Posts filed under 'Writing Technique'

On Writers’ Retreats

I’ve squirreled myself away to a writer’s retreat for a few days. I’ve been to a couple of them in my time. Even alone in a cabin in the woods helps to free the mind from distractions and focus on a writing task, but writers’ retreats have the added bonus that you have the companionship of other writers around you. This, of course, can be a risky thing! Creatives can be a very wild and unruly creatures. I’m fortunate to be able to say, I’ve had no bad experiences. In fact, I’ve made some good friends and kept in touch. The advantage of being in such an environment far outweighs the risks. You get to meet up for meals and chat about writing and the work problems of the day, so you don’t feel isolated. And when writers scatter to their own cells to work after meals, one feels one must comply. It is a great environment in which to write.

The big disappointment is that it takes so long to get the city and work out of my hair, and to get into the writing routine – if not frame of mind – and once I have it’s a short time until I have to head back to the day job again, and the challenge then becomes maintaining that writing focus and discipline during life beyond the retreat. Wondrous will be the day when my time will be for one thing only – writing. I slightly envy writers that can write at the drop on the hat, on a train, or in a noisy cafe. Not I.

As I looked out over the beautiful Shropshire hills, with swallows launching and docking in regular sorties, it all took a while (and not a few walks) to seep into this city-slicker and draw me down to a slower, less distracted state of mind. Once I’m in that state, my head then enters the parallel universe of my writing, and my real surroundings become scarcely of any importance at all, with the worlds in my head receiving all attention.

That is the joy, and the irony, of the writer’s retreat.

Add comment June 15th, 2018

Gunning in the Fog

I’m winding down to my long overdue vacation. Lately, I feel like I’ve been shooting into the fog, hoping to hit something. The final round of agent submissions felt like that. The attempts to heal my sciatica have felt like that. No targets hit so far, and worse … I can no longer see where the targets are, or what they are. Weariness from a year of constant pain has fogged it all over.

So I’m off for two weeks, to relax, recharge, and re-focus.

To keep myself going until that break, I decided to play around with the Gunning-Fog Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Test this week. You could be forgiven for mistaking them for obscure titles of gripping thrillers, but actually, they are metrics for grading the readability of text. It’s based around sentence and word length. I applied it to some chapters of my novel. The readability was quite good, but by adopting some of the change suggestions from Edit Central, I found I could improve every chapter by almost a further point, which brings it comfortably into my target audience range.

Readability Test Results

I might apply it to the whole novel when I return. Tighten it up even more. I wouldn’t recommend applying it blindly as an editing technique. It’s just interesting, that’s all. It makes me more aware of my style, and where it could trip up a reader. It made me think of even simpler, clearer ways to compose some sentences.

The most interesting thing of all, for me, is that readability was hardest in chapters where certain people were talking. This is mainly because those people would be having some technical conversations (with lots of multiple syllable words like ‘forensics’ or ‘genetics’). I could almost tell which chapter it is by the readability index alone. (I’m too damned close to this thing!) Is editing ever truly finished? Or am I just gilding the lily at this stage? Time to let go.

Ah well – holiday time too. Back in a couple of weeks.

Add comment September 4th, 2009

Metaphor of the week

You may have noticed that I like a nice metaphor. Here comes this week’s!

I’ve been editing for the past couple of weeks. It’s true what they say – it’s easier to edit with a little bit of distance between author and novel. I’ve left it aside for a few months and it makes me more willing to make the hard decisions to cut out the unnecessary fat that gets in the way of a story. It seems to be following the 10% reduction rule of its own accord. It becomes strangely liberating in a way, once I get used to letting go of those precious phrases that don’t really belong.

However …

There is a danger. I’m intensely careful of stripping the prose back too much, to some mundane, bland, anonymous thriller style that could be the output of any ghost writer. That brings me to my metaphor. Ask any chef – a little fat gives the dish more flavor in the cooking.

Don’t trim it back too much.

Add comment May 9th, 2009

This week, I have been mostly … plotting.

I’ve been sitting here in my artist’s garret this week, plotting. All that I’m missing is a white feline to stroke menacingly. I did escape my lair long enough to go see Quantum of Solace, but that is a whole different blog post. No, this is about plotting of a much less threatening kind.

In my day-time career there is a principle that transfers nicely to my shadow career of writing. In the cycle of software development, the earlier in the design process a problem is detected, or a requirement gathered, then the less costly it is to fix it or implement it. It stands to reason. If you discover towards the end of writing software code that there is a problem — something that wasn’t thought of sooner — then significant chunks of it have to be re-written, interfaces to other systems need to be altered, tests have to be run again, and man-hours spent writing the original code have to be written-off. All this affects the bottom line. That is why successful project managers on large software projects are so fastidious about requirements gathering.

So too in writing. It’s striking to me how many parallels there are between the process of writing software and the process of writing a novel. My first novel taught me the importance of having a sound plot outline before a word of prose is committed to paper (or to hard disk platter). It had to be re-drafted to repair plot deficiencies and that took a lot of my man-hours.

But, a story outline can’t be worked out totally in my head; sometimes a few scenes need to be drafted and played with to get the feel of characters, and how they might interact. There is a parallel in software for this too – it’s called a “prototype”, or a “proof of concept”. It the writing world, I think it’s called NaNoWriMo! Do something quick and dirty to see if it works, or how it works, or what the implications will be. Then take what you’ve discovered and add it to the master design.

With my second novel, I want to start similarly streamlining the writing process (insofar as a creative process can be streamlined!) If I do get to churn out novels for a living, then I’ll need to take on-board what I learnt about writing Broken Evolution and reduce the number of drafts needed to produce a novel, if I can.

So for this reason, I lock myself up in my artist’s garret, and won’t put pen to paper, or come out, until I force myself to draft a working version of the story outline. Will such anti-social behaviour turn me into Ernst Stavro Blofeld? Perhaps. I just hope it won’t be Jesse that I turn out like:

Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? If I can’t find fun while doing this, there’s no point doing it at all, because it’s improbable I’ll be doing it for the money (although more about that in a later post)!

Fun – that’s another thing I want to inject into this new novel. My new protagonist is going to be a bit of fiesty fun for the reader.

It’s invigorating having a blank creative slate again, after rounds of revising and tightening and editing the same story over and over to make it as refined as possible. A new novel is a fresh playground where I can go anywhere and anything is possible. That’s at the start, at least. Creativity is a process of harnessing inspiration, and slowly circumscribing it with boundaries created by the choices a writer makes.

That’s where a story outline begins – with infinite horizons. It very quickly needs to start having its wings clipped.

Add comment November 21st, 2008

Post Novel Depression

I’ve been coming down after completing the final edit of the novel. It’s that strange period writers talk about, when space is needed between ending one project and beginning another. My mind is freewheeling in the same high gear as the end of the last novel, but it can’t yet be shifted into low gear to drive any new project, not until its idle speed falls back to neutral. You know what hopping from fourth to first gear does to your car – imagine what it could do to your mind!

It is time for an essential literary detox, a purging of the muse, a writing palate clensing sorbet, a crash from the creative high.

Eventually, my mind will turn again to the new project, but it normally has to do it in its own time. On this, it can’t be forced. But I’ll know when it is ready. Last week, after watching Spooks (one of my favourite shows), plot ideas for Zero Day started popping into my mind in the shower. It won’t be long now before I won’t be able to get the new story out of my mind.

In the mean time, I’m catching up on submissions and a pile of reading.

Add comment November 2nd, 2008

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