February 25, 2010

Sample: Bavarian Road Trip - part 2

Part two of my failed anecdotal short story. Part 3 and commentary to come, on why this doesn't work and what I could do to improve it, and why I won't work on this any more. The formatting might be screwed so apologies for that.


Oktoberfest resembled a theme park designed by Hell. The gaudy and the obscene adorned the fairground rides in pretence of Bavarian authenticity, where coloured lights flash neon and people wear lederhosen in public. A multitude of drunk Italians and Americans invaded the converted wastelands, where unconscious bodies already lay in the mud besides the tacky souvenir stalls.
People packed themselves into tents in the late morning with a sole purpose – to drink a magnum of beer and intoxicate themselves into oblivion. The tents were full and once they were full no one goes in, only a few come out. Those who do come out only do so in order to throw up.
“There's no point, we got here too late.” Jens said, he slurred his words in exhaustion, unenthusiastic to go drinking.
“This queue isn't moving.” Ivan said. “See that moron in the feathered cap? I saw him here about half an hour ago when we tried that tent over there. He hasn't budged an inch. So what do we do then. We are here in Munich, in Oktoberfest and we can't get a fucking beer.”
“What about that one.” I pointed to a small tent in front of us. The queue moved slowly. “They are letting people in, and people are coming out too.”
“That's the lunch tent. They serve food there.” Jens said.
“Do they serve beer?” I said.
“Yes, but you have to eat food to go in there.”
“Well I'm starved, I could eat something. Hey it's better then nothing, no? We can down a few litres of beer along with lunch.”
The boys looked at each other, each shrugged in turn and gave a communal nod. We left the stagnant queue to cross the mud to join the another. Our plan - to drink vast quantities of beer under the pretense of eating food

All the orphaned drinkers came here looking for adoption. True to German efficiency, they vacuum packed us into neat lines onto wooden pews inside this caricature of a tavern decorated with kinder surprise ornaments. The loud multilingual shouting - as alcoholic tourists asserted themselves after their fifth breakfast beer - made it hard to converse at a standard volume. The menu offered meat, mostly pork, including five different types of sausages. A buxom waitress with yellow pigtails came to our table
“Vier mass.” Jens said.
The waitress came back, carrying a dozen litres of beer with her strong, meaty arms and the tray of her ample breasts. I wonder if it is a pre-requisite for Oktoberfest waitresses to possess a DD cup or up?
I picked up the giant mug and I felt small and insignificant - it was heavy. The golden liquid swished inside the cup as I raised my arm and my muscles clenched to our toast. Each glass emitted a musical chime when we knocked them together. My first Oktoberfest beer.
“Here's to getting utterly trashed.” Ivan said, when we toasted.
“I'll toast to that.” I said.
Our food arrived and we all had sausages; the waitress threw down our weapons for attack missing the set belonging Yuri. He grabbed the frauline by the arm and she turned. Yuri blushed. He panicked when he remembered he didn't know any German. He lifted his hand and mimed the action of cutting a steak, his face contorted into accompanying expressions. His hands flapped about and his mouth stifled cries. The waitress knotted her brows deciphering Yuri's overacted charade, until Jens tapped her on the arm. He explained in German, she looked back at Yuri's acting once more and gave an awkward nod to Jens. She finally brought Yuri the knife and fork he danced for.
The boys drank gulps of beer more generously; advocating the slow food movement as they ate slowly. The pace of ordered beers became sped up as they got through three mass each by the end of lunchtime. I nursed the same mug for the hour we ate. When the forks were placed in the finished position, the waitress took our plates, our money and ushered us to the door. Staying there and drinking was obviously not an option. With only two bites left Jens cordially ordered me another beer which I had to down in a swig as soon as I finished my food. My stomach expanded and contracted from the shock. I felt tipsy and nauseous when we emerged in Oompa land.

