Tag Archives: Writer

Why Standard Manuscript Format matters more than ever

For the last few days I’ve been following the editorial pains of friend and fellow British Fantasy Award judge Hal Duncan on Twitter. I don’t know what it is Hall is editing, I’m just glad its not me having to do it!

https://twitter.com/Hal_Duncan/status/276818447965499392

https://twitter.com/Hal_Duncan/status/276818866250866688

It’s amazing how many writers can plaster their manuscript in copyright warnings, but can’t format it worth a damn. This says all the wrong things about how you see your own work. Because what it says is, “I don’t believe in myself as a writer.” If you really believed in yourself as a writer, you would know that no reputable editor would ever rip your work off (if you’re sending to disreputable editors then no amount of copyright warnings will protect the work). Editors and publishers need great writers, not just great writing. If they like what they see, they don’t just want what the book they are reading, they want the next dozen books that follow it as well.

I’ve seen two discussions recently about Standard Manuscript Format basically saying, why bother? Sure, there are editors who aren’t concerned about manuscript format, mostly at small presses and fanzines because they haven’t heard of it. But there are also many, many editors who won’t even read a manuscript that isn’t in SMF. Why? Because if the writer doesn’t even have enough respect for their work to place it in the professional format, how can you trust them to be professional in the thousands of other ways a writer needs to be if you’re going to invest in publishing their manuscript? Also, they get a bazillion scripts a week so it’s an easy way to just get rid of some.

SMF was once essential because the manuscript had to go through many processes that depended on standard format. Now word processors make those processes easier. But they also mean there are more writers, submitting more manuscripts than ever before. If you really want to stand out from the crowd, don’t hand scrawl your manuscript on mauve paper scented with truffle oil. Put it in Standard Manuscript Format. Make it look like nearly every great, soon-to-be-published book that has ever hit the desk of any editor anywhere. These days, that kind of professionalism and confidence stands out a mile.

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The Density of Words

At anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 words or more the average commercially published novel might seem like a huge space to fill. I know the idea of creating that many words is often intimidating to my writing students, who may never have written more than 2-3 thousand words on one story in the past. But once you start to work at the novel length, you quickly begin to realise that even with 150,000 words to fill, you don’t have words to burn.

Once you establish the scene structure of your story, the style and structure of your chapters, and the information on character, setting and action you need to give the reader to support the story, there really should not be much dead space on any given page of your novel. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(The last time I posted this on Twitter I got a tweet back from @Neilhimself with the addendum “or be funny” which also works for me.)

NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise. It’s a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you *can* find the time to write around all other commitments. And it’s great fun. But. Whether you achieve the 50,000 words in that month or not, I would suggest that 50,000 words a month is not a realistic writing goal for any writer.

Can you write 50,000 words in a month? Yes. But they will most likely fail Kurt Vonnegut’s and Neil Gaiman’s advice. Can some writers write 50,000 *good* words in a month? Yes. But only under exceptional circumstances, in an established style they can produce effectively at that speed. Do some professional writers produce and publish 50,000 *bad* words a month? Yes. But do you really want to be one of those writers?

I’m personally comfortable producing around 5000 words of fiction a week, or around 20,000 a month. That’s about what I’ve been doing every month for the last three years. At that speed my first draft is 80% of where I want it to be. Any faster and that dips radically to 50% or less. Any faster for me would certainly not be better.

What rate of wordage do you find most productive?

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Why Sense of Wonder sucks

Many writers of fantasy fiction describe their work in terms of its ability to evoke a ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the reader, and go out of their way to find sources of ‘wonder’ to energise their stories. This is self-defeating in the most serious kind of way.

Stories that attempt to create a ‘Sense of Wonder’ fall in to a variety of traps. They return to ideas and images that evoked the sensation at some time in the writer. So we keep writing about manned missions to Mars, long after the idea has gone stale. They enter the escalating arms race of weird ideas. A troll isn’t good enough any more, it’s gotta be a steam powered were-troll…with laser eyes! And this exacerbates an already problematic tendency in fantastic fiction. You can’t actually create that steam powered were-troll in the readers imagination. You can try, with paragraphs of descriptive prose. But they’re far more likely to evoke boredom than wonder.

