"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: 2008

Friday, December 5, 2008

Getting a Publishing Deal - Is It Really Worth It?

Getting published is every writer's dream. It's what we want, it's what provides the motivation and gives us the spark to keep going - and keep writing and submitting until we finally crack the big one: a publishing deal, a proper one, with a trade publisher who will promote our books for free - and pay us royalties every six months for the rest of our lives!

Now that's the dream, right?

But how close is this to the reality of being a modern working writer?

Certainly having a bestseller can change your life. Desk bound introverts can become movie moguls (Dan Brown). Single-parent mothers can become very rich media celebrities (JK Rowling). And advertising executives can become household names (James Patterson).

But having a bestseller is not the only definition of success.

Just because the average person in the street hasn't heard of a writer doesn't mean that they aren't rich and successful.

As authors, we get this all the time. You're judged by the fame of your work. If you say you're a writer and the stranger you're talking to doesn't recognize any of the titles you throw at them, they seem to be of the opinion you're not really an author!

Which is crazy. And it's a trap that we, as writers, must not let ourselves fall into.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of professional writers out there who make a living, many are even very rich and successful, but whose names wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

Not everyone can be in the media spotlight. All those TV and movie writers out there who get paid by the script or series get very wealthy doing it - but you don't see their names plastered all over the tabloids.

Look at the average publishing list of ANY publishing house - and you'll see at least 100 names you don't recognize to every one that rings a bell. Do think these 'unknown' writers are unsuccessful?

Why do we associate success with fame? And fame with success - when clearly some people are famous just for being famous - and not particularly talented?

I think we need to get over this idea. Because it's the only way to see our own success in perspective.

If someone could wave a magic wand, what would you ask for?

Financial independence brought about by writing? Most writers I know would give their mother, grandmother, and firstborn for JUST this, never mind fame or a chat with Oprah!

Which brings us back to getting a publishing deal. Because sometimes writers are very disappointed by the reality of having a deal with a trade publisher.

Rather than being the end point at which a writer can relax, kick back and enjoy a steady flow of money inwards, most new writer's experience is very different.

Getting published is not an end point - or even a starting point most times - it's a signpost on the journey of a writer's life. It's just one of the many signposts that indicate your success.

Other signposts might include winning a writing prize or self-publishing - or giving a talk about yourself or meeting with a movie producer. There's no particular order of things that you MUST follow in order to achieve writing success. It doesn't work like that.

You are the best judge of your success. You decide whether you're getting somewhere or you're not.

Many writers I know start writing and releasing ebooks AFTER their publishing deals - for two main reasons.

1. Fame and riches do not necessarily follow from having a publishing deal.

2. They look at internet writers of Kindle books and notice that, far from being 'lower' on the pecking order, they're better off and more respected nowadays.

No longer is there a stigma attached to writing for the net - nor with self-publishing. In fact, technology has revealed the secret that publishing companies have been holding on to for centuries - that THERE IS NO SECRET.

An independent author has just as much chance of creating a bestseller than does a publishing company, most of whom grub around in the dark wondering what will sell - rejecting authors out of hand for no good reason - simply because they don't really know what they're doing!

Most publishing companies HATE writers because we think we know what we're doing - and we don't listen to them. They like to give us the brush off because they have hundreds of other projects that don't make money - and don't have time for another that might.

The writing industry is entirely geared to say 'no' first, last and everywhere else in between.

Sure we've had great success - but we sometimes feel that the hacks who are supposedly there to help writers, basically lack the passion and commitment that are the prerequisites of being a working artist. They just don't get it.

I guess the point of this article is to encourage you not to think of agents and trade publishers as the be all and end all of your life. There are a hundred, maybe even a thousand, other fine ways of becoming a successful writer.

And, like us, you should be targeting those too!

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is My Concern

Friday, November 21, 2008

What Makes a Great Book Title?

I received a lovely email from a treasured subscriber this week. 

She noted that I don't have anything on what makes a good title for an article, book or novel - or indeed how to come up with one.

Never one to shirk an opportunity to help writers, here's my advice on how to come up with compelling titles.

Use Magic

For the purposes of my fiction writing, I study magic, astrology, numerology, witchcraft and various other arcane subjects. I find it interesting - and revealing about human nature.

There's a little known philosophy amongst mages (yes, they exist!) that holds to the idea that the very sound and rhythm of certain letters, words and phrases is magical. Which I think is actually why the word 'spell' has a double meaning...

Anyway, what you can learn from this is that certain consonants like 'D' and 'P' and 'B' are more resonant on a listener (or reader) than other less 'dramatic' letters like 'M','N' or 'V' for instance.

