14 October 2014

Writing a Book in a Year

When I wrote my first novel, my goal was simply to see if I could get to the end. Did I have what it took to write a whole novel? I had no plans for daily word counts or a particular time frame. It was a simple goal. Write a novel.

Like many other authors, I worked full time, so I wrote in the evenings and at weekends. I had days or weeks when my motivation lagged and I didn't write. I see from my spreadsheets that book took me between eighteen months and two years to write and edit.

I'm horrified to realise the next two novels actually took me longer, although the word count is significantly more. They both took closer to three years including the elapsed time between writing and editing, and looking for agents or publishers and making the changes they suggested.

At this point I felt good about my experiences and the things I'd learned from writing the previous novels. For a long time I'd wanted to see if I could write and edit a novel within a year, and this seemed like the right opportunity. It was the first time since I started my initial novel that all my other projects were finished and I wasn't in between writing and editing something else. It was time to set that goal.

I definitely didn't choose the best year. We've moved three times since February and while I've still been contracting, all my work this year has been in company offices, so I haven't had the luxury of working from home and choosing my own hours. However, I have accomplished my goal *loud cheer and happy face * AND Still Death is a great book. 

I think there's much to recommend writing a book in a shorter length of time, or at least to be continuously in the world of your book and characters. This is why authors talk of the discipline of writing every day and living closely with your characters. You are more open to recognising the inspiration and ideas that come, and you don't have to waste time getting back into the groove of your story. My goal now is to write the next book in nine months (and it would be good if I could come up with a title much sooner!). Watch this space!

Still Death will be available from 8th November, but you can pre-order it from the retailers below.  After the launch it will be $2.99 but at the moment you can pre-order it for 99 cents.  

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Apple Store
Smashwords
Kobo Books 
 

08 October 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Writing a Novel

Where do you get your ideas? Which comes first, the characters or the plot?
These are two of the questions that people often ask writers.


I remember the moment Lexie, the main character in Still Death, came to my mind – reading a newspaper article outside a cafĂ© on a road trip in New South Wales, Australia. That was four or five years and several other projects ago, but she’s hung since then, and I guess that answers the opening questions.


Originally Lexie was going to be the main character in a different genre, but as I got to know her it was obvious her flaws and character arc needed a different type story. That was where I hit my first problem.


I’d written my earlier novels in a similar way – knowing the end point and outlining the first third to half of the novel. I decided this time I'd plan the entire novel so I wouldn’t get side tracked and waste time.


Oh boy, what a headache that gave me. At heart I believe I’m an outliner/planner, BUT this book just wouldn’t move out of the starting blocks. I spent several weeks trying to force a plot and got nowhere. Eventually I decided to start writing and see where it took me. 


It was scary. There were several times I emailed or met up with a writer friend, our conversations going something like this.

‘I’ve got a scene where this artist woman turns up and has a mysterious meeting with one of the other characters.’
‘Ooh, that sounds good.’
‘But I don’t know who the hell she is, or what part she’s playing.’


Or
‘Lexie’s husband is investigating this mysterious compound, but goodness knows what happens.’
 

Or simply:
‘Another guy’s turned up dead.’
 

About halfway through the first draft, I got to a point where it felt as though I was banging my head against the wall with the plot. I knew Lexie inside out and upside down, I knew what decision she’d make in any situation and why, but I couldn’t get traction with the plot.

Then came the light bulb moment. Looking back at it, it was obvious, but often the obvious is difficult to see. One evening when I should have been writing, I read an article that covered the different processes and ways people write novels. As most writers know, there’s the planner, outliner and pantser, but the article went deeper than that – do you start with characters, with a plot or with snapshots of scenes.


My ideas always start with characters. Suddenly I knew where I’d been going wrong. From the beginning I was trying to force a plot. I’d told myself as this was a murder/mystery I HAD to have the plot sorted out, but I don’t write like that and therefore couldn’t plan that way. If my ideas start with characters and they’re character-driven novels, then I have to let the characters drive the plot. It sounds so obvious now, but this was a real breakthrough.


I knew how Lexie thought and how she’d react to situations. I knew her flaws and the things that worried her and the ways she had to grow to become the person she needed to be at the end of the novel. Now I needed to figure out what would get her to that place.


The words didn’t exactly flash out of my fingers at lightning speed, but I could see where I needed to go and what needed to happen – I had a plot! But one that made sense to the characters and their growth.


If you’re interested in reading a little of Still Death, here’s the prologue.

