PD Martin's Blog

August 8, 2014

First draft, first 25,000 words

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , , — PD Martin @ 2:20 pm

I last blogged about writing my new novel in April. That blogged focused on some of the preparation work – plot development and character exercises.

I’ve spent the last four months refining a first draft of the first 60 pages for my agent to submit to publishers. It’s been a long and arduous process, but it also proves something I always tell my students…good writing is about editing, editing and re-editing. This is the twelfth book I’ve written (that figure includes early ones that didn’t get published) and the process is still hard and time-consuming. And, of course, incredibly fun and engaging.

So, what sorts of edits have I been up to:

  1. Character, character, character. It can be a hard thing to edit for, but it’s important to get it right.
  2. Internal monologue. I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to internal monologue (cut, cut, cut) but with this new genre there is space for a little more of the main characters’ thoughts. Problem was I took this ‘freedom’ and went too far. So I’ve been editing those internal monologues down.
  3. Beats. I’m a beat fanatic, but I often have to change my beats. During the first draft I often put place-marker beats in and during editing I work on improving them. Beats and character development go hand-in-hand, so I often use my beats to SHOW character traits.
  4. Tension. I’ve also been upping the ante when it comes to tension, and while I wanted my first pages to show my characters happy (before the bad xxx goes down), my agent still wanted conflict.

And that’s about it for this draft. The four elements above make up part of my Writing Rules to Live By, yet they’re still things I often have to edit for, things that tend to creep into my first draft.

So the motto is: edit, edit, edit!

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July 22, 2014

The ideal creative writing course format

Filed under: Getting published,Uncategorized,Writing — Tags: , , , — PD Martin @ 7:43 pm

What is the ideal creative writing course format? Is there even such a thing? Writing courses come in all shapes and sizes—from a three-hour workshop to a full-time course. What’s best? What course will help you improve your writing the most?

I’ve taught quite a few different course formats –the shortest would be a six-hour workshop and I’d class my longest as being my mentorship role in the tertiary system. What works best?

The truth is, there are advantages and disadvantages of different course formats. One of my favourite courses was the Year of the Novel course I taught at Writers Victoria in 2012. I loved the fact that I could help people improve their writing over time, and I could see their projects taking shape. This course was one Sunday a month for eight months. However, while the eight-month time frame held many advantages, there were also disadvantages. Part of my teaching ethos is to drive my students to write more and finish their novels. Which meant that in my eight-month course I set word counts that I wanted them to achieve before our next session. Problem? I couldn’t possibly fit all the writing craft, character development work and plot development work into the first day of the course. Of course, I’d structured the course to feed the relevant craft info into key points, but still, there are definitely advantages of doing a more intensive course upfront before you start writing the next novel (or while you’re writing it).

I’m now also running intensive, week-long novel writing sessions at the Abbotsford Convent. Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm. These are designed to set up writers with the knowledge and tools to start and finish their novels. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages of this format. On the plus side, after only one week I’m confident that these students will know everything they need to know to make their novel the best it can be. To increase their chances of getting a publishable novel at the end of the day. It’s also handy for my interstate students, who can take the week off work and fly in once and know they have improved their craft exponentially. But it is pretty intensive and there’s no room for workshopping a novel, chapter-by-chapter.

The ideal format? I think a short course of 4-8 days over a shorter time frame (e.g. all the days in a row or weekly) followed by a longer course/program to ensure you’re putting all the craft knowledge into action is the ideal combination. The longer program could be in the form of a detailed manuscript assessment, workshopping group, or a course. Or even giving your manuscript to a good editor. I’ve learnt a lot from seeing the skilful edits of my Aussie, UK and US editors.

It’s also important you choose a ‘good’ course. Of course, choose a teacher who’s a published author, and someone who’s an experienced teacher. One of my students who did one of my Writers Victoria courses (five-day course over five months) said she learnt more in those five days than she did in her one-year, full-time creative writing course. And while that’s incredibly flattering, it also appals me that a full-time course can’t deliver the goods. So choose wisely and research the teachers!!

