Helpful hints for writing… or not…

This is an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago for my Moving Dragon Writes blog, http://www.somersetwriters.wordpress.com

Like most people who  do something – in my case writing, I try and do all I can to do it better… mostly it is just practice, practice, practice (Gary Player said ‘Yes, I’m a lucky golfer, but do you know, the more I practice, the luckier I get!‘) I also read a lot about other writers, especially those I admire and those who are considered masters – what they write, and what they write about writing. There are many helpful hints, but a lot of the hints are things I do already. There are also suggestions (and sometimes more forcefully, instructions, or even commands) which just do not work for me – and I am sure this is true for most people. My way of writing isn’t the same as anybody else’s… I mentioned several things recently which some writers dictate others should do:

  • always carry a note-book… no, it just doesn’t work for me; I forget to use it, or I can’t read what I have written, or having deciphered it can’t imagine why I wrote it, or the brilliant idea, like the poem you think of in the night, is actually just rubbish
  • plan your story from start to finish, rough out the chapters, do a timeline, do an autobiography for your characters… no this really does not work for me; my mind isn’t like that, I would find it boring, things change as I write – just as I change in life as I learn and experience different things – a person I meet for the first time might seem a completely different person when I get to know them better
  • have a routine… stop right there! No! I hate routine!

In fact I think I will stop there…

You see what I have learned through working hard at my writing and writing every day and keeping going even through the boring bits and finding inspiration in all sorts of strange places and writing in my head when I can’t write because I’m doing something else… What I have learned is everyone writes in their own way. If I could ask ten of the writers I most admire how they write and how they write so well and what advice  they would give, I bet every single one would be different.

Having said that… there are some interesting writing ‘tips’ here:

https://thoughtcatalog.com/cody-delistraty/2013/09/21-harsh-but-eye-opening-writing-tips-from-great-authors/

… and here are a few from the list I like:

  • You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. – Jack London
  • There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. – W. Somerset Maugham
  • Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. – Lev Grossman

Another thing I really do find valuable, is criticism. If I agree with it I can change whatever it was. If I don’t agree with it I have to work out why I don’t agree with it, defend what I have done, then ponder on why the criticism was made. An example is, a friend criticised one of early stories saying there was too much dialogue; I disagreed but looked back at those passages in my book. What my characters said was the conversation I had overheard in my imagination, a very real and vivid conversation, and I had noted it all down. However – however ‘real’ that conversation was, do my readers actually have to ‘hear’ all of it? So although I disagreed with my friend, I took serious notice of her comments and have ‘adjusted’ my characters’ conversations ever since.

Here is a link to me e-books and my latest paperback, ‘Radwinter’:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_10?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden&sprefix=lois+elsde%2Caps%2C134&crid=QQZS65QVJ72L

 

Here’s one I wrote earlier

A little glimpse into my early writing…

When I was in my twenties I wrote a lot of  short stories and poems although I had started a novel called ‘The Man in the Sun’… a  family saga I think!

There was a women’s magazine called Honey, and I was lucky enough to win a short story competition and then have several other stories published too! Here is one I wrote while I was working at Manchester Airport; on night shift there were all sorts of odd people about, working there or just being there… so this is based on what I observed and what my imagination did with it!

© Lois Elsden 2017

Tracking

 

I’ve been writing about writing over the last couple of weeks – yes, I know I’ve been writing about writing ever since I first write this blog, but I’ve been thinking about planning and target setting. Some writers – maybe many writers, plan their story in the most minute detail, writing biographies and back stories for their characters as well as family  histories and descriptions (even details which don’t appear in the actual finished work) Some writers have time-lines, and plot lines, and wall maps which look like a map of London underground, and do huge amounts of research about every aspect of the history and geography of the locations… Sometimes it takes a year or so before they are even ready to write!

I confess, I don’t plan… I have ideas… I have thoughts… I may even have some half-started pieces, or left over pieces from other stories. I do end up with all the other things, biographies, back-stories, timelines – except mainly they are in my head. In Radwinter, because unexpectedly it became a series, I do have actual written down family trees, but that’s mainly because they are genealogical mysteries!

