Let Them Write Cake

Last Sunday I baked a batch of jam tarts that failed spectacularly.

I rolled the pastry too thick, didn’t put enough jam, and proceeded to overcook them. My boyfriend kindly described them as “interesting” — I’d show you a photo if I wasn’t so embarrassed.

It’s rather ironic, therefore, that one of my most viewed posts is this delicious analogy comparing fiction to baking cakes.

The truth is, I consider myself both a good baker and a good writer. Not brilliant at either, mind, but certainly past novice level.

Writing credits aside, I’m a brownie queen. A chocolate chip cookie ninja. I’ve successfully made jam tarts numerous times.

Yet last weekend I screwed up. My skills are rusty. I’m cake-deprived!

Before you start questioning my sanity and/or blood sugar levels, I’ll get to the point:

Writing — and baking — take practice.

I’ve no qualms about throwing a failed cake into the bin. I didn’t let those jam tarts prey on my mind, or give me baker existential crisis.

There’s nothing wrong with having an “off” day: I know I can do it, I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’ve moved on.

Yet when it comes to writing, I take each failure personally.

I come away from an unproductive writing session with nothing to show for it and feel DEFEATED. Plagued with doubts.

It was only when I was surveying the desolate landscape of overcooked crumbs, that I remembered to stop beating myself up.

While writing means a lot more to me than baking does, the principles are the same: practice makes perfect.

Instead of letting my failures knock my confidence, I should treat each writing setback like that batch of jam tarts: learn and move on.

Eventually, I will write cake.

How To Kill Off A Character

From a reader’s perspective, a death pulls me into the story on a deeply emotional level. Perhaps because it is a safe way to mourn for the little deaths in my own life — the stresses and worries and losses. Or because it feels real, far more than any happily-ever-after.
On Character Deaths

I’ve been thinking about character deaths again — why sometimes they work, and other times they’re off the mark.

A well-planned character death can lift a story out of the mundane, pull at your heartstrings, and catapult the plot into a new direction.

A poorly-planned death will, at best, send your readers into a rage.

So how do you successfully kill of a character?

  • Decide who to kill
    The more prominent a character is, the more considered their death will need to be. A stranger’s death can be a simple plot device; a secondary or main character’s death needs to be more, and cause a greater emotional aftermath on the survivors.

  • Have a GOOD reason
    Don’t kill someone just to shock your readers. A death should drive a story forward, cause character progression, or be the inevitable climax of a downward spiral. If you’re killing someone off simply because you don’t need them anymore, evaluate whether you needed them in the first place.

  • Be 100% certain
    That character isn’t coming back. Ever. Don’t be desperate; none of this “I was reincarnated from my angel form”. So make sure you don’t need them for future scenes and/or that you have a replacement character waiting to pick up the pieces.

  • Make it plausible
    Is it suicide? Murder? Old age? Disease? The death needs to make sense. Is your character emotionally stable (therefore unlikely to commit suicide) or do they love putting their life on the line? If they are murdered, who kills them and why?

  • Foreshadow it
    Don’t kill someone out of the blue; drop clues that it’s on the cards. If your character has a heart attack, show him taking aspirin earlier on. If your character is shot during a protest, include tensions between the police and the public from day one.

  • Don’t be afraid to let go
    Chances are you know who needs to die, and why. Instead of running around trying to save them, let your character fulfill their destiny. Your readers will thank you for it.

How do you kill off your characters — and why?

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…