Also, that phrases (and names) with an odd number of syllables - 3, 5, or 7 etc, as opposed to even numbers, tend to be more compelling and authoritative sounding.

Hence, The Da Vinci Code, (5 syllables and the hard consonants), The Horse Whisperer (5), The Celestine Prophecy (7), have a standalone strength that comes from the rhythm of the title.

Similarly, names are thought to be more solid sounding when configured around 3, 4 or 5 syllables, as opposed to 2 or more than 5, which apparently sound less authoritative - or simply put less 'catchy'.

Use Common Sense

You want to have titles that make sense. A long time ago I wrote a short story called 'The Concomitant of Isis'. I thought I was being very clever until my writing group complained that the title didn't make sense, sounded pompous, and didn't help a reader work out what the story was about! I changed it to 'Forever Dead.'

You need to use words that are clearly understood individually - even if the phrase they're contained in is not so transparent. Titles that fall into this category might be: The Joy Luck Club, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and The Hunt for Red October.

ASIDE: Book cover designers are said not to like the word 'The'. if you've ever studied book covers you'll note that designers often try to hide the definite article by making it smaller than the rest of the title, sometimes so small you can't even see it from a distance!

Be Mysterious

There's nothing wrong with being intriguing by using a phrase that suggest 2 or 3 interpretations, even meanings that sound cool but have little to do with the work.

I once heard that a Hollywood studio had a list of a dozen potential titles for an upcoming movie and herded some punters off the street and tried out the titles on them. 'Which movie would you go and see, based solely on the title?' they asked. I'm not sure how it turned out but the story gives you some idea of the power of a title alone.

The title 'Quantum of Solace' (note the 5 syllables) would seem to have this quality of inspiring the response 'What the h*ll is that about?' As does Nightmare on Elm Street or The Sting or Fatal Attraction or Identity etc. All great sounding but, unless you've seen the movie, mysterious.

Be Evocative

Professional copywriters and marketers are very aware that certain words create automatic, largely subconscious reactions in people. Words like summer, happiness or success on the up side of emotions and on the down, words like cry, despair and fear create a Pavlovian response in the listener which the astute writer can use to their advantage.

Words like brilliant, beautiful, bride and blonde (notice all the 'B's there) provoke emotional responses. As do deadly, damaged, direct and disaster.

Be Helpful

When it comes to article writing and self help books, the competition for a reader's attention is fierce. The best you can do in these situations is be right up front, even outrageous with your title. Which would you rather read - an article called 'Gardening Blues' or 'Six Ways to Clear That Crud!' Possibly neither but I'm sure you get the idea.

The average person's attention is subjected to 1000 advertising messages a day. In amongst that they are actually seeking useful information. How does anyone differentiate between the myriad of incoming data?

You need to be specific nowadays. You need your title to tell people exactly what your message is or if not, be intriguing enough to warrant a second look.

7 Habits of Successful People, How to be Your Own Life Coach, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and Chicken Soup for the Soul fall into this category.


There really is no better way of coming up with titles than to deliberately set writing time aside to brainstorm them.

Okay, great titles sometimes just come to you. They have an inherent insistence you keep returning to. But mostly, you'll have to juggle words and phrases until you find titles that appeal to you - and others.

Robyn and I do this around the pool table. We'll have a glass of wine and, while potting balls, brainstorm movie and book titles, even character names. Many are not great (we'll laugh and giggle about the bad ones) but one idea can lead to another, one word that is right can carry you on to combinations that sound better. Completely unpromising starts can lead us to a title or name that seems definitive, sharp and compelling.

Try it yourself with a friend - because most of all, you should...

Have Fun

Writing is about transferring your thoughts, words and ideas into the mind of another person - without you actually having to be there with them!

Remember that your interest, passion and enthusiasm for your own writing comes across. On some deep mysterious level, your reader can pick up on you, the writer - and trust you if they know you're sincere.

Make your titles reflect the joy you feel towards you work. Use your titles deliberately to pique a reader's or editor's interest.

Be mischievous, be clever but most of all, be honest.

Hope this helps.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How to Write - Even When You Don't Feel Like It!

One question I get asked all the time is, "How do I write when I'm not inspired or have nothing to say?"

Many new writers feel good about what they do and can work on pieces of writing because they are inspired. But many times they are taken aback when the inspiration fades and they are left with the 'task' of simply finishing a story, an article, a book, or a novel.

It can be quite alarming to feel like a writer, know your writing is good, but dread picking up where you left off on that manuscript!

Rest assured, this is normal.

It's not possible to be inspired, excited and even happy writing all of the time. Sometimes the work just has to be done.

Here are a few tips on maintaining your enthusiasm for writing.