Target setting… I generally have a vague idea these days about when a story might be finished, and from then a similarly vague idea of when it might be published, but with one exception, I don’t set myself a target to complete certain parts, or write a certain amount. The one exception is the National Novel Writing Month, an annual on-line challenge to write 50,00 words of a novel in one month. I have done it for the past four years, and completed it, but I have to admit last year was a struggle… but I did finish!

In the past, except for NaNoWriMo, I haven’t set myself a set number of words to write in a day, week, month etc. It hasn’t seemed necessary. However, just at the moment I have so many writing projects, that I confess, I am losing momentum with my latest novel, another Radwinter story, probably to be called ‘Saltpans’.

Then, two things happened… one of my favourite writers who I follow on Twitter, posts a daily word count. I suspect there are several reasons, none of which are to be boastful or brag; I guess it’s a way of motivating himself to write, knowing he’s going to be sharing the results, good or bad, and also to give himself a sense of achievement, and also to set himself a target… yes, target setting.

When I first started teaching, learning to be a teacher, I had to write lesson plans which might be why I so hate planning now. Aims, objectives, method (or some other word) what actually happened (can’t remember the word we used then) future development (or something like that. Our lesson plans were really simple, and as an aid to teaching for a learner, it was quite useful (I never thought I would ever say that!!) When I was a proper teacher, I still planned, of course I did, but my written notes were just jottings of what I was going to do. I knew what my aim and my objective was, it was obvious, that was why I was teaching it! All was well in the world of teaching (sort of) for many,many years, until suddenly I was told to start planning my lessons ‘properly’ again. I have to say I rebelled big time – I became a very naughty teacher (as opposed to a naughty student)

… but this is all off the point – except that detailed planning really puts me off and shuts down inspiration and spontaneity – and actually has the negative effect of making me feel anxious and irritated!

The second thing that happened was that I was cruising round the NaNoWriMo site as I often do, seeing what’s new:

http://nanowrimo.org

… and I came across a ‘tracker’ device. It is not tied to the November challenge, or any of the other activities (writing camps for example) it is just a thing which allows you to set a target of however many words in however many days/week/months, you set the final date.Well, I thought to myself, well this is light – why don’t I have a go? So I set myself a two month target to try to write eight hundred, 800, words a day.

I mentioned last Tuesday that I was going to try and have a set word target, and that was before I discovered the NaNo goal tracker… so last Tuesday I started… and I am pleased to say it’s worked really well! I’m not sure I will do it for everything I write but the beauty of it is it’s just anonymous words not attached to any complete thing – so I could do a track for two weeks to finish off a particular part of something for example. The word count is averaged out – so if I don’t manage one day, if I’ve banked enough words from another day, I am still on target!

It’s like going to a fitness camp where you build up your writing muscles and stamina! So in seven days I wrote 6,350 words, which works out at just over 900 a day!!! Wow! I am so impressed with myself – and so pleased with getting back into the rhythm of writing!

By the way… it would be interesting to see how many words I write here every day!!

Here is a link to my e-books and my recently published paperback, Radwinter:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden

… and if you want to follow me on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/LOCOIMLOCO

Don’t confuse your reader!

As you can imagine, as well as doing a lot of writing (I’ve actually set myself a 800 word a day target for the next six weeks – not counting what I write here!) I do a lot of reading, and I do a lot reading about writing. It was a mixture of these things which, on the suggestion of my fellow blogger from my other blog, the Moving Dragon, that I had a look at a site which runs a ninety day challenge – to write eighty-five thousand words (yes 85,000)

The site which is called 85k90.com, has lots of interesting and helpful articles and I came across one which really rang a bell with my writing teaching – from when I was a teacher to now when I lead several writing groups. It’s all about not confusing your readers – and in actual fact they are the most simple and obvious points – simple and obvious but very easy to forget!

Here are the five by Wendy Janes:

  1. Ensure names and descriptions of characters are consistent
  2. Differentiate your characters
  3. Handle time carefully
  4. Yes, write beautiful prose, but don’t show off your vocabulary
  5. Steer clear of using drama for the sake of drama

Simple aren’t they? Because I’ve been writing just about all my life, from almost as soon as I could hold a pencil, I’ve learned these lessons by making mistakes on all these tips. Now I really try to make sure I don’t create muddle with names – however, in my genealogical mysteries, because my main character is dealing with family history sometimes there is a repeat of names – in my fiction as in real life family trees. I do that deliberately and carefully – and sometimes there is a muddle – but that is part of the story and I very clearly (I hope) make sure the reader knows it’s an intended muddle! I also write things down in old diaries to keep track of the dates of when things happen in my stories – I want events to be sequential and to be possible!

