Four Green Squares

the tiny little blog no-one will ever read

A walk in the rain and lightning in the living room April 7, 2014

Filed under: writing — FourGreenSquares @ 5:05 pm
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As I was walking in the rain yesterday to catch the bus into town, I found myself thinking about an old Steven Wright joke. As he paces on his bare stage set, he mutters about how his electricity went off so he used his camera flash to see enough to make a sandwich (pre-digital days so this was an actual lightbulb on top of the camera). This led his neighbour to call the police to report lightning inside his house.

 

It struck (!) me that writing is like lightning inside the house. It illuminates briefly but totally, then you’re stuck stumbling around in the dark trying to remember where the coffee table was, based only on a memory that’s mostly after-image anyway.

 

In the joke, SW goes on about how he tries to explain to the cops why he took 36 pics of his living room. Back in the days of film, that def. counted as eccentric.

 

That, to me, defines what a first draft is. 36 pictures of your living room, taken when no other light source exists. If you close your eyes, you know your story’s landscape intimately. But that doesn’t mean you can necessarily navigate it in the physical realm. Not yet.

 

The joke kinda trails off with SW muttering to himself (as is his wont), and that’s kinda how first drafts end too.

 

Of course, a second draft is like being a police sketch artist, trying to recreate a likeness from garbled, conflicting snatches of description glimpsed during an adrenaline high. But that is a post for another time

 

Mission Critical March 2, 2014

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 7:16 pm
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I’m very pleased to let you all know that my story “Mission Critical” is the featured story in the new issue of Luna Station Quarterly.

 

Direct link to story.

 

Let me know what you think…
Oh, and without this turning into another Clarion squee post, I have to say that this is the story where everything I’d learned at Clarion and have struggled since to integrate finally gelled. It felt different whilst writing it, like I could be both in the flow as the words fell out of my pen and at the same time see what those words were doing on the overall story level. Worth all those tossed out drafts (of the novel, not this story) over the past year and a half as I tried to figure out how to use everything I learned.
Of course, applications to the 2014 Clarion closed yesterday, so instead of encouraging people to apply, I can only say best of luck to everyone waiting to hear!

 

 

Cat waxing shopping list February 12, 2014

Filed under: writing — FourGreenSquares @ 11:57 am
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I wrote this a while ago for the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and thought I’d share it here. I’d love to hear your favourites as well–I’m always on the lookout for good writing books, and my cat will thank you too!

The Writers’ Bookshelf

Books on writing are their own type of dangerous seduction. Reading them feels so productive, it’s easy to convince yourself that you are, in fact, working. Not that writing books are rubbish or wastes of time. On the contrary, there is much to be learned from books discussing writing craft.

But as writers love to write about their favourite topic—and what’s more favoured than writing?—the sheer volume of how-to books out there threatens to make choosing the right ones a cat-waxing exercise all on its own. How do I know this? Uh, have you seen how shiny my cat is?

So let my procrastination be to your benefit. This (short!) list contains books that I’ve found particularly useful in writing narrative fiction. I’ve divided the list into three types: craft, conception, and the writer’s life.

Craft: Dealing with the Words on the Page

Self Editing for Fiction WritersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King
This is a classic. Once you have your story down in draft form, the advice in this book will show you how to hone that rough draft into a polished piece. It covers everything from mechanics such as show versus tell, characterisation, dialogue, and exposition to the more ephemeral aspects of story beats, knowing when to cut, and voice.

However, despite such a nitty-gritty focus, this book is not a how-to for someone first picking up a pen. It requires a certain level of functional technical knowledge and, as the name indicates, is intended to guide the editing stage rather than the draft stage. But as “writing is re-writing”, advice focussed on this crucial stage detailing how to fix story problems makes this an invaluable volume.
Techniques of the Selling WriterTechniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain
This book breaks down the components of story in a manner that both is intuitive and logical—no easy feat! The transformation from idea into story is fraught: so many decisions, so many directions a story can go. At the same time, you need to consider pacing, tone, voice, and the ever-dreaded ‘what happens next’.

Swain, a long-time writing teacher, deconstructs storytelling into its smallest component part—its atom, if you will—which he calls ‘the motivation-reaction unit’.

