Review: On Writing by Stephen King

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Even if you aren’t a writer, I would say read this book. Part autobiography, part guide to writing, On Writing  had me nodding my head so many times, people on the train must have thought I was a bobble head. I will admit that I haven’t read a lot of his fiction. I am familiar with most of his stories through their TV, movie and comic adaptations. Yet I was fully engrossed for the whole book.

King’s early life is described in such a vivid way that I felt as though I was there with him. At other times I was sitting in a chair right beside him, listening to him talk on a lazy Sunday afternoon, recalling the days of his youth. I have a new found respect for the man whose life never seemed to be easy. I can appreciate how he is able to bring so much character and feeling into his own writing. That being said, it is obvious from his tips on writing that more than life experience has brought him success.

I will not go into the details of what he suggests every writer, new or established, do when practicing the skill. However the idea of having a toolbox from which to draw is one that I feel could translate to any art form. And that is why I would recommend the book to anyone who dabbles in some form of art. King provides not only advice on techniques, but a philosophy which inspires you to stop reading his book and get to it. Often I was torn between putting the book down and getting back to writing, or continuing to turn the engrossing pages.

The amazing thing, now that I look back on the book, is that I did not agree with all of his advice. Those who have read my blog before will know that I feel there are many different techniques and forms of writing. There is no absolute right or wrong, other than traditional grammar and structure, and therefore one shouldn’t feel as though you need to follow everyone’s rules. If you tried to you’d never get any actual writing done. You’ll find conflicting advice anywhere. However, despite my occasional disagreements, I found myself finishing the book and feeling invigorated. I felt like I have the power to turn on my computer and begin typing pure gold. For King to be able to do that whilst still have me questioning some of his advice, honestly amazes me.

One thing King mentions which I could not agree with enough is that without constant reading, particularly of authors who are considered masters, or books that are popular or acclaimed, one can never truly learn to become a better writer. To see examples of good writing, to absorb them properly, will do you more good than reading 100 guides on how to write. (Ironic really to make such a point in a book on writing advice.)

I don’t and will not hesitate to give ‘On Writing’ 5 stars. It strikes a fantastic balance between motivation, technique and biography. You don’t need to agree with everything he says, but you will feel like you have the capacity to achieve your goals once you have finished reading.

Rating: 5/5

20 quick tips for writers

Writers can never get enough tips and advice from their peers. In an effort to give back from my own experiences here is a list of 20 things I’ve learnt.

1)      If you don’t enjoy writing, stop and look for a new job/hobby.

2)      You will always look back and think that you can improve what you’ve already written.

3)      When selling books to strangers, Book covers are more important than your blurb and often more important than your story.

4)      Anyone who says ‘write everyday’ obviously hasn’t got a full time job and a family.

5)      That being said, write when you can, as often as you can. Even if it is only 200 words.

6)      Your back, neck, hands and arms will suffer. Maintain posture and take breaks!

7)      Don’t write what you think will sell, write what you WANT to write. Otherwise it will be rubbish.

8)      You are way more excited about your writing than your friends and family. Remember not to talk about it all the time.

9)      If someone is helping you with reading/editing make sure you really show them how much you appreciate it.

10)   There is nothing wrong with tropes and clichés as long as what you write is entertaining.

11)   Finishing a story is hard. Every time you do, pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

12)   Some people plan, some people write as it comes to them. Neither approach is wrong or right.

13)   Grammar is incredibly important. Don’t trust your spellchecker.

14)   Writing can be isolating. Make sure you step outside into the real world just as much as you step into your imagination.

15)   Reading for enjoyment is one of the most important tasks for someone who intends to write what others will enjoy.

16)   Set yourself small goals. My first goal was to get 1 single person I didn’t know to read my work. So far I’m doing alright!

17)   Even with a lot of hard work, it’s tough to make a living out of writing. But never give up.

18)   It is very easy for us to become overly critical. Be careful in how you judge the writing of others.