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June 4, 2014

Matthew Luhn’s story structure workshop

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , — PD Martin @ 9:33 pm

Last week I went to Matthew Luhn’s one-day story workshop in Melbourne. It was part of a three-day event on animation, set up by Pixar. Yup, the big guns!

I was pretty excited. It’s not very often that an author gets to do ‘professional development’ after a certain stage in their career (usually publication). You see, most courses are aimed at emerging writers—fair enough, that’s the students I usually get in my classes too. In fact, it was partly because I’m teaching so much these days that I thought I’d rock up to the event and see what one of Pixar’s Story Supervisors had to say about story structure. It’s always interesting to hear how other story pros approach their work. Matthew’s resume includes all three Toy Story movies, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, UP, Monsters University and Toy Story of Terror. That’s a pretty good rap sheet :)

The morning focused solely on story, so it was this part that was most relevant to me, and that I thought I’d blog about. I find that often with story and character, it’s not that the content itself is new or provides some revelation, but it’s how it’s expressed.

As an example, I really liked the way he expressed the story structure:
• Exposition
• Inciting incident
• Progressive complications
• Crisis
• Climax
• Resolution

Of course, we often/usually see the words ‘climax’ and ‘resolution’ in story structure theory and the ‘inciting incident’ is part of a couple of plot breakdowns including Blake Snyder’s 15 beat sheet (mentioned in the Catalyst ‘beat’) and film’s eight sequence structure. But still, I like the simplicity of the expression above.

I also wanted to share some of Matthew Luhn’s character approaches and notes. I particularly liked the way he talked about showing your character’s passion and at least one major flaw during the exposition (story set up). The inciting incident is then usually about taking away that character’s passion or them committing to trying to achieve that passion. Nice, huh? I watched The Incredibles the other day with my kids and saw this story-character relationship. The hero’s passion was being a superhero and that was taken away from him when he was sued and the government relocated all superheroes under secret identities. He was no longer allowed to use his powers, in fact, he had to hide his abilities. Matthew’s example in the workshop was UP. Carl’s passion was his wife and their house was an extension of their relationship and all he had left of her. In UP, his house was going to be taken away.

It also got me thinking about my current work in progress. Interestingly, I went the other way around. I could easily identify my inciting incident but I hadn’t traced it back to her ‘passion’. Yes, I’d looked at how it (the inciting incident) would affect her, but not as a direct relationship to a ‘passion’ and therefore needing to set up that passion early on. I’ve just re-written the first chapter, brining her passion to the fore.

The second half of the day did focus more on animation stuff—composing story boards, cinematography in animation (camera angles), etc. Incredibly interesting but probably not that useful in the day-to-day life of an author.

Still, the day was definitely worthwhile and the timing was good, because it got me fired up again for my current work in progress! And Pixar does rock.

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September 5, 2013

A celebratory month

Filed under: Getting published,Writing — Tags: , , , , — PD Martin @ 9:21 am

September is already a month of celebrations for me…and we’re only five days in! And maybe that’s why this blog is a little late, going up on 5 September instead of 1 September.

Anyway….

The first celebration was literally on the first of the month, when a large group of people gathered in the Yarra Valley to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday. It was a fabulous day and Dad had people from all different aspects of his life there.  We had a lot of speakers – yet everyone was so unique with wonderful insights that the day didn’t feel ‘heavy’ with speakers. In fact, it was fascinating. We had 14 people all up!

And 1 September was also Father’s Day, so we started the day with breakfast for my husband and presents from the kids.

everybreath01September is also another big celebration for me. As some of you know, in 2010 I started teaching at Writers Victoria. This month marks a huge milestone in my role as a writing teacher, with one of my students entering the ranks of  ‘published author’.   Congratulations to Ellie Marney on the release of her debut young adult (YA) novel, Every Breath – the novel she was working on in my 2010 class!

