Handy Hints for the Freelance Writer #2

Make an agenda. I know, I know. This sounds terribly boring and business-like but I promise you, nothing will help you appreciate those little pockets of writing time more or make you use them more wisely.

The first step to planning  your agenda is to make a list of your writing goals for the week. I’ve banged on about goal setting before, but that’s only half the battle. If you don’t set aside time to work on those writing goals, you will find that you’ve frittered away weeks and weeks without making any progress.

Next, take a diary, one page per day, and block in the time when you are doing essential, non-writing activites: time spent at work, college, the gym, whatever. Already you might be shocked by how little time appears to be left over. Maybe you should take a seat before you do the next bit. Block in the time when you are eating dinner, grocery shopping, doing the laundry, seeing friends and family. Have you written absolutely every essential activity other than writing into your diary? Great. Not a lot of blank space left, is there? Now do you see how an agenda makes you realise how precious your writing time is?

Now try to prioritise your writing goals. I always find this tricky. Some of them may already have deadlines attached. Others, though there’s no official deadline, may be important because they could raise your profile or earn you some money. Once you’ve roughly sorted your goals into some kind of order of importance, insert them into the blank spaces in your diary. There may not (probably won’t be) time for you to do everything you wanted to that week. The agenda is a useful aid in setting realistic and achievable goals. Look at the writing goals you don’t have time to work on this week. Decide if they are important enough to be rolled over into next week’s agenda. If they are projects that will always be sitting at the bottom of the priority pile, you might just want to scrap them.

I’ve been doing the agenda thing for a couple of months now. It took a while to get to grips with. At first I was hopelessly unrealistic, thinking I could squeeze in a two hour writing session between finishing work and going to a writer’s group. I forgot I would have to eat and have a shower, and those things take time.

I’m gradually understanding which types of writing work best at different times of day. Blog posts I can do late in the evening, the earlier I start work on articles the better. Generally early afternoon is a slump period for me so I try to schedule in breaks then: meetings with friends, trips to art galleries. (Don’t forget to schedule in time off. It’s extremely important for your physical and mental well being but something that’s easily neglected).

An agenda can help you beat procrastination. I’ve identified the things that distract me from writing, the internet (times a million) and watching DVDs, and I make time for them in my agenda. It’s easier to resist online fact-checking for an article in the middle of writing it when you know you have set aside time to do it later.

The key to a good agenda, I think, is to be flexible. I scribble things out and shuffle things around, try to roll with the punches. Sometimes I can’t concentrate on the project I’m supposed to be working on so I reschedule it and move onto something else. I’ve always believed that it’s better to write something than nothing.

Do you schedule in time to write? How do fit writing in around other responsibilities? Any tips on how to beat procrastination?


What Makes a Good Short Story

Further to the discussion in the comments box of my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about short stories and specifically about how to end them. A few days ago I went to the Edinburgh Writers’ Club where writer Rosemary Gemmell spoke to the group about writing short stories. Particularly useful for me was her advice on how to achieve a sense of resolution in stories with an open ending. Below is a summary of Rosemary’s talk:

  • When writing a short story most people start with a character, a setting or an idea. It doesn’t matter which comes first as long as you find which one is right for your voice. All stories have to have some kind of point to them. They need to leave you with a thought or an emotion. An editor considering your story for publication is going to be wondering, is there any reason for someone to want to read this?
  • The character must be particularly memorable for the story to work. Think yourself into the body of your character and view the world through their eyes. Be wary of being a narrator rather than one of the characters as this will lead you to tell rather than show the story. Good characterisation will leap off the page. You can bring this out in the way characters speak. You should be able to differentiate between two characters just from their dialogue. A story should normally be told from just one character’s point of view and you need to know which character. If you tell a story from two or more viewpoints you can’t suddenly switch in the middle of a paragraph. Experiment a bit to find out whether first or third person suits you best. Sometimes a story lends itself to one. If a story is not working try changing point of view to see if that works better.
  • Lots of people have similar ideas so to make your story stand out you need to grab the reader right from the beginning. Take them straight into the conflict or a moment of change in someone’s life. There’s no space for a long lead into the story and you can’t waste words on long description or facts. Towards the middle of the story you can filter in description and facts but only if they have some bearing on the story. To end the story you need a resolution or a sense of satisfaction. The reader must be left with a really strong emotion; empathy, laughter or fear, for example. Open endings can be very effective in general or literary short stories but you must show that the story was worth reading either because the character has changed or their perspective has changed. To end on a twist you have to put in little hints throughout the story to flag up that something isn’t quite as expected.
  • Do your market research while you are writing. If you want to earn a living from writing then you need to know where your work is going to suit. By reading a magazine that you would like to target you can subconsciously get to know the style and tone of the stories they publish. Look at the adverts in magazines because those will give you an idea of that magazine’s readership. Read the submission guidelines because there may be very specific rules about what kind of stories they accept.

