Friday, 16 May 2014

Levelling up

I like video games.
I play them fairly often and I have done for years, my current favourite is the Uncharted trilogy which combines great story with well developed characters and has lots of shooty, climby type action to keep me entertained.
The thing I've noticed about all video games is that in order to complete them you have to level up. Games have different ways to help you with this, some start off with tutorial levels to show you exactly how to control and use the game, all of them tend to start off easy and gradually get harder and most will have different difficulty settings such as: Easy, medium, hard or beginner, advanced and expert.

The reason I mention all this is that there are a fair few similarities here to writing. In order to get better and have a chance of getting published you have to constantly improve or level up.
The easiest way in both gaming and writing is to practice.  The more you play/write the better you get. So you put in the hours and the work. You read books or internet articles on how to improve/succeed.

But that's not always enough.
It can take us a fair way, maybe move us from beginner to advanced but most of us need more help to really improve.
To advance to the next level may take outside imput. Playing against other people, judging your work against someone else's, asking for advice - the basics of a crit group, or one to one feedback from an agent or editor at a conference.

I felt as if I'd done all of these things for the last couple of years - I'd written and edited three books, I'd read books on writing, I'd had feedback from agents and publishers, I'd been to events and conferences, I'd joined a crit group...
I had levelled up a fair amount but still, when I looked at my current w.i.p I felt that there was something missing, that despite it holding together as a book with a decent plot and interesting characters it wasn't as good as it could be.

I could recognise this because of everything I'd learned but as yet I hadn't learned enough to know how to make it better. Not really better, not the better that will transform it from a decent bit of work to something damn good.

So at the end of last year I got in touch with the Golden Egg Academy  run by Imogen Cooper and I asked for help. I knew I needed an expert eye and I hoped they might be able to push me to the next level.

I saw Imogen in January of this year and left that meeting feeling like I was finally on the right track. Imogen's homework was for me to read "Into the Woods" by John Yorke and I can't thank her enough for recommending it.

It's not a book I would have picked up for myself but reading it has made such a difference to my understanding of plot and structure. What I found fascinating about it was that he uses plots from popular films to illustrate his points and there were light bulbs going off everywhere as I read!

The next bit of homework was to write my bookmap, a patented device that Imogen uses with all her writers that forces you to consider everything about your book in detail and in relation to everything else. It made me realise how little I really knew about some of my characters so I spent ages working out their history and character and this sparked off new ideas and scenarios. I finally felt as though my book was coming alive, the world, the people, it was all finally, really, there.

It felt as if I'd been pushed up several levels already. It was a heady rush of exultation, this was what I wanted, this new understanding and already I could see huge areas in my work that could do with improvement

More excitement came when I was offered the chance to be mentored by Maurice Lyon and when he read my m.s he sent me comments and we met to discuss in March.  Time sped by as we talked and discussed everything about my book in minute detail. I told him my ideas and he helped me fine tune what I needed to achieve and when he left I felt so motivated and more importantly even, I felt as if I had a clear idea of what I had to do now.

The last couple of months have involved some of the most enjoyable editing ever. Enjoyable because I knew what I needed to achieve and because all those months of preparation had given me the tools I needed. And of course I now had a mentor I could ask for advice if I got stuck, knowing that made it even easier to keep editing.

So the reason I've been so absent from this blog is because my brain has been exploding, it feels that since joining Golden Egg I've managed to move up several levels and although I may still be a fair way from the very top I think I may now have the tools to get up there one day.

First though I just need to scale a couple of walls, leap across a chasm and take out the baddie with my sniper rifle...

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Where's my motivation?

 Last week I was reading a book. An adult book (for a change!) by an author I know and love. It was a good book, intriguing with an interesting premise but about a third of the way through I got annoyed. The more I read the more annoyed I became until I was reading the book in a fairly angry manner. Cue grinding of teeth and agitated page turning.

 The reason?


 In my opinion the motivation for the main character to behave in a certain way was not reasonable. As the book continued and the protagonist carried on using this rather flimsy reason for their increasingly strange behaviour I lost my belief, my sympathy and my patience.
 I did finish the book, instead of throwing it out the window, because it was in part a mystery and I wanted to know what happened. But I was not happy.

 I felt let down.

 It seemed to me that the author needed a reason for their protagonist to behave in a fairly stupid, dangerous way in order to furnish the plot but the motivation she'd settled on was not good enough. No one would behave in such a way for such a reason. It was ludicrous. Ludicrous!