“So what now?” Ivan said. “We can't stop here. Lets go on a ride.”
“Are you high? I'll throw up if we go somewhere like that.” I said.
“We could go into Munich.” Jens said. “There are lots of bars there equipped to deal with people from Oktoberfest. We can drink beer and sight see too.”
“Is it far?” Ivan moaned. “I want a beer at least to last us the walk.”
“Half an hour without alcohol will not kill you Ivan.” I said.
Leaving the grounds did not admit defeat for we had more adventures to attend to. I saw the city in a haze. It was only lunchtime and I already staggered. A chaos expelled and inhaled by the festival included the sights of unconscious tourists in Bavarian attire; Japanese taking photographic documentation of the strange and the mundane and Italians who shouted insults with vivid hand movements. I expected the crowds to thin out the closer we approached the city centre, but we found other Oktoberfest outcasts looking for a home to drink in.
The mist of the alpine humidity trapped inside the city made the November air cold and damp. Jens and Ivan moved with non-linear motion down the street. I grabbed onto the railings, leaned on the walls or whatever object I found to support my left. Yuri maintained a sober line while Ivan still held onto his wit and argued constantly.
Munich is a beautiful city, it is very grand, traditional and catholic. The centre consists of stone churches and cathedrals, but it was the cleanliness of Munich that left a lasting impression. Germany is tidy - Darmstadt and Frankfurt - the cities I know intimately are well cared for, yet I found them shabby in comparison to Munich. Even in the face of it's mass alcoholic tourism Munich retained the vibe of a city proud of its personal hygiene. The imposing towers of Fraukirche dominated the skyline with its rotund, green topped phallic-mammary towers – a hermaphrodite morph of the masculine and feminine.
“Hey know what would be fun?” Ivan said. “Look at that fountain?”
“What about it?” I said.
“It has stepping stones.” he grinned.
“You are kidding me.” Jens said. His voice held a tinge of slur set against a serious background.
Ivan still grinned. “Jens when are you going to stop being such a pussy?” he said. He walked on over to the fountain, and started hopping the little stone ornaments in the water. Jens rolled his eyes accompanying the disapproving locals who gaped at Ivan. Yuri yipped and ran in after Ivan, his natural clumsiness caused him to lose his balance and he fell into the water. I felt a grin cross my face. The fun tempted me and I moved forward.
“Oh no, not you too Jessie.” Jens groaned.
“Live a little Jens.” I said. I went after the Russian frogs hopping on stone lily-pads. No one stopped us. Perhaps during Oktoberfest the Muncheners tolerate anything short of vandalism, violence or litter. The many drunks that walked past us cheered on in solidarity.
“Come on.” Jens called after us. “If we don't go now we won't even get into a bar. The fountain will be there later.”
The three of us looked at each other for a response, Jens did have a good point, with the Russian indecisiveness I led us out of the fountain; Jens grumbled with both his eyes and arms crossed. Yuri tripped again on a stepping stone, soaking his trousers. Ivan came back with a hop.
“So lets get more booze then shall we.” Ivan grinned. Jens sighed tutting, he pointed a digit towards the main square marking the route to follow.

February 24, 2010

Sample: A Bavarian Road Trip - part 1

I've debated with myself whether to post any of my own work here, but anything that shows promise and I want to publish someday is a no no to post online for a blog, and anything crap is well... crap. This story is basically a fictionalised anecdote about Oktoberfest, which I used essentially as a medium to experiment on editing and style. As a short story it doesn't work; it's pretty much biographical - it runs more or less the same way as events did in real life. With some tightening up and trying to wrap up some kind of theme in it might make it work... but truth be told is I have many other projects I am working, so bye bye. Unfortunately, this means I am only going to post my worst stuff on here... so please try not to judge too harshly, but hope there is something here which can be enjoyed :)

I'll probably write a full commentary after posting the full story about why it doesn't work, and what does (in my opinion). The format comes out a bit screwed on here, so my apologies.


I woke up with my stomach in the air. The car drove over a bump in the road;
its insides shook and banged. I squinted out the window and at 80km/h the
rocky landscape of pine clad hills shrouded in morning mists cycled by.
Momentary glimpses of ruined castles appeared and disappeared into view,
scattered on top of mountain peaks like rejects from a fairytale.

    Wedged in by the window and crammed into the back seat, two Russians
competed for space next to me.Elbows thrusting into bruised flesh with
 the clammy heat of human contact tenderising tired muscles.
     “Morning Jessie, beer?” Ivan said, he thrust a bottle of Binding in my face.
     “What time is it?” I said. I pulled the lank hair out of my face and my
mouth gaped for oxygen. Ivan glanced at his counterfeit­ designer watch.
     “Just gone eight,” he replied.
     “It's eight am,” I rubbed my eyes for sleep dust, “and you guys have
already started to drink?” I said. I could feel my face twist in disapproval.
     “Not me,” Jens,the Germanic teddy bear in the front, said. “I'm driving,
only those two are drinking.”
      The car stunk of rotten hops; bottles both full and empty rattled on
the floor and leaped off the front passenger seat. 
     “You sure you don't want a beer?” Ivan persisted. His grin widened
and his eyes offered a further slant as he attempted to push the bottle up
my nose. I felt the gag reflex as I caught the stale scent oozing out of the
green glass cylinder. Yuri leaned forward and pointed to his beer while
grinning. He stuck his thumb up in approval. 
     “No thanks I think I'll wait until I've at least had breakfast.” I said,
feeling my stomach crunch. 
     “You know what you guys are? You're a bunch of pussies.” Ivan said
loudly. He downed the contents of his bottle. “You guys have nothing on us
Russians.” He beat his chest proudly before pointing to Jens and myself.
     “You not Russian, you from Vladivostok,” Yuri said.  “Your family
 were Chinese.” Even when he attempted humour, Yuri sounded like
someone just died.
     “Hey my family have been in Russia for generations, just because
I have Asian ancestry doesn't make me any less Russian you motherfucker,”
Ivan snapped back.
     “Oh Shut up!” Jens shouted. “It's bad enough I've been driving this piece
of shit since five am, I don't need you two getting drunk and going all
 'Crime and Punishment' on me.”
     “When are we stopping?” I whined, desperate to extend my body since
I am not a contortionist. 
     “Soon, we can get hold of some coffee and food.”
     “And more beer.” Yuri said with a grin. He lifted his bottle and wiggled it.
     “You guys won't be able to walk by the time we get to Munich” I said.
     “Nonsense – we give harder stuff to children for breakfast” Ivan said.
“I have some Hefeweissen too if you want, it's essentially liquid bread.”
He reached into the crate on the front seat and pulled out a bottle of
     “Get that away from me! ” I squirmed.
     Ivan took the credit for the Oktoberfest road trip. He suggested we take
 Jens's car and crash at Jens's sister's place ­ actually I don't know if Jens
had any say in the matter.

