Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What to write about

There are a number of myths about writing, and I'm sure you've heard many of them. Writer's block is one - some insist there is no such thing, others say they have been blocked for years. Working writers who have deadlines can't afford the time to even think about blocks! Another is that writing can't be taught. I happen to think it can - if an artist can go to art school and learn craft and techniques and skills, so can a writer. I often say to students that one of the best things about being in a writing course is meeting other writers, sometimes making lifelong connections. I found one of mine through the Chatauqua Workshop.

But a danger of a course is relying too much on the teachers to guide you or, more to the point, guide what you will write about. Class exercises are great - they oil the cogs, give you much-needed regular practise, and can sometimes spark off a bigger idea. But they are definitely not all there is to writing. Over on my ebook4writers site I've been running a whole month of writing prompts. But if someone relied on my prompts to keep them writing, they'd fall into a hole, because what interests me as a prompt may not suit you at all.

"Write what you know" is another myth. It's one that fantasy writers scoff at, and merrily go off to create another world. We can start with what we know, but if we can't then leap forward through our imaginations, why are we writing? How do we expect to still be writing in five or ten years time, if we don't learn to use the greatest tool we have? Our youngest students, those straight from high school, are both blessed and cursed. They often have the free-est imaginations, but the least life experience and the narrowest views on what life is about. I hope one of the things they learn is how to generate their own ideas, ones they feel excited and passionate about, ones that will sustain them through thousands of words.

Years ago, I heard a writer talk about hunting ideas. They don't just come and knock on your door - you have to go out and hunt them down. To this end, I, like many writers I know, carry a notebook with me, but my favorite hunting ground for ideas is the daily newspaper. Sometimes I cut things out (usually images rather than articles) and sometimes I read an item that sticks with me and later I make my own notes about its possibilities. One thing I have learned is never let an idea get away. If I don't write it down, even just one line, an hour or two later it's often gone.

Where do you go for ideas? How do you know when you've "hooked a big one"?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is writing faster going to mean writing worse?

Today I read a recent article in the New York Times about writers who are being pushed to write two or more books a year instead of one. I have to admit it made me shudder. The publishers in the article pointed to James Patterson, who is apparently putting out 12 books a year, simply because he comes up with plots and people co-write the books with him. Well, good for him, but if all you want as a reader is to churn through book after book of mass-produced words, go for it.

Me? I have two problems with this. One is about quality. Years ago, one of my favorite authors, Sue Grafton, who writes the alphabet series about investigator Kinsey Milhone, published H and then I in the series, and they sucked. I for Innocent was worse than H. Grafton then admitted in an interview that she knew the books were poor, and that her publisher had pushed her into writing faster.

No more, she said. I will write at my pace, and I will make sure every book from now on is the best I can make it. The quality of J went up - noticeably. (Yes, I'm paraphrasing what she said!) This stuck with me, probably because I was lucky enough to interview her on a radio show not much later and it was part of my research. Let's be honest - why would writing faster ever make a book better? If you are a writer, you know that you need time to write and plot and deepen the characters, and then you need more time to revise and improve. I doubt that publishers are paying editors extra to fix up fast/poor novels.

But what bothers me more is the burn-out factor. In the NYT article, it says about writer Lisa Scottoline:
Ms. Scottoline has increased her output from one book a year to two, which she accomplishes with a brutal writing schedule: 2,000 words a day, seven days a week, usually “starting at 9 a.m. and going until Colbert,” she said. 
We can certainly all do that for a month or two, maybe even six. But day after day, week after week, ALL year? And still write something as good in six full-on months as the novel that took a year and went through thoughtful revisions? Maybe Scottoline can do it. Maybe there are lots of dedicated writers (some mentioned in the article) who can work at this pace, for years and years. But why? To keep the panicking publisher off your back?

As a reader, do you want two books a year from your favorite writers, no matter the quality? Or will you soak up whatever you can get? What do you think?

Friday, May 11, 2012

This ol' blog

You're right - I haven't posted here much over the past few months. That's because I have another blog/website that I've been putting a lot of energy into, but I hadn't forgotten this one. Oh no! I'm planning to blog here about a couple of great books I've been reading.

What is this other blog? It's about writing, of course. But it's a project I've been working on now for over a year. I wanted to start putting to use all the stuff I've been teaching over the past 20 years. My approach is tough, I admit that freely. In fact, the ebooks I'm working on are called Tough Guides. My past and present students will probably be nodding - that's how I am in the classroom.

Writing is a tough business. That's before you even get to the publishing part! That part is like a whirlpool at the moment, with everything swirling around and quite a few people thinking some of it might all go down the gurgler. My focus is the writing part. I see lots of people with talent - a little bit, a lot. Doesn't matter, because what matters is what you do with it. Talent without determination and discipline and hard work gives you nothing. But I've seen people with a bit of talent work their butts off and get published, and go on to a good career.

So my new website is ebooks4writers, and if you join my newsletter list (whereupon you will receive my newsletter full of interesting and useful stuff, next issue in a few weeks), you get a free copy of my first Tough Guide - The Tough Guide to Why You're Not Published Yet.
I think that gives you a fair idea of what I'm on about!

Over on that site, I am posting a heap of stuff for writers. My tagline is Resources for committed writers. I recently did a 4-part series on building great characters. At the moment, I'm running a whole month of writing prompts. Madness, but it's fun. If you're interested, pop over and have a look!