"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: August 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ten Quick Tips for Writers

Sad news this week.

We had to put one of our dogs to sleep yesterday. And not the one that’s been sick these last 18 months. No, the other, younger one, the one we thought was fine, suddenly got too ill to fix.

I didn’t want to let him go. I hadn’t finished loving him.

Be happy on the other side, Buzz.

I’ve decided Buzz will be a character in my latest graphic novel project. I hope he’ll appreciate the tribute.

Today we look at ten easy ways to improve our writing.

Ten Quick Tips for Writers

Rob Parnell

These top tips will help you maintain enthusiasm for your chosen craft and make sure you have the mindset to improve and succeed.

  1. Read

All writers are readers first. Writing is how we give back the pleasure we’ve experienced. Good writers don’t read less as their career progresses, they read more, because seeing what everyone else is doing is an important part of staying informed – and relevant – not to mention being entertained and often inspired.

  1. Write

Seems obvious I know but you’d be surprised how many would be writers don’t write daily – the simplest component to assured success. Writing every day is a discipline you must adopt to ensure your work maintains consistency, depth and vision. You need to get used to transferring all of your thoughts into words. Over time, this habit enables you to overcome all kinds of writers’ blocks and guarantee quality output.

  1. Research and Study

You can never hear good advice too often or be so jaded you don’t have something more to learn. Read and listen to what other writers say about writing. There’s always a new perspective. But don’t be feverish about it. Don’t expect every successful writer to know all the secrets to success – there aren’t any in particular. Except perhaps dedication to the craft – that’s all you really need. Once you’re truly committed, the rest will follow.

  1. Try New Forms

Don’t limit yourself. All forms of writing enhance your chosen genre. Learning how to write copy or good poetry can teach you much about the nature of words and their effect. Writing outside of your preferred genre can teach you a lot about structure, characterisation, mood and texture. Trying different styles will help solidify your own. Experimenting with any kind of writing will improve your overall technique.

  1. Nurture Your Creativity

Respect your craft as though it were a physical object, worthy of your love and devotion. Be kind to yourself and your body – the engine of your mind. Eat well, shun excess and harmful influences; seek out happiness and adventure. Don’t dwell on the crass or morbid. Do everything positive within your power to ignite and fan the fire of creativity.

  1. Submit

Never forget that the purpose of writing is for it to be read. Writing is communication – of ideas, of information and of entertainment. Having good writing that is unread is wasteful. Get your best stuff out there – and on the desks of editors, publishers and producers. Post your writing to the web – and direct people to it. Share your gift and strive constantly for publication and your reader’s feedback. It’s the only way for a writer to live. Literally.

  1. Seek Guidance

Don’t be afraid of criticism but remember that you need to measure other people’s advice. Criticism says more about the giver than the receiver. Other writers often want to diminish your success and make you give up, to quash the competition. But creativity cannot survive in a vacuum. It needs guidance and nurturing to blossom fully. Take on board suggestions that will improve your work – and file away the rest.

  1. Love What Your Write

You cannot fully engross yourself in an activity you do not cherish. Learn to be passionate about your creativity. Savour the life you bring to your characters and the stories they have to tell. Glorify the edifice your writing manifests. Pay regular homage to the spark inside of you that makes you want to write – it’s a precious thing, not to be taken for granted.

  1. Let Go

Learn to be objective and circumspect about your creativity. No words are set in stone. Not all ideas are beyond potential for further development. Let others take what they like from your work – even if they see things you didn’t deliberately plan. Don’t be afraid to rework ideas. On request, edit, change and improve your work without angst or resentment. Don’t fret that your vision will somehow be lost. It won’t be. When asked to rewrite, don’t feel you must compromise your work, simply make it better.

  1. Have Fun

Enthusiasm is infectious. Passion is a powerful influencer. Take the love you have for your work and direct it outwards – into the public arena along with your masterpieces. Writers need support, encouragement and (let's face it) financial sponsorship to survive. People want to experience your belief in yourself and your projects firsthand when they meet you. They want to be inspired too. Relate your honest and sincere commitment to your work and the people who can help will more readily feel inclined to support you.