Thinking of your story in terms of actions and reactions helps ensure that pace, character consistency, tension, and atmosphere are part of the story’s bedrock.

Writing for Emotional ImpactWriting for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End, by Karl Iglesias
As a screenwriter, Iglesias brings the big-screen perspective of hooking the audience with emotion. He sees creating an emotional connection between characters and reader as a crucial element that makes a book “un-put-down-able,” and dissects this quality in amazing, incisive detail.

He doesn’t focus on engineering blockbuster plots or larger-than-life characters but on presentation: how the order of scenes, the tone, the prose and descriptions, and the pace, all serve to hook the reader and drag him or her into the story world. It is an element that is often overlooked, so I believe this is well worth the bookshelf space.

Conception: Behind the Scenes

Dynamic CharactersDynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated, by Nancy Kress
This also deserves its reputation as a classic. Kress, a long time writing teacher and writing advice columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, has decades of experience—and her expertise leaps off the page. She starts with external character traits, moves on to internals, then covers how to bring them together in a plot that allows characters to take on lives of their own.

The book is easy to use, with helpful checklists and other exercises as well as myriad examples that demonstrate how small changes in personality can lead to big divergences on the page. The format also allows you to dip in and out as you need; you don’t have to read it cover to cover but can use it as a handbook as you work on a draft.
Writing the Breakout NovelWriting the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling Client by Donald Maass
Maass is a long-time New York powerhouse agent who wrote this book to help writers address what he identified as the most common story flaw, a perception honed from his slush pile: boring stories. Mechanics and voice, lovely characters and setting—these can lay dead on the page unless the story itself crackles.

As noted editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden often says, “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” This book tells you how to whip up hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes of your own devising by starting right where it counts: the premise.

Maass uses examples and exercises (all the while urging you to write it now!) to help you transform a generic idea into a breakout premise that is original, captivating, and dynamic. But don’t think that this means you have to write pacey thrillers or twisty crime dramas. These techniques, based on creating well-rounded characters facing internal struggles mirrored and complicated by external challenges, work in all genres and styles of writing.
The 3 a.m. EpiphanyThe 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform your Fiction, by Brian Kiteley
This lesser-known suggestion packs a wallop. When Kiteley, another long-time writing teacher, says uncommon, he means it. Unlike other exercises, the ones in this book are small, focusing on intricate, bite-size applications of techniques. At first they can seem strange, such as “write a 500 word scene told only in images, no dialogue or exposition,” or “write a 1000 word short story in which an alarm clock going off in the middle plays a crucial role.” But once you do a few and read his rationales, you realise that they are designed to get you thinking about and practicing specific crucial techniques. You will come out of this book able to understand story at a deeper level and feel much more in control of the words on the page by understanding how they operate on many levels. One of my first sales was of a story based on an exercise from this book.
The Writer’s Life, or Writers are Meat-bags Too

The War of ArtThe War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
Supposedly, there are two types of writers: those that can’t stop writing, and those that hate writing. This book is aimed mostly at the latter though is invaluable for anyone who sometimes faces a struggle settling down to the page, and can be called a classic for all the right reasons.

Pressfield kicks ass and takes names and gets you back on the page, even if kicking and screaming, where you fall in love with writing all over again.

Read it every morning if you have to—though he’d call this Resistance—and get back where you belong, spilling your soul, one word at a time.

The Artist's WayThe Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self by Julia Cameron
A dancer’s instrument is her body, a singer’s, her voice. But what is the writer’s instrument—besides the pen, of course? The brain. Julia Cameron offers an inspiring volume that helps you keep your instrument in top shape.

She covers issues from getting into the writing habit, discovering what you really want to say, and developing confidence in your right to write, to getting over blocks and avoiding burnout by taking time to “re-fill the well.” Whether you are looking for practical tips on the writer’s lifestyle or just want to settle down with what reads like a conversation with a much-smarter friend who can offer advice from the trenches, this book can jump-start or re-invigorate your creative muse.

So there you go. Some wonderful books to help you break through whatever writing obstacles are currently bedevilling you. And if your cat ends up as nicely waxed as mine, at least you’ll have plenty of new skills to write about it in an engaging way!

