Writing as a Test

No, I don’t mean a test as in a way to quantify the quality of the written word. What I actually mean to do is compare writing to a 5-day cricket match.

http://www.zazzle.co.uk/cricket_hero_t_shirts-235437171820252663
Love this T-shirt from Zazzles

Not many people know that I love test cricket. I not a huge fan of the shorter forms of the game – like 20-20 or one-day matches – but I love the patience, perseverance and skill that it takes to beat a side over the course of five days. Everyone has a part to play because you need excellent batsman to score the runs and then expert bowlers and sharp fielders to take wickets. And it can all turn on the course of the weather or the quality of the pitch. It’s a wonderfully tense, involved game that people often consider boring. But I say it’s a shame for them, because test cricket is really all about the build up of pressure and the slow, but relentless, delivery of ball after ball of determined precision.

And given that the test match has distracted me from my writing for the last few days, it seems apt to try and take a lesson from it. Cricket is about focused persistence – delivering a perfect over time after time, deciding whether to play the ball or not, and waiting for that catch that might be the flicker of a chance. So, in many ways I can see that writing a novel could be seen to be the same.

Delivery of a ‘perfect over’
Writing that ‘perfect scene’ is almost impossible, but when you finally get it right you feel like fist pumping and cheering. And you can often write perfectly good scenes time after time, but they always seem lacking something – as in cricket when the bowler is pounding down the wicket delivering breathlessly spectacular balls that skim the air around the bat but don’t actually make contact.  I find that most of my writing is like this now – good but not quite good enough.
Yet, sometimes, after a dozen rewrites or a deep mining of the motives and conflict required I hit that magic moment when what I read out pings off the page and comes alive. It takes a lot of work but it’s worth it in the end.
Of course, there’s also that fluke ball (occasionally delivered by the all-round Yorkshire-man Joe Root in England’s case) where a scene just comes together the first time around and you can’t quite believe it. That’s when I mimic Stuart Broad’s OMG moment in the Ashes of 2015.

Deciding whether to play (or not)
There is so much of this in writing. Deciding which competitions to enter, which characters to include, which story-lines to follow and so on and so forth. But, for me the one that this particular simile brings to mind is during the editing stage when you are soulfully attempting to make your story sing.

Every single sentence, every single word, counts. Just like for a batsman at the crease who has to determine how to move his feet, whether to play at a shot or leave it to fly past the stumps. Even the most tentative of movements can upset the balance – that split second they decide to play a shot, only to realise that it’s the out-swinger and it should be left well alone. Too late – it’s edged and caught at slip and they’re out!
In the publishing world even the smallest jarring of language or misspelled word can be an excuse for an agent or publisher to stop reading. The flow of the writing is just as important as the content in this context, and so you have to know when to hit big and when to be cautious. On a grand scale, this can be the difference between hitting a six/getting that agent or taking that long walk back to the pavilion/being rejected. But sometimes, you also have to know that – in cricket – the bowling was just that good and there was nothing you could have done to change the outcome; and sometimes, we have a lapse in concentration and go for those silly, high shots and get, deservedly, caught out.

Waiting for that catch
It doesn’t take a genius to work out how this analogy applies to writing. As a fielder during the match you stand there and wait, and wait, and wait. Sometimes there’s a bit of chasing the ball but mostly what you’re training your muscles to do is react quickly when the ball comes flying at you. If you’re ready and you catch it, celebrations ensue! Of course, most of the time this is short-lived, because then out comes the next batsman and it starts all over again – and if not the next batsman in this match, the one in the next. Catches are short-lived glory: staying on the team is what matters.
a-general-view-of-the-sli-007How long the wait can be when you submit writing…occasionally a response might never come. Sometimes there is a trickle of possibility, but then it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted (the review system in cricket emphasises this heartily). The point is, all cricketers have to wait for the catch just like we have to wait for that chance to prove our writing can entertain others. Some days you get lots of catches, other days not so many and then still, others where there are none at all. In test cricket this is just how it is – you are playing the long game and most of that is about hard work, perseverance and patience.

