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Writing Tips | N M Browne

Writing Tips

What I’ve learned so far about writing – it is surprisingly little!

Every time I think I’ve cracked it I come across a new writing problem. Each new book is a new challenge because I’m trying to achieve slightly different things or the same thing in a slightly different way. Here are my four great insights anyway:

There is no right way to write.

Some people can only write in lined notebooks of a particular colour, others write in bed, or on the train or only when there is a full moon and an ‘r’ in the month.

None of that matters.

Some people work at four o’clock in the morning, or after midnight. Some only write when inspired and work solidly until the book is done – others keep regular office hours at their desk or set themselves work targets – so many hours a day/week/month or so many words a day/week/month. None of that matters either.

If you want to be a writer you have to find out what time, place and writing schedule works for you, though it helps, I think, to develop flexible working habits and not be too fussy about the kind of pen and paper you have to use, if only because manufacturers are prone to suddenly discontinuing certain lines. I have trouble planning on lined paper and I do like to use a fountain pen, but I have written ideas down on the back of a paper napkin with kohl pencil before now in desperation. (My children tend to ‘borrow’ all my gel pens and my ink cartridges disappear to that other dimension which also contains six million odd socks, stamps, paperclips, my kids’ school shoes and my housekeys. At the moment my desk contains one huge blue permanent marker, a dayglo highlighter, three pens that don’t work, a dried up felt tip and a blunt pencil. More organized people probably waste a good deal less time.)

If you are someone who needs a routine to get things done then try to develop a reasonably flexible one that will allow you to take advantage of good days. I’m not very good with routine, personally, and though I try to get to my desk by 10am I am probably a bit too flexible and on very bad days don’t make it to my desk at all.

Some writers develop rituals to help them get into the right mood to work. I used to always read the previous days output ( and have a cup of coffee) but I don’t always do that now (Read the work, I mean. I always have a coffee except when, to make life that little bit more interesting, I throw caution to the wind and have a tea.)

I know people who can only write by making it all up as they go along and others who plan in meticulous detail. I do a bit of both as you can see on this page.

Some people begin at the beginning of a book and write all the events in order until they come to the end, others write scenes out of order and stitch it altogether somehow so that you can’t see the joins.

Some people write a first draft that is little more than an outline of the plot and fill it out later, others write a full but sprawling first draft that has to be edited and shaped, while others write a pretty clean first draft that needs only minor tweaking later.

If you don’t know which type of writer you are, it is probably good to experiment with different approaches until you find a way that works well for you. You may also have to be prepared to change it later if for some reason it stops working. ( Sometimes nothing works but if you’re lucky those times won’t last for too long.)

I did a lot of writing before computers were widely used. I wrote all my essays at school long hand and, being quite fussy in those days, would have to write the whole thing out again if there were too many mistakes. I still like to try to get my writing as right as I can in my first draft and I don’t think too much about other ways in which I could have expressed myself. I rely heavily on my first thoughts and don’t tend to question what I’m doing too much. It has taken me a while to grasp that it is OK to change things later, that it is called editing and it can produce much better work.

If you’ve grown up with computers and editing is easy you may have the opposite problem which is a tendency to fiddle with a sentence or with a chapter and not to commit to one way of writing your idea. You might want to limit the amount of fiddling you do with your text before moving on – otherwise you could spend your life writing the perfect opening paragraph ( or opening sentence if you’ve got it really bad)

I could go on about the many different ways people generate ideas – loads of writers have ideas books and they work well for them. I don’t keep one because typing so much has ruined my handwriting (without appreciably improving my typing) and I can’t read what I scribble in moments of inspiration (especially when written in kohl pencil on a napkin). Some writers get a trillion ideas a day others of us make do with the odd one every now and again and make each idea work really hard – that doesn’t matter either.

There isn’t just one right way to write. Writers come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and personality types. If we don’t look alike, act alike or think alike – there is no way we are all going to work alike.

The only way to be a writer is to keep writing.

A writer is someone who writes – you can’t be a writer on the inside without actually indulging in the activity. I’m always being told by people that they’d like to write a book or that they might write a book when they find the odd five minutes in their busy lives, or that they could have written a book, but then something better came along and they did that instead. When people tell me they want to write I tell them to get on with it then – to sit down and write. (I am not always as tactful as I ought to be.) There is no magical formula for writing (see above.) You can only learn how to do it by doing it – so get started.

