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Don’t Be Afraid to Throw Away What Doesn’t Work

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I have a pair of shoes that are so comfortable I hardly feel I’m wearing them. But they are falling apart, to the point that they really need to be thrown out. This morning a new pair arrived at the door. I ordered online to save time shopping, and to spend more time this week writing. I opened the box, unwrapped all the paper, et voilà - a new pair of shoes. They were different, except for the fact that they were actually the same! Yes, I ordered the same pair. So the first pair presumably once looked much like the second, although I can’t remember them ever looking that fresh and zippy!

I tried on the new pair, shuffled, took them off and tentatively put my feet back into the old pair. But something stopped me: a voice inside my head that said, ‘You’ve just ordered a new pair. Why are you going back to the old ones? They need to go in the bin.’ Hmm. I took them off and tucked them away. They have yet to reach the bin. As I type, I’m wriggling my toes inside the new ones. When I look down they look great, but they are not as comfortable. ‘It’s OK,’ I tell myself. ‘You’ll just take time to get used to them. Keep them on.’

Isn’t that what’s it’s like with writing that doesn’t work? Some of it is scruffy but comfortable. You cling on to it in the vain hope that it might work, but you know deep in the pit of your coffee-and-biscuit-filled stomach that it won’t. You know the reality is that you will need to cut, ruthlessly, until your work is, in places, almost unrecognisable. You will need to throw away the holey parts, the frayed edges, the parts with missing pieces that will never be filled.

It’s amazing how much emotion or sentiment is attached to some pieces of work, which is why you need good beta readers and good editors and an open mind. As you write, and as you reread, you have to develop the ability to see your story through the eyes of someone with no emotional investment in your work, someone who is prepared to throw out the parts that you want to keep. It is possibly one of the toughest parts of the process. Sometimes whole stories need to be thrown out, sometimes its beginnings or endings and sometimes it might just be sections.

What can you throw away that isn’t working? What can you cut to make your writing tighter?


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Why Bother With Social Media?

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Social Media: A phrase that strikes up a series of emotions in each one of us. Some people enjoy using social media sites, thriving on the information they can gather and the contact with others, while others avoid it through fear or a lack of time or motivation. Many people have a love/hate relationship with it. Why does it cause so much consternation, when the aim has always been to connect and to share information? Each site takes time to navigate and to get used to, much like a new relationship or friendship in some ways! At first you post and respond to others, gradually gaining the confidence and understanding of how it all works. Each site has a different character and set of expectations. You step up your communication, post, wait, wonder. Sound familiar?

The earliest forms of social media were not electronic, but took the form of cave paintings. These were the earliest known signs of humans trying to communicate, to leave their mark. Now, we leave our mark, our knowledge and some of our personality, on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr or other blogging sites. We strike up connections with others and share information, often collaborating in a way that would have been difficult before the age of social media.

So, why take the time to engage with social media?

1. You meet an amazing range of people, both within and outside your field of expertise.

I have met some fantastic readers, writers, bloggers, editors, agents, marketing experts. Meeting people within the fields of writing and publishing have helped me to learn about the industry. Other authors have been a great encouragement to me along the way (which is something we all need). Readers have contacted me through my website and found me on other social media platforms. If they enjoy your work and like who you are as a person, chances are they will want to engage and follow what you are up to. I have also gained a great deal from others outside this group. I follow journalists and people who are interested in some of the things I enjoy outside writing: music, art, travel and skiing.

2. Sharing resources

The online community are a generous bunch! I find that people share information on writing competitions, tips on writing and publishing (both self-publishing and traditional publishing). It’s also a great way to find out about writing courses or retreats. I first heard about the Arvon Foundation through Twitter. They offer residential writing courses with a range of authors who teach specific courses throughout the year. Interviewing other authors on your blog and hosting posts is a good way of networking and sharing new work with your readers. You can also approach other bloggers and offer to write posts on their blogs (see my post on Optimising Facebook on 30 Day Books).

3. Finding books

Many people share books they have read and enjoyed. There are a few editors whose tastes are similar to mine and I almost always enjoy the books they suggest. Book bloggers are a great resource, reviewing books and giving honest opinions on popular or recent books, and often on classics I might have missed. I also review books as well as hosting interviews and posting about writing. Literary salons and author events in bookshops are also advertised on social media sites. Don’t miss these if there is one near you.