19)   Google really is your friend.

20)   Stop to smell the roses every once and a while. Then get back to the keyboard, you’ve got writing to do!

Remember the most important piece of advice, don’t take someone else’s opinions, tips or advice as gospel. Different things work for different people and different people have different tastes. Find your own happy spot and just don’t forget to never stop learning.

5 Self-Publishing Truths

It is commonly said that writing is a lonely task. We spend most of our time sitting behind the keyboard, fuelled by coffee and tea, grinding away at the metaphorical page. And all of this by our lonesome selves.

So what about once you have finished your book and it’s ready to go? God, this must be the best time, the time you get to present your spectacular piece of art to the outside world. It’s time for the world to bask in your magnificence – because your book is the best thing that’s ever been written – don’t deny it, you know it’s true. But hold on, now you need to get it published.

Editing, agents, publishers, manuscripts, more editing, rejections, no replies, more editing and then you realise nobody wants your book. You have two choices. 1) Throw it in the chest and start the next book or 2) Self publish.

I read a lot of articles on how to self-publish successfully. I don’t often read about what the reality is for the 99th percentile.

I chose to self-publish, because, hey, I worked my behind off writing this book, and I at least want to let people read it. Once I made the decision to self-publish a whole lot of truths became apparent. Let me share some of them with you.

Truth 1: You are starting a business.

As easy as it is to publish your own work in today’s world, you are setting up a business. And if you have never set up a business, it takes a lot of work. It also takes a lot of research and a lot of reading up on things that you have likely never thought about. Setting yourself up as a sole trader, tax, forms, phone calls, formatting your manuscript into a published novel or ebook, creating or commissioning a cover… the list goes on.

Yet, again, this is where you realise how alone you are. Sure you may spend a lot of time as I do reading other writers blogs and participating in online writing communities. They do help to make you feel less alone, but only so much. Because at the end of the day you still need to do the work, no one is going to publish your book for you – self-publish remember!

Setting up everything to allow yourself to publish takes a long, long time. Especially if you have a day job that isn’t writing. But don’t despair, it is all worth it and thankfully most of these tedious parts are one offs.

Truth 2: You have published your book. Nobody Cares!

No really, nobody cares. Ok that’s not entirely true. Most of your friends and family – assuming they aren’t all overachieving, highly successful millionaires – will be very impressed and provide you with kind words of encouragement. They may even buy your book! However the rest of the world doesn’t care.

Why is that? Because there are so many books out there to buy. Readers are swamped by an endless sea of tweets, facebook posts and ads that are showing them what to read. It’s oversaturation, and when faced with too many options, people go to what they know is good, what is already successful and what others are recommending. It is the only way of sorting through the, for lack of a better term, slush pile.

Truth 3: Publishing just isn’t enough.

They say that a self-published book on average sells 100 copies in its lifetime. Unless you market your book, you are not going to get sales. It sounds simple but it is true. And sadly the easiest methods are not often the best. You can post on twitter with constant links to your book under every hashtag that you can think of. You can spam your facebook friends until the cows come home. You can post on forums letting people know that your book is out. A lot of people will click on the link and have a look at your book. But how many will actually buy it. Sadly it is a very low number.

We can hardly blame people. You have to ask yourself, how many books have you bought after clicking on a link that a random person sent you? I can tell you that for me it is a total of 0. I have enough famous authors to read and it is a sobering fact that this is the case for the rest of the world. The percentage of people who will take a gamble on an unknown author is small.

So the task is to try and build a name for yourself. Join the discussion on forums and blogs. Don’t post about your book, just post about topics being discussed. Post something interesting and if you have your website in your signature, maybe they’ll have a look on their own accord.

Truth 4: Don’t publish too early.

