My thought for Today – Aphorism Number Four – Crawl Before you Walk: Walk Before you Run – isn’t at first sight much to do with writing a novel. On the other foot, how can you produce 80,000 words in good and attractive order if you’ve never strung a grammatical sentence together?
The skills needed to write a novel include the skills used in producing a novella, short story, letter home to Mum and, in my case, drama. They might not be used in the same way or in the same order, but they are the building blocks of a writer’s trade.
Selling that first novel, placing that first drama, is an exhilerating but scary business. Fast on the heels of the euphoria is a sinking feeling. How can I repeat this? How can I produce a second novel the publisher will also sign up? And that’s where the aphorism holds good.
Almost anyone could write a best selling one-off. It might be wonderful prose, or it might be wonderfully promoted. Stellar success is not always the result of slog although most of us recognise the actor’s favourite saying – “After twenty years in the business, I became an overnight sensation.”
If you have written for a long time, then you are likely to have the skills to fall back on to do it again. If you become a media darling in too short a time, it could be problematic. The Edinburgh Fringe can project stand-up comedians into their own tv show. They don’t always have the grounding or material to sustain that change in pace.
If you, the novelist, have worked on several themes over a period in writing short stories, then you have a resource to raid.
If you, the dramatist, have written one acts, you know how to re-write a slow scene into compelling dialogue.
If you the writer, crawled out of bed and walked to the corner shop for the milk, the brain should be ready to run with the impressions formed.
This aphorism is easy to call to mind at present when Scotland is basking in wonderful sunshine and heat. Make hay while the sun shines probably arises from our agrarian past. Don’t hang about and let the grass get wet again if you want to feed your animals. Metaphorically, it’s a wise injunction to the writer who has found their voice or whose work is particularly popular at present.
It can be difficult for creatives to repeat. So you’ve written a wonderful short story about young love in the frozen north – why would you want to go back to that theme? Because the readers who loved it will love another. With luck and a penname, they won’t be able to come after you with madness in their eye and a hammer in their hands, but many readers do like to find a writer whose books are similar one to another.
There are all sorts of things you can do to avoid the work becoming stale. I write historical romance and while I hope people who liked Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer will find my voice attractive, it is nonetheless subtly different. Mariah’s Marriage has no grand Ball scene, for example. I also like to give the servant class a voice. Maybe I know where I would have been living!
Another kind of hay-making creatives take up is writing in the manner of… how many young wizards have donned their cloak? How much erotica has seen the light of day? Had you any idea that vampires were dead, well, and living on a street near you? While publishers and editors are emphatic that what they want to see is an original voice, there’s no doubt that writing in the manner of is commercially successful for a lot of people. It always has been.
Think back to the day of the omniscient narrator when stories, often set in the South-Seas, began with “I was told this tale by…” Very few people made it further than the next town on the bus, or Rothesay for two nights in the Fair fortnight, of course they wanted to soak up a world of old salts and fast women vicariously. Of course the writer who wants to sell will write it.
Making hay while the sun shines can also hold a bit of warning, I think. As a daughter, wife, mum and grandma, I know exactly how tempting it is to get everything else sorted before turning to the Wip. And then the sun may have gone down – or the muse fallen asleep under the sheer weight of tasks attempted. NaNonWriMo was an eye-opening experience where that’s concerned.
There’s not a lot of sun during November in Scotland, but there’s electric light. Setting aside the mundane, the duty stuff, for a month wasn’t easy. It did pay off though, and Bella’s Betrothal, coming in the autumn from MuseItUp, is the result.
I did this sort of thing once before when I took up the Edinburgh University Febfest playwriting workshop. It was on a Wednesday evening when other commitments were heavy. Even so, it was there, and performance of one’s play was the carrot. Not to be set aside for another day. I’ve never regretted it.
aominedinburgh (Tuesday, 16 July 2013)
A lively and entertaining readrnI used to read lots of historical romances but haven’t for quite a while. Well, this book just hits the spot! It has two great main characters in Mariah, a romantic heroine with a modern touch, and Tobias, who steps into her life right on the first page. All the way through the story there is enough detail built in to set the scene without overwhelming us with too much description just for the sake of historical accuracy. It’s a very enjoyable read.rnSit back and enjoy yourself, you’re in good hands here!
