"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: February 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Being a Modern Writer

Rob Parnell

Does anyone actually read articles anymore?

I'm not sure.

I know from my own experience that when I'm surfing the Net, I generally don't sit and read articles all the way through.

For most of us the purpose of surfing is get information quickly. And reading off a screen can be tiring. So we tend to skim.

Surfing is actually a good word for it. We rarely dive in and explore the sea of information available. We ride the surface of it, soaking in the spray, barely getting our feet wet...

Okay, enough of this metaphor!

Scientists have proven that we don't actually read words anyway. What we do is recognize phrases - collections of words - that create mental images in our minds. It's those images that we use to absorb the information we need.

Not the words at all.

Hence the need for quick bites of info - the way news is reported nowadays, in pulses designed to hook us, but rarely do. Mainly because those pulses are so effective, we don't feel the need to dig deeper.

I guess this is one of the challenges we face as writers for the modern world.

Sorry to burst your bubble but all those sites that advertize for article writers aren't in the least bit interested in your writing. The reason for their existence is the advertizing revenue created by all the Google ads that surround them.

It's always been this way in fact. All those glossy magazines in the supermarket only exist because large corporate companies pay to have their ads in them. Almost never can a magazine survive on the strength of its editorial - or the quality of its writing.

It's worth remembering this when writing for publication. That commercial considerations are fundamental to any kind of success.

Writers may be principled and concerned about more important issues than money - but we are perhaps the only ones.

Book publishers play this game with writers.

They pretend they're interested in good writing. They may even delude themselves into believing it, but it's not true - just ask the marketing department.

The bottom line is sales. And if a crap writer sells more books than a good one, the crap writer is king.

We visited a book shop in town yesterday where this phenomenon was self evident. The shelves were full of so called bestsellers - Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Twilight, The Secret and all their spin-offs - and that was about it.

Sure there were other authors and lots of celebrity and TV related books, a section for sport and cooking - but there was no real sense of the literary in the shop. It existed to make money - and as a result was largely empty. We talked to the staff about this - and they confirmed that declining sales for books had resulted in the sketchy fare available in their shop - a well known chain too.

I have a feeling that this diminishing regard for the written word is a trend that will continue. But as I've said before, even if the demand for good writing apparently falters, there is still a great need for writers.

Because without writers there are no ideas. No stories. No movies. No news. No media. No computer games. No Internet. Nothing.

It's almost as if there's a deliberate attempt to hide writing in plain sight. The media is a largely visual medium these days. Everything moves - has momentum and color and impact created by lights dancing in front of our eyes. But this is an illusion, because the media is built on the written word, translated into images for consumption.

Even the bites of information created for the Net I talked about earlier, play along with this notion. Headlines are visuals - and it's worth bearing this in mind when you write them.

I recently read an interview with James Patterson about his books. His chapters are short and there's a lot of white space in his books as a result. The interviewer mentioned this and James smiled and said this was deliberate - to draw in the new breed of reluctant readers that populate this planet. Too many words, you see, and we switch off.

A Neilson poll once revealed that only 5% of book buyers actually finish the books they buy. As an avid reader - someone who couldn't possibly NOT finish a book I'd started, I found this fact alarming - and left me wondering why they bought them at all!

They must have liked the covers. And who said people shouldn't judge a book by its cover? Probably a writer, not a publisher or a consumer, that's for sure.

It's kind of ironic that I'm writing an article about people not reading articles.

And if you've reached this point you can pat yourself on the back for being one of the tiny percentage of people that will ever get this far.

But hey, someone out there must be reading things all the way through!

Maybe it's just me and you.

Keep Writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Being a Writer

Rob Parnell

I can't remember who said it but a writer once pointed out that nobody will ever miss something you didn't write.

People don't walk around wishing they can find the genius they are unaware of, or the book that hasn't been written yet.

It's the harshest reality a writer must face. That nobody really cares whether you finish your novel or magnum opus - or whether you even work on it at all. A book is nothing until it's published - and even then, given current trends, it's unlikely to set the world on fire or sell more than a few copies.

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.

It's funny. I was rereading a little of Stephen King's "On Writing" this week and I noticed something I'd missed previously.

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 used to think that.

But later in his career, after he'd written around twenty novels, he'd 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 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 always easy after all.

It's often said that if you find writing easy, you're probably not doing it right. I know from experience that those writers who tell me they found writing their novel a breeze, usually need some serious editing!

Don't get me wrong. I do think that writing the first draft of a story or a book should be fairly effortless or if not, an exhilarating experience for a writer. 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.

