Choosing Your Twitter Teachers

One of Twitter’s most useful features is the ability to create lists. Using them, you can cut through the maelstrom and focus on the people you really want to follow.

As an author, I have a variety of lists (some public, some private) that I use on a daily basis. These include selections dedicated to book news, publishers, other authors, and so on. I even have one called Local Emergency, which draws together all the police, fire and local news feeds in case I need a quick update on an unfolding situation.

But the one I want to talk about now is the private list I have called Teachers.

(Private means only I can see it).

This list isn’t huge. There are around twenty people on there. But these twenty people are some of the most successful and talented authors on the planet. And I’ve chosen them because I want to learn from them. I want to see what they’re talking about, what they’re retweeting. Find out what’s important to them.

Even though they don’t know it, these people are my mentors. Scrolling through the list is like standing in a hotel bar, listening to them all talking. It’s like the world’s best ever convention, or a university seminar where I’ve selected the guest speakers.

If I’m going to learn, why not learn from the best?

Who would you put on your list? Who are the people you want to learn from, or aspire to emulate? Why not take ten minutes and choose your own list of Twitter teachers?

Burn Your Notebooks

In order to write well, you first have to write badly. You have to learn your craft. It’s like learning to drive a car – you can’t compete in the Monte Carlo grand prix the first time you sit behind a wheel; you have to make all the embarrassing mistakes, the awkward stalls and occasional prangs – and the same’s true for writing.

During the three years I spent at university, I kept a series of hardbacked, cloth-bound notebooks, which I filled with scraps of fiction, poetry and diary entries. The A4 pages had train tickets, flyers, articles and photographs stuck and stapled to them. I wrote in them every day (this was in the early Nineties, before blogs and social media), and I must have written upwards of 250 poems in them. For three years, those books were the most precious things I owned. They held all my thoughts and drafts. I even included photocopies of them as an appendix in my dissertation.

But after university, the books felt like a dead weight around my neck. They contained too much angst, and too many bad poems. Writing in them felt like a duty instead of a pleasure. If I wanted to move forward as a writer, I knew I’d have to unburden myself of them.

And so I burned them.

You have to write a lot of crap before you start to get good. You have to get a lot of rubbish out of your system.

And burn it.

How to write a novel outline

Gareth Lyn PowellYesterday, after I mentioned on Twitter that I’d just finished writing a 4,000 word outline for a new novel, several people contacted me to ask how I’d done it. They were hoping for some tips. The trouble is, outlines are tricky things, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.

Let me explain what I mean.

Some authors like to plot out the entire book in advance, so they know exactly what’s going to happen in every chapter before they start writing. Others prefer to wing it, to let the characters guide the story, and make it up as they go along.

There are pros and cons to each approach.

The former can be useful if you need to write your novel quickly, as you know you won’t get stuck because you have it all worked out in advance.

Paul Cornell, author of the Shadow Police series, says the outline he’s working on for his next book currently stands at 15,000 words, and it’s still not finished. “Basically,” he jokes, “I just need to add ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

“I exaggerate,” he continues. “It’s 100 numbers, with a paragraph of described action for each. It’s going to take a bit more work to fill in 1000 words of prose for each of them!”

Author and comic writer, Cavan Scott takes a similar approach. “It all starts with my trusty journal,” he says, “scribbling down notes, and more importantly questions: ‘Why does the hero do this?’, ‘What would happen if that spaceship explodes?’ and so on. These usually morph into mind-maps with ideas spiderwebbing everywhere and sometimes even doodles.

“When I’ve worked out the general direction of the plot, I break everything down into scenes, using index cards. This used to be physical cards but now, more often than not, I use the virtual index cards in Scrivener on my mac, or an Index Card app on my iPad. These get swapped around and sorted into the order that the story will run until I have an outline I can work from.”

The downside of writing a detailed outline like this is that such a meticulous structure can feel constraining, with no room for creative digression. And if you take it too far, you can exhaust the storytelling impulse before you’ve actually started writing, leaving the book itself as an uninspiring exercise in joining-the-dots. For instance, an editor I know remembers the time an author handed in a 70,000 word outline for a 90,000 word book, and then had to somehow turn it into a novel!

