Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Seven Essential Tips for Writers

At the beginning of August, Sandy Appleyard kindly posted this feature on her Blog. Sandy lives near Niagara Falls and by all accounts is a fascinating woman - she writes memoires and romantic mysteries, she reviews, she has over 8,000 followers on Twitter and writes about how to build a platform. More than that, she's been personally supportive to me (I'm sure she helps hundreds of people) - it's just who she is.  Her Blog is definitely worth a look!
Here's the item in full.

Seven Essential Tips for Writers (Click here to Tweet this post)

As a Psychotherapist, now writing psychological suspense novels, I’ve worked with writers, artists, actors and a range of imaginative people, helping them deal with some of the hurdles  involved in ‘being creative’. Here are a handful of writing tips I hope you find useful:

1.Writers’ Freeze

Many creative people who have stopped producing say it’s because they’ve ‘frozen’ inside. The fear that what they are going to put on the page might ‘not be any good’ paralyses them.
One way around this is to use Stephen King’s philosophy which is to ‘get the story down’. In a first draft, whilst in the back of your mind you always need to consider avoiding clich├ęs, don’t worry about whether it sounds good, is original, will impress your girlfriend/agent/Amazon reviewer. Your duty is to get the story that is in your head down on paper – that’s all. The next word – that is ALL you ever need.
This takes pressure off your first draft straight away. It gives you permission to write, even though you might be thinking: ‘This isn’t any good, this isn’t coming out right, at all’. Once you’ve got the story down, you can go back and tweak it (or heavily hack at it with a chain-saw.) The good thing is you’ve got something concrete to work with – not just vague ideas swirling around in your head.

2. Putting off writing

Working as a private therapist in London, I had consultations with a composer once who found his music was getting harder and harder to write. He felt he had no ideas, so he left the manuscript rolled up in his filing cabinet, waiting for the day when he would be ‘inspired’. The problem is he completely lost touch with it. If you’ve lost touch with your writing, I suggest one very simple idea. Just open the file on the PC with the specific intention of only looking at it. That’s all. No pressure to do anything at all, in fact the opposite. Don’t add anything, don’t tweak or edit – just read some of what you’ve done; say ‘hello’ to it again. My composer did this and he came back the following week having finished off the entire piece!

3. If your mind goes blank

Don’t get put off by not being able to find the right word. If I’m struggling to get the word I want, I write XX in the sentence and come back to it later. My manuscripts are riddled with Xs, but when I go back, I often know immediately which word is missing. For example, near the end of The Evil Beneath, I had a sentence which started out as:
The room felt XX, the air getting heavier with something I couldn’t explain.
Once I’d written the whole scene, I re- read the line and instantly knew that I wanted:
The room felt like it was shrinking, the air getting heavier with something I couldn’t explain.
It’s easy to set up a computer search for XX in the manuscript. You’ll be amazed at how many sentences resolve themselves just by leaving them and going back later.

4. Writers’ Goals

Set writing targets every day and keep records of how much you’ve written. Then you can see steady progress and get a sense of achievement. Set your targets LOW, so you always feel good when you’ve outdone yourself. When I’m writing a first draft, I aim to get 500 words down each day, but I nearly always do 1,000-2,000, often far more. It means every day I have the confidence that I will be able to tick that particular box.
Then celebrate and reward yourself when you finally hit the big numbers, like 10,000 words, 20,000 words.

5. Leave the door open

I never leave my writing by finishing a scene or chapter at the end of the day. A blank page is hard to come back to. I always leave sketches in the manuscript for the next section; the first sentence, a scrap of dialogue, notes on the action, the setting, anything that hooks me in, so that I can step straight into the feel of the story the next day. You might even want to leave a sentence unfinished; that way it makes it irresistible when you come back to it the next day.
It’s the same principle as leaving an opened packet of custard creams beside the kettle! It’s all too easy to reach in and take one. But if the biscuits are wrapped up, out of sight in a cupboard somewhere, you might make a cup of tea and not be tempted. The tiniest bit of effort in writing can make all the difference.

6. Gaps in Knowledge

Use XX in the manuscript when you need additional information you don’t immediately have to hand – such as the model of a car or a particular drug. Don’t let the gap stop you from getting the story down. It’s too easy to start thinking you can’t move on without a key bit of research (and it’s true, sometimes, you can’t), but usually you can fill in the details later and prevent the flow from being interrupted.

7. Enjoy!

That’s the great thing about writing – you don’t have to get it right first time. You can go back to it, tweak it, re-arrange the sentences, substitute different words, play around with it. And no one ever needs to know how many times you’ve altered it – or needs to see all the naff bits you threw out!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

When is a Crime not a crime?

Image: Microsoft
Have you ever seen a ten-pound note drop from someone’s pocket as they rush off into the distance? No one saw it except you. You can race after them or slip the money in your wallet. No one will know. Maybe on this day, you hand it back and on another day you keep it. Maybe you’d always act one way or the other. Is it stealing? No – the guy dropped it. Is it right to take it? Probably not/Definitely not/Yes - which one?

The other day, I was with a new colleague, trying to get our heads around publicity issues in a public seating area. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man approaching. He made a big scene of dragging chairs to the table next to us and I could tell instantly that he was there to engage with strangers, rather than get on with any work. He looked shifty and, to be blunt, clearly 'on something'. After he'd made various comments in a bid to distract us, my colleague and I got up to move.
      'You're talking about committing crimes?' he asked.
      'Crime fiction, not real crime,' said my colleague.
I didn't hear what he said next, but my colleague told me he'd brought up an interesting dilemma. He said he 'helped' people (referring to his drug dealing).
      'I might be a criminal according to the law,’ he said, ‘but I'm a good person.' He slapped his chest to show how proud of himself he was.

image: Microsoft
As a Psychotherapist, I'm always being reminded of my early training to 'separate the behaviour from the person.' Good people do bad things and vice versa. My job is not to judge others, but to help them understand what drives them to carry out a harmful or illegal act. What was interesting at the South Bank, was this man's perception of his 'crime'; he clearly knew he was breaking the law, but his justification was that he was ‘helping his mates through a rough patch’, ‘tiding them over’, ‘enhancing their lives’. How could that be a crime?

I wondered at first if he seriously believed what he was saying or was hiding behind well-practised excuses. Was his reframing of the situation the only way he could live with himself? If you think you're doing something for the right reasons, is it less of a crime? (Take euthanasia, for example).

As a therapist, I’m interested in our intentions behind what we do and the nature of our own individual moral and ethical codes. It's worth noting that crimes are usually accompanied by the verb 'to commit'. We commit murder, we commit a burglary. The word implies we are one hundred per-cent behind the act, but many crimes aren’t like this. They are not ‘committed’ as such. They often come about after slipping over a fine line during a moment of weakness or rage. Or through a split-second decision. In fact, participation in all crimes could feature on a wide spectrum of underlying intention, from pure greed and malice all the way through to apparent acts of kindness, depending on our perspective. Ultimately though, it’s down to the courts to decide on the fit punishment.

If you’re interested in this kind of moral wrestling, look out for BBC Radio Four’s Dilemma programme, where Sue Perkins puts guests through the moral and ethical wringer (recordings are being made in October). Click here to Tweet this post