Why Thinking Time is Important for Authors

Recently, while writing my third novel, I reached a bit of a standstill. I was following the outline that I had written but it felt a little like painting by numbers, and I didn’t have the enthusiasm that I had for A Gangster’s Grip. In fact, because of this situation I had put off writing for a few days.

With my first two books I was so enthusiastic that the ideas were spilling out of me. I would wake up with an idea for a scene later on in the book or it would form while I was out at the shops or taking a shower. However, with my third novel things were different. 18,000 words in and this still wasn’t happening. To complicate matters, I needed to do some primary research but I didn’t want it to halt my flow while I was waiting for the answers.

What if

Thinking TimeIn my search for inspiration I started reading a James Patterson novel and going over some of the notes from my writing course, but it still wasn’t happening. So, I put the books to one side, lay down on my bed, shut my eyes and thought about the plot so far.

What had happened up to now? What direction was the novel heading in? How could I inject some suspense and excitement on the way to reaching my final destination (as I already had the ending worked out)? How could I write my way around the scenes requiring research while I awaited answers to my research questions?

N.B. You’ll note that I refer to ‘scenes’ rather than ‘chapters’ because I like to think of ‘scenes’ while I am writing. This helps me to visualise what is taking place. I haven’t yet allocated chapters but I will come to that later. With my first two books I divided them into chapters as I went along but then found that I had to make some alterations at the end, so I’m trying a slightly different approach this time.

Whilst lying on my bed I went over the scenes I had already written in my mind. Then I started thinking about the scenes that were to follow. I decided to write the next scene based on assumptions but highlight it so that I could easily make changes once I had received the answers to my research questions. Once I had decided how to go forward with that scene, I found that the rest fell into place, and ideas started to form for subsequent scenes. I picked up my small notepad and within a half hour I had several pages of notes.

 

Notepad

That half hour or so was worth so much more than hours spent at a computer keyboard willing the ideas to come. It’s great to be able to sit at the computer and hammer away on the keys when you already have a few pages of notes to guide you along. The notes should keep me going for a few more thousand words but if I come unstuck again, I’ll try employing the same tactic.

I’d love to hear from other authors regarding this topic. Have you ever come across a similar problem and, if so, how have you tackled it?

—————————

Advertisements

Using Editing Software to Improve your Writing

At the moment I am immersed in the final edits for my debut novel “Slur” and I am using some editing software that an author friend recommended. I have found the software particularly useful so I thought that I would share my findings. The software that I am using is called Prowritingaid. I haven’t used any other editing software so I can’t comment on other products but this specific product offers a number of features.

Editing Software

The main problem that I wanted to address is that I suffer from adverbitis. By that I mean that I have a tendency to overuse adverbs. I also default into using the passive at times when it would be better to use the active especially for a crime thriller, which should be fast paced. I think this is probably down to the fact that I am used to proofreading student theses, which are written in a formal style in accordance with university requirements and therefore use the passive rather than the active. Unfortunately, if you are used to working in a particular style then it can become hard to break the habit. I therefore invested in Prowritingaid at my friend’s recommendation.

You can choose from six main styles of Creative, Academic, Business, General, Technical and Web Copy. Once you have set your preferred style you can then choose what you want to check for. I chose Writing Style Report, which flags up adverbs and use of the passive but you can also run a full analysis or various other checks such as repetition, overused words, consistency, plagiarism etc. depending on the writing style you are aiming for. In fact, there are a total of 23 Highlightingdifferent types of reports/checks to choose from.

Prowritingaid makes it easier than editing your work yourself because when you are working so close to your work you can fail to notice things. The software pinpoints instances in embarrassing, brilliant highlighting so you can’t fail to notice them, and at $35 per year it’s substantially cheaper than hiring an editor. It also means that you retain control over your work. I must admit that I cringed at the number of times I used ‘quickly’, ‘forcefully’, ‘really’, ‘slowly’ and ‘quietly’. I had also used more powerful adverbs such as ‘maliciously’ and ‘subconsciously’, which can make an impact if used sparingly, but overuse lessens their impact so a good trim was necessary to improve the quality of my work.

Another good thing about this software is that you can upload a sample of your work to the site to trial it before buying. Here’s the link if you want to give it a whirl: http://prowritingaid.com/. I’d like to add that I’m not being paid by the suppliers to write this blog post. I just wanted to share this useful discovery.