I have to say, it’s extremely rewarding to see one of my students’ manuscripts come to life not only on the page, but then on the bookshelf. The official launch is next week, but it is in bookstores now. Congratulations to Ellie, and I hope she’s the first of many of my students to break into this crazy world!

About Every Breath (from the back of the book)

What if Sherlock Holmes was the boy next door?

Rachel Watts is an unwilling new arrival to Melbourne from the country. James Mycroft is her neighbour, an intriguingly troubled seventeen-year-old genius with a passion for forensics. Despite her misgivings, Rachel finds herself unable to resist when Mycroft wants her help investigating a murder.

And when Watts and Mycroft follow a trail to the cold-blooded killer, they find themselves in the lion’s den – literally. A night at the zoo will never have quite the same meaning again…

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February 1, 2013

My love-hate relationship with writing

Filed under: Getting published,Murderati blogs,Writing — Tags: — PD Martin @ 6:00 am

I wrote this post before I saw Gar’s Murderati post yesterday – amazing synchronicity we have at Murderati sometimes…

Heart1I’ve realised over the past few months that I have an ‘unusual’ relationship to my writing.  Or perhaps it’s pretty normal…you tell me. In some ways how writing makes me feel and my attitude towards it are contradictory. A love-hate relationship.

On the one hand, I love writing. I don’t get much time at the computer these days as a full-time mum to a young toddler, but the time I do get I cherish. I covet. I get cranky if something stands in the way of my writing day. My basic routine now is one full writing day (my husband works four days a week) and 1 hour on the other four days of the week during Liam’s naps.

The end of last year and the start of this year saw my limited writing time crunched even more…my daughter’s birthday, school holidays (21 December to 31 January here), Christmas, New Year, and our beach holiday. Three out of the first four weeks down at the beach I didn’t have my writing day (my husband was still working and commuting). At this point I was frustrated. Cranky, even. I needed to write. Finally on 11 January I had my first full writing day. And I wrote 7,500 words. Not surprisingly, I was pretty happy with that word count, and the words themselves. It made me realise how much I’d missed writing. It literally gushed out of me. And like Gar, I’m currently writing a story I want to write. I’m loving writing it and seeing how the characters and plot unfold. And while I do hope it’s commercially viable (which, of course, is code for a best seller), it’s probably not the best story to write from a business/marketing perspective. It’s a different genre (again) for a start!

Now, we’re still on the love part of my relationship with writing…I do love writing. I do.  But sometimes I feel hypocritical because I don’t write at night. Problem is, usually I’m just too plain tired to sit at the computer. I find a day as a full-time mother much more tiring than a day at a full-time job. Plus, this is my time with my husband. Our time to sit back and have a nice dinner and perhaps a glass of wine. And maybe catch up on our favourite TV shows (Dexter, Person of Interest, Homeland and our latest discovery is the UK’s Sherlock.

So now onto the hate part. At times, I feel like my chosen path has taken many things away from me (or at least denied me things). I look at my friends who are still in the corporate world, and I do notice the differences in our lifestyles. Bigger houses, better cars, dinners out…etc. etc. And on the one hand I feel: “No, that’s all material stuff. I’m living my dream — literally.”  Then I answer myself back: “No, your dream is to make a living from writing, or better yet be a best-selling novelist.” And I hate that my love and skill doesn’t equate to making a decent living.   

At times, I think I have to give up for my own sanity. Not to mention financial freedom.  If I went back into the corporate world (even part time) things would certainly be a lot easier financially. But if I’m this cranky when I’m only getting a few hours here and there to write, what would I be like if I didn’t write at all? Or if I wasn’t writing at all, wasn’t trying to finish a book and write that best seller, would I simply be able to let it go?

I’m thinking many of the writers out there can relate to this dilemma. There are at least a few of us at Murderati who’ve been circling or blogging directly about how hard it is to do what we love and make a living.

So, what’s the answer? Go back into the corporate world? Work harder at my writing? Maybe I need to force myself to write at night to add a couple of hours to my weekly quota.

