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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

That Competitive Edge

I've been reading a few thrillers recently, branching out into authors I'm unfamiliar with. I thought this might be good for my writing - to get to know what other writers are doing.

I noticed a pattern, as is my wont.

Good reads are not always just about drama, conflict and characterization. More and more there seems to be a need for an over-arcing theme that is independent of the story.

Often this will take the form of an historical event or a branch of science or an intimate affinity to a subject unfamiliar to the reader.

I remember that Stephen King once said that he'd noticed that novels written by people with specialized knowledge had less trouble getting published than himself sometimes. (Who knew?)

Tradesmen who knew how to fix fences or pan for gold - and who weaved their specialization into their fiction - could sometimes create stories that were more compelling than mere dramas.

I suppose that's why certain authors have used their former professions to lift their books out of the ordinary. An ex-cop like Joseph Wambaugh springs to mind. An ex-doctor like Robin Cook. And ex-lawyers like John Grisham and Richard North Patterson. Many ex-teachers too like Dan Brown and JK Rowling use their gift for simple instruction to help guide their readers through complex story-lines.

This comes down to what media people call the 'angle'. Gone are the days when you can interest a publisher with lines like "this is a story about love, familial loyalty and triumph over adversity." You also need a theme, as in "set in a wildlife park" or "set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War" for example.

Writers often tend to suppress their other interests when it comes to fiction. Writers have a tendency to think that anything in their own lives is not appropriate for their own fiction.

This is a mistake I think.

If you have specialized knowledge about a subject, then by all means weave it into your story.

Do research and find little snippets of info, bizarre facts and show the methodology behind certain professions like banking, insurance or even plumbing, fishing or scrap-booking.

The most famous example of this in recent years is the new obsession with forensics. Who would have thought that something as intricate as DNA, fingerprints, blood spatter, pathology and criminal profiling would became such a fascinating arena, ripe for mass consumption?

Of course there's always been a huge market for crime and mystery. I suppose people like the combination of following clues and eventually seeking justice - especially if there are personal agendas and compelling characters involved.

In this regard, Sue Grafton was one of my favorite authors. She never ceased to inspire me. Not just as a good read, or as a great writer. I've found myself analyzing her technique too.

She wrote mysteries from the limited point of view of her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone. The stories are set in the late 1980s when forensics wasn't so sophisticated. Even computers were rarely used for anything (hard to believe this was such a short time ago, isn't it?)

I love the way Sue Grafton uses the 1930s detective genre to show her hero moving from place to place, interviewing a myriad of characters and uncovering the mystery while at the same time presenting the minutiae of Millhone's life. The detail is so personal you really feel you know this character's life as if it's real.

And that's the secret I think. To make fiction seem real.

This is where personal, specialized or well researched extra knowledge can help lift a story out of the ordinary.

Whether it's a deliberate focus on setting or reference to the specifics of a professional career or a detailed grasp of a subject other than writing - it all helps.

Being an expert - or appearing to be an expert - on something other than writing will help you sell your stories I believe.

I recently read "The Ghost" by Robert Harris - a fabulous novel about a ghost writer compiling a politician's memoirs. The main character says this:

"All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. All these bad books have one thing in common: they don't ring true. I'm not saying that a good book is true necessarily, just that it feels true for the time you're reading it."

Sage counsel indeed!

Worth bearing in mind the next time you want to bring something true - however seemingly minor or personal to you - into your own stories!

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell
Your Success is My Concern
Rob's Writing Academy

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inspiration Point

I borrowed a book from the library, written by Ray Bradbury, called "Zen in the Art of Writing".

It's so packed with great writing advice I'm almost loathe to finish it - because then I'll have to take it back!

Writers often wonder about inspiration - and how to get good ideas for stories.

And often, when writers start out, they wonder what kind of writer they're going to be - and what kind of stories they will write, and in which genre.

Mr Bradbury has some advice on both of these issues. In the pages of his book, he explains what helped him.

He says he's been writing at least a thousand words every day of his life since he was twelve. Great. We like to hear that all the best writers have this simple habit ingrained.

He'd been reading a lot of science fiction since he was a kid he said and naturally thought he was destined to be an SF writer.

Trouble was, in his early twenties, he wasn't having much success with his SF stories. Editors complained that they were derivative and not very original. Ray agonized over this because he knew in his heart he would have to make a living from writing - there was after all nothing else he wanted to do - but how was he going to get his work published if editors weren't impressed with his stories?

