5 of my current favourite quotes on writing

I like reading quotes on writing. Whether on the instagram page of @writingroutines or elsewhere, I copy out some of my favourite ones for inspiration during writing sessions and tack them on my wall.

In no particular order, here are the 5 that are currently on my wall, reminding me to keep going when things are hard.

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. – Jack London

I like this one because it’s easy to sit around waiting for “The Muse”. 

“You need to write. That’s the only thing that will make your writing better.” – Ira Glass

Sometimes I doubt that I’m getting better, but I hope I am!

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” – Lawrence Block

See blogpost on Writing Ugly

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” —Ernest Hemingway

I’m trying to work on better characters. This is a helpful reminder!

“As far as I’m concerned, the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.”- Neil Gaiman

I’m not a morning person… so this somehow serves as inspiration?

 

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When the physical impedes the mental

Normally in my writing, I have mental blocks. Writer’s block, procrastination, lack of focus. It’s all in my head (so to speak). This past week, I had a physical block.

First of all, my glasses broke, and I had to use my old pair which gave me a raging headache because the power wasn’t high enough in my right eye, so everything was ever so slightly blurry. Couldn’t write because without the glasses, I couldn’t see. But it was so bad that it was to the point of not being able to listen to podcasts. That really broke the momentum I was building from the week before.

Then, I had to go out and run errands (like getting my glasses fixed), meet people and spend time with family. All well and good, and mostly things which I normally schedule time for every week, but somehow this past week has been a little bit more full. So those things are tiring. And thus, when I got home, I fell asleep and didn’t write.

I feel like this blog post is a little “woe is me”, but I think it’s an important reminder to myself that sometimes, the best intentions fail. I felt extremely inspired to write my novel while out shopping, but physically could not. I wanted to write a short story, but I couldn’t see (and I know there are those who have it a lot worse, but it was strange to not be able to do something I took for granted). I think sometimes I take the fact that I can sit at my desk and bang my head against it for two hours a day, uninterrupted, for granted. The “muse” is often missing and I make excuses like finding the perfect playlist or needing the lamp just so, but really the physical limitations are almost worse, because then, I’m making notes on my phone that don’t make sense, and it feels like the best ideas have slipped away.

Now, if my brain and body could work together to have the best ideas when I can sit down and write… I’d probably still find things to complain about.

Favourite sources of Inspiration

Sometimes I sit down at my desk to write and I just feel stuck. Sometimes it’s lack of ideas for my work in progress, sometimes it’s lack of creativity. Here are some of my favourite sources of inspiration.

1. Reddit

I have to be careful with this one, because sometimes I’ll get distracted, so I’ve bookmarked my favourites directly. I like r/EarthPorn and r/RoomPorn (both safe for work despite the names). r/EarthPorn has amazing photos of scenery and r/RoomPorn has photos of rooms in houses or famous buildings. I like to look at them and imagine who would be at that place, or use it as a setting for my story. If I’m feeling really stuck, I try to think how I would describe the setting.

2. Conversations around me

I eavesdrop sometimes, normally when the person is being so loud there’s no way to avoid hearing them, or sometimes I just listen to conversations between my family and friends. My course lecturer had us do this. Just listen to the conversation and note it down. What context would someone have this conversation? What personality traits would this person have? This usually helps me with characterisation. I’ve started keeping a notebook with snippets of conversations I find interesting. It just helps to flip through it when I’m at home and have no conversations to eavesdrop on.

3. People watching

Similar to the above, except I just look at the people. Sometimes I go to coffee shops to write, so I’ll spend a bit of time people watching. Who are the people in the business suits and where are they rushing to? How about that angry looking woman? I try to form a narrative around them based off their clothing and their actions. I note them down in a notebook, which brings me to…

4. Ideas notebook

As I said, I keep note of my ideas. This notebook includes one-liners that popped into my head during a shower, random dreams that could make an interesting narrative, random ideas I have about people, poems – basically anything that is “creative” (I use that term loosely). I don’t worry about putting only interesting or good ideas down, but anything I feel could be an idea. When I’m stuck, sometimes the sentence that didn’t make sense last year now fits, or sometimes it just gets me thinking.

5. A good book

When in doubt, go back to the thing that inspired you to start writing in the first place. For me, that was reading. I don’t do this often, because more likely than not, I spend a few hours reading instead of writing, but it’s a fail safe. If I’m stuck for a few hours, I may as well be reading!

The main take away for all of this is that I normally just need a jumpstart to feeling creative. Even though most of these don’t directly relate to my work-in-progress, it somehow works.

When comments online almost made me stop writing

A long time ago (as in almost 7 years ago), I posted a fanfiction on Fanfiction.net. The details aren’t important, but some of the comments stuck with me until now.

Rules are rules. Don’t change them just for your Mary-Sue. She doesn’t sound too good to be true, she IS too good to be true.

Rewrite your story and try to make your characters believable.

Yeah, that hurt my tiny baby writer heart. I thought I was pretty good. Most reviews were asking for more, and saying it’s good etc.

Those comments completely derailed me. I cried. I stopped writing. I even contemplated deleting my entire FF.net profile.

