What My Parents Taught Me About Writing

I remember waking up one morning early to a strange sound in the study. I went in there to check, and found my mom sobbing over her typewriter.

Literally sobbing.Ma verwerk

Because she had to just finished drowning her beloved main character.

Both my parents were published authors and very involved in mentoring young writers, so I learned a great deal about the discipline and the rigors of writing from them.

Oh, and if some of these sound familiar, it is simply because the road to writing has always been pretty much the same – whether it is tar or gravel or grass or cobblestones, the path still leads from here to there, from the start of the book to reader reading the last word. Nothing much has changed.

1.   ABC: Writing is Hard Work.

ABC = Apply Bottom to Chair. Yes. You have heard this before.

It’s still true, though.

If you don’t sit down to some serious writing (or do it standing up), nothing will ever magically happen.

Writing. Is. Hard. Work.

2.   Kill Your Darlings: Edit!

William Faulkner said that you have to kill your darlings.

Because if you don’t kill your darlings, they will kill your book.

For those of you who are horrified at the suggestion of murder, please note: a “darling” in a book could be a favourite minor character who doesn’t contribute to your main plot but wonders off on his or her own little garden path.

Or it could be a flowery phrase, or a word you use over and over and over … get the picture?

Or it could be a whole subplot that makes your book overweight and dowdy instead of streamlined and sexy.

How do you kill your darlings? Well, editors are the best assassins you can find. But before you hire them, do some assassination (aka editing) yourself.

3.   Your Sweetheart’s Blue Eyes: Make Notes!

Somewhere you need to create a table and note down details regarding your characters and the setting and anything else that you could forget one hundred pages into the book. Do not change the colour of someone’s eyes simply because you didn’t make a note of it. Excel makes it really easy to create a character list, but there are handy apps out there that you might want to use as well.

4.   Night Owls or Larks? Know Yourself

My mom woke up at four in the morning to start writing. My dad wrote until midnight.  Oh what a marriage that must have been!

Seriously though: you need to write when you are fresh and wide awake and able. You cannot write with a hundred people asking you for tea or food or socks. But you also cannot write in the mornings if you are not a morning person.

5.   Be a Great Spy. Know Your Market.

Maybe you are writing for yourself. That’s cool. Then you don’t have to get to know your market. Well, actually, you already know your market pretty well then …

But otherwise: get to know your market or get to know someone who knows your market. Publishers, editors and agents all know their fields well. But it doesn’t help a lot if you don’t do your own market research and you also don’t listen to them. Either spy yourself or trust your spies.

Read it yet …? The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” has topped the charts, won prizes and is being adapted into a BBC television drama.

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Read a bit more on Wikipedia: click here.

Or buy it on Amazon if you don’t have it yet: click here.

Have you read it? Rate one to five stars and tell us what you thought of it! Use the comments button to chat or simply complete the following poll.

The Slow Goodbye (Nelson Mandela)

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Five past five this morning I did what I have done each morning for the past three weeks – I opened Twitter on my cellphone and moved to Trends. The light from the camera hurt my eyes. The rest of the room was dark and all I could hear was the sound of the waves and an occasional car.

Checking on Madiba.

An unconfirmed report from some obscure overseas website that he had died. I moved to my own “trusted sources”. Topmost of the list: Barry Bateman @barrybateman . I love how he reprimands those who go crazy with the rumours.

https://twitter.com/barrybateman/status/349877034509541376

This morning he is joking around about how the journoes would pay for a nice breyani. So I relax. Nothing dramatic is happening.

Yet.

I grew up a lily-white child of Apartheid South Africa. During the 70s we did what all white, Afrikaans kids did: we loved our country passionately, learned how to march around (one period a week; the guys got to learn how to shoot guns) and sang songs about the greatness of being of the proud race of “Voortrekkers” (similar, I suppose, to American pioneers).

My parents did a good job, though. They taught us about compassion and caring for others. I remember my mom telling me a long story about how we shouldn’t generalise or judge people based on race or culture. So I was more fortunate than most – I wasn’t actively brought up with all kinds of prejudices and bias.

But there is no way that I wasn’t a racist.

Because there was “us” and “them”. There was always a maid living in the maid’s quarters, eating from her own cutlery, using her own toilet; not sharing our dishes and never ever using our toilet.

It was just how it was done.

And nine o’clock at night the big siren in town went off – curfew for all the “Bantus”. After that the yellow police vans started their nightly patrols in the suburbs to scoop up all black people who were still out and about. Every so often they would raid someone’s house – would burst into the yard and storm to the maid’s quarters. Because a maid might have permission to stay there, but her husband/boyfriend/brother/auntie/child was definitely not allowed. They didn’t have the right papers to be in a white neighbourhood at night. They were arrested and dragged off to the yellow van.

It was just how it was done.

