Monday, 26 August 2013

Learning to avoid ‘thought’ verbs

I came across an essay on writing that I found very inspiring. It’s written by Chuck Palahniuk and it’s about using – or rather not using – ‘thought’ verbs in fiction writing. I recognised myself as the worst transgressor of his rule and immediately set out to improve my writing.

Palahniuk starts by stating that in six seconds you’ll hate him and he’s right. But he also promises that you’ll become a better writer for listening to him. Since it’ll take considerably longer than six seconds to learn to be a better writer, I can’t vouch for that yet. But I’m working on it.

What, then, are thought verbs and why you should avoid them? According to Palahniuk, thinking is abstract, and knowing and believing are intangible. You should allow your readers do the thinking and knowing and concentrate instead on showing the physical actions and details of your characters to your readers.

Verbs like think, know, understand, realise, believe, want, remember, imagine, desire and love are among those you should avoid. According to Palahniuk, writers most often use these verbs to open a paragraph and then use the rest of the paragraph explaining the thought. He finds it a lazy way of writing. Having tried his method for less than two weeks, I can assure his right. It’s so much easier to compose paragraphs around thought verbs.

I didn’t even have to read my published books to come up with dozens of sentences that I have formulated around one or more of these verbs. My characters know things, they suddenly realise something, they love and they hate. Sentences like that are easy to write, but they don’t necessarily make very interesting reading.

Palahniuk’s method sounds simple enough: instead of having your character think of an action, you should un-pack it, step by step. For that, you are allowed to use specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound and feeling.

In reality, his method is extremely difficult to follow, especially in the middle of a writing flow. It’s easier to compose paragraphs that begin with something like “he wanted to growl in annoyance for her attitude” and then explain why that is the case. It’s much more difficult to take the sentiment apart and explain the same without using the thought verb: “Her attitude irritated him; he had faced it so often, yet from her it felt worse. His anger chafed him, demanding relief, so he growled.” The sentence isn’t that much longer than the original, but it took many times longer to write.

My decision to not use thought verbs has slowed my writing process considerably, so much so that I feared that the book I’m currently writing would never be finished. So I’ve compromised. While on a flow, I let the thought verbs come if they want to and compose paragraphs around them just to get my own thoughts written down. Next day, I go through everything I’ve written and edit it according to Palahniuk’s rule; a slow job.

I’m not entirely sure my writing has yet improved. The technique has, however, forced me to think of every paragraph and sentence more thoroughly than I otherwise would have, weighing each action and word against each other and the whole. No short-cuts are allowed, no easy ways out. And that can only be good.

Palahniuk’s essay is great. I recommend you read the original yourselves to learn everything he has to say. I recommend, too, that you try his method yourselves. If nothing else, it will keep your brain nimble. Who knows, maybe you’ll find it as exciting as I do and adopt it in your writing too.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Make Twitter an enjoyable experience for you

I passed a Twitter milestone last week: I reached two thousand followers. I managed to avoid the Twitter jail in the process too. For those of you who are new to Twitter, you’re only allowed to follow two thousand accounts until you have that many followers yourself. I was followed by two thousand people first, which freed me to follow as many accounts as I like.

I predicted in March that I’d be able to get to two thousand in half the time it took me to have a thousand followers. I was wrong. It took pretty much exactly the same time. Mainly, it’s because of the system Ive adopted. About once a week, I follow 20-50 accounts, hoping they’ll follow me back, and unfollow those who haven’t. Had I doubled the number of accounts I follow every week, I would probably have reached my goal faster. I could also have resorted to various services there are for maintaining your Twitter account, but I haven’t signed with any of those.

I like my hands-on system. It allows me to follow the kinds of accounts I find interesting, i.e. other independent authors mostly. Of course, that also means that most of the people who follow me aren’t potential buyers for my books. Most of us assume Twitter is a good medium for marketing when we take up tweeting, but that’s only true insofar as your followers are readers who aren’t there to market their own books.

Upside is that we’re interested in the same issues, writing, publishing and book marketing. I can count on certain key accounts to provide me with content I’m interested in so that I constantly have something worth tweeting and – very importantly – retweeting. Because that’s what Twitter is all about, for me anyway: sharing interesting content. Through sharing I've also come to chat with interesting people and made new acquaintances.

I had planned to offer you a list of what I’ve learned so far about Twitter; I had some of it written down already too. But I came across a great post by AllTwitter that lists everything I wanted to share with you. So I’ll settle with offering you the highlights of their list. For the full post, check here. 

1. Be consistent: The best tweeters typically stick to one or two topics for 80% of their tweets, and sprinkle in their other interests in the other 20% or so.