Late May

The woman said goodbye to her friend and left the restaurant, paying no attention to the cars parked along the road. There were always cars, and usually people, although it was quiet at the moment. The restaurants and pubs were busy, but it was too early for anyone to make the move to the clubs a few streets away.

She smiled, remembering the phone calls of the past days. He missed her, couldn’t wait to finish the research on his current story and fly back. Couldn’t wait to see her again.

She’d missed him. He would be back at his apartment by now, working on the story and waiting for her. The previously arranged dinner had been unavoidable, but at least it was over.

Her smile crinkled light lines around her eyes. She glanced at her watch, increased her pace. It only took a few minutes to walk to his flat from here. He’d be waiting for her call, but she’d surprise him.

She didn’t see the man, silent in the shadows. Didn’t hear the few words he muttered into his phone.

Further along, she slowed as she turned to cross the street. A car came around the corner. She stepped out between the parked vehicles and glanced towards the dazzling headlights. The car stopped in the road, engine idling. The same model as his. Perhaps he’d come to pick her up, not wanting to wait any longer. The headlights blinded her. She squinted, trying to make out the driver or the registration number.

The car engine revved, tyres squealed, as it hurtled towards her. No time to move or call out. The car rammed into her. Knocked the breath out of her body. Tossed her onto the road like a limp rag doll. The frown of uncertainty still creased her forehead.

A trickle of blood seeped from the corner of her mouth, dribbled down her cheek and onto the road. The car roared away. The man checked there was no one around. He approached the woman and crouched down. Watched the light fade from her eyes then made another phone call.


Still Death will be available from 8th November, but you can pre-order it from Amazon.  After the launch it will be $2.99 but at the moment you can pre-order it for 99 cents.

29 September 2014

The New Book - Still Death

Regular readers of the blog may have noticed that while I've posted about writing, I haven't actually mentioned anything about a current project for some time. That's about to end, as I'm thrilled to say my latest book is due out on 8th November. 

While I'm in the early stages of writing a book, the ideas often feel so tenuous I don’t like talking about them. Winnie the Pooh best sums up this feeling, 'When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.' 

Once I have the feel of the characters and the ideas are firmer, my problem then is finding a title. It's quite difficult talking about your current project when you don't know what to call it. Once I've written the first draft, I spend ages coming up with words and phrases that link to the ideas and themes of the book. This time I took so long to find anything I liked that I'd actually got to the beta reader stage and was still without a title. I gave my beta readers the list of ideas I'd been playing with, and fortunately they all liked the same title - Still Death. As you might guess from this it's a murder/mystery!

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with Andrew of Design for Writers, and once again he’s come up with an amazing cover. Unlike some of my previous novels, I knew exactly what I wanted, and Andrew has captured the opening scene brilliantly.

So without further ado – drum roll – the cover for Still Death.

Still Death

I find writing the novel easier than writing the blurb that goes with it, but if you're interested in knowing more about Still Death, here goes... 

The first was a hit and run.
The second a murder/suicide.
Who will be next?

Lexie believes Patrick has been set-up for the murder of his girlfriend, but she is the only person who does.

After living in London, she thought life in a small town would be boring, but there are too many accidents to be a coincidence, and they all appear linked to the death of Patrick's girlfriend.

Lexie is determined to find out who is behind it until her family becomes one of the statistics.

Death still lurks in the quietest places. 

In the next post I'll talk a bit more about writing the book and give you a sneak preview of the opening scene.

15 September 2014

Success: Mindset and Attitude

Last week I went to an evening presentation by Nigel Latta. He's well-known here, but probably not outside of New Zealand. Nigel is a forsenic psychologist and has hosted several television shows: Beyond the Darklands, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers and The Politically Incorrect Parenting Show, as well as writing books on these subjects.

I had no idea of the format for the evening, and considering the theme of a couple of my recent posts (here and here), I was quite amused when he said he was going to talk about the Psychology of Success, or 'How you get where you want to go'.