4. It keeps you up to date with what is going on in the publishing industry.

Within the publishing industry I have learned a great deal from people like Jane Friedman (former publisher of Writer’s Digest, who writes about the future of the publishing and media industry), Porter Anderson (journalist and publishing consultant) and The Future Book, a blog founded by Sam Missingham (formerly working for The Bookseller Group). If you are interested in a traditional publishing deal, social media sites are a good way to find agents who might be a good fit for your work. Follow the #askagent hashtag on Twitter for agent tips and #MSWL for individual manuscript wish lists. If you are self-publishing, there is a plethora of blogs and sites with all the information you will need.

5. It helps to develop your writing skills on many levels.

Blogging is a good extension of your writing. I wrote a post on blogging with a list of resources. It helps you to learn how to engage readers and to put forward your ideas in an interesting way. This is particularly useful for non-fiction writers who might need evidence of a platform before approaching an agency, and to connect with readers of your particular subject area. As far as fiction is concerned, there has been advice not to write about writing, but I find that these posts have a high level of engagement and readers often write to tell me that these have been helpful. I would run with what works, what you enjoy and what helps others. Social media is an important place to be a helpful resource for others. If you use Twitter it will keep your writing to a succinct 140 characters! This can be a challenge if you tend to over-write or over-describe.

6. You are available for people to contact you and find out about your work.

I have deliberately left this point until last because promoting your work should not be your primary focus on social media. It is called ‘social’ media for the very reason that you interact with people respectfully and share your ideas. If you are interesting and thoughtful, and readers like your style, they will often then look into your work. But you would not sit in a cafe or a bar with a friend saying “Buy my book, buy my book.” So, don’t do it online. It is one of people’s greatest bugbears. Leave an option for people to sign up to your newsletters and to follow your blog posts. I promise you this is enough. No one likes a hard sell and if you treat social media with the same approach as a double glazing salesman, you’ll get the same response.

What are your thoughts on social media? Are there sites that you use more often and why? Are there some sites you haven’t yet got to grips with? Share your ideas. I’ll leave you with some interesting stats:

social-media-networks


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Fiction Winner – Litro Magazine (Environmental Disaster Competition)

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A recent piece of short fiction, The Air is Still,  has just won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster competition, and is published online at Litro.


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Author Interview with Debut Crime Writer, Sarah Hilary

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I’d like to welcome Sarah Hilary to the blog today. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, will be published on Thursday by Headline. It has already received some great reviews and has been heralded as “one of the debut novels of next year, if not THE debut novel.” I wanted to find out more about Sarah, her path to publication, and the inspiration behind her work. Thank you, Sarah, for today’s interview. We wish you all the best for the imminent release of your book!

What drew you to crime fiction and how have you been influenced by other authors or film and television?

SH: I always loved Sherlock Holmes, and I adore TV crime. Key influences would be Silence of the Lambs (film and book), Fred Vargas, Patricia Highsmith, TV shows like The Bridge, The Mentalist, Peaky Blinders… All these things keep me on my toes and inspire me to keep exploring the different angles of crime.

How does your work as a copywriter and editor work alongside fiction writing? Does it help or hinder your creative process?

SH: It helps, I think. I have to produce some pretty taut prose at work, which is never a bad thing in a fiction writer. And it’s good to have time away from stories, to stay in touch with the real world.

What do you think helps to make characters likeable or believable to the reader, and how important is it?

SH: It’s all about empathy. I don’t believe a character needs to be likeable so much as recognisable; he or she needs to touch a nerve in the reader. One reader said that she found Marnie Rome irritating, and that this was a compliment, because it meant that Marnie was ‘real’. I get bored reading about heroes and villains. I’m fascinated by the human qualities between these two extremes. That’s where the interest lies for me.

Where do you write and why?

SH:In cafes, when I can. I like the white noise, and the sense of being in the world and outside it, at the same time.

What is your process and how do you plan?

SH: I keep notebooks and mark down the twists, for the story and for the characters. Other than that, I don’t do much planning. I used to try, but it ended up killing my interest in the story. So now I take a deep breath and dive in…

Your debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin will be released in just a few days. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?

