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Posts from the ‘Writing a novel’ Category

Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the final month of articles for 2013 from this year’s multi-national line-up of novelists.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

What I Read When I Was A Teenager by Elizabeth Wein

Writing Sociopathic Characters by April Henry

Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels by Bernard Beckett

Bad Habits To Avoid While Writing by Andy Briggs

Handling Feedback About My Novels by Carolyn Meyer

Writing Honest Depictions In Your Novels by Paul Volponi

Writing Good Dialogue For Your Novel by Lish McBride

Creating Characters With Flaws by Kashmira Sheth

Writing What You Know by Beth Revis

The Young Adult Fiction Industry by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Writing The Opening Lines Of A Novel by Kate Forsyth

How I Became A Writer by Monika Schroder

On Being Nice As A Writer by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Marketing Your Teen Novel On A Medium Sized Budget by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Working With An Editor On A Teen Novel by Diane Lee Wilson

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

How I Became A Writer, by Monika Schroder

As a former school librarian I have seen many visiting authors talk to our students about their work. Many of them brought journals from their elementary school years, showed stories they had written when they were ten years old and emphasized how they had always wanted to be a writer. That was never the case with me. I have always been a passionate reader but had no desire or ambition to become a writer or a published author myself. In fact, during my school years writing used to intimidate me.

It wasn’t until, as an elementary-school teacher, I took a class on teaching writing in the summer of 2005 that I first thought about the possibility of becoming a writer. The instructor asked participants to compose a narrative inspired by a family memoir and I chose to write a short story about a boy named Fritz based on my father’s experiences at the end of World War II.

My father grew up on his grandparents’ farm north-east of Berlin where he witnessed the arrival of the Russian army in his village at the end of April 1945. At the time he was only six years old, but he remembered his grandfather’s frantic attempts to defend the village, how they rode together on a horse cart while the old man yelled at other farmers to help build trenches to slow down the Russians’ advance. Then, only days before the Red Army arrived in their village, my great-grandparents hanged themselves in their barn. My father told me that he found them. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for a boy after feeling the adults’ anxiety around him during those turbulent last days of the war, to experience his great-grandparents suicide just before a foreign army occupied his village. A four-page narrative about this event became my submission to the writing class. My fellow students and the instructor liked my story and wanted to hear more about Fritz. And, of course, there was much more. My father also recalled that due to a shortage in caskets, his grandmother had to be buried in the wooden dowry chest that was kept in the attic. He also told me about the Russian officers who stayed in their house and the Soviet tank that was stuck on the slope by the pond near the garden. So I continued to write more stories about Fritz based on the anecdotes I heard from my dad. Out of these anecdotes, with the instructor’s encouragement and that of my husband, grew a manuscript with the working title, After the Russians Came. It was rejected when I first submitted it. My husband called the letter I received from the editor, “The best possible rejection letter in the world.” It had two paragraphs. The first paragraph praised the original and gripping story idea I presented in my draft and the second paragraph said that the story wasn’t told well enough. In my disappointment I only saw the second paragraph and felt my hopes crushed. Then I began the long process of revision. I took the draft to a writing workshop where I received good advice from two published authors. Subsequently, I cut the second half and came up with a new arc. After many, many revisions The Dog in the Wood was finally accepted.

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2Angel DustAcross the UniverseBoys without Names

Writing Teen Novels
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Month In Review (October 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its tenth month of articles for 2013 from this year’s line-up of novelists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for October 2013

On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment by Bernard Beckett

Research For Writing Novels by April Henry

On ‘Killing Your Darlings’ When Revising A Novel Manuscript by Monika Schroder

Where My Ideas For Novels Come From by Beth Revis

Dealing With The Idea Of Writer’s Block by Paul Volponi

Maximizing The Potential Of Your Writing Group by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Writing A Good First Sentence For A Teen Novel by Diane Lee Wilson

Who Buys (And Who Reads) Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Worldbuilding When Writing A Novel by Lish McBride

Plot Structure In Novels (Part 2) by Kate Forsyth

Talking About My Writing At Conferences by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

Writing Description In Novels by Carolyn Meyer

On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels by Pauline Francis

Why I Write Teen Fiction by Sam Hawksmoor

Developing Good Writing Habits by Kashmira Sheth

Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

On Writing Self-Contained Novels In A Series by Andy Briggs

Inexpensive Ways To Market Your Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Challenging Your Protagonist (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

I thought in this post I demonstrate how I harnessed all these secrets of narrative drive in Siege.