 

What can you give back to your local Literature Festival?

Search for ‘Literature Festival’ on the internet and your engine of choice will no doubt list hundreds of thousands of results. As a writer then, how many do you attend? It wasn’t until I started getting serious about my writing – prioritising it and aiming for publication – that I actively sought out events featuring authors and other creative professionals. And I have to say, now that I know what’s out there, I feel spoilt for choice.

In 2013 my parents highlighted a number of activities going on in my home town of Huddersfield that they thought I’d be interested in. They were advertised under the banner of the Huddersfield Literature Festival: something I’d never heard of before. Suddenly, I was hooked. I must have attended half a dozen or so different events – some that cost a small amount and others that were free. And, during one event I met the Festival Director.

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Our Brochure for HLF 2015

Michelle’s passion for the Festival shone through and her enthusiasm was catching; “I’d love to help out next year,” I offered – neglecting the fact that I wasn’t yet fully recovered from my CFS/ME. But that didn’t stop me, and before I knew it I’d had a few exchanges with Michelle and discovered that their committee was in need of someone familiar with Arts Council funding applications (my role at The Manchester Museum is supported by AC). For the last two years Huddersfield Literature Festival has successfully raised increasing funds to support the Festival from the University of Huddersfield, Kirklees Council, Arts Council and local sponsors. Not only that, but I was also able to offer my skills as an Evaluation Officer (another role I used to have at the Museum) and my training in areas of Child Protection and Risk Assessment.

I’m not sharing all this to demonstrate how generous and skilled I am – but to remind those out there that there are ways of getting involved in Literature Festivals other than being one of the authors. Whatever skills you have I’m pretty certain that such festivals can make use of them whilst also developing your experience and providing you with some potential contacts for when you are published. Not to mention how great it would look on a writing C.V.

I won’t lie – it takes time and, depending on how active a member you are, it can also be hard work; as a result it does take your attention away from writing. Yet, the benefits (in my eyes) far outweigh the efforts I put it. Not only can I be proud of contributing to a cause that encourages people to read and write, provides opportunity to local, upcoming practitioners and writers and brings revenue to the area; but I get to meet authors, chat with them and even make suggestions of who we might try and attract for the future. Last year I was fortunate enough to sit next to the delightful David Barnett, whose novel Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl I had been intending to read for far too long! I, of course, rectified this immediately and I’ve now become a huge fan of the Gideon Smith novels and the various short stories David has written to accompany them.

On top of all this, I’ve been inspired to get on with my own work because in meeting all of these authors and agents and editors I’ve begun to realise that my dream is achievable. It doesn’t just happen to other people; it happens to people I’ve met and people I like; some of whom, it seems, have become supporters of my own – such as the lovely Rosie Garland who I met at the Museum whilst she was appearing in the Manchester Literature Festival. I’ve been to so many of her events now she knows who I am and often asks how I’m getting on in my writing. Sometimes I even get a personal invitation to her gigs – which is a wonderful touch, making Rosie one of my favourite authors of recent times.

lit fest memeI might never have had such fortunate opportunities  had I not taken an active interest in my local literature festivals, nor volunteered myself to help out where I could, when I could, how I could. It’s an immensely rewarding experience that makes me eager to complete my novel so that I might finally be able to take part in one myself, as an author – just to see things from the other side.