I’m actually feeling pretty good about my current work in progress, but I usually do when I’m in the middle of the first draft. I have that writing high — which deserves a dedicated blog, so that will be in a fortnight’s time.

Safe to say, I’m in the love cycle of my relationship with writing, as long as I don’t think about the dream. The author’s dream.

I’m thinking maybe it’s normal to love writing but also resent it (almost kind of hate it) because of the financial repercussions of choosing this path. Particularly these days. I’m going to try to focus on the love at the moment. It’s the best and only thing I can do.

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July 6, 2012

Back on the rollercoaster

Filed under: Getting published,Murderati blogs,Writing — Tags: , , , — PD Martin @ 4:20 am

RollerCoasterAnd so, the rollercoaster begins…again. This week I finally finished my mainstream drama/fiction project. Hooray! It’s been a long time in the making, mostly because I had to come off it several times last year to take paid freelance jobs (ghost writing, corporate stuff, etc.) and this year I’ve been focusing on my ebook strategy. However, I launched myself into the re-write in mid-May and now it’s done. It’s a wonderful feeling to be finished the novel and to be happy with it (for the most part).

The bad news is, I’m on the rollercoaster again. Sigh. I really don’t know if I’m mentally prepared for the lows as well as the highs. Sigh. You see, while I’m committed to the ebook path for some of my books (some genres), I feel that I’d like to give traditional publishing a go with my mainstream drama. Which means finding an agent. <Insert a million sighs>

Yup, THAT rollercoaster. Picking a shortlist of agents based on their recent sales and the authors they represent, then querying one to three at a time. And that’s a whole other thing—so many agents don’t like or insist on not being part of multiple submissions. But if you do one agent at a time, it could take you a year or more to get through your top 10! Of course, any author hopes that their first or maybe second pick will leap at the opportunity to represent them. But it’s getting harder and harder, even for authors with a publishing record (like me) to get an agent to take the plunge. I’m in a time warp, back in 1998-2004, when I was an aspiring author, looking for an agent or publisher. Looking for my first break. And in some ways, it feels like I’m back at square one.  Sigh.

This week I start querying, and I’m both excited and petrified. I know I need to tighten the query letter and synopsis, so that’s my next focus. Although the timing truly sucks. This week and next week is school holidays in Victoria, Australia so I’m a full-time mum for the next two weeks. Not that I can complain—I’m also going skiing. In fact, when this post goes live I’ll be at Mt Buller, skiing for the first time in 10 years. And it will be my daughter’s first time ever. Exciting!!! Can’t wait. Although it does also mean I might not be able to respond to comments until the weekend (or perhaps I’ll be very brief from my Smartphone). Anyway…

Being an author truly is a rollercoaster—or more accurately several rollercoasters, sometimes happening simultaneously.

First, there’s the creative process itself, the creative rollercoaster. One minute you think that sentence, paragraph, chapter or book is brilliant; the next, you think it’s crap. And those highs and lows just seem to be part of the creative process. I’m still really on this rollercoaster for Cross Roads and Dead Ends (working title). I said above that I’m happy with it (for the most part), but like many authors I question whether you can ever be truly 100% happy with a book. I could edit and tweak for eternity, I think.

Then there’s the agent rollercoaster. The rollercoaster I’m currently on. Once you get an agent, there’s the publisher rollercoaster. Will your agent’s first round of publishers be interested? Will they all be so interested that it goes to auction (best-case scenario) or will they all pass (obviously worst-case scenario)?

Then there’s the rollercoaster once your book is published, the marketplace rollercoaster. Will the reviewers like it? Will the readers like it? And even if both reviewers and readers rave about it, will it actually make a dent in terms of sales? The making-a-living-as-an-author rollercoaster. See? Lots of rollercoasters!

Ultimately, my aim as an author is to take my readers on a rollercoaster, but with very different highs and lows. In the case of Cross Roads and Dead Ends, I want my readers to experience the characters’ pain, their loss, and feel that sense of resonance. I want to take my readers to soaring heights, but also sometimes the depth of despair. But that means I have to go on all the other rollercoasters first.  So here I go. Ready for the adrenaline high and the possible motion sickness.

