On Monday, Most Wanted publishing is announcing Ian Rankin’s newest book title and revealing the cover. With a new maybe-Rebus on the way, I wanted to celebrate tonight with Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips. I love the bluntness of his advice, and that he recognizes there’s a lot of luck involved with getting published (look at how many publishers rejected J.K. Rowling after all). What do you think of the Scottish Crime King’s tips?
- Read lots.
- Write lots.
- Learn to be self-critical.
- Learn what criticism to accept.
- Be persistent.
- Don’t give up.
- Have a story worth telling.
- Know the market.
- Get lucky.
- Stay lucky.
Today’s featured author is none other than the creator of the boy wizard himself. As everyone knows, Rowling got her start writing in a cafe in Edinburgh, hoping to turn her imaginings into something that could pay the rent. What she gave the world was beyond magic, and it shaped millions of childhoods (and adulthoods, too). While her adult novel may not have lived up to the hype, we can all agree that when it comes to crafting an enchanting story, Rowling knows how to do the job. And it’s hard not to admire a woman who was once on benefits and now has influenced the lives of countless readers and encouraged many stubborn readers to pick up other books as well. So, let’s check out J.K. Rowling’s 5 Writing Tips:
- Write in whatever time you have.
- Planning is essential.
- Rewriting is just as essential.
- Be aware of plot and pacing.
- Write your passion.
I don’t know about you, but I am in a personal writing slump. I have all of these great ideas (or what sound like great ideas to me) floating around in my head, but I always think, “Oh, I can start on that tomorrow.” Well, no more! And what better way to jump start some great writing then with writing exercises? These are from Carol Lynch Williams, one of the most talented YA literary writers out there, and an excellent writing instructor. Seriously, take a class with her and you would see. She consistently gave the best free-writing exercises and doles them out for free on her and author Ann Dee Candee’s blog, Throwing Up Words. Each Thursday she writes a Three Things Thursday post, usually featuring some great, insightful writing exercises to help you hone in on your main character, plot, and setting. Below are some of my favorites from the past year. (Also, check out her list of Whys and Whats to really help you zero in on your book and its focus.) (Read either The Chosen One or Waiting to understand Carol’s brilliance.)
Plain text version:
- For the next few hours, view the work you do – whatever it may be – as the main character in your novel. How do you and your character see things differently? The same? How does this inform your writing?
- Using your senses, describe where you are now. What about where your character is? It’s not a bad idea to use ALL of the senses (yes, all five!) while writing.
- When your character daydreams, what are her thoughts? What is her biggest and best dream for herself?
- Look at five best sellers that are not up to snuff in plot and writing. How would you change them and make them work?
- Look at the climax of your novel. If you tell the climax (which should be about one chapter) in half that amount of space, what would you get rid of? Try this exercise and see how this works for you. Keep only the best words, the strongest words. Make sure what you save moves the story forward to the end. Keep what is essential. Rewrite to make this work.
NaNoWriMo ends today and while I didn’t have time this month to compete, those of you who did might appreciate Joss Whedon’s writing rules. While his skew more towards writers of visual stories, novelists will no doubt appreciate what he has to say.
Joss Whedon is the writer and creator of such cult TV shows as Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the acclaimed writer/director of box-office smash The Avengers.
Whedon also included some explanations for his above tips, and you can find them below:
1. FINISH IT
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
Structure means knowing where you’re going ; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes ? The thrills ? The romance ? Who knows what, and when ? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around : the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys ?’
4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue : you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny ; not everybody has to be cute ; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.
5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.
7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD
You have one goal : to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.
8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE
Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly ; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie ; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet ?’
9. DON’T LISTEN
Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s f***ed the system ; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction ; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up : they’d started talking about a different show.
10. DON’T SELL OUT
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie : if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are : that’s called whoring.
Wild Girls – Denise Mina & Karen Campbell with Craig Robertson
While the tagline of the event sold it as a discussion of women and crime writing, it really became a discussion about crime writing. Both Mina and Campbell actually seemed a little uncomfortable to discuss whether their gender influenced their writing (Mina stated that some days she forgets she’s a woman), and Campbell set out to write crime to humanize the police. With both authors unwilling to dwell a ton on feminism, we got a great, fun panel with a wide amount of crime topics.
One topic they addressed that I found really interesting was that of power. For both Campbell and Mina, publication is a form of power, and both feel that what they write shows how they choose to use the power they are given. Campbell, a former police officer, chose to use her power to show that members of law enforcement were more than just instruments. Mina has used hers to discuss and highlight social issues throughout each of her books.
But does the fact they are women influence our choice to read them, or the way they are marketed? Off the bat, one distinguishing feature of the female writer is the fact that both Mina and Campbell have written pregnant detectives. That representation of happiness, stability, and a home life to come are both uncommon in a lot of crime fiction. And of course, being pregnant is a huge reminder of one’s femininity. One audience member was brave enough to say that she might choose Mina or another woman writer over their male counterparts, but mostly because she expects more psychological depth from a woman writer. And both Mina and Campbell said they have received letters from readers complaining of rough language in their books; language the reader didn’t expect because they are women.
