Friday 29 July 2016

G is for... Genre

G was going to be for Grammar. But I've said quite a lot about that here (and here), and I'm trying not to go over too much old ground. So, G can be for Genre.

Genre is essentially a way of pigeonholing everything and manages to be simultaneously totally irrelevant and more or less fundamental to the world of writing. You can see why people put so much store in it from the response that always seems to follow you telling anybody you're a writer:
"Oh, really? What kind of thing do you write?"
There you have it.  It's the worst thing anybody can ask you in some ways, but in others it makes perfect sense. Is yours the kind of writing I'm likely to be interested in or not? It's a way of establishing where your books might sit in the bookshop. To some extent, it's a way of establishing who your readers are, although I'm never entirely sure that's a good idea.

I don't know how many people jump around the genres as much as I do when it comes to choosing something to read. I'll pretty much pick up anything, if it seems like it'll be worth my time and effort. So far I can't claim to have ventured into the murky world of, say, dinosaur erotica, but if I met someone who could recommend a title and make it sound compelling I'd probably give it a go. I'd like to think most people don't think of books as being divided into two camps - The Stuff I Know I Like and The Other Stuff - but sometimes I'm not so sure. You do find people who only ever read crime, or break out in hives if they leave the science fiction section of the bookshop. It can't be good to restrict your intake to that extent, but I suppose it limits your chances of being stuck with something you really don't get on with. A bit, at least. Surely it makes life pretty dull, though?

Some journals and magazine use genre as a sort of filter. The idea that modern "literary" fiction is a genre in itself doesn't seem to occur to the editors of these kinds of places. "No genre fiction", they'll cry in their submissions guidelines, with the sniffy assumption that a story with a robot or a monster as a character is automatically excluded from actually being any good. Sure, there's plenty of dross written in the sci-fi and horror realms, but it's no more prevalent there than anywhere else. I mean, some of the stuff that gets published purely because of its "literary" badge should really go and take a good long look at itself in the mirror, for a start.

Personally, I think that while the use of genre has its uses for readers, most writers would be better off ignoring it. Sitting down to write a story in a particular genre immediately saddles you with all sorts of baggage, conventions, clichés, and expectations that will start to shape your story before you've even written the first sentence. Put those aside and concentrate on the character or idea that fascinates you, and don't worry about what pigeonhole it ends up slotting into until after it's written. Because, really, who cares whether it turns out to be a western, a space opera, a historical yarn, or the tale of the forbidden (and anachronistic) love between a caveman and a rebellious young stegosaurus from the wrong side of the tracks? If it's a good story, it's a good story.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

F is for... Finishing

Finishing. Unsurprisingly, it's a very important part of getting a story published, or winning a prize in a competition. No editor is going to want to leave a blank page in their magazine or anthology so the readers can write out their own version of the ending.

So, you have to finish your story. That isn't to say it's even remotely easy to do. I'm sure I'm not alone in having dozens of abandoned stories lying around on my hard drive. Some of them are malformed and flimsy and should never see the light of day under any circumstances, but others are just unlucky - perhaps they got interrupted and I never quite found my way back into them, or I lost interest in them for some other reason.

Part of the problem, I think - and this is only my personal experience so I'd be interested to know whether anyone else feels the same - is that the process of getting through a story is something of an emotional rollercoaster. If I was to plot a simplified graph of confidence levels through a first draft, I'd end up with something like this:

Essentially, that's the journey through:
  • I've got an idea for a story, might be worth a go
  • Yes, you little beauty! This is gonna work.
  • Actually, I'm not sure about it now...
  • Oh god, what was I thinking? I'm the worst writer in the world.
  • Hmm, this might be OK after all...
  • Oh yeah, I'm the storymeister - this is straight-up genius!
  • Right, that's finished. I think. It's alright, isn't it? At least, it might be after a bit of editing.
That slump in the middle, where you start wondering where it's going, why all your characters sound the same, how you're ever going to wrestle the story back to the ending you had in mind when you started - that's the dangerous bit. That's where other ideas become irresistible, when you have that sudden urge to reorganise your bookshelves, when keeping going with the current story seems like the biggest waste of time imaginable. But the key is to keep that arse of yours firmly on the seat, and press on regardless.

