When to write down ideas

When I first started writing, I tried to jot down pretty much every idea that came to mind – characters, bits of dialogue, a story idea, rhyme, you name it. Unfortunately, although I was in the habit of carrying a pen at nearly all times, I rarely kept a notebook handy. So I wound up with piles of receipts or gum wrappers or whatever was available when inspiration struck. Also, my handwriting is nearly unreadable (one of my professors said it resembled Hittite. AFAIK, Hittite has never been deciphered).

So I got more disciplined. I invested in a notebook (small, with a durable plastic cover) that I carried in my purse. However I’d frequently misplace said notebook (often under a pile of papers or books) and so I bought a few more so I’d always have one close by.

You can see where this is going, right?

I’d write down random snippets and then forget which notebook I’d put it in (and as the pages filled up, where in the notebook I’d written it). Worse, half the time I’d nix the idea altogether, delete the scene a particular line had been written for, or decide that no, I was never going to get around to that novel about an alien landing on Earth during the Viking era or that semi-autobiographical story of a person landing in Guyana in the aftermath of the Jonestown massacre. Of the ones that remained, for about half of them I’d waste half an hour puzzling wtf was I thinking at the handful of words that, at the time, I’d been convinced was a stroke of genius. Provided I went back and read any notes at all while I revising any particular story.

Finally, I decided, keeping notes was largely a waste of time. The best ideas seemed to stick in my memory regardless. Only on one single occasion among the dozens of stories I’ve worked on do I regret forgetting to jot down something. It was a Terry Pratchett-type pun for a YA Fantasy I’ve been working on. Oh, well.

That isn’t to say the habit is entirely useless. Nowadays, I try to limit what I bother jotting down to either premises that I could hang an entire story and characters onto (and wouldn’t involve a solid year of research), or plot points I’ve been struggling over on nearly-completed works.

There are also times when I am bombarded with so many ideas I cannot concentrate on the task in front of me, whether it’s a writing project or making sure the bills get paid. On those days I feel like Hwel from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters:

Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time. But most of them miss. Most people go through their lives without being hit by even one.
Some people are even more unfortunate. They get them all.

Writing the lot of them down (even if it never goes further than a notepad document) clears the proverbial clutter in my mind so I can get on with whatever project at hand.

And eventually one of them becomes a blog post on WordPress.

How people sabotage themselves and get in the way of what they (supposedly) want… Part II

In an earlier post, I’d skimmed over the ways people sabotage themselves when trying to find someone to settle down with. The same is often true for one’s career as well, though I’ll save that for some other time.

Now, I know from experience what that’s like, because that was me in my twenties. I went a long stretch were I was constantly single and didn’t want to be. At least, that’s what I’d tell my friends. It’s what I thought I wanted …

Looking back now, I’m not so sure. In all honesty, I don’t think I wanted my life to change, even though I wasn’t that happy with it. New relationships can be stressful. People who are accustomed to being single can find it hard to adjust to taking some near-stranger’s feelings or wishes into account. As a singleton, you don’t worry about if your date is going to get along with your friends, or can’t stand spicy food, or prefers staying in on weeknights.

Many of my currently single friends crave steady companionship, and yet …. how willing are they, really, to make room in their lives for an entirely new person with their own wants, needs, habits and interests?

Life as a would-be writer: How to deal with critiques Part Two

One issue that comes up a lot in critique are the various biases and personal tastes or pet peeves people bring to critiquing. It’s hard to help; we all have our ideas about what makes writing good or bad and while some aspects are objective – proper spelling and grammar for example – others vary from person to person.

This is something to pay close attention to for both the person whose work is being critiqued, and the one doing the critiquing.

For those who have gotten some feedback on their work, it helps to familiarise  yourself with the people providing it. Take a look at what other works they’ve commented on. Do they point out the same problems in other people’s works as well? How knowledgeable are they – are they tailoring each comment to the work, or quoting the same line from whatever how to they last read? Do you think their comments on others’ works are valid and insightful or are you secretly hoping the author will ignore everything they say?