 The hours when the drunks are unconscious in their beds and the
workaholics wait for their morning alarms to explode, we bundled into the
sardine tin that Jens called his car. I sleep­walked from the house to the
vehicle, unconscious again before we even left Darmstadt. I woke up
somewhere outside Stuttgart.  Two Russians, one German and one
English going to a beer festival sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
     Jens pulled into the rest stop and the engine turned off with a
mechanical whimper. We all looked bad in our own way; Jens had black
circles under the eyes, Yuri's skin was fish pale, Ivan's glasses were twisted
in Picassoesque proportions and my hair showed trademarks of Medusa's
hairdresser. I'm sure our combined odor made people move tables in the
     Like all aesthetically deprived roadside structures, the station kept in
Vogue with its concrete blocks, metal hinges and glass doors. We walked
through the glass doors to the oasis of exhausted travellers where quality
becomes irrelevant because you just don't care anymore. We entered the
café and sat down to wobbling tables and the cold metal chairs; after
spending hours crammed in the back of the banger I relished the luxurious
leg room. Jens returned to the table carrying a vision piled with pastries and
magnum sized coffees caffeine and food enough to fuel a bus. Jens
encouraged gluttony with good reason ­ we planned to drink a lot and
something needed to soak the renegade alcohol from nausea. He chucked
back successive cups of black coffee and took large bites from the pastry to
cleanse the palette before attacking the next quadruple espresso.
     Our table attracted disapproving looks and conspiring whispers from the
other customers as our two Russians became animated in Slavic discussion,
which, to the tone deaf ear sounded like they should take it outside.
     I rolled my eyes and looked across the table back to Jens,noticing he might
 smile if one placed a mirror under his chin.
     “What time will we get to Munich” I said.     “Two hours maybe if we are lucky.” Jens said in a monotonous and dry voice.
“I told my sister we would be at her place around 10.30.”
     “That's if your car doesn't fall apart first.” Ivan said with a snigger.
     “Hey, my car is an East German classic.” Jens said. I couldn't tell from his tone if he joked ­ Germans seldom joke – his voice rarely varied
with emotion.

     “It wont be much of a classic if it breaks down between Stuttgart and Munich. Your car is already a piece of junk.”
     “Hey Ivan, you can walk to Munich if you want, or maybe if you start
 walking back to Darmstadt now and we can hoot at you on our way
     “I swear Jens, the amount of weed you smoked in your youth has warped your mind man.”
     “You're one to talk 'Mr. I drink vodka for breakfast'.” Jens said. 
     “Hey vodka is at least legal asshole,” Ivan said, animating his voice and
pointed his finger back at Jens.
     “Oh shut up.” I said. I put my hands on my ears. “I am tired, sleep
deprived and in two hours time we are going to be imbibing beer by the
litre. Can we have some peace for five sodding minutes?”
     “But we already drink beer.” Yuri said. His cupcake eyes oblivious to the
conflict while wearing a smile of idiots ignorance.
I threw a sugar packet at Yuri. Crystalline flakes scattered across the table
served as a reminder that I don't appreciate humour beforemy third morning
     “Hey Jessie it's OK to drink like a girl, when you are one.” Ivan said,
he winked like a Eurotrash star.
I passed a scowl to him. “Don't give me shit just because I don't have a liver
of steel.”
     “Enough of the bitch fights. Lets eat up and get back on the road. I told
my sister we would be there before 11 and it's...” Jens looked at his watch.
 “already 8.30.”
     “Stop being so bloody German Jens.” Ivan said, he lent back and
threw his hands up. 
     “Guys as much as I love all the little racist stereotypes, and how cute it is
to see you guys bicker like old women, it's too early for this.” I said.
I downed the bitter liquid and picked up the sticky bread. “Come on then
lets get back on the road.”
     “What?” The guys said in unison, still they sat with drooping eyes. 
     “Why waste time on breakfast when we could be in Munich drinking
liquid bread in a couple of hours?”
Jens got up from the chair and the Russians remained continuing their
discussion.  Ivan looked up sensing movement; he found himself subjected
to our mean stares he dragged Yuri out by the collar. The Russians got into the back of the car leaving only a tiny corner left for me to morph into.
     “Remind me again why the front seat is unavailable?” I asked Jens.
     “Ask these two here,” he pointed to the back-seat drinkers “they are the one who insisted on bringing not only luggage but also a crate of
beer as well.”
     “And the boot?” I asked in vain since I assumed the answer wouldn't be
good. “Can we not put things there?”
     “Um... it's jammed shut, can't open it.” Jens brushed his shaggy brown hair back.
     “Can we move their crap to the back seat?” I said, signs of my desperation for space cracked at the seams.
     “No time, we really must get going now.”
I sighed, I got back into the car and I squeezed myself next to Ivan, Jens closed the door applying the extra force to stuff us in. I had to survive
the next three hours until Munich and prayed I wouldn't get deep vein
thrombosis on the way. Ivan offered me a beer, but his eyes offered comfort
instead of mockery this time. I took the bottle in self­-medication.


