Write on The Edge

belfieAs of June 2014 our mind bogglingly advanced world is fit to bursting with attention seekers sharing all manner of intimate details about themselves. Only in our generation has it become widely accepted as ‘normal’ for young women to proudly post pictures of their derrieres (belfies) in the public domain for the sole purpose of gaining the adulation of millions. Feuds that would once have taken place in private are now paraded across twitter and other social media platforms presenting ample opportunity for complete strangers to enter the fray. Even the moment of birth is not a private affair. Women give birth on live webcams for all to see. And what about Lindsay-Lohan’s much talked about sex list? I shall sum it up for you in just one word. Yuck!

Yes it’s true. Things that would once have been considered deeply private have now become acceptable to share. Sure, all it takes is the click of few buttons. So what about writer’s? Do the same rules apply to us? Can we put pen to paper now and write about whatever we want? And more to the point – should we?

Well unless you’ve been living on a desert island with nary a book in sight you will probably know that writers have been doing just that since the year dot. Take for example Susanna Kaysen’s book, Girl Interrupted published in 1993. That documents her two year stay in a mental institution and the suicide attempt that lead up to it. Her story is intensely personal and was no doubt difficult to write. Thankfully though, she did not let that hold her back from telling it. Not only has her story been made into a highly successful film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie but it has also helped countless people who have been through similar situations. Book forums are full of people who are thrilled to have found a story they can actually relate to.

Then there’s The Confessions of Saint Augustine. These are a series of books written in AD 397 by Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis which many regard as the first Western autobiography. Although it was written a long time ago, Augustine did not shy away from documenting what he regarded as his ‘sins’ – even those of a sexual nature. The main themes of the books are his intense regret and subsequent enlightenment upon converting to Christianity.

In light of the passing of Maya Angelou, I could hardly write this article and fail to include her. Over the years she wrote four outstanding autobiographies – all of them candid and unflinching in their narratives. Amongst other things she wrote about prostitution, rape, divorce, family and incest. Not exactly subjects for the faint hearted. These are stories of survival and strength and I’m sure I speak for many when I say that the world is a richer place for the telling of them.

mayaThere are many books that tell difficult stories, where the writer bravely opens up their heart to public scrutiny. But why do so? What can be gained by reading or writing such accounts?

Why?

Christine Wilson, author of The Kimmy Diaries also asked herself this question…

“Why would anyone want to write anything sad – something we’ve locked away and tried to forget? Is it a writer’s vanity that says I must use every experience in my life in order to be a better writer? Or is that I hope it will help me to ‘unload’ and for a reader to think ‘Oh, I felt that way too’. We all love a shared confidence. Writing the ‘sad thing’ meant writing up to it and beyond it but I just couldn’t write ‘it’. I felt like a racehorse refusing Beecher’s Brook but having cantered around for several chapters I had no choice but to write ‘it’, and I did it fast – at a gallop. I took no pleasure pulling the memory from my mind and trying to take a literary photograph – capture that moment in time. Forever. It felt like I was taking an ice cold bath but with a warm towel waiting for me after.”

Memories of the past can be like a prison without walls. When life treats us harshly it’s difficult to detach from the pain no matter how much we long to forget. Providing it doesn’t become an all encompassing obsession, writing about what hurts really can help. Many use it as a therapeutic tool to cope in the aftermath of abuse, bereavement, ill health and addictions etc. From 7/11 survivors to war veterans, literally millions of people cope by putting pen to paper.

Whitbread and Orange prize-shortlisted novelist Jill Dawson kept a journal since the age of nine. She had this to say about her reliance on writing;

‘It has helped me personally and also made me a better writer,’ she says, ‘because going over and over something eventually makes it clearer. A dream you don’t understand may make sense two years later. Obviously, it undergoes radical transformation before it becomes writing that you would want published, but it is a part of the process. You can find feelings by writing in this raw way that you can then explore using different events in a story.’

Believe it or not, studies have shown that there are even physical and immunological benefits to written disclosure whether in the form of creative writing or therapy. Professor James Pennebaker, author of the books ‘Writing to Heal’ and ‘Opening up’ had this to say on the subject;

“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives. You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience…standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Martelle McPartland, a poet and writerwho runs a creative writing group in Northern Ireland had this to say;

“When facilitating groups one has to be mindful of a safe space. Some stories, especially in Northern Ireland where we are still dealing with the legacy of the conflict, are too traumatic for the participant to deal with, which is why topics need to be kept neutral to maintain and establish a safe space where creativity is allowed to develop without the attachment of residual trauma.

