Why People Have Favourites

I always say that my favourite colour is purple.

It’s been purple for as long as I can remember. But I don’t own anything purple, and at work I secretly prefer the red mug. (It’s too late to admit the truth.)

If I stop to think about it, the truth is obvious: I don’t have a favourite.

How can purple be better than green or orange? While I prefer different colours in different contexts, no single shade stands out as supreme. So why do I cling onto my childhood answer instead of owning up?

Some writing advice I once read stated that in order to write believable characters, you need to understand them. You need to get into their skull. Write their diary entries. And list their favourites.

Knowing someone’s favourites is portrayed as an indication of knowing a person. But what does it actually tell you about them?

Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way.

Discussing favourites is a conversation starter, a way to find common ground. And, in writing, it’s a way to discover what truly matters to your character.

The important question isn’t what their favourite colour is — but why.

Does your character love red because it reminds them of blood, or because it’s the colour of love? Does green make them think of deathly poison, or of newly grown grass? Pinpointing your character’s thought processes is the best way to get to know them.

And if your character turns out like me, and doesn’t have favourites? At least you know they’re comfortable with ambiguity.

My Top 9 Writing Posts

I’ve been traipsing down memory lane.

What started as a leisurely browse through my archives morphed into a thorough hunt for posts about writing. Once I’d found all my victims, what else could I do but pick out the best?

My Top Nine Writing Posts

  1. 11 Rules For Writing Fiction
    Before learning about characters and craft, there’s one BIG writing obstacle to overcome: finding the time (and motivation) to write.

  2. Putting Pen to Paper
    If you write with pen and paper, you’ll spend less time fussing over the first draft and just get on with it.

  3. Burn Out
    Everyone burns out – and this is where I admitted I had. The post still resonates on a deeply personal level; every time I read it, I feel reassured.

  4. How To Start Writing Again
    The secret to rediscovering the joy of writing is to manage your own expectations.

  5. 7 Ways To Start Writing Again
    If you’ve abandoned a story, how do you get back into the habit of writing?

  6. How To Find The Time To Write
    Ten ways to find 10 minutes to write.

  7. Plotting vs Pantsing
    What’s the point in picking sides?

  8. 11 Rules For Editing Fiction
    Editing is fun. It’s like scrubbing off the dirt from your novel’s little face. But where do you start?

  9. First Impressions
    If the first thing a character does is poo in front of the reader, the reader will think of him as the Pooing Character forevermore.

Clearly, the areas that I struggle with — motivation and productivity — feature the most in my posts.

While I’m not the most prolific of bloggers, it’s reassuring to realise that I occasionally produce more than dribble.

Share your best writing-related blog post in the comments!

6 Lessons Learnt From Writing My Second Novel

Writing Above Ground took four drafts, five different outlines, and several years.

But when I published it I thought: that’s it.

I’ve done it once, so I can do it again — and now that I’ve learnt 6 lessons from my first novel, the second time will be easier. Faster.

I was wrong.

For the last year, I’ve spent hours toiling away at Darksight. It’s the reason why I’ve been rubbish at blogging (and tweeting, and facebooking…). I wanted to finish the novel by August 2015. Then August came around, and I pushed the deadline to December. And now, mid-January, I’m still not done.

Sure, what I found difficult the first time is easier today.

But I’ve stumbled across a whole new can of worms…

So here is a revised list of lessons learnt from writing novels:

Lessons Learnt From Writing My Second Novel

  1. The first time’s the hardest — or is it?
    When writing my first novel, I didn’t know whether I could finish a novel. But I also didn’t have the pressure to outperform my previous work. In some respects, it’s more frustrating now that I know I can do it, yet am struggling regardless.

  2. Perseverance is key — and it’s harder alone
    The webfiction community helped me push on through the first draft of Above Ground, with no time to agonise over each chapter. With Darksight, I’ve opted to write it all offline — and realised how much harder it is without the community support (and pressure to post).

  3. It’ll never be perfect — but when should you stop?
    I rewrote Above Ground countless times, watching my writing style develop, thinking it would be perfect the next time. I have rewritten and edited Darksight much less, mostly because I’ve taken a lot more time to get it right the first time. I’m not sure which method is worse: in either case, I need to remember to let go.