February 22, 2010

Trying to Write Everyday?

A piece of advice that keeps cropping up all over the place is: "Write everyday". What does this exactly mean? Does this mean to become a good writer one must always pursue a first draft, setting a specific word count goal per day? But as we all know, editing is vital for actually writing something which is publishable - so what counts as writing everyday? Does editing count, even though it's less about word count and more about analysing one's work? While editing is actually a process which tends to involve significant re-writes, in the day of word-processing it's become only a matter of editing and inserting/deleting text on a screen; it feels less fluid than writing a first draft.

Is it best to have multiple projects on the go? Editing and pure, unadulterated writing? Something to satisfy both  the unbridled creative process of just writing something, and the analytical and critical work of editing a pre-written piece.

I've taken on a new project this weekend, I've started another first draft of a brand new novel. A compulsion has taken over, and I feel I have to write it down and NOW. I made a pact with my flatmate, also a writer, and we've set the goal of writing 1000-2000 words per day. In addition to this I still plan to edit my pre-existing short stories and come April to start editing the novel I finished back in November. Certainly this way I am getting my "write everyday" quota in and fulfilling all the possible specifications which could be interpreted from this phrasing.

But does editing count? I suppose it does, but for some reason for me editing doesn't feel like writing; relevant, and probably the most useful part of the writing process, if anything the most important tools to help one grow as a writer. But I don't know, maybe it's something personal but nothing feels as exciting as just sitting down and writing something down for the first time without picking it apart. I guess we must embrace all the facets this craft requires: writing, editing, re-writing, and reading, and somehow apply them everyday. 

February 18, 2010

Write for Yourself

While getting feedback and criticism from multiple sources can be an excellent way to improve your writing, often, you will find that there will be differing opinions. Just because person A says one thing, and person B says another doesn't mean either of them are right or wrong. Writing, like all art, is subjective.

Some people can only talk about their likes and dislikes, and may not even have any place to judge what is good and bad writing, or are biased because they are your friend, even people who are experienced writers and avid readers will still have conflicting points of view when it comes to analysing and critiquing someone's work.

So what do you do when you are inundated with contradicting advice? The best thing is to take every piece of advice seriously, and think about the reasoning behind each point. For example, someone might comment that you use too many different points of views, and another might say they like getting all sides of the story? Think as to why each point was said. Multiple points of view can be choppy and confusing, and it's a hard thing to actually pull off well. Even a genius like Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway,  leaves me confused as I flip back and forth between the pages trying to figure out whose perspective are we looking at.  But seeing things from all sides also allows for a more complex story. I think one of the successes of Ian McEwan's Atonement was seeing the story from the different points of view, however each change was categorised by a chapter, making it obvious when one thing changes to another. In a short stories, chapters don't tend to work.

Think about criticism, particularly if you get conflicting views, question why those points were made, but ultimately the person doing the writing is you. You need to see objectively what criticism to trust and which one doesn't work for you. The danger of this is that our pride can get in the way of seeing clearly and we feel we are above criticism - hence why criticism must always be examined with the ego out of the way. At the end of the day, you can't please everyone; learn what you can from advice, but decide to implement it if you agree with it and think it will improve the quality of your story/writing; but ultimately you should be happy with your own work.   Open to suggestion, smart enough to question and implement that suggestion if it works for you.

February 17, 2010

Being Unafraid to Experiment

I've been trying different things out in my writing. I essentially get the most enjoyment out of writing novel length pieces - I like complicated stories and character development which I find I can't do in short stories. This transition for me has been the hardest to adapt to in writing short stories. The rules change because everything becomes more compact. The good thing is with short stories is that you can dedicate less time to them and use each one to focus on different aspects which interest you.

Sometimes when I write a short story, the plot is my focus and other times it is the language; ideally I will one day be able to combine both efforts and actually write something which is good. I think though, something I have to accept is not everything I will ever write will be worth pursuing.

I wrote a story recently which was pretty much biographical; an anecdote which I like to tell at parties and some find mildly amusing. I wrote it down in a short story form and found I wasn't enamoured with it. I had that mental block of changing what happened - since writing from real life makes me feel its forbidden to change things, a big mistake I am trying to get around - so focussed on using it to work on the writing. I went through the 6000 word piece I worked on it line by line trying to come up with the best sentences I could get. Even though I was rather happy with the writing style of the piece, something about it made me hate it in a way. I couldn't put my finger on it. The feedback I got was interesting, as in some people didn't know what I was trying to do with it - was it supposed to be a short story or not? What was the point of the piece? At least I had feedback the writing was solid, which I guess was the point of this exercise for me.

I did get some good ideas on re-working the story. If I can take the advice to kill my darlings and think of writing it in a story form instead of it being a well written anecdote I could do something with it. I just have so many different projects on the go and in April I plan to start re-writing the novel, I might put it in a draw for a while and come back later. It might get re-written and do something with it, or maybe I wont. But was it a pointless exercise? No. I learned a lot from it. It was a good exercise to go through something and really thing about the writing and form. 