I was totally isolated from what was really going on in the country. Like so many children of my age, I simply didn’t know any better. In fact, I remember having exactly one English-speaking friend – a rare and valuable oddity in our Afrikaans community.

But even in my little white cocoon, light slowly filtered in. I heard that the song “The seagull’s name was Nelson” might have some or other obscure meaning and I shouldn’t be singing it. That scared me a bit, being a “good Afrikaner girl”, but I never knew some people played it to show their support of Nelson Mandela. Not that he was a seagull – but it was the only way to “speak his name publicly” at a time where the Censure Board would ban anything and everything. Well, I didn’t know about Nelson Mandela. At all.

Somewhere in high school someone gave me a book of poetry. A BANNED book. I remember the delicious sense of being a rebel and a liberal. It was just some poetry from African poets. But I hid in the storage space where we kept the blankets when I read the book. And I was convinced that the police would burst through the doors at any moment.

In 1976 we were visiting my cousins outside of town when my uncle brought the first pictures I ever saw of a black township. The Soweto riots had started. Were started. By school kids. None of it made sense to me. What made them so angry? And what made it okay to kill kids? I never received answers. Unfortunately that meant that I stopped asking questions.

Somewhere in the 1970s and 1980s my life turned into a typical teen’s life. Worries about my skin, my weight, my marks, guys (or the absence thereof) and schoolschoolschool.

We now learned about identifying possible bombs in shopping centres (when we were not learning about the dangers of dancing, drugs and satanism). Our brothers and cousins were called up for mandatory army duty. They were sent to “the border” (between South West Africa and Angola) where they lounged around or got killed by terrorists. Soldiers (“troepies”) became part of our culture and our everyday lives.

University years were not much better. Our varsities and colleges were racially segregated. The only black people I ever met were the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in my house, at the garage and in shops. The white cocoon was cracking, but not much. The bombs in shopping centres and the terrorist attacks continued, but now in our neighbourhoods: in a bar, at a church service. Life was confusing.

And then things started happening. At high speed. Unbanning of political parties. Freeing of Nelson Mandela. First democratic elections. The passion and energy in the air excited me and made me nervous and happy, all at once. Many of my friends were quoting an old Afrikaner psychic and building up doomsday bunkers filled with water, weapons and baked beans.

But things changed, whether they liked it or not. And suddenly, strangely, things were totally different. My boss was black (how weird was that!). Our President was black (but very nice – and a rugby fan to boot!). Our Afrikaner teachers were suddenly twisting clumsy tongues into knots in an effort to teach in English to the blackwhitecolouredindianasian faces in front of them (how funny were those sounds).

And still things changed. Not all of it good. But not all of it bad either.

And now Mandela is dying. Bit by bit. Maybe already, maybe tomorrow.

The slow goodbye.

Sala kakuhle, Madiba.

Write What You (Don’t) Know

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Actually, writing is not all that complicated. You have a very simple choice when you write:

  • Write what you know.
  • Write what you don’t know.

It’s that simple.

Not easy. Just simple.

 

Write What You Know

You might know a great deal about something – or a little bit about many things. The trick is deciding how you want to combine these knowings into a piece of writing.

The Life and Times of … You!

On any given Wednesday, slightly later than lunch, you might think that you have a truly boring life and an uninspiring existence. But don’t sell yourself short.

Maybe some things are slightly ordinary: making porridge; checking your mail; watering the plants; washing the car.

But twiddle with them and you could have something worth writing about, for instance:

  • Porridge vs Cereal … and the Winner is …
  • What Should Happen With Your Email Account After Your Death?
  • Home-made Mixes to Make Your Violets Blush
  • 7 Shiny Car-washing Rules

Yeah. You get the idea.

And I didn’t even mention the stuff that you did that was actually … to be honest … quite spectacular.  Such as the prize for the biggest zit in school; swimming with dolphins; losing your baby fat/abusive partner/mind.

Lots of stuff to write about. Lots.

 

Friends and Enemies … Lend Me Your Lives!

You are not such a dull person, after all, don’t you agree? And, being a special person, you have intriguing friends and spectacular enemies. And they all have such interesting lives that you could … well, kinda borrow a section or so for a storyline or a blog post. (You will return it, after all!)

Seriously – people you know and love, or people you know and don’t love that much, are a bit like the spices in a great stew. They make it all come together.

Their lives could offer direct inspiration. If a friend did something amazing, or lived through something that could guide or inspire others, think about doing an interview for a blog or an article. Or use what they know as the background for a plot.

If you do a straight interview, let them approve it once it’s done and before it’s published. If you used an experience from their lives, discuss the ways in which you would like to use it so that it doesn’t cause them embarrassment. Be prepared to give it up, if necessary. It wasn’t after all, yours to start with.

