Wednesday, 6 October 2010

How Do I Write? Let Me Count The Ways...

Actually, my method isn't that complicated. A bit long-winded, perhaps, but not complicated. Admittedly, this uncomplicated technique has taken me about five years to come up with - before then my writing was a very scrappy affair involving Post-It notes, one sentence emails to myself, and many, many lost ideas. I still wonder whether the germ of my yet to be realised best-selling novel is actually waiting to be found under a floorboard somewhere because it slipped off the pile... I wonder who'll find it? Perhaps that's a book in itself!

Anyway, back to my method. It still starts the same way - I get an idea. It might be a character. It might be a sentence. It might be a vague plot line. Whatever it is, if it excites me I write it down. But no longer on random scraps of paper, oh no! I have a dedicated ideas notebook - a lovely, soft-cover Moleskine, to be exact - and a smooth Uni-Ball pen. In fact, I have nine smooth Uni-Ball pens in various striking colours, from dark green to bright pink! The idea goes straight into the book, safe and sound, ready to be picked up again when it's needed. And if, for any reason, I don't have the notebook with me, I do have a Blackberry. It's old, scratched, held together with tape, but I love it. I love it because I can email myself the idea and when I get home (or out of the bath, or whatever) I can transcribe it into the Moleskine - done!

The writing itself takes place on my trusty laptop. It sits handsomely on an Ikea corner desk in the 'study' (read: back bedroom). It doesn't move. Because this is the 'writing room'. I don't WANT to write anywhere else. And, whether good or bad, I CAN'T write anywhere else... From my corner desk I can see outside, but the view is the corner of my garage and next door's shed, so it's not particularly distracting. This is the one place I have found from which I can GET STUFF DONE. I aim for 1000 words a day. Sometimes I even do it...

Once whatever it is (usually a short story) is written, it is printed out on cheapy cheap white paper, and then it sits in a 'Completed' tray until I remember it's there, or decide to have an editing day. But I won't edit it until at least four weeks have passed since its completion -I just find it too soon otherwise, I'm still too involved.

Editing is fun! No, really, it is. Well, I like it... This is where the second notebook comes in. Another Moleskine. In this one I write out the story in longhand, copying it from the printed sheet. I like the idea of having a handwritten copy of my work, but it's also a great way to make sure everything is as it should be. Because of the concentration involved in the copying out, spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, bits that don't make sense, parts where a different word would make more impact and so on, tend to stand out more to me. I mark the changes on the printed copy (and make sure they're written in the longhand version). Then it's simply a matter of going back to the laptop, calling up the file (saved on a portable data stick AND on the computer itself) and changing what needs changing. And that's it!

Did I say my method was uncomplicated? I may have to rethink that!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Dialogue: Formal vs Informal

Dialogue is the thing I have the most trouble with when writing. My natural instinct is to make it grammatically correct with the correct syntax, or to ramble on and on, making it too 'pretty' to be realistic. Over the years I've discovered that this simply doesn't work. Not only is it too jarring to move from smooth descriptions to unnatural dialogue for most readers, it is uncomfortable too. It detracts from the story, from what the characters are saying, and then readers become lost and once they've wandered away from your book's path, they don't tend to come back.

So, dialogue that is too formal is out.

But at the other end of the scale is dialogue that is far too informal. It may be exactly how people actually speak, with contractions and pauses and missing words, but reading it is a maddening experience. It works when said out loud, but not when read in one's head. If script-writing is your thing then it's perfect. Otherwise, it's annoying.

By coincidence, I recently read two books in a row that incorporated these traits. The first, with the most informal dialogue that I've come across, was The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver. I dug in to my first Deaver novel with high expectations, but something was making it slow going. Eventually I realised that although I enjoyed the descriptive passages, every time it came to conversations between characters I had to really concentrate on what was being said. It was no longer a simple matter of reading; now I had to translate from 'natural' speak to 'written' speak. And sometimes that took a while. It wasn't the sort of book I could read when tired, that was for sure! Passages started to be scanned rather than read and although I did finish the book (eventually), I just wasn't satisfied. It hadn't been a fun reading experience.

The next book I took from my 'to be read' shelf was Crisis by Robin Cook. What a difference! Now, instead of informal speaking I was thrown into what seemed to be a Victorian novel, very proper and correct, even though it is actually set in 2005. Again, the descriptive passages were entertaining enough, but rather than being drawn into the story through the dialogue, I found myself being amused by the way it was written. I'm sure that wasn't Cook's intention when he wrote it. So, once again, although for different reasons, dialogue was skipped. I must have missed important revelations for the plot, but it was just not a comfortable book to read, so I didn't really care.

At least I'm not the only one who has trouble with dialogue!

But how to combat the problems? How does one find a middle ground between formal and informal dialogue? It's difficult, but if it keeps the reader interested then it's worth it.

The best way I have found is to just write it. That's the first step. Write your short story or chapter or 1000 words or whatever. Once it's written, and the dialogue is in place and says what you need it to, read it aloud. If it sounds like you've written a speech, or you're speaking to Mr Darcy, take the hint. It's not right (unless, of course, you HAVE written a speech, or your writing is set in the past...) and needs to become less formal. Try swapping some words for slang, or contracting, or deliberately messing up the syntax and see what happens. Change it as many times as you need to until it's right - it may not seem important, but it most definitely is.

