Building a Story House

under construction signage on laptop keyboard
Photo by Fernando Arcos on Pexels.com 

There are many analogies for writing a book. I always liken it to building a house.

A house needs strong foundations. For a writer our foundation is our plot. It has to be solid enough to support a story from the beginning to the end.

A building needs a well-built structure to stand on the foundations – the walls and the roof.  This sustains the building, protecting it from the elements and hostile invaders. A book needs a carefully planned structure too. A writer needs to think about whether the book will be divided into various parts or whether it will rely solely on chapters, will there be a prologue and an epilogue, who will tell the story and will it be in the first person or third person.

The house builder needs to give careful thought to where the doors and windows are placed for maximum effect, the doors need to give easy access to and from the dwelling, the windows might focus on a wonderful view or concentrate on bringing lots of light into the rooms within. For writers, our doors and windows are the opening of a story, the highpoints that drive the narrative forward, the unexpected plot twists that surprise and delight readers and finally the ending.

To make a house a home, it needs subdividing into rooms that work individually but also as a whole with the rest of the house. In writing, our rooms are our scenes. Every scene should have a purpose, if possible more than one. If they don’t then they are merely padding and have no place in the finished book.

Once a builder has all the basics in place they can start to decorate by adding colour to the walls and coverings to the floors followed by the furniture.

story house 1For a writer they can only start to decorate and add the furniture once the plot is nailed down and the structure is complete. That’s when the editing starts. Imagine having to emulsion a mansion, room by room, day after day until the whole building is complete. That’s how editing a novel should be. At first it seems like a massive task, a never-ending task, but sure enough once you start working through the chapters, as a builder would work through the various rooms, you start to see progress.

 

And, just as with a building, once one edit is finished it is time to start the next. A builder would add skirting boards and cornices. We do another run through to make our words flow even better than they did before and then another and another.

Once a building is finished there is usually a long snagging list – little imperfections that have been overlooked. Writers need snagging lists too. A read through as a reader rather than as an editor can highlight these, a section where the pace sags, an inconsistency regarding names, a lack of tension. This is where our beta readers come into their own.

story house 2

Once a building’s snagging list has been resolved it’s time for the builder to hand over the keys to the new owners who proudly move in and hang pictures on the walls and curtains at the windows.

Writers too can enjoy these moments. The final polishing of a manuscript is always immensely satisfying, the writing equivalent of plumping the cushions on the sofa.

Building a house is a long-term project as is writing a book.

So, the next time you embark on a new book picture yourself digging the foundations of your new story house. When the going gets tough, as it always does for home builders and writers alike, picture where you will be when the work has been completed.

Trust the process and trust yourself. In a year or maybe less you will be standing inside your beautiful creation, plumping the cushions ready to put your story house on the market for sale.

Happy writing!

 

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A Tale of Two Halves – Ugly First Drafts

As a writer I find my confidence in my writing flows in and out like a tide. After a good writing session, I am buoyed up and ready to take on the world. On the flip side, sometimes a bad review can leave you wondering whether you are deluding yourself but often writers do not even need any input from the outside world to doubt themselves. We are quite capable of questioning our own self worth all by ourselves.

The blessing of a creative mind can lead to occasions of overthinking and self angst that if nothing else remind us that writing is a vocation that chooses us rather than the other way round. For who would choose to live in such torment, swinging between two extremes and hoping to catch the odd break in the middle?

Self esteem
Self esteem by Kiran Foster courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dhHCx9 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I was recently lucky enough to be commissioned to write a three part serial for a magazine. I came up with an idea and a setting and plunged into telling the story. I wrote it with the three parts very much in mind. The first part came together swiftly and I polished it up before I moved on to the middle section. Again, this came together fairly quickly and I gave it a polish.

When it came to writing the denouement, however, life got in the way. I managed to crank out the required word count and hit all the beats of the story but it had been written when I was tired and feeling frazzled and it showed.

I shared it with three friends, one a friend who doesn’t write and two who do. My non writer friend enjoyed the story. My two writing friends seized on the last part of the story, one remarking it was like it was written by a different writer.