Maybe some friends could inspire characters. Be careful, though. They should provide inspiration for a character, not act as a blueprint. A quirk that you could attach to your villain. Or kindness that you could give to your strong male lead character. Maybe just the glint in their eye or the way in which they touch with strength, but also with compassion.

When you are dealing with others, always remember to step carefully.

 

Write What You Don’t Know

However, writing is not only about the five senses or the past, present and future of a life lived.

It’s also about Middle-earth,

the Emerald City

and Hogwarts.

It’s about going Where No Man Has Gone Before.

It’s about Shrek,

Nemo and

living in a Giant Peach.

Come on … if you can dream it … you can write it. (With apologies to Kevin.)

Writing is the most (good, clean, legal) fun you can have with a keyboard. Go for it!

How a Beginner Writer can Create an Online Presence

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The nature of writing has changed quite a bit. In the past, you would write a book, or an article, or short story, or a poem and you would send it off to the relevant publishers. If you were lucky, they published you. And then they told you what they wanted you to do in order to market the book, for instance, attend book signings, a book launch, interviews or some such endeavour.

Straight-forward.

Not so much these days.

To start with, you can decide whether your writing would be best published via a publisher or independently; in print or online.

Your choice.

Whatever you decide, though, still means that you have to do more marketing than you would have in the past. That much has changed, and will not easily be unchanged.

Where to start?

 

You Are a Brand

You are a brand, as much as Coca Cola and Nike and Microsoft and Apple and the loveable coffee shop on the corner is a brand.  That brings power to influence the sale, or the lack of sales, of your writings. And, as Spiderman would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So, what is this branding thing all about?

A brand was used on cattle when a farmer wanted to say: “This cow is mine, not yours.” It is something that you can easily identify and tells you something about the branded.

What does this mean for you as a writer? Well, what is the essence of your brand? Some brands are all about family and home-cooked meals. Others are about sweat and ambition. Still others are offensive, but make people think and talk.

What are you?

Because you can be anything, but beige.  You have to stand out.  Branding is all about being different from the rest. And for that you need fire-engine red.

For writers it is not too difficult. If you can be yourself, and be it well, then you should be different. Don’t try to be someone you are not. You might admire JK Rowling, but don’t try to write like her.

Find your own voice.

And then allow that voice to be seen in images you choose for your website; in words you use in your blog and in the kind of writing you do best of all.

 

What If You Publish “In Print”?

Don’t think that you don’t need to “be digital” if you are going to be writing “in print”.

Things have changed.

Where will people find your books? In your local bookshop? Sure. That is a great place to look for your books. And to find them. And to buy all fifteen of them.

But what about Kalahari or Amazon?

Even if you sell print, you still need to tell people about it. And ignoring your global audience is … well, kinda silly, don’t you think?

You can sell your printed books via online distributors. You can use the same research that you did for your printed article, and write and sell a blog with a different twist. Or create an eBook that you can distribute via Smashwords or Kindle.

 

Don’t Be Afraid of the Unknown

Often writers are simply a bit lost in terms of digital and therefore cut themselves off from all of those possibilities. Yes, you can stay where you feel safe. It is your prerogative.

But there is SO much out there. It would be great if you could join in.

Things have never been better for people who love words. In the past, only the select few could produce something other than manuscripts hidden away in a dusty bottom drawer. These days, it is all about words.

Although it’s true that many online readers skim and make horrid choices in terms of content, the fact of the matter is, that many people are reading (even horrid things). Many more than ever before.

And many are writing.

Yes, from the divine to the totally ridiculous, including horrid writings!

So step out of your comfort zones and try your hand online. And don’t worry about following some crazy, expensive courses. Just surf the Net! Everything you need to learn is out there, and much of the good stuff is even free.

 

Okay … Do You Need a Website?

You want to be able to be found online. The easiest way to do that, is to have a website. There are many free websites, such as Webs, Weebly and Yola.

But maybe start with something simple, like a blog. The best blogs are, IMHO, to be found at WordPress.  (Sincerely hope some WordPress boss sees this and gives me lots of free goodies …)

Start with a blog. It’s easy to do. If you are not sure, look for some videos that can help you through the steps.

Keep it simple. Don’t do too much too soon.

But remember: your website or blog is all about you.

Your brand.

 

And Social Media?

Once you have set up a blog, you can create social media accounts that connect to your blog. That way, if you post something on your blog (in plain English: if you write an online article) then it also appears in those media. For instance:

Facebook Page

Set up a Facebook Page that is separate from your personal Facebook account. Then you can still share silly recipes or funny cat pictures with your friends on your personal account, but you can keep your Page clean and focused on your writing, your articles, blogs or books.

Have a look at this if you are not sure how to set up a Facebook Page.

And look here for hints on how to link your Blog and your Facebook Page.