Starting, once you’ve actually made it to your desk or chosen workplace, is the exciting part. I like beginnings when a whole story stretches before me all new and shiny, all conceptual and full of possibilities. Beginnings are often easy for me, but at sometime – usually quite soon after the beginning it gets harder and you start to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. I think this happens to most writers at least some of the time.

Writing involves a certain amount of discipline and a determination not to give up.

It’s all about plodding on, battling through, fighting on etc which translates to sitting down and persisting, putting one word in front of another until the story takes off again.

There are probably writers who remain enthusiastic for every word of a project and I think I might hate them, if it were not for the fact that the difficult parts of a story are often the moments when you work out what the story is really about. I often find sticking points occur when I haven’t worked things out in enough detail, when I need to think a bit more or do more research, or when the story has taken a wrong turn and needs redirecting. For many people difficult days are part of the overall process and part of the job. Some people take time off when a story is not going well and come back to it later. Certainly that can help you to see the story more clearly, but I have found that writing through the tough spot is generally the best way to get through them.

Writing is great fun (except when it isn’t)

Writing is certainly the best job I’ve ever had, but like everything else it has its disadvantages. I am quite sociable and find working alone quite difficult which is why I make an effort to meet friends for coffee as often as I can in a probably futile attempt to keep me sane. It is also difficult to talk about writing to people who aren’t writing themselves. Listening to a half thought through plot is very dull and I’ve seen even loyal friends’ eyes glaze over when I get started on my latest plot problem.

Like all creative professions it brings its own disappointments. It’s a very competitive business, which is not (for most writers) terribly well paid. There are many extremely talented people writing children’s fiction at the moment so it is hard to get published, to get your book stocked in major book chains, to get reviewed and to make an impact. You have to be robust enough and confident enough to weather rejection, disappointment and criticism (but that is true of every other walk of life too.) You have to believe in what you’re doing and enjoy it enough to get through the times when you feel unappreciated and when you can’t find the right words. I celebrate everything, getting a contract, finishing a first draft, finishing the final draft, getting the proofs through, getting the jacket illustration, getting the finished book. It is great when you get praise and recognition, but a big part of being a writer is being able to motivate yourself.

When it is going well there is no better feeling. I like it best when I’m totally immersed in the story to the extent that I almost forget I’m writing it, when I’m typing as quickly as I can and when time disappears. It is fantastic.

Everyone I have ever talked to about writing has had bad days/weeks/months (even years) or found parts of every project very difficult. Like everything that is satisfying and rewarding it is sometimes hard graft – but the feeling of triumph you experience when you have finished a story is hard to beat.

There is always more to learn

I thought after I’d finished ‘Warriors of Alavna’ that I knew how to write a book unfortunately all I knew was how to write ‘Warriors of Alanva.’ Each book requires new skills, new ways of making that particular story work.

I suppose all my stories have things in common – they’re bound to they all come from my imagination. They all involve transformations, betrayal, the power of love, death and sacrifice. Each book has had a slightly different structure and required me to write in a slightly different way. Each book has been a different writing experience and I hope that will always be true.

There are countless stories and countless ways of telling them. The best way to improve most things is through practice and writing is no exception. Even though each book or project brings new challenges, some things do get easier and your confidence grows with practice.

I learned to write by writing but not everyone is happy learning that way. There are lots of books about how to write and creative writing workshops and classes that can help you to think about writing in different ways. There are also online resources and crit groups where you can get your work critiqued in return for critiquing other people’s work.

I haven’t tried any of those routes myself and I would recommend thinking about how you deal with criticism before joining a crit group. There is little point in joining something if it isn’t going to help you improve and if you need lots of encouragement you may not necessarily get it unless you are in a supportive and cooperative group.

I think the most important thing is to be open minded, to explore different ways of writing and to learn from writing failures as well as writing successes. No one can tell you how you will write best, even you won’t know what approach works until you have found it!

I learn best from reading other people’s stories and working on my own. There may be a writer somewhere who doesn’t love reading but I haven’t heard of one.

My advice to anyone who wants to be a writer is:

  • Read widely and often
  • Don’t dream about writing or talk about it – do it.
  • Enjoy it, but don’t get discouraged when the going gets tough- keep going.
  • Keep experimenting and exploring new approaches and new techniques.

