Category Archives: Enrich your writing skills

How Scrivener Kicked My Butt into Enlightenment

People have been raving about Scrivener to me for ages, and I’ve been saying yeah, yeah, eventually. And then wrestling with Word for my novels, and spreadsheets for my research data. Given that I am hopeless at spreadsheets, you can just imagine how time-consuming that can be. Anyway, recently, my fanfic pal Chasingriver demonstrated to me conclusively that this was a programme I couldn’t live without.

You know, I hate it when she’s right.

It was the corkboard function that really sold me. Mainly because I’d spent the previous week working out how I could attach all the little index cards (each indicating a scene) which I had accumulated for my current project to my study wall without damaging the plaster with blu-tak. Once I’d downloaded Scrivener, it was a case of YAY! No more blu-tak! No more holes in the paintwork!

With Scrivener, you can put all your little index cards on the screen, and move them about to change the order as you like, just as you would with the real thing. The good part, though, is that while you can’t carry your entire study wall along to the library with you when you want to work there, you can with Scrivener.

(Did I mention that I’m not getting paid to say this about Scrivener, just in case you were wondering?)

Anyway, yesterday I sat down in front of the offending, doomed wall, and started to copy out those little index cards into my Project folder. Away I went. I was having a lovely time. Type type, tap tap.

You’ve already guessed there is going to a BUT here, haven’t you?

Once I’d put in all my index-card scenes, I could see the plot I’d teased out as a whole. Or should I say HOLE. Because it was full of them. Holier than Righteous, as we used to say about my brother’s vests.

Now, of course this is a good thing. It is better to find out your plot is lacier than a wedding dress before you get down to churning out 80,000 words, rather than after. Of course it is.

Cue typical writers confidence wobble.

I crashed and burned.

Help! What have I got myself into? I thought I had a novel with a mostly sorted plot, and now I find there is mountains more work to do than I thought. Oh, oh, I am hopeless, my work is superficial, crap, lacking in psychological depth, etc. etc. You know the routine, because I’ll bet you’ve done it yourself at 3am enough times.

Don’t worry, I’ve got a grip on myself now. But it was a bit scary there for a while.

What the marvels of Scrivener have done is to make me see how I can get to grips with my project in a way I never have before. I have always been a ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ sort of writer, with plots that evolved organically as I went along. I’ve written to find the plots, rather than establishing them first. Much the same goes for character. I’ve done a bit of character work before on my novels, but most of the time, I’ve just sat down and written the damn thing, and kept writing till it felt done.

Which is why I could never get a handle on my books as whole, holistic entities, and why I always have such horrible trouble editing them.

You can’t break a stream-of-consciousness-written novel down into individual component parts in order to see if it makes logical sense, or to cut and paste bits around. Its too interwoven.

Cue HUGE AHA! moment.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I was studying systems analysis and design, I was taught that the way you design a system is to break it down into its individual constituent parts, each part serving a specific function and with a specified input, actors, outcome or output. But I never thought that you could view a novel this way, even though I was taught to look at every scene in my books, and ask what function it was there for, and whether it served that purpose. If it doesn’t, you have to cut it, say the gurus, with systems design and with novel editing.   Kill your darlings, they say, but I never could because I couldn’t see the whole, and I couldn’t see the individual functions.

What I think I am trying to say is that in two days, using Scrivener has revolutionised the way I conceptualise a writing project. It is scary, but it is also enormously liberating. I get it now, I really do. After years of struggling over how to plan, I now see it.

Thank you, Scrivener. (And Chasingriver, of course.)

Of course, I can also now see that I have a vast amount of work to do. But the nice thing about that is that I can also see how to break it down into little, manageable component tasks. Eating the elephant, as they say. I’ll let you know how I am getting on.

In the meantime, take a look at Scrivener, if you haven’t already.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Books about Writing

 

Bookshelf

My shelves of books about writing.

I’ve made a big decision.

No, not that one.

I’ve decided not to buy any more books about how to write for two months.

Now you may not think that’s such a hard task, but I am the sort of person who likes to buy a book about a subject in lieu of actually doing it. I’m a big one for research. If I’m going to take up some activity, say, crochet for instance, then I am the one who will chug down to the library and take out all known books on crochet, in order to find out everything I need to know about the subject. For two days I read avidly and become an armchair expert, without even touching a ball of wool. And then I lose interest and the books gather dust on the coffee table until they have to be taken back to the library before I get fined, no crochet having ever been done.

I’m the same with books about writing.

Once every three or four months, or so, I resolve ‘to take my work more seriously’. This usually involves going in to work with my husband, who is a University lecturer, and settling down in the campus library to tap away on laptop undisturbed. (Never mind the fact that I really struggle to visualise and write in that library, but there you are!)

To get to the library, I have to walk past a bookshop.

(If you love books, you just know where this is going to end, don’t you?)