Twitter

You might like to set up a Twitter account linked to your “writer brand”. It’s a great place to stay in touch with other writers or writing groups.

Again, link your Twitter account and your blog so that your blog entries immediately appear as Tweets.

You could also link it the other way round. If you want your Twitter feed to appear on your WordPress blog, here is how to do just that.

Google +

Because so many people use Google to search for writers, and their writings, it really is a good idea to have a Google+ account.

Google+ works with circles – you place people in different circles and you can post an entry to all your circles, or choose which ones it is aimed at. It makes life really easy. For instance, if you want to tell only your family about this great guy you met, you can post it simply to your “Family” circle. But if you wrote a blog about how to meet a great guy, you can post it to your “Family” and “Writing” circles.

Here is how to set up a Google+ account.

 

The Way Forward

Good luck on getting started! If you get stuck, “help” is your friend, and “Google” your buddy. With YouTube being the favourite aunt. In the (slightly adjusted) words of dear Dumbledore: “Help will always be given to those who ask for it.”

 

Watch Some Videos … It’s Weekend!

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Have a look at some videos on my YouTube channel.   I will add to it from time to time, so feel free to subscribe, or just pop around every so often.

Don’t you just love living in the digital age where we have all this great information and amazing interviews at our fingertips!

Have fun!

Go with the Flow or Plan Ahead – How Do You Write?

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Writers’ conferences are interesting animals. Picture the anxious, eager young writer wielding a notebook/voice recording device. Every word spoken by the sage is truth and golden and pure. Every joke is funny. Every poignant example brings a tear.

And if the sage says: plan, then plan we will, by Shakespeare’s quill!

But SHOULD you? And should YOU?

 

How Detailed the Plan?

Planning depends on:

  • Who you are.
  • What you are writing.

 

Who Are YOU?

In terms of planning, writers can generally be divided into three groups:

  • Those who plan everything to the comma and the caps;
  • Those who plan vaguely and meander along; and
  • Those who swear that planning steals the creative soul.

Let’s see how planning can be managed by the two extremes: the over-planner and the free spirit.

 

Are You an Over-Planner?

If you are an over-planner, then NOT planning would scare the living daylights and the shining moonlight out of you and leave you adrift as a tiger on a boat.

So. If you are a natural planner: do go ahead and plan. (You will do it, regardless of permissions or prohibitions.)

But –

do place a limit on the planning.

Because planners tend to get lost in the very act of planning. Any (rehabilitating) planner will know that the very deed of sitting down and creating schedules, calendars, lists and tasks, makes rainbows and sunshine and happy faces appear.

Tell yourself something cruel, such as: “I will plan the following week’s work on a Friday afternoon for two hours. And that’s it. I will do no further planning. I will not amend the present planning. I will not do anything but think about the writing until such time as I sit down and do the actual writing. I will do the writing, not the planning, until the Friday afternoon planning time slot.” Then you can wear your happy clothes and make a special tea and plan to your heart’s content for two solid hours.

 

Are You a Free Spirit?

As a free spirit, you firmly believe that nothing good comes from planning. But maybe you should give it a try. Do some rough planning. Do some crazy planning. Do some scary planning. But do it, regardless of your convictions, and see if it makes a difference.

If you are writing a novel, go ahead and splurge your story down on paper as if you are trying to convince an agent at a party that you have something worth reading. Don’t think too much, just write as fast as your brain can move and your fingers can keep up.

If you are writing non-fiction, write down all the headings and subheadings. Think of this as giving someone a peep into the table of contents of your completed book. Don’t think too much, just write as fast as your brain can move and your fingers can keep up.

Good.

Now put some spaces in there, create some paragraphs and highlight some important plot twists or main headings.

There.

You have just planned.

 

WHAT Are You Writing?

As a young writer you would have read “how-to-write”-articles and “why-I-am-such-a-great-writer”-interviews. And maybe you would have reached the conclusion that there really is no secret. Sometimes lots of planning works, sometimes it doesn’t. For some people it works, for others not.

 

Should You Plan a Work of Fiction?

Usually planning helps create structure and plot. Characters tend to grow as you nurture them, but you still need to make a note somewhere that the guy’s eyes are blue and not green. Because you might forget it seventeen chapters later and make a silly mistake. Consistency is always a strength.

If you create a basic outline of your plot, then it makes it easier to see where the strengths and weaknesses lie. You can then say: “On this day everything changed” anywhere in this storyline and add a great twist.

Or you can see, quite early on, that you have a great deal of action or deep inner struggles, but you actually have no plot at all. That is an important thing to realise at the start of the book, rather than 50 000 words into the book.

You might want to make your characters more rounded. If the hero is shining too much, add a bit of dirt. If the minor character seems to take over – maybe the hero isn’t the hero at all? Or you might have to “kill your darlings” and put a minor character back into the background.