 While grumbling under my breath the writer part of my brain switched on and I started thinking about my own work. Were my characters properly motivated? Or was I simply pushing them into certain behaviour I needed for my plot?

 Luckily at this point I had some input from an editor who flagged up a particular character in my m.s. I looked up my notes and saw that I had written nothing about this person despite their relative importance to the story. Instead I'd simply slipped them into a standard role without even knowing in my own head who they really were and why they would behave like that. This was bad.

 I went away and thought about it. About all my characters in fact and I started imagining little cut scenes for them from their past. They became very quickly more well rounded because I understood them more. I worked out their relationships with each other, the dramas that had shaped them. Of course I don't need to put all this backstory into my m.s but I need to know it because plot comes from character.

 I now feel that my story will become stronger and richer with this added knowledge, the characters will live and breathe and behave the way they're supposed to, NOT just because it's the way I want them to. This also resulted in a few eureka moments, created by my new understanding, so much so that I'm quite excited about sitting down to my next draft.

 Of course then I started wondering why I hadn't just done the character analysis before I started writing, so that all that deeper understanding was already present in my first draft.  But on reflection I think the understanding in many ways COMES from writing the first and second drafts.

Anyway, it was a useful lesson to me. Readers will not accept flimsy reasons. They need to feel the motivation for behaviour is reasonable, compelling even. Otherwise they can get quite cross and lose belief in your whole book and that as I have seen first hand is not the response we want.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Stock Taking

So here we are. New Year. January 2014.  A good time to take stock of things, to consider what we learned in the past year and how that can help us in the new one.

 I'm going to go back a bit further though, just to remind myself of a few important truths.

Four Years Ago...

I was in pain every day. Practically housebound and surviving on an ever increasing amount of painkillers. A disc in my lower back had prolapsed and was pressing on my nerve causing every movement to be agony. After two years of living like this, with ever worsening episodes of pain I was losing the will to live. Depressed, worried and miserable, only my family and friends kept me sane. Them and the little notebook in which I was writing a silly story for my son.
I remember clearly thinking that if only the pain would go away I'd never ask for anything again. I would appreciate every pain free second of my life. Do all the things I wanted to. Be happy all the time as long as the pain would just go away...

The pain did go away. Finally. After an operation on my spine to remove the offending piece of disc. The relief was almost instantaneous but having been weakened for so long it took me about six months to fully recover.

Three Years Ago...

I was fit and healthy. I was happy. I started writing in earnest. I joined scbwi. I went to events. I met new people. I started planning a trip across America with my family.

Two Years Ago...

I started a crit group and met some lovely writers who helped me with my work.
I got lucky with my first book. people liked it. Agents liked it. I even met one who gave me detailed notes on how to improve it.
I went on my amazing month long trip and saw the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Florida and New York. I went white water rafting and trekking and all the things I thought I might never do again.

Then the agent turned my revised book down. It was a huge blow but I learned a great deal from that experience so I brushed myself down and carried on writing. Somehow though I could feel a desperation leaking into my life. And I had all this angst inside me. I was angry that I'd wasted so much of my life NOT writing.  It seemed hugely important that I got an agent and a book deal as fast as I could. ...
And I  forgot how very lucky I was.

One Year Ago...

 I was still writing, still going to events, still meeting with my crit group but the angst was easing. The desperation was gone. I was calm. It was a wonderful feeling. And before I got to the end of my third book I was overwhelmed with an urge to begin my fourth.
And this book has been a true pleasure to write. A joy from start to finish. It pretty much just flowed from my head onto the screen with the minimum of fuss. It made me wonder if I'd been too busy forcing my stories onto the page in my headlong rush to publication and that was why they'd been so much more difficult to write.
 Perhaps it was a mixture of relaxing into my writing AND the experience I'd gained over the previous years? I now knew so much more about the mechanics of plot and character, I understood how to plan and layer my story and my brain was doing all that WHILE I was enjoying the process of writing.
Perhaps I just got lucky. Either way  I finished the second draft at the end of the 2013.


 I don't know what this year will bring. I could hope for agents and book deals but they may still be very far away and that's fine.
 I may have to  spend this year reading (and writing) about everyone else's success stories while I'm once again facing rejections and failure.
 What is most important to me  though, is that I don't let those things bring me down. That I don't forget again how very lucky I really am simply to be living my life every day without pain. How fortunate I am even to be able to spend time doing what I love. And how blessed I feel to have met so many wonderful people in the process.