Monday, 30 November 2015

50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make

This week I wanted to bring to your attention a new eBook by friend and fellow WB tutor Alex Gazzola. Called 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make it does what it says on the tin. It identifies, explains, and then tells you how to avoid making the those mistakes.

We all make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is a Good Thing, because they give us a great learning opportunity. But what Alex’s eBook does is it tells you about the most common mistakes many beginner writers make … so you don’t have to make them. This eBook is therefore a short cut to doing it right in the first place.

Alex covers a variety of errors, from why it’s wrong to think mistakes are bad, why writers shouldn’t avoid reading, and why it’s wrong to think you shouldn’t invest in your writing career, through to why it’s a mistake to be nervous about contacting editors, or fretting over them stealing your ideas.

As tutors, we frequently find that writers starting out on their non-fiction writing journey regularly make the same mistakes, which is why Alex started his blog (which I can throughly recommend if you don’t already follow it): 

Many of the mistakes can be found on his blog, along with several others, but by buying them in eBook format (it’s an extremely good value of £1.99 - and yes, I’ve already bought my copy) you’ll find it easier to read. What I liked about it was that you can either sit down and read it in one go (however long it takes you to read some 20,000 words), or if you’ve only got a couple of minutes you can quickly read a mistake or two. It’s perfect for those with Kindle apps on their smartphones or tablets.

If you want to buy a copy of Alex’s book you can do so here.

And if you want to read Alex’s latest post where he explains why he put it all into eBook format, click here - you might see a name you recognise ;-)

Good luck.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A Judge's Plea

Please, please, please can we have stories with a happier ending? Okay, I’m being a bit facetious here, but there is a point I’d like to make.

I’ve just finished judging one short story competition, and I’m in the process of judging another. And so many of them end in death. Yes, those stories are emotional, thought-provoking, and some are extremely well-written. But why does there have to be so much death?

As writers we sit in our own workspace, our own little world, creating a story that we hope might win a competition. All we think about is our story. But have you ever thought what other writers might be writing? What are your competitors writing about?

For the competition I’m currently judging I have over 125 entries to read. I’m about half way through, but I read a batch of twelve yesterday and in every single one of them somebody died right at the end of the story. I stopped reading. There’s only so much death a man can take in one sitting.

A death can tug at the heart-strings. It can illicit a wealth of emotions in the reader. It can give a story poignancy, significance and a moral. But it’s also possible to do all of that without killing everybody off!

Because so many stories seem to end with a death, they all blur into one. Whereas I do remember the ones that finish on an upbeat note. They really stand out. That doesn’t mean that those stories are not emotional, or engaging. They are. In some ways, more powerfully so.

It is possible to write a powerful story and end on an upbeat note. The winning entry of the competition I’ve finished judging, for example, was about the emotional battle of coming to terms with a life partner’s severe, debilitating stroke. Through the course of the story the narrator goes on an emotional journey questioning the quality of their partner’s life … and that of the narrator. And so the narrator decides the kindest thing to do, for both of them, is to kill their life partner. 

At first I was thinking, “Here we go again! Another murder in writer-land.” And it would have worked as a story. But the writer chose to end it differently. Just as the narrator was picking up the cushion, their partner made a movement. A finger moved. That’s all. but it was the first movement since the stroke. And at that split second the story completely changed. There was hope. Suddenly the narrator’s outlook went from one of despair to one of joy, love and excitement.

I know we have no way of knowing who else is entering a competition, let alone what they’re writing about. But if I can offer one piece of advice it’s to remember that you are competing against other writers. Yes, you’ve got to please the judge (and that’s not easy because we all have our own subjective tastes and preferences … and this post is clearly about one of mine), but your story needs to stand out from all of the other entries too (for the right reasons - poor spelling and grammar isn’t a good reason).

So consider your story a little more before you submit. Does it have the right outcome? If someone dies at the end, is it because that’s the outcome most people would expect? Or could there be a different one? One that puts a whole new perspective on the story?

Don't just think about the judge reading your story. Think about your story in amongst several hundred others. What is it about your tale that makes yours different enough to stand out from all of the rest?

Good luck!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Major Milestone

Most of you know that I write non-fiction: articles and books. But I also dabble in fiction. Unlike the hundreds and hundreds of articles I’ve had published I’ve only had a handful of short stories published. When it comes to fiction my confidence is somewhat lacking.

Last week it got a serious boost. I met, had lunch, and signed with an agent: someone who likes my novel and thinks she can sell it. While this is a boost to my confidence, I also know that there is still a long road ahead.

Being taken on by an agent doesn’t guarantee that a publisher will want to publish my novel. But it does mean that my novel will be exposed to more publishers than I could ever approach. (Many publishers - including the big five - only accept agented submissions.)

But throughout this process of finding an agent (I began my search on 2009 and have written three novels in total now) I’ve learnt many things along the way:

- Agents have personal likes and dislikes. (They’re human!) When an agent rejects your work it might not be because they think it’s unpublishable. They might not like the genre, setting or era of your story. Half the battle is finding an agent with the same taste in style that you write.

- If you’re writing humour (and my novel makes an attempt at it at times) you need to find an agent who shares your sense of humour (I feel so sorry for my agent), and also one who thinks they know editors at publishers who also share your sense of humour.

- An agent only takes on a writer whose work they think they can sell. Reputable agents don’t charge writers upfront. So they don’t earn any money until they’ve sold your book. Therefore, they have to love your book and believe they can sell it, in order to take you on.