 

Should You Plan Non-Fiction?

Writing non-fiction without creating some sort of guideline makes for scary writing. Non-fiction, especially online writing, is all about the structure: the headings, the paragraphs, the white spaces, the bullets.

If you write monologues, then maybe you could use some structure? The easiest way is first create the outline and then flesh it out with examples and more detailed content.

You will often find that planning a bit, or a lot, makes for better time management. Once you start writing, you know what you want to say, and the only thing left is the saying of it.

Maybe you have the kind of brain that already thinks in paragraphs and headings. If so, go ahead and write without a structure. But make sure you check and change after you have done that.

 

Remember:

The first draft often is like a sexual encounter: all passion and energy and dripping with sweat.

But thereafter the baby needs time and energy and food in order to grow.  What does this mean? Simple: if you don’t edit, then nothing will be borne.

Are You Writing After Hours?

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John Grisham, PD James, Stephen King … welcome to the famous, infamous and unknown writers who are, or were, writing after hours. You might just be starting off as a writer, or you might be a spot in the distance already, but writing after hours invariably brings its own challenges.

 

Value Your Relationships

Ask after-hours writers what they would really value, and it would probably be more hours in a day. Why, oh why do humans need to sleep? You are welcome to ask the question, but not to shorten your sleeping time … it just doesn’t work.

If you have a family, you have to honour that and make sure that you don’t steal family time to work on your dream. It’s just not fair. Family comes first. But family should also support you in your dream, especially when a deadline looms.

What about the singles? Being single doesn’t mean you don’t have relationships. You have friends, family, maybe a possible loved one. Again, don’t follow your dream and cut yourself off from people. The whole point of writing is being human and experiencing all the complicated relationships that go with being part of a group.

The great African concept of “Ubuntu” captures it well: “A person is a person through people.” As a writer there is no way that you can isolate yourself from people. In fact, if you are solo, you need to make sure that you mingle, because writing is a solo performance, but the content you are creating comes from the crowd.

 

Don’t Cheat Your Boss

It is very tempting to “steal a bit of time” at work to “work on your writing”. More so if you have an office job, but if you work away from a computer, you can still steal time to think about your plot or your next blog.

Don’t do it.

Even if you don’t feel a great love for your boss, cheating him or her has a way of coming back and biting you in the buttocks. Life is funny that way.

That’s not to say that you have to spend your teatimes gossiping about last night’s soapies with colleagues. No – those few minutes can happily be spent on writing, or thinking about writing. And don’t tell me you won’t be able to plot out a next chapter during your lunch hour.

But, just like school, when the bell goes, and you are back in “class” – pay attention.

 

Use Odd Times for Odd Jobs

Think about the time you spend traveling to and from work. Maybe you could catch a bus or a train and rather use the time thinking up a great storyline? Because you cannot do it driving in rush hour traffic, except if you are part of a lift club or have a chauffeur (if so … how can you afford him?).

What about the delightful time you spend waiting in line at the doctor or the bank or your child’s school?

Odd moments such as these are great for taking out the notebook (which writers always have available) and creating an outline, or writing down ideas, or snatches of conversation, or planning an eBook. Whatever takes your fancy. Don’t waste these golden minutes and then steal them from your family or your job.

 

You Really Need a Plan

It is a well-known fact that the world consists of planners and doers … well, well-known in most popular magazines, maybe. Because it is not important if you are not a “planner”. If you want to write after hours and not cause chaos at work or at home, you had better start learning the basic skill of planning your time.

When do you like to write? Are you a lark or a night owl? If you have a family, you might have less of a choice. The evenings are theirs, not yours. This is really important if you have children, but no less so if you have a spouse.

So, even if you are not a “morning person”, you might have little choice but waking up early, drinking a triple espresso, and getting to work before the house wakes up.

Or, you could do this once everyone has gone to bed … but that might not be too great for your love life.

Or you could schedule blocks of time: Monday and Wednesdays are my writing times.

Or: every second weekend I get to spend the whole Saturday writing, and the whole Sunday with my loved ones.

Whatever works for you. But make it a routine, so that everyone knows what to expect. And have trade-offs: If I have to go out to a spouse’s function on one of my “writing evenings”, I get to move it on to the next day.

 

Make Some Hard Choices

If you are serious about “this writing thing”, then it is something your friends and family should know and respect. And if they don’t respect it, well, at least they should know about it.

When you make decisions to write, rather than have fun with them, they should understand why this is so important to you. But you can, on occasion, choose to have fun with them and sacrifice your writing. As long as everyone knows that you are giving up something important to spend time with them and that this is a special occasion, not a regular occurrence.

If you really want to make it as a writer, you will learn pretty soon that boozing the previous evening generally doesn’t make you hyper-excited about writing the next morning. Fitzgerald and Hemingway are great examples to follow in terms of their writing, but not their lifestyles so much.