I guess my ultimate challenge in trying not to confuse the reader with characters was my latest Thomas Radwinter mystery, ‘Earthquake‘, where there were thirteen Chinese girls at a little boarding school in the 1930’s, one of them was murdered and the other twelve were all suspects! Twelve teenage girls!! I had to work really hard to make sure my readers didn’t get in a muddle (I got a bit in a muddle at times myself, I have to say!

When I read point number four, I almost blushed… with a little embarrassment. Last year I published my e-book ‘Lucky Portbraddon‘; it was something I had written quite a while ago but I wanted to get it off my mental writing shelf and out into the world. I set to editing it, having not looked at it for about seven years… oh dear… When I wrote it I had been trying to write a literary book… some of what I had written was actually very good, but it just felt unnatural and not my style, and well… pretentious to be honest! I went through with a mighty editing scythe and whipped out all the pompous, ‘aren’t I clever, aren’t I a wonderful writer‘ bits. I slimmed it down by more than a third cutting out ‘the beautiful prose’ which was just ‘showing off’ my vocabulary. It was a lesson learned, I can tell you!

Here is a link to the article which is very appropriately entitled, ‘Avoid Confusing Your Readers’!

https://85k90.com/five-simple-editing-tips/

… and here is a link to the challenge site:

https://85k90.com/

…and here is a link to my slimmed down ‘Lucky Portbraddon’:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/LUCKY-PORTBRADDON-LOIS-ELSDEN-ebook/dp/B01LWTVURP/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1502443608&sr=8-3&keywords=lois+elsden

… and my twelve suspect 1930’s murder mystery:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/EARTHQUAKE-RADWINTER-Book-LOIS-ELSDEN-ebook/dp/B06Y18H8JR/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1502444271&sr=8-2&keywords=lois+elsden

… and here is a link to our other Moving Dragon blog:

https://somersetwriters.wordpress.com

Follow him! 

I started to write a piece yesterday, but veered off on a completely different tack. I was going to write about the quote from Ray Bradbury, ‘First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him! ‘ but I got diverted by the word ‘hero’:

…Some of my heroes are actually heroines, and I prefer to think of them as main characters – calling them heroes or heroines subliminally suggests they are heroic, whereas actually, they are just ordinary.

https://loiselden.com/2017/08/08/what-your-hero-wants/

So today I’ll write what I was going to do yesterday! What happened then is also an example of what I’m going to write about, that when I’m writing the hero/story/blog/article seem to have its own life and take off where it wants, rather than where I anticipated. This thought also reminds of something I wrote the day before, about the impossibility of planning for me – planning what I write that is!

Let me get back to the quote, ‘find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!’ My inspiration for writing something nearly always starts with character. In some cases it’s me carrying on my childhood habit of making up adventures in my head for me – as my own life, like most people’s is quite ordinary. In other stories it’s me finding a character – a stranger I’ve observed, a person who has found celebrity in some way (singer, athlete, TV chef, actor etc) and creating a character for them with a different name (and sometimes a different nationality or even gender) Then maybe I create or set up a dilemma they have to face, or a difficulty they have to overcome – and I begin to write the story of my made-up person.

Sometimes my stories start with the dilemma, difficulty or challenge – for example someone being stalked, the break-down of a marriage, moving house, a partner’s infidelity, the death of someone close, unhappiness, new love… There might be a starter theme, but then as I write, new characters bob up, my lead characters (not heroes) seem to take on their own personality and begin to go in directions I hadn’t anticipated, or make decisions I hadn’t wanted them to make, or do things I really hadn’t expected them to do… in this I am doing as Bradbury advises – I’m following my characters!

I know some writer have ‘maps’ which they follow religiously… I just do as I do in real life when I’m in a new place, I just wander around and see what happens!

