mjhearle

Month: April, 2011

Writing Winter

‘Write what you know,’ is one of those oft-repeated adages you hear when seeking advice about writing. For some reason, I never really took to it. I mean it sounds great and all in theory, but if I sat down to write what I know it would be limited to watching movies, playing guitar, a bit of travel and talking crap with my friends. Not exactly the stuff of resonant literature. I’m sure Tolkien didn’t know much about living in a hobbit hole or fighting orcs and goblins, yet he had no trouble writing four books about it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Long Walk

Writing is hard. Maybe not working in a coal mine, swinging a pick axe hard, but probably a lot harder than non-writers would believe. Sure we get to spend all day in our pyjamas, have as many tea and biscuit breaks as we like, forgo personal hygiene because the only person we interact with all day is our dog and they don’t care if we haven’t brushed our teeth or put deodorant on – but these are just the fringe benefits of what can occasionally be a punishing profession. Over the next couple of posts I want to talk about some of the problems I ran into when I started writing, so you can hopefully avoid them.

Let’s start with The Guilt. Read the rest of this entry »

Outlining, or how I learnt I wasn’t a creative genius

When I first put pen to paper, or more accurately fingers to keyboard, I had the opening scene of Winter’s Shadow pretty well figured out. This might surprise you, Welcome Reader, but it’s actually incredibly beneficial to have somewhere to start your story before you actually, you know…start your story. Not only did I have a beginning, I also had a pretty crackerjack ending in mind. I knew who was going to live, and who was going to die. It was just the middle part that I was a little hazy on. But surely that would just work itself out, right?

Wrong! Read the rest of this entry »

Find Winter – Part 2

I started jogging when I turned twenty-nine. Not coincidentally my metabolism started to slow round about then as well (when I think about this sad fact of aging I always hear a line from an Adam Sandler sketch in my head – he and his friend are talking about getting old and Sandler complains that the last time he drank a milkshake he noticed his butt jiggled for a week. As soon as I hit thirty I started avoiding milkshakes for fear of having too much jiggle in my wiggle.). Read the rest of this entry »

Finding Winter – Part 1

Inspiration is a tricky thing.

It’s like a rude friend who shows up at your door unannounced, stays for a while, eats all your food and then leaves without saying goodbye. As much as you might grumble about their inconsiderate behaviour, no doubt you’ll greet them with a big smile on your face the next time you see them. That smile won’t waver as they track dirt all over the carpet, kick your dog and insult your appearance. In fact you’ll love them for it. Because inspiration stays with us all too briefly, and once it’s gone it’s hard to find again. In fact it’s damn near impossible. Read the rest of this entry »

On blurbs and hamburgers

Okay, I’ve put this off long enough.

I can’t continue doling out these whimsical anecdotes from my childhood forever. This blog is supposed to be about writing and somehow I’ve managed to get five articles in without discussing my novel, Winter’s Shadow, in any depth. An egregious oversight if ever there was one as this blog wouldn’t exist without it. Read the rest of this entry »

Words are his power

My parents, (mum especially), are big readers. When I was growing up the bookshelves in my house groaned beneath the weight of hundreds of books. There was no particular trend tying the novels lining the shelves – thrillers like Gorky Park shared space with Spike Milligan stories which might have been pushed up against Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It was a smorgasbord of literary delights. At some point (I may have been seven or eight), I began to grow curious about my parents books, having grown bored with my own limited collection comprised mainly of Enid Blyton’s work (I loved me some Blyton when I was a kid and must have read and re-read The Faraway Tree a couple of dozen times). One book in particular drew my attention:

Stephen King’s The Shining. Read the rest of this entry »

The Vomit Draft

In total I spent about seven months writing the first draft of Winter’s Shadow. At least four of those months were wasted. Alright, perhaps ‘wasted’ is a little strong – put it this way, I could have used my time more wisely. I’m not talking about procrastination though lord knows I can procrastinate with the best of them (cleaning is my method of choice, I’m never tidier then when I’m writing), I’m talking about succumbing to that insidious of all temptations – the re-write. ‘Hey, wait a minute,’ I hear you say, ‘Don’t the wise old dudes constantly preach that writing is re-writing?’ They certainly do, and I’m not here to dispute them. Writing is re-writing, there’s no getting around it. However, the kind of re-writing referred to in that maxim is usually begun after a first draft is finished. The trap I fell into, and what I imagine most authors starting out also fall into, is starting my re-write before I’d finished the first page.

I must have written the opening sentence alone at least two hundred times. Maybe more. Not because I’m some kind of perfectionist – though this streak probably made me more susceptible to the re-write demon – I was simply timid. I didn’t trust myself that what I’d written was good enough so spent hours upon hours trying to make it better. After all there’s no point writing the rest of the book if you’re first sentence stinks, right? Wrong. Here’s a simple truism I wish I’d acknowledged back then –

NOTHING YOU WRITE WILL EVER BE GOOD ENOUGH.

I recently finished going through the galley proofs of Winter’s Shadow and found the experience utterly demoralising. If I had my way I’d go back and easily re-write three quarters of the manuscript but, you know what? It probably still wouldn’t be good enough. Nothing ever is. I’m sure even literary geniuses look over their own work and cringe. If you finish writing something and believe it to be amazing then you’re probably not a very good writer.

Which brings me to the topic at hand – The Vomit Draft. I didn’t coin the term, but here’s what the vomit draft means to me: it’s your first pass at the story. Your first attempt to get down on paper the characters and situations that have been taking up too much mental real estate in your head. It is not the first draft – let me make that clear. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be a lot cleaner and more fully realised than the vomit draft. The crudity of the vomit draft is its point. You don’t have to worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, character shading, snappy dialogue, rich descriptions, thematic depth or literary underpinnings. It’s the story in its stickiest, pre-digested form, puked out directly from your brain onto the page.

The idea behind the vomit draft is to stop you second-guessing yourself. Just write the damn thing. Write it as well as you can, but more importantly as fast as you can. Speed is paramount in this process. If you slow down to re-read what you’ve already written then you’re bound to be tempted to fix things, tidy up sentences and before you know it you’ve spent three months re-writing the same passage, over and over again.

Save yourself the hassle. You’ve probably got at least four or five more drafts ahead of you so why agonise over this one? Especially as once you get to the editing stage (if you get to the editing stage) you’ll probably end up deleting or vastly changing the passages you slaved over. This is almost always the case. ‘Kill your babies’ is something else the wise old dudes say.

Until it’s in the bookshelves your novel is a fluid creation. There’s no point approaching the first words you commit as though they’re unchangeable and thus have to be perfect. Words are nothing, if not changeable. You’re their boss, not the other way around.

Of course, some people skip the vomit draft and attempt to jump straight into a first draft. There’s nothing wrong with this if you’re a confident writer. However, if you’re just starting out there’s a good chance this isn’t the case. When I initially sat down in front of my computer I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence. I felt like a charlatan (still do). There was no way I could hope to write as well as my favourite authors, so why try? For this, more than any other reason, the vomit draft is your friend. It represents freedom. Freedom from expectation – the vomit draft isn’t supposed to be good, remember? The freedom to write without worrying too much about writing.  So, what are you waiting for?

M.J.