 

Use a Chunk to Organise

Use one of your chunks of time to organise everything for the following days. When the next chunk of time comes up, you can simply sit down and start writing.

Call it what you will: research time, mindmapping, outlining – but schedule time to do only that, so that you don’t have to do bits and pieces while you could have been simply writing.

See your writing time as something special and make it easier for yourself to start once you sit down to write. Don’t waste time getting things or organising something or making coffee or even waiting for the computer to start up.

For instance, if you like to have a cup of coffee steaming as you crack your knuckles before touchdown on the keyboard, then by all means, set out the coffee things the night before.

Of, if your computer isn’t on all the time, switch it on, make the coffee and come back with the screen ready and the cursor winking happily at you.

Little things.

Because you have little time, the lost minutes spent organising things and setting out things and switching on things and “getting ready” adds up to that horrible point where you are on a roll and you have to stop because everyone is up and about and the porridge is getting cold, dear.

 

Be There

When you write, don’t feel guilty because you are not spending time with your family or friends. When you spend time with your family or friends, don’t feel irritated because you could be writing.

When you are working at your day job, don’t think of writing. When you are writing, don’t think of your day job.

Just plan ahead and enjoy the moment as long as it lasts.

And remember: you are in good company:

 

Silly Prompts and Serious Ideas – Wacky Ways to Warm Up Your Writing Muscle!

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Maybe you want to start a project. Maybe you are working on one, but it seems uninspired. Maybe the white page/screen has become more foe than friend.

Whether you are looking for fresh ideas, or just need a way to get unstuck, the following could help you get going (again):

 

Use Keywords

The idea behind Google Adwords is to help advertisers see which keywords are hot or not. Little did they know that it is a great tool for potential writers as well. Have a look here http://tinyurl.com/27uvznm to see how it works.

Using Google Adwords is a great place to start if you are into writing non-fiction. Simply type in your keyword(s) and do the search. Remember to keep the option “broad” rather than specific if you want to use this as a tool for ideas.

Your search returns will have the word(s) you asked for, but also link the word  to other keywords or show it as part of a phrase – the way that real people looked for something to do with this topic on Google Search. You will also see how often these were searched globally and in the area you choose.

Great ideas for blogs! You can download and save the searches as Excel files. Remember to rename each file by adding the original keyword(s) so that you can easily sort these into groups that might make up different chapters of your new eBook!

 

Use an Online Writing Prompt

Writing prompts are to a writer what warm-up exercises are to an athlete. Some days your writing muscle just seems to be a bit stiff and you stare at the page/screen feeling old and empty. Or you could be stuck with a story and not know how to continue. Use the writing prompt to get the writer’s muscle nice and warm and ready for a sprint, or a marathon.

And do remember to keep what you wrote – later it might actually grow into its own work of fiction, a blog or a book.  You will be able to find many online writing prompts, but here are three websites to get you started:

Creative Writing Prompts (http://creativewritingprompts.com/) has a creative approach: a list of numbers. As you move your cursor over each of the numbers (there are 346), you will get a pop-window with a writing prompt. From the divine to ridiculous – lots of fun!

 Writer’s Digest has a free download called “The Writing Prompt Boot Camp” that you can download here http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-prompts and that will give you a writing prompt for 16 days in a row.

Creative Writing Solutions (http://www.creative-writing-solutions.com/creative-writing-prompts.html) also has some great writing prompts, but some of them, especially the ones dealing with plot development, could actually be more than just mental finger exercises – you might just get a book out of them.

 

Use Online Images

Writers create mental images as they write and readers do the same. So why not use images to get you started?

Find a great image and imagine it as a snapshot taken at some point in someone’s life.  What happened before the time? What was happening at that precise moment when the snapshot was taken? Who are the other characters? Why are they involved? What will happen afterwards? Just keep asking questions and you’ll soon have a strong plot and some interesting characters.

Obviously you can use real photographs, or page through magazines or coffee table books. But online images are simple to find and there are multitudes.

Google Images makes it really easy. Simply do a keyword search using Google’s Images search function. (Look for the word “Images” on the top bar of your browser.). If you searched for the words “lonely man”, you would find all of these: http://tinyurl.com/d8nmzlm. Surely one or two of these would be interesting enough to get you writing?

Pinterest is as great a tool. Look at what the same search for “lonely man” returned on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=lonely+man  Again … lots and lots of writing ideas here!

 

Linking Words

For this one you need to draw a table with three columns. Make about ten or so rows. In the left column now start filling in random adjectives. Anything will do – don’t think, just write. In the middle column you do the same, using random nouns. Anything – human, non-human, animal, plant – again, don’t think, just write. And in the last column you add some prepositional phrases, such as “over the hill”, “during lunch”, “at noon”, etc.