I think this is particularly strong in my Radwinter series – my character Thomas Radwinter has taken over (and maybe there is a story in that scenario too – the writer dominated and manipulated by her/his people)

Here is a link to my Radwinter e-books, and my recently published paperback:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/RADWINTER-5-Book-Series/dp/B072HTG366/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1502280047&sr=8-4&keywords=lois+elsden

… and my other e-books:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_3_6?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden&sprefix=lois+e%2Caps%2C138&crid=21MJXTB4G1LH2

 

What your hero wants

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him! said Ray Bradbury… When I read this I couldn’t help but think this is what happens when I write. Some of my heroes are actually heroines, and I prefer to think of them as main characters – calling them heroes or heroines subliminally suggests they are heroic, whereas actually, they are just ordinary.

One of my characters was described as a hero – but it was not the way she wanted to be described and it became an intolerable burden to her – her story appeared in the local and national news, and headlines screamed

MAN SHOT IN BANK GRAB
POLICE SHOOT ARMED ROBBER
WOMAN HELD HOSTAGE BY GUNMAN
WOMAN SAVES MOTHER FROM HOSTAGE ORDEAL

This character is Rosa Czekov, and a local journalist interviews her about her ordeal:

I  WASN’T BRAVE, ROSA CZEKOV TELLS MAISIE BAKER

I expect most of us wonder how we would react when we see news of extraordinary acts of bravery and courage by ordinary people. Certainly I did when the news broke about the woman who had offered herself as a hostage in place of a young mother during a bungled bank raid.  Rosa Czekov is the same age as I am; she’s the sort of person I went to school with, from a happy middle-class back ground, one sister, and happily married to Luka. At the time that Enoch and Ira Chambers were planning to hold up a small branch of their local bank, Rosa was running her own art gallery in Easthope.

I asked Rosa about that time, before her name became synonymous with random acts of courage. She looked slightly perplexed; she raised her eye-brows, rubbed her hand through her close cropped dark hair and gazed at me with solemn grey eyes.

“Were you different then?” I asked her.

“I suppose I must have been,” she answered with a rueful grin, but I detected a certain sadness hidden in her throw-away admission. “My life was very ordinary, as it is again now.”

“Although you no longer have the gallery.”

“Well, no,” she looked thoughtful. “But things change anyway.”

Things… Things changed for Rosa Czekov one cold November day. She was standing patiently in a queue at the small branch of Strand Penny Bank, waiting with half a dozen others while the clerk coped single-handed as his manager wrestled with a tap which wouldn’t turn off in the ladies toilet. Behind Rosa stood Charlotte Hyam and her small grizzling daughter Poppy.

Suddenly two brothers, Enoch and Ira Chambers burst into the bank, scarves round their faces, baseball caps pulled low.

I asked Rosa what happened next. She gave an imperceptible sigh, as if weary of the repetition.

Ira went to the counter while Enoch stood behind them, shouting at them to keep still, shut up, not move.

“He kept yelling he had a gun,” Rosa told me and momentarily something flickered in her expression.

Suddenly, 78-year-old Mervin Holt lashed out at Ira with his walking stick, felling him with one blow. There was a terrific explosion as Enoch fired into the ceiling and everyone screamed and crouched on the floor. Enoch grabbed Charlotte Hyam and stood with the gun poked up under her chin.

“She was leaning back against him, trying to get her face away from the gun,” Rosa said calmly. “Her coat opened and I could see she was pregnant. All the time her child was clinging to her legs, squealing with fear.”

But what happened next is where I begin to wonder what I would have done. Would I have stayed crouched on the floor with the half-dozen others?  Would I have been weeping and wetting myself with fear? Probably.

Rosa stood up slowly and calmly and explained to Enoch that she would be a better hostage than Charlotte. She was a woman but she had no child, the baby clinging to its mother’s legs would be a hindrance rather than an advantage.

“Take me,” she said.

The clerk had hit the panic button as soon as the guns had appeared. The manager, in the back had phoned the police and even as the gunshot rang out, people were being cleared away from outside the bank. As Rosa was talking quietly and calmly to Enoch Chambers, armed police were racing into the centre of Strand.

“But what you did must have taken enormous courage?” I asked.

Rosa shrugged slightly, as if it was a mystery to herself.

“I didn’t think,” she said after a moment. “I didn’t have some internal debate as to whether I should or shouldn’t. The child was screaming; the man was almost hysterical. I just stood up and – well, you know.”