He's an articulate and amusing presenter, and kept his message clear and straightforward. 
  • Plan: Know where you want to go or what you want to do. This world of ours is full of information and distractions that can quickly lead us away from what we really want to do.
  • Work: He subscribes to the view that we can over-rate talent, and sometimes use it as a cop-out for not trying, i.e. I'm no good at maths, and I'm never going to be any good. If we want to gain new skills or improve at something, then we need to practice, and have the mindset that we can improve. He mentioned some of the research that I've read, that talent isn't fixed and our mindset and attitude is vital in determining our success or otherwise.
  • Think: Because we're so busy just trying to keep up with life, we probably don't spend enough time thinking about what is really important to us. This probably links back to planning. If we need to spend time really practising those skills we want to improve, we don't have the time to be excellent at everything, therefore we need to select those things that are most important to us.
Here are some links if you're interested in reading more on mindset and attitude:
Talent isn't fixed
The Right Mindset for Success - Harvard Business Review blog 
The Effort Effect - Stanford Magazine

Success means different things to each of us. Nigel summed up the meaning of success for him - in the widest sense - as living a meaningful life, and in everyday interactions trying to make life a little better/nicer/happier for anyone he comes in contact with.

This idea isn't new, but it's good to be reminded that success shouldn't always be thought of in fame or financial terms.

As a side note to this, the event was held in one of the local schools. Parking was in various parts of the school grounds and the surrounding roads. I'd been directed to the tennis courts for parking. Several hundred people attended the event, and exiting the school grounds afterwards was obviously very slow. I sat patiently in my parking space for about ten minutes waiting to join the exit queue. The school hall had been cold, and to be honest, I was just happy to thaw out with the heater going full blast! From my parking space, I was looking at a driver in the queue. He was behind a driver who was very kindly letting everyone else out. The driver I could see looked as though he wanted to lean on his horn, but he must have remembered Nigel's comments, and refrained!

02 September 2014

Busy is the New Rich

With the start of a new month, I've heard a few people making the comment, 'Where has the year gone?' With our third house move this year looming, I know where our eight months has gone!

It's been a busy year as we've sold, rented, bought and renovated. Added to which there is family, work, writing and that little thing called 'having a life'. The list is in no particular order, although 'having a life' got tagged on the end almost as an after-thought, as it's been for a while!

I hear you either tutting, or taking a big breath to tell me how much busier you've been. But wait a minute....

That second paragraph, while entirely true, was written a little tongue-in-cheek. I listen to people at work, friends, acquaintances and passers-by talking, and everyone is BUSY. Not just busy, but BUSY!!

We seem proud of the amount of hours we have to work and our lack of spare time. It's almost a badge of honour. A way of showing how important we are. No longer are we talking about the new car/sound system/television we have, but rather our lack of time to use these items. Even children aren't immune. They seem to spend their lives being ferried around to after-school classes/clubs/social events with weekends full of teams and sports.

I'm not sure if it's worse than it used to be, or if being on-call 24/7 with email, smartphones and gadgets makes it feel that way. If I could bottle something that solved our time deprived lives, and sell it, I know I'd make a fortune. 

There isn't really a one-size fits all solution. We have to find the answer ourselves. I think it begins with realising the effects this state of busyness has on us, keeping us in a state of near panic. If we're constantly running on adrenalin, we're not doing our physical and mental-selves any favours, and our decision-making capabilities are degraded.

Unfortunately, most of us aren't in a position to change everything in our lives. At the very least, I think we should stop for a few minutes at least once a day, and clear our minds of all those chattering thoughts that want to grab our attention. We should use the time to notice where we are and the things around us, and how we actually feel physically. In other words, to be exactly in that moment, rather than still continuing an argument we had earlier with someone, or still being angry with the driver who cut into the queue, or the other thousands of mostly inconsequential things that drag us away from enjoying NOW.

W.H. Davies wrote this poem in the early 1900s.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


Someone once said they doubted anyone would ask for the words, 'Wish I'd spent more time at the office,' on their tombstone.
 
It's a beautiful world out there. Appreciate it.

28 August 2014

Handwriting Matters

Most people I know, and I include myself in this, mutter about the state of their handwriting when giving someone a handwritten note, or a manuscript with scribbles all down the side of the page.

I've been known to rewrite short notes or a set of directions, especially if they're for someone else.

I'm sure at some time in the distant past I had reasonable handwriting. It was never wonderful, but at least it was legible. I recall 3-hour exam essays that looked better than my handwriting now. Of course, also like everyone else, I blame the computer for this!

Having said that, I wouldn't swap the wonderful convenience of Cut and Paste, or performing a quick Find and Replace and changing a character's name (and back again sometimes!) without even blinking.

However, I do often use pen (or pencil) and paper to write a scene, plan future chapters, or get the sense of how a character speaks by writing out scenes full of dialogue. There's something about physically writing that frees up the imagination.