Deep breath…

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May 26, 2012

Long time between drinks

Filed under: Getting published,Murderati blogs,Writing — Tags: , , — PD Martin @ 1:39 am

MCU035My last PD Martin book (Kiss of Death) was released in Australia in January 2010. That’s nearly two and a half years ago. Last week finally marked the release of another full PD Martin novel—Hell’s Fury. Today I wanted to share a little bit about the long, hard journey from Kiss of Death to Hell’s Fury. And while I have released a novella, a couple of shorts and a Pippa Dee children’s/YA book on Kindle,  Hell’s Fury is the first full “PD Martin” book…and it feels like a long time between drinks (cheers, by the way!).

The idea for Hell’s Fury was born nearly 10 years ago. It came to me at a time when I’d been trying to get published for a few years and self-doubt was taking over. I was beginning to think maybe writing wasn’t for me. So, I took some time off. But the ideas didn’t stop and so I jotted them down. By the end of a three-month hiatus, I had four ideas that I liked enough to pursue as full novels — but they were all very different. I narrowed it down to two: one based on a nightmare I had about a serial killer, and one about a spy or ex-spy. I wrote the first few pages of both; deliberated, and then pursued option 1. That book turned out to be Body Count, my first published novel.

Then, my agent and publishers wanted more Sophie Anderson books and so I wrote another four novels in the series. After Kiss of Death I knew it was time to move onto a different character. But what would I write? The spy novel? Something else? I delayed the decision by working on Coming Home (ebook novella).  Then I got offered a great corporate gig (interesting and some much-needed cash) and while it was only about 12 hours per week, working those hours in around looking after our then 3yro … well, it was full time for me. I did try to juggle both the corporate job and creative writing for a month or two, but I was simply too tired.

Eight months later, my contract was up … and I still didn’t know what to write. I toyed with two ideas and sent them to my agent. I waited. I went on holidays. Then I got an email to say my agent had passed away.

A few months later I did the rounds with the first four chapters of two novels (one of them was the spy thriller—Hell’s Fury). But Borders had just collapsed, GFC had hit and the agents weren’t jumping for new clients. Times were tough and my sales figures for the first five Sophie books were ‘pretty good’ rather than ‘great’. The consensus was that I’d have to write one of the novels completely and then get back to the agents.

So I did. And it was probably the hardest slog, ever. Was it because I’d had more than six months off and was out of practice? Maybe I’d just ‘lost it’ as a writer? Or maybe this wasn’t a book I was supposed to write. Regardless, I stuck it out. I kept writing, even though nearly every word felt like pulling teeth. Finally, I was done. But there were problems—it would be a massive rewrite for the second draft.

Happily, the second draft came easier. I got into the main character’s head more, worked out new sub-plots and back story. I had new ideas. I was back in the zone. And so, I started thinking maybe this WAS a worthwhile project after all.

I finished it and over the course of the next seven months I sent it out to my top 10 agents. And while I got lots of compliments on my writing, no one signed me up. So then I started questioning myself and those writerly self-doubts reared their ugly head again. I decided I was washed up when it came to “PD Martin”. But, I did have another idea, a very personal story. And so, I moved onto the next project, a women’s drama, while also juggling full-time motherhood and writing projects that would actually help to pay the bills—now.

Ten months later, I’d decided to launch into the ebook space. Could my spy thriller be part of my ebook strategy? Was it good enough? I gave the spy thriller to a voracious reader friend and she promised to be brutally honest. She read it within less than a day and absolutely raved about it. Loved it. Wanted to know when she could get her hands on the sequel. And more importantly, she said it was definitely up there with the best thrillers and spy thrillers she’d read.

My confidence was restored and I sent it to a few other Beta readers. Everyone agreed that the book was really good. So, rather than sending it to my ‘next level’ of agents, I decided to get it ready for self-publication on Kindle. So after a professional edit and a cover design, Hell’s Fury was launched and is now on Amazon and Smashwords.