You can read more of Rosemary’s advice for writers at suite101 or on her blog, Reading and Writing.

Writing Horror – Adele Hartley

Way back when I was still in the clutches of my short story competition addiction, I wrote a horror story. It was a twist in the tale affair about a man who spends a night in a haunted house as part of a television game show. He is convinced that the spooky noises and manifestations are special effects and manages to keep his cool – until the director phones him and says they will have to reschedule the filming because there has been a power cut. It was entertaining to write but it didn’t make me want to get up and put all the lights on, which, according to Adele Hartley, is one of the criteria of a good horror story.

Hartley drew on her experience as the editor of several horror story anthologies to give the Edinburgh Writers’ Club some tips on how to write good horror:

Know the genre well. “The audience has been reading and watching horror since they were children. They know all the conventions and have certain expectations.”

There are six types of horror story:

  • Possessed – a house, a car or a toaster
  • Vengeful spirit
  • Zombie
  • Vampire
  • Phobias – snakes, spiders
  • Evil children

If possible, steer clear of the types that are particularly oversubscribed. “If the world gets any more zombie in it, it might just implode.” Avoid jumping on any bandwagons, like the current trend for vampire fiction, because you will just be “contributing quantity, not quality.” Come up with a fresh approach to one of these story types. “I’m not looking for new ideas, I’m just looking for a new perspective or voice to tell it.”

Don’t try to second guess what the reader will find frightening. “Write about something that really does bother you. Horror is subjective but if it is personal and frightening for you there is a good chance someone else will find it frightening.”

Write from your own experience. “There’s all manner of vulnerability in ordinary situations.” For example, walking alone at night and thinking that you are being followed or being on the last train home in a carriage with a stranger. A good horror story could be inspired by a time when you have experienced “panic, loss of control, or the knowledge that you made a bad decision and there’s no way to take it back.”

Blood and guts are not requirements of good horror. “I would rather see a horror story induce fear by discomfort than horror by revulsion. I want horror that unsettles people and makes them feel slightly disturbed and not know why.” A good way to do this is to set up the atmosphere well but be sparse with details of the action. You don’t need to describe every blow of the axe.

Try crippling the senses of your main character to heighten the fear. An evil creature that you can’t see is much more frightening than one that you can.

Don’t overwrite the ending. “With horror it is so much better to leave something unsaid and unshown. If you spoon feed people you take away all the horror. Most people have a worst case scenario trigger in their head anyway.” Hartley cites the 1963 film The Haunting as an example of the perfect structure of a horror story because “everything is set up but not really paid off.”

Character is crucial. “For me plot is kind of secondary to character. If you have someone that you really care about, it’s terrible when something bad happens to them.”

Ready for publication? To find out if your horror story is frightening, “get someone else to read it by torchlight.” Look at ralan.com for a market – “it is a fabulous website.” If you are sending your story to a journal with a short submission window, “send your work at the end.” Hartley confesses that in the past she has looked more favourably on submissions that arrived close to the deadline because they tended to come from writers who had read the guidelines and written a story specifically for the anthology. The quality was better than that of stories that came at the beginning of the submission window from writers who simply sent in stories they already had that had been rejected elsewhere.

Interview with Daisuke Takahashi

Daisuke Takahashi explains how a childhood book inspired a life of adventure.

We all know that childhood reading is important, that it feeds the imagination. No one knows this better than Daisuke Takahashi, whose love of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe inspired him to travel the world as an adult. In his twenties, Daisuke backpacked throughout the world, drawn to the wilderness of Himalayas, the Antarctica, the Amazon and the Sahara. His fascination with the Earth’s most remote regions stemmed from his love of Defoe’s classic novel. “For me Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was a kind of bible. It tells how one can manage to survive in a remote part of the world.”

He had always regarded Robinson Crusoe “as a fiction of the 18th century, just the imagination of author.” When he learned that the novel is thought to be based on the experience of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), Daisuke determined to find out everything he could about Selkirk’s story and how it related to Robinson Crusoe’s. “What was the difference between fiction and non-fiction? Everything started from this question and provided me with my inspiration.” Daisuke documents his pursuit of the answer in his book, In Search of Robinson Crusoe.

