a curious piece of advice

“write people you would want to spend time with – even the nasty ones” – Neil Gaiman

Look, I’m obviously a Gaiman fan but I’m fairly sure I would find this piece of advice intriguing even if it didn’t come from him and here is why…

I love to read. I have always considered myself a bookworm. I really think books are one of the greatest things in the world. But there are books I dislike, books I hate and books I never finish because I don’t think they’re worth the small amount of time they would take me to read. And books I dislike tend to fall into one of two categories:

1. They are too wordy with long sentences I get lost in and paragraphs about nothing, or

2. I don’t like the characters.

And, if I’m honest, 2 is a much bigger problem for me. I made it all the way through Les Miserables despite finding large chunks of it fairly boring. I loved War and Peace despite, well, all the detailed War sections. I can deal with boring paragraphs if I care enough about the characters.

But if I dislike the main character the chances of me finishing the novel are slim and the chance of me liking it is basically non-existent.

Can any of you think of a novel you like with a character you dislike?

Living the life I dream of.

When I was 6 I dreamed I would be an Olympic athlete. I didn’t believe that anyone could turn 18 years old and not be disappointed if they had never competed in the Olympics. I dreamed of being a rock star and an engineer. I dreamed of doing a PhD and of being married.

I have always dreamed of things I want to do, places I want to go and people I want to be. I’ve achieved some of these dreams and put aside others.

I don’t think dreaming is a problem in itself, and I can’t understand living in any other way, but it does mean that sometimes I get impatient and dissatisfied with the life I’m living now. It’s as if I’m always waiting for my ‘real life’ to start. This is obviously foolish.

This realisation has led me to believe that the originally planned scope of this blog was far too narrow. It was looking forward to the future and celebrating the steps I took to get ‘there’. But it wasn’t celebrating where I am now. Life is an adventure, not a destination and my adventure doesn’t start once I reach a certain peak, I’ve been on it all along.

rearranging

I’ve found that a lot of my second draft (so far) hasn’t involved rewriting things but rather rearranging. My beginning had a huge stack of backstory that wasn’t necessary right away so now I’m jumping straight into the story instead. I’m also trying to insert chapter breaks which is fairly tough. It’s forcing me to really consider my pacing and where I’m spending too much time.

In terms of actually rewriting things it’s mostly dialogue – I have a much better feel for my characters now and I’m enjoying individualising their conversations.

I can see my story improving and becoming more interesting as I chop and change it. There’s still a ton to do before I get into really nit picky stuff and perfecting individual sentences but I have to say that I’m enjoying this stage quite a lot!

you have to think for yourself

My general stance toward mottos is displayed very cleverly in one of the Series of Unfortunate Events books and is also summarized beautifully in Ecclesiastes.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecc. 3:1)

While I sometimes like simple mottos I do not often trust them because you can’t. Sometimes one action is right, and sometimes another, because no two situations are identical.

I was scanning through a list of Rules for Writing Fiction and (surprise, surprise) a lot of the so-called “rules” were contradictory. So here’s the thing: writing is art. In order to make good art you need to make art that is different from other people’s art. In order to make good art you need to make art that is you. (Yes, yes, of course this is another simple tip and you should feel free to ignore it.) On this theme, there is a piece of advice from Margaret Atwood which I really like:

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”

Again, I am cynical and think that this will not always be the best way to write, it certainly seems (to me) a very good way to complete a first draft. It’s like brainstorming: you’ve got to let in enough silliness and honesty to get to the really good ideas.

Anyway, I shall continue picking and choosing the advice that I like, which mostly involves ignoring the stylistic advice and taking the motivational/conceptual advice. I don’t want to sound like anyone else in my writing but I do want to sound like the best version of me.

reading adventures

I never go in to a library and pick up what I expected to when I walked in.

On my most recent trip I grabbed some Diana Wynne Jones, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman and (the one planned novel) a Teen Power Inc book by Emily Rodda.

