The one about Writing Tools

I am following a couple writing blogs here and also via Google+ and one of the recent subject of conversation was: what do you use to write?

I thought I’d share what I use and like with my writing ideas, I am a little scattered here as I use several different tools:

I have a plethora of notebooks and always make sure I have at least one in my bag in case I get an idea on the bus or I have five minutes whilst waiting for a friend. I use my notebook in several ways: I jot down ideas, I write whole scenes or synopsis for a new story and I stick pictures in for inspirations. I find that if I have a picture or drawing to refer to when I want to describe something, it helps me a lot. Of course I make small changes here and there as it doesn’t always match my overall idea of what a character or a setting looks like.

Then I also use Google Drive…I have a gazillions files at the moment because every time I have a new idea, I create a new document. I have created some folders for each idea and each has subfolders as such:

  • 00- Goals/Objectives/Deadlines : this is where I keep the synopsis, breakdowns of the story, overall goals etc)
  • 01- Characters : I keep a master sheet with all the character and their overall role, Major character sheets and minor/recurring characters sheets
  • 02- Maps/Settings: it’s all about the world my characters live in, what are the rules: physical, religion, social, politics etc…
  • 03- Scenes : when I create a scene for that particular story, it goes there ; and finally
  • 04- Research: any link, photos, bits of information that I use to help with my story goes there

When I create a scene that doesn’t fit any of my existing stories, I plop it in a folder called “Randoms” in the hope that at some point I’ll be able to use them somewhere.

For the moment, I am able to keep track because not of my stories go really far. I have this problem of starting strong and then I fizzle out because I have no idea what my characters want and then a new idea forms and I start again. I know, I know, I have to pick one and really run with it and see where it goes but what can I say? I am fickle and it is what I need to work on.

I have, however, seen loads of comments about using writing software. The top choice seems to be Scrivener but all the reviews seem to hint that it’s better on a Mac (and I can’t afford one of those) and I am not ready to spend $40 on a software that I am not sure I am going to need. Also, my laptop is currently on its last leg (still on Windows Vista) and it’s so slow that I usually spend at least half an hour cursing at it when I power it up…I know I have to buy a new one and I think getting a paying software before I upgrade would be silly.
I have in the last few days read about a free software (I like the sound of that, thank you very much) which is Windows specific and designed by a computer programmer who is also a writer. It’s called yWriter and I have downloaded it at the weekend. It’s still early days and I think it takes a little time to get used to but if you have a big story and lots of scenes to track or characters etc, I think that a good cheap alternative before you decide you are really serious about it and want to invest in something more flashy. A friend of mine also use Snowflake but if you don’t want to fork out $40 for Scrivener, then I guess the $100 for Snowflake won’t hit the mark either – by the way, apologies for putting all the prices in dollars, it appears that the software are only available from American sites.

So what about you?

The one about Reading

I have just completed my first creative writing course – if you are in search for something not too long and engaging, I recommend The Original Writing Course by Maggie Hamand (in London only).

It’s short (6 weeks) and it’s not too expensive and the group is small enough (12-15) that you get your opportunities to contribute regularly. Anyway, this post is not really about the course  but more about a couple things that got highlighted for me.

I have discovered two important things on that course:

1. Everybody thinks their writing sucks,

2. Although I am avid reader, I am a lazy one!

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About point #1: it’s pretty much the first thing that Maggie tells you and she tells you that if she put a jar in the middle of the table at each of the classes and made people put a £1 every time they said that, she could retire easily already. Now, somehow, this is kind of reassuring. Then she makes you write a little exercise and read it out loud to the rest of the class…The first time you have to do that, you are petrified…by the end of the course, you volunteer happily to read what you have written as the feedback from both teacher and peers is invaluable and always supportive. No one will tell you that you suck (except maybe that little voice in your head)…they will point out what they like and what they may have done. It’s all very fulfilling and civilised. But I digress (I do that a lot, sorry).

