of timing.
I can’t tell you much, but ‘Vengeance’ doesn’t follow directly on from the end of ‘Construct’. Rather, it meshes with it, beginning two days before ‘Construct’ ended. That, dear reader, is how I painted myself into a very tight corner. I still have several events that need to transpire before the ending of ‘Construct’ is briefly revisited and the story continues from that already-published conclusion.
So, rather than despair, I reached deep into the archives and dug out my old day-by-day spreadsheet.
click to read spreadsheet
(The above is a sample I put together to illustrate its uses. If this inspires you in any form, feel free to create a story from it.)
This is one of the very few ‘planner’ tools I used in ‘Construct’ (I AM a confirmed ‘pantser’ after all), but it was invaluable to me.
Armed with this, I intend to review what I’ve already written, then forge ahead and plan out exactly how my self-imposed spiders web of a narrative will unfold.
What was that, you say? Why can’t I ever do anything the easy way? For the answer to that, you’ll have to ask my Muse.
I’d long been an avid cynic of reality TV shows such as X Factory, Pop Idle, Big Brooder, (disparaging mis-spellings intentional) et al, citing them as simple ratings magnets that were all hype and no substance.
I’d avoid them like the cliche, eschewing Saturday night television altogether, tutting at the oft-hyped results and the acres of tabloid coverage they seemed to generate.
But little by little, weekend visits to a friend’s house resulted in the television (which seemed to have no ‘off ‘ function) drawing my eye and ear towards the (often hapless) auditionees on ’X Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ every Saturday night.
I found myself becoming intrigued, for no reason that I could fathom. I didn’t know these people, these fame-seeking wannabes (only some of whom were quietly talented and later became successful) and yet I found myself increasingly drawn into their stories as they inched their way towards the stars. I followed them from their earliest beginnings. I saw their spotlight-dazzled faces as they shuffled reluctantly onto an over-large stage to croak out a few nervous bars of their favourite song. And then I watched their eyes light up as the crowd called out its approval.
But why was I watching this IQ-sapping drivel; this thinly-disguised attempt to solicit viewers (and before you mentally compose hate-mail, please let me finish), this apparent waste of valuable writing time?
It suddenly became clear to me when I unexpectedly became hooked on yet another reality TV show – Masterchef.
Hooked? Why? I know nothing about food. I can barely make mashed potato or an edible cheese sauce. To this day I am still able to slide rock-hard frozen food onto a microwave platter with only a basic idea of why it emerges twenty minutes later as a hot, steaming meal. I have no aspirations to create Langoustine consommé with lemon tuiles and pea puree, or to begin experimenting with molecular gastronomy (although liquid Nitrogen does look like a wonderful toy).
The chemistry of food defies my kind of logic. It’s a pleasure to eat, true, but the assembly is an alien process to me and most likely will forever remain that way.
But there I was, week after fascinated week, watching untrained but enthusiastic amateurs, their fumbling fingers creating elegantly-assembled dishes of confit duck on a bed of celeriac mash to Michelin-class standards. But why? In the name of the knife, fork and spoon, why??
Then it finally clicked. The title of this post says it all. It was about the journey.
We aspiring writers have very similar goals to those clumsy cooks, those shaking singers, those jittering jugglers. We are all on the same journey of self-discovery - with the hope of our own selves being discovered. Or our work, at least.
I realised that by watching these rising stars gain new skills and achieve undreamed-of heights, my thoughts were paralleling their journey with my own aspirations, because I hoped that I would also (one day) experience a similar journey.
My mind had latched onto these stories in an unconscious act of self-preparation.
It may be that every individual who achieved the final three of Masterchef, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent has already inspired me; proved to me that it IS possible to lift our (literary) voices from behind the background noise of society enough to be heard.
Ordinary mortals like us can achieve great things. But it takes time. It takes a measure of confidence. But it can require a good measure of encouragement from our peers too.
It is perhaps because of all of this that I am mentally prepared for the next step of ePublishing, the quiet, stealthy equivalent of seeing my work in Bookers or Waterstones. I dare to touch my toe to the chill waters of public consumption and say to them ‘nibble on that,’ whilst thinking ‘pleasedon’tbite, pleasedon’tbite!’
The journey from ‘I could write a book’ through ‘could I write a book?’ to ‘I have written a book’ is moving forward. Who was it that said; ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’?