I think when starting out it's good to experiment, even if the experiments don't yield something great, there is a lot to be learned from them (I should know this being an experimental physicist and all). Even just writing for the sake of it can help one improve a lot since the more you write the better you get. Experimenting helps us grow in different directions and acquire skills from trial and error. I think a lot of crap gets written that way, but there is a lot to learn from bad writing, and even mediocre writing which have some things which work in it.

February 11, 2010

Rant: Stupid Names

I'm in a cranky mood as it is right now - no particular reason, just have a black cloud over my head for the last few days, so a rant seems appropriate. I need some way to vent frustration and such so I'm going to take it out on books with annoying character names.

Some names are pretentious or just straight annoying, but you can live with them. Often these are books which are guilty of the Mary-Sueism which seems to have consumed  modern "literature" like a blood sucking, sparkling parasite. I'll read something with names which cause my eyes to roll, but I'll keep reading if the story or book is good, and I can forgive the poor name choice eventually. Even if the names are beyond ridiculous and the story is redeeming, the atmosphere effective, the writing style is good or I just enjoy the book (i.e. Poppy Z. Brite - Lost Souls), I can let it go and not be bothered too much by it.

But yesterday I was reading a short story from the anthology of Vampiric Erotica, "Love in Vein", which had names so horrible, I couldn't read the story. I didn't care - the names stuck out at me in a way which made my eyes hurt. It might have been a piece of literary genius, (although chances are probably not) I just stopped reading when the third ridiculous name came up.  Now you might think me over dramatic but let me list the culprits: Eeesheeea, Neeeneeeiah, Beeetheeeor and Reeezthorreee.

Yes - horrible aren't they?

I literally winced while reading them. While names are a trivial part of writing and writing classes don't preach about dodgy names, having a name that is actually painful to write down with about 500 Es is just taking the piss. The fourth ridiculous name made me go to the next story - I just didn't care any more. Fortunately a lot of the other stories in the book are actually good.

Funny scenarios cropped into my mind envisioned by these names - an ambulance going down a hill at fast speed with someone shouting the character's name and being distorted by the Doppler effect or a shirtless William Shatner *shudder* screaming "Kaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhnnnnnnnnnn!"

So yes names, ridiculous names, if the spelling isn't raping the alphabet are annoying, but liveable... but as soon as you are inserting a stupid amount of eees or ssssss or whatever stupid letter that your keyboard is currently stuck on to give you more than the appropriate sum then - please don't write, love bitchy me xxx

February 10, 2010

Kill Your Darlings!

Last night I had a very interesting discussion at my weekly writer's group, about a couple of short stories I had written. Two of the stories had roots in my own life - one a biographical anecdote written down in prose form and the other, although fictional, had a lot inspired from real life in terms of characters, and 70% of the story was true. I got some very thought provoking feedback for tightening up the writing/plot in order to make the stories more interesting and thematic. I guess when I write inspired by real life, I tend to become imprisoned by it, and I have trouble thinking outside the box. I don't want to cut characters because to me they are real people, and combining them seems like a wicked thing to do.

But real life is not always as enticing as fiction, and the day to day characters you see are not the larger than life people who stay with you after reading a novel. Unless you are writing a biography, then real life is allowed to get twisted and distorted if it makes things more interesting and entertaining.

I first reacted to the suggestions with a mental block, reluctant to change things beyond recognition. I think this is a common feeling when criticism  contradicts your own ideas. But as I said before, sometimes criticism can show you things you failed to see before that could actually take your work to another level. After a good night's sleep, I realised the suggestions I received were REALLY good. I now have the opportunity to turn my OK stories into really good ones. Sacrifices will need to be made: scenes will get cut, characters will get combined or eliminated, and the original vision might be changed significantly; but those sacrifices will be worth it in the end.

I think it's good for me to question my own work. Yes, I have a vision for a story, but is that story effective enough? Can it be better, more interesting or thought provoking? Do I know something doesn't work but don't do anything about it, because I have some attachment to that scene/person? The thing I am learning about editing is that it's not just stylistic - it's not just about whether I have enough showing/telling, too many adverbs or clichés or decent grammar, it's also about trying to do the best with your story.

But it's good I am learning about these things. I think making mistakes is better than no mistakes. You can read things in books and think "yeah yeah I know" but you don't learn it - not unless you've done it and caught out for it and I can guarantee you won't consciously do it again! It's not bad when someone tells you "it needs re-writing, but it's worth re-writing".  I just need to remember not to be a pussy and kill my darlings if they are really not necessary.

February 9, 2010

Put it Away!

Writing is like telepathy: you convey stories, places and people from the vivid depths of your imagination, and you hope to God/Flying Spaghetti Monster/Deity of your choice, that the person reading your work also sees what you see. This is why editing your own work is so hard, because you already know what you are trying to show - what your protagonist looks like, and you probably know the intimate workings of their mind better than your own, so it goes without saying that you are going to be a little bit biased looking at your own work. It becomes hard to see when the lines of clarity in your writing blur over with your own perceptions you mistakenly believe to have put down on the page.

