Five tips to fight bland writing

bland

For the past week, my writing has been somewhat uninspired. I’m showing up every day and putting in the hours but at the end of each session, I read the new material and get a profound sense of ‘blah’.

So instead of proclaiming war via the delete button, I spent yesterday mining through my writing diary (all fifteen years of it) for ways I have previously put the fire back into my writing. Here are five of my favourite tips.

Cut out the waffle

Make sentences punchy by getting rid of the fluff. I love a good adverb, but why write ‘she quickly grabbed’ when you can say ‘she seized/pinched/hauled’?  Hunt down the words ending in ‘ly’ and give them a good drubbing.

Similarly, words like ‘kind of’, ‘can try’, ‘almost’ and ‘somewhat’ need to go. Decisive language is much more compelling.

Mix up the sentence lengths

I have a habit of writing long (like, really long) sentences. In the past, I have set myself the challenge of making every third sentence no longer than five or six words. This is particularly helpful when redrafting. I’ll pull out one page, shorten the sentences and then compare the pace of that page to those surrounding it. Obviously, you don’t need to be dogmatic. You don’t need to only shorten every third sentence, but it is a helpful exercise on how to quicken the pace.

Make friends with the thesaurus

Instead of saying ‘She walked across the room’, try ‘She prowled/scuttled/inched’. Personally, I love my thesaurus book—there’s something wonderful about opening a random page and making use of whatever I find there. The only caution is to not go overboard, as sometimes simplicity is best. Plus you can overuse your new words, and trust me, readers are going to notice when you’ve used ‘scuttled’ three times in a chapter.

Write flash fiction

I admire people who write flash fiction. It’s damn hard. You have to tell an entire story in a few short paragraphs, and achieve it by showing, not telling. The key, I’ve found, is to focus on one powerful image, launch straight into the action, strip away a heap of backstory and include story questions that keep the reader guessing until the end. By the time you’ve completed the piece, you’re buzzing with creativity and ready to get back to that bigger project.

Get emotional

As many of my readers will know, I spent the last eight or so years engaged in corporate writing. I got pretty good at using dry, generic language like ‘world leading’, ‘innovative’, ‘comprehensive range’ and ‘customer solutions’. These words are used so much in our everyday lives that they have lost any meaning.

So find ways to influence the reader’s emotions. Instead of ‘old’ try ‘stale’ or ‘threadbare’. Instead of ‘fat’, try ‘bulbous’ or ‘stout’. Emotive words let you guide the reader towards a positive or negative response. For example, ‘statuesque’ gives a positive impression of ‘tall’ whereas ‘looming’ has negative connotations. Have fun with it.

For me, I’ll be giving the flash fiction a shot today. I have a particular image stuck in my head that has nothing to do with my novel. I’ll immerse myself in it and then hopefully come out refreshed and ready to get back to redrafting.

I hope these tips are helpful for you, too.

February Challenge

Following last week’s almost-decision to give up my dream of full time writing, I’ve been thinking about why I lack the belief that I can have a successful writing career. Despite quitting my corporate job, moving interstate and turning my back on a new profession—all so that writing remains my first priority—I can’t shake the fear that my writing dreams will never be a reality.

So I’ve set myself a February Challenge—to write something positive every day about my writing life. An affirmation, if you will. Today’s is ‘I am grateful and thankful to be living out my passion as a writer.’

I have it on a sticky note above my table so that I can keep looking at it throughout the day. Tomorrow, I’ll put a new affirmation beside it, and then another and another until I have 28 positive thoughts, compliments and affirmations stuck to the wall.

My hope is that some of that positivity will seep in and I can get onto the best part of being a writer—actually writing!

It sounds a bit egotistical covering my wall with pep talks and compliments, but if I don’t truly believe in my writing aspirations, who will?

A dream and a sure thing

I can see myself writing every day from now until my deathbed. Genetically I have a good shot at that being in my nineties, so long as I respect my body, brain and soul. I can also see myself as a published writer, writing the stories I want to read as opposed to the corporate writing that has been my life for the past eight or so years. But right now, being a published writer is a dream rather than a reality, and it’s a scary thing to structure my life around.