Poets and writers are more sensitive than the majority of people with a percentage of them admitting to be socially awkward. Often they focus on the unseen, a mood or the memory of a mood that affected them. They see something and that something is usually transferred via their subconscious into their conscious which can be recalled years later. The writing of a story is the marking of an event; this happened; I lived through this; this is my story; I am important; I am not alone; this is my voice. The most fascinating stories come from the margins of life, ordinary people living ordinary lives and yet, sometimes something out of the ordinary happens and does not fit in with life around it. These events form the nucleus of our stories.”

She asked a small cross section of her group about their own experiences in writing about matters close to the heart.

Kate Catney: It’s therapeutic. I desire to help others and be empathetic. It makes us feel secure in ourselves to share a way of thinking that is different to others. Writers and creative people are of like mind that’s why we get together

Christina Mitchell: Humans need to express and create. On a good day it soothes and relaxes, on many others it frustrates and exhausts. Yet like an itch, no matter how we try we will always eventually scratch.

John Thompson: It benefits the writer and the people who read. A person that doesn’t write has no advantage over someone who can’t write.

Denis Linden: I have written many stories about my life, they may not be well written but what I have written is my life!

Philomena Gallagher: For me, creative writing is the lifeboat on my turbulent sea of life. In the ebbs and tides of life, often the pen scratches its own story. Creative writing has given me a lifeline and a voice, which would have remained silent and static.

Laura Cameron: Writing is like tearing out your own heart with your bare hands, pinning it to the pub wall and inviting people to throw darts at it.

Below is an example of the deeply emotive work Martelle and her group produce.

When we open up with such candour there are undoubtedly benefits for the readers too. Anything you share about yourself and your life has the potential to enrich the life of another. Ancient cultures retold each other’s exploits and stories, handing them down orally to subsequent generations. That’s how knowledge and life skills were passed on. Not much has changed in that regard. Lessons can still be learnt from history and I’m not just talking about the stuff you find in museums. Each and every second that every single one of us lives, is history in itself whether we realise it or not. We are all part of its elaborate tapestry.

Kathleen Smith, author of Marriages & Miscarriages says,

“My book about my three miscarriages was writtento help other women recognise they aren’t alone in their pain. Without me even realising it, it also helped me heal emotionally. It helped me reflect on all that I had gone through during my miscarriages and how my marriage became stronger as a result. That’s not to say it was easy. I did a lot of crying during the writing process, but the struggle was well worth it!”

But What If People Don’t Approve of Our Frankness?

Well firstly, no one has to make public what they write unless they want to. There are still benefits to be gained even if no one else ever reads it. But that’s where it stops. To write and publish a true life account takes strength and the willingness to accept whatever criticism and judgement comes your way. And that’s not easy. Not only may people criticize your writing style they may make comments about your character or choices you and others made.

In my own book, Not Your Legacy, I found it vitally important to hold onto my original motives for writing it. To some it may appear that I wrote it out of a desire for revenge or perhaps to set the record straight as it were. But in actual fact the simple truth is that I needed to tell it. And I wanted to be able to say to others ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’ And ‘Hey, keep your chin up. You can get through it.’

To be fair, there are always going to be people who miss the point or who berate you for having the bravery to put yourself on the line. So worry not about the haters and just concentrate on giving free reign to your gift of expression in the hope that something good may come out of it.

A range of books published by the authors who either contributed to this article or who were mentioned, can be found by clicking on the links below.

The Kimmy Diaries

by: Kimmy

publisher: Authors OnLine Ltd, published: 2008-10-13

ASIN: 0755204360

EAN: 9780755204366

sales rank: 6849225

price: $10.28 (new), $12.53 (used)

How to go from unwanted to most-wanted in just six months. Does your cat ever worry that he or she is not spoilt enough? Does your feline friend fear you’re not quite good enough. And do you worry that Bath Cats and Dogs Home is not making enough money to keep its doors open to the cats, dogs and small animals that it takes in every day? Well worry no more! By buying The Kimmy Diaries you can learn how to seriously spoil your cat rotten whilst helping the animals at Claverton Down. That’s because all the author’s royalties from this book will go to help the animals at Bath Cats and Dogs Home. So buy one and then buy a few more for your friends. This is the book your cats would write if they didn’t have you to read it to them. Top Tip Whiskas, Felix and even gourmet ranges are all well and good – delicious even – but a truly pampered cat will aspire to food that has to be specially ordered from a pet shop at huge expense to your Mum. It should go without saying that own-brand cat food is never acceptable under any circumstances.

