On writing

My personal top 5 writing sites of 2006

Almost everyone who uses the web has favourite sites. I’m like most people. Here are my personal top five writing sites for 2006. The sites I visited time and again.


This is probably my favourite writing site. Terry Rossio, one half of the Ted Elliot/Terry Rossio writing partnership, has written a great series of practical articles on writing and selling scripts. Sometimes Ted chips in too. There’s also a forum discussing movies, and one dispensing advice on scriptwriting. I often re-read the articles on this site.

Ted and Terry are the writers behind Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Mask of Zorro.

This is not a beginners site. If you go onto the forums and say, “I’ve decided to become a screenwriter, because I’ve heard you can make lots of money from it,” you’re liable to be told —politely of course —by other members of the forum to go away and write something, and learn some more. Many of the people on this site are already in the business. It’s the place to go if your agent sets up an appointment for you to pitch your screenplay, if you have a technical question about your script, and so on.

You might think that as a novelist, a screenwriting site has nothing to teach you, but if you can’t get something to improve your writing career out of the articles here then you are truly remarkable, or you are kidding yourself.

Miss Snark blog

I’ve been blogging about Miss Snark for a couple of months now. This woman is a practising literary agent and gives good general advice about submitting to agents, writing query letters, mistakes to avoid and so on. But her piece de resistance is the Crapometer, which really goes into what she, as an agent, looks for in the query letter or hook, and dissects those sent in by readers of the blog.

She has run four of these to date, and if you don’t write a better query letter after reading these I’d be really surprised.

A fantastic service to writers.

Creating Passionate Users

Another site I re-read, particularly the Kathy Sierra articles.

I’m a technical writer. I love it when I come across other technical writers who write strongly, and with passion about technical writing.

Some personal favourites:

The posts are worth looking at for the graphics alone. They’re mostly 50’s style photographs with talking bubbles and they go so cleverly with the associated articles.

Publishers Marketplace

This is the first place I look for agent information, or even if I’m just browsing about writing in general.

I waste a lot of time just browsing, but also pop in for the occasional serious research —like finding out whether an agent is appropriate to query, and the agent’s website and/or address. I also find a lot of new writers/agents blogs this way.

Progress report

Writing progress

Finally made a start on rewriting the first chapter (formerly known as the prologue). It’s patchy, but I think it’s better. It’s been bugging me ever since I wrote it as a prologue.

Writing process

Using the web to maintain writing enthusiasm

It takes a lot of work and a long time to finish a novel. I have heard it gets faster (months rather than years), but it’s still a lot of work. Some days you are overcome with enthusiasm and can write forever. Other days all you want to do is throw the whole thing in. How do you maintain the enthusiasm over the months —years —that it takes?

There are lots of techniques people use to keep writing.

Writing with a partner has to rank as one of the best techniques I know.

Other people join writers’ circles or critiquing groups. The continued stimulation of having to produce for the group keeps them on track, and being around other people who are doing the same things you are (writing a novel) adds extra encouragement.

Deadlines help. If you are lucky enough to have a contract to fulfil and a date to deliver to you might have other stress-related problems, but you definitely have a reason to write. As the famous quote goes, “Nothing concentrates the mind quite so well as a deadline.”

But what if you are a solitary writer, trying to hold down a full-time job, balancing life and family, trying to find time to write. How do you keep writing? How do you maintain the enthusiasm.

Nowadays, many people turn to the internet.

The web is a great tool. It allows you to reach out and talk to other people like yourself. You may be the only person you know writing a novel, but you can find dozens of them online.

How do you find these sites? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use a search engine like Google to start with. Search on every logical word you can think of.
  • Read blogs like this and follow the links. The links in the blog posts themselves, and the links on the sidebar. That’s how I get many of my favourite sites.
  • Look up your favourite authors, see if they have sites, and check out any links they include
  • Look up the big book publishing sites. They often have links and forums.

That’s just a start.

This allows you to join the web writing community. The important thing is to not let it take over your life, so that you spend so much time with the community your writing loses out.

Writing process

Other people’s second drafts

We have talked a bit about how we edit our manuscripts, but it’s always fascinating to find out how other people do it.

Most people do similar things, but not necessarily in the same order.

Blair, in reply to a question on the Scripts message board on the Wordplayer site, tells how he checks for spelling, plot and characterisation, first. He fixes these and then sends his script off to industry people he respects. Very similar, by the sound of it, to the way we do it.