But where is your journey taking you? How far have you already come?
Have you been inspired by stories of success or sheer determination?
Have you watched others climbing the ladder towards success, feeling that your journey was headed the same way?
Do you feel (particularly with ePublishing opening up new possibilities) that the impossible is now possible?
Share your story with us. Tell us where your journey is taking you.
Write on - and encourage others to do the same in every way that you can.
I mean really get down into the mud with them and feel their pain as if it was your own?
In this age of guts, gore and death on both the big and the small screen, it’s all too easy to sit back and munch popcorn as a larger-than-life action figure takes a bullet, then fights on to the expected victory. The heroine, meanwhile, hangs by a single finger over a fatal drop before she is rescued in the very last instant by a strong grip around her slender wrist.
Yeah, sure he groans as the bullet buries itself in his flesh. She shrieks as her finger slips.
But what do they really feel? Can you, as a writer, firstly imagine the pain, the sheer terror that these characters ought to be feeling? And can you, secondly, convince the reader that these unfortunate, suffering characters know that a life-stopping moment is but a heartbeat away? We are all buzzing bags of emotion, not unfeeling machines. Readers know this – and we must deliver.
I’ve dreamed of plunging to my death in a car, then woken in a cold, shaking sweat, hardly able to convince myself that I’d survived. In one brief moment, I’d mentally wrapped up my life, regretted things unfinished, and wondered if non-corporeal existence or oblivion awaited me. Then; bang; I was a crumpled statistic – but one with an answer. One with an edge to create better death scenes; and to recognise shallow ones. And although it was a dream, I’d been there. I’d actually felt it.
If you’re in any doubt that you are tuned into your characters, retire to a quiet place after you’ve written your action sequence. Become one with your character of choice. Climb into their skin, then re-run the action. Hang from a stone gargoyle one hundred storeys above the city. Plunge over a waterfall, not knowing if you’re going to see the next minute. Switch off all the lights and spin around three times to experience some of the disorientation of being inside a darkened warehouse (but please don’t injure yourself – even if you are researching pain!).
Better still, if the geography or architecture allows, visit the closest possible parallels to your scene and lean over that edge; feel the power of the wind and water. Picture the last seconds of your life as gravity claims its prize.
Your character would.
Imagine how you’d feel if someone close to you went over the edge instead; feel that anger, that helplessness, that utter and permanent loss.
And relax…breathe. Then get it down on paper / screen.
I’ve dealt largely with falls so far. Other fates are available, naturally.
And of course, this technique doesn’t just apply to action scenes.
Pain is not the only emotion;
Betrayal? Your best friend has just eloped with your significant other / taken your expensive car / smuggled out your priceless show cat. Get angry; feel betrayed. Just don’t call that friend until you’ve simmered down and put your hurt and anger into black-and-white.
Love? A trickier one this, one that relies on previous experience. Think of it as the ultimate head-and-heart battle. Except that the head belongs to an adult, and the heart is a wanton, wailing, selfish four-year-old that (almost) always gets their way. How wrenching would that be as an internal monologue?
Fear? There are many shades of fear, too many to list here. Briefly, though; Fear of death (brief pain and it’s all over – but you might leave everything unfinished); Fear of loss – what is it that you could not stand to exist without? Fear of change; your comfort zone – obliterated.
Feel them all – no, really. Feel them all. And then create characters that we can really relate to – and emotions that stir our own.
What better than a novel that takes us upon a roller-coaster ride that leaves us emotionally wrought, but thoroughly satisfied?
For further reading I’d recommend Rivet your readers with Deep POV. Please note that I am in no way affiliated with this work – I just found it to be instructive.
So, over to you;
What techniques do you use to get beneath your character’s skin?
Do you perform mental walk-throughs?
Do you research on-line for the experiences of others, or even query them face-to-face?
You know the one (or perhaps you haven’t reached that stage yet – but you will); that enforced emptiness between reviewing your current WIP and either (delete as appropriate) reviewing it again / waiting for an Agent to respond to your query.
Popular opinion is to leave a reviewed MS for between 2 to 4 weeks (longer, ideally) before looking at it again.
So, you’ve just emerged from a protracted writing / reviewing flurry and you’re still carrying all that creative momentum. It’s rather like lifting a moving bicycle off the ground. You’ve stopped the frame, but the wheels are still spinning.