Marriages and Miscarriages: One Woman’s Personal Experience

by: Kathleen Smith

publisher: lulu.com, published: 2011-02-03

ASIN: 1257104489

EAN: 9781257104482

sales rank: 3827900

price: $7.50 (new), $11.00 (used)

Kathleen Smith shares her experience regarding the three miscarriages she experienced. The trials and emotional changes, the feelings experienced when being around other pregnant woman after having had a miscarriage, how turning to God got her through them, and more. Kathleen, a mother of three and entering her sixteenth year of marriage, relates her personal feelings and emotions. As you read the book you will experience a conversation with Kathleen about this topic, and learn how one woman dealt and struggled with this topic.

Not Your Legacy

by: Samantha J Wright

publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, published: 2014-05-28

ASIN: 1499711492

EAN: 9781499711493

price: $10.69 (new)

After a chance meeting at the age of sixteen, Sam leaves behind her father and her reformed alcoholic mother and moves to Northern Ireland to set up home with a man she barely knows. The two of them continue to practice the religion they were both raised in but scratch below the surface and life’s not what it appears. This story documents her battle with depression, abuse, the aftermath of suicide, a troubled marriage, and most of all her disastrous involvement with the Jehovah’s Witness church. It’s a journey that cost her dearly and as many of her readers have already discovered, Not Your Legacy is far more than just a series of real life events. It retells the story of one woman’s metamorphosis of mind, body and soul.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by: Maya Angelou

publisher: Ballantine Books, published: 2009-04-21

ASIN: 0345514408

EAN: 9780345514400

sales rank: 8

price: $3.52 (new), $3.43 (used)

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age–and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns about love for herself and the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a modern American classic that will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

by: James W. Pennebaker

publisher: The Guilford Press, published: 1997-08-08

ASIN: 1572302380

EAN: 9781572302389

sales rank: 43306

price: $8.96 (new), $0.72 (used)

Anyone who has ever entrusted a troubling secret to a journal, or mourned a broken heart with a friend, knows the feeling of relief that expressing painful emotions can bring. This book presents astonishing evidence that personal self-disclosure is not only good for our emotional health, but boosts our physical health as well.Psychologist James W. Pennebaker has conducted controlled clinical research that sheds new light on the powerful mind body connection. This book interweaves his findings with insightful case studies on secret-keeping, confession, and the hidden price of silence. Filled with information and encouragement, Opening Up explains:

*Why suppressing inner problems takes a devastating toll on health

*How long-buried trauma affects the immune system

*How writing about your problems can improve your health

*Why it’s never too late to heal old emotional wounds

*When self-disclosure may be risky–and how to know whom to trust

How to Grow as a Writer

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Becoming a writer requires many skills – such as the ability to research effectively, to explore your creative side, to draw on your imagination, and to have a good working knowledge of grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling. These are not things that can be developed over night. They take time and effort to cultivate. So how do you grow? What strategies can you use to become the kind of writer you’ve always dreamed of?

#1 Analyse

Take an in depth look at one of your favourite novels. Take notes. How did the first page or paragraph grab your attention? What is it about the narrative style that involves you as a reader? What made you want to turn to the next page and the next and the next?

The reverse is also helpful. Take a book that you hated and make a list of the reasons why. How did it fail to meet your expectations as a reader? What would you do to improve it? Make sure to focus on the mechanics and not just the story line. If you want to take literary analysis a step further you might like to think about joining a reading group. This can be an excellent way to gain insight into what constitutes a great novel or a bad novel in the eyes of others. In short it will broaden your mind and highlight ways you can improve.

#2 Read

I can’t emphasize this enough. Reading is key to a writer’s growth. It can be difficult to do when you have your head stuck in one of your own projects. But just remember, even the greats swear by it as this quote by William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Laureate proves;

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

#3 Join a writers group

This can be done online but I would actually recommend that it be done out in the real world. There’s nothing quite so good at revealing weaknesses in your own work than standing in front of a roomful of strangers and reading it aloud. It’s difficult to do at first, but believe me; it will make a big difference. The feedback and exchange of ideas is invaluable. And don’t be discouraged if you get a negative comment or two. You can’t please everyone all the time. And don’t forget – it is possible that they may have a valid point. Take time to consider whether or not this is the case before you reject their comments out of hand. After all that’s why you’re there – so that others can help you up your game.