On that note, here is an article from the New York Times I found interesting. It also reminded me the first thing I used to do when starting to study for exams was to write out my main revision headings and the important points within each, and use that as my revision. But then I was a bit of a girly swot!

21 August 2014

Getting Better All The Time


Becoming good at something interests me – you probably got that impression from the previous post.

Why does one person achieve success and another doesn’t? Why is one person excellent at a sport or occupation, while others are mediocre? What makes the difference?

I guess it begins with our individual motivation and desire to succeed at something. Like most people, I’ve watched athletes or musicians etc. and have been amazed at their skills, and wished I could do the same. The big difference is that my idle wish has never morphed into anything more than a frivolous fancy, at least not until I decided I wanted to be able to call myself a writer, and be proud of what I'd written.

It’s easy to look at a sportsperson, singer, musician or artist and think how lucky they are to have that talent; to be born good at what they do. But they weren’t.

‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.’ Michelangelo 

A number of years ago, I joined a badminton club. I’d always enjoyed playing and I wanted to improve. I played regularly (two or three times a week), with the purpose of improving. I played with, and against, better players and took part in the club competitions. I never became the best, but my game improved. That was my goal. We moved to a different part of the country and I wasn’t able to continue in the same way, but after a while we found some friends to play with once a week. We played mainly for fun. It was exercise and we enjoyed the evening out. I had a good time, but my game didn’t improve.

Thinking of that reminded me of years ago when I learned to type. The course involved some speed tests at the end, and so once I’d mastered the basics, I practiced hard to improve my speed. I can’t remember now what it was, maybe 90 words per minute, or even a hundred. These days  I use the computer every day, My typing speed is fast, but no faster than it was then, and possibly slightly slower.

My mother always used to tell me that ‘practice makes perfect.’ There is some truth in that, however, I don’t believe that all practice is created equal. Yes, I type every day, but my goal is writing a book, or an article or blog post, not improving my speed. When I only played badminton recreationally and not to improve, my game remained the same.

If we want to become excellent at something, or at least improve, we need to practice, but we need to practice with a purpose. That’s why goals are so useful necessary. They give us something to work towards, and results we can measure.

If we want to play a game professionally, an occasional fun practice with friends isn’t going to help us. We need more practice, lots more, and we need to practice with a purpose.

How much practice do we need to become excellent at something?

I’ve read a number of books on this subject and the consensus appears to be around 10,000 hours. That’s 10,000 hours of writing practice, or some other skill, with a purpose.

10,000 hours sounds like a lot (and it is), but let's convert it into more meaningful figures. If we use 40 hours a week as working at something fulltime, that is 250 weeks of writing, which is a little under 5 yrs.

That’s a lot of writing. And if you have a job and writing is part-time (say 20 hours a week) then it’s ten years of purposeful practice. Speechless yet?

On the plus side, improvement is an incremental process, so it’s not as if we’re beginners until we get to the 10,000 word mark, and then suddenly become amazing. We’re improving all the time.

Being excellent at something takes time, and effort.

It’s not just practice, but practice with a purpose. It should challenge us.  We should make ourselves work on the things we can’t do well, rather than paddling in the shallows of things we think we can do well.

Let's assume we're putting in our practice with a purpose! Is that all, when we've completed our 10,000 hours, will we be excellent? Is practice all we need?

All top athletes, musicians, artists need the right training. For writers, courses and books are a good start. However, once we’ve learned the basics we need more – we know about pace, point of view, tense etc. Now we need to know where we’re not applying these things in our own writing.

Athletes have coaches. I’ve never been a top athlete, but I’d guess the coach’s purpose (or one of them at least), is to give feedback. If the move or shot didn’t work, why not?  

What is the equivalent for writers? There is a point when we know the craft skills of writing, but we’re still a long way from excellence. Just as an athlete needs a coach to help them make changes or tweaks to technique or stance or training, so we need specific help. We need someone who also knows all the craft skills, and can tell us where we’re not putting them into practice in our writing. A writing group is excellent for this, they provide support, motivation and specific feedback. In addition to a writing group, once we’ve finished our novel then beta readers are invaluable. Writing groups and beta readers need to be chosen carefully. They provide different feedback and have different skill sets. Don’t forget professionals such as editors.  Mentors are popular in business groups and some organisations provide writing mentors, or subsidise programmes to link writers with mentors for a period of time. In this environment we can get feedback and support that is specific to us.

Building this knowledge can transform us and help us meet our own personal goals for success.