Malcolm Gladwell is associated with the ten-thousand hour rule. This holds that ten-thousand hours of deliberate practice is required if a person is to become world-class in any given field. Being world-class in precisely no fields, I can nevertheless safely assume that in many cases such practice must necessarily comprise a high ratio of tedium and repetitiveness. Colonel Sanders’ recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken was rejected over a thousand times before he hit upon the secret which would make him famous, whilst Michael Jordan estimated that his nine-thousand missed shots contributed to his ability to score baskets under pressure.
Good Editors and Good Practice: Submitting
This is the last article in my series on writing. It addresses a subject feared by some authors and relished by others – that of submission. There is something magical about sending a story out into the world. Once it leaves your laptop it is open to interpretation by anyone who reads it. Consequently, myriad worlds and characters are born from your imagination. How many is down to who you choose to submit to and how you go about it… Continue reading “Good Editors and Good Practice: Submitting”
Polishing the Pebble: Editing
Call me masochistic, call me an oddball, but I love editing. Perhaps it’s my long-missed vocation as a substitute English teacher talking, but if I can’t look at a piece of raw writing and make it better then I might as well take up watercolours or piano.
This is where the art of writing really begins for me. Due to the aforementioned masochistic streak, I keep all of my drafts upstairs in a filing cabinet. Just occasionally I’ll dig out the first draft of a piece like ‘Tagged’ and, once I’ve finished shuddering at the raw product, I’ll marvel at just how much it has changed from its original form. For me, a first draft is a chunk of stone hewn from a rockface. When editing, it’s time to park the plant equipment and bring out the hand chisel. Here are a few tips that I’ve found useful when adapting my first draft…
Book Review – All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See
Fourth Estate Publishing
‘So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?’
Continue reading “Book Review – All the Light We Cannot See”
Exploration and Sterilisation: Research
I know, I know. Research isn’t the sexiest part of writing. It isn’t sitting in a Paris café with a cigarillo hanging out of your mouth, and it isn’t battering away at a Sholes and Glidden typewriter in a converted shed. However, unless you are writing the flashiest of flash fiction, or scribbling on a subject with which you are entirely conversant, most narratives will require a level of research.
The [copious] gaps in my knowledge should have been highlighted in the pre-planning stage of my writing process. Some pieces, like THE PREDATOR, will require less research – we’ve all been in a bar before. Others, like WATAN, will require substantially more. I certainly haven’t flown a kite on the rooftops of 1960s Lahore before, and to write as if I had without research would result in a story lacking in authenticity. Research adds weight to a piece when used appropriately. It gives a writer confidence that they know their subject, something that will be immediately apparent to a reader.
I research my work in four main ways:
- Journal articles
Fantastic if you have access to a university library or similar. These have the benefit of being targeted; if you want to write about a subject, odds are that someone will have written a journal article on it. This was certainly the case for WATAN. I was able to research Pakistani immigration into Scotland with ease and got access to the statistics I needed quickly. There is a certain skill in searching for suitable journals, not too dissimilar to hash tagging effectively.
The most obvious and best resource available to writers. Charles William Eliot said, ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.’ Unless reading for pleasure, remember that your research book is there to serve your writing. Use indexes, use contents pages. It’s not cheating to dip in and out of a book for research purposes. At present I am reading Robert Graves’ ‘The Greek Myths’ for a story. Although immersive, it is perhaps not practical to read and annotate all 784 pages for the purposes of a 2,000-word short story. Read well and read with a purpose; the better your source material, the better your writing will be.
‘Write what you know’ is perhaps too cliched a piece of writing advice, but its sentiment has solid foundations. If possible, visit the place you are writing about. I am writing a story set in a Scottish port called Mallaig at present and have booked a weekend away with my wife. This will hopefully allow me a sense of mise en scene, thereby doing Mallaig justice. I know from experience that the trip will also provide me with those anecdotal nuggets that are gold dust in fiction – the smells, tastes, and impressions that are impossible to garner from the comfort of your writing desk.
If you haven’t experienced what you are writing about, then the next best thing is speaking to someone who has. Odds are that if they consider the anecdote worth telling and you find it worth listening to, then it will translate well into a story. I had the good fortune to attend a writing group with a gentleman who had grown up in Lahore and who was able to add to the authenticity of WATAN. Going the extra mile and speaking to someone with experience in your subject area will undoubtedly show through in your final piece.
To finish, I’ll discuss one thing I try never to do when researching. If I am writing a ghost story, I won’t read Susan Hill whilst I’m writing it. If I am penning a piece of crime flash fiction, I’ll avoid Raymond Chandler for the duration of the process. Why? Because their styles will inevitably bleed into my writing, resulting in a depressing parody of an author I admire. Read other genres? Yes. Read research? Definitely. But I steer away from polluting my train of thought with other authors’ work. I see research much as a surgeon would their scalpels and clamps – keep them sterilized to avoid cross-contamination between styles.
As always folks, I would be delighted to hear about your creative processes.
Previous posts on my process are below.
Igloos in the Tundra: Idea Formation
A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning
Good morning fellow writers,
After idea formation, the next stage in my writing process is what I call pre-planning. This takes place once I have a nugget of an idea. What I am trying to achieve is a skeleton; something to which I can later add flesh.
I am the first to admit that I am something of a bureaucrat when it comes to writing. I like structure. I like a plan. I am not one of those gifted authors who can knock out a 3,000-word, pre-formed story in one sitting and who never has to touch it again (more’s the pity!). Dour as it sounds, I use a pro-forma document at the start of each of my projects, an example of which is below.
