Why Writing A Novel Is Like Making A Cup of Tea (a very English Extended Metaphor)

There's one phrase every aspiring author will come across time and time again: writers write. If you're anything like me, you'll misconstrue that seemingly simple statement and turn it into "writers write novels". Which, if you're still being like me, quickly leads to anguish and self berating; "I didn't write a single word of my novel this weekend! How dare I call myself a writer? I don't deserve to even let the word pass my lips!" But what people really mean when they say "writers write" is "writers practise writing". And, as any one who plays an instrument knows, there is a massive difference between practising and composing. My first stab at a novel was the equivalent of me mastering the scale of C, declaring my attempt to compose a symphony, and ending up with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. 

But wait. What's this got to do with tea? We're getting there. First, a basic explanation of how to make tea, since everyone's very particular about the process (and I've been told that in America it requires lemon slices and a fridge?) Here's how it's done: cup, tea bag, boiling water, some degree of squeezing / stirring / leaving to diffuse on own accord, milk. Sweeten with sugar and dunk chocolate HobNobs if so desired.

My beautifully constructed metaphor will focus on the whole squeezing / stirring /leaving to stand situation. No it doesn't matter which method is superior, its function is the same; the diffusion (if you want to get scientific) of the flavour molecules into the water particles (see - scientific). For clarities sake, this will be referred to from now on as "brewing". Brewing (planning, researching, world-building, character profiling) is what the tea (novel) needs to do before you add the milk (words), or sweeten with sugar (metaphors and similes and all that) and dunk in chocolate HobNobs (?) 

Now how I ended up with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star instead of a symphony was because I really wanted to write a novel and I knew that "writers write" and when I put two and two together I concluded that a novel could be written by writing (you can see how I got my wires crossed).Wrong, wrong, wrong. What hampered my early writing attempts was that I just didn't do enough brewing.And then when my tea tasted weak, I tried to fix it by pouring in more and more milk and then dumping in table-spoons of sugar. And when it still didn't taste right I dunked in a whole packet's worth of HobNobs and wondered why there was a pile of biscuit slush at the bottom of my tepid, white liquid. Really, that first cup of tea only resembled a cup of tea for the fact that it was in a mug (read: Word document... see, I've really thought about this).

Because the thing about writers is they write sometimes. The rest of the time they brew. Research. Develop characters. Build intricate worlds. Draw sketches of cyborgs. Found new religions. Persecute their follows. Cut-out pictures from magazines and assemble Frankenstein-style pop groups. Write their next hit single. Create! Explore! Get excited! BREW!

But wait, the metaphor doesn't end there (I told you it was extended)! It's all well and good brewing your tea but if you're using Tesco value bags (that taste like wood) then your novel will taste bad no matter how expertly you've brewed it.Your novel deserves the best ingredients: hand pick tea leaves (read: quality scenes), fresh, organic Jersey milk and blackstrap molasses! And if you don't experiment with different tea bags, you'll never know whether you're a Clipper fan or a PG Tips pyramid bag fan or even a Peppermint, Earl Grey, Camomile or Vanilla Rooibos fan. Loose leaf! De-caff! The list is literally endless. Experiment with tea bags before you settle on any one type. (If the analogy is lost on you at this point, the different flavoured tea represent other people's novels and the drinking of them represents, you know, reading). Some authors use the most flavoursome tea bags and brew them so expertly that they can add Sainsbury's Basic UHT milk and still get the perfect cup. I call this JK Rowling Breakfast Tea.

And if you can bare it for a little longer, we've reached the last part of the analogy. Which I'll kick off with an anecdote (lucky you). I made my first cup of tea when I was about seven. It was for my mum. I followed all the steps that I'd observed and proudly delivered it to her in bed. Whereby she took a sip and grimaced and said "did you remember to boil the kettle?" It clearly hadn't occurred to my seven-year-old self that there was a reason why the water came from the kettle rather than the kitchen tap (namely the making it hot part) so I'd only memorised the act of pouring the water from it. How does this relate to writing? Well having good intentions and being enthusiastic (and observing how other people do it) doesn't mean you yourself will be able to reproduce the same effect. You're always going to have to learn the basics. And you're also going to have to accept that it takes time to get to grips with them (when I visited my nine-year-old sister last week she proudly informed me she'd learned how to make tea, but included an adorable step whereby she decanted the milk into a measuring jug with a spout before re-pouring it into the tea because otherwise she'd spill it). Once you've got the basics you need to practise using them and refining them (in order to miss out the unnecessary measuring jug step).

This is where the "writers write" thing comes into it. But what should you be practising whilst your novel brews?

