Make Hay while the Sun Shines.

penrith and howat 2012 028

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.

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If All Else Fails…


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?
A lot.
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.