Perhaps with this in mind, Stephen King recommends the latter approach in his book, On Writing. He likens stories to fossils that you have to unearth one painstaking sentence at a time. This gives the author total creative freedom to follow the story in whichever direction it wants to go, which can be great for writers who like to let their characters guide the flow of events, but it can lead to problems (and major rewrites) if you don’t stay aware of pacing and dramatic structure.

For some people, a Post-it note will suffice. For others, half a dozen handwritten pages. Some plot each scene on an index card, so they can shuffle them around (something you can do electronically with software such as Scrivener), or just scribble the basic plot points on a napkin or cigarette packet.

Personally, I’ve written outlines in notebooks and Word documents, on scrap pieces of paper, and even once on the inside of an opened-out takeaway pizza box.

With my ‘Macaque’ novels, my outlines were two or three pages outlining the basic events of the novel. “They go to the parallel world, grab the Zeppelin and return.”

For this latest outline, I’ve gone into more detail. The book I want to write is a thriller taking place in a confined space (sort of like the movies Speed or Phone Booth), and so the plot needs to be worked out before I start. I need to know how the main character is going to survive and fight back before I start, otherwise there’s the danger I might accidentally paint him (and myself) into an inescapably tight corner.

In order to do this, I started with an Excel spreadsheet. I created two columns. In the first, I wrote the numbers 1 to 50. These were my chapter numbers. In the second column, I wrote a paragraph about each chapter,  describing the significant events. I told myself the story, starting at chapter one and working my way through to the end, jotting down these notes as I went.

Once I had it all written down, I began to see the structure. Certain events made more dramatic sense if they happened before others, and so I was able to switch the cells around until I had everything in the right place. It felt like editing a movie or TV show, swapping the order of the scenes around in order to build suspense. Then, when I was done, I cut and pasted the whole thing into Word.

What I’ve ended up with is a numbered list of 50 paragraphs, which between them break down my story into significant events. And if I write 2,000 words for each of these fifty chapters, I’ll end up with a book 100,000 words long.

I know I won’t stick to this outline with total rigidity. New ideas will occur as I’m writing, and characters will go off in unexpected directions. But this document will form the foundation on which the rest of the book can be built.

If you want an analogy, I see outlining as akin to planning a journey using a satellite photo. You can see the major landmarks and the general lie of the land, so you won’t get lost. But, when you actually start walking, there’s still plenty of scope to discover new and exciting details along the way.

And when I’m ready to submit the finished novel to my agent or publisher, that outline can (with some tinkering) form the basis of the synopsis I’ll need to include with the manuscript.

The main thing to remember is that different authors prefer different approaches. Some like to plot in advance, others like to fly by the seat of their pants. It depends on the individual, and sometimes on the type of book they’re trying to write, and it may take some experimenting before you discover which method works best for you.

Getting started

Sitting down to write a novel can be a nerve-wracking experience. That first page is one of the biggest hurdles you’re going to face. All that blank white space looks terrifying. You have an idea of what you want to write in your head, but where do you start? How do you start?

Today, I started work on my fifth novel, Macaque Attack, the third instalment of my ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ trilogy, and I thought I’d share with you a little trick that I used to get myself going.

Last night, before going to bed, I opened up a Word document, formatted it as a novel manuscript, and wrote a couple of hundred words. I didn’t think about them, I just wrote them down as quickly as I could. A character arrives on a beach with a mysterious bundle, asking to see another character. Boom. No stopping, pausing or editing; no worries about quality or sense. I wrote them and then I went to bed, knowing that when I sat down to work in the morning, I wouldn’t be facing the potentially soul destroying emptiness of a blank page. I had a place to start. Even if I ended up deleting most of the words I’d written, I’d at least I’d be doing something.