2. Offer variety: The best tweeters tweet photos, links from a large number of sources, their own thoughts and opinions, retweets, have conversations and so on. A variety of content keeps their followers interested.

3. Be helpful: A lot of great accounts offer helpful tips and advice to their followers. By helping others, you’ll help yourself.

4. Endors others: Many great tweeters choose to publicly endorse key members of their community.

5. Constantly check @mentions: Some of the best social media conversations happen on Twitter. Best tweeters don’t let a full 24 hours pass from the time someone sends them an @mention to the time they respond.

6. Tweet on the go: The ability to tweet when the inspiration (or a particularly beautiful picture of a flower) strikes is very useful to adopt.

6 ½ Build lists according to what people tweet: This is my own addition since it isn’t on the original post. Lists become especially important when you’re following more than a couple of hundred accounts. Start building them early on when it’s still easy to do. Not every account needs to be put on a special list, but make sure that those that tweet content you’re particularly interested in is on a list so that you won’t miss their tweets.

7. Refresh your lists regularly: It’s a good idea to get into the habit of checking your lists every few weeks to clear out the dormant accounts, add new ones, and consider starting a new list or deleting one altogether. The best tweeters have a handful of up-to-date lists that they use to network or learn.

8. Update who you follow: The greatest tweeters pay attention to who they follow – they don’t just follow everyone who follows them.

9. Monitor your links: Shorten every single link you send out with or Shortening services track the links they shorten too so you can follow your online influence.

10. Use hashtags sparsely: You should only use a hashtag when it’s relevant to the content of your tweet and when it will add additional meaning to your tweet, either through the hashtag itself or the tweets the hashtag will be linked to.

I hope you’ll find this list useful and that it’ll make your Twitter experience more enjoyable. I hope we’ll meet on Twitter. Happy tweeting!

Monday, 12 August 2013

When your book stalls

Last week, I hit a wall with the book I’m currently writing. I simply couldn’t bring myself to add a single word to it. Since I’ve written a couple of books already, I had experienced the same before so I wasn’t worried. I also knew that I shouldnt fight it, but determine the causes and fix them.

There were several reasons for why I was unable to continue writing. The characters felt boring and stupid, not worth developing into the fullness of what I thought they could be. The plot was meaningless and uninspiring. I would have to read everything I’d written so far to pinpoint the exact places where it started going wrong, but the third reason why I was unable to write on was that I was tired.

I was, in other words, feeling both lazy and uninspired. I could have tried to force the words to come, but I chose a different approach.

I decided to give my mind something else to think about.

I gave myself a permission to start writing an entirely different book that had simmered at the back of my mind for a while now – and which was perhaps a contributing factor for why I’d stalled. For two days, I researched and created different characters and settings, and wrote with a different voice – first person narrative instead of third. In the end, I only wrote the first chapter, but that was enough. I’d got it out of my mind.

More importantly, I’d given my mind a chance to rest and work out the original manuscript on the background.

Today, I opened my manuscript and read it through. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. There were some weak spots, of course, but the characters were just fine and the plot was developing as I’d planned it to. Some changes were needed, but I managed those with a few additional sentences or paragraphs. And I was able to continue with the book and write a couple of thousand new words.

Every writer has bad days. They’re unavoidable. We all have different ways of addressing them too. I gave the manuscript a few days and occupied my mind with something else. Here are some other options, collected from different blogs:

When all else fails, take a shower. Some days the writing just doesn’t go well. And some days it doesn’t happen at all. You find yourself staring at your blank page in the same way you stand in front of a full fridge and can’t find a single thing to eat. And you’re not even hungry.

I believe that fear is at the heart of all writer’s block. Fear that it’s not good, never will be good, which means that you’re not good, and never were, and never will be, and you’re gonna die alone, too.

When that happens, it’s time to step away and stop thinking about the suckage, the deadline, the fear, all of it. Take a walk around the block. Go for a drive. Read. Turn on Food Network and watch Guy Fieri watch a guy named Louie make a meatball hero. Those seemingly brain-draining moments of down time are, in actuality, gold mines of productivity. Better yet, they quell the fear. Writing isn’t only about the physical act of sitting down with a notebook and pen or a laptop. For me, the real writing happens when, to the rest of the world, I’m doing nothing. (Read the full post here.)
The important thing is figuring out how you work. Not even how you work best, because then you’ll make excuses for why you’re not writing this day, or in that place, but simply how you work on that particular project. (Read the full post here.) 
Do not let yourself get caught up in setbacks. Your motivation to continue will, I think, be proportional to the strength of your commitment to your ideals.