I will admit for the first time here that I published my first novel, Dawn of the Valiant, far too early. I released it into the market eagerly and had not done enough editing. I thought I had, my eyes and fingers were telling me I had, but the truth was there were errors in my novel. A lot of them were simply grammatical mistakes, ones easily missed by a reader. Others were blaringly obvious and somehow overlooked by both my editor, beta readers and me. These can hurt your reputation. And often you only get one shot.

Thankfully the beauty of self-publishing is that continuous improvement is but a new upload away. I have now had a professional editor go over the book and, doing some extra editing of my own, sorted out 99% of the issues. Regardless, that should have been something I had sorted before my prospective readers picked up my work. You don’t want to be known as that guy who published a book, but left in all the typos. I look back at it as an important lesson.

Truth 5: Yes there are success stories. But they are the exception.

How often do you hear about 50 Shades of Grey or Wool or any other author who has successfully self-published? Hey don’t get me wrong, good on them, I myself hope to someday be mentioned beside them. The truth is you will probably publish a lot of unsuccessful books first, even if you are lucky enough to hit the big time.

There is some hope here though. Brandon Sanderson wrote 13 books before getting published. C.S Lewis received over 800 rejections. The trick of course is to keep writing. Eventually you’ll get it right. And if you don’t at least you can pass on a whole heap of books to your children.

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So there a few of my learnings, there are plenty more. Yet, despite all of these revelations I loved self-publishing. I will continue to do so until I manage to trick a traditional publisher into signing me. And if that day never comes, I will remain thankful that in this day and age it is possible and affordable for me to get my books out into the market by myself.

Are you editing too much?

Writers love to write. Who would have thought? Then they finish their story and have to edit. Gasps, grabs chest in panic! There are some crazy people out there who enjoy editing; some who go so far as to love it! I am convinced they are delusional.

Most of us rely on others to fix our work for us, but before that can happen we need to do the initial editing ourselves. I’ve just finished the first edit of my second book and am finding myself changing sentences as I usually do, only to change them back on the second read. I have come to realise that there are really two types of editing;

(Type 1) The Necessary: This is the editing that removes grammatical mistakes. Wrong words, bad spelling, incorrect punctuation and other things that are just plain wrong by language standards.

(Type 2) The Superficial: This is the editing that moves a word around or changes a phrase slightly to change the narrative itself. Often this will improve your work, but it is ultimately a matter of taste.

Getting your manuscript ready for submission/publication is a process of doing the Necessary editing first and fully, and then knowing when to stop with the Superficial. Most people have heard of overcooking your manuscript. And I firmly believe there is such a thing. In fact, without care, one can easily set the house of fire by leaving the editing in the oven unchecked.

This also applies to the situation where you have multiple editors/beta readers. Everyone’s tastes differ and sometimes as the author you need to take creative control and stick with what makes you happiest. I have had 6 different people read a single chapter and all want to change the same sentence to 6 different things.

Excess Superficial editing takes up a lot of precious time. Time that could be spent marketing your book or writing your next book. So the key is to know when to say enough is enough and finalise your manuscript.

If I have learnt anything it is that no matter how many times you change things, you will always look back at your own work and want to fix it. Writing is a skill that continues to grow, so it is only natural that you will feel you can write that sentence better. At some point you need to bite the bullet and give your work to your audience.

Just like buying a new TV, in 6 months there will be a better version for the same price. Six months from now your writing will have improved and you could rewrite your story to improve it. You need to eventually draw the line and finalise your story.

Watch out for the Superficial editing trap. Have confidence in your work and just get it out there. Don’t leave the oven on, nobody likes an overcooked manuscript.

Review: The Truth by Terry Pratchett

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There is no doubt about it, whether you enjoy his books or not, Terry Pratchett is a master of storytelling. His ability to use a single sentence or word to paint an image in the reader’s mind is incredible. In a genre full of exposition and detailed description he is able to convey, with ease, vivid and lively locations and diverse and quirky characters using phrases that in themselves tell you nothing about their physical appearance.