It feels like it’s been a long time between drinks … certainly Hell’s Fury was many years in the making. But it’s out there and I’m extremely happy with my new ‘baby’. It hasn’t been up very long so has only got one review, but it was a five-star one. And from a reader who’s new to me, new to PD Martin. Happy days!

So, when did you feel full of self-doubt? And did you power through it?

HellsFury-FINAL-10percentHell’s Fury synopsis

She lies in an Afghani prison cell, disowned by the CIA and regularly tortured. Seven months into her prison term, a lone operator stages a daring extraction. But who is Decker, the mysterious man behind her rescue?

He claims to represent The Committee, an international group made up of ex-professionals from the CIA, FBI, Interpol, MI5, Scotland Yard, Mossad and ASIS; a private organization that serves and protects where the current intelligence or justice agencies fall short.

Decker also claims to know her long-dead father, and brings to the table an offer she can’t refuse; “Go on one mission, and I’ll tell you about your father’s secret life.”

Her assignment: John Hope. Her orders: kill him.

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April 12, 2012

What’s in a cover?

Filed under: Getting published,Murderati blogs,Writing — PD Martin @ 12:36 am

Covers…while all the research suggests that the most important factor in a book’s success is word of mouth, I think most people would agree the cover is incredibly important too. After all, the expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover” wouldn’t exist if we didn’t tend to do just that.

For those of us who come from a traditional publishing background, we’re used to having little or no say in our covers. (Unless, perhaps you’re a massive best seller and the tables have turned — from the agents/publishers calling the shots to YOU calling the shots.) But, for most of us, the covers of our babies are out of our control.  Certainly they were for me with my Sophie Anderson series.

For the most part I used to think They’re the experts, they know the book, they know the market, and they know the publishing business. And, I was normally very satisifed with the covers that my publishers came up with. However, despite LOVING most of my covers, there were also a few I didn’t like. For example, the hardback cover for the American version of my first novel, Body Count. What do you think?

Body Count-USHBTo me, it looked like an “adult” (porn) book, but I was assured it was very sleek and ‘perfect’ for the market. Mind you, they changed it for the mass market edition and I liked that one much better.

Now that I’m moving into the Kindle ebook world, it’s a whole different ball game. Guess who is involved in the development of the covers and writes the design brief? Me. Guess who sees drafts and gives further direction? Me. And while there is work involved I’m LOVING having this level of control. Never again, will there be a book cover with my name on it and a design I don’t like (unless I go back to traditional publishing houses, and then I guess it could happen again!)

So, what do you think of the latest effort? It’s for my new pen name, Pippa Dee, and it’s a middle grade fantasy book.

Final version

TheWandererFINAL-web

I love it, and hope my readers will too :)

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April 10, 2012

Talent or skill

Filed under: Getting published,Murderati blogs,Writing — PD Martin @ 12:44 am

CB043845Over at Murderati, I ran a discussion blog for our Wildcard Tuesday. The topic:  What makes a good writer? Is it talent (creativity) or skill?

Like many authors, I teach writing. Often the first PowerPoint slide I pop up is one with two bullet points:

  • Creativity (talent)
  • Skill

And then I ask my students, what mix they think it takes to be a ‘good’ writer. The answers vary dramatically. Most say 50/50, and I also get the two extremes of 80/20 creativity to talent AND 20/80 creativity to talent. My personal take, when putting numbers on something like this, is it’s about 20% talent and 80% skill (and maybe closer to 10/90). After all, why would I teach writing if there wasn’t something, a skill, to teach? And why would there be so many books written on the subject? And why do most authors take one, two, or maybe three or more books until they produce work that’s good enough to be snapped up by a publisher? Because they’re refining their craft.

Of course, the biggest factor is something that doesn’t start off on my bullet point list. Perseverance. And if you put that in the mix it’s probably about 10% talent, 30% skill and 60% perseverance. But perseverance and skill are also inter-related. If you persevere, keep writing day-in, day-out, your skill levels will increase.