Here goes. Here’s the story concept (pitch style) that I sent to my editor (my comments in bold caps are for this post):

SIEGE

THE PLUG (THE ‘YOU MUST READ THIS’ FACTOR) 

 

A story for our times…

Of disintegration and carnage…

This is the beginning of the end…

SET THE TONE/PROVIDE A HOOK 

Teenagers long dissatisfied, out of control, seeing no future, respecting no one, feeling cheated, angry, mindless, feral…

…armed…

INTRODUCE THE ANTAGONIST AND WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN  

Siege is a disturbing YA novel, capturing the Zeitgeist and drawing its inspiration from our inner city schools.

Siege imagines an autumn term, when a bunch of Year 9 teens, tired of rebelling against the authorities, feeling belittled in a system that has already discarded them – disillusioned, humiliated and vengeful, decide to take power into their own hands, power and guns. Over one long day, they hold up a school with nothing more on their minds than revenging themselves on their peers who have always done better than them in class.

INTRODUCE THE STAKES AND WHY IT MATTERS TO THE CHARACTERS

Outside, anxious parents gather, news tycoons offer rewards, television cameras roll, sociologists try to rationalise, psychologists give opinions, the army stands by.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST, HER GOAL (SURVIVAL) AND IMMEDIATELY PUT HER IN JEOPARDY 

But can anyone really help Leah and Anton, hiding in the ceilings and air vents of YOU OP78 School, trying to feed themselves, trying to outwit their captors, trying to save some of the younger ones before the gang, the so called ‘Year 9 Eternal Knights’ finish their butchery?

PILE ON THE JEAPARDY AND THE DANGER 

… and Siege is only the beginning…

With unlimited access to the Internet, Damian the psycho leader of the Eternal Knights orders all the killings to be videoed on cell phone, or so it seems, and pasted in chat rooms and social websites. Soon the world is hooked as each killing is replayed a thousand times across the globe.

Like a real time Big Brother show, kids everywhere watch, horrified, mesmerised. Some try to hack into the system to close it down, others message in who they think should be killed next.

Soon there is a whole internet site dedicated to casting your vote on the next killing:  the Who, the How, the Why and the When.

Unable to intervene, a horrified nation watch as their future, their brightest and their best, are systematically butchered in front of their eyes by the rejects of our society: the hoodies, the dumbsters, the generation of wannabe gangsters and the bottom set kids.

FOCUS ACTION ON THE STORY GOAL AND DESCRIBE THE ACTIONS AND DECISIONS THE PROTAGONIST NEEDS TO TAKE TO ACHIEVE HER GOAL 

In a nail-biting narrative of unmitigated tension, that will have you scarcely daring to draw breath, you follow Leah’s story as she struggles to survive; struggles to help Ruby, an injured Year 7 girl; struggles to check out rooms for survivors; tries to carry out surveillance for the SAS as well as attempting to keep the world informed. But most of all, as she tries to figure out who and why and what she could have done to prevent it all from happening.

HINT AT DEEPER OBSTACLES THAN THE PRESENCE OF THE ANTAGONISTS 

There are no easy answers, for finally Leah must face her own role in the tragedy. She must struggle comes to terms with what might have happened to her brother, Connor: a brother she both hates and loves and is fiercely loyal to.  Is it partly her fault? Could she have changed anything?

Seige is tale of horror, bravery, sacrifice and savagery, and as it unfolds, it will change the way you see teenagers forever.

The above is part of the actual premise pitch I prepared to show my editor. Of course it changed somewhat between that and the book but the core elements of Narrative Drive remained the same.