The strangest pick of the bunch was the Neil Gaiman book, (well, “graphic novel”): one of the Sandman series. I knew these were what had made Gaiman famous but I’d never really thought of reading them. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Asterix and Tin Tin while growing up (ok, I still do), but that’s been about the limit of my comic book/ graphic novel intake.

Well, anyway, it was fantastic. It was fun and funny and exciting and mysterious and now I want them ALL. That’s the problem with picking up one book in a series… You get hooked and then have to search the world for each and every episode. But the characters were fascinating, I enjoyed having pictures while I was reading and it was a nice change from my normal reading habits.

The other three novels I had already devoured when I was somewhere in the vicinity of late primary school and it is interesting to go back and read them just to note how much I have changed.

They are three very different books and even back then I knew that parents, teachers and librarians had a ranking system in their minds regarding which were “better”. I have it now, too, but I didn’t back then. Back then, I loved the words of Lemony Snicket, I loved his cleverness and his characters. I loved the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones and her imagination. I loved the high-stakes adventures of Emily Rodda’s gang and the way she told me that no two people are the same.

I only saw the things that held my attention. If a book was good enough in one aspect it didn’t matter if it was lacking in others.

taking stock

Well I gave my first draft a full read through and the main thing which is obvious to me is that my writing improved drastically over the course of the novel. This is good, I suppose, but means that the first half of my novel will need huge changes (really huge). The second half feels much better though, especially in terms of pacing, so that’s something.

I think I’ll need to spend a few evenings planning the changes to the first half before I start writing. It needs a little bit more… excitement.

on advice…

Our teachers always used to worry that we would believe everything we read on the internet. They spent hours drumming in the fact that Wikipedia was not a real source. But they needn’t have spent so much time on it I think. My generation knows better than anyone how easy it is to put trash up online. We know intuitively what sort of websites we need to check, and how many, before we believe something.

As for writing advice, well, the internet is full of it. There are pages and pages telling you how to write, what to write, how to edit, how to get published and so on. It goes on forever but it’s mostly trash. The authors of the webpages have (mostly) never published a book themselves and there’s a lot of bitterness. There’s also a plethora of instructions to contradict those found on publishing company websites. The bitterness is indicative that getting a novel published is hard work. The contradictions are a warning that the author is out of touch with the present circumstances. In any case, I do not wish to go there to learn how to write.

Before beginning my second draft I decided to find at least one piece of reputable advice. I chose Neil Gaiman because I like his books and he seems adept at using the internet… Without further ado: the most trustworthy piece of second draft advice I found in about 10 minutes of searching.

old and new

In order to help myself ‘get in the mood’ to write a book for 9-12 year olds I’ve been reading a lot of books I used to love at those ages.

I delightfully worked my way through almost all the Tamora Pierce that the local library has to offer before getting distracted by the discovery of John Green. I can highly recommend both An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns and I can’t wait to read the rest of his books.

Returning to pre-teen fiction I sought out Emily Rodda and picked up Rowan of Rin. I found all the names and places thrown at me confusing to begin with but once I got into it I liked it just as much as I always had before. It makes me wonder whether those things bothered me when I was ten or if it’s only since I’ve got old.

The last author on my recently read list is Neil Gaiman, whose work I first discovered through the incredible Good Omens. I really liked the movie Coraline and was pleased to discover a book which was still brilliant and yet did not leave me retrospectively disappointed with the movie. I also read Odd and the Frost Giants which was nice but couldn’t quite compare to Coraline or The Graveyard Book (another book of Neil Gaiman’s I read a while ago).

Have I learnt anything? I still enjoy the books I used to when I was eleven.

Have I learnt anything more? I’m not sure, perhaps a reminder that adventures are more important than introspection.

My favourite? I think The Graveyard Book may be my favourite but First Test by Tamora Pierce comes a close second.

Still left to read: Some Saddle Club and Teen Power Inc.

Update.

I finished my very first, first draft last night which means that it took 3 months… far less time than I had thought it would. Obviously the editing will take quite a while but I’m feeling pretty pumped :). I gave myself a year to finish a book and it’s all going well.

Now, onto the next one? Or should I head straight into editing?