"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog

Thursday, August 23, 2018

On Being a Modern Writer

 The Writing Academy

Nobody will ever miss something you didn't write.

People don't wish they could find a genius they are unaware of, hanker after a writer to inspire them, or wish they could find the book that hasn't been written.

It's the harshest reality a writer must face. 

Nobody cares whether you finish your magnum opus - or gives a toss whether you work on it at all.

A book is nothing until it's published - and even then, given the way things are, it's unlikely to sell more than a few copies.

Funny, I write for a living. Have done for the last 20 years. You can get a lot of eyes on things if you include the words: “money, fast and easy” in your marketing but write about anything else and your stuff pretty much disappears. 

It’s never stopped me though, because I’m a writer, and writers write, no matter what happens… can you say that?

Writers must find their own reasons to write - and be self-motivated enough to continue without anything but selfish reasons to finish what they start. As Dorothea Brande said in "Becoming a Writer", writers create their own emergencies. They have to, because nobody else really gives a damn.

Recently I was rereading Stephen King's "On Writing" and I noticed something I'd previously missed.

He said he used to believe that writing was a craft and that it could be taught; a skill that, with enough training and guidance, anyone could master. Note, he said he used to think that.

Later in his career, after he'd written around twenty novels, he changed his mind. He realized that the urge to write consistently must be something you're born with.

Think about it - writing for no good reason (except a personal compulsion) is an urge that is so specific - even a little bizarre - that, without it being somehow hard-wired into a writer's DNA, most people, no matter how keen to learn, simply wouldn't bother.

It's not like it's easy, after all.

Some people say that if you find writing easy, you're probably not doing it right. I know from experience that authors who tell me they found writing their novel a breeze, signals that there’s usually a need for some serious editing!

Don't get me wrong. I do think that writing the first draft of a story or a book should be quick, painless, or at the very least, an exhilarating experience. That's usually how your best work feels. When you're 'in the zone' and being productive and inspired, you're a writer, just like any other Dan Brown, Emily Bronte, or Tolstoy.

But that's not all there is to it. 

There's endless editing and polishing too. And having something important to say. And having the ability to hold an entire book in your mind - and get it all down on paper. And, of course, the toughest call: being able to arrange your life to find the time and inclination to write every day.

Not everyone thinks writing is glamorous. Even many professional writers have no great regard for the process, only the conviction that, to create something of value and importance, you have no choice but to do it. 

You and only you.

Of course, 'value' and 'importance' are relative terms. That's the point. Only Tolstoy thought it was vitally important to write War and Peace. It had no value to his wife, most likely, and none of us would have missed it - or him - if he'd become an alcoholic and never got around to writing more than a few hundred words and threw them away, like many would be authors do.

The next time you're tempted to write a book, think it through.

Is it important you get it all down?

And are you willing to spend 80% of the process on making it perfect?

Because, like Mr King, I used to think that writing half a page of scribbled lines gave you the right to call yourself a writer.

But now, after I've written a couple million or so words, I'm beginning to think that being a writer is more involved.

It's somehow innate in a writer's makeup.

Perhaps practice is all it takes - consistent action and dedication to the art. 

But more likely you need to discover the writer within - that guy or gal inside who was never going to be satisfied until you gave them free rein to take over your life. 

But if the muse isn’t there, except as a vague yearning, maybe the best thing is to quit while you're ahead!

Because being a full-time writer is still one of the hardest ways to live. Ask any author. Even when you're successful, the motivation to write, stay focused, inspired and clear for long periods can be tough.

Sure, it's rewarding - and often fun. 

That’s if readers find you – and like what you do…

But be clear on this: commitment to writing books is not for the faint hearted. And it’s certainly not for those who might be looking to make money fast and easily.

You need patience, and to be a little bit crazy.

Take one step at a time – walk slowly and surefootedly - but be sure you have good sturdy shoes before you start.
Keep Writing! 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Always Write For Your Readers

When writing for publication it's important to keep your eventual reader at the forefront of your mind.

Writing primarily for yourself can be a lot of fun and, if that's what motivates you, then that's the best way forward, at least for the first draft.

Eventually, however, it's your readers who will decide whether you have written a book that they find satisfying, worthy, and purposeful.