This post is meant to be about point #2: I am a lazy reader.

In a previous post, I explained that I grew up and was educated in France. What I didn’t say was that I chose to do a literary orientated Baccalaureat (O’Level type). This means that whilst in high school, the focus of my classes was on Literature (and Languages). In France, unfortunately that meant French literature only…I studied Philosophy (Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Sartre) and the French classics (Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Hugo, Baudelaire, Raimbault) and for most part, I have enjoyed it – although I have hated the part where you have to say what the author was trying to say and I really, really didn’t like Flaubert (sorry Mrs M). What I didn’t get to study and I feel is missing somehow in the curriculum are classics and popular authors from other countries – although I did have to do a Kafka (brrr….) when I was in 5th grade (that’s 2nd year of secondary school in France, so I was 13-14). I never read Jane Austen, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Du Maurier, etc.

I could have done that of my own accord I give you that…but this is where I admit that I became a lazy reader…and also I think, I resisted so much the principle of being forced to read certain books at school and having to dissect them so they stopped being fun, that anything that I didn’t see as pure entertainment, I shied away from…and now here I am, nearly 40 years of age, I feel I am an under achieved reader and that maybe it will make me a poorer writer. So here is another thing for my 2014 bucket list: I must read a book from one of those authors listed above per month. That shouldn’t be too hard considering the amount of commuting I do every day, as long as I get it on the Kindle, I’ll be fine.

Now I need to decide which classic I need to start with…any suggestions (fyi: poetry is out, I really, really don’t have the mind for it)? I have a little over a month to decide and a couple books to finish until then.

The one on Learning the Craft of Writing

As a blubbering new ‘writer’ (if I can even call myself that), the only basis I have for writing is the little I learned from my high school years in France. I did choose a literary branch of studies and had to read all the French classics but somehow, you are not really taught the process of creative writing. You study the texts, novels, poems to understand their inspiration or what they were trying to convey but not so much how the plot was structured or the characters developed.

That of course didn’t stop me from dabbling in soppy poetry and cheesy teen short stories. I was quite the loner in my teenage years. I didn’t have many friends, I was often bullied and I was angry all the time. If you met me now, you wouldn’t believe that as I am nearly quite the opposite: outgoing, sociable and always smiling! But I digress (again!).

I stopped writing when I started to work. Somehow going to work didn’t leave much room for my creative process. I probably would have started again after I got used to it but that’s when I moved to London and started learning to speak a new language (well I had the basics but that doesn’t prepare you for real life speech). It took most of my brain power to absorb all this new vocabulary, the different accents and speech patterns. Then I became lazy again.

Over the past fourteen years (that’s how long I have been in London), I have read countless novels in English and very few in French. I don’t really enjoy reading in French any more. I find it too pompous and the genre I like to read are often written by English or American writers so I want to read the original versions, not the translations. Once or twice, I tried to start writing again (in English) but I felt I was lacking technique or vocabulary and I didn’t feel like writing in French. I finally got the bug back last year, after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The day after I got the news, I started blogging about it, originally so I could keep my friends up to date with my treatment without having to repeat myself, and then because it was very cathartic and I found a supportive community of women going through the same ordeal (and I digress again…*sigh*).

All this setting up is so you understand why, after all these years, I have finally taken the leap and signed up to a creative writing course. I am not someone who mopes around for long. If I feel that I am missing something, I usually go and get it. No point complaining about not having the tools and then do nothing to acquire them, is there? I thought about taking new classes at Birkbeck University. I did my Cert HE in Psychology with them a couple years ago and the teaching was excellent and as this university specialises in adult learning, the classes fit around working people’s schedules. But thanks to our “new” government’s changes in educational grants etc, Birkbeck didn’t get anything and therefore all the prices went up dramatically. When I could justify spending up £600 for 22 weeks of classes, I really, really can’t afford to fork out £1000 for 11 weeks course. So I turned to my good friend “Google” and found the excellent and affordable Creative Writing Courses website. It didn’t take me long to sign up for their beginners’ class and then I had to wait…and wait…until it started mid October.