Barbara W. Klaser completely re-wrote her second draft, even changing point-of-view characters. We’ve done that before. Quite dramatic changes can happen.

Although it’s more about fixing your story than about rewriting, in More Better Writing, Part 2, Christopher Meeks gives some good advice about fixing your writing in general. I particularly like the way he says

“There is no bad first draft… First drafts are for you alone, a place where you allow yourself to make mistakes while you let your creativity flow.”

Christopher Meeks, More Better Writing, Part 2.

Writing process

Writing progress

Still a straight copy from the script. Trying to put Scott’s thoughts into the mix.

A few problems changing tense. When we re-read what we have written a couple of days later we find that every so often we have slipped back into present tense. Don’t see it when we’re writing, need the distance of time to notice it.

Outside of that, the story is going well.

Writing process

Story ideas

Not every idea turns into a fully fledged novel. Some of them die after three chapters. Others sit in the ideas box, waiting for time to write. Still others sit in the ideas box waiting for another idea or character to click with before we can use it.

Ideas and characters are everywhere, but it takes a combination of things to decide to write a story about them, and other factors to decide to write that story now.

The third chapter death

I find that if you can’t write past the third chapter, you don’t want to tell this story, or at least you don’t want to tell it right now.

This often happens when one of us doesn’t like the idea.

It also happens on those rare occasions when we decide to write something for commercial reasons. Analogous to the “Everyone can write a romance novel, let’s do it.” We don’t quite do that, ours is more, “We read lots of mystery novels, why don’t we write a whodunnit? They’re shorter than a fantasy and we’re more likely to sell it.” Maybe one day we’ll do it, but I can tell you now that at the rate we’re going our whodunnit is also going to be a science fiction (RAINBOW) and it will likely run to well over 100,000 words.

Whilst you can keep up the enthusiasm for pretty much any story for a couple of chapters, I find that you usually know by the end of the third chapter whether or not you are prepared to live with the story for the next couple of years.

The ‘I want to write it now’ great idea

Ideas don’t wait until you get to the end of the current book. You might see something, overhear something, dream something. You can’t just say, “Hold on. I don’t want to know about you until the middle of next year. I’m writing a different novel right now.” You’d forget it.

We write the idea down, and add it to our list of story ideas. If it’s a truly persistent idea that comes fully visualised (a la SATISFACTION) we’ll write a rough version of the idea that’s demanding to be heard, and put that into our ideas box as well. We have the first ten or fifteen pages of a script for Satisfaction, plus lots of notes on who, what, why and how. It’s all handwritten in one of our writing notebooks, and it’s not going any further—and definitely won’t be typed up —until we get to it. Unless another part of the story demands to be told, of course, in which case we’ll write that down in our notebook as well.

We have a number of great story ideas where we have the start written down, plus some rough notes about where it is going. Stories we’d love to write, when we get the time.

Sometimes too, these demanding ideas are just procrastination. You hit a block in the story you are currently working on, and rather than fix the problem you come up with all these other stories you could write instead. There’s no easy way over that except to recognise the procrastination for what it is, and somehow, if you can, get back on track with the current story.

Just don’t let yourself start writing that second story properly though. You need discipline to write a novel. As soon as you start being lenient on yourself you make it harder to finish.

If you hit a slump half to three-quarters of the way through a novel (and we always do) , try at least to finish the draft before you throw it away. If you liked the story enough to get that far, you’ll probably find that once you get over the hump you’re able to continue with enthusiasm.

The really great idea that isn’t a story yet

You need more than one idea to make a story. These ideas seldom arrive all at the same time. You might start with an idea or a character, but he’s going nowhere without something happening to him.

The origins of BARRAIN, our on-line novel, are hazy now, but I do know that long before Scott arrived on the scene Jacob was there (only he wasn’t called Jacob then), watching Caid—a member of his own team—saying to his companion, “Such a pity we have to kill him.”

We have some great ideas tucked away in our ideas box. Right now that’s all they are. Ideas. A single idea is not enough to build a story on.

If you start writing these ideas too early the story peters out, and you have a third-chapter graveyard for what could have been a truly great story if you’d given it more time.

We go through the ideas once or twice a year. We dice an occasional one that was obviously a fad at the time, but most of them we put back into the box. (It’s a figurative box, not a real one. A pile of notebooks, and a directory on the PC.)

It surprises me occasionally, how enthusiastic I get just reading some of the ideas. I want to write about them.