Which led them to start talking about the use of Scots in their novels. As an avid reader of all sorts of Scottish fiction for the last five years, I was intrigued to hear their views on this. Mina, who is widely published in the States, mentioned that while her books used to have to be “translated” for American readership, they now are changing less and less. Campbell has also had her fair share of arguments with her London based publisher, who at one time wanted to change the word “close” to “foyer”. For those not in the know, a close is a sort of alley or entrance to a group of tenement flats. It gets its name from being small, enclosed on all sides. Somehow, Campbell’s publisher took her description and thought it was the same thing as a foyer. It is an amusing example of how much language and word choice matters, even if readers might not be familiar with the word in question.
About this time, the discussion broke away into a broader discourse about crime fiction in general. Campbell is moving away from the genre for her next book, but Mina has fallen in love with it and will stay put. They both admire the genre for its potential for great narrative drive and the avid readership, but both admit that their placement in the genre is due to marketers. They write the books that they want to write, and the publisher does what they need to do to sell them.
No conclusion was really drawn from either of these wild girls when it comes to women and crime writing. While both agree they still see many of their colleagues using initials, pseudonyms, or gender neutral names to sell books, they themselves have not succeeded less because of who they are. Mina stated that the only way to fix the issue was to keep putting a woman’s name on the book and let the contents sell itself. Act like there is a problem and you create it. While it might narrow the readership field now, both Mina and Campbell only want to write good books.
I went to book signings for Rankin, Gray, and Anderson and for Mina after her Girls panel. It was an incredible experience to meet all of them, and see Mina for the second time. I was potentially most nervous to meet Rankin (of course), in part because I decided to have them sign my Kindle and he was the first I handed it to. When I showed it to him and asked if he would, he laughed and said he had seen it done in the States before, then asked where I was from. I responded the States, and he, Gray, and Anderson all chuckled. When I asked Mina to sign it (who did remember me a bit from a couple of years ago), she and I got into a good discussion about how eco-friendly they are and just what a great device eReaders are for an avid reader. I do wish that I had had brought one of my actual copies for Rankin to sign, but having four of the leading Scottish crime writers on the back of my Kindle makes it awesome to read.
This is sadly the end of my Bloody Scotland write-ups and experiences. I hope they announce an event for next year soon, because I am already starting to get excited for another go.
Touching Evil – Denise Mina, Peter James, Alan Riach
For 10:30 in the morning, this was a very lively discussion, in more ways than one. The basis of the panel was to delve into the topic of evil and whether it really exists in a world of murder and crime. It seems like they would all come to the conclusion that of course evil is real, right? Wrong. The panel consisted of top crime-fiction authors Denise Mina and Peter James, moderated by Glasgow University professor (and one of my many thesis sources) Alan Riach.
Riach opened the panel by introducing the two authors and having them read from their most recent books. From there, he began the discussion of the different levels of crime in crime fiction, and how the author views it. Mina, one who can be very gritty in her writing, piped up that as the author of the grit you don’t find it distasteful. Because she is the one who wrote it, there is a sort of distance there that keeps it from shocking herself. This comment may be informed by the fact that Mina does not really believe in the concept of evil. She thinks that it is a word we use to avoid empathy with the perpetrators. Evil is a social shut down so we don’t have to explore how we might also commit the crime.
In some respects, I do have to agree with Mina. The idea of inherent darkness in the human condition has been extensively examined in Scottish fiction such as James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the well-known Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both authors would have you believe that evil exists within each of us, and it is a matter of the choices we make that can tip the scale one way or another. Mina, as it seems, would agree with those findings, going so far as to not even believe in evil. When James brought up a few examples of gruesome crimes, which he said he would definitely consider evil, she was still not swayed. It is admirable for her to empathize, to feel sorrow, for those we might consider the worst men and women in history, and that empathy certainly translates into her writing. Of course, you could tell that there were many of us in the Bloody Scotland audience that day that just could not agree with her all the way.
From there the discussion moved towards villains, and James pointed out that those villains that have endured in pop culture are the ones with whom we can empathize. This led an audience member to ask if Mina or James felt that each book needs to have a real resolution, with the “bad guy” being caught at the end. Both agreed that at least for them, the triumph of “good” versus “evil” is not as important as it used to be, especially in crime fiction. The lines have blurred between the detective and the criminals they hunt, and while both do usually end the book with the mystery being solved, the arrest might not get made.
I found this whole panel very intriguing. There were a lot of points made about sociopaths (James insists that with good parents, sociopaths can lead normal lives, that not all will become serial killers as media would have us believe), and some very interesting back and forth between the three. A bit heavy for so early in the morning? Sure, but definitely worth the time.