He made a decision to take a couple weeks off to write down all his favorite words and phrases. Some of them intended as titles for works, some just words that he liked. Words that appealed to him and struck him as evocative.

This is the important part. He didn't just pick words that sounded good. He picked words that inspired an emotional reaction in him. The words on their own may have sounded innocuous to anyone else. Words like BODY, LAKE, CARNIVAL and DOLL. But to Ray the words personified events in his life and more relevantly, changes in his perception as he was growing up.

When he had a small notebook full of these words, he would then take one at random and write a short piece based on his personal reaction to the images and emotions triggered by them.

Hey presto, his work became, he says, more original overnight.

Original because his work became more honest, more uniquely "Ray Bradbury", he says. One of the first tales he wrote using this technique was "The Lake", a story that is still republished to this day, almost forty years later.

He said that the practice of writing down all the words he found evocative helped him to establish in his own mind what kind of writer he was. The list helped him to see patterns in his own preferences. In short, the pages of words in his notebook became the template for his "style" - his own unique way of perceiving the world.

He said what was interesting to him was that this list of words is still a source of inspiration to him to this day. Thirty years after he'd written down the list, he still plunders it for short story ideas!

So, as I said, the list became his own source of inspiration and originality at the same time. Certainly nothing to be sniffed at for a writer.

I don't know about you but this sounds like a fabulous idea - and one that may have already occurred to you. I remember being seventeen and writing down titles of books I would one day write.

I also wrote down snippets of dialogue that appealed to me. Phrases that still work their way into my stories, even now.

So if you're ever worried that you don't know what kind of writer you are, try this exercise:

Make a list of 200 words you like the sound of. Words that uniquely move or inspire you, or fill your head with images and emotions.

And when you have the list, study the words. Look for patterns.

You may discover you're not quite the kind of writer you thought you were.

Plus, you'll have a deep, ready store of inspiration.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Don't Have Time? Change Your Mind

Here's the thing: sometimes you have no idea how your writing will go when you start.

Sometimes the thought of starting is so stressful, you'll do anything to avoid the work.

But you have to get started. You need a time in your day when you always write. You need to train your brain into knowing what that time is.

Then just turn up.

And let the writing take care of itself.

They say it takes about a month to change a habit.

That's why rehab centers use a 28 day program. A month is roughly how long it takes for the body and mind to adjust to a new set of rules and circumstances.

There's no real cure for an addiction. The best therapists know that replacing a bad habit with a new obsession is way more effective than simply denying an urge that will no doubt resurface.

The reason why most drug addicts go back to taking drugs is that, even though they may have rid themselves physically once, their situations, their daily lives, their friends and influences conspire to get them back on the road to their ingrained obsessions.

Our brains are chemically designed to associate pleasure with familiarity. This is why self destructive behavior can be so frustrating to observe - and counter.

This is why too, if you sometimes have a defeatist attitude towards your writing - one that may tell you that you'll never succeed and that writing is a waste of your time - the attitude will resurface.

It's not really that writing is a waste of your time, it's just that you've trained your mind to become comfortable with that fall back notion.

The only way to counter negativity is to consciously dismantle the things you tell yourself and replace dark thoughts with positive ones. Do this for a month and it will become a habit.

Cynics will say this is too easy an approach. I would argue that cynicism is the comfort zone of the underachiever and can spread like a virus amongst groups of individuals.

This is why success gurus will tell you to avoid negative people.

We all have synaptic paths in our brains that are well traveled. Failure can often seem inevitable and our minds recognize this reality - and will find ways, facts and means to endorse this crude simplification.

But that's the lazy way to approach the problem.

Reality also tells us that many people succeed despite huge odds, through luck or determination and persistence.

We need to train our minds to accept that despite the experience of the majority, there are those that rise above the mediocre and persist in their belief that anything is possible.

History is abundant with examples.

Edison, Einstein, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, all the way up to the present time. Dan Brown, Stephen King, JK Rowling. All experienced the idea that success was for others - but still they refused to accept they were wasting their time.

Theirs was a higher calling. The work was not just the means to an end, it was the end in itself. A great artist's work becomes his obsession, his primary motivation - his reason to be.

I often get emails from writers who have lost touch with their muses, or have let their daily lives get in the way of their dreams.