Develop Multiple Projects

Diversify your writing portfolio. Be open to new ideas and commit to 'having a go' at different types of writing. Sometimes, when the idea of finishing a large project is too daunting, a sense of achievement can be gotten by completing smaller tasks - like an 800 word article, or a short story.

When Hemingway was uninspired he wrote short paragraphs - and spent hours editing them to finish up with 100 to 200 word vignettes. This is good practice - and can give you a great sense of accomplishment.

Make Lists and Schedules

We all know the importance of having goals. Without having something to aim at, how can you ever hit a target?

Sure, write down your objective. But go one stage further, break the process of achieving your goal into smaller chunks. Make a list of the baby steps necessary to complete a project. Put them in order and commit to spending ten minutes or half an hour, today, on at least starting your list of writing-things to do.

Dream, Focus, Fantasize

There's nothing wrong with imagining your success, and visualizing how you will feel and what might happen as a result of you finishing a project. It might be that 'seeing' your book published in your mind's eye is exactly the impetus you need to keep writing, especially when the process is slow and painstaking.

Attach Rewards

Reward yourself every step of the way. Everything from a nice cup of tea at the end your next page to a glass of wine - or three - at the end of a writing session.

Promise yourself a treat on completion of a chapter, or give yourself a holiday at the end of a novel. Consciously associate the reward and the work in your mind, let each inspire the other.

Do What You Enjoy Most, First

Why break your back and your spirit doing the most difficult tasks first? Do the thing you enjoy first and you'll feel happier and more energized when it comes the next item on your list. (You do make lists don't you? It's long been proven that the most successful people in life are those that list their objectives, daily, if not hourly!)

Write Out the Problem

First understand that there's no such thing as writer's block. You're either writing or you're not, there's no middle ground.

A builder who is not doing anything does not have builder's block. He is a lazy toe-rag charging me $95 dollars an hour to drink my coffee on my veranda.

The best way to overcome a writing block is to write down what you think the problem might be - and keep writing until you have written past the block. No other solution works as well as this.

Do Something Else

This is my secret weapon. When I can't think of what to write, I get up and walk around, or go sit in the garden for a bit. Other times I'll cook, or clean the dishes, or Hoover the carpet - it surprises me just how quickly ideas come when I take a short break.

Hm. What would happen if I got a cleaner in? Actually I know. In the past, I've always ended up helping them!

What I don't do nowadays is put on some music or have the TV going in the background. It never really helped and was way too distracting.


I've noticed that I'm very productive when something absolutely has to be done, whether I want to do it or not.

Sometimes a producer or publisher will need to have a manuscript in by a certain time and, against the odds, I'll be able to come up with thousands of words I didn't know I had in me.

Try setting artificial deadlines. Create your own sense of urgency and write, whether you want to or not, right up until the project is done. Sometimes this is the only way to complete the project.

When All Else Fails, Fake It

Whatever your mood, go to your manuscript, start working on it and keep going for ten minutes.

Pretend to be enjoying yourself. Pretend that what you're doing is important. Pretend that your writing absolutely needs to be done - for whatever reasons.

I guarantee that after just a few minutes, you will feel your mind 'catch up' with the pretence - and you will begin to enjoy the writing process.

It's weird how this works - but it does.

If this doesn't work for you - or indeed, if all of the above fails to work for you - it's probably time to consider an alternate career, as Mark Twain once famously said, like chopping wood.

In the mean time,

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Friday, October 17, 2008

You Get What You Focus On

It's easy to feel negative.

The media is always telling us we're on the brink of economic collapse - that it's only a matter of days before the biggest slump since the 1930s Depression takes away the value of our property, our savings and our livelihoods.

Many would-be writers are tightening their belts, ignoring the call to write in favor of the day job. They're giving up their dreams in droves, convinced that it's all too hard...

Uh, did I miss something?

Doesn't anyone remember basic economics from school?

I thought it was well known that economic activity goes in seven year cycles - apparently something to do with the sun - and that boom and bust years are natural and inevitable.

Smart stock market people know there's never a bad time for investors - there's just alternate opportunities. While some stocks slide, others climb. When the market is overpriced, it adjusts itself by devaluing. When stocks and interest rates are high, people stop buying. When stocks are cheap, new investors snap them up and the investment picks the market back up again. This is how it works. The world economies have been surviving like this for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

So why is it that now, today, it's supposed to be so much worse?

Could it possibly be because we're collectively making it that way?

That by tightening our belts we're actually starving the economy of the investment it needs?

Maybe you think I'm naive - but I did study Economics! And one thing I learned well is that much of the stock market is driven by good old human fallibility - and perception.

What the market focuses on is what it gets. Boom and collapse become self- fulfilling prophecies - every time - because, as humans, we believe that's how it should work.

