Monday, 3 January 2011


Hello, everyone! I hope that you all had a brilliant New Year's celebration. I planned to write about New Year's Resolutions as my first post of 2011, but I still owe you all a writing post from last Friday when I could barely bring myself to look at the computer screen, so I'll do that today and we'll see about New Year's resolutions on Wednesday.

Before I get started, I'd just like to put out an appeal again to Alessandra @ Out of the Blue, who still hasn't contacted me with her address to send her copy of Shadows on the Moon. Now, I confidently expected to be posting the prizes out on Saturday - until I realised that it was New Year's day and everything was closed. Then I realised that Monday would be a bank holiday too. So that means I'm not sending anything until tomorrow. But if I don't hear from Alessandra by the end of the week I'll have to draw another name because it's not really fair to all the others who were so keen to win this prize. Please email me Alessandra!

Okay, today I have three reader questions related to writing, from Isabel, Nara and Megha - so I'll try to be a little more succinct in my answers, instead of rambling on (and on and on) like I normally do, or else this post will be way too long. 

NARA: Something that's been bothering me of late is how to keep to the main focus of the story. At the moment, my plot just feels incredibly messy with too many things happening that are not important. Even today I had to cut out an incredibly exciting scene because it just wasn't linked to the main focus of the story. Any tips on how to maanage these sub--plots and events?

My main piece of advice on this would be to not TRY to manage them, Nara. If you're still writing your first draft there will always be unexpected plot off-shoots, characters developing in unforeseen ways and events that bulge out and turn into different ones, and that is a good thing. That's your brain working feverishly away behind the scenes to give you what you need to create original and brilliant stories. If I had tried to cut off all the unnecessary bits while I was still writing Shadows on the Moon, I would never have written the ending that I did - a completely unexpected ending which was never in my synopsis but which turned out to be *perfect* because it played on several parts of the story which had developed spontaneously as I was writing.

I know how confusing and frustrating it can be when your story seems to be flying off in all directions and even you aren't entirely sure what the main point of it is anymore. But that's what the second draft is for. That's when you put the manuscript aside for as long as you can, then read it again, and start making colour-coded pie charts or using coloured Post Its to keep track of different subplots, and get ruthless by cutting out scenes and characters that don't serve your story. You WILL need to do this (and if you go back and look at these posts, that might be helpful). Not in the first draft though, or you might end up nipping the most vital and interesting parts in the bud and killing the story in the process.

MEGHA: Zoe, do you ever feel you have nothing to write? That seems to be my excuse right now. I just got nothing.

And, do you feel like that even when you're working on a novel? Because that happened to me when I was working on my first proper story and felt that... eh... everything's over, all fine and fit, the problems have been resolved, but there's still no way I can end my story like this.

What do I do when I'm stuck in this situation?

I'm afraid it sounds like a typical case of writer's block here, Megha. This could be because:
  1. You've written all the interesting bits of your story and it doesn't have enough interesting bits left to make a full book. 
  2. You haven't thought things through completely and you've written yourself into a corner where you can't see what should happen next. 
  3. You really do know what should come next but you're dreading writing it and so you're stalling to avoid that. 
  4. You've just pushed yourself too hard and used up all your writing juice, and it needs a chance to replenish itself. 
It's happened to me plenty of times. It happened to me for SIX MONTHS in the middle of writing Shadows on the Moon. I wish I could offer you a really quick and easy solution to this one, but if I had a cure for writer's block I'd be a very rich woman (richer than I'll probably ever get writing books!). The only sure fire way to beat it is to give it time.

I don't mean give up on your story. I mean, carry on reading, watching the films and TV shows that you love, carry on fiddling with pieces of poetry or other stories and try, hard as it is, not to worry about it. Believe me, the more you worry, the longer it takes. And eventually, if the problem is  2, 3 or 4, something will randomly spark at the back of your brain (out of the blue, usually with no apparent rhyme or reason) and you'll *need* to write again, just like that, and what's more, know what to write as well. However, if the problem is 1, then after giving yourself a bit of distance you'll realise that and sadly bid farewell to the story, and move onto something else.