Add to this the fact that this University runs one of the first, and still best, courses in Creative Writing in the world, whose alumni include the likes of Dame Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. You can imagine how good the bookshop’s section of writing is.

Let me tell you, it is hell to walk past.

This is the reason why the bookshelf beside my desk is so crammed with ‘How to Write’ books. I buy a book every time I decide to ‘get serious’, because of course, buying a book is a prerequisite of ‘getting serious’. I’ll read a few chapters. And then I get bored/move on/get ill/realise its shortcomings/decide I want to take up crochet instead etc. So now I have a bookshelf full of books about writing and how to write, many of which are very, very good, dozens of which come highly recommended by friends and in other books about writing, and almost none of which I have ever read cover to cover.

Just call me a butterfly.

Today is another of those ‘I’m going to get serious’ days. Today I am not going to buy a book.

This is partly because I am completely broke, and saving up for a new pair of spectacles because the ones I have got are close to useless and I’m fed up of having to take my glasses off in order to read.

But mostly because its because I need not to read about writing and how to write, but to actually DO it.

You can’t be a writer unless you actually write. And when you write, you learn far more about writing than you ever could from a book.

Books about writing are great. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot out of them. But there comes a time when you have to leave them alone and learn by doing.

I’ll let you know whether I stick to my guns or not, though I have to say I don’t think my groaning bookcase can survive even one more purchase!

Happy Creating,

EF

Back to Basics: The Writing Exercise

I’ve pretty much lost two months of creativity this year so far, and I’m keen to get back on the horse, so to speak.  Part of that involves getting back to basics.  And one of the best ways to do that if you are a writer is through the Writing Exercise.

You will need:

A timer

A notebook

A pen

A space where you will not be interrupted.

Fifteen minutes every day.

Yes, I know that the last one can be difficult, but you can manage it.

Look at the list again.  See how cheap those items are?  And yet it’s such a huge payoff for a very tiny investment.  If you don’t have a timer on your phone, you probably have one in the kitchen. The notebook and the pen can be as rudimentary as you like, just so long as you can write quickly and easily without thinking too much about how the tools feel in your hand.  You don’t want writer’s cramp, after all.  Your tools should be transparent.  You don’t want to be thinking about them.  You need to focus all your mind on the story that is finding its way out of your head and onto the page.

There is one more thing you need.

A prompt.

There are loads of them about.  You can make up your own.  You can get a friend to send you a prompt, like a writing dare, every day by email or text message.  You can use a book – I’m using Judy Reeves’ wonderful book, ‘The Writers Book of Days’ at the moment.  Or you can find lots of websites online that will give you prompts.

Don’t think too much about it, whatever your prompt is.  Just take it as a starting point, write it at the top of your page, then set your timer for fifteen minutes and let your brain make hay!

I’ve decided to give myself an extra rule, though.  I was considering the weaknesses in my work and I realised that I have a real problem writing three-dimensional female characters.  All my stories are full of fascinating, psychologically complex men and paper-doll women.  This is a bit worrying as a female writer.

So I have decided for the whole of March that I am going to do a writing exercise every day, and I am only going to write about female characters.

Merciless practise.

Let me tell you, it’s already working, three days in.  I have already created a female character that I absolutely love and want to come back to.  But I am determined to go on.  Like a ballet dancer working at the barre, or a concert pianist doing scales, I am going to practise and practise until I feel I am really making some progress.  And then I’m going to practise some more.

It’s the Habit of Art.  And it feels great.

I am doing writing exercises every day for the whole of March.  Fifteen minutes a day.  No neat handwriting, no fancy notebooks, just a cheap pen, an exercise book and my timer.

Why not join me?

(You can read more about writing exercises here.)

Happy creating,

EF

Choosing the Right Words: Emotion and Character

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, 'Sherlock'

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, ‘Sherlock’

So, in this little series, we’ve talk about using verbs and the extra information you can communicate when you choose them mindfully.

(To read the first post, click here.  To read the second post, click here.)

Today I want to talk about how you can use verbs to convey character and emotion.  Consider the following sentence:

Sherlock left the room.

This sentence tells us nothing about the character or how he feels.  All it gives us is a bit of rudimentary choreography.  Now lets play with some variations:

Sherlock swept out of the room. ‘Swept’ gives the suggestion not only of Sherlock’s imperious, and rather vain, nature but also of what he is wearing, that long overcoat swirling around his heels.  A person has to have the attention of everyone present in order to sweep out, particularly that of the narrator (and as usual with these characters, we can assume its John’s point of view).  Using this verb tells us something about John too, therefore.  It shows the amount of attention he pays to Sherlock, and his feelings about how Sherlock moves when he leaves – admiration and perhaps exasperation are implied.

Sherlock stormed out.  Sherlock wouldn’t stomp anywhere.  He’s too much of a drama queen for that.  Life with Sherlock is like being at the heart of a hurricane, so this verb implies his power and presence.