If you want advice on submissions go to :
http://www.bloomsbury.com/writersarea

My Way

What do I do?

I am not a writer who has a million ideas a minute. I think my stories grow from several different roots and tend to get more complicated as they grow.

Begin at the beginning

I often generate new stories by writing first lines – I find a particular voice, a certain place a weird situation that gets me thinking and it then becomes a first paragraph. I don’t usually have to do too many ‘seed sentences’ before I find the germ of an idea that intrigues me and then it starts growing.

Some ideas wither quite quickly but when I see the fibres of a narrative thread beginning to form I keep going until I’ve done 4000 words or perhaps a little more. I tend to think that if I can write 4000 words off the top of my head there is an interesting story to be written.

Go with the Flow

I started writing this way because it is what I did at school – though usually I would have a subject, even if it was only ‘what I did on my summer holidays.’ My favourite lesson when I was about nine was ‘picture stories’ when we got to choose a post card or a picture from a magazine from the teacher’s picture box and then just write. Sometimes I work just like I did when I was a child and I have a picture in my head or an idea of what I might like to write about: I knew when I came up with the first line that became the opening of ‘Basilisk’ that I wanted to write a story about dragons. There is something very exciting and liberating in just letting your imagination run free. I imagine those starting chapter as being the root of the whole story and I very rarely change my first line (though I have) it makes me a little nervous in case tampering with the root causes the whole story to collapse.

Stop?

Some people write a whole novel that way but I have found that I need a structure and a plan if I’m to grow a middle and end out of my beginning. When the ideas are still tumbling out, when I’ve written my first 4000 words I tend to stop writing all together and look a what I’ve got.

For some reason I find it difficult to do the next step at home. It is quite difficult and I have to concentrate quite hard and if I’m at home I’ll browse the internet or decide I have to clean my office or develop an urgent need to bake bread. I never do bake bread or clean my office because I go off to a favourite cafe or pub which has comfortable chairs, friendly staff and is busy enough and noisy enough for me to have to concentrate really hard to get anything done. There I get out my nice notebook book with unlined pen and either my fountain pen or, if I can’t find any cartridges which I often can’t, a nice black gel pen with a fine point. Exhausted by the effort of getting out my paper and pen I usually then have a coffee and something chocolatey to get me through to the next stage – planning.

Do the hard part first – so I can enjoy the rest.

My mother thinks I have an obsessive personality because I always eat my food in reverse order of preference – leaving my meat, the best bit until last. This might be why I get the planning and serious thinking out of the way so I can get on and enjoy the story.

One way or another I have done a lot of exams and used to be quite good at planning timed essay answers. I’d look at the clock on the wall which was always one of the old fashioned round types with hands – nothing digital or complicated – and plan my essay in terms of the time available; perhaps I needed to make five points by the time it was quarter past the hour so that’s what I would do. I think this is perhaps why my novel planning takes the same form. It seems very natural for me to work out where I need to be in the story by reference to the quarters on a clock. (Don’t blame me – blame the rigours of the British education system. I have obviously been traumatized for life.)

I usual develop an overview of the plot by asking lots of questions. Why are my characters where they are? What are they trying to do and why? What is going to stop them? When I have the basics I try to work out how that plot will pan out in terms of chapters. I also start thinking about the what the world is like and begin to do some relevant research.

I mark up the clockface into quarters and then divide each quarter into chapters. I struggle to get my broad idea to work in a forty chapter narrative. It usual takes several attempts and of course the story changes as I go along. I may do four or five clock face diagrams before I come up with one that works. I can also use my diagram to work out which chapters are going to be written from which perspective and make sure that there are enough high points in the story and enough suspense so that the pace doesn’t flag. Sometimes I will use different colours to mark different bits of the narrative in the one shown here for ‘The Story of Stone’ the bits in red are the parts of the story written from Stone’s perspective.

I find this a good way of getting something quite complicated into a form I can visualize in its entirety.

Here are some examples of my writing diagrams:

NMB_WritingDiagram1 NMB_WritingDiagram2

Of course the beginning and end are always next to each other on my diagram and I find that helps me to think about the arc of the story – to see what has been resolved and to check that the story is in some ways complete. In both ‘Warriors of Alavna’ and ‘Warriors of Camlann’ the beginning and ends are almost the same and Dan and Ursula end where they began.