Prosperity and hardship, security and scarcity are all illusions. They are not real concrete things - they are merely 'feelings' you have about yourself and the people, the world around you.

Real success and genuine happiness have got nothing to do with money. You either feel good about yourself, your situation, your world, or you don't. Prosperity comes from within.

Do you have less chance of being a professional writer now than you did last year?

Of course not.

If anything you have a better chance - because so many other writers are throwing in the towel!

Don't you be one of them.

Stick with it. Be positive. Fight back. Come up with new angles. Write more, submit more, be the exception.

Often, to make progress, we just need to change the way we think - and remove our own negativity when all around us are in train wreck mode.

If you really believe we're heading for a crash (to continue the metaphor), get off the train. Go for a walk in the sunshine. Move towards your goal feeling light. Remind yourself that when you believe in yourself and your talent and capabilities, things always work out for the better.

It's self-doubt and lack of motivation that will kill your ambitions every time.

I'm convinced that if we all got together and decided the crash wasn't going to happen and even if it did, so what - the apparent looming crisis would dissolve, as if by magic, overnight.

Don't buy into the doom and gloom hype.

It's not real.

And if it's not real, surely it can't hurt you.

Be happy, be grateful for what you have, make big plans and move into the future with confidence.

You have a duty to believe in your dreams, and take action consistently.

To quote the old 80s pop song: "The Only Way is Up!"

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is My Concern

Friday, October 10, 2008

Theme and Premise - What's the Difference?

I was asked this question by an esteemed subscriber this week and thought it might make an interesting article.

In the publishing and movie industry the terms theme and premise are bandied around liberally - and it's assumed that writers know the difference, even if agents, publishers and marketing people are not so up on the precise meanings.

Basically the premise to a story is your starting point. It's the idea behind it - its reason to be.

I've seen members of writer's groups ask the question: "Can you write a story without a premise?" I would have to say you could try - but fairly soon you'd run out of things to say. You need a premise to give a story legs.

Besides which, most writers are able to sum up what their story is about - or going to be about - in a short sentence of two.

So what makes a premise?

Mostly an intriguing idea, a what-if scenario or a justaposition of two disparate notions fused together.

The premise is usually an 'original' idea - in that it's sufficiently different from other ideas - already written and explored - to warrant further interest.

Theme is altogether different.

The theme is the overall thrust of the story - what it explores. It's the end result and may have little to do with the premise.

Unlike the premise, your theme doesn't need to be particularly original - there are only around a dozen or so themes to explore anyway.

How about some examples - to help clarify all this rhetoric?

Take Romeo and Juliet. The premise is two young people from warring families fall in love. The theme is star crossed love leads to tragedy.

What about Harry Potter? The premise is a young boy discovers he's a wizard. The theme is anyone can become a hero.

The Da Vinci Code: the premise is that the Catholic Church has a secret agenda. The theme is that it's time to change the way we feel about organized religion.

Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.

The premise to Crime and Punishment: a young man kills an old lady for her money. The theme: sin leads to redemption.

As you can see, theme and premise are usually related but not always in a way you'd expect.

When people ask you what your story is about, they normally want you to explain the premise first, followed by your theme. Writers have a tendency to think in themes - especially when they're working on a story - but themes are fairly dull to relate. The premise is the interesting part - the thing that excites a listener or reader.

When pitching a novel or a screenplay to a publisher or producer, focus on the premise.

Consciously write and rework a sentence or two to get the premise into a short and snappy description of your story.

If you don't have a compelling premise, chances are you won't generate much interest in your story, no matter how good it is.

That's the reality of the modern world: distillation.

Learn how to distil your story ideas into sound bytes, and you'll go far.

Robyn and I have had to do this a lot in the last couple of years, since we've been involved in heavily pitching our ideas to publishers, agents and producers. It has a downside.

Sometimes you'll be talking to a movie producer and she'll say "Got any ideas for stories?" So you pitch the premise to your most beloved story.

Time passes while she considers it.

"What else have you got?" comes the eventual reply.

This is not because the idea is bad but more to do with their personal bias or commercial expertise. You can pitch another premise and she'll like that one - and will then listen with interest to its theme.

The modern media focusses primarily on the angle - the sidelong glance at a topic that piques the interest quickly. This is not such a bad thing for the writer, so long as you understand it and use it to your advantage.

It's not unusual to end up working on a project where you pitch a premise that you haven't begun writing yet. You're encouraged to develop the idea because the premise is compelling.

You may, like many writers, have only one or two themes that you explore in all of your work.

But the trick is to make those themes seem fresh and exciting by having a premise that makes readers want to read on.

Hope this helps.