I believe you can intentionally grow your own resilience. Practice it whenever something disappoints you. Remind yourself of your larger purpose. Stay humble. When you feel entitled or like you “deserve” success, be angry for a few minutes, then re-focus on your goal. Ask yourself if, in light of this latest development, you need to change anything. (Read the full post here.)

What do you do when you feel like you simply cannot write more?

Monday, 5 August 2013

Holiday: a short story.

I wrote a short story. It’s basically an exercise in form, but I thought to share it with you anyway. It's not long.

London. The summer of ’89. A family holiday. The Tall Ships Races were in town and the Tower Bridge had been opened three times that day already to allow the majestic ships to glide through. Epic traffic jams. The entire city was at standstill.

It was my first visit and I was excited.

We had spent the night at dad’s cousin. No idea where she lived to this day, other than that it was on the south side of the Thames. We had met her at her work – once we had found the place. We had the address, somewhere in Docklands, but no map that would have shown us how to get there.

Dad asked directions from an old man who spoke at length in what we could only assume was cockney. Dad nodded and said thanks and we drove off. We asked what the man had told him and he said he had no idea. He hadn’t understood a word.

We found a more helpful person who gave us good directions: “And whatever you do, don’t drive into the tunnel that goes under the Thames.” So, naturally, that’s where we ended up in driving.

We children considered the tunnel an exciting adventure; one that we got to repeat immediately, as we had to get back to the other side of the river. Dad was less thrilled. He had to drive in that traffic; a tough task for a small town man.

Dad’s cousin rode with us to her home so that went painlessly. It wasnt far. She lived in a nondescript part of London: blocks of flats built close to one another, fairly modern brown brick erections. Nothing British about them, which I found disappointing.

She told us it was a restless neighbourhood, but we didn’t encounter anything sinister. We wouldn’t. We kept to indoors the whole evening. That we got to stay in such a dangerous neighbourhood added flair to our visit though. We didn’t actually want to experience anything scary. It simply made us more aware that we weren’t at home.

We took a train to central London the next morning. Like all tourists, we were utterly clueless, but there were helpful locals and we got to the right train.

Trafalgar Square. Chaotic and swarming with people. They were tourists mostly, loud and equally clueless. We tried to stick together so that we wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. Time before mobile phones, it was important.

Hot day. The hottest of a holiday filled with endless sunshine, with no wind to offer relief. But it had to be borne. We only had that day to see London. Dad didn’t like big cities and he wouldn’t consider staying longer.

We got on a sightseeing bus, a double-decker with no roof. We took upstairs seats to see better. Besides, the bus didn’t have air-conditioning so it would have been insufferable inside. Of course, sunshine combined with faux leather seats didn’t make the upper deck such a great choice either.

A sign said the tour would take an hour and a half. But there were those traffic jams.

It was the longest drive of my life. It felt like that at any rate. Nothing is quite as exhausting as sitting under a scorching sun for hours with nothing to drink, nowhere to flee. With no idea how to navigate the city, we were afraid to get off and continue on our own. So we stayed on the bus.

It took us twenty minutes just to cross a bridge. Which one, I have no idea. I had stopped paying attention to the tour guide by then. The loudspeakers were lousy and I couldn’t really hear anything anyway.

It’s the oddest things that stay with you. I remember a hospital, of all things. It didn’t look much – a grey concrete monstrosity – but the bus was stuck next to it for a long time. I had nothing else to look at.

I saw important cultural landmarks on that endless tour, but I remember the best a tunnel we crawled through. It offered some shade, but it wasn’t any cooler in there. Filled with the exhaustion fumes of all the cars stuck inside, the air was heavy to breathe and it tasted foul. I couldn’t wait to get out.

When we finally emerged, the sun hit us with full force again.

On we drove. After a while, I didn’t see the sights anymore. I could only think how thirsty I was, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I wanted the tour to end.

It took us three hours to get back to Trafalgar Square. First thing after getting off the bus, I bought a Coke from a vendor. My hands were shaking, making it difficult to open the can. I could practically taste the drink, feel it fizz on my tongue. It would be everything I had ever wanted and more.

I took a long, deep pull. 

A bitter disappointment. My drink wasn’t cold at all but as warm as the air. A warm Coke doesn’t taste of anything. It didn’t feel like anything either, the bubbles non-existent. But it was wet so I drank it.

At a restaurant later, I had a proper Coke, cold with fizz. I had seen Madame Tussauds and the mummies at the British Museum, yet that is what I remember the best of my day in London.

In the evening, there was a huge thunderstorm.