They speak as though this is be expected, that somehow it's acceptable that our goals are there to be quashed, abused and ignored - most often by ourselves.

But rather than endure what we regard as reality and the nature of things, we must rise above these attitudes.

Writers don't always succeed because they're lucky or have rich benefactors that enable them - or have more time than the rest of us.

Successful writers succeed because they make time - even when they have busy schedules or day jobs or children and a hundred other pressures. You might even say they don't succeed in spite of these extra pressures but because of them.

Pressure and the ability to find time to pursue a dream as well is the mark of a committed artist.

To be able to change your brain into seeing the value of your work in the midst of everyone else's negativity, cynicism and yourself being just plain too busy should be your real goal - every day.

If you don't have the writing habit, and you want to be successful writer, you've got to force one onto yourself.

Make a time each day, and stick to it.

Find a place to write, even if it's perched on the edge of your bed, and go to it, everyday.

Give your creativity time - and give yourself time to write.

Beg, borrow or steal the time if necessary.

Do it for a month and writing will become a habit, then an addiction, then an obsession.

As it should be for you.

Whatever you do...

Keep writing!

The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing at the Pit Face

I hope you're well and happy and writing!

We're releasing two more ebooks on Magellan this week.

The success of the first two books has been a welcome and gratifying surprise to myself and the authors. Both Billie Williams and Ian Randall have received high praise for their books - and now have royalties due to them as a result!

Why not send in your own ebook for us to publish? (See our FAQs)

I'm sure it'll be worth your while!


Writing at the Pit Face

I often get emails about how to submit correctly to publishers and agents. The guidelines for most publishers and agents is easily attained, usually on their websites - or in offline Writer's Guides at your library.

The most fundamental issue here is that you shouldn't even consider submitting a manuscript UNLESS you've read those guidelines. Never think that you can shirk this primary consideration!

In general terms though, the majority of guidelines go like this:

1. Double spaced 12pt Times New Roman or 10pt Courier.

2. At least one inch all around the text, left justified.

3. Title, name and page number in the top right corner, on every page.

4. No clips, staples, tape, or bindings of any kind.

5. One title page with your word count beneath your name and all your contact details in the bottom left hand corner.

Your cover letter should be short - one page at most - around three paragraphs. Mention the recipient first and why you're submitting to him/her. Then mention - briefly - your book premise and lastly introduce yourself - again very briefly.

Your bio should usually include your recent credits - those within the last five years. Your synopsis should ideally be only one or two single spaced pages.

Check first to find the recipient's name - and whether they want extra material like your marketing plans (an increasingly important consideration to many publishers.)

Many publishers still ask for a return SAE but many writers now just tell the publisher to recycle the MS. Note: some publishers now specify double sided MSS - in a bid to look green.

But what of submitting online?

Again you'll need to consult the website's guidelines.

Most want your manuscript in WORD or rtf - following exactly the same five points above. In essence an electronic version of your offline submission.

Some publishers, usually ezines and web content providers, will be okay with MSS in the body of an email. But check first.

Most pertinent though - speaking from personal experience - your manuscript should be as perfect as you can get it. Error free in other words, especially with regard to punctuation, spelling, grammar and basic formatting. (BTW, this means you.) Nothing turns off a potential publisher or agent more than badly presented work.

Go here for help on that.

It's curious. In just the last two weeks I have had the good fortune to come into contact with three career authors with numerous books published. Good on them, right?

What may surprise you is that none of them had good news to share with me.

Despite having their books published through large traditional publishers with worldwide distribution, all of the three were having problems with their publishers.

The general gist was this:

Whatever the reason - perhaps the global downturn in B list book sales - their publishers were expressing reluctance to accept their latest book, even if it was part of an ongoing series.

We all like to think that when we're published, that's it. We've made it and the hard work is over, riches will follow and our place in history is ensured.

Actually this is a long way from the truth.

Unless your first book sells millions or at least hundreds of thousands, (which is very, very rare) it's going to be just as hard to get your next book published as it is for the wannabe. Harder sometimes because if you already have a deal, agents and publishers can be loathe to take you and your work on when they know your publisher is having second thoughts about you!

It's not simply about being a good writer either.

Alas, it's down to book sales. The marketing departments are often the ones who decide an author's fate in these profit driven times. And being dropped from your publishing deal can be just as much a possibility as having your next book accepted it seems.