John stormed out.  John is also capable of storming out.  He’s a little bulldog of a man with anger issues and BAMF tendencies, so we can hear in this verb his impressive presence.  However, John is also capable of stomping in a way Sherlock isn’t.  There is something more down-to-earth about stomping that doesn’t fit with Sherlock’s persona.

Sherlock flounced out.  Sherlock, with all those curls, the flowing coat, the self-absorption and vanity, would definitely flounce.  This verb tells us so much about his character and attention-seeking – which of course, John feeds.  By using this verb within John’s point of view, we can actually see him feeding it!   Flounce also implies a certain degree of sulking, so we get the emotion involved in his movement.

Sherlock exited the room.  No one exits a room except in the instructions for a fire drill!  This verb tells us absolutely nothing about his character, movement or dress, or about the emotional circumstances in which he leaves.  What it does tell us  is that the writer is unimaginative and stiff.  If you are ever tempted to use the word exited, either:

  • think of something better, or
  • skip the action altogether because it is probably something so mundane that you can let the reader assume it has happened, e.g. After Sherlock had swept out, John sat back in his chair…

I hope that this little rumination on choosing words has opened a window on the methods of writing for you in a practical way, and enabled you to think about how you choose your words more mindfully.  Your writing will definitely benefit from it if you do.

In the meantime, if you are interested in thinking more about this subject, you can’t do better than reading Chapter 2 of Francine Prose’s marvellous book, ‘Reading like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books, and for those who want to write them’.  In fact, read the whole book anyway.  Its brilliant, and Prose explains things far better than I ever could.

Happy Writing,

EF

Choosing the Right Words – An Introduction

I want to talk a little bit this week about the idea of choosing the right words when you write.  About thinking carefully about the words you use to express a particular mood, character or action.

This probably seems a ridiculously obvious concept, but to neglect it means abandoning a whole myriad of ways in which you can make your stories deeper, enriching them for your reader.

Think about a man walking.  You could say:

  • He ambled
  • He limped
  • He sashayed
  • He scampered
  • He strode
  • He marched
  • He hobbled
  • He stomped
  • He inched
  • He shuffled
  • He scurried
  • He strolled
  • He paced
  • He sauntered

And these are only a few of the synonyms you could use for the verb ‘to walk’.  Yet, they each tell us something different about the man doing the walking, and raise questions in the reader’s mind about why he is moving in that particular way.

For instance, the man who is limping – Was he born with the limp, or has he acquired it, and if he has, was it recently or a long time ago?  Does he have some physical disability that limits his movement, or has he just this minute been in an accident?

He might, for example be limping because he is very old.

Perhaps he limps as a result of an old war wound – like our friend Dr John Watson.  This introduces a level of poignancy, of heroism wrapped in tragedy, and invokes our sympathy for him.

A man who strides has self confidence.  He holds his head high, intent on getting where he is going.  He may be a man on a mission – and we want to know what that mission is!

A man who sashays might be a bit camp, might be a dancer, might be charming a companion, moving in this way to make her laugh and draw her in.  Is this the start of a big romance?

A man who ambles is in no particular hurry.  He is relaxed.  He has time.  We might think him lazy, perhaps, or more likely, a man on holiday from the usual stresses of his life, sure in the knowledge that everything can happen at his own pace.

Usually we think of ‘Show, Not Tell’, the old writers’ maxim, as something overt.  Don’t tell us how John Watson got his war wound, for example.  Better to show us.  Show us his recurring nightmare of the moment it happened (which also demonstrates to us how he is barely coping with the trauma, as well as showing us the actual trauma itself –two for the price of one!).

By using the right words, evocative and interesting ones, we can communicate to the reader so much  more, and in such a subtle way that they barely even notice being told – which is true writing skill!

Writing Exercise:

Think more about the verbs I have used in the list above, and what they communicate about the man doing the movement.  Choose one and use it as a prompt for a writing exercise.  Take fifteen minutes to free-write in your writers notebook about the man who marches, the man who scampers, or any of the others.  (Come up with some of your own, if you like.)

Make a character sketch.  Who is this man?  What does he look like?  What age is he?  What does he do – and how does the way he dresses and moves communicate that?  Why does he move the way he does?  Where is he going in this particular fashion, and why?  Is anybody with him, and are they affecting his way of moving?

When you have finished, look over what you have written.  Can you see any clichés?  Remember, while clichés are usually clichés because they are true, they don’t have to come across as clichés!  Always be on the lookout for clichés in your writing, so that you can remould them into strange, eye-catching virtues.

You could use this character sketch as the core of a larger piece.  Or you could take the character you have created and write about him moving in another of the ways listed, repeating the exercise to learn more about him.  Why would he change his mode of movement?  Is he responding to the requirements of others, or affecting a certain walk to give a particular impression?  If so, why?

Spend time playing with these verbs, and let them take your imagination where it will.  Most of all, have fun!

(If you want to read the next post in this series, click here.)

Happy Writing,

EF