Having other people look through your work is a good way to over come this - to address anything that doesn't come across as clearly as you thought. What might be obvious to you wont be obvious to everyone else reading it. Although if we were to give every single draft of our work to beta readers and friends we wouldn't be very popular - I know I feel guilty with emailing my friends drafts of my work frequently and bringing in something for my writing group to look at every other week. It's ideal if you learn to edit your own work as if it were not your own - so you can give it to beta readers when its the best you can get it (then there still might be issues of clarity and points missed but hey we're trying our best and learning in the process).

Putting your work away and not even looking at it for a month or more is a good way to wipe the memory clean from story; even a couple of weeks is better than nothing with a short story. By the time all pre-conceptions about your writing and personal vision of the work has been forgotten, when you pick up that manuscript and it seems fresh to you, then its the time to start working on it. Words leap off the page you didn't notice before, a plot hole here and there, a contradiction too, and parts when you think "what the hell is this about/what was I thinking?" - this new clarity will yield good results when it comes to tying your work up properly. Still we are bound to miss things another person would see - it is still our intellectual brain child - but it's still a good way to tackle the editing process.

So put away those first drafts for a while and work on something else. When you trust you have forgotten your vision then it's time to come back to it.

February 7, 2010

Humour: "I may freely address you as piss-midget!"

Black Books ..Bernards letter

BitBatty | Vídeo MySpace

Just a bit of humour for a Sunday night, but I think all of us can appreciate this. Taken from the hilarious British show "Black Books". If you have never heard of it I beseech you to check it out.

February 6, 2010

The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs

Every single book and article I've read on writing has preached damnation to the adverb. It seems to be one of the golden rules of writing - kill the adverb!  Gabriel García Marquez refuses to use them, point blank, and will happily commit mass genocide to the adverb.  Stephen King also hates adverbs, although he's forgiving in the occasional use in the context of dialogue. Other writers can accept the occasional adverb every 50 pages or so.

Why are adverbs evil? The use of adverbs is perfectly legit when it comes to constructing a grammatically correct sentence. They convey information, so why are they made out to be literary pariahs? The simple answer is: adverbs make for lazy writing. Adverbs used in conjugation with weaker verbs could be expressed with a stronger, sophisticated verb and still mean the same thing, only it will be more effective.

Adverbs tend to end with the suffix "-ly", so it's a simple stylistic error that can be one of the easiest to clean up. Using the find application in the word processor can bring up all the guilty words ending with "-ly", or even go through a hard copy with a highlighter and mark them. Then one can go back over and replace the adverb + weak verb combination with the correct verb. Just by cutting out the adverbs, or at least culling them, can raise the quality of writing from amateur and lazy, to something more sophisticated.

In the context of dialogue attributions, using "she said nervously" could be conveyed by using "she said" plus a beat to show she is nervous. Immediately this calls the show don't tell rule into effect - just by eliminating adverbs.

But sometimes adverbs do work. But it is best to tackle adverbs with a critical eye - see if they can be improved to tighten up the writing.

February 5, 2010

Setting Goals

I realised the other day I feel overwhelmed: I have 5 short stories in the works (3 drafted a few times and 2 first drafts), 1 novel I want to work on but haven't touched since writing the first draft, and about 8 poems. It's good. I have a lot of material to work with, but it's a lot of work to get them up to scratch to think about publishing. I'm still in the learning process right now and I'm satisfied I've already improved significantly since last November. I've still got a lot of work left to do though.

I started writing short stories to teach myself to write and edit. I felt that until I could master the short story, I should not touch the novel - build the houses, then the city.  Slightly different crafts, but a lot of the learned skills can be applied to both.

So I've tried to split up my writing tasks into different deadlines. I like deadlines - I work well under pressure. At the moment these are split into the days when I plan to hand in my WIPs to the writing group. Some of my stories have already been critiqued, but still need working on and others I haven't even edited yet. It does help to focus my priorities.

Also I've set a date to resume working on the novel - 3rd of April. If I don't start working on the novel by that date - please kick my ass.

Another relevant goal is to up my reading. A huge part of writing is reading! As I mentioned before, reading is a great tool for learning to write. I read more than the average person on the street, but not enough. So my plan is to read about 3 books a week... depending on the length of the book that is. I'm not going to make it through a thousand page novel in a week. I'm going to be reasonable and realistic. Also I plan to diversify the type of books I read.

1. Fiction. I intend to read a lot of fiction, but I guess that should go without saying. I plan to read the classics, good modern literature and even some trash. I think badly written novels have a lot to teach us along with the good ones i.e. what not to do. Also they are ego boosters - they make you think "I can write better than this bozo!"

Also I think a balance between modern literature and the classics is needed. When I was younger I was an intellectual snob: only reading classics by dead white men. The trouble is, the books you read tend to influence your writing, and while the classics are classics for a reason, it might not go down too well if I try to write in the same style in the modern literature market. It's good to learn from the best, but prose should still be fresh and modern - that's just my opinion. Modern literature has a lot to offer, so striking the balance between the two is healthy and useful.

2. Fiction in different languages. My aim here is not so much to help with my writing, but with my language skills. My Hungarian is rusty, and I also want to improve my Spanish. Reading in a different language is perhaps one of the best ways to level up in a language. Also, I think seeing how prose is approached from a different linguistic perspective helps with writing too. I think it helps to see literature from a different view because reading in another language makes you slow down and focus on words, sentences and details.