One day, soon perhaps.

~~~
For more information on the Huddersfield Literature Festival, happening 5-15th March 2015 (with lots of Library events and a family day leading up to it) visit the website: www.litfest.org.uk

To find a UK Literature Festival near you, check out this handy list.

Writing that dreaded Synopsis

I think putting together a synopsis for a novel is one of the most challenging aspects of writing for ‘new’ writers. I am certainly finding it very difficult. How am I expected to sum up a story that it has already taken me around 90,000 words to tell in only a page or two?

There are numerous methods and techniques out in the either of the web that can help you write a synopsis, and most of these are centred around the various basic story structures that should come together to form a novel.

The basics of a good story...
The basics of a good story…

Here are a few that I’ve been finding useful*:

  • If you need to be taken through every step – maybe because you aren’t clear on your plot, or like to be thorough – try How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel by Glen C. Strathy. This is a Seven Step Programme that will help you identify all of the key points for both the emotional aspects and main arc of your plot
  • If you feel that you have a good grasp of your story and characters, Synopsis Writing Made Easy by James Scott Bell might be better for you. This is a good paragraph by paragraph guide to synopsis writing that starts out with the premise of your novel in just one sentence!
  • I also really like How to Write a One-Page Synopsis, written by Amanda Patterson. This is a great, quick reference to the synopsis writing process – providing you know your main plot points.
  • Finally, I had an excellent recommendation from a friend – actually, my new critique partner, – who has been struggling with a synopsis herself recently. She suggested I check out Dan Wells’ Seven Point Story Structure, recommended by the Self Publishing Toolkit. Not only do they offer worksheets to get you started, but Dan also has some awesome videos on YouTube (Part 1/5 here).
    Having read my friend’s brilliant synopsis yesterday this technique most definitely works.

* It should be noted that if you’re writing a synopsis for querying always check the submission guidelines to see what the agent/publisher expects. 

The biggest issue I have is that my novel doesn’t conform to the standard story structure. The story does – but the novel itself does not. Whilst I have my main story arc (written in 3rd person) between this there are three instances of 1st person story flashbacks from different characters – all of which also have their own story structure included.

Therefore, as it stands, I officially have four stories in one. Writing a standard synopsis, therefore, doesn’t really sum up my novel as a whole. In order to get around this, I’m going to have to play around a little longer with different techniques and see what works best. I suppose I can take solace in the fact that at least it’s not as complex as Cloud Atlas – for which I discovered this basic synopsis.

Once I’ve got a version I’m happy with I’ll be sharing my new synopsis here so you can see how I got on. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the plot of my novel, check out my current ‘book blurb’ on my Novel’s Page.

~~~

Have you struggled writing a synopsis, or did you breeze though it? Any tips or links would be gratefully received via comments. Or, alternatively, Tweet something for my attention @CatLumb


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One thought on “How do you ‘make’ time to write?”

  1. Very well written. We usually spend time without management. Prioritising things are important when it comes to time, because it never waits for anyone. Thanks for sharing thoughts ❤️

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The long winding road of how to be a writer…

Squeezing in time to write can sometimes be the biggest barrier to actually getting anything written. Most of us have busy lives and a list of priorities that other people can often depend on. Fortunately, right now I am lucky enough to not be in such a category.

Over the past three years I’ve had to rearrange my responsibilities quite drastically thanks to contracting a virus in 2009 that left me with M.E. (more commonly recognised as ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’). Since then I have had to simplify my life. I was off sick for a number of months (and then off sick repeatedly over a number of weeks), and for a short time I could barely leave my apartment because I couldn’t be sure I’d have the energy to get back – even though I might only be considering a journey to the shop around the corner.

It was in this time I came to the realisation that I had always wanted to write, but never actually gotten around to do any real writing. I re-read some of my old journals, during which I digested pages and pages of promises to write, desire to create stories and even ideas that I planned to put down on paper…eventually. But, until 2011, nothing had come of it.

In 2011 I started to get better. Now, this disability isn’t one that has a typical course of treatment followed by a recovery time. M.E. can plague people for a lifetime, or it can slowly fade away only to reappear at another time. Here, again, I am one of the lucky ones. The methods I was advised to put in place to aid my body in the healing process worked for me. For others, this is not the case. As such, I was able to get back to work (and fortunately I had a workplace that had decent Occupational Health support and a Disability Office to advise me), and get my life back on track for the most part.