But what do you do now? Do you;
Start a brand new project?
Start the sequel, even if the original isn’t yet fully formed?
The truth is, I’m impatient to crack on with it. So, like a restrained greyhound who’s seen the rabbit circling the track one too many times, I’m ready to do a Usain Bolt. ‘Vengance of Angels’ is rolling again, one year on whilst the Twelfth Draft of ‘A Construct of Angels’ rests.
Although there is my fourth Twilight video I have yet to finish making…
What have you done to fill the void?
Did you just kick off your writing shoes (writing shoes? Now that’s a question for another post) or do you avoid all distraction and open a new Word Document to maintain your momentum?
My WIP is reaching (I hope) its conclusion. Now in its twelfth incarnation, it has undergone numerous changes. It has lost its original ending (recycled to a later book), 15,000 words, and its original POV format.
The city in which the story was set has changed and even the genders of the two main characters has been switched round.
As a result, the very early notes bear almost no resemblance to the later and completed story. I imagine that this isn’t unusual, though.
But what I don’t know, despite all of this upheaval, is this; has the story improved at all?
From version 5.0, the first form in which I was prepared to let anyone else read it, my WIP has been passed out to more than a dozen friendly readers.
This has normally been followed by an ear-straining silence from them.
I can’t help but wonder (nail-biting newbie writer that I am) if this is because my work is so appallingly bad, stuffed with cliches and bad dialogue, that they can’t bring themselves to tell me the truth for fear of hurting my (admittedly sensitive) feelings.
Patience (for several weeks), polite queries (have you had a chance to read?’ and ‘hope I’m not bothering you, but…’) that are answered by ‘um…not yet’ or ‘I started on it, but…’ only encourage the fear-Kraken to rise anew from the depths.
My thoughts spiral down into ever-tightening coils of concern;
They’ve read it.
They must have.
And they HATE IT!
But how do I get them to admit it?
Do I want them to admit it?
The whole subject becomes an elephant in the room; a source of tension.
Mild paranoia sets in;
Do I say something?
Do I say nothing?
If I ask them, will they resent me for it and hate whatever I’ve written and still not tell me? Or worse – they might just say it’s nice. But if I say nothing will they just forget to read it or believe I don’t care what they think?
What’s an uncertain writer to do?
At the other end of the scale, ephemeral feedback such as; ‘I thought there was too much dialogue,’ ‘Yeah, it was good’ and ‘I liked it,’ (yes, I’ve had all three) is worse than useless to a writer. How can anyone glean anything remotely useful from that?
Scathing criticism, on the other hand, can completely shatter a writer’s confidence. ‘We can see no market for this type of story,’ one agent told me.
Hmm, no market for supernatural romance. I see. Better pass that onto Alyson Noel, PC Cast, Stephenie Meyer et al.
So, already traumatised beyond all reason by this experience, the newbie writer explores another avenue – that of the impartial reader. Other writers seem like a good choice. After all, they’re in the same game, right? They should know a good effort from a stinker, correct?
Only is everyone is honest.
Propping up another writer’s ego with praise when cold, honest critique ought to be levied would be a sin – as bad as well-meaning friends who can’t bring themselves to voice their honest opinion – ‘it needs more work’ (citing Chapter X, paragraph Y as ‘completely confusing’ or ‘difficult to read’).
The most encouraging comments I have received in the past few weeks have been from fellow bloggers (and one friendly reader asking for ‘more, please’ by email).
It’s made me wonder, having seen what others are writing, if reading outside our own genre would produce the best (and the most impartial) feedback.
For One, the reader is less likely to get drawn into the story to the exclusion of remaining ‘editorial’. I would never have chosen to read a contemporary book about a teenage runaway who gets sold into the slave trade,and yet, when it was passed to me, I was able to read, enjoy and yet remain detatched enough to be able to critique it. The story has stayed with me to this day.
For Two, the reader is less likely to make numerous comparisons with their own WIP – and there will be less risk of ‘idea trawling’ – a reassurance for the writer involved.
So I hereby pledge (*raises right hand) to read more of other’s work, whatever the genre, to judge it impartially and honestly, even at the risk of providing feedback that may not be exactly what the writer wishes to hear.
What are your thoughts on feedback? Could you you cope with honest, if discomfiting, critique? Could you remain on speaking terms with someone who described your WIP as ‘too slow’ or ‘unengaging?’