ISABEL: I have a problem. I've always written very slowly. Not literally; I type fast, but my progress is always very slow. This is because I always feel as if everything has to be *perfect*. I always have to think about a sentence a bit before I write it, because I can't live with a piece of writing that I don't like much. Do you follow? It's kind of hard to explain. I always tell myself, "It's okay, just scribble something down now and you can edit later," but it always bugs me when my writing isn't that good. I don't know how you could help me with this, but I thought I might mention it to you. Have you ever had this problem? Do you know what i mean?

Well, there's nothing wrong with writing slowly, you know. I mean, I *can* produce 25,000 words a week if I want to - but they won't be very good quality words. And while some people (including friends of mine!) are happy to scribble 'Touching scene of reconciliation' or 'Vivid descriptions of the view from the palace rampart' in the margins and leave it, I've been known to spend an entire afternoon labouring over three or four paragraphs because I know that they way the turn out is vitally important to the way I'll write the rest of the chapter, or even the rest of the book.

I know that I always say: Give yourself permission to suck. And there's value in that, especially if you're scribbling notes in your lunchtime or putting together a rough sketch of a scene that you fully intend to flesh out later. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't have fun playing with language, or tell yourself off for taking care and polishing your words before you move on, if that's the way that feels right to you. If working more slowly means that you're happier with what you produce, then work slowly. If there are places where you get stuck and you desperately want to leave them and move on, then that's fine too!

I hope this has been helpful for you guys - thanks for leaving your questions and trusting me to answer them. As always, if there are any other queries about writing or publishing, just email me through my profile or leave them in the comments.


Megha said...

Thank you for the EXTREMELY helpful post.

I personally like it when you ramble on and on, because it's always something a)fun to listen to b)interesting or c)helpful. Anyway, if, like me, you're trying to cut down on talking this year, then we're not alone, are we?

In addition to my question, I'm not sure if it's writers' block, because I've never had it before. But what I meant is, if all the interesting parts in your story ARE done, you've resolved EVERYTHING, everything's okay now, what do you do? Because sometimes, even though everything is done, I really want my book to have that kind of ending that'll stick in people's mind. Something... worth remembering.

For example, another event.

SORRY. I think now I'M the person rambling.

(Note to self: cross out 'talk less' on the list of resolutions, because it's never going to happen.)

Isabel said...

I'm with you, Megha! I talk waaay too much. (Oh, hadn't you noticed?) It's okay, though. I like to here both you and Zoe ramble on; as well as everyone else who comments and visits this blog frequently. :)

Zoe: Thank you soo much!!!! I realize now that that is the most helpful thing that you could have said to me: that the way I write is okay. That really made me feel so much better, Zoe!!! I always thought something was wrong about the way I wrote, so it is SUCH a relief to know that there isn't. And I'm glad to know that there is someone else who sometimes spends ours polishing three or four paragraphs! I will still try to increase my speed, but now that I know that it's not a big deal, I feel so much better! Thanks, Zoe!!! =D

Nara said...

Thanks a lot for that. That did answer my question. I always tell myself that I should just leave the rusty bits and mistakes for the second draft, but the problem now is actually getting to the second draft! Anyway, thanks for answering my question. It really did help a lot.

I'd read something. . . somewhere that if you wanted to publish a book, you had to make sure that there weren't too many loose yarns with random and insignificant events. But, then, how can that be true when random and insignificant things happen all the time, anyway in reality? I decided not to read the rest of his tips after that.

Oh, and by the way, as a new reader, I would just like to say that I love your blog. I'm trying to read a post a day from last July onwards. Oh, and I think that your dog is adorable ;)

Isabel said...

