Monday, November 28, 2011


There will come a time when you will be asked to read your writing aloud. You will be in a room with other people. They will stop what they are doing; they will turn their full attention on you; and they will listen as you give voice to your precious words.

Preparing for this time – reading your work aloud in private – has two benefits. First, you will learn to read in a way that is engaging and interesting. Second, you will gain a deeper insight into your own writing.

How our work sounds is not something we writer’s necessarily think about as we write. We think about punctuation and grammar, we think about syntax and sentences, but we don’t automatically think about cadence and meter. We should.

When words are read aloud, letters, punctuation and sentence-structure are replaced by subtle changes in rhythm and breath. Interesting writing – writing that is enjoyable to read – captures the nuance of spoken language. This is why listening to the spoken word can inform one’s writing in ways that reading silently cannot.

But there’s no use whispering your story to your computer screen. Engage your vocal cords, give voice to your words, listen to what they are telling you about your writing.

I have found this to be helpful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lights! Camera! Huh?

I can’t write scenes in which people are doing things. This is a new discovery for me.

Stuck for a blog idea and itching to write something, I sat down and started a short-story. The story was to take place on a bus. My main character had to get on the bus and pay for his ticket. The bus would then take off, forcing my character to stagger down the aisle while trying to find an empty seat. He would eventually find a place to sit that was next to an old man with spiky hair.

Should be easy to describe that, right?

Not for me. Turns out I’m more proficient with adjectives than adverbs. Apparently I prefer ideas to action.

I tried to write those opening man-stagers-to-empty-seat sentences. Nothing sounded right. My words sounded clunky, heavy, and, worst of all, boring. In the end I gave up.

Here’s what I wrote instead:
James sat next to a wispy haired old man and closed his eyes.
What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask. Well, nothing, if you’re writing a short-story. I’ve taken the reader straight to the action without all that unnecessary stumbling around. But what if I was writing something longer? What if I was writing a story that encompassed more than one scene? Is my character going to magically appear at the right place at the right time in every scene?

Probably not, right?

So here’s what I’ve decided to do: I am going to write that man-stagers-to-empty-seat scene. I am going to get my man on the bus and into his seat if it kills me, or him, or both of us.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

God Bless America

A large number of my readers live in the country that is the new home of the English language: the United States. These people seem to have found my work by chance, which isn’t surprising when you consider that more than half of the world’s native English speakers live in America, and most of them have access to computers.

I grew up believing that American English was inferior to the British variety. Americans, I was told, play fast and loose with the language. Americans have no real love for the subtlety of English; they do not understand its nuances.

One only has to read Shane, or To Kill a Mocking Bird, or Lake Wobegone Days, to realise that this view is wrong.

This view of language in the United States is particularly unhelpful to the aspiring author. The American book market is massive when compared to that of any other English speaking country. To ignore it is foolhardy to say the least. The American book market creates trends that influence the kinds of books that will be written in the future.

If you live outside of the United States it is worth considering whether your story will make sense in America. Did I mention that more than half the world’s native English speakers live there?

Friday, November 11, 2011

You are the Best Writer

Some writers are so good at what they do; reading their work makes me want to hang up my pen and call it a day.

But I don’t.

Overcoming the weaknesses in one’s own writing can be an enormous task. It is like climbing a mountain: you struggle you sweat, and, just as you’re approaching the top, you see that the mountain you are on is but a foothill for a much greater mountain.

Learning the art of writing takes time. The early days can be humiliating. Your little story is full of mistakes and you know it: everyone knows it. Your mistakes are the small object which, when held in front of the eye, can blot out the light of the sun.

Ah, but there it is. The aspiring author has seen the faults in his writing, but he has also seen the sun that is his story. It is this knowledge, the knowledge of the greatness of the story, which keeps him from hanging up his pen.

If you have a story to tell then nothing will prevent you from telling it. The desire to tell your story will burn within you, and you will work tirelessly until your story is told.

The movie Midnight in Paris has a wonderful scene in which the protagonist meets Earnest Hemingway. Hemingway is young and full of machismo. He tells the protagonist: “If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer…”

You are the best person to tell your story.

You always knew this.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Over the Hill and Far Away

English novelist John Galsworthy was nearly thirty before he published anything. This is what the blurb on the back of his book The Man of Property tells us. The implication is clear: writers get old early.

Great works, the books that changed your life, were probably written by reasonably young authors.

Harper Lee was 33 when To Kill a Mocking Bird was published. J.D. Salinger was 31 when Catcher in the Rye was published.

I could go on.

I have heard authors say that they felt pressure to publish before they turned 33. Jesus was 33 when he died, you see, and if one man can save humanity for all eternity in 33 years, then another should be able to knock out a great book.

There is more to it than that, of course. We humans tend to be on fire with new ideas when we are in our teens. We are idealistic and alive. This fire is already starting to cool in our twenties. We are cooling but we are learning and we are full of ambition. We began to gather the intellectual tools we will need if we are to succeed.

In our late twenties we stare into the embers of our dying passions. We stir these embers trying to encourage a fresh flame. We become driven; time is running out; we feel our uniqueness slipping away. We spend many a sleepless night trying to work out how we will share our passion with the world.

This is make-or-break time. This is the time for foolish risks. This is the time when he (or she) who dares wins.