It could be that, during the writing and editing process, some degree of self-discipline is required to fulfil the objective of writing a book that people actually want to read - and will enjoy reading.

My preferred approach is to write quickly and edit methodically later.

I find writing the first draft fast and furiously keeps the juices pumping and doesn't allow for too much time to reconsider word-choice, direction, momentum etc., until after the first draft.

Writing slowly, painstakingly, I find, tends to make me hesitant, overly self-conscious, and can sometimes lead to getting blocked if I can't decide little things, for instance, like where to put a comma.

Far better to get down as much as possible of the meat without questioning the creative process and stick with the decision to come back to the writing later when the first draft is fully written and complete. Even if the first draft strikes you as a mess.

I'm a great believer in having a plan and sticking to it.

So, having made the decision to write a thriller, for example, you should write with the intention of thrilling your reader. You need to know your purpose before you begin.

When writing your first draft quickly and without too much agonising, try not to get sidetracked into overdeveloping ideas that are not pertinent to your purpose. Stay as focused, in other words, as you can on the intention of your writing.

The key difference between writing literary work and genre fiction is, to me, about maintaining discipline.

Literary works may meander without purpose, hopping from one set of profound observations to another. This may lead your reader to feel rudderless.

Genre writing is often more focused on the needs of the reader and invariably requires more work in the writing and the editing from the writer.

To me, the important issues are clarity and direction. Your story or nonfiction piece should shine with a clear and obvious thrust that takes a reader on a focused journey.   

A good narrative contains logic that can easily be followed by most readers, whatever their upbringing or education level. The author's job is to present an alternate view of reality that is compelling. Only text that is easily understood can be fully absorbed and endorsed by a reader.

The need to emphasize logic and sense in your stories may mean that your final editing process is ruthless. You may need to remove paragraphs, sections, and even chapters that have little or nothing to do with the story intention.

When editing, you will need to become acutely aware of how the writing flows from the point of view of the reader.

This is one of the main reasons why you should take time out between edits to distance yourself from your own work: you need to be able to see your writing from a reader's perspective.

If you can't manage that trick, show your work to others before you publish or submit to legacy publishers.

At the end of the day, writing for publication is about writing for other people: to entertain, to inform, and to help them transcend the norm. Your friends and fellow writers are often the very people who will tell you whether you're succeeding in that objective.    

There's a whole new industry growing online that offers to edit your material for publication - for a price, of course.

But actually, to me, using a third party editor can cause long term problems for you. Not least because, unless you edit regularly, you'll never learn how to do it properly.

You really should be editing to the best of your own ability at all times.
This does not mean giving your work a cursory once over just after you've written it (as far too many new writers do.) No. It means studying every word, sentence, every piece of punctuation, grammar, every nuance and stylistic inflection - and to keep editing until you know for sure that what you've done is good enough for mass market consumption.

If you're not sure of the quality of your own work, join writers' critique groups. 

Offer to read and give feedback on other writers' work in return for feedback on your own. Sure, show your manuscripts to your friends and family. They can be the most brutal critics, when they're not trying to be nice.

Other writers are most often the best critics because they're coming from a different place than you and they may have higher standards than even most readers.

Before you proceed to publication or submission, my advice would be that your thoroughly edited manuscript should be read by at least two or three other writers.

Keep Writing!
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Don't Think, Write

Ever have those days when you’re muzzy and unmotivated? 

You know how it is.

Sometimes you're aware you should write, but you don't feel like it.

And even if you did, you're plagued by not knowing what to write about.

Or maybe you have an important scene or an article to write and you can't find the necessary impetus to get you started.

Worse, you just can't be bothered to write at all - it's too hard to even contemplate.

What do you do when this happens to you?

If you write for a living, this can be especially troubling.

After all, if you're not writing, you're not working.

So, you feel bad because you know that not writing equals no money coming in, now or in the future...

What's the solution?

First of all you need to get your head around what I call 'The Big Secret.'

And the big secret is that career writers don't need a reason to write.

They don't need inspiration or a good idea.

They don't even need to be in the right mood.

Fact is that thinking - as in trying to come up with ideas - doesn't work as a way to make you write.

When you write all the time, as a habit, it's like breathing.