‘The Truth’, discworld’s 25th novel, is no different. Characters dance from the pages and within moments of being introduced to them you feel as though you know exactly where they have come from, what they had for breakfast, and what they like to do on their weekends. Ankh-Morpork continues to evolve into a squalid, yet loveable cesspool of civilisation that reminds us of everything that the real world and the Fantasy genre have to offer.

Something I find when I read a discworld novel is that from the first page I have a warm feeling and thoroughly enjoy Pratchett’s introductions. However a fault, if I can find any in his writing, is that I tend to find my interest diminishing the further I read. A friend once said to me, “I feel like when I read one of his books that he got a really good idea, began writing and then realised he had to finish it somehow, almost as an afterthought.” Occasionally I have to agree.

‘The Truth’ deals with the arrival of newspapers and journalism to Ankh-Morpork and for the most part the characters are not too different from ones that have appeared in previous books. In many ways I was reminded of “Going Postal”, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The main character, William is likeable enough and the rest of the cast (dwarves, vampires and talking dogs), all add a certain charm. The villains in the book are also well presented and a great take off of the ‘brawns and brains’ crime outfit.

The book’s strength is in its evolution of the newspaper. As things come together and William begins to get papers into the streets, you find yourself wanting to read more and see what happens next. The sub plot of the attempted replacement of the Patrician, I found to be less interesting, though vital to the story. That being said, as ever Lord Vetinari stands out as a brilliant character, and when he is involved in the dialogue I cannot get enough.

Without spoiling anything, I felt the end of the story was average on the whole. Though not by any means poorly plotted or written. I think I was merely expecting the tale to go in a different direction. I did though really enjoy “The Truth” and find myself smiling whenever I read one of the discworld novels.

As with most of Pratchett’s novels I would recommend this to my friends. I would however recommend it after most of the others that I have read. Therefore my final rating reflects not poor quality, but a comparison to his other great works. If you are seeking a smile and a wonderful mockery of the modern newspaper give it a go. If you are looking for your first discworld novel, then start with ‘The Colour of Magic’ first.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Give us more Red Weddings!

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One could not even begin count the collective gasps and jaws that dropped upon watching the infamous ‘Red Wedding’. As soon as the episode had finished, social media and the internet were ablaze with comments ranging from outrage to hilarity to anguish and everything in between. Over 5 million individuals in the US watched this particular episode as it aired on HBO, and millions more watched it around the world thereafter. The response was universal. “That didn’t just happen!”

Even those who had read the books before watching the show watched on with wide eyes, mesmerised and horrified by an intensely graphic depiction of a famed literary event. And though so many people cried out in anger, the Red Wedding only drew more people in to watch the next episode and read George R R Martin’s books.

It is a little bit of schadenfreude that draws us to continue to watch and read or is it a futile hope that somehow things will turn out for the best. It could be that society has shifted its taste in literature and media to allow for the more debased and extreme elements of life. One only needs to look at the most popular television shows of the last few years. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire show us over the top violence, sex, drug and alcohol abuse and general indecency. Yet they do so with gripping storytelling, and we love them.

The current trend in television is towards the long story arc that leaves a viewer hanging for more at the end of each episode. And viewers are now so saturated with content that they are seeking new thrills. We are all searching for the next high. The Red Wedding was essentially an overdose and now everyone is waiting for that next hit.

So what does this mean for the writers out there? What is the true power of killing off a main character? Does writing need to adapt to the changing marketplace, or is this a fad that will work its way out over time? My answer is write what you feel will help you best tell the story. We should not need to turn to extreme violence and sex to sell, but if that helps you to convey your message in the best possible manner then do not shy away from using them.

Shock and awe is a powerful creative tool but must be used with care. Give us more Red Weddings but don’t make them the norm. Sometimes the tried and tested formulas are the way to go. Why? because they are tried and tested. And I ask all those writers out there currently plotting their next story, when you do choose to include that jaw dropping event, provide a warning to all those out there with heart conditions. Not everyone has the constitution to survive such a scene.