Now, that’s not to say I resumed my old life and picked up where things had left off. It was my old life that had gotten me into the mess in the first place. I was a high achiever, a perfectionist, a people-pleaser. I rarely said ‘No’ to anything asked of me and I thrived on deadlines and challenges. As it was, I also enjoyed the pride of a job well done and the glow of recognition and congratulation it brought me. But I didn’t have time to write. What do you know – pride does come before a fall!

So, when I started to recover from the overwhelming tirade of symptoms that characterised M.E. (surprisingly, it’s not just being tired all the time, there are a whole host of other doozies that just serve to tire you out even more!), I promised myself that I wouldn’t repeat history. This time I would try; not for everyone else, not for the adulation, but for me. I consistently wrote that I wanted to write – well, that I would.

And so the blog was born! I threw myself into writing, even though I hated what I wrote. It was sloppy, it didn’t read well, it was full of clichés and stereotypes: but I was writing! Then I discovered NaNoWriMo and I set to the challenge with cautious gusto. I struggled through it and got my ‘win’ – and also one third of a first draft novel that it would take me a whole year to complete. But I had done it.

And you know how? By keeping that promise to myself and by putting into practice all the things I learned when I was recovering from my M.E.:

  1. Pace Yourself
  2. Plan Ahead
  3. Moderation
  4. Delegation
  5. Only give 80% (actually, this was 10% when I first started recovering – I had to work up to this slowly!)
  6. Maintain Hope
  7. Ask for Help

Advice for those with M.E. is to relinquish control. Stop doing all those things that people expect of you and just do the things that are important. For me, for a while, that meant being signed off sick rather than struggling into work. This also meant that I had to ask for help and share out what needed doing to other people. It was the same at home, I wasn’t capable of most of the household chores, so they were delegated to my partner. Even now I have only done the washing up a handful of times this year because it is one of the tasks I abhor and it used to set off my ME symptoms.

Number 5. also gave me a lot of trouble. I was used to throwing myself into things at 120% – in fact, that is what people expected of me, so it was even harder to give that up. But I discovered that I could still do much of what was needed without having to exhaust myself in the process. I held back. I stopped when I was tired. I started to say ‘No’ when I knew I couldn’t commit to something. I was forced to plan ahead and schedule my time wisely – not for other people, but for myself.

Hence, I created more time for my writing. I re-prioritised my entire life. I changed the way people reacted to me because I clearly stated what my boundaries were. I did what I knew I could, when I knew I could do it. And it’s the same with writing.

For those without M.E. who perhaps have better reserves of energy, writing might be something that they feel they have to fit in around their busy life. They might slot it in sometime between waking up and getting to work, or getting home and going to bed. They might start to question whether or not it’s worth it to write because they can’t give it their full attention, or because what they write doesn’t seem very good.

Well…if that’s the case: do what I did and change the way you approach it. I’m not advising that you should shrug off all your responsibilities and go wild with your word count, but it needs to be prioritised higher than some other things sometimes.

I know that every day I must write…not because I ‘should’ but because I want to dedicate some time to that which I love doing. To ensure that I get to do this I schedule my responsibilities around it. I give an hour to this task, twenty minutes to that task. I plan my days off as much as I would plan my work day – assigning time frames and task lists to ensure that I don’t go overboard and forget to accomplish my priorities and meet my targets. But I only do what I need to…because I also need to write.

I guess the point to my long rambling here is that I have learnt that writing is something to be taken seriously. In order to be a writer then I had to commit to it just like anything else. I had to practice and prioritise it. This doesn’t always mean giving more time to it – because time is a limiting factor that you can’t change – but it does mean that when you do give it time, you focus on writing and nothing else.

Don’t think of it as squeezing writing between waking up and getting to work; be proud that you are prioritising your writing time, and classify it as such. Label it your writing time – and don’t let anything get in the way of it. Don’t relegate it to the bottom of the list.

If it’s important to you, it’s important

If you want to be a writer. BE a writer. Don’t ever apologise for wanting to follow your dreams.