So what next? Well to recap where I left off in post nine – the decisions of the protagonist are driving the action of the story and efforts to overcome obstacles to the story goal are initially unsuccessful. This failure to reach the story goal creates conflict and tension. So if conflict is the desire of the protagonist to pursue his motivation towards his goal despite obstacles, then the stakes are raised. The stakes are what happens to the protagonist if they succeed or fail.  They are the whips that drive him forward. In Siege the stakes are very serious. Life and death are at stake. Stakes show that things matter in the story.

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 10

drum roll…  tada!

The strength of a story and therefore its appeal to readers lies in how much it challenges the protagonist. 

Why? Because challenges supply the powerful obstacles needed to arouse a reader’s interest.

So how you can use this secret? 

  • Make sure your antagonist is much stronger than your protagonist
  • Make sure each obstacle and challenge is significant and looks like the end of the line for your protagonist.

WATCH OUT FOR THE ELEVENTH SECRET OF NARRATIVE DRIVE COMING UP IN MY NEXT POST

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Sarah Mussi’s author website: www.sarahmussi.com

Sarah Mussi’s bio page

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The Door of No ReturnThe Last of the Warrior KingsAngel Dust     Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann ParkerThe Girl Who Was Supposed to DieRaven Speak

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Writing Description In Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing description is like writing a dream. As you search for words to capture the sense of where you were, what you felt and what you saw, you try to visualize the way it was. When I describe my characters, the space around them, the way they move, their gestures and their tone of voice, I imagine myself present in the story.

The more information you have about your characters and their lives, the easier it is. When you’re writing for teens, you must imagine the location in great detail: the schoolroom, the playing field, the horse-drawn carriage or the car. You won’t use all the details, of course. It’s like exploring the prop room backstage at the theatre: you go in, take what you need and leave the rest.

I found the dream world of Victoria Rebels easy to access. Queen Victoria kept a diary and drew pictures of herself and people around her. Artists painted her portrait against vivid backgrounds. Far more challenging was Beauty’s Daughter, a novel about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy. Hundreds of years passed before the Greek poet Homer dreamed his two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, describing the Trojan War and its aftermath, on which my novel is based. Descriptions of bloody battle scenes offered no help in telling the story to teen readers. Shards of ancient pottery present stylized pictures of ladies in long gowns playing lyres, weaving on looms and drinking from goblets, but those are meagre sources on which to build the dream world.

Occasionally I’ve had the rare chance to see for myself the details that bring the dream to life. When I visited Shrewsbury, England, where Charles Darwin grew up, I made a cold-call from a payphone to the owner of the house where teen-aged Charley courted his sweetheart, Fanny Owen. The owner graciously met me at the bus stop in a nearby village and drove me through his “patch” of perhaps two thousand acres to Woodhouse, a splendid white mansion on the brow of a low rise, overlooking thickly wooded grounds. Four massive Greek columns supported the grand portico. It wasn’t hard to imagine Charley arriving on horseback, entering the great hall with tapestries and paintings covering the walls and a broad staircase leading up to a gallery.

But it was the library that most interested me. This was where Charley intended to propose to Fanny before he left on his journey on the Beagle, asking her to wait for him but having no idea when he’d return.

Painted the soothing green of moss, the room smelt pleasantly of leather and tobacco. Books bound in leather and stamped in gilt lined shelves reaching to the high ceiling. Fanny sat down on a bench covered in yellow silk and patted the place beside her, smiling up at me. I was too nervous to sit.

“Will you wait for me, dearest Fanny?”

“Your future is so unclear! How can I promise to wait when I’m not sure what I’m to wait for?”

I had everything I needed. I was in the dream.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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The True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryVictoria RebelsWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker     The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGlowHappyface

Writing Teen Novels
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Plot Structure In Novels (Part 2), by Kate Forsyth

When I am planning my novels, I think very carefully about when an event in the book happens. Each event must lead logically to the next event, building in pace and suspense until we reach the climax, the point of highest tension in the book. This is called rising action. At the point of climax, the problem of the book must be solved, the antagonist overcome and the crisis resolved.

I usually like to have three major ordeals, or turning points (sometimes called crises).

The first will indicate a change in gear, a quickening of pace, a movement from one place to another, or from one set of feelings to another. I call this the first turning point. It often involves moving through a doorway or gateway, or from one place to another.