You just sit yourself in front of the computer and the words simply pour out.
This is because the brain doesn't use its logical side to write.

It uses the creative side, which is hard-wired to the subconscious.

And, as I often point out to new writers, it's your subconscious that writes for you.

Best thing is that this wellspring of ideas never runs out.

As long as you keep tapping out words, the ideas will keep coming.

Stopping and thinking for a moment disrupts this process because you're disengaging the subconscious to consider something with your logical brain.

So next time you're struggling, don't think, just write.

I met one of the writers of Shrek once and he said he would sit down and sometimes write: Can't think of anything to write today. But I need an idea. Come on brain, give me something to write about. I need you to... and so on, until something came.

Great idea, right?

My partner is a full time fiction author and she writes every day without fail - she gets up in the morning, makes tea then sits down to write for three or four hours. I ask her, "What do you do when you don't feel like writing?" 

"Fake it," she says. "Pretend you want to write and sure enough, the muse kicks in after about ten minutes and then everything's fine. I just keep going after that."

My problem is that I always have too much to do.

I end up writing even when I don't feel like it because, well, I have to.

Nothing would happen unless I wrote.

From little things like business strategies, to marketing blurbs, to lessons I'm writing for students.

All these things I give deadlines.

And the way I make myself write more fiction is to apply a deadline to that too.
Otherwise I probably wouldn't do it...

Actually that's not true.

I feel the urge to write pretty much all the time.

It's what I write - and for how long - that's my greatest issue.

Take this article for instance.

I started out thinking last night about how social sites have taken over the Net.

I thought maybe I could write an article about that.

As the night wore on I realized that I could probably write a book about social marketing - the arena is so complex and fascinating.

I decided I'd put off that article and write about something else.

But I couldn't think of anything.

So I sat down this morning, knowing I had to write something for the newsletter, and just started typing. 

An hour later and this is the result.

I look back and have no idea where all the above words came from - and I'm amazed at how much I had to say about nothing much at all.

Now surely if I can do that...

...you can too!

Especially if you heed the advice in the title!

Keep Writing!

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Book Inside of You

Do you ever have those days when you don't know what to write about?
And worse, do those days turn into weeks and months, even years?

You're not alone.
I know this for a fact because people email me about it all the time.

According to most surveys, 80% of people feel they have a writer inside, someone who could - and thinks they should - write a book at some point in their lives.
80% is a huge statistic.

So huge that it's the kind of percentage that would have marketers foaming at the mouth!
But real life shows that only around 5% actually get around to any kind of serious writing in their lifetimes - and only around 1% of that 5% end up getting paid to do it.

That's why, in marketing terms, writing remains a niche - one of those nebulous terms that means 'so specialized' as to be largely irrelevant to modern demographics.

Clearly that doesn't quash the urge to write for you and me.
(And yes, “me” is grammatically correct here.)
But this issue of "I want to write but I can't think what to write about" remains for many a point of frustration for much of their lives.

The feeling is usually caused by having too high expectations of ourselves.

We tend to think that our words and sentences should be good and wonderful the moment we put them down on paper.
The beginner can feel immense distress after writing a paragraph and then realizing it's either awful, or nothing like the thoughts they wanted to transfer.

We should take comfort in the fact that this phenomenon is as true for seasoned writers as it is for the beginner!

Removing the barrier between our thoughts and their expression is something a writer may take a lifetime to learn – and, even then, never quite thoroughly master.

I think it was Evelyn Waugh who said that he found writing in his old age much harder than in his youth because the more he tried to get down precisely what he meant, the more laborious the process seemed to become.
A few throw away lines that may have sufficed as a younger man became pages of exposition that delved further and deeper into delicate nuances that seemed almost impossible for him to capture.

Churchill expressed the same concerns as he aged - and his later works became longer and denser.

One of my intentions with The Writing Academy is to short circuit this dilemma.

Because I believe that our subconscious minds have a much better grasp on writing, story, theme, structure and style than our conscious, rational minds.

This is one of the reasons why thinking too much doesn't seem to help us write.
Thinking is thinking.

But writing is writing.
And the only way to solve a writing problem - a block or a lack of ideas - is to write.

