That was the question my mentor asked me, early on in my career. Since I had no yardstick to measure my pace against, I couldn’t give an answer but I presumed I was slower than other writers he’d mentored.
But now I know and the answer is it depends what I’m writing. Short stories I can write quickly, usually because a lot of the text is already in my head and I know the ending. And that’s why it can be difficult to maintain the momentum in longer pieces of work. A story outline will keep you on track, as will knowing your characters and what they want and what they’re prepared to give up to get it. These will help you with dialogue so that you’re not left guessing what a certain character might or might not say.
If you do write more slowly than other writers you know, don’t be concerned. Here are a few writers who took their time producing their first novel:
J. K. Rowling – 7 years from initial idea through developing the Harry Potter world to finding an agent and then a publisher.
John Boyne – wrote Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2 days but admitted to nearly 20 years of research before he started writing it.
J.R.R.Tolkien took 17 years to write Lord of the Rings, starting in 1937 and rewriting many sections before the complete works were finally published in 1954/55.
What all three authors have in common is a determination and commitment to their projects and that’s worth far more than the speed at which you complete a project.
It’s your first feature film and you’ve written a massive, multi layered, firing on all cylinders, epic that requires fight scenes on galleons in full sail with hundreds of extras, cue Pirates of the Caribbean, as many lovable, funny characters as Toy Story, and as big a ready made audience as Harry Potter.
It’s the last of this list that is going to affect whether you get any interest or not from a film producer because the first thing you’ll get asked when you go looking for finance is “Who’s your audience?”
If you’ve already got millions of fans, the money will always be found and the film get made. It’s acquiring those fans that’s the hard part but if you can write a feature film, then you’ve already got the plot and layout for a novel and it is far easier to get a first novel published and begin to build that audience than it is to get a first film made.
Start building your reputation in another medium and your fan base will be there to follow you.
So have you been taking a short break from writing over the festive period or has the short break suddenly become a bit too long? Have you slipped into ‘just another mince pie and glass of Prosecco please’ stupor, promising yourself you’ll get back to it tomorrow or maybe the next day or even next week.
I think Writers only write because they have to. The first draft is like pulling a tooth while scratching your skin with nettles. The second draft will be better, you promise yourself. At least the itchiness has gone but not the anxiety as you wait for your notes from your beta reader. And when they come, you wonder why you bother putting yourself through all this torment. Even Agatha Christie’s fictional character, Ariadne Oliver comments that she’d rather solve a murder than have to write one.
This comment from a writer who taught a creative writing class sums it all up. A couple of her students achieved considerable publishing success in a short time. At the end of the term, she asked what writing projects the class was planning, expecting the successful ones to be brimming over with enthusiasm. She was disappointed at their response – “It’s not guaranteed that we’re going to sell everything we write, so we’re going to give it up.” And the teacher’s reply? “I wish I could!”
You’re in it for the long haul, so stop complaining. Get on with it. Don’t procrastinate, don’t waffle, don’t stand on the side lines or the bathroom scales, lamenting the box of chocolates you’ve just ate. Even if it’s only a line in your diary – write something every day. I wish you all the best for 2019 – This is going to be a very interesting year and if you don’t know what the Chinese said about that adjective, check it out below. Be Happy and Write!
One of the first pieces of advice I got as a beginner writer was to read other writers’ work. I’ve modified that for myself – read about the writers themselves as well. When you’re alone and suffering those scary writers’ blues and wondering if you’ll ever achieve the goals you’ve set, it helps to know that some really famous writers have been where you are and still have days when they doubt themselves or find it difficult to get that vivid idea in their head onto the page.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Judith Kerr’s brilliant children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and it is also Judith Kerr’s birthday today, Thursday, 14 June. Judith Kerr is 95 years old and came to England as a refugee, escaping the wave of Fascism which took the lives of so many. The Tiger Who Came to Tea was a bedtime story she told to her daughter and it became her first picture book.
In a BBC Radio 4 programme this morning, she explained how she’ll make several copies of a piece of work to give her scope to play around and develop it. She freely admits that “Drawings don’t take me as long now because I’ve got better at it.” Such honesty is encouraging when so many famous writers prefer not to share their development process and give the impression that they’ve always been able to create with great ease.
Listening to her speak this morning and reading about her in the The Telegraph Magazine of 2 June, she had some useful tips and although she is an illustrator, she’s also a writer:
“I go on for as long as it works. You can’t just stop, even if what you’re doing is rubbish, because you have to work through that …”
However, when she has to stop, it’s always “at a point where the next thing is sort of in view.” And her final comment: “A blank page can be very intimidating.” We can all identify with that!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Judith Kerr!
“Pink Rabbits and Other Animals” available to download on BBC i player
You need a destination when you’re writing, even if you’re not physically travelling. Whatever it is, book, play, short story or film, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up in a place you never intended with your protagonist not achieving their goal or overcoming the obstacles you’ve placed in their way.
But that’s not going to happen to you. You’ve planned it all out. You’ve got the chapter breakdown, you’ve written the detailed treatment – nothing can go wrong yet somewhere along the writing road, you lose your way and the ending’s muddled.
Here are three pieces of advice to avoid ending up in a cul-de-sac.
My first writing tutor told me to write down in one sentence what the main character’s aim was and to pin this on the wall in front of my keyboard.
Tony Jordan, gave me the second piece of advice, when I wrote for “Eastenders”. Always know what the end of the scene will be.
And the third piece was from a tutor on a screenwriting course, visualise what will be on the cinema billboard advertising your film. This last one will leave you in no doubt who the most important characters are and breathe colour, atmosphere and life into your story.
It does whatever it says on the label – maybe it scares you, pulls at your heart strings, intrigues you but it’s complete and shouldn’t leave you wanting more.
They need to be standout, showcasing the talents of everyone involved in their genre, be high quality productions and have something that draws you to them and makes you remember them.
This is one of my favourites:
Je t’aime John Wayne – starring a young Kris Marshall
Available on YouTube and Wikipedia
So you’ve just typed ‘THE END’. Whatever it was, and no matter how long or short it was, you’re flush with a sense of achievement . You’ve done it – you started, got past the middle and romped home to the end. Time to stick it on the shelf and give yourself some distance.
Some writers keep everything on the cloud but I like a couple of ring binders and print off every chapter of the first draft as I finish it. Then it’s like a real book when I come to the critical re-read and it’s as though I’m approaching virgin territory. Did I really write that?
At least a month after finishing the first draft, I begin to read. The way I work is at the beginning of each chapter I insert a page. At the top I put a heading, ‘First Impressions’ and half way down the page another heading, ‘Narrative’.
First impressions are useful because sometimes there’s a distance of several months between writing the first draft and reading it again and that gives you the brutal honesty you’ll need to make it better. You know instantly when something isn’t working, when it’s not dramatic enough, even when it’s in the wrong viewpoint. And while your spirit might sink at the thought of all the work ahead, your pride won’t let you step away. You invested so much time in creating that world, no matter how many drafts it will take, you’ve going to get it right.
The Narrative section is perhaps more important. Under this heading as you read, you’re going to jot down the precise plot points of what has happened in that chapter. Even if you think you know it off by heart, when you strip away all the description and simply list the events that move the plot along, you can be surprised to find contradictions and improbabilities, sometimes downright hilarious.
You can also find yourself having to make big changes and it’s important not to fudge around them. You’ll know when something’s not working and has to be changed. Grasp the nettle even if you’ll need tons of imaginary dock leaves later.