Trying to create ‘Sense of Wonder’ in a reader’s imagination is like trying to make the rabbit actually materialise out of your sleeve. Or believing you really can psychically intuit which number I’m thinking of. (42!) Magic tricks exist in the mind of the audience. The magician doesn’t create the trick, he plays on the fact that we desperately want to experience it, and will overlook his sleight of hand to do so.

A boy looking at a daisy through a magnifying glass can feel a perfect ‘Sense of Wonder’. It’s not the daisy’s doing, it’s all inside the boy. The other thing we call ‘Sense of Wonder’ is awe. We feel awe when we see things as they really are. You walk past millions of daisies without feeling awe. But when you stop to look, to REALLY look, then awe arises.

The writers job is just to make the reader stop and look. Leave the ‘Sense of Wonder’ to us.

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Workshop : Narrative

Reading Like a Writer
Image via Wikipedia

The second in a short series of posts accompanying workshops being taught for the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College. This post is on narrative, and why it is both a simple and deliciously complicated idea.

In Reading Like a Writer, novelist Francine Prose says that the true problem with narration is not who is speaking, but rather who is listening? And sometimes, especially for beginning writers, the problem is understanding that anyone is speaking at all.

We often use the word narrative interchangeably with both story and plot, and forget that while all three refer to some kind of sequence of events, each also has a quite separate specific meaning. A narrative is a told sequence of events. We call the teller a narrator, and the process of telling narration.

When writing a narrative we have to think about the point of view of the teller. Is the narrative being told in first or third person for instance. What is the voice of the narrator? How is it coloured by accent, attitude, emotion or other factors. How much does the teller know about the narrative? These can become thorny, circular arguments for writers, unless they are related back to the fundamental idea that a narrative has to be being told by a person. Sometimes the narrator is the central character, sometimes a subsidiary character or outside observer, sometimes by the author herself, or a combination of all of these.

For most of human history all stories were told. We passed them from one teller to the next, through an oral storytelling tradition stretching over thousands of years. Even once we began to record stories in writing, the written word was still written to be read aloud. With printing and mass literacy came the possibility for novels that were written to be read from the page. But without an actual human voice there to give the words shape, the writer has to work even harder to create the voice and viewpoint of the narrator. So it was really with cinema and TV that we began to lose the relationship between narrative and the voice of a narrator.

When you as a writer know who is telling the narrative, and also as Francine Prose suggests who they are telling it to, the entire writing process becomes both easier and filled with many more sophisticated opportunities. Take a simple children’s story like Jack and the Beanstalk. Imagine that Jack is telling the narrative as an old man, reflecting on his youthful adventure. Then imagine that he is telling it to the giant, somehow recovered from his fall from the beanstalk. Maybe the story is being told over a flagon of ale at an inn, two old men (or one old man and a very old monster!) reminiscing about better days. Or perhaps Jack is telling the story to his own wastrel son, an old man telling a young one what life is really about. With a scenario like this in mind, the richness and details of the story just come flooding out.

Once we understand as writers that there always has to be someone telling the narrative, and someone listening, we can work with that understanding in subtle ways. The narrator can be made invisible, the narrative transparent. As long as we as the writer understand how the narrative works, the workings can be hidden from the reader. The best narratives often work this way.

EXERCISE
Imagine a woman (or man) recounting a serious crime she has committed, such as a bank robbery or even a murder. In the space of one page, have the woman first recount the crime to another criminal she wants to impress. Then secondly, also in the space of a page, have her recount it to a judge who she wants a pardon from.

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Emotions when writing

Don’t underestimate or ignore the emotional and psychological challenge of writing. More writers are defeated in this arena than by lack of skill or imagination. Writing can be joyous and fun. But it can also be strenuous, isolating and, sometimes, downright scary.