3. Non-fiction. This wont help me become a better fiction writer, but knowledge is power. I think learning a lot about other areas helps equip you with tools to write with better authority. I think being well educated and knowledgeable in many areas can help add depth to writing. Although I am including a few "how to write" books in the mix here as well.

So there it is - my writing goals. Whether I'll stick to them or not is now another question, but at least writing them on here means I'm more likely to keep to them otherwise I'll look like an idiot. Will see if I'm all talk and no trousers soon enough.

February 4, 2010

I'm a scientist, but I don't write sci-fi!

My friend Liz Miller, talked about me to a student of her's, telling him that I am a physicist and a writer. His reaction was that of disbelief: he couldn't imagine a physicist writing. For some reason that was an image to difficult to comprehend - a creative scientist.  Evidently he's never heard of  a  polymath, which clearly I am (\sarcasm).  I don't think the two things should be mutually exclusive.

There are a lot of preconceptions about scientists - that we are all nerds who resemble the cast of the big bang theory: obsessed with Star Trek, comics and computer games. So when I tell people I am a scientist and a writer the natural assumption is that I write science-fiction. Understandable I suppose, since I have the background and the know-how of real science to back me up on that.

Truth be told is that while I respect good science-fiction, it's not really my cup of tea. My inner physicist starts questioning whether things are plausible or not when reading sci-fi, and I get so bogged down in the scientific details I find it hard to focus on the story or the writing itself. I hate writing sci-fi, because I would probably try to incorporate as much real physics into it as possible and really, I don't want to take my work home with me. Writing is a huge passion of mine and I dedicate a lot of time to it outside of my PhD. If I wrote sci-fi I would be drowning in physics. I had a discussion with a writer who is writing a science fiction novel, about the plausibility of the physics of his story. That was already a lot of work for me to think about, even though it was a very interesting discussion. Also writing about spaceships zipping in and out of galaxies raping Einstein's theory of relativity in the process, when you have a Masters in Satellite technology, seems a bit hypocritical to me.

What would be interesting for me to write, is about the dynamics of physicists in a lab. You wouldn't believe the drama that goes on down there. One experiment I wanted to place a hidden camera in the lab and sell it to someone who handles a reality TV show. I am more interested in psychology and interaction between people. I love the work of the modernists and stream of consciousness style writing (if done well!) so you are more likely to catch me reading Henry Miller, Anais Nin or Ernest Hemingway than Isaac Asimov, but that has more to do with my personal taste rather than which author/book is better.

Maybe I should do that - write a book about physicists - real, batshit crazy physicists, or a romantic comedy with physicists. Although maybe when I am out and away from the scientific community that is.

Maybe I should give sci-fi a chance. There are some very good sci-fi writers out there, and not all sci-fi is set in space with photon-torpedos and warp drives. I loved Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, for example. Anyone willing to convert me with a good book?

February 3, 2010

Finding Motivation

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to writing is finding the time and the motivation to write every day. Often that novel we want to write gets put on the backburner because real life gets in the way. Chances are we all juggle a day job, dreaming for the day when we earn enough from the craft to spend the whole time writing. Even working 9-5 (or in some cases more - especially if you are trying to do a PhD in Physics) it's too tempting to say mañana. But realising that dream is going to take a lot of work so how do we keep going?

For years I wrote part time. I would go through phases when I would write all the time for 2-3 months and then stop and not touch anything; by the time I returned to working I was already rusty. Fortunately NaNoWriMo in 2009 forced me to get into the habit of writing everyday and finally I wrote that book thought about for a year before. Deadlines do help I find, especially in something competitive like NaNo. I'm lucky because I rarely have trouble with first drafts. I don't suffer from writers block because I visualise the story before attempting to write it. I do come up with some new twists and turns while writing, but having a start and a finish and a vague area in between helps to construct the story. If I haven't planned beforehand, I turn to real life for inspiration.

When you have an idea and a motivation to write - you will make time, even if you have a fulltime job and a social life. During NaNo, I would wake up at 6am (I was kitty sitting at the time, that probably helped), write while I sipped my morning coffee before going off to work. I would write a couple of hundred words in my coffee break and then work throughout lunchtime in the Starbucks down the road, then more writing in the evening. Not a very good long term lifestyle I know but I had never been more prolific in my life - I managed to write a 75,000 word novel in a month. The bad quality 100% guaranteed, but the story itself is interesting and its easier to edit something bad instead of a blank page.

The tl;dr version is that you will make the time to write if you have the motivation and the compulsion to do so. But how can one gain motivation?

Something like a competition with a time frame helps, but only if you know what you're gonna write. Sitting down to NaNo working an idea from scratch is going to be more of a challenge. Also writing a novel is an ambitious endevour - hence I prefer to work on short stories for now. Short stories are easier to manage when you are learning to write and edit.

One of the biggest motivators was finding a writing group. Turning up to that first writers meeting when you get asked the dreaded question "What do you write?" when the truth be told you haven't done anything in months is almost shaming.  Even networking with other writers can be a great inspiration for your work. You  have the opportunity to get support and guidance from experienced writers, as well as solidarity from the aspiring ones on your level. It helps a lot discussing your work casually with other people who are genuinely interested in what you do, or getting feedback and encouragement. It fills you with a sense of purpose and you feel compelled to keep bringing things to show you are working hard to earn their respect.