But they stuck with me more than all the praise. Yeah, it was hurtful, but looking back, my character was a Mary Sue. I mean, they could have phrased it better, but in my head, I had a whole sob story background. I had reasons why she was better than everyone else. I had a whole list of reasons I wanted to post to say “THIS IS WHY SHE ISN’T”, but at the end of the day, as a writer, the readers only know what I’ve put on the page.

Feedback is so important, but I really struggle to take it. Making characters believable, but still strong and likable is a hard balance that I’m not sure I can do yet. But that was the first time in my life I had even heard of a Mary-Sue. That was the first time in my life someone had told me my writing was anything other than good.

And I took it way too far. They weren’t being needlessly cruel, they just didn’t like my work. But to me, it was a rejection of my writing as a whole. I still think about that story sometimes, and while I’ve forgotten what it was about, I remember these comments and the feeling of wanting to cower away comes back.

It took me a year before I started taking pride in my writing again, and five before I shared anything for criticism (and that was more because I had to as part of my course than wanting critique). Even now, I have to struggle not to be defensive when letting my family critique my work, because I’m not going to be able to go to every reader’s home and say “hey, my character isn’t a Mary Sue because she was abused as a child, but you won’t read that til book eight.”

Sometimes I still think of those comments, and I feel scared to write. What if people don’t like it? What if I lose the competition? What if I fail to get published? What if I self-publish and get bad reviews?

I am nervous about the short story competition. So I think that’s why these comments I had almost forgotten came back to the fore. I remember my lecturer telling me that I was ambitious, but I shy away from the “meat” of the story. I remember failing to get published in the school magazine. I remember all the failures around writing and wonder, can I really do this?

But there’s nothing I can do about any of it except improve. And I’m really trying. Slowly, I can see my improvement. And maybe now I’m aware of it, I can try to not write a character who is a Mary-Sue. At least I’m trying right?

Reflections: Rewriting my short story

Finally I’ve reached near the finish line of my short story! 51 days, 5 drafts and who knows how many backspaces later, I’m on the final draft.

Since this blog is a place for all the thoughts I’m having as I start this writing thing, I thought now would be a good time to pause and reflect on it. This is the longest piece of writing/editing that I’ve done, and man, it’s hard to stick to word counts. Even the idea from concept to now has changed completely.

Writing:

Writing this piece was hard. 5000 words seemed like very little, until I sat down to write. I found myself starting with one idea, getting stuck, then changing the idea slightly so I could move forward. Needless to say, I had very little direction when writing beyond a vague idea of plot. I used the 5 elements of plot to plan the story, but I think I had too many sub-plots that may have been better off in a novel. I had too many ideas for the number of words.

Even so, I ended up at 4815 words, which I thought was pretty decently close to the maximum. This whole process took about 3 weeks continuous writing.

Editing:

Draft 1: Just tidying it up. Since I changed the premise half-way through, I cancelled the whole premise and rewrote it to remove the original inciting incident.

Draft 2: I sent it out so that I could ask my family to read it and give me thoughts. They didn’t really like it. Feedback included – choppy, abrupt, doesn’t make sense… It was really harsh to hear when I thought it was pretty decent. The second edit included adding some details and characterization, plus an additional sub-plot to make the main character’s actions more justified.

Draft 3: I sent it out again, and the feedback came back slightly better. Still choppy, and the added characterization helped, but didn’t translate the way I meant it to. Back to the drawing board. This one I was able to be more ruthless. I cut out one of the original sub-plots, added more detail on the new sub-plot, and change an entire secondary character from grumpy but talks a lot to kind-hearted but doesn’t talk much.

By this point I was sure I was a failure and I hated everything to do with the story. Still, I persevered.

Draft 4: The comments came back positive-ish. The new additions helped, but my this point I was about 400 words over the limit. Feedback was still saying that some of the plot felt shoehorned in, and the characters were doing things that didn’t make sense. Cue massive failure feelings. I took about 5 days off to do other things, like work on my novel and not think about this, and came back feeling refreshed. I could read through the story with clearer eyes and it helped me with the last edits. I decided to remove the last two original subplots, so now the only one that remained was the new one from draft 2. The plot also underwent some rewrites, and I changed the ending completely.

Draft 5: The final draft! Draft 4 was approved by the family, saying that there were still minor errors, but overall the flow was improved. My mum said that the new ending was much better, and I could finally breathe easy when it came to edits. This last edit was mostly tidying up again and making sure everything made sense.

What I would do differently next time:

For one thing, I would not let my family read it right after I finished an edit, but give it a few days before I hand it over. I made sure to take 2 days in between the original edits, but hearing feedback right after I was done made it hard to hear. Next time, I’ll wait the two days and pass it to them when I’m ready to edit again.

Next would be to keep the plot simple. For a short story, there’s no room for convoluted sub-plots and a thousand side characters that show up once and never again. I think I was too focused on making the background rich in detail that I forgot the main story was the one that needed the detail. I kept alluding to things, but never letting them get discovered (eg, the secondary characters wife died, but only in the 3rd draft that appeared in text).