I honestly was buzzing with anticipation for that course and I wasn’t disappointed. The classes were well structured, with a good balance of lecturing and in class exercises and time to share with the rest of the class what you had written. Most of what you learn in the class, you can find in creative writing books and if you are someone who learns well at home, with books and all, maybe you don’t need the course. I am not so disciplined unfortunately. I need to have deadlines set up by someone else and people to share and bounce ideas on and for that, the course was well worth it. I will not give you a blow by blow of what I learned. I haven’t go enough distance to evaluate how much I have learned. I can however, give you a breakdown of the topics covered over the past 6 weeks (Saturday 17th November was sadly our last class).

Original Creative Writing course topics per week (3 hours):

  • Week 1: Introduction to creative writing and where to start
  • Week 2: Characters
  • Week 3: POV and Voice
  • Week 4: Description
  • Week 5: Plot
  • Week 6: Quick recap and Editing

It went so quickly and I felt that I only scratched the surface…which I suppose is the point with a Beginner’s class. Each week we had a little bit of homework to do, to prepare us for the next class. Usually to write a little piece which we could volunteer to read at the next class. First few classes, no one ever volunteered. I guess we were all terrified to say out loud what we all believe to be a shit piece of writing. There is no worse critic than yourself. But as the weeks went by and we realised that the feedback was always constructive and supportive, we usually didn’t have enough time to read all the volunteers.

This course definitely wet my appetite for it and although I still feel a little scattered (that’s my main problem), it has renewed my conviction that, yes, I can do this. So, I will most certainly sign up for the Intermediate course, which starts in February 2014 (and from what I gathered, most of my classmates will too). We have gained better understanding and reassurance that we don’t suck as much as we thought but we have also gained a new community. We all exchanged our emails and one of the gals will set up a “club” so we continue meeting on as being able to share what you do with people who are willing to listen and give you constructive feedback and not just ego massaging comments is as valuable as remembering the techniques to make your novel flow.

If you are interested in the course but can’t actually come to London to attend them, Maggie Hamand, the course tutor and founder, has published a For Dummies book which the beginners’ class follow: Creative Writing for Dummies, which is really easy to follow (like all the for Dummies books – of which I am a big fan).

The one about NaNoWriMo

or for the unaware amongst yourselves: National Novel Writing Month.admin_1-asset-524aaa24b74c3

This is something I have discovered only recently (thanks WordPress) and I find myself attracted to enough that I created a profile on the website but I also chickened out of committing to write that novel in a month.

What is it about?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m. on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel.

(Source: nanowrimo.org)

It’s free to sign up and there are loads of supporting resources, potential for meetups, pep talks, etc. from other writers. But most important is it is a community. You get regular emails (if you want to) to keep you updated of the deadlines but also providing a bit of pep talks. There are even some meetups in some of the major cities, including London (if you specify your city, then you get enrolled in your local mailing list). I think it’s amazing and tip my hat to those who came up with the idea.

Now, I am not ready yet to write my novel. I am not even sure I am ready to write a short story! Maybe I am procrastinating (I am very good at that) or maybe I am really not ready but here’s the thing. I will do it next year, I swear!
2014 is meant to be my year of bucket list filling moments. I am turning 40 in January (brrr, where did my thirties go?) and as I will never have children to leave my mark on the world, I feel that I need some sort of legacy. It’s a bit cheesy I know but I also know that I have at least one novel in me. It doesn’t automatically matter if I ever get published (although it would be nice), it’s more something I feel I need to do.

So here is my commitment for next year: I will participate to NaNoWriMo 2014…dang, I just had goosebumps…

If you are interested in this project, visit their website www.nanowrimo.org.