There's editing too. And having something important to say. And having the kind of mind that can hold an entire book in it - and to be able to 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 I know have no great regard for the process, only an overwhelming conviction that, in order 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 is was 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.

So 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 to be able to write half a page of scribbled lines gave you the right to call yourself a writer.

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

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 inside who was never going to be satisfied until you gave him free rein to take over your life.

But if he's not there, except as a vague yearning, maybe the best thing is to quit while you're ahead!

Being a full time writer is still one of the hardest ways to live. Ask any writer. 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.

You know it's good when you finish something great and you like yourself more for having done it.

But be clear on this: commitment to writing books is not for the fainthearted.

Take one step at a time - but be sure you have good sturdy shoes before you start.

Keep Writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who's Your Main Antagonist?

Rob Parnell

When writing fiction, writers are forced to consider the protagonist and his or her agenda. We need to ask what our hero's goals are and where they want to end up as people.

Now usually, there is an antagonist whose desire to thwart the hero's goals is at least as strong, if not stronger than the hero's.

But what about writers themselves? Who is their main antagonist?

Alas - usually themselves.

When it comes to writing, there's that little guy inside your head who wants to criticize - endlessly. His voice reminds you constantly that you have no special talent, that your writing is average at best, and that you should never, ever show your work to anyone because, well, it's crap.

Helpful little fella. And to think, he lives inside of us!

Suppressing the inner critic is a necessary part of the writing process. If we couldn't silence the little rascal, we'd never write anything. Indeed many writers get stuck on page one because they can't ignore the nagging doubts the inner critic has no qualms about repeating and reinforcing every time they sit down and write.

Much of my teaching in my Easy Writing System is about dealing with your internal critic because I think, especially for the first draft, it's not very helpful. The inner critic's job comes later, after the main thrust of the story is down - from beginning to end.

Because one of the main problems with the inner critic is that he stops you from finishing anything. I know many writers who never finish anything because the critic takes over their thinking before they get anywhere near the end of their stories or pieces. Not good.

Disastrous in fact.

It gets worse.

Because even after you've completed your work, polished it, worked hard and let yourself believe you have created something of value, the critic is still there.

You have the submission envelope in your hand, ready. But he's waiting by the door, arms folded, foot tapping, looking at you with that nasty smug expression, saying, "You've not actually going to send that out are you?"

And you're forced to wonder:

Just how embarrassing would it be to send this out?

Just how bad is my writing?

What will people think of it?

What will people think of me?

None of which is helpful to you - or your potential career.

Well, there's hope. Because the fact is, it doesn't matter how far you get, that inner critic never goes away. So while you can consult with him on technical issues and listen to his advice sometimes, you really just have to shut him up, lock him away in the shed, when the time comes to submitting.

You need to develop a brave and cavalier attitude towards your work once it's done. Get it out there.

What's the worse that can happen?

You get rejected. So what? Join the ranks of the writer. We all get rejected all the time, for all the wrong reasons - and only occasionally for the right ones!

I remember a story from the music business (one of my favorite sources of anecdotes) about Marianne Faithful. She was a pop star in the sixties and had a fling with Mick Jagger if memory serves. Well, at one point she was making a comeback single with the Pet Shop Boys and got very angry with herself during the vocal take.

At one point she started crying, beating herself up for being less than perfect. At which point Neil Tennant said to her, "Hey Marianne, get it together, it's only a song."

And there's a lesson here I think. Because if you think about it, your submission is only a story. You might attach all kinds of significance to it but, really, it's just another bunch of words that, if you never send them out, are not going to be read - or missed - anyway.

So again, what's the worst that can happen?

If you get rejected, write some more. Send them out instead. Any successful writer will tell you that the more you send out the more lucky you seem to get. And better probably, simply because you will not give up.

Look at Matthew Reilly.

Here's a writer with awesome self belief. Here's a guy that, despite being serially rejected, self published his work because he was convinced there was a huge market for his extraordinarily bad prose. (Sorry, Matthew, nothing personal. I'm actually a big fan.)

And you know what?

He was right. He's now a best selling author, big time. And all of his faults and inadequacies as a writer have become his trademark, his genius if you will.

People say the same about JK Rowling (behind closed doors of course) - and dare I say, many other billion dollar phenomena.

You don't have to be superb anymore. You don't have to be literary. You just have to be out there.

You have to catch the tide of popularity - and find your own fans.

They're out there. Waiting for you.

You just gotta believe it.

Keep Writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

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