Finally, I would be more realistic about cutting things. The final draft is barely the same as the first draft, because I had to “kill my darlings”. I loved this subplot where the main character got a job offer from some secondary characters, but it just didn’t work. It didn’t fit in the story and it felt shoehorned in, even to me. But I didn’t want to let it go. So it took until the last edit that I cut it, and once it was gone, the story made more sense and I was able to give the elements that needed attention stand out.

 

Final thoughts:

Writing is hard! Surprisingly so. I’m still feeling very nervous about submitting it to the competition, but I think it’ll be a good experience. I won’t be getting feedback from the judges, but I think it’s an exercise in letting go of the perfectionist in me. Who knows, I may get lucky. If not that will at least give me an indication that my story wasn’t good enough/ready for the competition.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

 

Is conflict necessary in every single scene?

Conflict. The source of all good stories. Or is it?

Recently I watched this youtube video on knowing which scenes to cut and which to rework. It’s quite a short video with some really helpful tips, but basically it boiled down to – the scene needs conflict.

That got me searching and wondering. What is conflict (in the literary sense)? Why do you need it in every single scene?

Reading this blog post about different types of conflict just gave me more questions. Does the reader need to be off-kilter in every scene. What about if you’re writing a romance? Doesn’t the character need time to fall in love? It’s a good article, but I think at the time I just needed a better understanding about conflict.

So I searched a little more (by scrolling down on Google) and came across this discussion. I found it really useful to think of it more as tension, or underlying conflict. Like “oh, the character can fall in love, but they’re leaving in a month to travel the world”. Or perhaps, “this character and that character are going to a movie, and there’s romantic tension between them about holding hands.” In a way it is conflict, character vs self, but it doesn’t feel “conflict-y”. If you know what I mean.

This really good post about conflict puts it in the perspective of change. That helped me too. It helped me contextualise further the ideas I was having.

Going back to the first blog post. The example of a minor conflict was the towels on a bar. I felt that was very much the idea of conflict, in the sense of this character and that character are butting heads. Perhaps because I have a sister, things like that lead to a lot of resentment. Things like really small conflicts, like “should I hold his hand or not” are more easily understood as tension, or change. Should I hold his hand = that will deepen the relationship, make the stakes of moving away more real. More obvious conflicts like the example of the towels, didn’t give me the nuance I needed to understand. But once I understood conflict a little more, the blog post was really useful.

After all of that, I thought about it a little more. I read quite a bit of manga, and the “slice of life” genre is quite fun and relaxing to read. Just ordinary people, going about ordinary things. Conflict in the sense of disagreement isn’t always in every scene. Sometimes it’s just “we did a good job at the school festival, let’s celebrate.” But isn’t that just the resolution of the conflict “we need to finish the preparations in time”.

Even in daily, boring life, there is conflict. What will win, the desire to nap or to study? What should I eat for dinner, chicken or fish? Will I finish this blog post on time to go up Sunday? I just didn’t consider that “conflict”.

Perhaps another way of thinking about it is “is there a question.” Will she hold his hand? Will he kiss her back? Will she choose to tidy the towels? Will they save the world?

I went on this search because I thought “conflict isn’t necessary”, but now I say “yes, have conflict in every scene.” Just perhaps more conflict than “will she eat chicken or fish for dinner.”

Writing Ugly… is good?

I did an introductory course to creative writing a while ago and my lecturer used to say “write ugly, don’t be afraid to write ugly”. I thought it was to not be afraid to write about ugly things. Don’t shy away from topics that are gruesome or potentially controversial. Don’t be afraid to write about ugly things, rubbish things. He never really explained it, and I never really thought about it all too much.

While I think that’s my original viewpoint was necessary at the time, I found out there was another meaning to his advice.

Don’t be afraid to write badly.

I read this article (link) and it turns out, writing ugly can also mean writing a rubbish first draft to tweak and improve later on.

If you’re like me and get caught up in finding the perfect word or phrase, you’ll never get anything written. Most of the time even when I try to take the time to perfect it, it’ll change in editing. I’ll spend hours labouring over how to describe a stew, and end up with “the stew was rich” once edited. Purple prose is something I don’t quite understand yet, but I do know that a paragraph on stew is not necessarily good writing, even if I spend a long time on it.

I think the point is to not be afraid of failure to write. Don’t be obsessed with perfection the first go around. Forget your ego, your pride and just write the story you want to tell. Put in those grammatical errors and spelling mistakes – then fix them later.

Forget yourself. Forget what others might say. Write.

I’ve been trying to write ugly for a while now. It’s hard work. I am getting more written, but the word count is not reflective of what I’ll edit into. For my novel, I’m trying not to edit as I go along, as the plot and characters are evolving and changing. Plot continuity errors will need to be fixed later on. Being unafraid to write ugly means that I’m challenging myself to write an entire piece that is a mess. I’m less afraid of messing up, because it’s a mess anyway. I don’t need to spend 4 hours reading about when you type “four” or “4”, because I’ll just write what’s natural in that moment.

It’s uncensored. It’s unfiltered. It’s amazingly freeing. It’s incredibly difficult.