Thanks so much aom for leaving your card. It’s lovely to know you enjoyed your visit to my fictional world.
The Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference (RNA) was held this year in Sheffield University at The Edge. Lovely campus set among established Victorian houses with many mature trees (given the wonderful hot summer weather, this was important) and a rolling expanse of parkland behind the dorms.
After stuffing goody bags on Friday morning, I set off for the Botanic Gardens where the bees were hard at work making honey.
One of the main attractions of the conference is the social side. Writing can be a solitary, even isolating activity, and it’s great to get together with folk who are like-minded.
My fellow MuseItUp authors, Helena Fairfax and Marie Laval came along on Saturday for the day.
Scots based writers were thin on the ground this time, but Eileen Ramsay, Scarlet Wilson and Susan Bergen all made the trip too. I also met the delightful Ruth Long who has an uncle and aunt living round the corner from me in Edinburgh! And Canadian based Diana Scott who trained as a nurse in the ERI. One of my flat buddies is an ex-pat Scot, Jacqueline Cooper, and she distinguished us by coming third in the Elizabeth Goudge trophy comp. Congratulations, Jacquie. the brief was the first 2,000 words of a novel with the theme Ice.
Two first for me this year. I appeared on a panel as a New Writers’ scheme graduate. I signed up to do a report of a talk: Food revealing character. No idea why I chose that one. Oh well, maybe a little idea. You can read that in a future Romance Matters if you’re an RNA member.
We’ve all seen those cutesy aprons, post it notes, banners etc. If All Else Fails – Do what the Captain suggested. Or – Read the Instructions.
How many times have you come home from a trip to an unimaginable meltdown and seethed with impotent fury? Yes, they did know you’d left a note, but how hard could it be?
Clearly, hard enough for the captain’s advice or the instructions to have been needed. And don’t say you’ve never done it. I don’t believe you.
So how do these two versions of an aphorism relate to writing as an art or craft you may be asking? What do I need beyond basic grammar and a better than average vocabulary in my own language?
I teach short story writing and act as a reader for short story competitions. I’ve written reams in student critiques about the basic principles of creative writing. Occasionally, a student changes their practice and pretty soon after can report a sale or prize. Most often they carry on regardless and continue to wonder why stuff wings its way back with a form rejection.
What are my top tip instructions? Here are a few:
Short means short. Do not believe the short story reader actually wants a four volume saga. S/he does not. Know your characters inside out and keep that background work off the page and infused into dialogue and actions.
Basic grammar is important. Read everything that comes your way. Stuff that is easy to read is stuff that does not make you stop to re-read in order to understand it. It may be so beautiful, you want to re-read, but that’s different. Do the pronouns refer back to the nearest proper noun? Do the verb tenses match? Are those apostrophes in the correct position? Are those apostrophes needed? Is direct speech started on a fresh line and enclosed in single or double quotes as needed? Have all exclamation marks been removed?
Put the work away for some time. This is one of the single best ‘rules’ for a writer. When you return to a piece, you will read it with the eye of a reader and mistakes and infelicities will jump off the page. Sometimes, lines you thought were peerless when you wrote them, are impossible to understand. Don’t panic. Time will bring back the meaning and you’ll be able to re-jig the words so anyone can understand on first reading.
Never ask a member of the family for an ‘honest’ opinion. I wonder how many marriages falter over that dreaded request? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so with writing. If your daughter is devoted to sci-fi, she’s probably not the best person to ask about your sequel to Gone With the Wind. If your husband fancies eating well for the rest of his natural life-span, he’s not going to tell you about the number of times you’ve used ‘just’ on p 136. This rule applies to many writing workshops, too, sadly. Well meaning support is great, but not when it doesn’t help you to see the obvious flaws.