And, I’m pleased to tell you, it worked. I got up this morning feeling as if I’d already made a start on the book. I was over that first hurdle and my mind was working away on the rest of the chapter. By the time I sat at my desk, I was ready to carry on with the story. I haven’t bothered editing or rewriting the paragraphs I wrote last night, as they’ve turned out to be quite serviceable, and I know that I’ll be going back to edit them later on. Right now, the important thing is to press on and get the rest of the story written. I’m not going to obsess over the opening sentence, striving for perfection, as events later in the book might cause me to have to come back and totally change this opening scene. For now, I’m going to leave it the way it is and carry on writing. There’ll be plenty of time for editing later.

Articulate the inexpressible

I found this quote from Hemingway:

“For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”

My interpretation:

“Aim high. Shoot for perfection. Try to articulate the inexpressible. And with luck, you will.”

Four Essential Tips For Writing A Novel

THE FEAR

If you want to be a writer, then sooner or later you’ll have to face THE FEAR. However confident you may feel as you start to write your latest novel or story, at some point you’ll look at what you’ve written and hold your head in your hands.

“Give up,” a little voice will whisper in your head. And that little voice is THE FEAR.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

I have spoken about THE FEAR to other writers, and they all recognise it. They all have that inner demon whispering to them in their darkest moments, undercutting their confidence and self-belief. For some, those dark moments are at the beginning of a project, when they’re staring at a blank white page awaiting inspiration. For others, THE FEAR creeps up on them during the editing process, or just prior to submission.

For me, THE FEAR tends to manifest around the halfway point of a novel, when the end seems very far away, and it becomes almost impossible for me to objectively judge whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I start to worry that the characters are jabbering trolls gesticulating their way through a nonsensical plot, and that I’ll never reach the final chapter.

If you let it get hold of you, THE FEAR can paralyse you, leaving you unable to function. The only way I’ve found to fight back is to keep writing; to keep soldiering on until you stagger over the finish line. Only then will you be able to look back with anything resembling objective clarity.

But how do you keep going? How do you keep the motivation going when the voice in your head tells you that you’re wasting your time? You can blot out THE FEAR with alcohol, but that’s only a temporary solution; and most people find it hard to do their best work when they’re smashed.

The only practical way to prevail is to keep your goal in mind. Get in front of your keyboard every day and do the work. Tell yourself that you will finish what you have started. Listen to THE FEAR and learn to identify it. Don’t let it trick you. When it starts sowing its seeds, gather them up and lock them in a quiet corner of your mind. Tell yourself: “This is just THE FEAR talking.” And try to ignore it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, try turning it to your advantage. Harness the nervous energy to make you more productive. Surf that anxiety wave! Tell yourself that you are going to feel THE FEAR, and do it anyway. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep buggering on until you get there!

5 lessons writers can learn from athletes

Love it or loathe it, the headlines are currently dominated by sport. But while the careers of your average writer and average athlete may seem to have little in common, there are some lessons writers can learn from the way athletes approach their sports.

1. Get Fit:

Whatever their event, athletes maintain a general level of fitness that ensures their bodies are at the peak of health and performance. Similarly, as a writer, you need to take care of yourself on a physical level. Spending all day in a chair, hunched over a keyboard, can be desperately bad for your long-term health. In order to perform to the best of your abilities, you have to make time for a little exercise, even if it’s just a stroll around the block. You have to reconnect to the physical world, because it does you good to get out and about; it gives your mind time away from your work-in-progress, and it can use that time to replenish its imaginative energy. Personally, I find inspiration often strikes while I’m swimming or walking. Plus, exercise always puts me in a better mood. I find it alleviates anxiety, depression and stress, which can only be a good thing. If you want to do your best work, you have to be healthy in both mind and body.

[As a side note: at the turn of the Millennium, I gave up both caffeine and nicotine, and my productivity soared. I don’t want to get all preachy about your favourite vices (after all, I still enjoy a drink); but I think it’s worth noting that you can get a lot more done when you’re not preoccupied with watching the clock, waiting for your next hit.]