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is My Concern

The Art of Writing

I've been studying drawing recently (I'm trying to teach myself movie storyboarding) and came across a great quote from comic artist Klaus Janson. He said, "Every creative person I know works from the ground up, from the big to the small, from the general to the specific."

Many writers forget this when they're writing.

They get so absorbed in details that they forget about - or can't see - the importance of the big picture.

In the past I corresponded with a writer who obsessed over her opening chapter so much that she never wrote her novel. Months went by and no matter how much I encouraged her to move on, she couldn't. To her, if the first three thousand words weren't exactly right, she couldn't let herself continue with a story that she might never finish.

Now, I know this is common.

It's also dumb.

Because writing stories is about context. The big. You cannot know what is good about a story - even down to the tiniest word or sentence - unless you write the whole thing first.

It's like getting preoccupied with a few rivets on a steel hull when you should be concerned with whether the boat actually floats.

Take my last novel as an example.

I decided early on to open the story with a long chapter about how a bad guy escapes from prison.

I did the research. Did prisoners escape from jail? Yep, apparently all the time.

How? In a variety of ways. Robyn and I discussed the whys and hows and what would be believable. I decided I would have the bad guy fake a suicide and then overpower a guard. Fine - not overly inspired but I thought I could make it seem real in the context of a low security asylum.

I wrote the first chapter and included descriptions of two other characters and lots of dialogue, action and suspense. I thought it was good - a great way to open a novel.

Then I spent the next few weeks writing the first draft.

I let the story rest on the hard drive for a couple of months.

I came back to the story fresh and looked at the whole thing. I rearranged some chapters, changed some of the events and characters around and brainstormed a bit with Robyn over the plot. She suggested some inspired twists and I made notes about what to include and rework on the second draft.

Then I realized something important.

That opening the story with the bad guy didn't work. I realized it would be better to open with the heroine - and to hide the identity of the bad guy until much later on in the story.

So I had to drop the first chapter. Delete it.

Around 5000 words of good writing gone - perhaps not forever but at least for now.

Imagine if I was still obsessing, like my lady writer, about the first chapter. I might have spent years working on something that never appeared in the final version.

Consider that.

Remember it the next time you get stuck writing a small section.

Write past tricky bits - or decide to work on them later.

Get the whole story down first before you try to construct beautiful and meaningful prose.

You're wasting time if you're describing leaves and stalks that may need to be hacked back or uprooted.

Editing is not a chore: it is the writing that readers see.

Your job is to create something worth editing first.

Hope this helps.

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is My Concern

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What's Hot and What's Not

I get asked this question all the time.

Writers everywhere want to know what's popular, what will sell now and in the future. They think there might be some great oracle out there that can answer this question - or that maybe publishers and agents on the inside might know this information and are somehow keeping it to themselves.

Would that this were true!

Think about it. Five years ago could you have predicted what you are doing now?

Most of us don't know where we're going to be living in five years time - and even if we think we do, events conspire to change our plans. Life is organic, some might say unreliable.

Even two years ago, is there any way you could have foreseen today's news? Could you have known which celebrities or politicians were going to be in the spotlight? Or which ones had faded from view?

Of course not. It doesn't work that way.

The bestselling books and movies that are with us today were conceived and written AT LEAST two years ago - many much more than that.

Sometimes an artist, writer or director may have been working on an idea for decades before it reaches the public.

What's hot now may have seemed a completely naff idea five years ago - but the idea was pursued until it was fully formed and ready for the public.

Writers have a responsibility to write what's important to them - without forever casting nervous eyes at the marketplace and wondering if they're misguided or somehow missing the boat.

Because it's the writer's vision, dedication and enthusiasm for her chosen subject that will eventually resonate with the public.

It's simple really. People like good ideas that are well expressed - no matter what genre or subject matter is currently trendy.

Think about the books, movies, writers and artists that you like. They have a timeless quality, right? Being a slave to the market doesn't make a creative person better or even more successful.

We see many people who try to jump on bandwagons - but do we respect them for that? Do they last?

Rarely. It's a person's work or personality, their uniqueness that we respect, relate to and cherish.

Your personal integrity is important. It's your love of a subject and your faith in your vision that will carry you forward. It's these things too that will inspire publishers and producers to believe in you.

There's no point in thinking, oh, JK Rowling and Dan Brown are successful, therefore I should do something like that - because that's precisely what publishers don't want writers to do.

You have to think in terms of yourself. Not, is there room for another ---------- (insert author's name here), but is there room for ---------? (Insert your name here!)

It's being passionate about your work that will - if you're serious, willing to work hard and okay, get lucky too - that will make YOU the next big thing, YOU that hot new trend that lesser writers aspire to.