I've noticed this over and again.
That if you switch off your inner critic somehow - ignore it, or deliberately suppress it - and just write the first thing that comes into your head, then the subconscious somehow kicks in and takes over.

I've also noticed that if you write every day, the subconscious can actually guide you through an entire novel.
I used to wonder how I could hold an entire 150,000 word opus in my mind - until I realized it can't, and doesn't.

It's the subconscious that does this job. It holds the novel in a hidden databank. And if you're true to yourself - and have an objective moral compass - then your storylines will surface naturally.

Writing professors will often tell you about their favorite novelists. Those who've managed to weave profound themes into their work - and still created superb prose to house them.

But this is to misunderstand the process a writer uses.

I've yet to see a writer interviewed who will say they had all their themes - even subject matter - worked out before they started writing.
This is not how it works.
Themes, indeed stories, characters, and plots are subconscious manifestations of the writer's mindset and attitudes that come through the work, rather than being deliberately planned and executed to any formula.

Writing is not a mysterious process that defies explanation.

It just happens if we trust the process, and don’t overthink it.
This is good.
It means that all of us can do it - if we let go of preconceptions or expectations of our abilities.

Let go, and write.

Don't think, write.

That is, to me, what my Writing Academy is all about.

Thanks for reading.
Keep Writing! 

Rob Parnell
Your Success is my Concern

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Cash Management for Writers

(Irrelevant picture but at least the copyright is mine!) 

I'd be lying if I told you that being a full-time writer is all wine and roses and endless days of blissful creativity - especially at the start.

It's rarely that for most. If you look at the lives of the great writers throughout history, they invariably grew familiar with the pain of rejection, the fear of failure, and often the gnawing ache of poverty.

These days poverty is a relative term. If you have a computer and an Internet connection, you're by no means poor, no matter how you may feel.

Recently I spent some time in Luxor, Egypt. There I met many people who thought regularly going without food for a few days was normal; people who thought you were unimaginably rich if you could afford to catch a plane; people who dreamed of one day owning a mobile phone.

These people were by no means peasants, they were town dwellers with jobs and apartments who, despite living without electricity, managed to be smart, clean, multi-lingual and law-abiding.   

Until fairly recently, the idea of writing for a living was out of the question for most. Until the advent of mass communications, the only way to write full time was to either have a rich benefactor, have tenure at a university, or to be a monk! The idea that a full-time income could be made from writing is really only something that's become common since the 1950s - actually since the proliferation of TV, movies, newsprint, radio and now, of course, the Internet.

These days your success as a writer is inevitable if you stick with it.

No matter how bad things seem, your situation will get better with persistence.

Knowing how to deal with little money, at least at first, is important.

First of all, stop worrying about the bills. Easier said than done I know. But the fact is there's no such thing as debtor's prison anymore - and you're not going to be put behind bars for credit card debt, bank overdrafts, or even unpaid utility bills.

Punishment these days is meted out through lack of credit which, if you're poor, seems unfair but is actually the best thing for you. When you owe lots of money, the last thing you want is to have to pay back even more.

Here's how I made it through some lean times at the beginning of my creative career.

Twenty years ago I accepted that I was hopelessly in debt and I was going to have to take responsibility for the fact I was crap with money. I bought all the wrong things, spent way too much on hedonistic activities and never seemed to earn enough to pay back what I owed.

But I realized too that I was not unique. Most people live with permanent debt - and the financial institutions want you to live this way because that's how they make a profit. If everyone was rich and had enough money to buy things outright and never get into debt, the whole of Western civilization would collapse - as it almost did during the recent global economic crisis because too much debt was going unpaid.

When I was poor I deliberately changed the way I thought about bills by making a slight shift in my word use. I picked the word "creditors" to describe those I owed money. It's a nice-sounding word: it sounds positive, not one that fills you with foreboding.

Then I made a list of all the outstanding bills, debts, credit card balances, mortgage repayments, etc.  I was stunned and sickened when I added it all up.

Then I listed the debts in order of importance. This is something you have to decide for yourself. The most demanding creditor is not always the most urgent. Utility bills are normally the most pressing - to keep power flowing into the house.