 

Well, this is weird… January 29, 2014

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 4:11 pm
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So. I’ve been interviewed.

Mostly about Clarion and my journey as a writer, but also some process and other craft tidbits in there.

The interview was the project of Elaine Aldred, a fellow Notts writer who interviews many writers on her blog.

If you are so inclined, you can find the interview here:

Answering the Clarion Call

Thanks again to Elaine for an interesting afternoon discussing my favourite subject. No, not me, silly! Writing. Yes, definitely writing…

 

A Wheel Made of Sausage November 23, 2013

Filed under: late night thoughts,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 11:48 am
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Writing is, in a sense, a process of reinventing the wheel. All the book knowledge in the world means nothing unless you can apply it on the page. This is the sentiment reflected in the observation that “writing cannot be taught; it can only be learned.”

In addition, writing a novel is like making sausage: you really don’t want to see how it’s done.

However, today, I am going to share a realisation while trying not to squick anyone out with gross cartilaginous mechanically-recovered tissue being pumped into intestine casings. Because, yanno, why break with one piece of received wisdom when you can break with two at the same time.

So…a story I’m working on has a romance subplot. As I’m contemplating ceiling shadow monsters at 5 a.m. (as you do), I realised that romances tend to fall into two categories:

• those where the couple are initially mismatched/at odds, so you need plot contrivances to keep forcing them to interact until they realise they are in love (Pride and Prejudice, frex.)

and

• those where the characters are instantly attracted, and therefore the plot needs to keep forcing them apart until they “earn” the right to be together. In Romeo and Juliet, they earn this through being willing to run away together; the tragedy is in how their willingness to sacrifice causes fatal sacrifice by the other. In more light-hearted fare (for some reason all I can think of now is the film Serendipity, though my 5 a.m. brain had loads of examples. Absolutely brilliant, my 5 a.m. brain. Wish I knew where it hides the rest of the day), all sorts of misc. hijinx or capers can result.

I am, I realised, writing the latter. OMFG.

But it seems so simple! Yeah, before today, I knew this, but today, I grokked it.

And come to think of it, grok also sounds like something you’d find in a sausage. So there.

 

Yet more Clarion Squee October 28, 2013

Filed under: clarion,writing — FourGreenSquares @ 2:27 pm
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Sorry for the long silence. Writing, writing, travelling, editing, writing…

But finally, something spurred me back here to share some news. May I therefore present:

The Clarion Pin Up Calendar

Just in time for the holidays! 

Such a good cause! 

I’m still marveling at how much I learned. When I went, I knew I had some issues, but thought they were more mechanics, easily fixed (yeah, I’m laughing right along with you). Because what I discovered was that I had one big problem, and lots of coping mechanisms. Simply, I had no idea how to plot. How to arrive at plot, how to figure out what went in, and what stayed out. And solving that problem meant dismantling all my coping mechanisms and techniques. It was awful, let me tell you, watching all my classmates get noticeably better week by week (not that part; it was awesome to see them kick ass) while I got noticeably worse. I hit bottom week four, and by week six, had started to find my feet again.

So I left Clarion clinging to my life-raft of character arc. Now–three novel drafts, numerous short story drafts and even more critiquing later–I think I feel like the Palm Island thing in Dubai. Reclaiming land, sinking deep foundations. Not The World, one as that’s sinking in to the sea. Hopefully not, in any case (never pays to temp fate!).

In other words, Clarion has changed my writing and life for the better, at a level deeper than I ever could have anticipated. If I could, I’d buy out all the calendars and make all my relatives hate me (birthday presents for the next decade sorted!) But I can’t. So I’m spreading the word instead.

It’s definitely a worthy cause. And fun. C’mon, what writer doesn’t need a handy-dandy wall-mounted temporal management device? 

Added 3 Nov: Just got home from World Fantasy Con in Brighton, where I had the chance to meet the charming and talented artist behind the calendar. I’m even more exited for it now. Squeeeee…

 

Gratuitous Cat Pictures July 13, 2013

Filed under: the way it is — FourGreenSquares @ 4:41 pm
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Because it’s caturday…

If he’s not sleeping like this:

20130713-174245.jpg

Then he’s sleeping like this:

20130713-174330.jpg

 

 
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