And she was right. It was.

The last part was me getting the story down in draft with minimum polishing. The first two thirds had had care and attention lavished on them, the last part had been birthed and left.

Unfinished road
Unfinished Road Works by Captn_Jack courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nLdh1X https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As all writers know, first drafts are ugly. All the hard work is done in the editing, re-writing and polishing that follows. But without that ugly first draft, the writer would have nothing to work on. The last part of my story has now been edited and polished and stands proudly alongside the other parts of the story as the fitting ending it was designed to be.

What is important to remember, however, is that as writers we should never to be so confident as to think that the ugly first draft is the finished product nor so lacking in confidence as to think that ugly first draft can never be transformed into something more beautiful.

Believe in yourself and your abilities and trust that everything will come good in the end. That’s the art of being a writer.

Finish
Finish by Eugene Kim courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/ebkkay https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

 

Confident Beginnings

Confidence is a tricky thing, isn’t it? Like Goldilocks people can have too little or too much. Either ends of the scale are limiting and not particularly attractive but getting it just right? That’s the hard bit.

Milk
Colin’s Fridge and The Three Milks by Alasdair courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/zCANY https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I recently watched a documentary where psychologists were monitoring young children in a play and school environment. Two children stood out and seemed to strike up what, on the face of it, was an unlikely friendship. One was overconfident, a thrill seeker who sought out danger and constantly pushed boundaries. The other was a boy who excelled at maths but who was generally frightened by life and shied away from anything he perceived as dangerous. These two boys, despite their obvious differences in personality, seemed to gel.

Friendship
Friendship by Tomvdh1 courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6zvfWy https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

When the psychologists put up ‘Danger – Keep Out’ signs and taped off one of the children’s favourite pieces of play apparatus – a play house reached by a ladder – the thrill seeker immediately wanted to investigate and go into the play house to see what the danger was. The nervous child hung back. So upset at the prospect of his friend doing something that was forbidden, the nervous boy told him that two adults were coming his way, even though no adults were in the area. The thrill seeker reluctantly left the equipment alone and the nervous boy had, in his eyes, protected his friend from danger. One had regulated the other’s actions.

Yin and yang
Yin and Yang by Rolf Dietrich Brecher courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/Xpv3X1 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Later, these same boys were confronted with a tarantula spider in a case. When the handler asked if the children would like to hold the spider, the thrill seeker was one of the first to put up his hand. The nervous boy, seated next to him, had already professed a fear of spiders. He hung back and moved away but was still fascinated enough to watch his friend handle the spider and allow her to walk over the back of his hand.

A few minutes later after another couple of children had handled the spider, the nervous boy asked if he too could have a go. At first, he was still too scared to hold his hands flat on the table to allow the spider to crawl over them and was seeking assurance from the handler that the spider would not bite or claw him. Once that assurance had been given, he had a go. Wonderfully, his thrill seeker buddy put his hand flat on the table first and the nervous boy put his on top of his friend’s and the spider then walked over both of their hands.

The nervous boy was delighted that he had faced and conquered a fear and the thrill seeker was pleased that he had coaxed his friend to try something new.

Though very different I could imagine this unlikely pair growing up to be firm friends for life. Operating at either extreme of the confidence scale, you could see how they could help to pull each other further into the middle ground of ‘just right’ thus enriching each other’s lives immensely.

friendship2
Friendship by Alex Isse Neutron courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by Public Domain 1.0 https://flic.kr/p/CwP7Zz https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

For those of us who do not have a friend at the other end of the confidence scale to help push, guide or protect us, we have to learn the hard way by life’s experiences. That’s why older people are a lot less bothered what others think of them than their younger counterparts. They have learned that in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter all that much.

Confident beginnings are wonderful but for the rest of us it’s not where you start but where you finish that’s important.

NaNoMyWay – Update

You may recall that earlier on this month I blogged about NaNoWriMo.