The second is what I call ‘the dark night of the soul’, but is also sometimes called the Midpoint Reversal, or the second turning point. It usually is a key moment psychologically as well as physically. It is a moment when it seems all is lost. I like to position this as close to the middle of the book as possible, but that’s because I have an obsession with symmetry. Other writers place it much more loosely in the novel’s structure.

The third major ordeal is the climax of the book, the point at which the hero must triumph or fail.

Each of these three major ordeals or crises takes roughly a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. This helps me to control pacing, and keep the different sections of the book balanced.

As I work toward the final climax of the book, I will shorten my chapter length, quicken pace, and reduce the number of chapters ending in resolution, so that the compulsion to read on becomes stronger. This helps builds suspense.

The idea behind rising action is that each scene is more intense, more dramatic, more interesting, more compelling, than the scene which came before. Of course, one can still have moments of rest and introspection after a scene of high intensity. They just tend to be shorter.

Another thing to realise is that the tension in each scene does not need to be supplied by gun battles and car chases. It can be a scene of emotional or psychological intensity – a key moment of revelation, for example.

Basically, all events in your story are leading toward the point of highest tension, which is the climax. This climactic scene is followed by falling action, and then the denouement or “unravelling”, a scene in which the triumph of the hero is celebrated, or the tragic hero’s fate is accepted, leading to new self-knowledge.

The combination of rising action, climax, and falling action creates a shape rather like an Isosceles triangle:

Freytag's triangle

This is called a Freytag’s Triangle, named after Gustave Freytag, a German literary critic who analysed Aristotle’s Poetics and broke his theory of dramatic unity down into its different components. The above graph was made by Barbara F. McManus in her book Tools for Analysing Prose Fiction.

This is how I have redrawn this narrative arc for myself:

plot graph

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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The Puzzle Ring   

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The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)The Starthorn TreeThe Tower of Ravens (Rhiannon's Ride)The Puzzle Ring     Code Name VerityWinter TownGlow

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Writing A Good First Sentence For A Teen Novel, by Diane Lee Wilson

Composing the first sentence of your novel can elicit screams of agony. It can be a difficult task because so much depends upon those few words. Will a prospective teen reader, already distracted by a myriad of electronic devices and entertainments, glance at this sentence, yawn and set your book down? How do you manage to entice such a fickle reader along to a second sentence and then a third?

As a practical matter, I have always liked starting my novels in the middle of a highly charged scene, ideally with one short sentence that hints at intrigue: “On the morning of September 16, 1860, my pa shot me.” “The little thumbnail moon gave no light at all; a friend to the thief.” “Better that you’d never been born.” Homicide, thievery, banishment – all themes that hint at an exciting tale.

In venturing to the local library, I found strong openings of varying lengths in many critically acclaimed teen novels. Robert Cormier’s classic, The Chocolate War begins simply, “They murdered him.” Laura McNeal introduces a mysterious character in the very first words of her lyrical Dark Water: “You wouldn’t have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of socks chosen in the dark, don’t match.” Then there’s Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which starkly states, “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” (Okay, those aren’t the exact first words but they’re in bold type and centered on the page so that’s where your eyes go.)

With a first sentence as strong as any one of these, a prospective reader (and innately curious human) simply cannot resist continuing to the second sentence and then a third. Now he or she is like a fish following the bait. So you keep writing, keep tossing out interesting tidbits, not yet revealing the whole story. Remember that most teens have short attention spans – at least until they’re hooked! – so you’ve got to move things along briskly. Think of this challenge as crafting one sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next sentence that leads to the next paragraph.

Admittedly, there are times when I can’t think of a good opening for a novel I’m starting, so for inspiration I’ll revisit favorite books that have hooked me early on. I’ll scan the first few paragraphs and try to decipher just how the author pulled me in. Was the protagonist in immediate danger? Was there an unusual setting? Was there an urgent problem to be solved? On occasion, the unique tone of a book or the author’s voice will pull me in. I highly recommend studying those authors that have mastered the art of the “tease”.