This is the time when we humans are most likely to have the combination of passion, motivation and drive that leads to the creation of great novels. These things also give the young writer the pluck to believe that their work should be published. Sometimes they are right.

If one reaches their mid-thirties and still hasn’t been published – well – there’s always the garden, isn’t there?

C.S. Lewis was in his fifties when The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe was published.

There is still hope for me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Writers' Group

A light clicked on automatically as I approached the old house. I instinctively froze in my tracks and felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I took a deep breath and tried to relax before proceeding to the front door.

There was a light on inside. I peered through a screen door and wondered what I was letting myself in for. In my hand I held three of my most recent pieces of writing, a small black notebook, and a blue ballpoint pen.

“Come in,” someone called from inside.

I opened the door and stepped into a well-lit kitchen. The room had a farmhouse feel that appealed to me and reminded me of kitchens I’d been in in the past.

I began to relax.

A small woman with welcoming eyes entered the kitchen from an adjacent room. She introduced herself and told me to make myself a cup of tea. We chatted for a while and she described how the writers' group worked.

It became clear that no one else was going to be joining us so we sat down, sipped tea and talked about writing.

She read me a couple of her stories. One was a twisted tale with a fairly obvious twist. The other was a fine story with a slightly incomplete ending.

I told her I liked her stories and she seemed pleased.

She asked me if I wanted to read something I had written. I chose a story that told of a moment straight after a small accident.

I read the story nervously and perhaps a bit too quickly.

I finished and looked up expectantly.

“You started a lot of sentences with ‘I’,” she informed me.

“Yes,” I replied, “I thought that the protagonist would be thinking about themselves a fair bit straight after an accident. Also, I wanted short sentences. I wanted Subject-Verb sentences. I wanted punch.”

She was unconvinced.

“Well,” she told me in a conciliatory tone, “it has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

She didn’t like my story. She didn’t get my story. I was crestfallen.

I wasn’t invited to read another story.

We talked for a bit longer and then decided to leave. I picked up my notebook and pen. I picked up my unwanted stories and headed towards the door. She said she would see me next week. I wondered if I would come back.

Rain was falling as I turned my car towards home. My windscreen-wipers tried furiously to keep the rain from within their domain. I stared out into the blackness and thought about my unliked story.

I was hurt, I realised, but my determination was not diminished. And, as I walked up the dark steps towards my house, I whispered to the night: I am a writer, whatever anyone else thinks.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Port of last Resort

Some people feel that creating an amazing novel is their last hope of doing something truly great. They want to paint their name in big bold letters across the sky. I understand this feeling.

When I was young I could run fast. The speed in my legs was the manifestation of the thunder in my heart. The world needed to know this about me. I dreamt of running and the world cheering me on.

This was not to be. Others overtook me.

When I was a teenager I played the guitar. One night I dreamt I was standing on the precipice of a great mountain. I strummed my guitar and music shock the earth like a mighty earthquake. The people of the world looked up and saw me. They were in awe of my enormous power. They cheered for me. I looked down at my feet and saw that I was floating on air.

Then I woke up.

When I was in my twenties I started a small business. I started a small business that was really the seed of the world’s largest business: at least that’s what I thought. I dreamt of success. I dreamt of people wanting to know how I’d managed to achieve so much from such humble beginnings.

My business folded after six months.

When I was in my thirties I found myself sitting behind a desk chained to a dead end job. I would become a writer, I decided. I would write a novel that would shape the world. I would tell a story so real, so relevant, that the world could not help but notice me. I would be compared to some of the greatest people who ever lived.

I would accept these comparisons.

I started to type. My main character began to take shape. He was a small and shadowy creature, hardly human at all. He was afraid of the world but, even so, he had thunder in his heart. I wondered where this character was coming from. Who was the person I was writing about? I reached out a metaphorical hand to him. He looked up at me and, for the first time, I saw his face.

It was my own.

Some people feel that creating an amazing novel is their last hope of doing something truly great. Perhaps they should think twice?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Twilight Paper

I don’t want to read Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ quadrilogy. She would not be surprised to hear me say this: I am not a teenage girl; I am not a woman wishing to relive the high emotion and angst of my younger years.

I haven’t read any of the Twilight books, but I hear that they have sold very well. Some readers will have neglected their homework or skipped school in order to read these books. Some readers may even have neglected a screaming child just so they could find out what happened next.

There were people, respectable adults, who bought these books in electronic form so they could read them in public. These people sat in the park, reading Twilight, safe in the knowledge that there was no book cover to give them away. Their secret was buried deep within the circuits of their eReaders. Their secret was buried deep within the circuits of their own minds.

Lost in the pages of a Twilight novel, these devoted readers had escaped the mediocrity of their lives. They had become a part of something truly worthwhile: a universe-rending tragedy.

This is something most readers of fiction can understand.

My attitude towards the Twilight series hasn’t always been so relaxed. I was a scoffer, I admit it. But then I thought: who am I to sit in judgement of 116 million readers? It was then that I reached a sense of peace with the whole Twilight phenomena. This peace was sorely tested when, one evening, I was sitting in a movie theatre, waiting for my movie to start, when a trailer for the latest Twilight movie begin to play.

Forever is Just the Beginning, it declared without offering any further explanation as to how this might be.

No, it isn’t, I grumbled.