I could go on (students might tell you that’s true) but you’ve probably got the gist. Before you can be a gifted breaker of the rules, you need to know what they are.
Although no whisky was broached in making this post, you’ll have your own favourite tipple, or hot or cold drink, to complete your enjoyment of a good book. I hope you’ll agree Mariah’s Marriage is a good book. Marjorette thought so and in giving it five ***** on amazon, said:
“Doesn’t it give you a thrill to see `London 1822′ at the beginning of a book? You know you’re about to be transported back to the elegant Regency era. Here, we know right away that Mariah is not typical of her class – `She’d just spent an hour teaching sixty urchins their letters …’ As she leaves the schoolroom and stumbles on the street to avoid a charging pig, she is caught by a passing stranger. This is the man we later find to be Toby Longreach, seventh Earl of Mellon `who walked with an air that told Mariah he was used to command’. The course of their subsequent relationship is thwarted at various turns, climaxing with the headstrong Mariah being in real danger from the obnoxious, debt-stricken Sir Lucas Wellwood who is determined that his sister will marry Toby.
Mariah and Toby are real flesh-and-blood characters and I loved their story – look forward to hearing more from Anne Stenhouse.”
You will be hearing more, Marjorette when Bella’s Betrothal joins Mariah’s Marriage in the autumn. Meantime if anyone is looking for a relaxing weekend read, this is for you:
Mariah’s Marriage, London 1822
She increased her step and left the safety of the pavement without sufficient attention. A loose pig charged toward them and she backed instinctively, catching her foot against the kerbstone and falling into the arms of a passing stranger.
“I say, sir,” Peter began, but his blustering was quelled into silence.
Mariah was dimly aware of him holding back while the stranger lifted her from danger. The strength flowing from her rescuer calmed her nerves, and she lay against his chest for a long moment. It was not until she realised he was struggling to keep laughter at bay that she wriggled to be free.
“My escort is right, sir,” she protested. “While I thank you for rescuing me from an inglorious bump, I am quite able to stand.”
“I regret that very much,” the stranger said, and his voice held warmth Mariah was sure must draw others to him. “However, I cannot allow my baser instincts to take advantage over such a fortuitous meeting.” He re-positioned her on the flagstones, keeping hold of her elbow for a moment or two.
Mariah straightened her bonnet and brushed down her clothes while she regained a little self-possession. The stranger was not as young as she might have thought at first, probably around thirty years of age. He had good colour, indicating he spent much time out of doors, and he carried himself with an air that told Mariah he was used to command. She suspected he might be an army officer or half-pay captain.
“Out of harm’s way, ma’am,” the stranger said, and she recognised the accent of her late mama’s county, Somerset. “The streets are very busy at this time in the day. Why, I was nearly bowled over myself two minutes ago by a troop of urchins fleeing from this very building.”
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Honesty is the Best Policy was the title of the first ever debate I took part in at my secondary school, West Calder High School. I’d come through S1 and in S2 was allowed to stay on after hours to attend things like debating societies and drama clubs organised in part by pupils, but mostly by our peerless Head of English, Doctor Lillian MacQueen.
My contribution to the debate involved a gentle ribbing of one of the fourth year boys, are you reading this Charles Rigg, about the quality of his recent haircut. While I might have one opinion of the haircut, I said, I might find it kinder to say something else. It raised a huge laugh and my school career in debating was launched.
Novelists, dramatists and other fiction writers, have much experience of this double-edge. Too strict an adherence to the facts and you’re writing reportage: too great a departure from human nature and no reader will believe in your characters.
However, I would argue that we do have a duty to honesty in writing our stories. The honesty we need to practise is to the central truth of our story. Never, ever end with the cop-out line – It was all a dream. Avoid miraculous personality changes such as only happen in real life after catastrophic head injury. Never, ever, write what you think your mum would like to read.
Believe me, you don’t know what your mum would like to read.