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And when it’s easy, is it any good?

I don’t know about you guys out there, but I often find myself puzzled by my own behaviour in relation to writing. When I’m not writing I feel guilty, pressurised, missing something … So I make the time, find the space, set up the laptop, take a deep breath – and freeze.

What’s going on? I have my plan, my chapter outline, I’m near the end of the book and I know exactly what’s going to happen. But the words stubbornly refuse to flow from the end of my frozen fingers. The opposite of verbal diarrhea has set in! (Verbal constipation? Enough with the metaphors!)

But then, but then … when I finally thaw and the words trip haltingly from the fingers, I slowly get into a zone. The ideas come faster than my fingers can type them. I don’t hear what’s happening around me. I become immune to the passage of time. I go hungry as it grows dark outside. I’ve written 1000 words in 45 minutes! That’s a day’s quota in less than an hour.

So the next question is, have I written anything that’s actually any good? Have I really been creative, or have I just tapped a source of story gold, where lots happens and dialogue comes easy?

This process is fascinating to me because, when I think about it, writing fiction is what I want to do. I study for it. I read lots about it. I practice it and write down story ideas. Then as soon as I start ‘the real thing’, it gets hard. This must be why so many unfinished novels lie unread at the bottom of drawers; the author has suddenly run out of steam, lost the will to keep being creative. And maybe doesn’t like what she or he has written anyway.

Maybe this dilemma – the urge to write vs. the struggle to write – explains why so many famous writers had difficult personal lives. Of course there are many who don’t, but equally the number of great writers we know who suffered and toiled is huge. Naturally I don’t put myself in their category – even in my wildest dreams – but I do recognise that the will to be creative and the sheer effort it takes to be so are in frequent conflict with each other. Planning helps me. Having a target helps me. But more often than not I find myself putting off the writing till the afternoon, then the late afternoon, then the early evening … till at midnight I’m hammering out the last words of my 1000.

Then scrap half of them the next day.

So is there a ‘third way’? Is it possible to hit the Zone earlier, not being terrified by the blank screen and the refusal of one’s characters to play ball and say what you want them to say instead of making up their own lines? I have a friend who sits at his keyboard for an hour first thing in the morning and writes out his ‘journal’ while listening to Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece. The journal is in fact a grab-bag of ideas, thoughts, musings that have no sense or rhyme or reason – it’s just his way of limbering up the writing muscles prior to his real work. I guess these days blogs occupy that territory for some folk – an opportunity to practice writing without it being taken too seriously.

But if writers can be split into ‘squeezers’ and ‘gushers’ (those for whom each word is costly, versus those who pour it out – F.Scott Fitzgerald versus Thomas Wolfe), then I’m definitely a squeezer. So once I’ve written a blog, I often feel I’ve used up my quota of words for the day and can’t write anything else sensible. I’ve been like that since I was 18 and I guess I’m not going to change now!

So that’s me finished. I’m off to stare at a wall for a while, because obviously I can’t write anything else for a couple of days. I’m all squeezed out.

Keith Dixon
Altered Life

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What is it about one novel that makes it better than another?

There are several components of a novel: the plot, the characters, the style, the pacing, the voice, and more. Readers have different preferences and what one reader likes, another will hate. Sometimes this is difficult for authors – we want everyone to love our work!

Let’s start with something basic to talk about, our plots. You can’t really have a story without a plot. Something happens; someone does something; things get rough; things get rougher; things get better; other things happen and then things are resolved. Writers always start with an idea. That idea could be a person, a place, or an event – but can you control your plot or is your plot controlling you? Can you summarize your basic idea in one line? What about one paragraph?

 

Peter Rubie writes in his guide “The Elements of Storytelling” that:

Once ideas come to us, they must be shaped. Remember: Keep it simple. Encapsulate your idea in a sentence, or a short paragraph, using one of the following phrases:What if…? Or Suppose…?  

For example: Suppose… a group of guys get together and hire a hit man to kill the president of France and then find they can’t call off the assassin. (Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal”) 

One thing to notice here is that, by redefining the idea this way, you automatically also come up with characters. The only rule at the plotting stage is to get down on paper the basics of the story in a lucid manner.

Peter shares some good advice here for getting our plot started; of course, we know how important summarizing is when it’s time to write a hook, a synopsis and a query letter.

 

Noah Lukeman, literary agent and author, writes: 
Many writers spend the majority of their time devising their plot. What they don’t seem to understand is that if their execution – if their prose – isn’t up to par, their plot will never be considered.

A good book has several strong components and maybe a few weaker ones… maybe the characters are excellent but the pacing is off. A great book will hit all the major components. I know that I’ve read a book and been thrilled with the pace, the tone and fallen in love with the characters – but the plot was weak. It had numerous holes and required too much reader suspension of belief. We have to have a place to begin and in development stages, plot is one of the best areas to focus on.

 

For fun and games: I found the Plot-o-matic a plot building tool for movies.

 

So, let’s talk about Plot.

What are your thoughts? Did you begin with a plot or a character? Did you have your core plot planned from A to Z before you started writing? Did you start with a germ of an idea and just let the plot come to you? Have you practiced summarizing your plot in as few sentences as possible? If so, how does it sound?

 

I blog regularly at Writing Aspirations and right now am co-hosting the Debut a Debut contest!

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