Life's too short to be forever trying to predict trends. If it were at all possible to know the future, we'd all have won the lottery by now - or we wouldn't have wasted time with all those nasty people we wished we hadn't met!

The best we can do is write from the heart, and keep on writing to the best of our ability.

Accept rejection as positive criticism, rewriting and reworking ideas until they're strong and incontrovertible - until they shine with an inner light that can't be doused or ignored.

Most of all, believe in yourself and your work.

Do that, and the rest will follow.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is Writing Style?

Let's get one thing straight. A lot of people search the term 'writing style' when they're actually looking for 'writing fonts'.

I know. I regularly get Google visitors who've typed in 'tattoo writing styles' or 'graffiti writing styles'. Clearly, they're not looking for 'writing style' at all but rather a collection of fonts they can refer to, copy, or learn from.

'Style' is different - more aligned to technique than anything else.

There are various official writing styles - but these are more specifically ways of constructing essays or theses rather than refering to what most writers regard as 'ways of writing'.

The APA style is set by the American Psychological Association and is basically a way of organizing information for reports and social science documents. Hardly of use to the average creative writer.

The MLA style dictated by the Modern Language Association is favored for college essays and english literature papers. Again, helpful when you're at school - but nothing a creative writer need worry too much about.

The Chicago style, or CMS, is most often cited as 'correct' for American English in that most editors and publishers aspire to using its recommended formats. First published in 1906, the Chicago Manual of Style is now in its 15th incarnation - and is the standard for writing non fiction in journals and magazines.

But what about fiction?

What's a writer supposed to refer to when it comes to developing an acceptable writing style?

Easy answer. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

It's an old book - first written in 1918 - but its rules (most of them anyway) are still relevant today. You can download a copy of the first edition from my Academy for free.

When it comes to fiction, writing style is often personal.

Your own mind - and your own sense of balance - will dictate how you put a piece of writing together.

Of course it's important to tighten what you do - to make your writing clearer, more succinct and therefore more powerful.

You need to look at your sentences and make sure you're actually saying what you mean - and meaning what you say.

The way to do this is to write first - and then be thorough with your editing afterwards.

It's much too hard to write perfect prose the first time around. For a start, you're not always sure what you have to say before you start writing!

So write first, then edit.

Edit out wordiness, cliches and qualifiers - the things we put in in speech naturally but clutter the writing when it's on paper.

Edit out the passive voice from your writing. Readers should be able to quickly identify the noun (the object in the sentence) and the verb (the doing word). Writing passively - where the verb often gets mistaken for the object - is not literary, it's lazy.

Edit out the big words, unnecessary adjectives, and reconstruct sentences into their simplest form.

Use the correct punctuation.

Be grammatical.

Your goal is to be understood, not to impress. Being understood - and using language effectively - impresses far more than hiding your meaning behind a fancy writing 'style'.

Because, perhaps ironically, the best writing style is invisible.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is My Concern

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How Many Words Do You Write?

The author John Braine once said, "A writer is someone who counts words."

Do you?

You should - because it's a sure fire way of getting around writer's block -and a good way of keeping yourself on track.

Having specific word counts to aspire to, will keep you writing more - and for longer. 

You'll have more to show for your efforts, more to submit, and consequently more work coming in. 

Your writing success is directly correlated to your word count.

Last night I was talking to a writer - well, someone who wanted to be a full time writer - and she told me she'd taken a year to get to her manuscript to where it was now. 

I asked, casually of course, how many words she'd written so far.

"Four thousand," she said. 

Four thousand! 

G'ah - that's less than eleven words a day - what's she doing, I thought, chiseling them in stone?

By stunning contrast, Robyn held the whip to me yesterday (metaphorically speaking) and I produced 2500 words for a treatment we have to get to a producer by 5pm today. 

And I did that between 10am and 2pm - taking a break to make lunch - because I had to pick up the kids at 3. 

Talk about pressure!

But that's the point. 

If you don't pressure yourself, you ain't never gonna have enough words down to make you a contenda (to mis-quote Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront'!)

Writing something every day is important. 

Pushing your limit is important too. 

It doesn't matter if you start out writing just eleven words a day - as long as you consciously try and increase that amount as each day passes.

I try to write - actually try is not the word, have to write would be more truthful - at least 500 words a day or I feel bad, like I've failed in some unannounced contest. 

2000 words and I feel good- complete somehow.

Which means that I could have written my friend's manuscript in two days - rather than take a year over it.

I know this is common among writers.

People call themselves writers because they have a writing project on the boil - whether they're actually working on it actively or not. 

I used to do this too. 

I felt like a writer because I had a novel that I would dip into every now and then. 

I spent years like this, believing myself a writer because I wrote sometimes.

Now I know different. 