If I continue to be stuck on my opening, however, rather than yank out my hair and switch careers, I attack the book from a different direction. I just start elsewhere in the chapter. I pick a scene that I am passionate about and that I can easily visualize, and I write it. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the first chapter without having created a strong beginning. Sometimes I get all the way to the end of the novel. What I’ve learned though, is that a strong beginning often reveals itself only upon the book’s completion. Once you’ve spent time with your story, once you’ve come to understand and love your characters, you’ll know how to begin their story in the strongest way possible.

So, in composing the first sentence of your teen novel, keep your teen reader firmly in mind. You’ve only a brief period to hook him, so rely on novelty and human curiosity. You’ll soon find yourself writing with confidence, with readers fully engaged.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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Raven SpeakTracksI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     The Night She DisappearedTarzan: The Greystoke LegacyHold Me Closer, Necromancer

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Dealing With The Idea Of Writer’s Block, by Paul Volponi

That’s right. I said the idea of writer’s block. Why the idea of it? Because, in reality, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Whether you’re producing pages of useful prose or just sitting in front of a computer screen without the correct words coming to you, your brain is working on the novel. It’s probably working on it when you’re asleep, too.

So now that I’ve clearly established for you that I don’t believe in writer’s block, I’ll tell you what I do when my output starts to slow down. First of all, I write everyday, no matter what. Usually, a sitting can last anywhere from 45 minutes to three and a half hours. Some days I work through two sittings. My standard rule is this: When I feel like I’ve gone dry and my thoughts aren’t flowing naturally, I stop. I’m not done by any stretch of the imagination, though. I just walk away for a while. What might I do next? Anything physical, which I believe opens my mind back up to a good flow. I’ll jog, shoot baskets, practice Kung Fu, or just go for a walk with my dog. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been six or seven blocks from home when the ideas started coming again in waves. That’s why I started taking a pen and pad with me, to write on my way back home.

When I go dry, I also like to change writing stations in my house. I move from the basement to the kitchen or from lamplight to natural light, just to spark something inside of me. There’s a McDonald’s I particularly like that has a second floor to it. Sometimes I sit there with a notepad. I think the light and sounds there inspire me. Music is good for me, especially when I’m singing along. I stay away from TV during a dry spell. Ironically, I never ever read to loosen up.

How fast does it come when I’m flowing? Rikers High took me eight months, with absolutely no novel experience behind me. I wrote The Final Four, my longest book, in the shortest amount of time, five months. On the slower side, just the final one-third of Black and White took about seven months.

I don’t like to give in to the notion of writer’s block, because I believe that writers should never give in. There are already too many reasons not to work and not to produce. When those reasons start coming from the writer himself, I consider it a type of self-sabotage that I want no part of. So don’t allow it to grab hold of you. Know that every moment you’re thinking about a story is a productive one on some level. Then discover your own ways to get back to your writing comfort zone.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s bio page

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On ‘Killing Your Darlings’ When Revising A Novel Manuscript, by Monika Schroder

“In writing you must kill your darlings.” Many heard this quote, attributed to William Faulkner, relating to the need to delete words and phrases we are particularly proud of. We love the characters we invent and the thought of eliminating them, after we have poured so much work into their creation, is heartbreaking. But sometimes it must be done.

The first character I removed was Uncle Wilhelm, in an early draft of what later became my first novel, The Dog in the Wood. He had arrived at Fritz’s grandma’s farm in December 1945, after the Russian military police had taken Fritz’s mother and left him and his sister to live with the hated grandma. Uncle Wilhelm, a World War One veteran, who had lost his left arm fighting the French, was a jolly old fellow. I had placed him in the story at the moment of greatest pain for Fritz. He was supposed to give solace and help my protagonist get through his hardship. When I re-read my manuscript I realized that it was not yet time for Fritz to be consoled. He had to face the pain and then ultimately find the strength within himself to do something about his situation. Instead of finding comfort in the presence of an old, friendly relative, he had to turn his fear and rage into action. I learned that the main character always has to carry the book’s action.

Deleting all scenes with Mummo, the Finnish grandmother of Wren in my work-in-progress, For The Birds, taught me not to be too preachy. Mummo was full of good advice. I had so much fun putting clever words into her mouth and inventing Finnish proverbs she would use to share her wisdom. But I realized my readers would find her preaching tiresome.