I hope these points aid your writing. If you need extra motivation to write, my advice is to print out this article and tape it somewhere in your writing space, or perhaps on your fridge door.

And read it once a day.

Keep Writing!


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Inspiration - where does it come from?

Update: Apparently all of my business files – including the hundreds of manuscripts submitted to Magellan Books – are sitting in a storage facility somewhere unspecified while my computer hard drives are being fixed.

But I did manage to get the computer I’m working on now up and running. It’s actually less than five years old but seems ancient – its fan makes as much noise as if it were powered by steam! But at least this laptop works (as long as I don’t unplug it) and I can answer emails again and put out today’s newsletter…

Of course the hardest part about using a different computer is having to load all the software you’re used to using – and remembering all those darn passwords!


This week’s article is:

Inspiration – where does it come from?

I gave a talk last Friday about inventing fiction stories. One of the exercises was to come up with new characters on the spot, with a view to creating a plot around them.

What became clear was that most writers invent characters in the following way:

  1. Based on someone they know / knew
  2. Based loosely on themselves
  3. Based on someone they’d like to be
  4. Based on some other author’s character
  5. Based on a flash of inspiration

All of these ways are valid – as long as it’s a starting point – depending on what you do with the character once they’re ‘invented.’ Because originality is not in the inventing process, it’s in the process of development after invention. What you do – and the way you do it, is what makes your character unique.

Getting inspired is not like shopping for groceries. You can’t go down to the store and buy a bag of inspiration, 500 grams of great ideas or an assortment of original thoughts.

Also, you can’t wait around for inspiration on a street corner like you were waiting for a bus. You gotta use your brain – because deep inside, all the ideas you want are already there, waiting, perhaps dormant, hibernating, ready to pop into your consciousness.

All you have to do is somehow access them…

What’s also clear is that once you begin to study ideas and compare notes with other writers – as happens in TV and movie writing for instance – you quickly realize they’re ain’t no such thing as originality anyway. Everything – and I mean everything – has been done before. Everything. Did I say everything?

Inspiration is really just a new combination of previous ideas neatly re-jigged to appeal to the current zeitgeist – a handy German word meaning ‘spirit of the times.’

The ability to seem inspired is about other people’s perception – and not really about new ideas at all.

But seeming original is easier – all you have to do is know your stuff… your influences, your genre and pretty much everything else that other people in your field are doing. The more you know – the more educated you are about ‘stuff’ – the more likely you are not to repeat someone else’s good idea.

Let me explain.

Put ten writers in a room for an hour and ask them to brainstorm an idea. In the first ten minutes, the majority of people will come up with things that have already been done, developed and explored – usually unbeknownst to them.

The minority, who have probably studied their genre well, will be fiercely trying to find new angles on old ideas – using their lifetime of acquired knowledge as a springboard for new scenarios.

At the end of an hour, the ten writers will usually agree that the best idea was the one that seemed new in the current intellectual climate – but is often an old idea re-jigged and repackaged to appear more relevant than its previous context.

So – inspiration is not the ability to come up with new ideas.

No – it’s the ability to take disparate ideas and create new blends that have a modern flavor.

And how does one develop this knack of seeming original – and coming up with a stream of inspired ideas?


  1. Know your stuff. Study everything, follow other artists, stay informed.
  2. Be inventive. Imagine alternate contexts for each new idea you process.
  3. Remind yourself daily you are an inspired thinker – and remain flexible.

You don’t run out of good ideas when you commit to looking for them constantly.

You don’t get less inspired as you get older. But it can seem that way when your mind stagnates.

It would be nice to think that people got wiser as they got older but have you noticed this doesn’t seem to happen? No, people often get more rigid, more stuck in their ways, more prejudiced and intolerant as the synaptic grooves in their brains deepen.

The trick to staying young (at least mentally) is remaining open – to new ideas, to new ways of thinking and above all, being non-judgmental.

Flexibility in your thought processes is the key to acquiring a stream of inspired ideas.

Once you think you already know everything there is to know about an issue, a type of person or a series of activities, your usefulness as an original writer is compromised.

Good writers remain open and adaptable. True wisdom comes from the ability to merge experience with elasticity of thought.