Writing for a living means exactly what the phrase suggests: you write because you have to live, and you live to write

Writing becomes the center of your life - and you make a living from it!

The whole idea of that seemed like a fantasy before I took the plunge - before I realized I just had to let go of the silly 9 to5. 

Before I realized that holding on to a false sense of security was wasting my time - time that could be better spent being a writer.

This would be my advice to you:

Don't wait, plan, and dream about being a writer. Just do it.

Take the chance - we're only here once, our lives are on loan.

Do what makes you happy.

Reject compromise. 

Reject criticism. 

Reject everything and everyone who would want to see you live a lesser life.

Simply, write, and...

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Writing the Big Scenes in Fiction

Let me ask you a question.

Do you avoid / dread / loathe writing the big scenes in your fiction?

Over the years I've noticed one of two things.

One, the writer is so nervous about writing the big important scenes that they will subconsciously avoid them by taking ages over getting to them.

Here's how it goes.

There's a crucial scene in the story where there's a confrontation or a climactic event - and the writer is creeping up towards it, filling the pages with exposition and preparatory dialogue - only to freeze just before 'the big scene' and put off writing anymore - sometimes for months or, in some cases, years.

The other scenario involves glossing over that part of the story. You'll often see writers fill pages with the run up to the big event - all good showing instead of telling and yet, when it comes to 'the big scene' it's told from a distance or from an uninvolved point of view or, most commonly, in retrospect, after the event.

This might seem strange, though it's fairly common.

It's kinda related to what I've talked about often - the idea that writers are sometimes afraid to confront their own deepest emotions. I think that in the same way most sane people avoid confrontation, writers will avoid opening themselves up to a challenge.

Climactic set pieces make very compelling reading. Writers are often judged by their ability to pull them off - and perhaps that's the problem. Writers don't want to be judged by writing that is focussed, action based and as graphic as an open wound.

We'd prefer to hide behind the relative comfort of internal dialogue, character exposition and literary description. 


'Big scenes' normally involve heightened emotion - something not all writers are comfortable describing - because I assume they're worried that their particular experience of heightened emotion seems so personal - even private.

But that's the point. Readers want to know what other people's heightened emotions are like!

They want to experience the thrill of adventure, danger, risk, marriage, death, murder and the myriad of other BIG emotions any one of us may fall victim to.

It's important not to shy away from the challenging - in life and your writing. 

Challenging yourself makes you grow - gain wisdom and lead a more fulfilling life.

You don't have to drive Speedway cars to describe the thrill of it. You can use your imagination - that's what it's for - and describe what you feel for the benefit of readers.

In a sense that's your job - to give a reader the experience of 'being there' without them having to leave their armchair.

You owe it to your readers to confront the big scenes.

As an exercise, try writing JUST big scenes - especially if you're a little afraid of them. I think you'll find that they're very satisfying to complete, even if they might take just a little longer to get right.

Get straight into the action. Keep the sentences relatively short and describe ONLY what is happening.

I'm sure you'll benefit - and so will your readers.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Baring Your Soul - A Writer's Guide

Many new writers are afraid of opening up and letting people know what they're like inside. They're nervous of allowing readers access to what they think and believe. They don't want people to see inside of them because they're afraid of criticism and ridicule.

How do you defeat this debilitating condition? 

Because, really, that's what it is.

In reality, nobody important is going to attack you or your writing.

Even if they do, what does it matter? Critics display much more about their own failings when they attack others.

You need to get over any insecurities about the way you express yourself and find the strength to be honest, at least in your writing.

The fact is your writing will never truly soar unless you have the courage to let it all out and 'expose yourself' to the world.


Seriously, you will only ever be seen as 'original' if you learn to be open and honest in your writing. Your own slant on the world is what makes you interesting. 

It's your individual sense of logic that makes your writing unique.

It's too easy to fall back on conventional wisdom and have viewpoints that you already know are accepted and lauded. 

But if you're simply trotting out standard thinking on issues, you're not adding anything of value to the world.

You need to trust your own instincts - and write from the heart, whatever the consequences, most of which are imaginary anyway.

Here are a few tips on how to get used to being truly honest in your writing:

1. Write about the worst thing that's happened to you

Get it all out, every feeling, however low, every nuance of how it went down, who was to blame and how much you hate the people or events that caused it to happen.

2. Write about the most horrible thing you've ever done

It's easy for us to write about nice things and the good in ourselves but we hide from our other, darker side. No more - write down the most nasty vicious things you've ever thought or done. Don't be afraid, you don't have to show them to anyone - but you do need to purge those demons and get them out on paper.