#4 Try new things

Trying something new can be very refreshing if you’re stuck in a rut. Maybe you’ve always stayed with one particular genre when reading and writing? That can be likened to only going to one place on holiday for your entire life. Some people are happy enough with that. Others aren’t. The latter are the explorers, the adventurers who thrive on new experiences and learning. So why not try a new genre and see where it takes you? You never know what you might learn about yourself or your trade.

You might also consider a new form of writing. This can involve moving from poetry to prose or writing in the third person when you normally write in the first person. You could also try writing short stories, humorous pieces or entering competitions. Branching out into new avenues helps avoid stagnation. So go on! Be brave and mix it up 😀

12 Manuscript Tips.

Ever asked yourself, ‘is my novel really ready for publishing?’ If not you should have. This is because a large majority of slush pile manuscripts are discarded simply because they’re not ready. What do I mean by not ready?

Well of course very few novels if any require no changes at all before going to press. But the ideal situation from a publisher’s point of view is that your work will need as few changes as possible- thus making their job easier. The upshot for authors is that if we present them with a well turned piece of fiction then they will be much more likely to accept it for publishing. So if you do it right, it’s potentially a win win situation. Remember that!

So now that we’ve established that a well-honed manuscript means a higher chance of success what should we consider when aiming for this standard?

Here is a brief check list.

  • Check that your chapters are correctly numbered/titled.
  • Read through each at least three times changing any incorrect punctuation, grammar and sentence construction.
  • Be on the lookout for past tense and present tense errors (editors hate these.)
  • When you read each chapter, try reading out loud imagining that you are at a book signing in a big store. This will make you more aware of mistakes.
  • Try videoing yourself reading your work. Then play it back and listen to it with a critical ear.
  • Have you eliminated all unnecessary characters, plotlines and words? Remove anything unnecessary to the story as you need it to move fairly swiftly or you will most likely lose your reader.
  • Never assume it’s ready just because you finished retelling the story that was in your head. What about what might be in the readers head? Did you communicate the story that you conceived, well? Or will the reader be left with more questions than answers? Think about the connection points between events and characters. They need to be clear and well timed. Maybe the protagonist needs introduced at an earlier stage? Maybe you need to hint at the motives of the main villain or round out the character of the heroines love interest? Make them see what you see.
  • Remember he or she probably has thousands of potential novels lying on their desk. Make yours STAND OUT. Do not have excessively long introductory chapters or opening paragraphs. Use your words like bullets or arrows. Use them to drive home your point quickly and efficiently. Grab their attention. Do not say in twenty words what could be said in ten.
  • DO use spell check. (Unless you’re a Jedi. Then, use the force.)
  • Beware of changing styles part way through. Be consistent. If you have chosen a character driven plot or a story driven plot, ensure that you have stuck to that. Changing part way through will muddy the waters and annoy your reader. The same goes for your writing style. If you start out descriptive, stick to it. If you narrate, narrate.
  • Does your work flow? Is it easy to follow? Get someone else to read your work. Don’t choose someone who will pander to your ego or who is scared to tell you the truth out of fear of offending you. There are forums where people volunteer to do this but it can be hit and miss as to whether these individuals are qualified. Check out their online presence first to see whether or not they have the necessary credentials. Also try writer’s groups. You can find them in most localities or online.
  • Ask yourself what your reasons are for thinking that your novel is ready. Is it because you’re sick of it and want to move on to the next thing? If so your boredom will most likely be transparent to anyone who reads it. Is your eagerness to get it sent off to the publisher borne of impatience? Are you all revved up and desperate to make your mark? If so – take a chill pill. Else impatience will cost you that all important book deal and that’s the whole point. Get it right first.

For many writers it’s tough knowing when their literary baby is ready to fledge the nest. Even after sending it to all corners of the globe many often tinker with it endlessly, changing this word and that. But that is no bad thing in many respects as the great Leonardo Da Vinci himself once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Keep on improving and adding to your storehouse of knowledge then, you will be better equipped to reach your goal of finally becoming a published author.

Punctuation – how much is enough?

There’s no doubt about it that at least some punctuation is necessary in almost all forms of creative writing unless of course you’re writing in hieroglyphs. But before we get into the issue of how much is too much it would be good to remind ourselves of the purpose of punctuation and the effects of too much or too little.
The Purpose

  • Punctuation marks serve to clarify or make the meaning of the text clearer to the reader.
  • They serve as signals or indicators that tell the reader when to pause, or when a new speaker has been introduced to the dialogue and so on.
  • They help the general flow of the piece making it feel much more natural and easier to read. This is because it mimics the way that most people speak, punctuating their conversation with gestures, voice modulation and pauses.