A large part of the book is concerned with Daisuke’s stay on Robinson Crusoe Island (formerly Más a Tierra), off the coast of Chile, where Selkirk was marooned for four years and four months. Daisuke, a seasoned traveller and explorer, used his survival skills to live off the island’s resources as Selkirk had done almost 300 years previously, with no modern tools or equipment. Daisuke believes that this experience was crucial to enable him to understand how Selkirk must have felt during the years he spent alone on the island. “I spoke to the island’s rocks and trees to relieve loneliness. Without this experience, I could not write about [Selkirk’s] castaway life.” Daisuke hoped that by living like Selkirk for a short time on the island, he would uncover evidence of the castaway’s existence. “Trying to find water and edible fruit or catching fish on the island like Robinson Crusoe was not for fun but to find Selkirk’s campsite.”

Daisuke draws on historical documents in In Search of Robinson Crusoe to give an account of Selkirk’s life. “We know about his castaway life from A Cruising Voyage Round the World by Captain Woodes Rogers. Rogers was a buccaneer and rescued Selkirk from [the island]”. In the small town of Lower Largo in Scotland, where Selkirk was raised, Daisuke gained access to documents from the local church which shed light on Selkirk’s personality. The church’s records of disciplinary action taken against Selkirk led Daisuke to draw the conclusion in his book that Selkirk was “hot-headed” and “prone to think with his fists.” This perhaps explains why, after one too many quarrels with the captain of the Cinque Ports galley, Selkirk was set ashore on a deserted island. To understand Selkirk’s role as sailing master on board pirating ships, Daisuke researched navigational history and explains that this information on the lives of pirates in the 18th century lends authenticity to his writing. “Many parts of my book rely on this indirect but historical background, however, I write the whole story as my personal journey and experience.”

Daisuke’s advice for aspiring travel writers is to gather as much information as possible on location. “Notes and photographs are essential; hand drawn rough maps and sketches too.” To recreate a landscape for a reader, Daisuke says that it is important to pay attention to all your senses. “How does the air smell? Is it dry or humid, hot or chilly?” Sometimes he takes sound recordings while he is travelling and tries to get a feel for the local language. “I write my emotional feeling too. I want to tell the readers how I feel about it, so the reader may feel what it is like to be there.”

For his next adventure, Daisuke hopes to delve into the background of another work of fiction and travel to the Guiana Highlands of South America. “They say that it is a prototype of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. How did Conan Doyle write the novel?” Daisuke aims to find out.

In Search of Robinson Crusoe is available to buy on Amazon.

Rodge Glass – Edinburgh Writers’ Club 2009

Rodge Glass is the author of two novels and a biography, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, for which he received a 2009 Somerset Maugham Award. He recently visited the Edinburgh Writers’ Club to talk about researching and writing about the life of his mentor.

Glass was tutored by Gray while doing his MA in Creative Writing at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities and subsequently spent three years working as Gray’s personal assistant. Glass felt compelled to write the biography so that other people would know what it was like to spend time in Gray’s company. “He was a complete nutcase, worth writing about.”

Although Glass had been in close contact with Gray for several years before beginning work on the biography, he says, “At no point did I feel like I knew Alasdair better than anyone else. I felt I could contribute something in a way that someone with a pile of books and good reviewing skills couldn’t do.”

Gray supported Glass with the project, providing him with contact details of friends and acquaintances he could talk to and allowing him to read his unpublished writing. “If my book’s worth anything it’s because I had access to all the things I wanted to.” Gray’s personal poems were particularly revealing, giving Glass an insight into his subject’s mind. “For a biographer it’s gold; all the masks disappear. The narrator is the poet.”

One challenge that Glass faced with writing the biography was to communicate the facts while making the book an entertaining read. He was conscious that he should try “not to make Alasdair into a cartoon  – not to make fun of him – and also not to make the book dry.” Glass’s solution was to include anecdotes and diary entries from the time he spent working for Gray to give an impression of the subject as a person. He describes the resulting book as “a portrait of the artist as an old man.”

Glass points out that writing a biography of a living person has its drawbacks and advantages. “It’s incredibly inconvenient to write about someone you can bump into in Iceland because they can complain about [the book] but it makes it easier to make it vibrant.”

When asked if he will add chapters to future editions of the biography to cover later years of Gray’s life, Glass responds that he has no plans to do so. “[The book] was never supposed to be an absolute truth. It’s an intense emotional engagement over a particular period of time. There’s an honesty to that that I’m proud of.”

For anyone interested in writing a biography, Glass has this to say: “Immersing yourself in someone else’s life comes highly recommended by me but don’t immerse yourself to the extent that you neglect everything else. It’s a quick way to the insane asylum.”