If when you read it aloud it takes longer than it should, it's probably too far the other way - too informal. That's because, although when we speak we automatically go for the easiest route, when we read aloud it's a different matter - what we see and what we expect are different things, and this can cause a slow down. The brain is trying to process what it's seeing and what it's saying, and it's having problems. This is another sure sign that something is wrong with the dialogue, and that something needs to be changed. In this instance, try taking out some of the slang and contractions. Let your brain read what it wants to read, rather than what's there, and you should end up with a more comfortable reading experience for everyone.

My final bit of advice regarding dialogue: it's just as important as the description. It can reveal so much about your characters and the plot and it shouldn't be underestimated.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

I Dream A Little Dream

I have a recurring dream. Now, recurring dreams are relatively common, with over half of the human population experiencing them at some time or other in their lives. Most of the time they are confusing, frightening, something to be avoided. Mine, however, is different.

My dream is hopeful. It starts with me standing in a darkened upstairs hallway, in front of a large white wooden door. I reach forward and open it, pushing lightly. It creak a little as it opens, and in front of me, sitting at a small desk in the corner of a large room which contains a high, comfortable looking bed covered with a floral duvet, is a woman, her back to me.

The desk is a cream coloured, spindly looking contraption and holds a laptop computer at which the woman is working, along with a row of hardback books. The chair almost, but not quite, matches. The furniture is old, clearly antique, and I love it.

The desk is set in front of a bay window but I cannot see what is outside. All I know is that it's sunny, and I can smell the summer. The room is a beautiful, high ceilinged bedroom and the windows are wooden framed. This is an old house. It is large, but not too grand. It is comfortable.

I begin to move towards the woman, desperate to see what she is doing, and to look out of the window. As I move forwards, I become the woman, merging into her, and I realise that she is an older me. Now I know what we are doing - we are writing. And the books on the desk are my books, at least five of them, maybe more, have been published, and I am working on a new one. We look out of the window then, and smile, watching a man and two children playing on a long lawn, sturdy trees guarding each side, the sun beaming down. There is laughter and a dog, a Border Collie, appears, bounding energetically as the man throws a ball for it. And there, on a patio that sites to one side, lying on a table in the sun, is my cat, old now, and dozing.

The man looks up and I see my husband. He taps his wrist and I roll my eyes, smiling. Yes, it's time to join them outside. I stand, and the dream ends.

When I awake from this dream I am happy. It's perfect. Is it a taste of my future? Well, that would be nice, and that's what I like to believe. Since I've had the dream more than once - it comes to me every three months or so, and has done for the past ten years now - it must mean something. Perhaps I am wishing for that life so hard that my subconscious is letting me life it, albeit only when I'm asleep.

Whatever the reason for it, I'm grateful. It keeps me writing. It keeps me trying. It's something for me to aim for. And it always makes me smile.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Genre Problem

Decisions, decisions... When it comes to writing, is there a specific genre for every author, or is it okay to mix it up a bit? And how does one find 'their' genre in the first place? These are the questions that I ask myself every day when I sit down to write. Because every day I pick a different genre to write in, in an attempt to tidy up my TBD (To Be Done) folder. I've got half finished novels in horror, romance, children's fiction, crime, science fiction, non-fiction, young adult and even a full on attempt at a 'proper, literary' novel. I've got collections of poetry, even plays and one TV script. None are finished.

Are they unfinished because I can't settle into which genre is right for me?

Having bemoaned that fact that I can't finish anything, I will admit that I do have two completed novels. And when I say completed, I mean completely completed - they are edited to within an inch of their original incarnations, shiny and new and ready to go. But go where? One is a horror, and one is a children's book. And although I'm incredibly impressed with the fact that I have written two - TWO! Can you believe it? I can't! - books, there's just something about them that displeases me. I'm just a bit... bored with them, if I'm honest. And this prevents me from submitting them to too many places. I don't want to burn my bridges when one day - if I can just settle down to it - I might write a really GOOD novel!

Am I asking too much for my own creations to, after all these years (the children's novel, for example, I started 14 years ago, and it's been an on and off love affair ever since), still make me proud?

Now, short stories - those I can finish. And those are mostly horrors. So is that my genre? The horrific short story? Perhaps. I love to read horror. Perhaps all those Stephen King/Shaun Hutson/Richard Laymon (and many, many others) late nights have seeped deep enough into my brain to allow me to really let go and enjoy the freedom of writing about truly terrible things. Or maybe that's just my nature. Now that's a scary thought. And anyway, is there a market for collections of short stories? Not that I can see, at least not from debut authors.

But I also love murder mysteries, devouring every Miss Marple and Poirot and Morse and so on. And yet, I cannot create one of my own. It really is frustrating.

So I ask myself all these questions every day, and despite not having the answers, I sit down to write anyway. It might be five minutes on a sci-fi novel, or half an hour on a short story. It might just be one sentence that I realise would fit perfectly into my play. Whatever it is, I'm starting to think that the genre doesn't matter. So I'll just write what I feel like. It's more fun that way.