The Effects of Misuse

  • It can trip the reader and interrupt the fluidity. This is particularly the case with over use of exclamation marks or misplaced commas.
  • It can change the entire meaning of a sentence. For example, in 1963 the state of Michigan saw that it was necessary to correct a punctuation error in the constitution that drastically affected the meaning of the law, especially concerning slavery. For over 100 years it read ‘neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime, shall ever be tolerated in this state.’ By inserting the comma after the word servitude it states that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal unless carried out for the purpose of punishing criminal activity. In 1963 the error was rectified by repositioning the comma to just after the word slavery. The new sentence rules out slavery for any reason but allows for involuntary servitude or imprisonment for those who commit crime.
  • In the case of too little punctuation the reader can become disoriented, unsure of where one clause ends or a new sentence starts.

A good analogy for punctuation is to use it as you would seasoning in the kitchen. When cooking it’s best to add just enough seasoning to bring out the flavour and enhance the overall taste. Too much is overpowering and detracts from the main flavours you want to draw attention to while too little makes the dish bland and non- descript.

The best rule of thumb is use as little as possible as long as it still makes sense and reads smoothly. A good example of an author who manages to do this very well and still keep the integrity of his work is Cormac McCarthy, author of All the Pretty Horses, The Road and No Country for Old Men. He never uses semicolons and doesn’t use quotation marks as he sees no need to” blot the page up with weird little marks.” Click on the picture below to hear him discussing the subject with Oprah Winfrey.

  • A workshop run by a writer for writers.  Their aim is to help you get published through workshops, services, information & support.  They are based in Ireland and offer services to aspiring and published writers both here and across the world. http://www.inkwellwriters.ie/
       
  • Need help with setting up an author website?  Finding it hard to do stuff on the web?  This website contains dozens of step by step video tutorials on subjects ranging from social networking to managing your own WordPress account. www.a4magic.com
 
  • Online writing community.  Post your poetry, short stories, novels, scripts, and screenplays.  Get your work reviewed and receive advice from other writers.  Join writing groups or start your own. http://www.writerscafe.org/
     
  • Tearing your hair out over your writing and don’t know where to find reliable advice?  Julia McCutchen author of The Writer’s Journey is the guide you need to help you on your way. http://www.juliamccutchen.com/
                 
  • Information about Ebooks, Ereaders, Ebookstores, self-publishing promotion and advertising, writing, contractual issues, social media and reviews.  http://www.thepassivevoice.com/
   

Researching your novel

The importance you place on researching your novel provides a valuable insight into how you view any potential readers. A writer who conducts meticulous research and takes the time to sift through a mountain of background information obviously wants the reader to be comfortable and able to immerse themselves in the story without being put off or interupted by any discrepancies.

It’s a sad fact that some writers assume that their readers know little or nothing about the era or subject that they choose to write about. But it goes without saying that to take such a presumptuous stance is more than a little insulting to the reader and has the potential to cause great offense.

A perfect example of this is the controversial subject of the stolen generation in Australia that I have been researching recently. The term stolen generation refers to the unknown number of aboriginal children that were forcibly removed from their parents at the behest of the Australian government. Many people today maintain that this century long policy was nothing less than a poorly disguised genocide, designed to wipe out an ancient people by striking at the racial identity of the next generation. But others vigorously deny such claims.

It doesn’t take a big step of the imagination to see what a mistake it would be to approach this topic without giving it some serious thought. Clearly it’s a sensitive issue and one that would require an enormous amount of research in order to do the subject the justice it deserves, thereby avoiding a perpetuation of the harmful misinformation that still abounds today.

To that end any meaningful research on that particular subject would have to include reading as much reliable information on the matter as possible. I have found it useful to focus on reading books and accounts written by aboriginal Australians as well as pertinent historical records. As with any other subject looking at it from as many different perspectives as you can is vital. All information must be cross checked for accuracy as one unbelievable detail can call into question everything you’ve already written and shake the readers faith in the whole narrative.

Here are just a few avenues of research you could try.

  • Television programs and documentaries
  • Libraries and museums
  • Internet search engines
  • Weather websites for meteorological conditions and climate information in certain countries
  • Wikipedia for general information
  • Maps and atlases for geographical information
  • Contacts with people who have relevant information whether in person or on the web
  • Photographs of the area or subject