When I have finished the diagram I barely look at it again and feel quite free to change the plot as I go. Its main value lies in forcing me to think about the mechanics of the story. Once I have a clear enough idea of what the plot drivers are I am happy to just make things up! ( More often than not I write what I plan but I like feeling that I don’t have to.)
Submission

I usually submit my initial two or three chapters and synopsis to my publisher before proceeding further. Generally with first novels, it is advisable to complete the entire manuscript even if you only submit the first few chapters to an editor or agent initially.

Sometimes I write something else or do some research reading while I’m waiting for a response, but more often than not I take that time off and spend time doing all the boring jobs I don’t do when I’m working – shopping, feeding my children – that kind of thing. ( Actually I never forget to feed my children – they wouldn’t let me, but my cooking can get very dodgy when I’m thinking of other things.)

If I get a positive response back from my editor and she’s happy with my idea – I start writing.

The writing

Although this is the most important part there isn’t too much to say about it. This is the bit when I sit at my desk and make things up. I try to start work after I’ve walked the dog in the morning and I try to finish by the time I have to pick up my youngest child from school. Sometimes I set myself a word target – it used to be 3000 words but when it gets difficult I drop it down to 1500 – sometimes I write more, but after a certain point it turns into total gibberish.

I don’t generally edit as I go along – I change clunky sentences and maybe spend time searching for the right word. Occasionally I have to stop and think a bit more about the world, but most of the time I work fairly steadily until the first draft is done.

Sometimes I print out each day’s work and read and correct it before starting the next day’s work. Sometimes something happens in real life and I have to stop writing for a while, but I definitely find it easier to work if I can write every day.

When it is going well the story seems to write itself and it is a pleasure to sit down at my desk. When it is going badly everyone suffers and I stomp around, eat even more chocolate and whinge and whine at anyone who will listen (my family largely ignore this stage, which doesn’t help) Eventually good sense prevails and I shut up and try to get the story back on track.

I used to read each chapter aloud to my family, but these days no one has the time to listen – term time is manic in our house. Reading aloud is a very good way of finding spelling and punctuation mistakes and also of discovering sentences that really don’t work: it’s a very useful technique.
First Revision

Usually I get one of my children or my husband to read my first draft and get their comments. It isn’t easy reading a manuscript, so I’m always grateful for their efforts.

I take all criticism very seriously – I don’t take it well, but I take it seriously.

I read the whole thing through myself, preferably at one sitting as if it were someone else’s novel and correct for spelling and punctuation mistakes as I go along (there are usually quite a lot of both.) I write myself rude notes in the margins of the bits I don’t like usually things like ‘rubbish’, ‘boring’ and ‘rewrite so this makes sense.’ I have a separate piece of paper on which I note the page numbers of things that need checking, continuity issues and any things I spot that I think needs further thought. So, for example, I might write – ‘check x’s hair colour’ and ‘where did they leave the knife?’ as well as things like ‘Why did y think x was dead?’ or’ how does the magic work on page 203?’

This is another part of the novel making process that I sometimes do in a café or a pub as it takes focus and concentration (and a lot of coffee.)

If I think I need to change the order of events or make any change which will affect the structure of the book, I will draw another circular diagram and mark in what actually happens in each of the chapters so that I can see what the impact of any changes will be.

I also tend to check time lines and distances at this stage. It is never a good idea to have a journey take three days at the beginning of the book and only two by the end unless you have a very good reason to account for the difference.

I have to do all those thinking/ planning kind of things by hand – drawing odd little diagrams and colouring them in to help me visualize the story in different ways. Some people manage to plan on the computer, but for me there are certain types of thinking I can only do with a pen in my hand.

I try to whiz through the actual task of making the changes as quickly as I can – so I set myself a tight deadline to get the submission draft finished. When it’s done I write a covering letter to my agent, package it up and send it on its way.

I don’t look at it again until I get comments from my editor.

I always celebrate sending a book off. I take some time off to do a bit of light shopping and meet friends and to tidy my office, which is usually in a pretty bad state at the end of a project with papers everywhere, books all over the floor and a row of dirty coffee mugs on my desk.

Then I start generating some more first sentences and it all begins again…