It’s an interesting thing, though, that it’s never the ideas box that sparks the final decision to write a particular novel. The ideas are obviously there, and we choose one or more of them, but I don’t know what it is that makes us say, “This is the time to write this story.”

On writing

The perception that some types of writing are lesser than others

I often come across the misconception that a technical writer has no ‘real’ writing skills. They can write a user manual or training materials, but that’s not real writing, is it. I mean, anyone can do that.

In particular, there is a widely held belief that the technical writer cannot write business documents. (Even though we’re often the ones who write the company style guide that tell other people in the company how to do it.)

A technical writer, for example, ranks lower than a business analyst or the media/communications person.

It’s a little like being a genre writer.

“Oh, you write fantasy (or science fiction). Then you’re not a ‘real’ writer, are you?”

Or as Lynn Flewelling puts it …

… by now I’d picked up on the subtle concept that exists among some non-genre writers that fantasy writing is the basement of the literary ghetto and that as a writer of such, I probably had no business breathing the same air as “real writers”.

Lynn Flewelling (original quote was from the Voyager Online site, but link has gone now)

Some genres rank higher than others. Mystery writers come higher on the respectability ladder than fantasy writers, as do those who write techno-thrillers, while romance writers come lower. Yet of them all, who is the most likely to make a respectable living out of writing? The humble romance writer.

Even our own little genre niche has its layers of supposed superiority. Hard-core sci-fi fans consider science fiction superior to fantasy; and hard science fiction is superior to soft. I’m sure, if we delved deep enough, we’d even find some types of fantasy are supposedly superior to others.

Me, I love it all. Give me a good story with great characters and I’m lost. This world or any other, I don’t care. Based on science or magic—or both—I don’t care.

On writing

Do you become your characters?

I was reading a thread on the SFF writing forum about whether or not people prefer to write in first, second or third person.

The preferred style of writing appears to be third person. This is our own preferred style too. One poster said

First person is probably the easiest to write in, there’s something comfortable in sitting yourself inside the narrators head and just writing them.

Posted by Murrin in the SFF writing forum thread The different Persons on 21 July 2006 and it made me think about how I visualise stories, and characters in stories.

As a teenager I know that I used to imagine myself as the hero or heroine of the story. If I ever made up stories about characters from other books, I was that character. I saw through their eyes, spoke through their mouth, any actions were those character’s actions. Stories I wrote were mostly in the first person.

Over time that has changed.

Now I write in third person, and when I imagine what is going to happen in the story I imagine it as happening to the character, rather than being the character and having it happen to me. I get into the character’s head for some of the emotions, but that’s all.

It’s a very close, personal third person, but it’s still third, and it’s very visual.

For example, in chapter two of BARRAIN Scott and Melissa argue as they drive along to Scott’s rendezvous with the bird watchers.

I see the car speeding along the road. It’s as if it’s on film. I’m watching from a distance, and can see what’s going to happen before it does. I see that Melissa is going to go out and pass the slow-moving vehicle, I see the car almost do a 360 degree turn as Melissa slams on the brakes to take the side road. I see them eat dust as she rattles up the dirt road, the car almost sliding into the side of the road every so often because she won’t slow down.

I’m watching from outside, but at the same time I’m in the car, sitting between Scott and Melissa as they argue, feeling Scott’s anger at the stupidity of Melissa’s argument, too annoyed to even be really scared about how badly she is driving. These are Scott’s emotions, not mine. I know they’re his, I know what he is thinking but I am not thinking them.

When you are younger you react to situations emotionally. Your whole life revolves around how you feel. Somewhere along the way you start to analyse those emotions. You start stepping back and saying, “I did this because …”, “He said that because …”

Life is a lot like writing. That’s exactly the same sort of analysis you do for characters in a story.

Progress report

Writing progress

Only a couple of pages into chapter 1, and already Scott’s a little wimpy. Not sure what Sherylyn’s going to say, and not sure how to fix it yet either. I think it’s because he’s a victim. Things happen to him, rather than him taking control.

Sherylyn’s a few days behind on reviews on this. It has been tax time, and she has been working 12 and 14 hour days. Luckily it’s finished now. Tax season is July to October.

Progress report

Writing progress

The transfer from present tense to past tense is harder than I had hoped. It’s made more difficult by the omniscient point of view we have taken with the prologue. Not sure yet this POV is a good move.

Started off doing it in past tense, found we were switching between present and past, so changed it all to past tense. The rest of the novel will be past tense.

Outside of that, the transition from script back to narrative is more of a direct copy than I expected.