November calendar
November Calendar by Stephen Dann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/r8S1z https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I didn’t have one project to concentrate on during the month – I had a competition entry I wanted to write, a 3,500-word serial I needed to write to fulfil a commission I had been given and two novellas to finish off. I am nothing if not ambitious!

Predictably, I fell short. The competition entry got ticked off the list and submitted and the serial was created, written and polished by the deadline (yay!). The novellas did not even make it on to the screen.

There were two reasons for this, one I always reach for the stars and two life just got in the way. I normally work a four-day week in my day job. In the midst of this month an emergency at work meant I had to work six days on the bounce. Ouch!

As writers, life will always intervene, and it should because the trials and tribulations of life provide so much material for writers to work with. We have to find a way to push through and carry on and so I would like to pay tribute and say congratulations to all those who stayed the path of NaNoWriMo and made it to the end of November with the skeleton of a novel ready to shape and hone.

Pen and Paper
Pen and Paper by Francois Schnell courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9qaJEC https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

More especially, however, I want to say well done to all those who gave it a go but who fell short. Committing and trying is every bit as important as finishing and succeeding. Writing is a marathon and not a sprint.

The only failure is giving up entirely.

 

Why we all need a flexible plan

We’ve all done it – set out a plan in our heads of how we would like life to work out. I don’t mean once our lottery numbers come up when our world will consist of azure seas, large, airy houses and fabulous cars or is that just me? I mean the day to day, life plan, of how we get from here to there.

It’s all in the planning

When it comes to life, it’s good to have a plan. It gives you a roadmap for when things get bumpy. It helps keep you on the straight and narrow when circumstances can knock you off course. I’m a fan of planning.

Plans
Plans by Jeremy Keith courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6BNBZC https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

What I’m not a fan of, however, is having a plan so rigid there is no room for manoeuvre. If you think there is only one way to get from A to B you risk closing your mind to the possibilities that might occur if you travelled down a different road.

I am reminded of an old joke.

A man is sitting on a roof after a terrible flood. He watches the waters rise and thinks ‘God will save me.’ An hour or so later, a man comes along in a boat and offers to take him to safety. ‘No need,’ says the man on the roof. ‘God will save me.’

The waters continue to rise. A few hours later a helicopter hovers overhead and a man offers to winch him up and fly him to safety. ‘No need,’ says the man again. ‘God will save me.’

Later that night the waters close over the man’s head. When he meets St. Peter he says ‘What am I doing here? I thought God would save me.’ And St. Peter says, ‘We sent a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?!’

Don’t Stay on the Roof

The moral of the story is that we have to be ready for the unexpected. When opportunities present themselves we shouldn’t ignore them because they don’t fit within our carefully constructed plan. They could be a valid way to get from A to B that we’ve never thought of before or they could take us in an entirely new direction and deliver us to a whole new destination that we could never have envisaged.

In this fast paced world, we have to be adaptable and less rigid in our thinking.   Having a flexible life plan enables you to do that.

So don’t stay on the roof, refusing to budge, because it isn’t part of your plan. Be prepared to jump in the boat if one comes along and see where it takes you.

Boat
Boat by Ivan Milosavljevic courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dff6Kr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

Adventures in Meditation – Part Two

Meditation2
Meditation by Luckey_Sun courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/bxK3mR https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As I recounted in Adventures in Meditation – Who Has The Time?! (see below) I knew the tangible benefits of meditation and that they could specifically help me. Mind buzzing all the time? Finding it hard to let go? Want to concentrate on something more important than a Facebook post? Yes please!

https://ellieholmesauthor.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/adventures-in-meditation-who-has-the-time/

So now that I had made the decision to give it a go, how did I actually begin? Before I got into the heavy stuff of scheduling where and when on a daily or even weekly basis I thought it would be a good idea to have a trial run.

For my first session, I chose a sunny Sunday morning when I was fairly sure I would not be interrupted by the outside world. I had already got a load of washing underway in the machine and I had taken my dog Willow for a long walk.