In terms of talent/creativity, I do think there are some people who have a more natural gift for things like:

  • knowing when to start and end a scene on the page (i.e. what NOT to show the reader);
  • capturing a character fairly effortlessly, often in a few lines;
  • the story telling arc; and
  • translating the voice in their head to a strong voice on the page.

However, these skills can be learned and improved with some theoretical knowledge and lots of practice…IMHO. But what do others think? To get a good cross-section of thoughts on this topic, I asked the other Murderati folk for their input.

Zoe Sharp
I think the technical aspects of writing can be taught, and taught well. The majority of people, if they put time and effort into it, can acquire the skill to become a pretty decent writer. I believe the ability to be a good storyteller―with good structure and story arc and character development―is something else that can be learned, honed and polished. After all, what we do is largely a craft rather than an art.
To my mind, the vast majority of published writers are published because of their persistence rather than their outright talent. Having talent alone is not enough without the technical skills to translate imagination and a flair with words into a finished book.

Creativity can be cultivated in a person who has the spark to begin with, but I’m not sure it can be instilled in everyone regardless. The ability to notice the small details that pull a story out of the ordinary, that takes something special―something extra. As is the ability to describe those nuances of emotion and character using words that are fresh and clear.

Everybody looks, but not everybody sees.

Pari Noskin Taichert
I think that talent isn’t really the issue; it’s having a distinctive voice that most of us equate with “talent.” As to skill, it does take quite a bit of time and effort to be able to translate that voice into something others will want to read . . . and can understand. Too many people don’t have the skill to write what they really mean to say. Even if they do, readers will bring their own experiences and interpretations to any work.

Stephen Jay Schwartz
Note: Stephen was fighting time this week, but said:

Bottom line ― it’s always bothered me when people have said, “Oh, writing is easy for you because you were born with such talent.”  Everyone has it in them to be good.  Some better than others.  But it takes a lot of work, sometimes a life-time of work, to reach the point where our “born talent” is revealed.  Nothing comes easy.

David Corbett
I’ll second what Pari said: The key is a unique voice, but that’s just the beginning. No student is harder to teach than the one who thinks he’s talented. It takes humility and a passion to write well to achieve the kind of quality that makes your writing worth reading. That passion comes from being inspired by the writers who you want to emulate, who’ve created in you a desire not just to read but to create.

Fiction is much harder than people think, because they only see the end result. But craft alone can’t provide the ineffable magical wonderful rush that truly great prose or poetry creates. That quality can’t be taught, it can only be nurtured―or squandered, or destroyed.

The great joy as a teacher is to read a student’s work and see something special there, and to try as best you can to help that student take the next step toward excellence. The great heartbreak is to have a gifted student who thinks your pointing out where his work falls short is just evidence you don’t recognize his talent.

Alex Sokoloff
Talent―that’s a weird one when it comes to writing. I used to sing a LOT, not just in bars, believe it or not, but also in some pretty intense classical/madrigal groups, so I ended up singing with a fair number of opera singers. Now THAT’S talent. You are born with that kind of voice or you are not (I was not!).  It’s like whatever God is, singing through you. There is no arguing it.  There is no room for doubt.  You have it or you don’t.

You don’t see that in writing very often―there are genius writers to be sure (again, I am not one of them!), but it’s a less pure talent than musical talent, I think.  Consequently yes, writing skill can be developed.  People can become serviceable writers and be published without ever being much good, and I think that’s a lot because we ALL (except actual illiterates) know how to write, sort of―it’s our second language. And we’re all studying storytelling all the time, without actually knowing it, because we’re reading and watching movies and TV all the time and assimiliating the rhythms of story.

But I do think good writers (and that I will admit to being) are born with a certain programming―an ear, a voice, that not everyone is born with. You can hone storytelling skills, but if you’re not born with that ear and voice, you’re never really able to create that seamless dream that is key to a really good book.