If you’re the one providing a critique for someone else, always try to view the work on its own merits and if there’s something you’re not familiar with, leave it for someone else to point out. For example, if you’re unfamiliar with the Fantasy genre and read mostly romance, be wary that there may be tropes or conventions you’re unfamiliar with. Pointing out repetition or confused sentences can still be useful, but posting ‘wtf is a travois?‘ much less so. For those seeking feedback, how familiar that person is with the genre you write in is another thing to consider.

Humour is particularly tricky area. Me, I like sharp wit and satire with the teeth of a shark. Others prefer slapstick or toilet humour. Just because something isn’t to your tastes doesn’t mean no one else will find it funny, or offensive, or just plain dumb. And some people are more tuned in to broader cultural norms than others. Some people get offended by nearly everything, others by nothing, while other people still have a fairly good idea where the boundaries are that most people would consider acceptable within a given context.

Another controversial area is style. So many people love to proffer advice about cutting out ‘useless’ words, especially adverbs and adjectives. However, it’s often those very same ‘useless’ words that wind up making us sound unique. Fiction isn’t essay writing, nor do all writers strive to be Hemingway. While it’s often good to avoid repetition, it can also be a strong literary technique. One Hemingway was fond of using, for that matter. Some people like stripped down to the bone prose, focusing primarily on what happens next, while others like a little purple and don’t mind stopping to admire a sunset even if it involves the dreaded rosy fingers. When someone nitpicks about their use, it is wise to ask yourself if this was an effect you were deliberately trying to achieve, or were you being unintentionally verbose?

If you do find yourself particularly confused about where you are with your writing, you’re best off finding someone who is a skilled writer who ‘gets’ your work. Not everyone will have equally useful or valid advice to offer, but the most helpful are those who know what you’re trying to achieve and can help you get there.

How people sabotage themselves and get in the way of what they (supposedly) want… Part I

One thing that fascinates me, is a theme I like to explore in fiction: how people sabotage themselves in their relationships and their careers. Many people are their own worst enemies and as I get older, I see the habit crop up in all sorts of different ways.

For example, one friend of mine is nearing middle age and is forever single. He keeps saying he doesn’t want to be, that he’d like to settle down and have kids. He’s certainly eligible enough. His profession pays reasonably well, he’s a decent-looking man who dresses fairly stylishly, owns his own house, never married, keeps active … and yet, he always does things to screw up his chances to settle down.

First, he doesn’t really search that hard. He’s well past the age where being too shy is a reasonable excuse. He knows how to talk to women without being a creep, but is reluctant to chat with anyone he’s not been formally introduced to. Nor does he scope the room when he’s out somewhere. Even when everyone he’s with is engaged in conversation with others, it’s as though he’d rather stare at the walls than glance around to see if anyone’s possibly checking him out.

When he has had a girlfriend, he’s generally decided fairly early in the relationship that she wouldn’t be a suitable long term partner. I won’t reveal any personal details, but with one of the more compatible ones, she was adamant she didn’t want kids. And for him, it was a deal-breaker. Which is perfectly alright, but if something is that important, it’s not fair to string someone else along for a year or two in the meantime. In at least two instances, he stayed for years in relationships he knew weren’t going to go anywhere.

He’s not the only one. A female friend of mine, who’s a little younger and also perennially single, has a similar problem. She goes every week for her ‘girl’s night out’ at the exact same bar. Trying to get her to venture from her scene is nearly impossible. Oh, and she loves her gay boyfriends. Several years ago, a friend of mine had invited her to a party that would have lots of single men, including one named ‘Jason’. She didn’t bother showing up and a couple of years later, she got to meet Jason at a wedding. Jason thought she was cute and she raved that he was absolutely gorgeous. However, he was no longer single.