Cell charges not so crucial because you don't really need a phone and getting cut off will probably help you in the long run. Lawyers, doctors and other freelance professionals can charge obscenely large fees but courts are not always sympathetic to their pleas for payment. And often, by the time things get into collection, the urgency is usually over. You just get black marks against your credit – which you should see as a good thing because it will stop you from borrowing even more. 

When I'd written up my list, I decided which bill I was going to pay next, when I had some money. If it was a large bill, I would part pay it: sometimes half, sometimes a tenth. It's hard for someone to sue you - or pass the debt on to collection - if you're making small part payments.

A judge will throw a case out of court if you're paying a creditor even the tiniest amount per week. In most jurisdictions the same is true of rent and mortgages. If you pay a little - and inform the creditor in writing of your intentions, there's really not much they can do in the short term. You're trying - and that's all a court could enforce anyway.

This tactic is not for the impatient. Though I barely had enough to eat and drink for about a month at one point, paying a bit back all the time felt enormously liberating.

Two years later all the debts were gone and I had learned one thing very well: if you don't spend more than you earn, you'll always be better off!

I could write a book about debt management and financial prosperity. Perhaps I will, even though many have been written already! I recommend you read some if you're not very good with money, or if you believe you don't have enough to live on.

It's often the case that simply taking the time to properly manage your finances - like a business - will make you feel more prosperous.

After all, most businesses operate utilizing far more debt than many of us can comprehend. There's apparently no shame in a corporation using billions of dollars of borrowed money to increase its profits so, when you go a little too far into the red, just think of yourself as doing the same.

But remember to keep working and taking writing jobs to bring more money in.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

There's Always Tomorrow

Writing is a vocation. 

You may have to keep reminding yourself of this. Especially when you want everything - money, writing projects, publishing success - to go faster. 

I read a guy's blog this week where he talked about burn-out. He was so determined to get a novel finished he wrote 16 hours a day for about three weeks. He said that suddenly he couldn't make out the words on the screen. He was looking at a foreign language and he realized his brain had shut down. 

The experience frightened him so much that he stopped writing and suffered a long period - over six months - of angst over what had happened.

For a long time he was too afraid to start writing again for fear that his mind would play this trick on him again.

Luckily that's not happened to me yet. Sounds awful.

The worst thing that happened one year was that I got one of those humps on my right wrist - apparently they're caused by hitting the keyboard too hard for too long. It took a few weeks of gentle typing for it to go down.

It didn't hurt. I just looked deformed for a while. A friend suggested hitting it with a book - he said he'd heard that was the way to make them go back down. Not being a fan of pain, I declined his offer to fix it and trusted nature instead.

I've never had it again - since I started using laptops.

I guess the point is that you can just push yourself too hard sometimes. I know that, say, Olympic athletes need to train for hours every day. I know that soldiers train hard every day to reach optimal strength, mindset and efficiency.

But what about more cerebral pursuits?

Clearly it's possible for the brain to be overstimulated - leading to mental breakdowns and, at the very least, stress.

Most writers agree that bouts of excessive writing can be physically draining. Even the most prolific writers don't recommend more than four or five hours max a day. It's fairly well accepted that much more and you're really in no condition to give it your best.

As writers we must learn patience.

Waiting on publishers is challenging. It's the main topic of conversation at the writer's groups I attend. It's also one of the reasons I recommend self-publishing. Even if only to act as a stopgap, so writers have at least a chance of making money from our work while waiting around for agents and publishers to take notice of us.

Plus, increasingly, the publishing world requires 'proof' that readers want our work. What better way to showcase our novels, books and writing than on Amazon? We can get feedback, reviews and testimonials - not to mention actual sales of our work to readers.

Plus of course there's the added benefit of feeling like a published author - which will seriously help your self esteem and hopefully boost your commitment to writing regularly.

Because writing needs to become a habit, especially if you want to one day do it full time - the dream!

You need to pace yourself. Live well but healthily. Keep your moral, mental and physical strength up and commit to writing every day.

In this age of 'I want it now', it may seem frustrating to have to wait for anything. But for the writer, this is often the reality.

Fact is, it's always been this way. Nothing's changed.

Except now we can at least publish ourselves on the Net while we're waiting for the call from Random House or Harper Collins. (Anytime, guys - honestly, I'm here all day, just waiting!)