For me, the main thing is to keep the momentum going. Plough on, resisting the urge to go back and tinker with the beginning, and get yourself a completed first draft before you do anything else. Don't worry about how ropey it is, or that your main character starts off as John with brown eyes but has changed to Stephanie with green eyes somewhere along the line. It's all fixable. Just get to the end.

I find that it's helpful to keep in mind that the first draft is only ever that - a first draft. It's the roughing-out, the quick sketch to suss out the proportions and the general shape. Don't aim for perfection - in fact, leaving it as loose and malleable as possible can be very useful indeed. And if you get stuck, skip a bit. Lots of my first drafts have notes like [FIND A WAY TO DEMONSTRATE LENNY'S FEAR OF DOGS PRIOR TO THIS POINT] or [CHECK WHETHER THERE ARE THREE OR FOUR PEOPLE IN THE CAR AT THE BEGINNING]. Anything to stop me getting bogged down, looking back over an incomplete draft and losing confidence in it.

If you're getting bored with what you're writing, for instance if you're having to set the scene for a more dramatic part of the story, it can be useful to simply rough out the basic flow of events with bullet points, and then get on with the exciting parts. When you come back to rewrite the scene, you may find that you don't need half as much detail as you first expected.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

E is for... Editing

Depending on your point of view, editing is either the worst, most tedious and soul-destroying part of writing, or it's the fun, rewarding bit where the story you actually meant to write rises out of the murky depths of your first draft. Or, I don't know, maybe you don't have a strong opinion either way. Whatever you think though doesn't change the fact that editing is an essential part of the process. What I'm planning to cover in this post is less of a technical guide to editing, but more of a suggestion for the kind of approach it needs, or at least, the type of mindset I find works best.

When I first started writing, the temptation to skip the edit was hard to resist. I would usually have another story idea waiting in the wings, and I'd be desperate to get started on that one, and the sooner I posted the story online the sooner I'd get feedback (this is back in the heady days of the BBC's Get Writing forum, when people seemed to be queueing up to review your work - providing you returned the favour, of course). It was easy to convince myself there was no point in revising a story before I'd found out what other people thought of it.

Once I'd got more confident with my writing I could see what a mistake this was. Often, I'd write something, it would collect a bunch of mostly positive reviews, and I'd think, OK, that's it done with. Most of the time, although I'd be pleased with the response, the story would effectively die there on the screen in front of me. It had served its purpose, by leading the way to those complimentary critiques, that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from people saying nice things about something you've written. And, once that had worn off, it was on to the next idea. Most of the stories I wrote during that phase have never been submitted anywhere, and probably never will.

The change came when I started pushing myself a bit. Writing things that didn't necessarily work in the usual ways, stories that needed an unusual structure or style. The reviews, the ones that counted at least, shifted in tone. They weren't so complimentary. People couldn't see what I was trying to do. I found that frustrating, but it didn't take long to realise they weren't "getting it" because I wasn't sure exactly what "it" was.

Taking time to work out what you've actually written may seem nonsensical - after all, you're the one who wrote it, surely you're going to have the best insight into it. But it's strange how often it doesn't work like that. Time is the important factor here, I think. It's easy to be working so close to something that you can't see its flaws. Step away for a few days - ideally while working on something else - and come back to your story only when you've forgotten as much as possible about it.

It always surprises me, when I pick up a story that's been "resting" a while, how obvious some of the faults have become. Often, when I'm working on the first draft or an initial rewrite, I'll be aware of something not quite working, but it'll be a challenge to put my finger on what that might be. Slot the first draft of another story in-between it and the critical part of my brain, and suddenly it's obvious. It might not be easy to fix, but at least I have a better idea of which area(s) need more work.

