Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Bryony Pearce: Christmas for Authors

Ten things I learned when I was teaching myself to write.

Growing up I knew that I wanted to write.  I loved to make up stories, write them down and illustrate them (I gave them as gifts to family members).  My favourite lessons at school were the occasional creative writing sessions that popped up during English class.  My love of English literature led me to do English at university, but there was no creative writing module at Cambridge, so I continued to scribble stories in my room with no professional guidance.
After university the muse failed me.  I ended up working in the Market Research industry and found myself unable to write (a combination of exhaustion and self-criticism prevented me from finding anything that inspired me to put pen to paper).   Finally, in a desperate effort to reignite the creative spark, I did a short story writing course with the LSJ.  I learned a lot about writing short stories, getting into the action and immediacy of prose, but perhaps more importantly my ideas started to flow again and when I left London in the winter of 2003 I also took with me one of my short stories (Windrunner’s Daughter), which I planned to turn into a novel.



I was never admitted to a critique or a creative writing group.  I joined no societies, did no further education.  I never even read any of the numerous books on creative writing available in the library.  I simply sat at my computer and started to type.
So apart from the one brief short story writing course, I have no professional creative writing education.  I learned, as it were, on the job. It was hard work. I wrote and rewrote Windrunner’s Daughter (I believe 12 complete rewrites, excluding edits, was my last count).  In 2007 I sent my completed novel to a literary consultancy called Cornerstones for feedback and rewrote again.  In 2008 I entered a competition called Undiscovered Voices and to my shock, was one of the winners.  I swiftly got an agent, and wrote another book, the story of which had been building inside me for a while and got my first book deal in 2009.  The multi-award winning Angel’s Fury was published by Egmont in 2011.

The thing with learning on the job is that you are always learning, always open to new things and always excited about what you are doing because it constantly leads to new discoveries.  While editing Angel’s Fury, first with my agent and then with my editor, I learned so swiftly that I thought my head would explode.  I then applied every single thing I learned to my next book, The Weight of Souls, about a bullied girl who sees dead people and has to avenge their deaths, which required only light edits prior to publication as a result.

And by learning on the job I very much developed my own writing style.  My work has been called unique and my voice is very much my own.  I like that.  So, if I had the chance, would I go back and do things differently.  No, I would not.

So, with no further ado, here are ten of the things that I learned on the job:
  1. Stories are like babies, they arrive in their own sweet time.  One day you might have a head empty of ideas, the next you wake up with a fantastic story.  You can’t rush it.  You just have to go through life with an open mind, asking ‘what if’, exploring the things that interest you and eventually your brain will put things together in an exciting way.
  1. Plotting is essential.  Once your brain has percolated that story, write down an outline.  Then a chapter by chapter breakdown.  Then start writing.  This enables you to include foreshadowing and literary allusions.  It keeps you going through ennui and writers block (as you know where the story is going).  It is motivational (as you know how much of the story is left) and it helps you keep your eye on the ball (or rather ending) as everything that happens must move the story on.
  1. You cannot do enough research.  It doesn’t matter what you are writing, fantasy, science-fiction, contemporary realism, paranormal romance, you need to research: the correct way to fire a bow and arrow, how it feels as it leaves the bow, the impact on your shoulder, your fingers; Multi-universe theory and what scientists current postulate about the possibilities; The exact layout of the London science museum and how it feels to walk inside; What exactly does superstition suggest about the succubus, what is its mythology, history, possible origins.  You get the idea.  The more you research, the more real the world you are creating becomes.
  1. When world-building immerse yourself in the world until it feels as real as the one you inhabit when you are away from your keyboard.  Only when you know everything about the world should you start writing.  Then you will be able to immerse the reader without feeling the need to describe every little thing.
  1. And on that subject, if you were writing about Manchester you wouldn’t describe every little thing (people know what a tram is, so you wouldn’t feel the need to describe the mechanics of it if your protagonist got on one), so don’t do it when writing about your own created world.  If you live in that world, the details will come across in their own time.  The reader will inhabit it more easily if you simply trust that they will come across with you.  Don’t drag them over and knock them over the head with exposition.  Let them see through your character’s eyes.
  1. Make sure you know your own rules.  Write them down and keep them beside you:

    1. What is the message of your story (e.g. the importance of freedom)?

    2. What sort of story do you want to write (use three key words, e.g. gripping, action-packed, thriller)?

    3. What themes / motifs are you using (e.g. water, dogs, dark v light etc.)

    4. Does your world or character have rules that you need to remember?  E.g. if a vampire you cannot have a chapter in which your character goes for a walk at midday.

  1. Write your first chapter, leave it a while, then go back to the beginning and read it.  When you start to get excited about what is happening, draw a line at the top of the paragraph.  Everything above that line should be deleted.
  1. Conflict is essential.  Never let your characters have it easy.  If you’ve gone a page or two without giving them something to overcome, have them trip over, forget a telephone number, something.  Always keep the tension levels higher than zero.
  1. … But make the tension levels fluctuate.  Do not maintain the tension at ten for too long as this will exhaust the reader and by the time you get to the grand finale, they will have become numb and it won’t have the desired effect.
  1. Finally, when writing, make sure you don’t get lazy.  If you find yourself knocking out a paragraph, thinking it isn’t very good, but that no-one will notice, if you find yourself telling and not showing, if you can’t find your way around a plot point.  Then stop.  Have a rest.  Come back to it later (even days later).  You have no deadlines after all, except the ones you make yourself.  (unless you get that book deal of course!)


For more information about Bryony and her work, please visit her website www.bryonypearce.co.uk, follow her on Twitter @BryonyPearce or like her facebook page BryonyPearceAuthor.


Many thanks.

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