And did I mention publishing with Amazon is free?

Plus you keep all the rights?

No contracts, no catches and no fees.

Just a professional platform to showcase your work.

Oh and, in case you're interested, you make money too!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can't, Criticise...

Recently, one of my esteemed students wrote me a letter - yes, an actual piece of paper with handwriting on it - gasp!

She thanked me for one of my courses that she was working through at home. She said she liked my 'metaphysical' approach to writing because it helped her move out of a block she'd been having.

I've never really thought about my instruction being 'metaphysical' to be honest. It's not meant to be. A better term might be 'holistic', in that I see writing and the writer as equally in need of guidance and advice.

The writer, to me, is inseparable from the writing. You can't be a good, honest and effective writer if you don't aspire to be a good, honest and effective person. If that's metaphysical, then so be it!

But you don't have to be perfect.

In the same way as your writing doesn't have to be perfect. What's perfection anyway but an intellectual tool we use as a benchmark?

Perfection is relative.

The newbie may feel sheer joy at a piece of average writing - infused with that rush we all feel at times at our accomplishments.

But a writer with years of experience may still cringe at something she's written when others see nothing but genius.

It's all relative.

We each must aspire to our own concept of perfection - but learn to be satisfied when 'enough is enough'.

I've never know a decent writer who didn't think that something in their work couldn't be improved.

Famously, Fitzgerald once broke into his publisher's office at three in the morning and crawled inside the printing galleys, pulling out letters, rearranging the text of his novel - the day the book was going to press!

Okay, he was probably drunk. Fitzgerald often was. But most writers can relate to this kind of obsessive need to 'fix' their own writing until it shines.

Talking of obsession and the need for perfection, Steve Jobs is sorely missed - not least at Apple. His kind of focus is rare - more especially because it was justified. A lot of people - artists especially  - may be precious and difficult to work with - but not all of them are so right!

But maybe they are - in their own way.

May be we don't give enough credit to those 'control freaks' who strive for perfection and, like Steve Jobs apparently, make life hard for those around them. 

I guess that's the great thing about being a writer. You are in control - most of the time. Your world is exactly as it should be, within the confines of your pages.

It's one of the reasons I've never really understood the need for criticism. It's too easy for others to find the flaws in other's work. It's destructive - not only creatively but personally too.

A critic can crush a writer's spirit irreparably but... to what end?

Also, I've never known a writer to improve dramatically as a result of criticism. Quite the opposite.

It's encouragement that helps improve a writer. Because when writers feels good about what they do, they seem to become more aware of the flaws themselves - and seek to better their work independently.

Criticism closes a writer down more often than not, forcing them to consider giving up the whole thing - as was probably the critic's intention.

No, we should always strive to 'lift up' an artist - to help them feel 'enlightened'. Inspiration comes from a feeling of transcendence. Criticism can only drag us down to earth and make us feel inferior, misguided and misunderstood.

How would God have felt - if there's any such thing as a deity - if some critic was looking over her shoulder, pointing out all her mistakes as she created the universe?

Maybe she would have scrapped the whole idea of creation - and taken up some other activity like playing atom solitaire or cosmic cloud busting.

Where would be then?

I'm not being as flippant as you might assume.

I really do think that artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians - even inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs - should be encouraged without question. Because true creators know the flaws in their designs better than anyone. They really don't need others to point them out!

But I guess it's the way of the world.

The ninety ten rule. Ten percent of us want to change things, create new possibilities and understand the true meaning of our existence.

The other ninety percent just want to sit back and bag.

To be realistic, they say.

Well, if being realistic means that nothing should ever change or that none of us should aspire to perfection or dedicate ourselves to the attainment of truth or beauty or enlightenment, then I'd rather be called anything but realistic!

So I don't really mind being thought of as metaphysical - as long as it doesn't marginalize what I do.

I try to speak to everyone, not just to those who will listen.

But isn't that the point of art, of good writing, of transcendent music, film and whatever?

To create something that speaks to us all?

I hope so.

Have a great holiday this year - and give some thought to how you might improve the world - especially if there were no such things as critics, naysayers and other members of your friends and family!

Seriously, have fun - and be good, at whatever you do.

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!