Sobering stuff indeed.

So don't go around with the false notion that published authors are the lucky ones who've got it made for life.

This is often not the case.

The need to improve - and become more commercial - is just as important for published authors as it is for the rest of us.

Career writing requires dedication and a strong willingness to commit to constant self improvement.

Getting published should never be your end goal.

In many ways it's just the beginning.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Change the Way You Look at Things and the Things You Look at Change

Recently I've changed the way I write fiction.

You know me. For years I've been saying the best way to get past writing blocks is to write your first draft quickly. Get the words and the story down first and worry about the editing later.

This process certainly works if you're having doubts about your ability to actually get a whole book written. The principle of letting go of your inner critic is valuable - especially if you're prone to blocks.

My last novel was around 90000 words, which I wrote very quickly.

After the initial draft I sat down and then plotted the whole thing - a mistake to be sure but my feeling is that you have to do whatever works for whatever piece you're working on. Different MSS often need a different approach so that you don't go stale sticking to own self imposed routines.

That's fine. Embrace change.

Sometimes an idea is so strong you just want to get started - as I did with my last novel. I loved the premise so much I managed to pump out the entire manuscript without formally plotting it.

Then, problem was, after the first draft - and the rethink of the plot, I had to rewrite the entire thing again!

Mainly to sort out issues to do with timing - it was a minute by minute thriller after all. But also I changed the order of some of the deaths - and slightly altered the perspective of the lead character.

So far so good.

But then it came to the editing. I did one run through. Just tightening up the prose until I was fairly happy with it - I thought!

Then I gave the manuscript to one of my assistants to read. She's nearer the age of the lead character and I wanted her feedback. She had some criticisms. Fair enough.

One more edit.

Then I thought I was ready to send it out.

I did and got a couple of rejections. Okay. Can't win them all.

Then I thought, what if I wanted to publish the book myself?

Good in theory - so I began the process.

I decided I'd need a stronger opening so wrote a new prologue.

Trouble was, I was so impressed with the writing in the new prologue, I realized I'd have to make the rest of the book as good!

So another edit ensued. This one took ages. I basically had to re-look at every line, every word, every paragraph and chapter - to make the manuscript as strong as it should be.

Maybe in the two years that it had taken to get the book finished, I had grown and changed. I started to feel like I was editing someone else's book. That I was no longer the person that had written the first draft.

Good, really. But it meant I had to do a lot more work at the end of the novel writing process that I would ever have envisaged at the beginning.

The consequence of all this unexpected work was that I decided I wasn't going to do this for the next one.

So, as I said at the beginning, I changed the way I write fiction.

Just slightly. I mean I'm still the same story teller. I can still see my voice in the writing. But now I've changed just one aspect.


Yes, I've slowed down.

Instead of writing my most recent book as fast and furiously as possible, I decided that a more considered pace was appropriate - at least for this story.

Basically I just don't want to spend so long editing this one - so I'm taking my time over which words I use to express myself during the first draft.

Why? Because I'm deliberately looking for all the things I usually want to edit out later.

Things like the overuse of adverbs, 'ing' words, the word 'it' and anything woolly sounding like 'just', 'felt', 'decided' and 'thought'.

The interesting thing is that if you try and avoid the woolly stuff the first time around, it seems to change your writing - almost fundamentally.

Passages of description suddenly become much more specific - and effective. And when you're forced to write without adverbs, you realize you have to change the way you say things in order to get the 'ly' word across without actually using it!

But the other thing that's really helped this new book is that I plotted the whole thing from beginning to end first - before I did any writing.

Just like all those bestseller writers I'm always telling you about, I wrote a very detailed outline of the story before I began.

Now that doesn't mean the novel slavishly follows the template. No, as you'd expect, new scenarios, even new characters seem to appear as I'm writing. But that's okay.

At least now I know that as I'm writing, the quality is fairly good. Not because it's literary or clever - far from it.

The purpose of clarity in writing, I believe, is to serve the reader.

And whatever technique you or I choose to employ is to that end.

I feel this time - in this latest novel - I have at last found the right balance between my own technique and its end purpose. That is, to entertain (and to sell a squillion copies of course!)

Plus, I'm enjoying the process.

Time will tell.

Fingers crossed.

Keep writing!

The Easy Way to Write

The Writing Academy

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