Now, these are just anecdotes, but each of these friends (along with several more I know and love) follow the same pattern: they can’t stand leaving their comfort zone. They find safety in routine. Ironically, that same personality trait is what helps make a marriage work. In most other parts of their lives, they’re very stable, reliable people. But somewhere along the way, they got stuck. They say they want this part of their life to change, and yet they are unwilling to take action to make it change.

Now, I know from experience what that’s like, because that was me in my twenties. I went a long stretch were I was constantly single and didn’t want to be. At least, that’s what I’d tell my friends. It’s what I thought I wanted …

… to be continued …

I just did one of the worst things a would-be writer could do

I let myself get distracted with a new project before completing any old ones. Bad, bad, bad!

Instead of finishing final edits and finishing the book cover for The Fortune Teller, I wrote four thousand odd words for the opening of a brand new novel. Normally, I don’t bother writing new ideas down. If they’re good enough, they’ll stick in my mind regardless. Well, this new idea stuck like crazy glue, though it’s barely the skeleton of a story. More like a premise. However, it’s also that ever-elusive ‘high concept’ idea that might someday sell. I hope.

As for the cover of my almost-finished project, it’s basically a fairly generic-looking fortune teller, complete with hands hovering around a crystal ball. When I looked up something similar for inspiration in Google images, there were two general versions: one with an opaque, glowing crystal ball like the one I created myself, and one with a glassier looking, more traditional crystal ball. Naturally, I’m now dithering on whether I should try the latter instead. I have a blue marble I photographed, but I’m thinking of getting a clear one from the dollar store or one of those new age shops and trying that instead.

Decisions, decisions… or is that excuses, excuses?

At least I have still been plugging away at something… *sigh*

I think I’m turning into a bear…

Or at least, I’ve been hibernating like one. This has been one cold, nasty winter. Instead of writing and reading as much as I should be or want to be, I’ve been sleeping. The past weekends, I’ve been averaging 15 hours a day. I just have to remind myself that February is almost over. It will get warm again soon. And at least there’s more sun each day.

In addition to two novels I hope to self-publish, I have one where I’m aiming for the more traditional route. I tried one round of query letters, and it wasn’t working, so hopefully this week I’ll get another version written. On top of that, a site called Manuscript Wishlist has one entry that (I hope!) matches my book to a ‘T’.

This week as well, I have to go back to the cover I was working on for the Fortune Teller and do one more read-through of the MS before a final edit.

Good thing it’s only Monday. And hopefully I’ve had enough sleep by now that I can burn the midnight oil a little more.

Hoping to get back into writing after a longish break

I have several manuscripts that seem to be forever almost finished. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been concentrating on one called The Fortune Teller, which I plan to self-publish, and have spent a good chunk of time designing a cover for it.

I used GIMP, which I wasn’t completely familiar with, though it is similar to Photoshop. Thankfully I’ve used that one plenty of times. It’s free to download at http://www.gimp.org and while there were a couple of annoying quirks (mostly to do with floating toolbars that I couldn’t figure out how to re-anchor), it’s an excellent program overall.

There was still a learning curve and it took me a few tries to settle on one particular photo, testing several different backgrounds and so on. After several substantial revisions, I have to admit that the first one was horrible. I knew it was at the time, which was what prompted me to start again from scratch. While the adage goes, You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, sales numbers say otherwise. Mine probably won’t be perfect, but so long as it doesn’t look amateur, I should be okay. I do have an art background and some in design, and a couple of friends who are design professionals who’ve given me some great tips.

The cover is nearly done, and I just finished yet one more revision after getting some feedback from a critique site. Now I’m letting it sit while I make a final version of the cover, making sure it adheres to the various technical standards for Smashwords and Kindle. After that, one more run-through in the novel to make any last story changes (like changing one character’s age a little) and check for any inconsistencies, it should be ready for a final, line-by-line edit.

After that (oh, and uploading and trying to get the novel ‘out there’), I will finally be able to get back to what I really love doing most. Working on another story!