2. Set goals:

Decide what you want to do and focus on your goal. Visualise the finishing line, whether it’s the end of a short story, a novel, or the end of a trilogy, and keep that prize in mind. Don’t get distracted by other projects. Focus your energy and attention on reaching your goal.

3.Prepare:

Just as you can’t expect to be able to run a marathon without having trained for it, you also can’t expect to sit down and hammer out a masterpiece without having done some of the groundwork beforehand. Writing takes mental preparation. You have to know how to structure sentences and paragraphs; how to pace your story; and how to write engagingly. You have to practice every day to hone your abilities, and you have to read a lot. You have to read widely, and also within your chosen genre. In training, athletes subject their own performance, and the performances of their competitors, to careful, critical study. You need to do the same with everything you read and write.

4. Think globally:

Whether it’s football, athletics or swimming, most sports take place on a global stage, with players from all countries and faiths competing. We live in a diverse, globally-connected society, and there seems to be no sign of that trend diminishing in the future. Science fiction that revolves purely around white, middle class Americans in space seems dated and parochial now. It’s no longer enough to write comfortable Western-centric yarns of American manifest destiny writ large. The world has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. The models that served us in the 1960s and 1970s no longer apply. I’m not suggesting that you should resort to using characters of other faiths and nationalities as “tokens” in your writing; just that if you want to reflect the world as it is, you should think very carefully before restricting yourself.

5. Go hard or go home:

If you’re not writing to the best of your abilities, you’re wasting your time. Every story you write should be better than the one before. Be ambitious. Dare to fail. Push yourself to the ragged edge of your abilities and see how far and how fast you can go. Because, if you won’t give it all you’ve got, what’s the point of doing it at all?

At the end of the day (to use a sporting cliche), you have selected your arena, and it’s up to you to give the best performance you possibly can. And in order to do so, you need to prepare and work at it.

Step Away From The Keyboard

Sometimes, you just have to take a step back.

When you’re working on a story or novel, the plot can overwhelm you. You have this grand vision, but you have no idea what to write next. Your characters won’t come alive on the page, and everything you try to write feels flat and lifeless. You lack inspiration. You feel frustrated. You have writer’s block.

How do you get past it?

Step away from the keyboard. It’s no use sitting there trying to force the issue. Give your hindbrain permission to work on the problem, and then go and do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. Go swimming. Watch a trashy movie. Distract your attention away from the project you’re working on, and let your unconsciousness stew over it.

Sometimes, that’s all we need: a distraction.

I’m in the early stages of a novel, and earlier this evening I found myself stuck. I wasn’t sure where the next chapter would go, or which character it would follow. After an hour or so of sitting at the keyboard getting nowhere, I took myself off into the living room and watched I, Robot on E4. No, it’s not the best movie ever made; but what it did was distract my conscious mind from fruitlessly worrying at the problem. I had a notebook with me, and as I watched the film, ideas kept popping into my head. I had stepped out of my own way. With my attention on the big screen, my imagination had the freedom to run riot — and by the time the film finished, I found I’d written outlines for the next five chapters.

So, next time you’re stuck with a story that just won’t gel, take a bath; go for a walk; or take a long drive in the country. Swim a few lengths of your local pool. Do something that relaxes you. Take your mind off your troubles, and the solution to your story may just pop into your head.

Iktsuarpok

One of the worst things about writing for a living is the waiting.

You finish writing a story and you send it off to an editor — and then you have to sit and wait for a response. Sometimes you have to wait a few hours; sometimes a few weeks, or even a few months.

Such delays can be interminable. You are bursting for people to be able to read this great story you wrote. You become impatient. You catch yourself refreshing your inbox over and over again in the hope of an email…

Now, thanks to my friend Emma, I’ve discovered an Inuit word that neatly sums up this particular form of impatience: Iktsuarpok.

Iktsuarpok is the Inuit word for the feeling of anticipation you get when expecting a visitor, which causes you to keep going outside to see if you can see them approaching.

Apply that definition to emails instead of visitors, and you have a condition suffered from by many writers.