Now choose any word from the first column, add any word from the second column and end with any phrase from the third column. Write this down. Do the next one. Do NOT go down the column – choose the words randomly each time. You will end up with a list of weird and wonderful writing prompts such as “green icebergs on Saturday” and “happy dress beyond the horizon”.

Okay … now choose one and start writing. Most of these will be truly silly, but your job here is not to be your own judge and jury – it is simply to get started, to get the creative juices going.

And to prove to yourself that you ARE a writer and you can write about anything! You never know where these wacky prompts could lead you … I mean: “A cat in a hat” or “Green eggs and ham”?

As soon as you feel all happy and creative and positive, leave this silly exercise and pour all of that creativity into your “real” writing.

Target Your Audience by Answering These Six Questions

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Writing is a bit like hunting. Though I have to confess I have never hunted, and I won’t … love Bambi too much to do anything but buy my meat packaged and reasonably bloodless at the shop. But getting back to the point:  writing is like hunting in the sense that you cannot just load your keyboard and hike through the woods, hoping a reader or two might cross your path.

Nope.

Not that easy.

You need to be writing for someone. Granted, sometimes that someone you are writing for might be yourself, your dad or your favourite aunt. But let’s suppose that you want to make a living by writing for others.

So … a few questions you might want to know the answers to as you are setting out on your hunt:

 

Are my readers bright or not so bright?

Now that seems like a terrible question to ask. It simply smells of bias and prejudice. But, between us girls and boys, it is important to know if you are writing for the code-speaking elite or writing for the rest of us.

So, if you are writing for the rest of us, make sure that you achieve a happy balance between leaving us groping in the dark and showering us with adverbs and adjectives galore.

You can decide when you want to spew forth majestically, but most of the time you can simply say what you mean. It works well for Stephen King and company, doesn’t it?

Your job as a writer is most often to observe that which other people simply don’t see and then draw their attention to it. You don’t need to decorate it with roses. They will be amazed at noticing what they have been missing all along.

 

Are my readers reading a book or online content?

There is a difference. When a reader settles into a book it is as if she or he is taking a walking holiday along a strange coastline. Plenty of time to stop and drink in the sights and eat at funny little restaurants.

But when a reader reads online, most often it can be likened to a bus tour through seven European countries in three glorious, sun-filled days. Online reading is all about skimming and not that much about depth. Not all too often. So give the online reader plenty of white space and big headings. And say what you need to say. Fast.

 

Are my readers male or female?

Now this one is tricky. A great reader is sexless, ageless, without bias. But maybe you do want to write for a specific audience. Men might read about how girls wax their armpits, but most often they won’t. So, at times,  you can write with the assumption that the person reading it is male, or female.

Otherwise, don’t go all male on your readers. Don’t make sexist jokes or below-the-belt innuendos. Except, of course, if that is exactly what your writing is all about. You’ll have a following. But you will also cut yourself off from part of your possible audience.

 

Are my readers old or young?

Although the ideal reader is ageless, and the ideal copy is ageless, it is true that we all have references in our lives. If I said, “Freedom”, the word would trigger totally different symbols, songs and famous people in our minds if we are of different generations.

So if you are writing for a specific age group, keep this in mind. Don’t use your own references and assume that they will know all about Paul and John. They might go Beatles, or they might go Biblical.

 

Are my readers multicultural and if so, which cultures?

This is another tough one. Readers from different cultures find different things acceptable or unacceptable. If you are a good writer, you shouldn’t isolate yourself within your own culture, but really soak up some others so that when you write, you write without bias and prejudice. However, if you are biased and prejudiced and happy about it, well, then I guess you know the way ahead.

When writing for a multicultural audience, be aware of taboos and make sure that you don’t unintentionally offend. The easiest way is to ask a friend of a different culture to let you know if you have some cultural spinach in your teeth.

 

Why are you writing this?

This is the big question. If you are not sure why you are writing this, you will most definitely not convince anyone of anything. If you have a passion for your subject matter, your enthusiasm will sometimes make even your worst critic think.

Be sure of your reasons. If you are writing to inform, don’t waste time on personal confessions. If you are writing to inspire, don’t preach. If you are writing to entertain, don’t take out the holiday slides.

See the “ideal reader” in your mind’s eye when you start writing. Know him or her well. Then, once you start, look up from time to time and catch their eyes. If he or she is smiling and nodding and hanging on to your every word, you might be on the right track.

If you see fish-eyes, however, change your reader … or change your writing!

 

Creating characters

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Kinds of characters

It sometimes happens that someone posts a group photo to Facebook and say “2002” and it’s Back to the Future all over again. The funny thing is that you really need the tags to remember some of the people, although they might have been sitting next to you in class for three years, or eating lunch at the same table and talking about sports and loves morning, noon and night.