3. List your crimes / sins in detail

All of us are a mess of good and bad. The facade we present to the world is an amalgam of what we want others to see. We all have bad thoughts and evil moments - it's how we deal with them that makes us who we are. Get it all out in the open.

4. Name your enemies and describe them

Really try to get inside the people you don't like - describe their physical appearance but also try to imagine how their minds work -and what they think about - especially about you.

5. Write about your embarrassing habits

Leave no stone unturned. No matter how bad, write about the things you wouldn't mention to a soul. Write down exactly what it is you enjoy - or hate - about those private little things you do when nobody's looking.

6. Write about your secret prejudices

We all have them - thoughts and notions that we know are not quite politically correct or acceptable, even to ourselves sometimes. But get them down on paper, explore your logic behind them and how they shape your more conventional notions.

Why Do This?

This process of getting everything out on paper is cathartic. 

You'll feel lighter inside after you've done some of the above exercises. 

You'll realize that you've been carrying around a lot of your dark side as baggage.

And that simply letting go on paper can really help you center yourself and free your mind.

Plus, you'll have taught yourself that 'exposing' yourself on paper is not quite as hard as you'd imagined. 

There may even be some great pieces of writing there, important pieces that you can later rework.

But most of all, you'll have gotten used to being objective about your thoughts and emotions. 

This new perspective will enable you to approach your writing with renewed energy and conviction.

And a determination to be more honest and forthright.

To become a better writer.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Writing a Blockbuster - the Formula

A student asked me this week if I knew of any successful writers that 'showed' how they took their first drafts and made them into the highly polished versions you see in the bookstores. 

I could only think of a couple.

Stephen King in On Writing includes a rough draft of a paragraph and gives the reader an indication of how he goes about editing it to make it tighter. Cutting out words, changing phrases etc, generally improving the work. All very illuminating.

(Incidentally, people were so intrigued by Stephen's spontaneous example that he felt forced to turn it into a full blown story which became 1408!)

Anyway, the only other person I could think of was Ken Follett. 

I remembered that I'd read a book once by Al Zuckerman which included various drafts of Ken's work as he edited his manuscripts to a publishable standard. So - I took a look at Ken's website.

On that I found a gem: a masterclass on writing a bestseller. And this is from a man who's had a few, so if anyone knows how it's done, he does!

What I found most intriguing though was that Ken seemed to think there was indeed a formula for writing a blockbuster novel - and so does Al Zuckerman, one of his highly respected agents - a guy who actually guides authors through the process of writing best selling novels!

So - rather than have you wade through books and websites trying to find illusive information, I thought I'd present what these guys say about writing a blockbuster novel - by presenting the formula here! Woohoo!

The Formula

1. Come up with a scenario whereby two or three central characters are engaged in a life or death struggle to overcome a huge problem, the bigger the better.

2. Think through the scenario and its setting, the characters and their dilemma, and ask yourself, has this been done before? If so, discard the idea and go back to 1.

3. Write down 5 to 10 bullet points that will comprise the 'meat' of the story.

4. Expand on the bullet points until you have a 25 to 40 page outline of your story told in the present tense, introducing all of your characters and all of the story in the right sequence. Each paragraph should represent a significant plot point.

5. Show this outline to anyone and everyone who will read it and make comments. This might be friends, agents, publishers, the man who collects the trash, anyone. Make note of their comments and adjust the story accordingly. Ken Follett suggests this process of creating the ultimate novel outline might take anything up to a year to complete.

6. Write the first draft. Make sure you have a significant 'story turn' every four to six pages. (I told you it was a formula!) Adhere to this rule - too many story turns too often will confuse the reader, too few and they will get bored.

7. Repeat the process mentioned in 5. with the first draft. Make adjustments accordingly. This should take between 6 months and a year to get right. The first draft may take a month or two but the rest of the time is spent re-writing to make the novel perfect.

The Writing

Now, the most important aspect of this formula is that you don't approach it necessarily as a writer. No, you approach it as a storyteller. The writing must be crystal clear, only concerned with story. If there's ever a passage that smacks of 'good writing', you must ruthlessly delete it.

Because, when you're writing a blockbuster, you're not in the business of impressing people with your writing skills. Your text should 'transparent', totally clear and focussed on telling a story.

There should be no barrier between the reader and the story. There should be no author intruding on the text - and the writing should never 'get in the way' of the characters, their actions and the ultimate resolution of their agendas.

Many writers make the mistake of thinking that merely 'being a good writer' is an end in itself. It's not. It's merely the beginning.

The ability to write well is one thing but the ability to re-write, edit, alter and change everything from the tiniest bit of punctuation to the overall theme of a novel without so much as a sigh is the sign of a true blockbuster novelist.

So, now you know how it's done, go for it!

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

The Writing Academy

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