In the same way as there are no new ideas under the sun, there are also an infinity of new and inspired ideas bombarding you every day, but only if you keep your eyes, ears and mind open wide and receptive enough to notice them.

Keep Writing.

Rob Parnell
The Easy Way to Write

PS: There's another great review for my free novel, Willow, here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Outlining Vs Story Telling

My laptop blew a fuse the other day so I’ve had to take a kind of enforced holiday this week. Apologies to the people who might have been expecting me to do things for them - like review their MSS, etc - this week. I should get the computer back soon – though Dr PC have warned me I may have lost everything on the hard drive. Again. Hmm. C’est la vie. I guess it’s what we used to call a clean slate...

I’ve been drawing pictures and recording music in the mean time. You know me. I like to keep busy doing at least something...

We’re giving a two hour talk on Character, Agenda and Plot this afternoon at the local U3A. Should be fun.

Outlining Vs Story Telling

MR James, the famous short story writer, used to be a teacher. During the long evenings before the invention of television, he would entertain his students with the ghost stories he planned to write. That is, until he realised one day that telling his stories was getting in the way of his writing them. He noticed that the act of relating story ideas somehow dissipated the desire, even the need, to write them down. He promptly stopped vocalising his ideas so that the impetus to write remained strong and fresh.

This is a curious phenomenon, but one that is completely understandable. Sometimes when an idea for a story is at its most compelling – that is, when you’ve just thought of it – the best thing to do is to start writing immediately and get the inspiration down, along with the rough idea. Sometimes the energy associated with the new idea is just as important as the idea itself, especially in terms of the motivation the inspiration can engender.

The same can be said for the temptation to overdevelop an outline for a story. I’ve seen many writers spend hours, days and weeks on their outline notes – using mainly exposition to flesh out their ideas, and usually all told in a largely passive tone of voice. The process may be cathartic and satisfying to a degree but I think it may – in the long term – harm the writing process.

When telling stories you should be in ‘active’ mode. That is, relating them with vigour, being in the moment and fully involved with characters, their actions and dialogue in real time. This is where your writing will be strong and lively. The time spent writing this way may be more taxing but it is the way you should be writing – rather than passively relating ‘notes to self.’

After all, your notes are not meant to be read by other people – which is perhaps why you may feel more comfortable writing them. You’ve removed some of the pressure!

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing detailed outlines is real writing. It’s not. It’s more akin to research, planning and other pre-writing activities. The sooner you get it over with, the better. You need to use your best energy on the real writing. A day spent on explaining complicated histories and back-stories to yourself is all valuable time you could have spent on work designed to please a reader. That is, work that will be read!

Because most of the story will change anyway – that’s the reality. Once you start telling a story for real, the characters often have a way of changing your outline – and most times for the better. When students come to me and say, well, I just need to work through these character motivations and plot holes in my notes before I start the story, I try to advise against doing that.

Why? Because most of these problems with character motivation and plot holes come through the writer thinking too much. And as I’ve said many times, thinking is not writing. Thinking is a logic based left brain activity – while writing stories is a right brain activity – at odds with the creative process. Do yourself a favour. Stop thinking about your stories. Just write them down – with the urgency and freshness they require.

If, after the first draft, you still have motivation issues and logic flaws, don’t stop to think and re-outline. No, start writing the prose again. You need to trust that your subconscious has the answers and will produce them during the creative writing process. Relying on your logical brain to sort through story problems is a long hard road – and one that will tie you up in intellectual knots. And the more you do it, the more you may begin to rely on it as a process, but the more harmful to your writing that process will become.

If you’re not writing actual story, you’re pretty much wasting time – putting off the inevitable. You need to commit to the story, for better or worse, rather than vacillate during some endless planning phase.

I’ve seen too many writers get stuck for years in the planning phase for it to be healthy. It may be a security blanket I suppose. The longer a writer spends not actually writing, the longer they can put off being judged for their work. It’s like the architect whose finest building never makes the drawing board. His vision may be strong, the inspiration for it sound, but he lacks the confidence to commit the idea to paper. Because then it will be real – and real problems may creep in, which the architect is trying to avoid.