- If an agent likes a writer, but they don’t feel they can sell their book, they won’t take the writer on. They might encourage them to write another book, but it’s the book they have to sell to a publisher first. 

- You can approach several agents simultaneously (usually with three chapters and a synopsis, although this does vary from agency to agency), but if an agent asks to read the whole novel, it is common practise to let them do so on an exclusive basis. 

- Some agents’ websites say something like: if you’ve not heard from us after three months you can assume we’re not interested in taking your project further. Don’t take that as gospel. Two agents contacted me asking to see more of my work over seven months after my initial submission (and four after I’d ‘assumed they were not interested in taking my project further’).

- Agents’ systems have glitches too. Don’t take it personally when you get a rejection from an agent by email, and then two more rejection emails from the same agent ten minutes later! (It happened to me twice. It’s not nice being rejected, but being rejected three times by the same agent in ten minutes kinda hurts!)

- Always follow an agent’s guidelines. If they want the first two chapters in Times New Roman, font size 12, on pink paper, folder once and submitted in an A5 envelope, postmarked on a Tuesday … then do it. Agents get inundated with submissions, so many are looking for any excuse to reject. And those writers who take time to read guidelines and then abide by them are setting themselves up as people who are prepared to listen and follow advice. 

It’s not necessary to have an agent for non-fiction books. Indeed, I’ve had over a dozen published without the need for an agent (although I can recommend the Society of Author’s contract vetting service for members). But when it comes to fiction, an agent is increasingly necessary these days. Many publishers won’t deal with unagented authors.

So, if you find yourself looking for an agent, be prepared to play the long game. Never give up. Always submit what the agent/agency ask for, and keep going until you’ve approached every agent in the country. And if that doesn’t work, write another novel and start again.

Good luck.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Golden Hour

There’s a saying in the photographic world that, for landscape photography in particular, the best light of the day occurs during the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.

That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t take great photos at any other time of the day - you can - but during these golden hour periods the lighting has the ability to give our images a special quality.

Something similar could be said for writing too. Although it is possible to pick up a pen and write at any time of the day, I find there is a time of day when the words flow more easily, and the creativity behind the idea sparkles with a special iridescence. I’m a firm believer that our brain can be ‘trained’ into working at the same time each day. Make sitting down and writing at the same time every day a habit and, over time, the words will flow more easily. But the golden hour I’m referring to isn’t that time when our brain has been trained to write. Instead, it’s that time when it wants to write. 

There are some writers who only write when the muse strikes. For me, the muse is that golden hour. I’ve trained my brain into writing during the day, when I have to write, in order to meet deadlines and generate an income. But I enjoy those golden moments when the muse strikes and everything just flows. 

The golden hours don’t happen every day - for writers, or for photographers. Indeed, there have been times when I planned to go out with my camera, but the weather forecast changed and it began peeing it down with rain and continued to do so well into the night. However, there are days when I can look to the skies, and know that everything (including stuff I don’t understand) is coming together nicely and it’ll be worth going out with my camera. 

The same thing happens with the muse. I don’t look to the skies, but there’s a feeling, a sense, that things are coming together nicely, and I should make the effort to sit down quietly with pen and paper in hand. The golden muse is on its way. 

The next time the muse hits you try to explore the moment. What does it feel like? What mood are you in? What sort of atmosphere are you surrounded by? What qualities have combined to create this moment? The more you understand of these moments the more you can exploit them in the future.

There’s the potential for the photographic golden hour to happen twice a day, every day, but the weather doesn’t always play ball. However, photographically, I don’t wait for the muse to strike, I get out there and make the best of what I can. The same can be said for our writing. Don’t wait for the muse to strike in order to do any writing, but learn what conditions you need for it to strike, and then maximise its potential whenever it happens.

Good luck.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Asking For Help

I’ve been a right pain in the neck to some friends recently ;-). I asked for some help. Eighteen months ago I had an idea for a short story, and I sat down and drafted the first 500 words. But then I got stuck. The resolution wasn’t there, so I didn’t know what I was writing towards.

For several months I returned to the story, re-reading it, trying to work out what the actual story was. What was the conflict? What was the resolution? Whose story was it? I changed the character viewpoint. I changed the setting. I even changed the time period. Yet, still, despite having some sort of resolution, it wasn’t right. 

Then, a few weeks ago, it struck me that a completely different structure might be the solution. And it was. Sort of. The story is much stronger, more emotional and the resolution is there. But I’m not happy with it. There is still something that isn’t right.

Which is why I asked a couple of friends to help me out. When you’ve been this close to a project for such a long time, you are too close to it. You need fresh eyes to look at a piece. That’s what those friends can offer.

And their feedback has been great, so far. I say so far, because that’s why I’ve been a pain in the neck. They’ve given me some more ideas to consider for this story, which has been a great help. I now have plenty of angles to work on: points I hadn’t considered. But now these friends can’t get the story out of their heads. They keep having thoughts and ideas (which is brilliant for me, but not for them when they’re trying to get on with their own writing).

We all need help from time to time. Our projects are special to us, but sometimes we’re just too close to them to see any potential improvements. 

So if you get stuck on a project, ask for help. If people have the time, they usually will - especially if there’s an opportunity that you can reciprocate for them in the future. And also, if you have an idea for a project, pursue it. Sometimes these ideas need time to evolve. Perhaps I started work on this one too soon. But one thing I do know is that with some help from my friends, it will be finished. And then I can start submitting it. (And if it gets published, then the next round of cakes and coffee at the tea shop will be on me!)

Good luck.