Lose the Adjectives

I came across something else of interest in the book that I am reading, called “Writing a Novel” by Nigel Watts. In the chapter on style he cautions writers to beware of overusing adjectives and adverbs. One of the exercises at the end of the chapter is to write a descriptive passage without using them. In fact, he also encourages the reader to leave out abstract nouns, which is a point that I don’t necessarily agree with per my comments below.

I found this particular topic interesting in terms of the effects that you can achieve without having to use adjectives and adverbs. Nevertheless, I am not advocating that we leave them out altogether, but it’s amazing how descriptive verbs can be. Nigel Watts suggests looking at the work of authors you admire to see how they deal with certain situations. As I was reading a Val McDermid book at the time, and she is one of my favourite crime authors, I had a look. To my amazement she had managed to write an entire descriptive scene and hardly used any adjectives at all – remarkable!

Charles DickensUnfortunately, due to copyright laws I am unable to quote the passage from Val McDermid’s book. However, it’s easy to compare contemporary writers to those of a bygone era who used a lot of adjectives and adverbs. In fact, my personal feeling is that adjectives and adverbs have their uses, but authors such as Dickens overused them, and I much prefer contemporary writing styles. Here is an excerpt from David Copperfield:

“My aunt was a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking. There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage, amply sufficient to account for the effect she had made upon a gentle creature like my mother; but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. I particularly noticed she had a very quick, bright eye. Her hair, which was grey, was arranged in two plain divisions, under what I believe would be called a mob-cap; I mean a cap, much more common then than now, with side-pieces fastening under the chin. Her dress was of a lavender colour, and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible.”

Try comparing that passage to one from a book by one of today’s popular authors and you’ll probably see a vast difference in the number of adjectives and adverbs used.

Instead, verbs can be used to great effect. One example the author used is walking, which can be described as: shuffling, creeping, stepping, pacing, striding, dawdling etc. Each of these creates a different image in the reader’s mind. Another example relates to the various verbs used to describe eating: chew, gulp, devour, swallow, bite, consume, nibble, crunch etc. Again, each one paints a different picture in the reader’s imagination. ‘Devour’ for me brings to mind someone who is aggressive in their behaviour and attacks their food as though it is the enemy. ‘Nibble’ on the other hand, makes me think of someone who is nervous, reserved or picky.

I think that we can achieve similar effects with our choice of nouns or abstract nouns, for example, a stench is much more offensive than a smell whilst an aroma is more appealing. Having saidStorm that, the author of the aforementioned book also cautions against the use of abstract nouns because they are imprecise whereas if you describe a scene by painting a picture in the reader’s mind, it is more definite. The example, he gives is when describing the ‘devastation’ caused by a storm. The reason that the abstract noun ‘devastation’ is imprecise is because people interpret it in different ways. So, instead of using this abstract noun, you could describe the damage caused by the storm, which would paint a clearer picture in the mind of the reader. For example, you could describe the wind tearing the branches from trees.

This is just another idea that will stay in the back of my mind whilst I’m writing fiction. Hopefully it will help to improve the way I write. I would love to read your thoughts on the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs.

Writing Using the Five Senses

As I have returned to fiction writing after a long break I have decided to brush up on some of the skills I learnt on my writing course many years ago. I have therefore recently been reading a book called ‘Teach Yourself Writing a Novel’ by Nigel Watts. Whilst reading chapter 9, ‘Setting the Scene’, part of this chapter reminded me of something I covered on my writing course. This relates to utilising all of the senses when describing a scene from a character’s viewpoint because this helps the reader to picture the scene i.e. don’t just describe a scene or character visually but also describe how it sounds, smells etc. Perhaps you could be describing a mangy room where the odour is so bad you can almost taste it, for example.

EarOn this blog I have previously described how when I was writing my first novel I became really engrossed and felt almost as though I was the protagonist and was experiencing everything that she was going through. Perhaps part of the reason for that was because I was utilising the five senses. With my second novel I haven’t felt that same attachment up to now and I know that I need to recapture that feeling before I return to it. Hence I am revisiting some of the techniques that I learnt previously.

Another example of utilising the five senses would be if the protagonist was to enter the scene of a burning building. By using the five senses you would not only describe the visual impact but also the sound of the flames, the feel of the heat, the smell of burning flesh or the choking effects of the smoke. Obviously it isn’t always necessary to use all five of the senses but by using a few of them you can add dimensions to your scene. Because this helps readers to imagine the scene, it fits in with that old writing adage of ‘don’t tell, show’.

I was pleased to find an example in my debut novel where I’d taken on board some of the advice I’d picked up in trying to set the scene. In this particular scene the protagonist has just been subjected to a vicious verbal attack in the canteen where she works, as she is one of the suspects in a murder inquiry.