Zoe: Another person in my class, the guy who read DOTF, also read TSK over vacation and really enjoyed it. It says something that boys (he's not the first) can read and enjoy your stories, :)

Nara: First of all, are you an adult, child, or teenager? Because, unless you're a grown up, you really should not be worrying about publishing just yet. You have plenty of time. If you are still young, you have the privilege of being able to write a story exactly the way you want to, not based off of the publishing market or if your story fits in with the latest fad. I agree with you about how in real life, insignificant things always happen. Let your story go the way you want it to, but remember that sometimes in stories it is good to stick to the plot if only to keep the reader interested and not throw them into confusion. Just my advice.
It is really difficult to finish a novel; I, personally, never have. It takes a lot of devotion and is a great achievement. I think most of us young writers have that same goal. I'll stop talking now.

Isabel said...

Nara: First of all, are you an adult, teenager, or child? Because, unless you're a grown up, you really shouldn't be worrying about publishing just yet. If you're still young you can write whatever you want, however you want, without having to worry about the publishing market or whether your story fits in with the latest fad. I think you're right about the insignificant events. Include all the juicy bits you want, and then cut out all the unnecessary parts when you're done. Life is full of insignificant events, but sometimes in stories it's good to stick to the plot most of the time, if only to keep the reader's attention and not make it too confusing and long. And you don't want to get too off track, or you might get stuck.

Finishing a book is very difficult; I, for one, never have. For young writers, this is a big goal and a great achievement. We all have to work very hard to complete a novel. It takes a lot of devotion and patience. I think most of us young writers are still working towards that. Jeez, I need to stop talking now. I hope my advice was at least a tiny bit helpful! Good luck!

Isabel said...

YAY!! I finally found my notebook, hidden among my mom's stuff. Thank goodness!

Nara said...

Thanks, Isabel. To be honest, I don't plan to publish anything just yet. I am writing for fun at the moment. I've always had an image of myself as a grandma reading my stories to my grandchildren. That's always seemed nicer to me than being a world selling millionaire. But, no, I do intend to publish, but not yet. I was reading his writing tips, and then decided to have a look at his publishing ones, just to see what he said. Thanks, anyway :)

P.S I am not a grandma, by the way. I'm a teenager ;) Hope I didn't give the wrong impression!

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Hmmm. That's a tricky one. It sounds to me like things *aren't* resolved, that you've written yourself an ending which might have resolved everything, but hasn't actually satisfied you. Maybe you should go back to an earlier point in the story and try taking the last part in a different direction - one that you will find more interesting and 'unforgettable'? P.S. - I always used to promise myself I would talk less when I was younger, but it never worked. A more helpful resolution (and one I *hope* has worked) is to think a little more before I speak. Try that one.

Isabel: I'm glad I was helpful. I'm no stranger to that sinking feeling that you're getting it all wrong. I get it every time I read Maggie Stiefvater's blog and realise that she's finished ANOTHER book in about six weeks, while also being a full-time mum of two and a brilliant musician and artist. But the world would be entirely boring if we were all the same, right? She's a quick scribbler. I go backwards and forwards between being a quick scribbler and a slow, careful one. You're a slow careful one most of the time. Each of us is just as 'right' as the others.

Nara: To be honest, it all depends on what kind of story you're writing anyway. I've just finished THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N.K. Jemisen and it's full of digressions and flashbacks and backtracking and dream sequences, all of which are supposed to be huge no-nos - and yet it's *brilliant*, one of the best books I've read in years. So just write what feels good and exciting and interesting to you NOW, and decide later if it works (not if it complies with some other person's arbitrary rules, mind, but if YOU think it works).

How flattering that someone is reading my archives! I do that with other authors all the time.

Megha said...

Oh my gosh, Zoe. That is just THE perfect answer! Thank you sooooo much!!!

Fine, I'll try and think before I speak, although I do that anyway. I keep telling myself that people don't need to know everything about me, so I don't have to say unneccesary stuff.

Again, thanks for the help Zoe. I'm so glad I got the answer to that rReEaAlLyY confusing question.

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