A few days ago, I got offered a place at university for a degree I have been interested in since I was a teenager. Over 4000 people applied for this course, and I was one of 150 people to get in. In the excitement, I accepted. In four short years, I would be assured a job in an industry with global reach, where every day was different, where my experiences would enrich my writing, and where I could make a difference every day to people who were likely having the worst day of their lives.

And yet, for the past few days, I have been inconsolable. I have bawled my eyes out at being bitten by a mosquito, for stubbing my toe, for seeing a cute puppy on instagram. A constant ball of anxiety churns in my guts and I am driving my family and friends mental with varying levels of hysteria.

Despite getting into a course I have wanted to do for more than fifteen years, I have to acknowledge one incontrovertible truth.

I have made a mistake.

If all I want to do is write, why would I commit to a new career that could only draw me away from writing? There is only one answer: because it is safe.

I am in constant fear that the sacrifices I have made for writing will be for nothing. I worry I have many more sacrifices to make for something that may never happen. I feel my writing is not good enough to be published. And I fear that no one will like what I have to say.

But the option of a safer, more comfortable life lies before me and I cannot take it. I cannot bear the thought of hiding behind a career in a respected industry, where it doesn’t matter whether I chase my dream of writing.

So today I withdrew from the course, and now I feel weepy because of a wholly different reason:

I am back on the right path.

Writers groups

Last night, I went to the local fantasy and sci fi writers group’s first session of the year. They seem like a great bunch of people, keen to chat about what they know about the craft and where they’re at with their own projects. That being said, I left the session feeling frustrated rather than inspired.

This surprises me, because there is nothing better than being around like-minded people, as I discovered with my beloved Melbourne writers group, whom I’m keeping in touch with via skype.

It’s led me to realise that I need not just a writers group that discusses the craft of writing, but a critique group that evaluates each other’s work and holds them accountable. I also enjoy structure, in that the session is planned out with specific activities that run for a controlled amount of time, plus someone who monitors the meeting and ensures that everyone gets their fair share of air time.

I think there are certain things that can destroy a writers group – members who want different things, an overbearing attendee who hijacks the proceedings, disrespect towards the work of other people in the group, and an inability to reel in the tangents that inevitably happen in a group of passionate writers.

I’ll give this group another shot. It’s always difficult when joining an established writers group, and like I said, these people are good folk.

No doubt I’ll let you know how it all pans out.

Perspective

Today is the first day in my new home. It’s nestled at the base of a mountain range and is only a few short kilometres from the beach. The sound of lorikeets, peacocks and horses come from the paddock beyond the back fence, and a beautiful, brindled hound called Thor gambols through the grass with my own pooch.

It’s also ridiculously hot, with humidity so thick that your lungs feel stodgy. Mosquitos bomb-dive you day and night, and the ground constantly squelches underfoot. Only a few plants survive in the backyard, not because of neglect but because the combination of heat and clay soil is utterly unforgiving. After 8am, the biting sun keeps you from going outside, so you put on the TV only to get warnings of dengue fever, river-borne viruses and cyclones.

The reality is that each place we live in is a blend of inspiration and compromise. I’m just grateful that all of these experiences can end up on the page and enrich my work.

Don’t know what you’ve got…

Sheldon the salty sea dog

With only a few short days left until I load up the dog and start the 2500km drive north, I’ve come to realise that leaving my home city is a gift. I visit my regular haunts with a sort of fond regret, thinking, ‘This is the last time I will visit this place, see this person, eat this food…’

It has made me notice the cobweb on the window of my favourite café, the laugh of the cashier at the local supermarket and the smell of salt water rolling off the bay. It’s showing up in my writing, too, with my characters interacting more thoroughly with their surroundings. I’m concentrating on minute, sensory details, and so the scenes are better because of it.

Our everyday activities provide rich fodder for our writing. Although it took my leaving to appreciate this, I’m thankful for the reminder.

Celebrating success

A friend asked me this morning how my ten day challenge went. I told her I had written 13,000 words instead of the stipulated 20,000. Her response? ‘That’s a shame.’

It got me thinking about how it’s been ingrained into us to celebrate the big successes, never the smaller or partial ones. Sure, living out a life where you never achieve your goals can be a hollow one, but as writers, I think we have an amazing bit of leeway. Every word written and minute spent at the desk is an affirmation to our writing lives. And we should celebrate them.

So once the high of declaring your new year’s resolution is gone and you’re in the shaky territory that comes afterwards, remember to revel in all of your successes.