  4. Outline, outline, outline — in moderation
    I pantsed Above Ground. The first draft was a mess, and I swore never to put myself through that again. With Darksight, after the initial splurge I sat down and outlined the entire novel. I tried different outlining techniques and layouts, used index cards and excel sheets, tables in Word and bullet point lists. I have barely had to rewrite or edit, but have I outlined the life out of the story?

  5. You get better at it — kind of
    Plot construction, pacing, character development? I get it. Being able to write a novel quickly without running into writer’s block, whilst juggling work and social commitments? On this front, I still have much to learn.

  6. You never stop learning
    And you’ll always want to be a better writer than you are today. Just don’t forget to look back now and then, and recognise how far you’ve come.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress…

How To Handle Criticism

He glared at me and said, “Look how you’re dressed.”

I looked down and could see only what I had seen in the mirror that morning, the suit and shirt and tie that was customary for students at the time.

“Your suit is blue,” he said. “Your shirt is blue, your tie is blue. That’s what’s wrong with your writing.”

When my ordeal was over I slunk away from Goodman’s cubicle to rethink the sameness of my writing and to learn the value of variety. It took some time for me to learn the other lesson, that a writer, shy or not, needs a tough skin, for no matter how advanced one’s experience and career, expert criticism cuts to the quick, and one learns to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain-maker.

On Writing by Sol Stein

Effective criticism, however hard it is to take, will make you a better writer.

But how do you handle criticism — and how can you tell good feedback from bad?

  1. Detach
    Effective criticism is aimed at your story, not you. Don’t get defensive; stand back and evaluate the feedback logically.

  2. Experiment
    Criticism isn’t necessarily right or wrong, so it’s important to experiment with reader suggestions. It costs you nothing to make a copy of your story and tweak it as suggested. At worst, you’ll go back to the original version, but you may find you love the new version even more.

  3. Compare
    Criticism reveals a reader’s experience of your story. The more feedback you get, the better you’ll be able to sift through the comments and identify what is and isn’t working.

Dealing with criticism the right way will help your writing progress — so take a deep breath and learn to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain-maker.

How To Keep A Writer’s Notebook

I’ve previously written about the 7 benefits of keeping a writer’s notebook.

But how do you keep one? Should it be organised or a collection of scribbles? Should you separate prose from outlines, free writes from drafts?

The easiest answer is: do whatever feels right.

But I would argue that you should do whatever will best serve you later on — and that means pinpointing your needs to decide what kind of notebook you need.

A writer’s notebook is a tool; its aim is to help you with your writing. What kind of help do you need?

THE IDEAS NET
Perhaps you simply need a place to collect ideas. A place for quick lines of observation, description, snippets of scenes, character names and inspirational quotes.

There’s no structure to this kind of notebook–and no restrictions. You’ll browse through its contents at a later stage when you’re hungry for inspiration.

THE BRAIN DUMP
Julia Cameron promotes keeping morning pages — writing three stream of consciousness pages every morning to get the juices flowing. You may never use this content anywhere else; the aim is to get into the habit of writing and unblock your creativity.

If you want to increase productivity, this is the kind of notebook for you.

THE ONE-TRACK-MINDED
For Darksight, I’m keeping a project-specific notebook.

The beauty of a project-specific notebook is that is that it keeps me focused. I flip open to a page, and know that I can only write about ONE story. No procrastination allowed.

To keep myself organised, I’ve split the notebook into two halves.

The front half of the notebook contains outlines, character bios and family trees. (I’ve also seen other authors number the pages and leave space for an index, in order to easily find content as it builds up.)

The back half of my notebook is for snippets and scenes: pieces of prose as and when inspiration strikes.

Eventually the two halves will meet, but I love having all of my notes and reference points in the same notebook as my ideas, yet in some way organised too.

NONE OF THE ABOVE?
There are many more types of notebooks, from dream journals to diaries.

What kind of notebook do you keep? There is no right or wrong way – only what works for you and helps your writing.