Every piece of writing is a journey. Some longer or shorter than others. There are maps available, but you can trust them to be wrong as often they are right. It’s a journey you take on your own, across an unknown and often challenging landscape. Isolation brings its challenges.

Voices of doubt and dissent are liable to make themselves heard. Is this the right project? Are you good enough to write it? Will it ever get published? Are you wasting your time? Were all those people who tutted at the idea of writing, right? These are just a few of my personal favourites, every writer has their own versions.

The work itself slips and slides underneath you. One moment the structure and argument are clear in your head, the next all you have are a page full of apparently unconnected sentences and paragraphs. Frustration, anger and despair are all perfectly valid responses. Stop. Turn around. Go home. Or don’t. Only you can decide.

Their are practical issues to concern yourself with. If you’re investing the time needed to write anything worth a damn, especially on a full length book, its likely you aren’t spending enough time on work, friends, family. You might return from your journey to find one or all of them gone. Loneliness, shame and rejection loom like dark thunderheads on the horizon.

And that deep dark unconscious from which all great writing comes doesn’t give up its treasure without a fight. Even if all you’re after are a few colourful memories to set the scene, it will have a barrage of half-truths, unresolved conflicts and other neuroses to throw at you. Go looking for those powerful emotions like love, passion, fear and God help you with what you find. There are monsters on this journey, as scary as you can imagine.

Some writers stop all together when they encounter these emotions. Others avoid the really tough and most challenging emotional ground. Writing that is flat, predictable, generic, cliched and dull is often a consequence of sticking to easily travelled paths.

All you can do is be mindfull of the emotions that arise as you write. Oh look, frustration and anger again, I’ll let those pass and carry on. Horizon looks like bad weather, I’ll just rough it out. Monsters from the unconscious are blocking the path? CHARGE! And remember, if the destination is where your heart wants to be, the journey is always worth it.

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Pick me! Pick me!

“Employees wait to be picked for promotion, or to lead a meeting or to speak up at a meeting. ‘Pick me, pick me’ acknowledges the power of the system and passes responsibility to someone to initiate. Even better, ‘pick me, pick me’ moves the blame from you to them. If you don’t get picked, it’s their fault, not yours. Reject the tyranny of picked. Pick yourself.”

Seth Godin, Poke the Box

Writers are never employees. Even when they are employed. A writers job is always to say what no one else has yet said. And you can’t wait for your boss to tell you what that is. This is one reason why those structures where writers are employed, are waiting to be told what to do, businesses like newspapers and publishers, are either collapsing or going through revolutionary change, and being beaten in to the ground by dynamic systems where writers do not wait to picked, by blogs and other social media.

Writing is now such a competitive career that saying ‘pick me!’ is hardly even an option anymore, if it ever was. Too many writers think of editors, agents and other publishing professionals as people who are waiting to pick them. The truth is that no good editor or agent interested in making a living is interested in picking a writer. The writers worth working with are the ones who have already picked themselves, who are instigating and building their own career and who understand the value of the relationship they have with other professionals, agents and editors.

What does this mean in practical terms for you as a writer? Above all else it means you need to be aware of what you need to do to instigate your career. If you have never written a word and dream of writerly stardom, you need to enrol on a good course and spend a few years learning your trade. If you have published a few dozen stories and have a strong novel in progress you need to get out and network at events where you will meet people who might publish the book. You’ll quickly find out if it has potential. If you’ve sold 400 million copies of your novels about an orphan boy at magic school it might be time to ditch the agent and the publisher all together and sell direct to your readers.

Don’t mistake a rash leap in the dark for instigating your career. Self-publishing a multi-volume urban fantasy on Lulu is just another way of shouting ‘pick me!’ at a readership swamped with other desperate hopefuls doing the same thing. But don’t fear if you happen to have done this or any of the other host of miss-steps writers take early in their travels, for a fortunate consequence of this kind of failure is that, by definition, no one will have noticed.

(But it is probably a good idea to take that 18 volume saga off Lulu well before you actually publish a real book.)

And now go and read the combined wisdom of Clarion as introduced by James Patrick Kelly.