Bring on 2015!

Ending the year on a high

Kelly's a lefty

I’ll point out the obvious by saying the festive season is full of distractions. It’s a time when most things are set aside for family, friends and food. It’s a great time of year but when your goal is to be a published writer, putting your work on hold is a tough ask.

Despite a busy year of writing, I am approaching the end of 2014 with a bit of anxiety. Not because I haven’t done enough; it’s because I fear the break in momentum will result in a full scale cessation of writing. It’s happened before. There have been times when I haven’t written a word for nigh on eight months. I have fair reason to be worried.

That’s why, with ten days left in 2014, I’ve decided to see out the year by writing 20,000 words. That’s a measly 2,000 words a day. Sounds doable. In truth, it feels like a big task with all of the holiday activities going on in the background (did I mention I’m also currently packing up my house for the move to Queensland?).

Nonetheless, committing to a short, time-specific goal feels like a crucial step for me. What better way to see in the new year than to see out the old with an explosion of words on the page? I’ll let you know how I go.

How will you see out 2014?

Redrafting: what I’ve learnt so far

The thrill of completing the first draft is a heady one. I remember dancing around the front lawn and babbling to friends and family for almost a week about how amazing it was to have finally reached the end of this manuscript. Because in truth, this manuscript has existed in various forms for the last ten years—started on, abandoned, rewritten, ignored, deleted, restarted, despised, adored, gutted and reborn until that very first kernel of an idea is unrecognisable in the finished (hah!) work.

Having stepped away from it for a few weeks and gorged myself on books, blogs and beloved authors, I returned to the manuscript in October feeling ready for anything. I printed out the manuscript, read it through and knew that the bones were good. The direction of the story made sense. What a relief!

Then it was time to acknowledge what needed work. In September, I was fortunate to undertake a spec fic masterclass through Writers Victoria with Aussie writer Marianne de Pierres. The masterclass focused on narrative drive and world building, and I came away armed with the knowledge that my manuscript could do with a bit more of both—thanks, Marianne!

Upon reading the complete manuscript, however, I realised that perhaps I had been a bit naïve about the task at hand. Of the two main characters, one seriously lacked motivation and narrative drive. By that, I mean I could not answer the questions ‘What does he want?’ and ‘What are the consequences of him not getting that?’ They’re kind of important story questions.

Immediately, I set to work. I read multiple books and excerpts about character development, mined the net for gems and set up a lengthy questionnaire to which I diligently came up with the answers regarding who my main character was and why he was that way. Then I did the same for my other main character. Then the two key sub-characters.

Feeling good about myself, I returned to the manuscript and redrafted the first three chapters (my manuscript had started in the wrong place, so the first 15,000 words were to be completely new… but that’s another matter).

Reaching the end of the third chapter, something felt wrong. Yes, I knew the characters intimately now, knew their pasts, their families, their motivations, who they hate and love, all their wants and whys and wherefores.

But I didn’t really know where they were or what was going on around them and how that would affect their adventures. Or, at least, I didn’t know enough to carry me through the redraft. Time for world building.

Now, anyone who has built their own world knows it’s not simply about drawing a map and proclaiming the existence of a kingdom/empire/province/planet. World building is about the physical landscape, countries, cultures, religion, politics, history, agriculture, magic, trade, food, city life, rural life, and a myriad of other things. Plus the consequences of these things. For example, perhaps there are no birds in your world. Do insects have run of the place? Are there new apex predators like spiders or aphids? How does this affect everyday life? As the writer, you have to know the answers.

My manuscript involves four kingdoms—a main character comes from one kingdom, a threat comes from another, the story begins in a third kingdom, and 90% of the story takes place in the fourth kingdom. It would be easy to concentrate on the fourth kingdom and rely on peripheral knowledge for the rest. But my manuscript will suffer for it, and I’m pretty sure readers will catch me out on my laziness.

I headed to the hallowed Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) website (www.sfwa.org) and took advantage of their very comprehensive set of world building questions. Do yourself a favour and give it a shot.

It took almost three weeks of full time work to discover and explore my four kingdoms. Now, you might think over a hundred hours of world building is excessive. It isn’t. I could probably do more work on it, and as I get further along the redraft, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I’ll do. If you want your world to ring true, you have to know it intimately—well beyond anything the reader will ever know. It’s exhausting and time consuming but invigorating, too.