 If you are in a large city, chances are there is one even if you do not live in an English speaking country. I googled (in English) "Writers group Madrid" and bingo: out popped a journal entry with information on when and where the meetings are. Just turning up makes me feel like I have done something, even after my slump around Christmas (Eastern European mother's need constant attention) I managed to regain my momentum because I retained some tie to my writing.

This blog too is here to motivate me. I feel by writing it I have something to prove. The concept is to chart my progress and journey as a writer so I need to live up to my own expectations or I suck, right?

I know that deadlines, networking and blogging helps keep my writing everyday. What works for you?

February 2, 2010

Beauty in Simplicity

I used to be an active participant on the critique website Urbis, in principle it has a good system - you upload your work on there for feedback and you have to critique other people's work to earn credits to unlock reviews of your work. It's good because it encourages active feedback, but one of the reasons I stopped using it was because the level of writing on there in general was pretty dire. I have found the site useful in the past, but I just don't want to endure any more short stories written by people who write like 13 year old girls.

Which brings me to the topic on my mind today - simplicity. For some reason a lot of aspiring writers are under the impression that more long words, more flowery and poetic language = good. In my opinion they are missing the point, to use the cliché - they are trying to run a marathon before crawling. The problem with overly decorated prose is that there is the huge, HUGE danger of losing clarity. Often when reading piece using this kind of language, my thoughts are: what a pretentious piece of crap followed by what the hell was that about? I think rule no. 1 when it comes to writing is that is must be clear what you are trying to say. If you can't be understood, it doesn't matter how poetic you are - it's a failure.

I think we all hate having to read something and then having to go back a re-read it again because the meaning cluttered by too many fancy words. If you look at good novels, even modern novels praised for their beautiful style and language you can appreciate how refreshingly simple they are. Language can be beautiful even if you keep the adverbs and adjectives down and avoid looking up the most complicated words in the thesaurus.

Maybe this is a debate about styles and tastes. I like clarity and I like prose which tells you all you need to know and nothing more. I think a lot can be expressed beautifully with simple language.  However saying that there are longer, decorative words which are appropriate in context, it's when a simple word will do and a synonym is chosen to look more "intellectual" is what really annoys me. Simple words strung together well are clean, elegant and effective. Poetry should come naturally in prose and not be forced, other wise it looks like the writer is trying too hard.

Trying to write like a 19th century Lord in 2010 seems a bit redundant unless you are writing historical fiction or fantasy. Trying to copy dead writers from a bygone age when literature has evolved with the times makes one look at best pretentious and at worst hard to read. Writers today are raised in the 21st century and not the 1800s, language and tastes have changed, writing should mirror the time it's written in.

February 1, 2010

Listening to Criticism

I was reading an article on Justine Lee Musk's blog on what it takes to be successful as a writer. A lot of the advice seems obvious - read as many books and write as much as you can, which I think already applies to any aspiring writer who is actually serious about writing. What struck out at me was point number 3 - Seek out the best constructive criticism and revise accordingly. The truth is we are not going to be good from the get go. Every writer makes mistakes when starting out and writes a lot of crap. We all have those early writings. I have a folder marked with work I wrote at 15 and cringe when I look at it.

“The first draft of anything is shit” - Ernest Hemingway 
 This famous quote also hits home the truth. You can write a wonderful story but unedited it sucks. Editing is a skill that is just as time consuming - if not more so - than writing. Anyone can write, but not everyone can edit. I still have a lot to learn about editing and sometimes I just get to a point where I don't know where to go with my work. Sitting and going through a single piece over and over again saturates your clear vision and it's hard to see any more what is good, what is bad, what is clichéd and what is confusing to the reader. You can either put the story or novel away in the draw and look at it again in months time from a fresh perspective, or give it to someone whose opinion you value.

Getting your work critiqued by someone who knows about writing and editing can be a valuable source for improvement. You see how your story comes across to them - did you succeed in telling the story the way you wanted or did it come out differently? Could they visualise the world you created? But also most importantly they will probably see things you missed in your writing: repetitions, clichés, points of view problems and other weaknesses you either overlooked or didn't know were there.

But getting critique means nothing if you don't listen or think about what's being said. It is important to put vanity aside and think about the points made. Criticism is perhaps the best tool out there to improve your writing because you actively see what works and what doesn't. Becoming defensive about criticism is a natural reflex, but it needs to be overcome so something can be learned. Revising and re-writing is a big part of getting ahead as a writer and as well as being prepared to take good advice and implement it.

There is a danger when it comes to criticism - not everyone is qualified to critique your work. It's best to find a writers group or network online with other writers. The ideal critic is someone who knows what they are talking about and are afraid to be honest. Being afraid of bad criticism will only prevent you, and me, from improving. Writers need to grow a thick skin because we will all get rejected at some point - bad criticism and rejection is all part of the parcel of being a writer. Learn to love criticism, use it to your advantage so you can be even better than you are now. Clinging onto your ego and delluding yourself your work is above criticism will only end in disappointment.