30 December, 2012

The Silent Beginning

Another great post from guest author Jayne-Marie Barker.  Check out her website here:  http://www.jaynemariebarker.com/.  She has two books out:  Beneath the Daisies and Distant Shadows, and a third one on the way.  She seems pretty cool to me so I hope you guys enjoy her posts as much as I do.  This one reminds me of something I always (not literally) tell people:  you wouldn't expect Beethoven to write a symphony without first learning to play the piano.
It is easy to write a book… or so they say.  Almost every writer has suffered in silence at one point or another when some kind-meaning reader or enthusiast stands there telling them how lovely it must be to write a novel, and how they are always meaning to start theirs, and how great it’ll be when it’s done.

Whilst writers love to talk to readers it can be a touch irritating hearing how straight forward it must be to write a book, when deep down they know that crafting a novel is pure hard work!  If only the poor unsuspecting public knew how difficult it is to sustain the smile whilst they are being told all this.  Naturally it would be impolite to correct the reader so many writers nod along with a pleasant smile.  It wouldn’t be fair to discourage people anyway, particularly from such a rewarding job.  Yes, it is not easy, but it is well worth the hard work so don’t be put off if you’re one of the millions all planning to pen your first novel next year.

Many writers often appear to come out of nowhere or arrive on the shelves or best sellers list overnight.  In reality this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Like all professions, writers must develop their skills over time and serve their apprenticeship years.  What this usually refers to is the long stretch of time before anything they have written is ever published, but they continue to chip away, perfecting their craft gradually, hopefully learning a few new tricks along the way.  One day an agent or publisher says yes, actually, I will take a chance on you, and the writer immediately leaps into the air in disbelief at having finally jumped the first hurdle.

The beginning of any writer’s career, before their work is published, is obviously unknown to the rest of the world.  It is the silent beginning, when hope is high and ambition strong, when chances seem minuscule and nigh impossible.  It’s the toughest time, so you think, until you take the next step and you find new challenges to contend with.  This is probably true of life in general but we must plough on, if only to find out what happens!
Jayne-Marie Barker

23 December, 2012

Cues from the Characters for the Readers

You all know how I hate tricks, so I'll work hard here to define this one in psychological terms.

Over the past few months I've been ravenously studying the works of Graham Greene and John Steinbeck.  This is for the simple reason that they are awesome.  Greene has to be among the best craftsman in history.  They told me that back as school, so I didn't believe it (I hated school) but it's actually true.  He's phenomenal.

One thing they both do is use "props" for their characters.  By this I mean methods of representing a very strong characteristic.  Each author gives the character a strong motivation, and the motivation is frequently placed into the dialogue and actions, reminding the reader almost constantly who they are.  I'd thought of doing this before, and it had seemed unnatural, but I absolutely love doing it with my characters.

In my forthcoming novel, one of my characters is an emotionally disturbed, swiftly violent anarchist punk with severe anger problems and a bad sense of humour.  He tells jokes mainly for his own benefit and thinks he's hilarious.  It's great fun to think up bad jokes and draw strong distinctions between him and the others.  This is just one example.  I've tried to do similar things with all my characters.

Another thing I've decided upon is using physical props.  Does a character have a favourite necklace?  Does it represent who they are?  Instead of having them take "a deep sigh" or some such generic thing, why not have them twiddle their necklace while they're brooding.  If it's relevant to their character, it'll represent, for the reader, who they are.

You can do the same thing with the setting.   If they're on a snow bank, use the snow.   Have the characters brush snow off of their trousers in ways that evidence their characteristics, et cetera.

A little caveat:  everything must move the narrative forwards, too.  I'm talking about characters expressing themselves in unique ways, here, not leaping out of the story for cheap opportunism.  Another thing about Greene and Steinbeck is that everything, from the character traits to the semi-colons, serves the story impeccably.

All of this seems obvious, but take a look at how Graham Greene does it in The Quiet American, and you'll start noticing how precious few authors actually even bother, let alone pull it off.  You probably do risk being cheesy if you try, but the most rewarding, strongest things you can do for a story, in my experience, are the things of highest risk.  Try it, and if you fail, read some more and try again.

16 December, 2012

Characters, by guest writer Jayne-Marie Barker

Jayne-Marie Barker is the author of two fine novels: Distant Shadows and Beneath the Daisies. It's always great to have a guest post from someone who's clearly proven knowledge of her chops. You can find her website here: http://www.jaynemariebarker.com/. I love her idea at the end, and her overall point is superb. Implication for imagination, I like to say.  See below.

Wm. Luke Everest

How well do you know the characters in the book you’re currently reading?

It’s a question we rarely ask ourselves, but as writers, we must get to know our characters inside out if we want to attain the dizzy heights of fictional bliss.

Building a cast of fictional people in the readers’ minds can be fun and exhilarating but it takes work and dedication.  A character should appear to be a real person, all be it existing purely in a fictional or imaginary sense.  They need to have well-rounded physical appearances, quirky mannerisms to make them unique, faults and talents, accents, and appropriate names.