Her eyes became slightly unfocused as she lived those moments again. Her husband Luka, tall, darkening blond and with film star good looks put a tray of coffee between us.

“Bloody daft,” he said with a grin. But there was a grimness in his eye which told of a different emotion.

“What happened next must have been…” and then I didn’t know what to say. How could I put into words what Rosa had experienced after that?

Enoch Chambers had dragged her out of the door of the bank, one arm round her waist, the other hand holding the gun jammed against her throat. She could feel his arm trembling; she could feel his heart pounding against her as he held her tightly to him. He shouted a dozen incoherent demands alleging he had already shot someone inside the bank. His brother Ira, still unconscious, was being tied up with garden twine by the ever resourceful Mervin Holt.

A negotiator began a dialogue.

I probed gently; how did she feel, what was going through her mind, what was she thinking of – or whom? She parried my questions with shrugs and non-committal half-comments.

And then something happened.

“I’m going to kill her!” Enoch Chambers had yelled and his elbow lifted and then Rosa was covered in blood as Enoch was killed with a single shot from a marksman.

“I don’t understand it,” said Luka suddenly. “You could have been killed,” he said almost angrily.

“But I wasn’t, my darling,” Rosa answered gently, and took his hand. I sensed that what had happened to Rosa had as deeply affected her husband. I asked them if this was so.

“Of course it affected us,” said Luka, putting his arms round her, grinning at me flirtatiously. “It affected us then; we’re alright now.”

Later as we walked round their garden I couldn’t shake off the memory of the photos in the papers from that time. Rosa standing painted with a man’s blood, her arms held out in a gesture of entreaty to the marksman standing in front of her, the gun still held to his shoulder.

I asked Rosa again why she had done it, what had given her the strength? Was she religious? No, not at all.  Was she always brave, did she like risk-taking?

“I wasn’t taking a risk,” she said as if puzzled. “It wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know what prompted me. Sense, I suppose, common sense and perhaps a lack of imagination.”

Was that what her modesty really was, a lack of imagination? I don’t think so. I think if each of us tried to emulate Rosa Czekov in some small way, some small act of bravery, then the world would indeed be a happier and safer place.

If you want to read what happened to Rosa later, and find out who began to stalk her, then here’s a link to ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’:

Salt

Salt, or sodium chloride is a mineral which we need to survive, and for most people in the modern western world our diet has more than enough – in fact sometimes too much salt! It’s not just that we add it to food we cook and food we eat, it is present in a lot of food which we buy, sometimes in surprising amounts in surprising food. We might expect it in savoury foods, but it’s also in a lot of sweet foods, and also in products we might not consider as food – toothpaste, medicines and pain killers.

But where does salt come from? Salt mines and the sea… I have been researching salt production from sea water because it features in my next novel, possibly called ‘Saltpans’ – which gives a big idea! From Roman times, if not even earlier, people obtained salt from the sea; in hot countries sea water was held in vast shallow lagoons which would evaporate leaving crystals of salt – it has been done for millennia and it is still done today. However, in our cooler climes, it was necessary to evaporate the water from the sea with human intervention. Sea water was contained in bucket pots, and some evaporation would occur, but then the salty liquid was pumped – sometimes using windmills, into salt pans, vast five meter square iron containers, the saltpans, which were heated, sometimes by coal, sometimes by wood, sometimes by charcoal to evaporate the remaining liquid. This as you can imagine put the pans under some stress as the salt was corrosive.

So salt is used in and on food, as a flavouring and as a preservative, but it has many other uses:

  • tanning
  • medicine
  • chemical production
  • the chlor-alkali industry
  • the soda industry
  • gas and oil exploration and drilling
  • textiles and dying
  • processing metals
  • paper manufacture
  • white rubber manufacture
  • soil additive
  • de-icer for roads
  • salting food
  • in the food industry in many, many ways
  • fire fighting
  • household cleaner
  • windows and prisms
  • … and no doubt much, much more!

It is an amazing product, and it’s no wonder the Romans used it in part payment of their soldiers. I will be sharing more on salt, as I learn more – and I hope to give you peeps into my new book, and what my character Thomas Radwinter discovers about salt production in his little town.

Here is a link to my other books featuring Thomas: