Making a great start

Everything I write begins in the same way. I have a nice bit of inspiration to kick it off. I wade right in with a snappy opening paragraph that throws the main character right into the thick of the story. I muster up the best of intentions to knuckle down and write without pause all the way to the end. A nice bit of inspiration, a good opening and the best of intentions, that’s how I always start.

So why do I find it so hard to finish? Why do I have at least thirty short stories and three novels sitting there begging to be completed? Not to mention half a dozen undercooked blog posts waiting in line. I’m a good starter but a terrible finisher and I have a feeling I’m not the only writer with this problem.

Up front, it’s probably wise to recognise that starting is the easiest part of writing. When an idea is burning away in your brain or some character is jumping around your head, it’s really easy to make a start. It’s the best fun you can have in writing, beginning a new story. But the fun won’t last forever. Sometimes it won’t even last past the first couple of pages. So, get used to the idea – writing is a disciplined task and it takes effort to see the story through to completion. Most of the time, it’s an enjoyable task but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work sometimes.

What happens, then, when your story stalls? How do you push forward when your opening peters out and you have no idea where the story is heading? Or even when you’re stuck in the middle with no clear path ahead? One of the first things I do is walk away. Sounds odd, I know, but I often need to give myself time to catch up with the story. I know the rest of it is in my head somewhere, but worrying away at it doesn’t help and forcing it only results in a contrived story. I hate those kinds of stories and I’m sure readers do too.

Countless times, I’ve left the beginning of a story to sit on the page for a few days, or even a few months, and then one day a cog turns over in my brain and the story is off and running once more. It’s like a distillation process. I’ve set up the story and now it has to mature away in my head. I try to let it take a natural course and unfold in its own time. When I hear of writers taking seven years to write a novel, I feel reassured because I’m sure that’s what they’re doing. Even though I’m often impatient for their next book (thinking Tim Winton or Margaret Atwood or Hilary Mantel), I’d rather read a story that has evolved naturally rather than churned out to meet the one-book-a-year publishing deadline.

At some point though, you have to start putting in the time to finish the story. Here are some tricks I’ve found to help give those cogs a bit of a push when they really need it:

  • Interview your main character. By this, I mean just have a chat in your head and ask him about himself or what he thinks or what he wishes. Take note of anything that interests or intrigues you about what your character says. None of the chat has to go into the story, it’s just a way of getting to know your main character. After all, if you don’t know your main character, how will you know what he will say or do in response to what happens in the story? Often, having a chat with the main character makes me care about him/her a whole lot more and gives me renewed enthusiasm for the story.
  • Write three possible endings. I like to write an ending in which the main character gets what he wants, then a second one in which he doesn’t get what he wants and a third ending where he comes to some sort of compromise. This sounds strange, I know, but I often find a story won’t unfold until I know where it might end up. I choose what I think is the best of the three endings and it becomes like a destination on a map. If I know where I’m heading, all I have to do is work out how to get there and that’s a lot easier than not even knowing the next step.
  • Burst writing is one of my favourite kick-starters to get the story moving again, wherever you happen to be stalled. I also call it blah-de-blah writing, for reasons which will become obvious. The method is really simple: I pick an interesting word in one of my previous sentences, maybe a character name or an interesting noun or a strong verb; then I put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper if you like) and, starting with that word, I write for at least ten minutes without stopping. Heaps of rubbish pours out and I often type line after line of blah-de-blah (there it is!), but it’s important not to pause, correct or re-read anything you write. Just keep getting the words on the page and don’t stop. At the end of ten minutes, I always find I’ve got a few nuggets of enlightenment about my story or a good lead on where the plot needs to head or some interesting facts I didn’t previously know about my main character. 

A writer who finishes a story, however long or short, is a hero in my estimation. Anyone can start a story but it takes a lot more oomph to finish. Oomph? Now there’s an interesting word to kick off a story …

I’m easily distracted . . .

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, that’s it, writing a blog post. Believe it or not, between my title and opening sentence, a whole week has slipped by. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, distraction muttered in my ear almost the instant I finished typing the title. I can’t quite remember what lured me away from the computer – probably the phone rang or perhaps the washing machine beeped to let me know it was finished or maybe I just felt like a coffee. Truth be told, it was most likely the coffee – it really doesn’t take much to whisk me away from the work at hand.

I know some distractions are necessary. Someone needs to put the washing out. But I don’t really need to pull out weeds on the way back to the house. Nor do I need to sweep all the leaves off the back veranda before I go inside. In fact I hate doing those sorts of things. But once procrastination sets in, it’s so easy to let the writing slip for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the next.

Of course, some distractions are valid. I’ll put my writing aside any day for time spent with family and earning an income is a necessary diversion.

But I have to confess a lot of distractions are just a matter of weak self-discipline. When I get a writing day, I have to set down some rules. I have a ban on emails, blogs or social networking between 9am and 7pm. Those sorts of things are helpful to a writer’s career but it’s not sensible to let them suck up more than 25% of my writing commitment. After all, if online networking gives rise to a golden opportunity one day, I really need to have a decent body of finished writing behind me. No point in promoting yourself if you’ve got no goods to sell at the end of it all.

Then, once external distractions are out of the way, I often need to use the carrot­-on-a-stick technique to make myself stay on task. I don’t allow myself a coffee break before I’ve written for at least two hours. No lunch until I’ve written for at least four hours, and so on. Or else, I might tell myself I can’t watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones unless I’ve finished a complete short story, a novel chapter or a blog post. I have to be my own taskmaster and set the rules before I start, otherwise it’s too easy to fudge it.

But distraction is not always a bad thing. For a writer, there’s an upside of being easily distracted because it can lead to inspiration from unexpected sources.

Every writer should have an easily distracted eye that sees things others don’t notice. Fine details, oddities and quirky observations often give rise to a new story. I enjoy a bit of a stare once in a while, as long as the subject is unaware of course. A particular hand movement, an unusual facial expression or a jiggling foot under the table will make me wonder what’s going on inside that person’s head and all of sudden an idea for a character starts to build. I rarely write about people I know, so it’s usually something I observe in a stranger that kicks off a new character for me.

Places, however mundane, are also goldmines for the distracted eye. Wherever I find myself, I make a conscious check of all the small details to store away for future scene building. Readers know how enjoyable it is to become immersed in the carefully selected details of a scene, so having an easily distracted eye is a big asset to a writer.

Writers also need an easily distracted ear. Writing dialogue requires a large storehouse of different ways of speaking. I collect interesting pieces of slang, colloquial phrases or punchy words, as well as taking note of the pace of conversations or the balance of silence to speech or the sentence started and left unfinished. When I eavesdrop, I’m training myself to write better dialogue and when I overhear someone telling a story I’m learning how to write better narrative.

Another thing writers need is an easily distracted curiosity. Often, I’ll start researching one topic and end up with lots of little side notes on other things that have sparked my interest along the way. I once Googled Arthurian legends for a children’s play I was writing and ended up delving into the ancient techniques of forging Damascus steel. I know that might sound boring but the topic consumed me for hours and two years later it became crucial to a novel I was writing. It also gave rise to some interesting symbolism in another short story. Of course, not all my little side excursions give rise to something I can use in my writing. But if I allow my curiosity a little distraction occasionally, I uncover the occasional gem to lend colour or even inspire a whole story.

So, distraction is not all bad. If you’ve got an easily distracted eye, ear or curiosity, it can be a real asset to writing. When my fingers are not actually on the keyboard, I actively encourage my eyes, ears and curiosity to be distracted and I find the more I do, the better I write.

Like all writers, I often struggle to finish the work at hand, in the face of all the distractions. Let’s face it, life is busy and writing is hard slog sometimes. It’s too easy to sneak away from the work if I don’t lay down some rules. And it’s always good if I can find the right carrot-on-a-stick to hold me to the task. On that score, I’ve done well today. I finished this blog post without getting distracted even once, which means I get to watch Game of Thrones tonight. Yay!

PS Apologies to those of you not aware of or even remotely interested in Game of Thrones. For the rest of you, winter is coming

Words That Punch Above Their Weight

If I had to pick a favourite word, it would have to be whoops. It’s so universal, so expressive and everyone can read whatever they imagine into that one word. It’s a word that punches above its weight.

I first noticed the power of whoops when it made newspaper headlines in 2000, the year Sydney hosted the Olympics. Early that year, during the selection trials for the Australian swimming team, the unthinkable happened. In the 800m freestyle, Australia’s swimming hero Ian Thorpe made a disastrous break before the starter gun and was disqualified. He was world champion for the 800m and had won gold for that event in the previous Olympics. So the photograph of him tumbling towards the water as his feet left the blocks made the front page of every newspaper in the country. In one national newspaper, beneath that photograph was a one-word headline: Whoops! Most people still easily recall seeing that photograph with its single word in large print, even though more than a decade has passed since.

Whoops! meant so many things in the minds of Australians who saw it. It said: well, we didn’t see that coming or perhaps oh dear, there goes gold for Australia or even never mind, Ian, we all make mistakes. It might also have expressed what was going through Ian Thorpe’s mind at the time, like: what was I thinking? or please don’t let this count against me.

Whoops! said it all and more.

When I’m writing, I constantly search for words that punch above their weight, words that have more than one meaning or words that imply something deeper. Even when I’m not writing, I take note of interesting or powerful words I read or hear. Not big words because I’m not a fan of big words, just simple words that work really well for the space they take up.

One of my stories is called Xiao’s Patch and I chose the word patch because it has multiple layers of meaning. The story is about a homeless man, so the word patch refers to the small stretch of street where he lives. Patch also means a scrap of something or something to cover up a hole or something make-do, all of which convey a sense of poverty. Patch is also used in a competitive sense, as in your patch versus my patch. As events unfold, Xiao’s spot comes under threat from another homeless man whose size and belligerence are more than Xiao can face. I could have called the story Xiao’s Home or Xiao’s Street or Xiao’s Struggle but none of those words pack as much punch as the word patch.

Many writers settle for too little when choosing words. There’s an old adage: “Don’t say a bird, say a robin.” I think it’s better to paint a bigger, more detailed picture in the reader’s mind by being specific rather than generic.

So instead of using the word shoes, try  joggers, brogues, sneakers, stilettos or Nikes and let the shoes reveal something about the character. If you write he looked down at his shoes it just conveys a simple action, but if you write he looked down at his sneakers it conveys something about the character along with the action.

Verbs are often neglected when it comes to finding something with more punch. Instead of using the word put, try slipped, eased, shoved, crammed. If you write she put the letter in her pocket it’s just another simple action, but if you write she shoved the letter in her pocket there’s an added layer of meaning about how she feels about the letter.

Any added meaning within a single word is very satisfying to the reader because it enlarges the picture in the reader’s mind and it often raises questions for the reader to mull over.

One author who does this to an amazing degree is Tim Winton. He rarely uses complex words, instead he finds simple words that punch way above their weight. In one of his short stories in The Turning, he has a scene in which two brothers are surfing when a shark moves in. One of the brothers is taken by the shark and his surfboard tombstones out of the water. That word tombstones creates a very accurate picture of what a board looks like when it’s upended and shoots up out of the water, minus the surfer. On top of that, the use of tombstones conveys a sense of death without having to spell out the possibility the surfer might die. The whole story has an underlying theme of death, so it’s even more powerful in reiterating the idea behind the story. One word, many layers. Bravo Tim Winton!

When I find a word that punches above its weight, I use it sparingly. In my story Xiao’s Patch, the word patch only appears in the title and twice in the text. That’s because a powerful word sticks in the reader’s mind and any overuse would reduce its effectiveness. It’s like a little splash of red that catches your eye in a painting full of yellows and blues. It’s the little that stands out a lot. Too many red splashes and the effect is ruined.

Some words become overused, especially in the media, and begin to punch well below their weight. I avoid those. I won’t use delicious unless it has something to do with eating and I won’t call anything sexy if it doesn’t have genitals. And I definitely don’t describe a raft of anything unless it’s floating on water. When a word is overused, it loses its power and only serves as padding in the story. That’s just irritating for the reader.

I’m forever jotting down words that catch my ear or eye. I might not use them straight away but I like to collect simple words that punch above their weight. I like to let them float around in my head, waiting for the right spot in a story where they will sit comfortably, more than earning their worth.

The Long and the Short of It

There’s been a lot of interest in Skinny Fiction lately. It’s been popping up on writers’ blog sites all over the world and a lot of people are turning their hand to writing powerful stories packed into tiny word limits of 10, 25 or 100 words. Very short stories are often called Flash Fiction or Short Short Story. Whatever you call it, writing a good story in a small space is never easy.

But then, writing a good story in 100,000 words is never easy either. So what’s the difference between writing short and writing long? Is one easier than the other? Is one more satisfying to the reader than the other?

When I was in High School, there was a craze for attempting to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Not that any of us had any interest in Russian literature, nor were we particularly keen on the history of the Napoleonic Wars. It was just a BIG book. If you could make your way through it, you were considered a legend. I was never one of those legends. After attempting a few chapters and jotting down notes on who was who and what was where, and getting awfully confused, I gave up and went back to John Wyndham’s sci fi instead.

At over 500,000 words, War and Peace is still regarded as a challenge by most readers. Though, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, at 1,200,000 words, is an even bigger book. I like the little irony in the title, given the number of hours it would take to read it. It’s never been on my reading list because I really can’t afford to lose any time searching for lost time, if that makes sense. My days are short enough as it is.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is at the other end of the scale as far as word count is concerned. A slim volume, it still stands as one of my favourite books. And when it comes to short stories, Annie Proulx’s 55 Miles from the Gas Pump at only 266 words contains so much in such a little space. I often go back to read it again and again – but not too close to bedtime, still spooks me just thinking about it.

Often writers spend too much time worrying about word counts. The writer might try to pad out a story to notch it up into the novel category because a certain publisher doesn’t accept novellas. Or the writer might strip down a story to squeeze it into a literary competition with a tiny word limit. But a story can often suffer when it’s subjected to external fetters like word counts.

Of course, editing is always helpful and most stories benefit from a bit of weight loss. Whether novel or short story, my first approach is to cross out everything the reader doesn’t need to know. It’s an old piece of advice and it doesn’t only apply to short stories. Just because I’m writing a novel doesn’t mean I can throw everything  inside my head onto the page or show off every scrap of research I’ve undertaken. That’s just lazy writing and every writer needs to hone the story down through multiple drafts. Some of my stories end up a third of their original length and they’re always better for it.

The other thing I cull is dead words. These are words that don’t add anything to the sense or sensuality of the story. Words like that are habitual offenders and even the can be thrown out quite often. Other dead words might be adjectives and adverbs that add nothing special to the reader’s understanding or experience of the story. Then there are all those shallow words that can be replaced with something a lot more punchy. Lean and muscular, that’s the kind of story I like to read and that’s the kind of story I try to write.

If you’re writing Skinny Fiction, editing needs to be even more intense. When you’re limited to only ten words, you need to make sure each one is supercharged and none are wasting valuable story space.

When I start a story, I never know how long it will be. It might turn into a novel or it might be complete as a piece of Skinny Fiction. Some stories need a lot of space to be told and others need only a little space. The trick is knowing when you’ve used too many words and when you’ve used too few. Too many words, the story is likely to become boring. Too few words, the story is likely to become confusing. Either way, you risk the reader tossing it aside.

As for which is easier to write, each form has its own demands. With all that luxury of space, it can be difficult to make sure a novel isn’t obese with characters and events that don’t propel the story forward or with background and context that hijack the story altogether. On the other hand, short fiction can be downright anorexic with so little substance the story is forgotten almost the second it’s read.

So, long or short? Tolstoy or Annie Proulx?  Honestly, there’s no point comparing because every reader will have their own preferences – horses for courses, I reckon. For the writer, the really difficult task is to write a memorable story in whatever space it takes, a story that lives long after the reader has turned the last page.

So, what’s it called?

Naming a new puppy would’ve been easier. It didn’t even take me that long to come up with names for my children. But it’s taken me nearly five months to come up with a title for my blog. You’d think, being a writer, it wouldn’t be that hard. But titles are so important and they can be really difficult to nail. The title of a story or book or blog is the first thing the reader sees and it needs to shout “Oi! Over here, listen to this, here’s something worth reading!” A well-crafted title can be the difference between a reader turning the cover and having a peek inside or putting the book down and walking away.

A friend was really surprised recently when I said I had half a dozen potential titles for one of my novels undergoing yet another draft. She said, “Isn’t the title the first thing you write?” Well it might be the first thing you write but it might also be the last thing you write. Sounds strange, I know, but writers are like that. Strange.

When I start a story, I usually have a title but it’s never set in concrete. It’s just a handy compass to help me keep track of where I’m heading with the story. If the story starts to ramble or a character starts to head off in some unproductive direction, I can use the title to check I’m still telling the story I started.

The title and the opening of a story make a promise to the reader, a promise to tell a story about something that happened to someone. If the writer veers off track and starts telling all sorts of irrelevant side-stories or if the writer changes horses midstream and starts telling the story of a different main character, then the reader starts to wonder what the story is really about. If the writer doesn’t fulfill the promise of the opening, the reader is justified in feeling cheated enough to toss the story aside and walk away.

I’ve just finished reading the memoir The Inconvenient Child by Sharyn Killens and Lindsay Lewis. Apart from being a well-told story revealing some of the tragic realities of children’s institutions in Australia before 1980, I was very impressed with the title. It hits dead-centre at the heart of the story and the writers never veer from what they’ve promised right from the start. The title tells the reader who the story is about and it encapsulates the conflict – a child who was not wanted because of the inconvenience of her skin colour in a conservative white society. The story tells of the girl’s life-long search to find out where she belongs, to find the family that will accept her for who she is rather than reject her for the colour of her skin. By the end of the book, the title has borne out its promise and I found the story really worth taking the time to read.

As well as being appropriate to the story, The Inconvenient Child is a great title for grabbing a reader’s attention. The second I saw that title in a review, it had me thinking. I wanted to know how something as precious and vulnerable as a child might come to be regarded as inconvenient. I wanted to know what happened to that child, whether she ever found a place to belong. So, as far as titles are concerned, this one ticked all the boxes for me.

Sometimes, a good title just pops into my head and that’s a real gift. Often, though, it can take a lot of hard thinking and playing around with words before I’m happy to put it at the top of the story. Because a title is so important, even if I think my working title is good, I always revisit it once a story is finished. The reader is my first consideration so I always ask myself: will this title attract someone’s eye, will it raise a reader’s curiosity, will it say here’s a story worth reading? My second consideration is to check the title encapsulates the heart of the story, especially the main character and the core conflict. When a reader spots my title, I want it to be the crumb that reveals the flavour of the whole cake and I want the reader to be hungry for a bigger bite.

When readers finish the last page, close the book and put it down, usually the last thing they see is the title. For every story I write, I hope readers will see that title and say, “Right, now I get what this story is about.” And I hope the title helps them remember that story just a little longer.

Skinny Fiction – Stories Without Flab

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story in only six words. Hard to believe? Well, here it is.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Most people agree it’s a story once heard, never forgotten. Those six simple words pack quite an emotional punch. Carefully chosen, the words form a sequence leading the reader from the familiarity of something for sale, through to an intriguing set of circumstances that fire up the imagination. Who is selling the baby shoes? Why were they never worn? What happened to the baby? Or the mother?

Whenever I read Hemingway’s story-in-six aloud to a group of people, it never fails to raise hairs on the necks of some listeners. I’ve even seen people shudder at the impact of the final two words. Six little words – it never fails to amaze me that something so small can be so powerful.

Writing short stories is all about choosing words carefully and arranging them so they punch above their weight and readers are presented with layers of hinted meaning. But it’s also about leaving enough space for readers to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. It doesn’t suit every reader. If you want it all spelled out, then short story is not for you. Stick to the novel, where a comfortable bit of word-flab can be enjoyed and the imagination doesn’t have to work overtime. But if you prefer your imagination to be teased, if you like to mull over the meaning a little more, if you want to be left musing over the outcome of the story for days after you’ve read it, then the shorter the better.

Around the world right now, there’s a growing trend for shorter and shorter fiction. Gary Taaffe’s home of Skinny Fiction encourages writers to send in stories with word limits of 100, 50, 25 or 10 words. If chosen, the story is published on various websites for readers to see.

It sounds easy to come up with only 10 or 25 words but telling a complete story in such a small space is difficult. If you’d like to try it, here are a few hints I’ve found useful:

  • Centre the story around a clear main character and a single important event that changes the main character in some way.
  • Spell out a little, imply a lot. Hemingway describes the baby shoes as never worn which is minimal description but implies something much larger has occurred.
  • Cut out any word not working hard enough for the story. If Hemingway had written blue baby shoes, we might assume the baby was a boy, but does the gender of the baby really matter to the impact of the story? Not only does blue not work hard enough for the story, it also limits the reader’s imagination to a single gender baby which might make the story less powerful for some.
  • Use words or phrases with multiple meanings to add layers to the story. For sale is a simple phrase, mundane even, but it conjures up all sorts of back-story. People sell things for many different reasons and those reasons carry many different emotions.
  • Use contractions like: he’s instead of he is; or I’d instead of I would. Apart from being a trick to cut down the word count, contractions increase the pace and move the reader more quickly through the story.
  • Arrange the words to give rhythm to the story. If Hemingway had written Baby shoes for sale, never worn it would have broken up the repetitive rhythm of the baby shoes, never worn couplet, making it less punchy and less memorable.

Skinny Fiction can be a lot of fun. If you come up with some really short pieces, try sending them to Gary Taaffe at Skinny Fiction and you might find your story being published on a website for lots of readers to enjoy.

http://www.amazon.com/Maddies-Choice-ebook/dp/B00B0KQOJK/ref=la_B0099JISRU_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358817717&sr=1-1

Jacqui’s latest book release on Amazon Kindle