I think I've said on here before that a game I try to play with myself is to read a story I'm editing as though it was written by someone I can't stand, and imagine it's just won top prize in a competition I entered (and got nowhere). The task is to 'prove' what a terrible writer they are by pointing out all the reasons the story doesn't work, all the lazy descriptions, all the clichés. All the inconsistencies and typos.

It's amazing how often this works.

Monday 4 July 2016

D is for... Dull

Whatever you're writing, whoever you hope will end up reading it, the one thing you don't want to be is dull. This may be stating the obvious, but it's an easier trap to fall into than most people think. You might believe your work is edge-of-the-seat stuff, but it takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can spot the bits where people's eyes might start to glaze over. Losing your reader's attention halfway through a story is a disaster for any self-respecting author.

Here are a few factors that might result in a reader skipping chunks of your hard-wrought prose or, worse, abandoning it altogether:

Too self-indulgent

We've all read novels where the author has clambered up onto his or her soapbox in order to proclaim their opinions on a given subject. If done well, these little diversions can be entertaining, but it's a very fine line between that and a tedious intrusion into the story that's both unwelcome and off-putting. By all means write with a message or a moral, but be careful of battering your reader over the head with it. Nobody likes being preached at.

Nothing happens

Short stories seem particularly prone to the curse of nothing happening, and the "literary" end of the spectrum seems to carry the biggest risk. For me, this is particularly frustrating, as if the writing is good, I tend to stick with it all the way to the end in the hope the writer has the skills to make the destination as rewarding as the journey itself. If the tale fizzles out with anything actually changing it all just feels like a big waste of time.

Sometimes nothing happening can be disguised by having a character thinking back to some event in their past, and the flashback explaining some element of their personality or the reason behind a decision. If the flashback is taken away and the story doesn't show the character making some kind of change in the 'current' timeline, then the flashback itself is the story, and the rest is just unnecessary bookending and should probably be cut.

Too repetitive, i.e. repeating yourself, saying the same thing twice or more often than necessary

Out of all the sins on this list, this is probably the one I'm most often guilty of. For me, it comes down to having the confidence that the reader will follow the story without me doubling back every once in a while to check they're keeping up. So I tend to over-compensate and often when I'm editing my first draft I'll be able to cut a lot of stuff because I've already said it. Give your reader credit - it can be worth mentioning something twice in a novel as people don't tend to read those all in one go, but in a short story most readers will be able to hold most of it in their heads without too many reminders.

Too much detail

I touched on this when I was talking about a story's cast, but obviously it applies to any aspect of the tale that can be described. Less is more, and when I was a new writer I found it difficult to get away from that nagging idea that a good author can describe anything (and so should do just that!). I can still go a bit heavy on description, but these days I'm aiming for an approach more like a sniper's rifle than a blunderbuss - focus on something very specific that gives a clear impression of a given thing, rather than trying to condense its entirety down to a few lines of text.

I'm always impressed by authors who can sum up the mood of something without actually describing it at all. Check out this description of an unattractive woman from James Lasdun's story, The Half-Sister (from the collection It's Beginning to Hurt):
Martin held her gaze a moment. Her face was really very strange - large and oval, with a propitiatory quality, like a salver on which certain curious, unrelated objects were being offered up for inspection.
Effective, isn't it - and it just goes to show that describing what somebody looks like is very different to describing how they look.

Characters you can't relate to

I saved the trickiest for last. There's no hard and fast rulebook for creating characters who'll resonate with readers, but it's worth putting effort into finding those special sparks that make the people you're writing about interesting for you, and bringing that right to the surface. Not caring about a character (particularly the main one) is the quickest way out of a story for a reader. Do they have to like them? Not necessarily. Does your main character have to be 'good'? Again, no - anti-heroes are perennially popular. But there has to be something about them, and to an important but lesser extent, about what they're trying to do, that people can engage with. If that's lacking, very few readers will stick around for long.

Have I missed anything? What else can authors do that triggers an attack of the yawns?