SH: Long and rocky. I was lucky enough to get noticed and encouraged by the agent I’d set my heart on (Jane Gregory) who gave me so much encouragement each time she rejected my early manuscripts. I knew that if I could write a book she loved then I’d make it. Stamina was a very big part of it but, boy, did it pay off.

Thank you, Sarah. Finally, a lighter question for you! What do you do with your time when you are not writing?

SH: Watch TV with my daughter. Read. Count my blessings.

Sarah-Hilary-Mon-21-webSarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, will be published in 2014 by Headline in the UK, Penguin in the US, and in six other countries worldwide. A second book in the series will be published a year later. Set in London, both books feature DI Marnie Rome, a woman with a tragic past and a unique insight into domestic violence. www.sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.co.uk/


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What Portrait Photography Can Teach Us About Characterisation…

I enjoy spending time in galleries and, whether it is a collection of paintings, sculptures or photography, I can while away a few hours looking at art. Photography stimulates ideas and sparks my creativity perhaps more than any other art form. I used to spend a lot of time at the Portrait Gallery in London and Vienna has an equally impressive collection of galleries. I was thankful to find that the World Press Photo Awards made a stop here each year, so I haven’t missed out!

I particularly like the work of David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. This week I discovered a portrait photographer who was new to me: Michel Comte. Based in Zurich, Comte is a trained art restorer whose first photography contract was with Karl Lagerfeld. He has worked for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Armani, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, to name a few, and has photographed Miles Davis, Jeremy Irons, Mike Tyson and Michael Schumacher, with whom he became good friends.

He is one of the few professional photographers I know to have photographed both for international advertising companies and for documentaries covering war zones. Comte has increasingly moved towards a more reportage and documentary style of photography, and has travelled to unstable areas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan and Cambodia. If you are interested in his work, the video below shares some of his thoughts on what makes a good photograph.

So, what does this have to do with writing, I hear you thinking? Comte got me thinking about the idea of how much of a person’s soul and character can be captured in a split second, and how so much of what you – the viewer – see forms an impression of who they are as a person. Very quickly you form a judgement from the eyes, the body language, the clothing, the expression and the feel of the picture. This is what Comte says, ‘the person projects.’

As a writer we have the exciting and difficult job of ‘capturing’ each character almost as a snapshot, and portraying who they are through their movements, body language and expressions. Writers have the advantage of using dialogue, actions and the responses of other characters, but the essence of character description comes down to much of what is captured in a moment with a lens. Comte talks about Catherine Deneuve, and the way that a normally confident woman shows a moment of unusual vulnerability in the his photographs. These are the moments which, as a writer, need to be drawn out and put down on the page.

Have a look at the video, if you haven’t already, and think about what strikes you from each image. Think about how you would describe the person and why. Ask yourself what it is about one person that stands out and makes them unique or memorable. It might be a look of vulnerability or mystery, it could be the stance or the eye contact. Sometimes what people wear or how they stand and move, dictates your response to them as a person.

What do you think about character description? How has art or other media inspired your work?


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Disgrace by J M Coetzee: A Review

disgrace

There are books which stay with you for months and years beyond the final page; there are books which draw you in to the point where you cease to feel time; there are books which transport you to a different time and place, yet keep you rooted fully here in the present. This book achieves all of these with a masterful use of imagery and language. This is one of the most powerful books I have read, partly because of its timeless themes and wholly for its ability to get inside the mind of its main character and his daughter, and of course for the delicate insight into human nature, with its brutality and desires. I was utterly captivated.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. He has an impulsive affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. The affair sours and he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy’s isolated smallholding. For a time, his daughter’s influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. He and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack which brings into relief all the difficulties in their relationship.

Among many accolades for the book are the Man Booker Prize (1999),

National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (1999),

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (2000)

Coetzee delves into the darkness of the human condition, making this an uncomfortable but compelling read. His descriptions are often harsh and gritty, but somehow satisfying: ‘The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.’ His insight into the mind is beautifully reflected in sentences such as this: ‘His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origin of speech like in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.’

I will hold on to my battered copy, treasure it, reread it, and enjoy the fact that I have finally managed to read it, although late in the game. Have you read it? What did you think? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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