Contemporary Women Writers – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

In this, the third and final post to feature an event at the Oxford Alumni Weekend, I would like to share with you the notes I made at the Contemporary Women Writers session with Joanna Trollope, Francesca Kay and Clare Morgan.

Q: Do you show early drafts of your work to other people?

JT: I’m no good at sharing work in progress with anyone. My editor will see the 4th or 5th version. Usually my editor, sometimes one of my daughters, will see the novel first.

FK: The very first person that read my work was my daughter because she typed it for me. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and your nerve and get through the writing process by yourself. It’s not a community activity.

CM: Some people benefit hugely at certain stages of their writing career by sharing their work with other people. I tend to get it right to a certain extent before I want to show it to other people. I show it to someone close to me so that I don’t make a complete fool of myself.

Q: What is the role of an editor?

JT: The role of an editor is absolutely enormous. I learned a great deal from my first editor 35 years ago about presenting characters, varying tension and the presentation of dialogue. I don’t think there is a single writer on this earth whose work would not improve by editing.

FK: My agent put in commas and removed words and I knew he was right. This paring down by someone you trust is a creative process, not a destructive one.

CM: Acute editing is a) marvellous and a relatively rare skill; b) to be valued by any writer.

Q: What would you say to someone at the start of their writing career who wants to get published?

FK: It’s a gruelling process. One needs a huge amount of luck. Publishers can’t read everything or give everything the attention it deserves. My only advice would be keep trying if you’ve got the confidence to do it and you can bear to do it.

JT: When you want to be published very much, don’t despise any form of being published. Whether it’s a piece in a church newsletter or in a magazine, every bit of writing contributes to your accomplishment as an author. Never despise the details.

Q: Would you be happy if you were not published?

FK: Writing is an act of communication. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be published. It meant I was communicating what I wanted to say to somebody. Not being published would be like singing into an empty room: you’ve not got the purpose an audience would give you.

JT: If I knew I was writing into a void I’m not sure I could do it. I see the reader as an integral part of what I am writing. Without you, what is the point?

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

JT: Always have a notebook with you. Listen to people on buses and in the checkout queue. Fill that notebook with photos and lines of poetry. You are making a patchwork which is training that acute observation of human relationships.

FK: Practice and practice and practice. Writing is, after all, a craft. Even if that writing is the most perfectly crafted shopping list or e-mail, keep those writing tools sharp.

CM: You need the ability to listen to the voice in your head, the intonation and rhythm and pacing of that inner voice that speaks the words of what you are writing to you. Often the authentic voice can be quashed by notions of what’s fashionable or, worse, literary. Try and find that true voice.

Joanna Trollope is the author of fourteen contemporary novels and has also written several historical novels under the pseudonym Caroline Harvey. Her most recent novel, Friday Nights, explores the nature of female friendships.

Francesca Kay’s debut novel, An Equal Stillness, is written in the style of a biography of a fictional artist, Jennet Mallow.

Clare Morgan is director of the Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.

What Makes a Good Short Film?

Here are the notes I made at the most recent Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where Nigel R. Smith talked about what makes a good short film:

  • Length: Optimum length ten minutes. This is enough to tell a good story and hold the audience’s attention. It also fits in neatly with film festival time slots.
  • Theme: Theme is crucial. Something that you are concerned about. Something that everyone can relate to. If you look at short films that win prizes, themes involving wars and kids are popular. People like films that feature children in peril!
  • Characters: Very strong central character with a very clear central goal. A clear nemesis. Only use a few characters because there is very little time to get to know them.
  • Location: As with characters, little time for audience to familiarise themselves with locations so only use a few, unless the character is going on a physical journey e.g. a road trip. Try to use a very specific, unusual location unfamiliar to most audiences. An unusual story world can make something ordinary appear extraordinary.
  • Setting: Present day. Historical / futuristic settings are expensive and a lot of work to create.
  • Structure: Standard linear narrative, 3- act structure. Have a strong beginning, get into story and character quickly. Set up active questions so that the audience wants to know what happens in the next scene i.e. dramatically withhold information. Twist in the tale endings are perfect for the short film.
  • Dialogue: Type of dialogue must be appropriate to the film. Naturalistic (this is a dialogue form, it does not mean talking naturally). Make everything that is said count. Don’t over explain things in the dialogue. The audience likes a bit of room to figure out for themselves what is going on.

Nigel  R. Smith runs screenwriting courses at Screen Academy Scotland and has written a short film distribtion guide, You’ve Got It Made, which is available to download at the Scottish Screen website.