Removing Mummo also taught me another lesson. An eccentric personality can enrich a story but it is hard for a larger-than-life-character to stay in a supporting role. Mummo was overshadowing my protagonist, Wren, another reason she had to go. Instead, I had to give Wren more of the now departed grandmother’s courage and wit. The lesson here: Be careful not to let secondary characters take over your story. Make sure you keep in mind whose story you are telling.

In early drafts of Saraswati’s Way, 12-year-old Akash, who runs away from home and becomes a street child in New Delhi, had more friends. Through my revisions I realized that I didn’t need so many different people to show Akash’s traits and reactions to events. I focused on only one main friend and strengthened the scenes and the interactions between these two characters. The old adage, less is more, is also true for the number of supporting cast in your book.

The ability to remove characters from a manuscript during the revision process is a very important skill for any writer. Open yourself to the possibility. It can be liberating and improve your writing.

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     GenesisA World AwayWinter TownHold Me Closer, Necromancer

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On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment, by Bernard Beckett

I read recently that some authors make use of software to restrict or block their access to the internet while they’re writing. While I don’t feel the need myself, probably because I have neither Facebook nor Twitter accounts, it got me thinking about the circumstances under which I best manage to write.

Heavy use of Facebook and similar sites poses two distinct threats. The first is the obvious one. Time spent checking on the marital status of the friend of some guy a person you went to school with once sat next to at a football match is time that can not also be devoted to writing. The other threat, and the one I can more easily identify with, is not the drain of time but of a certain state of mind.

During my working day, I’m a high school teacher. A typical day might involve face to face interactions with a hundred different people. The majority of those interactions are considered by the other party to be, if not urgent, then certainly important. So you move through the day in a certain mindset. You are honed to react. I’ve watched chefs in kitchens, facing down a barrage of orders, and suspect they feel a heightened version of the same state. It’s an instinctive, adrenalin-fuelled state that I rather enjoy. There’s a part of me, I suspect, that is prone to becoming addicted to it. It’s also very similar to the state supported by the superstructure of the internet, with its template of links, updates, and constant change. It’s a state we slip into very naturally, and in my case at least, it’s a reasonably difficult state to slip back out of.

The pertinent point here is that this distracted, restless state of mind is the exact opposite to the state of mind I like to be in when I’m writing. Writing seems to better flow from a place of stillness and quiet. Distraction stands as its greatest enemy. When I say writing, I probably should distinguish between two quite separate activities. One is thinking about my story and the other is the actual task of getting the text down. The first part, which happens somewhere just below the surface of directed, conscious thought, seems for me to be particularly well suited to relaxed contemplation. Back before I had children, the period between waking and getting out of bed was particularly fruitful. Neither the structured thought of activity nor the day’s list of pressing tasks would come crashing in and I had many of my best ideas staring at the ceiling. So it is for me with running and cycling. The world goes by sufficiently slowly to allow my senses to relax and people are not actively pressing for my attention. It’s in that bubble that I find a state very similar to that of coming gently awake (nostalgic sigh).

The other phase, the actual committing of words to paper or hard drive, for me requires slightly less absence from the world. I can function fairly well with conversation in the background, and dipping in and out of the internet to check facts or emails doesn’t get in the way all that much. I’ve written in planes, on beaches, in offices and at home in the lounge. All of that presupposes that the quiet spaces are there and that the chatter of day to day living doesn’t become overwhelming. In this respect, I’ve often noticed that during the first few weeks of a school term, I can still write in the evenings but that this capacity diminishes as the system slowly but surely clogs up with minutiae.

Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has proposed the hypothesis that the rise of the internet is seeing us spending more of our waking hours in the distracted state and as a consequence we are losing the ability to access the quiets of the mind, to go deeper. The rather startling proposal is that our capacity for slow contemplation, for reading or writing books, for following long and complex arguments, is not innate but is rather the invention of specific behaviour, and that the internet has the capacity to cut us off from the very skill-set that built the modern world. I don’t know if I buy this completely but, for now, not being on Facebook suits me very well indeed.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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