Mouth

Julie’s first reaction was to flee from the room as quickly as possible, but Norma’s words kept echoing inside her head, and she told herself, “If I run, everyone will think I’m guilty.” She knew that she had to see it through. “I’m going to eat this bloody pie if it kills me,” she told herself. “I’ve got to try to act as normally as possible; I mustn’t let them get to me.”

Consuming the meal was a struggle. Julie had never before realised that eating could take such an infinite length of time. Her muscles were tense and she found it a tremendous effort to eat each mouthful. Her throat was so constricted that she felt as though she would choke each time she tried to consume the bland pie. Occasionally, she raised her head and glanced around the room just to let people see that she wasn’t about to bow her head in shame.

 NoseShe could sense eyes watching her, but each time she raised her head, they quickly diverted their gaze. This caused her to become even more self-conscious. She felt as though her every movement was being noted; the shaking of her hands, the way she struggled to swallow – her face becoming more flushed with each agonising gulp, the way she shuffled uncomfortably on her chair.

A piece of pie then became lodged in her throat and she lifted her drink so that she could attempt to swill it down. Unfortunately, the cup slipped from her shaking hand. She quickly grasped at it and managed to steady the cup on the table, but not before some of the contents had spilt onto her food.

As she replaced the cup, Julie heard somebody clear their throat and a couple of people coughed, as though indicating a break in the tension. She couldn’t face going to the canteen staff for a cloth to wipe up the mess, so Handshe searched her bag for a tissue. Julie only succeeded in clearing up part of the drink with her tissue, so she had to face eating the rest of her meal with her plate swamped by liquid.

She had managed to swallow the lump of Shepherd’s pie whilst her mind had been drawn to other things, and this had encouraged her to quickly devour a few more forkfuls. However, she was still only two thirds through the pie, and was beginning to struggle to swallow it once more. She knew that she mustn’t leave any on her plate, as this might suggest that she had rushed away, unable to face people any longer.

When Julie eventually reached the point where a marginally acceptable amount was left on her plate, she arranged her cutlery so that it concealed the biggest lumps of food. She then stood up and pulled back her chair as calmly as she could, in defiance of her rapidly beating heart and clammy hands. Julie then walked slowly and deliberately from the canteen with her head held high.

Eye

Please feel free to share your thoughts about using the five senses in your writing, by adding your comments below.

—————————-

 

My Return to Fiction Writing

Now that the main thrust of the promotion for my second book “Great Places for Kids’ Parties (UK)” is almost over, it’s time to turn my attention to my debut novel, which I hope to get back to soon. It needs a heavy edit, fact checking, a change to the ending and proofreading. The prospect is quite daunting as I haven’t touched the book for several years. In fact, I haven’t written any fiction for several years so I need to get myself into a totally different mind-set. In preparation I’ve been reading a useful textbook about novel writing in the hope of recapturing some of the skills and techniques that I learnt on my writing course.

The writing style for fiction is so different than for non-fiction but it’s also much more creative. With non-fiction I try to present the facts in an interesting, reader-friendly way, but with fiction I can do so much more. For example, I can:Meditation

 Develop the plot
 Build up suspense
 Create conflict
 Have fun with dialogue
 Become absorbed in my characters etc. etc.

With regard to the last point in particular, I’m looking forward to recapturing the buzz that I felt when I was writing my first novel. I can remember becoming so absorbed that my writing became like a form of meditation and I would escape to another domain. I almost became the main character as I entered her world and shared all the emotions that she was going through. I would also get a tremendous feeling of excitement as the plot developed.

I use the term ‘my first novel’ because I have already started my second novel with about 8000 words penned, although about 50% of it is in outline form. However, up to now I haven’t experienced the same buzz that I experienced with the first novel. I’m sure that this is partly because I have been so focused on the non-fiction work, which is why I’m anxious to return to the land of fiction.

 ReadingI am looking forward to using a lot of the techniques that I learnt on my writing course and will be re-reading my course notes as well as text books on fiction writing in order to refresh. I’m hoping that by brushing up my skills it will put me in the right frame of mind so that my creativity starts to flow again. At the same time, however, I won’t let adherence to the suggested methods stifle my creativity. I believe that the text has to flow naturally but it’s good to have the ideas in my subconscious as they will then come into play whilst I am writing (hopefully). If I come across any interesting techniques I will share them via the blog.

Of course there are the small matters of ongoing promotion for my two parenting books and client work to deal with but, apart from that, I intend to work flat out to get my novel ready for publication. I’ll be posting excerpts as I go along.