I find it helpful to create a personal history for each character.  This may or may not feature in the story, but it adds to their personality none the less, and helps me visualise them as real people when spinning the tale.  Just because the writer knows the tiny details about a character doesn’t necessarily mean all those minute points will end up in the novel.

It is an interesting question, whether or not to paint the picture of a character fully.  Do you, for instance, prefer to have a fully described individual down to hair and eye colour, height and additional details about their personality, the way they walk, their favourite colour, the way they react to news etc.  Maybe you prefer a less precise image, their movements likened to the slow crawl of the earth worm or their features chiseled into focus as they strain at the keyhole…. Before any writer can effectively draw a character in the readers mind, they need to understand their roles in the story, and consequently, the length to which that character should stand out from the cast.

So, I ask you, whether you are a reader or a writer, the next time you read a book have a little think about what you know of the main characters, and maybe one or two of the extras.  It could be fun, write down what you know about each character, then look back carefully and work out how much of this was actually given to you in the text, and how much you’ve plucked from your own imagination….  If a large portion is from your imagination then the writer has crafted the character to perfection – they are as you imagine them, fully formed in your own mind.  Job done!
Jayne-Marie Barker

08 December, 2012

Guest Post: M.R. Jordan

Here's guest writer M.R. Jordan sharing some wisdom about life in the public eye.  You may want to check out her contest, too.  She doesn't demand an entry fee, which is rare and refreshing, and she even offers to critique your first page.  Read her full guidelines here:  M.R. Jordan's Winter Writing Contest and Critique

Wm. Luke Everest

After Wm. Luke Everest sent me an email inviting me to write a guest post the first thing I did was check him out via Google. The second thing I did was read his blog. Why did I Google him? Due diligence. Thirty seconds on Google can save you a lot of heartache in the future. Imagine, for example, a stranger emails you for a guest post so you quickly dash off something and send it over. And let's say you're not a writer. Let's say you're a teacher. Well, at some point in the future the guy you wrote a post for ends up on 60 minutes to catch a criminal for soliciting underage girls.

Writers need to do their due diligence in checking out agents, publishers, and even little contests like mine. (The M.R. Jordan Winter Writing Contest and Critique in case you didn't know. It's free. )

Two years ago one of my stories was published without notification. Despite wording on the site that made me suspicious and a requirement to sign up before I could submit, I jumped without looking. I got burned, which at the time seemed like the worst thing that could happen to me. It turned out to be the best lesson I could have learned.

Anyway, don't let ambition get in the way of good judgment. If you're persistent, study writing, study grammar, study editing, and most of all, write, write, write, you'll do fine.

Tip: A writer's best resource for checking out agents and publishers is the absolute write message boards. The most efficient way is to search Google 'Name of Agent/Publisher here' plus 'absolute write.' (Thank you, Victoria Strauss, for all your efforts protecting writers from predators.)

And thank you Luke for letting me use you as a lead in to this topic.

M.R. Jordan

02 December, 2012

A Motivational Caveat

My "Unprofessional Professionalism" post seemed a little silly to me and I've realised why.  It isn't the goofy story or the models.  I like those just fine.  It's that I may have given the wrong impression. 

My point was to focus on the art, not the marketing.  I stand by that.  If you worry too much about what might sell and where, you forget to make good art.  The fact is, you don't need luck in writing.  The market is hungry for quality fiction.  If you also have original ideas, great.  That's all Leslie was saying when she told me to shut up and stop worrying about marketing.

This post is about both practicality and motivation.  Those two themes flow into each other, I believe, and it's why my other post may not have made much sense.  These are the motivations one must nurture in order to have a healthy practical attitude:  understand that if you write as well as Earnest Hemingway your work will sell, without question.  Some authors make millions while writing crap.  Good for them.  I don't want to bank on that anymore than I want to play Russian roulette.

But forget about banking.  My central motivation is to create great fiction, for the simple reason that I love great fiction.  If I can ever afford that Jaguar XR7 I long for (and indeed pay off my student loan) I'll be very pleased, but it's not the purpose of my life.

However, here's the caveat:

Take your work seriously.  Art is joyous.  To me, it's play most of the time, but one thing I've learned about doing what you love full time is that you have to take it seriously.  When I was purely focused on short stories, I found I got more done if I just wrote when I felt inspired.  I wrote faster, better, and I enjoyed life more.

Now, neck deep in a novel, I find regimenting my time more productive.  On weekdays, I make myself write for normal working hours, minimum. Usually, I want to write more. I usually start at 7 or 8 and keep going until my fiance drags me to the living room. Some days, though, I can't wait until 5:30. Some days my brain doesn't want to work at all. If it's a weekday, I remind myself how much I'd rather write my book than flip burgers or push papers.

A book is a monumental task, and daunting when mentally exhausted.  I now have to make myself rest on the weekends.   I've blitzed through fifteen, twenty day stretches before and found myself slowing down until, while it feels like I'm working hard, after writing a scene that would have normally taken me half an hour I look at the clock and two hours have drifted by.  Gusto becomes a waste of time and energy when not properly managed. 

So yes, it's a job.  It just has an artistic objective, one I've dreamed for my whole life: 

"Make good art."