Having created a newly complex world, I then went back to the characters and re-did the questionnaires. Why? Because their culture, history and landscape informs who they are in the manuscript.

I’m now back on the manuscript itself, armed with the knowledge gained from all of this background work. In a nutshell, here are the key pointers I’ve discovered since starting the redraft:

  • Step away from your manuscript once the first draft is complete. Give yourself a few weeks to relax and let new ideas germinate.
  • Read the whole manuscript. I recommend printing it out as you can put notes in the margins about things that need to be addressed later on.
  • Do not line edit! The second draft is not about going line by line and creating beautiful sentences. It’s about the wholesale slaughter of scenes and characters, worlds and plots. You have to be merciless and inventive on a macro level. Pretty words are for the third draft, or fourth, or fifth (you get the idea).
  • Create a comprehensive and complex world. Don’t be lazy. Take the time to know your world in ways that no one else ever will.
  • Revisit your characters and analyse their motivations and who they are. Know them intimately. Again, laziness will kill the manuscript.
  • Be fearless. Redrafting is hard work, and a lot of it never shows up on the page.

I admire writers who do the development work before writing the first draft. Perhaps it saves them time in the redrafting stages. Obviously I’m not geared like that and the benefits to me are obvious. I’ve fallen in love with my characters and world all over again.

And I cannot wait to make them suffer.

What have you discovered in the redrafting process?

It takes sacrifice to be a writer

photo 5

Earlier in the year, I was a steaming hot mess. I despised my job in marketing, suffered migraines every couple of days, forgot what it meant to be happy, and discovered that I could eat a whole pizza on my own and still have room for dessert. And every night I woke up in the wee hours, staring at the ceiling and acknowledging yet another day where I had not worked on my novel.

Now, before you heave a sigh and take off in search of a more upbeat blog on the writerly life, let me tell you what changed.

I decided to be a novelist.

In truth, I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I’ve completed two fantasy manuscripts and have started dozens more that will probably never be finished. I’m a member of various writers associations, spent three years as the editor of a leading industry magazine, have a degree in writing, done numerous writing short courses, have a few published short stories, written countless press releases and articles, and am part of a very healthy monthly writers group.

In spite of all that, a few months ago I had to face the grim truth I was not the writer I ached to be. Why? Because in the span of a year, I had written perhaps 5,000 words on my own projects. The writing I was doing was for my day job—dry articles on vehicle suspension, replacement differentials and engineering developments. It was soul-sucking stuff for someone whose mind wanders the clouds, dreaming of one day being a full-time fantasy novelist.

After months and months of staring at the ceiling, I knew I had to make a choice. Either become a full time novelist or don’t.

I chose to be a novelist.

It meant removing the excuses I had created in order to avoid novel writing—excuses I had created because I was scared. They weren’t the small excuses, either, like not having a comfortable chair to sit on or enough time in the day to show up at the desk. These excuses revolved around a job that sapped my creativity, a worksite that affected my health, the demands of friends and family, financial struggles and my mental wellbeing.

So I quit my job—with no other job to go to. I removed people from my life who did not support my writing goals. And I sat alone in a quiet house for months with nothing but my laptop, a snoring Labrador and my shaky resolve.

It’s been the most important decision of my life so far.

Since quitting my job in August, I’ve written the first draft of my third book, and am now working on the redraft. In the new year I will be taking my dog, my worldly possessions and myself out of Melbourne and up to sunny Queensland, where I will live with family for a while and find some sort of part time job that covers the bills and lets me focus on novel writing. I expect that some people won’t understand why I’ve thrown aside a promising career and a decent life in Melbourne. I suspect some will call me foolish for choosing to be novel writer when I don’t have a single published novel to my name. And I know others will think I’m arrogant and egotistical for proclaiming myself a writer.

But I’m happy. I write novels because there is nothing else I want to do, no other form of writing I want to write, and no other way to live my life.

I know I am fortunate to have been able to quit paid work for a few months in order to write—most people don’t have that luxury. But every writer has to make sacrifices, whether it is time with family and friends, social outings, sleep and sleep-ins, hobbies, TV and housework (though I don’t view giving up the latter as a particularly onerous sacrifice).

It’s a reality writers expect because the alternative is unacceptable.

What have you sacrificed for your writing?