In the Beginning was Laidlaw – William McIlvanney with Len Wanner
When I originally booked a ticket for this event, I thought they would be just discussing McIlvanney’s groundbreaking Laidlaw. There were no mentions that the author himself would be the one leading the panel. You can imagine my excitement when I got a promo email a few days before mentioning that he would be there. I may have been more nervous about hearing from McIlvanney than Rankin. And I didn’t have the guts to have him sign my Kindle, because really I want him to sign my heavily-noted paperback of Laidlaw. That’s in the States. Curse books being heavy and my ignorance of his presence at the panel.
For those who are unfamiliar, William McIlvanney was a popular literary writer who championed the Glasgow-area working class. When he wrote Laidlaw, he not only inspired Ian Rankin, but he also laid the groundwork for Scottish crime fiction. He is of course older, but he looks good for his 75 years. The thing I found really endearing was that he was casually dressed with trousers that rode up exposing his pulled-high white socks and he carried first-edition copies of the three Laidlaw novels on stage in a blue grocery sack. Like he’s just someone’s grandpa, not one of the most celebrated living Scottish authors.
McIlvanney shared some great stories about his life in a Glasgow bedsit (his former landlady was in the audience!), and his decision to write crime fiction. Simply put, he made Laidlaw a policeman so he would “have to deal with the bad stuff”. Simple. No motivation for money or fame, but because it was a vehicle to explore the issues close to him. He also wanted to reconnect himself to the contemporary, as his previous novel Docherty had been set at the turn of the century, and felt that a policeman could do that for him.
Perhaps the funniest thing McIlvanney related was his love of the crime fiction community, how generous they are and how they are full of praise for one another. He said he never felt that welcome amongst other literary writers, and instead was always looking for the hidden knives in that circle. An unexpected observation? A bit, but not after having attended this festival.
To end the night, PhD candidate Len Wanner asked McIlvanney about rumors concerning another Laidlaw novel. That was when McIlvanney told us that the books were going back into print, and Laidlaw’s voice was back in his head. He didn’t promise anything, but he is considering work on a fourth in the series! Great news for Scottish crime fans everywhere.
I had the most awesome opportunity this weekend to attend Bloody Scotland, the first crime writing festival in Scotland. Not only did we get to kick off the festival with a hilarious recreation of authors Alex Gray and Lin Anderson dreaming up the festival, but Ian Rankin gave the keynote address and the three took questions from the audience. Plus, I got to meet and get all three of their autographs after the night. It was surreal.
Instead of standing and giving some sort of address, Gray and Anderson put together a little skit, meant to be a recreation of when they decided to start Bloody Scotland. Part way through Ian Rankin and Craig Robertson came on stage, standing at a little pub table pretending to be in their own conversation. Rankin was later invited to join Gray and Anderson, and from there gave his keynote address. Though it sounds a bit silly to describe, having the three very influential crime authors sitting in chairs just having a nice chat gave the evening, and the beginning of the weekend, a relaxed, comfortable feel. Which is helpful when you open the panel up for questions from the audience.
Rankin made a few great observations about Scottish crime fiction, one of which is that there was no real history of it. Sure, the quintessential detective Sherlock Holmes was written by a Scot based on a Scot, but he was English and lived in London. After Conan Doyle, there were no other writers who stepped forward and took over the mystery game. Not really until literary writer William McIlvanney published Laidlaw in 1977, that is. Rankin noted that without a long-standing tradition, Scottish crime writers are not constrained by outside expectations, and that freedom has allowed perhaps the most creative, diverse set of crime writers from any country.
In addition to his personal views on the history of crime fiction, Rankin shared a bit of his own past with the genre. As many of his fans know, Rankin was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh when he wrote the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses. To hear Ian Rankin tell it, it was really McIlvanney who inspired him to go for the crime genre. When Rankin met McIlvanney at a signing, he mentioned that he was working on his own detective, but that he’d be from Edinburgh instead. McIlvanney apparently replied with signing Rankin’s book with the inscription, “Good luck on the Edinburgh Laidlaw.” Not surprisingly, Rankin stated that he still has that book (why would he ever part with it, though?). But one of Rankin’s points that surprised me was he mentioned he wanted to write books that his dad would pick up. He wanted to write something that was accessible, enjoyable to read. Considering he was in the middle of a grueling academic degree, spending his time delving deep into sometimes impenetrable literature, I don’t blame Rankin for not wanting to follow that same path.
- Ian Rankin suggests that before you travel anywhere, read the crime fiction set there. It’ll show you the places to go (and avoid), and it gives you the most accurate depiction of a city.
- Rankin also broke all wannabe writers’ hearts by saying that writing never gets any easier. Because you will always want to improve and top the last thing you did, and you can’t stay stagnant, you’ll agonize over each book. Thanks Ian.
- When offered water after his glass of presumably beer was empty, Rankin just waved his hand and laughed.
- Alex Gray and Lin Anderson have obviously had way too much fun putting Bloody Scotland together.
- Mentions of the Scottish Crime writers as a sort of gang of friends was nice, minus the sad news of fake Amazon reviews by one of their own (to be discussed in another post).