So it is with writers. Many great ideas stay wonderful while they’re trapped in nebulous form. But the writer must at some point commit for the idea to take on solidity and mass.

Don’t get sidetracked into making long outlines – sketching in other words – when you should be using your valuable time telling your stories in the form they will need to be read.

Keep Writing!
Rob Parnell
The Easy Way to Write

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How To Create a Hero

When it comes to creating characters, you want readers to love your protagonist or, at the very least, empathize with him or her.

Having an unattractive hero - as in psychologically unattractive - can be a surefire death warrant for a novel. Even having a protagonist with a shallow or undeveloped personality can be enough to make publishers think twice about accepting your magnum opus.

So - what to do?

Coming up with someone 'heroic' to carry your story is not always about creating a superhero with special powers. Indeed, even special powers alone won't cut it.

No, you need a set of characteristics that say to your reader that your protagonist is special, if not identifiably 'unique'.

In Hollywood, this problem is easily solved. Just get a famous star to play the role, someone physically attractive usually, an actor with screen presence...

But how do you affect 'presence' in prose?

Passion is the key.

Your lead characters need to be passionate about their stories - they need to be fully involved in their agendas, find their lives and motivations fascinating and commit to seeing through their goals without hesitation.

In this sense heroes are always larger than life. We all have goals we commit to and often morals we adhere to - but in a novel, a lead character must put their principles on the line and live by the choices those principles dictate, and go wherever the resulting decisions may lead them.

More often than not, fictional heroes are very good at something. It could be fly-fishing or rock climbing or, most commonly these days, some sort of forensic pathology. And that specialty will usually drive the plot, at least at the beginning - and end - of a story.

Of course, making a hero good-looking and irresistible to the opposite sex can't hurt - as long as it comes across as sincere and believable.

But there are many heroic types that are not necessarily godlike to behold - but can still become irresistible in their own way.

Usually this is to do with their value system. We all like heroes that, whether they are impulsive, seemingly irrational or even reckless, have personalities that seek truth, justice and work for the good in a way that we find aspirational.

This is the trick - to create characters your reader would like to be.

Clearly heroes that are petty minded, self absorbed or manically depressed will find it harder to fulfill this function, although not necessarily.

As fiction writers we should all be familiar with the idea of a hero's fatal flaw - his Achilles' heel. The personality trait that might undo the protagonist's best intentions.

Flaws are very human. And humanity is essential to a reader's appreciation of a hero. It's not enough just to have a hero that's good at everything - they make for dull reading. There must be some sense in which your hero is not perfect before he/she is fully believable.

Whether they have some kind of toxic addiction or a more fundamental personality disorder is up to you, the writer. But the importance of a serious flaw in the context of an overriding heroic stance should not be underestimated.

Strong physical and emotional endurance is also the mark of a hero - although you should not confuse the ability to suffer with the more important adherence to the value system that facilitates that endurance.

And if you find that you have a hero who is compelling but not necessarily 'attractive' in the sense that his or her thought process may be cold and perhaps alienating, then you can do what authors have always done to get around this problem.

That is, tell your story from the point of view of a close observer of the hero. This way, you get the best of both worlds - the genius of the hero plus the humanity of the observer.

But still you have the problem of making your hero somehow unique. The last thing you want is a cardboard cutout - analogous to a movie star with a good look but no role to play.

Uniqueness comes from you, my dear reader. And your best hero should, I think, be you - in disguise. The person, you too, would aspire to become.

Fiction, unlike life, is always about growth and change - becoming stronger and better as people through experience.

Life has no real endings, no obvious denouements and no credit rolls. That's why we need heroes and their stories - to teach us the lessons that are often absent in real life.

Nobody wants to read stories about ordinary people and mundane events that tell us nothing we didn't already know.

Heroes represent the best that is human in us.

And part of your job as a fiction writer is to present the world with heroic figures and their deeds who manage to transcend the sometimes ugly human condition and provide hope for the humanity of the future.

(Apologies for the blatant William Shatner moment there!)

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"Your goal should be out of reach, not out of sight."
Anita DeFrantz

Previous Newsletter includes:
Article: "The 7 Story Plots"
Writer's Quote by Taigu Ryokan

The Writing Academy

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