First dilemma – where should the meditation take place? Chair? Bed? Floor? I have tried practicing meditation on the bed in the past – I would usually fall asleep and then wake up cold so I discounted that idea. I decided to compromise and lay down on the sofa in the conservatory which was toasty warm from the early summer sun. This I thought also had the added benefit of the birdsong coming in through the open back door and the gentle fluttering of the blinds in the breeze. All an aid to relaxation, surely?

Relax
Relax by Dave Doe courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/o18eto https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The next question was how was I actually going to do it. I decided twenty minutes was long enough to give it a good go but not so long that I would start panicking about my to do list. That length of time also seemed doable on a daily basis which was my ultimate goal.

Should I set the timer on my phone and go it alone or should I choose one of the many guided meditations that are available on the internet which, helpfully, have their timings included and a little about what the guided meditation will entail.

I thought as a novice I should accept a little help – a bit like a kid with stabilisers on their bicycle.   I choose a guided meditation that did not look too worthy or daunting. I plugged my headphones into my iPad and settled down.

Except I could not hear a thing. I fiddled with the iPad but could not figure out how to increase the volume on the app. I abandoned the iPad and reached for the iPhone. Searched for the same guided meditation, plugged in my headphones and settled down. Again. This time I had sound. Hurrah!

It all started well enough. With a little squirming around and the re-arranging of cushions I managed to get comfortable, retrieved the earbud that fell out in the process and settled down. Again. I started to concentrate on my breathing. I let the voice soothe me. I began to relax. And then…the dog started barking. I remembered I had left the back door open thinking the birdsong would help. I got up, brought the dog in, closed the door.

I settled down, put the earbuds back in and picked up where I had left off. I got a little further with the relaxation exercise. I could feel it starting to work when my washing machine when into its spin cycle and sounded as though it was readying itself for liftoff. I made the effort to block it out.

Now my whole body was relaxed and it was time to start counting backwards from 10 and go to my ‘special place’. I hadn’t been warned I needed a ‘special place’. I quickly cobbled something together in my mind and began to descend. I had just arrived when Willow, my dog, decided to jump on my chest and settle down for a spot of meditation of her own. I was back in the present with a bang, one earbud forlornly dangling and my special place ripped away without any count back. I was just debating whether to start over when the washing machine beeped to indicate it had finished. I took it as a sign and went to hang out the washing.

Meditation speaks
Except maybe not in my house! Meditation Speaks by Tejvan Pettinger courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9tARE8 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

My first attempt at meditation had not been a complete disaster. I had learnt a lot. Mostly what not to do but at least I would be better prepared for next time and I was determined there would be a next time….

Adventures in Meditation – Who has the time?!

Meditationjpg
Om by Wendy Cope courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/rgdL5q https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have flirted with meditation in the past. I bought a book about it once. I even read it. I know it is a positive and worthwhile endeavour. I know the benefits to my general health and wellbeing are potentially immense. But when I am already stressed because I have so much to do how can I find time in my overcrowded day to sit and do nothing? Chance would be a fine thing!

Then a few weeks ago two things happened to me. Firstly, I began to realise I was suffering with burnout. The second thing that happened was that I went to a friend’s house to join a new group she had started – likeminded individuals who wanted to talk about their spiritual and life experiences without judgment or dogma. We began the meeting with a guided meditation session.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the experience of letting go, even if only for a short time, to concentrate on my breathing and nothing else.

Meditation2
Meditation by Luckey_Sun courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/bxK3mR https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

During the meeting, we talked about the serendipitous nature of coincidences and how we had all got our friend’s email at a time in our lives when what she was proposing really chimed with us.

I left the meeting feeling as though I had made a group of new friends [I did not know any of the other people who attended apart from my friend] and with a lightness in my step.

Walking home, I realised that time to practice meditation or anything else for that matter was not going to magically materialise. I had to carve the time out. There was no point, however, sitting down to meditate with one eye on the clock, muscles tense thinking about all the other things I should be doing instead. Meditation in those circumstances would be impossible not to mention counter productive. I was either going to do it and do it properly or not at all. I resolved to make the effort and see where it led me.

In the next instalment of Adventures in Meditation I will let you know how I got on.