And I completely agree with you, P and Z, about persistence―only I’d call it WILL, and bottom line, it’s more effective than skill or talent in becoming a professional writer.  God knows I’ve seen that often enough in Hollywood―but in publishing, too.  It’s not pretty, but it’s true. If you have the will, you can make it without talent OR skill.

Gar Anthony Haywood
If the question is “What makes a good writer?”, I would quantify the talent/skill equation this way:

25% talent/75% skill

But if you were to ask me what makes for a “great” writer, I think the numbers change to something more like this:

40% talent/60% skill

This is because the things an author does to create great work―as opposed to work that is merely competent―cannot be taught.  All the components of what we writers like to call “voice”―use of language, dialogue, pacing, character, etc.―are products of instinct, not learned behavior.  Can anyone become a great artist simply by learning all there is to know about the use of paints and brushes?  Do all skilled draftsmen have what it takes to become great architects?

The mechanics of the craft are important, and no author can reach his greatest potential without learning them.  But writing only bears so much resemblance to cabinet making.  If the objective is great work, the tools are not enough.  Vision is also required, in no small measure, and vision is God-given.

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March 29, 2012

Never look back

Filed under: Getting published,Murderati blogs,Writing — PD Martin @ 12:49 am

CB033842“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Buddha

I love this notion of living in the present (well, in theory at least). And I even think the notion of looking forward is infinitely better than dwelling in the past. What ifs, questioning your decisions…it’s never a good idea. We all know the past can be a road to heartbreak. Right? But still, sometimes it’s hard not to wonder how things may have turned out with different options or different choices during key moments in our lives. How would the different trajectory look? I adore the movie Sliding Doors for its core concept of playing out two different paths. Although I can’t remember how it ended. Did the two paths converge?

And I guess when it comes to our personal lives, I’m also a believer of dealing with the past (and perhaps it can be a fine line between dwelling in the past and thinking about it enough to move forward).

As for living in the present…well, I can’t seem to get the balance right on that one either. I’m constantly looking forward — making plans, setting goals. It’s part of who I am. And while it’s easy to say that in an ideal world we’d all live in the present, that world would actually look pretty grim. No one thinking or worrying about consequences? No one planning forward at a personal, national or global level in terms of money, resources, environment, strategy? Scary, as hell if you ask me.

I guess the key at a personal level, is not to worry about the future so much that you miss out on the present.

Recently, I’ve been questioning whether it’s a good idea to apply the notion of “never look back” to our creative lives. Yes, I have a vested interest in this. As I mentioned in my last blog, part of my 2012 strategy (yes, looking forward) involves taking a trip down memory lane and pulling out some of those earlier manuscripts that never quite made it into print. Is there enough of a spark for resurrection? I mean, everything’s a draft, right?

Like many authors, I also teach writing. And in the past I’ve always told my students that their first manuscript(s) — one, two, three, or maybe even more — are learning experiences. Ones for that top drawer that will most likely never see the light of day.

Still, I think back to my road to publication and there was at least one manuscript for which I found it hard to take no for an answer. In fact, many publishers also found it hard to say no. This particular young adult manuscript went through the very many levels of an unsolicited manuscript at the four top publishers here in Australia. This little book got through the readers, through the junior editors, right up to the acquisitions editors only to be booted out the door at an acquisition meeting. The dreaded vote. Of course, it’s all behind closed doors so I have no idea in each case who vetoed my book — marketing, sales, management? And I’ll never know.

But with the whole ebook thing (remember, I’ve been a bit of a dumb ass with this) it made me wonder whether this book could be resurrected. Since I last worked on my three YA novels (which I wrote between 1997-2002) I’ve learned a huge amount about the writing craft. And I’ve written another seven books. So what would that experience bring to my earlier novel(s)?

Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the past three weeks. Digging out “the one that got away”. And with fresh eyes (it has been nearly ten years, after all) I could see the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly I knew a few editorial passes would address the weaknesses.

Alexander Graham Bell said:  “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

But what if closed doors sometimes open for us, once more? That’s where I’m heading at the moment. Back to my earlier manuscripts and a new pen name, Pippa Dee.

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