This is a direct lift from the planning for my short story ‘Watan’, which was written in 2015 before being published by Literally Stories in 2016. This is in no way prescriptive but helps me to understand what I need to research and organise in order to write my story. I take no care here with grammar or syntax, spelling or spacing. This is a working document, and not one which will ever be seen by anyone (pre-blog, at least!).
|Convenience Store (working title)|
|Deprived Glasgow housing estate|
|1st person narrator – one sided verbal conversation.|
|Depression, immigration, poverty, crime, deprivation, responsibility|
|Asian shopkeeper-has relatives back in Pakistan whom he supports
Local drug addict
|Story is one half of a conversation between an Asian shopkeeper and a drug addict (not clear at start state of customer or establishment-make it appear as though it is posh). He takes the customer through his options re alcohol in a servile manner, gradually coming down from fine reds etc to a bottle of buckie. Similarly with tobacco, as it becomes clear that the customer is a scumbag with the shakes. Shopkeeper becomes increasingly dry and bitter as he contrasts his lifestyle of hard work with the self-indulgence and myopic nature of the addict. Addict then pulls a knife and the shopkeeper shuts begins an increasingly aggressive monologue aimed at the addict. He drives the point that the addict has only targeted him because of his perceived ‘otherness’, yet the shopkeeper is far more imbedded in Scottish society than him. Reveal shopkeeper’s journey to Scotland and his history in Pakistan. Emphasise that whereas the addict is alone due to his problems, the shopkeeper has connections throughout Glasgow, and that any robbery will be swiftly avenged. Addict panics and runs off. Sirens are heard as the shopkeeper returns to menial chores.
|BOWES, A; J MCCLUSKEY; D SIM (1990) “The changing nature of Glasgow’s ethnic-minority community”. Scottish Geographical Magazine, 106(2), 99-107
Bailey, Nick; Alison Bowes, Duncan Sim (1995) “Pakistanis in Scotland: Census Data and Research Issues”. Scottish Geographical Magazine, 111(1), p.36-45
Hamid, Mohsin (2008) The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Great Britain: Penguin
Sidhwa, Bapsi (ed) (2005) City of Sin and Splendour-writings on Lahore. London:Penguin
My pre-planning document serves three main purposes. Firstly, it forces me to focus upon some of the more prosaic elements of the piece. Sometimes it is easy to become fixated upon plot to the detriment of location, character, or narrator. As I work my way down this document, I am obliged to consider each aspect in turn. This makes me consider the effect that each has upon the story itself, so that I repeatedly ask myself ‘How will this work?’. How can I convey a robbery using first person narrative? How can I include the protagonist’s history in a short story encompassing twenty minutes? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it highlights the research still necessary for the project. In the case of ‘Watan’, I was writing about post-partition Pakistan and a culture with which I was not conversant. A lot of research to do here, then!
Many writers find this part of the process mind-numbingly boring. They are keen to get stuck in and put their foot down on the word count pedal. For me, this is where I have the most freedom – I can do anything at this stage. Change the narrator from third to first person? No problem. Move the plot across continents? No sweat. This process is so important to my writing precisely because it allows me to play around without the shackles of a first draft; I am untethered by plot, unhindered by work I have already completed.
It also serves a third and slightly more psychological purpose. No matter how many times I hear William Wordsworth’s ‘To begin, begin,’ I always hesitate before starting to tickle those keys. I get the same sensation before writing on an exam paper, a feeling that the wind hasn’t really caught in my sails yet. That is why I find it helpful to have my pre-planning up on the left of my screen as I start to type or research. It is my skeleton, and if it does nothing else, it gives physical form to my project. It might sound incredibly boring to those writers who value instinct and intuition over cold, hard planning, but I find great comfort in the banality of fleshing out that skeleton!
Igloos in the Tundra – Idea Formation
Morning fellow scribblers,
I have always been intrigued to find out about other writers’ processes. Interaction with other authors, whether it be in writing courses, workshops, critique groups, or in academia, has taught me that no two writers approach their work in the same way. Indeed, what one writer swears by, another will see as anathema!
Throughout the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the different processes involved in being a writer. This is not by any means to suggest that this is the right way to approach writing, but merely a way which has worked for me in getting my short stories published. Today I’ll be exploring idea formation.
I’d be fascinated to hear what tips and tricks you have found useful in your work.
Any author worth their salt will know that an idea can strike at any time – on the bus, on the treadmill, on the loo! Most of these a writer will explore and discard on an almost subconscious level, but a few will ignite that creative touch paper. What I’ve found useful is getting these down on paper as quickly as possible. Many, and indeed most, will peter out before ever reaching the end of a first draft, but it is important to at least have that discussion with yourself.
A recurring complaint I hear amongst writers is that they are bankrupt of ideas. I don’t see this as a failure of imagination, but rather of mindset. Most of my stories are set in banal backdrops – a convenience store, a railway station, a bus; the catalyst for changing these into narratives is the question ‘What If?’ What if a woman tried liposuction using a vacuum cleaner in the bath? What if an agoraphobic man had to announce himself to the world? I think an author should always be on standby for an idea, their mind should always be worrying away at a ‘What If?’ like a schoolboy with a wobbly tooth. Stories don’t announce themselves; they have to be teased out.
Cliched as it is, I find that a lot of ideas strike me just as I am going to sleep (Watan, Light in the Blackhouse). For that reason, I will routinely text myself ideas before I forget them. Consequently, I often wake up to a badly written, almost indecipherable message on my phone which, if successfully decoded, may or may not result in a story! Whether it results in a final product is immaterial. Once it is written down it acts as an igloo in the tundra; somewhere I can explore from and return to if that exploration is unsuccessful. Like many writers, my tundra is littered with igloos whose bricks did not quite fit together.
That’s not to say that they won’t someday…
Let me know if the start of your creative process differs…