But some you might know, immediately, intimately. You know their names, their habits, their likes and dislikes – anything and everything.

The same applies to characters. In really simple terms: you have the good guy and the bad guy and their respective friends and families.

The Good Guy

The trick is: the good guy shouldn’t be all good. And, of course, he doesn’t need to be a guy. Make sure that the good guy, like all of us, has a character flaw – something that will make cause conflict and get the action started or move the story along. Remember: the good guy doesn’t need to be your main character. The bad guy would do as well.

The Bad Guy

The bad guy shouldn’t be all bad. And gals can be as bad as guys. Just don’t assume that the bad gal needs to be sexy as well. Isn’t it funny how often writers seem to think that boobs in leather equals a good bad gal? Bad guys should also be multi-dimensional. A really great bad guy is one who has some good parts as well. That causes conflict in the reader – “I hated him, but now I understand why he is so horrible, and now I am not sure if I hate him any longer?”

The “friends and family”

The “friends and family” characters should add to the action, heighten the conflict, but not draw attention to themselves. They should serve as a spotlight for our main characters. Yes, we do need the funny old man with the cackly laugh to show the bad guy which way the good guy ran. But we don’t need the funny old man to say, “Sit down and let me tell you a bit about my years in the Great War.”  In fact, we don’t even need to see the egg smeared on his polka-dotted tie. Too much info!

Finding a character

Sometime a character will arrive at your doorstep, fully dressed and ready for action. That is a great gift and one you shouldn’t take for granted, because most of the time a character will have to be found, created from bits and pieces, a bit like a collage.

Creating a character

Your main character must be nice and fleshy, with unique traits and mannerisms, a specific look, a way of dealing with others, maybe even aspects such as a walking style or eating habit. For a story to be really memorable, a great plot would be part of the package, but the fact that you can just about pick up the phone and call the main character, would be the string that holds it together.

The main character can be bits and pieces of people you know or imagine. He can be inspired by a person you really know. He can be all imagined. He can grow out of an emotion (what would “anger” look like, if he had to walk down a busy road?) or be created from a theme (who would help me personify “forgiveness against all odds”?)

Adding meat to the bones

Once you know who the main characters are, you can start putting a bit of meat on the bones. The way you do this, will depend totally on who you are as a person.

You might do something visual, such as looking for photographs where aspects of the character are captured, or even making some drawings. You could collect things that symbolise something in the character (a feather that once was beautiful, but now is all gunky, might be a great reminder of your character’s past, and represent his present).

You could look at some audio clues – what music makes the character’s feet move: Opera? Folk? Metal? Pop?

And a sense of smell? What does the character smell like? Roses? Chicken livers? Brake fluid? Or which smells remind the character of someone or something important? Does she like eating toast because that is what she smelled when she woke up each morning and it reminds her of her dead husband? Or does he smoke cherry tobacco because it reminds him of his son who is living in Australia?

Keeping track

One of the reasons why an editor, or at least a fresh eye, is important is the horrible realisation that the colour of your character’s eyes has changed between Chapter 1 and 7. Or even that you sent a minor character on an errand and he simply got lost somewhere in the middle of the book, never to return.

You might want to keep track of some features of your characters. Use whatever works for you. Maybe a small card for each character. Or a table for each character on a sheet of paper. Or an Excel worksheet. But do write down some basics, such as:

  • Name, Surname/Last name, age, sex, etc.
  • Physical features: eye colour, hair colour, body (fat, thin, athletic), etc.
  • How is the character related to other characters?
  • Any quirks or mannerisms? Likes and dislikes? Hobbies?
  • Whatever else you think you might have to remember later on or that would add to the character’s background.

Guidelines

And do remember that anything that anyone writes about how to deal with characters are just guidelines. Find your own way. And sometimes, on a good-good day, a character might surprise you and knock on your door, all fleshed out and dressed to the nines.

Freedom

vier dolfyne

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa. The “New South Africa” is 19 years old. And our home, like all homes with teenagers, echo with a great deal of door-slamming and illicit experimentation.

But hopefully that, too, will pass.

For freedom, even when it is being bent over double and tarred and feathered, is still sweet and full of life, energy and possibilities.

And that is, in teenspeak, “kinda like” writing.

For writing really is the greatest freedom there is. The ability to express what you feel, think or imagine is one of mankind’s greatest gifts.

Which is why it really is important to honour the gift by allowing your writing to reflect all your many facets. Some are easy to show to the world. They are the shiny, well-mannered parts of you, all dressed up in Sunday best and ready to meet the world with a friendly, polite “Great to meet you, Sir/Mam/Ms”.

But some are the dark cousins of the soul. Yes, you are free to hide them deep within corners of denial. But never forget, that you are also free to share them, purge them on white paper/screen.

Are you brave enough?

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