1. Short stories - Now I'm not personally a fan of short stories. I don't read them and therefore don't have much desire to write them. But they're great ways to practice constructing gripping beginnings, meaningful middles and satisfying endings. Writers can also more quickly get feedback on a short story, and there's always the chance to get them published in magazines which will add to your credentials when you're querying agents.

2. Flash fiction - Like the short story but on a tiny scale. Flash fiction is anywhere from about 250 words to a couple of thousand; a very manageable goal for most schedules.Flash fiction is an excellent way to generate ideas and teach you how to choose the minimum words for the maximum effect. It's also a great opportunity to try out different styles and voices, which you only need to maintain across a small section.
3. Opening chapters - This is my favourite thing to do, personally. I have tonnes of first chapters lying around. It's also a nice way to tell if a particular story grabs you, or whether you've brewed it long enough. The point where I  loose interest tends to correlate with a non-existent plot outline.
4. Re-writes books - This is something I also love to do; taking a book that already exists and adopting the author's style to a different scenario, or using the author's scenario but writing it in a different style. I like to use varied source material for this. In the past I've used the charming voice of Ugwu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun to write the opening of a historical magical realism young adult, and have used the plot of Anne McCafferey's Chronicles of Pern, replacing the purple prose with short, sharp sentences. This is a great way of teaching yourself to pay attention to sentence and word choice.
5. Fan fiction - OK, cheesy, I know. But no one is going to force you to put it on the internet or self-publish it and it definitely doesn't have to be erotic. The fun with fan fiction is that the characters and world are already fully formed. Your task is to develop plausible plots and make sure the scene (and sentences and words within them) build on the characters and setting to make them recognisable (and consistent). It's great practise for character development as well. I recommend taking a character you'd associate with one setting / role (e.g. Dana Scully) and plopping them somewhere completely different (e.g. Sunnydale High), whilst keeping the setting and premise recognisable and having the character behave believably. Can you imagine how Scully would attempt to explain away all the bizarre happenings on the Hell Mouth whilst performing an autopsy on a vampire and declaring "I'm a Medical Doctor!"
6. Blog - It doesn't have to be fiction, you can practise your unique writer voice via non-fiction routes as well. I would throughouly reccomend reading Chuck Wendig's blog for an example of an author practising their voice through non-fiction. His blog posts are always hilarious and engaging, even when he's just writing recipes or talking about his dog.
7.Tweet - Twitter is all about getting the message out as effectively as you can and as a result, tweeting is great way of learning how to write effective dialogue. Again, the limited space you have forces you to select the best words. It's a great habit to get into because no one wants to read long rambling dialogue (unless it adds to characterisation).

That's a lot to take in, but the message I'm trying to convey is not to turn off your imagination in favour of writing writing writing.Enjoy creating.Practise your craft.But have fun at the same time.

A word of warning. There is such a thing as over-brewing... you know, when you get liver spots on the top of the water. I could go into how liver spots represent the writers psychological well-being but I think you'd agree that my extended metaphor's run out of steam (he he he)...

Until next time.

photo credit: Caro Wallis  via photopin cc

Time Management

Tonya Kuper over at YA Stands offered up some advice last week about time management. I though it might be interesting to see what time management strategies I use myself.

  1. Eliminating “dead” time:
I used to be part of a lift-share on my commute to work. Two hours a days, five days a week wasted. There's nothing quite like traffic jams and that gentle rocking motion to completely wipe out your creative energy. These days, I get a bus to work. Which means for one and a half hours a day, five days a week, I get to do “research” (research is what I call reading YA books ;)). If I don't read at any other point during the week, I don't have to feel guilty. 

The same applies for my lunch break. I used to work in the middle of the countryside and there was no where to go at lunch so the time would be spent chatting to co-workers and catching up on work-related tasks. Another big way to kill creativity. Now, I take myself away from the work environment, and though I only have a thirty minute break, I can use this time, at the very least, to think about my various writing projects. On a good day, I'll do some writing. On (most) other days, I'll just contemplate. The crucial element is that for thirty minutes in the middle of the day, I stop being an Administrator and become a Writer. I use this time to organise my thoughts and work out what I'm going to write when I get home.

  1. Using the weekends
Weekends are when I get to imagine myself as an actual author and conduct my day exactly how I would if I were doing this full time. I get a lot done on a Saturday and a Sunday. I also get to make up for all my short-fallings throughout the week. If I haven't hit a word count goal for my WIP or managed to revise a chapter of my MS, Saturday's the day I do it. Saturdays and Sundays are like being given 10 more week days all at once! They're also when I let myself do all the other stuff that isn't writing – agent research, goodreads, catching up on blogs, planning future novels, character profiles etc.

  1. Working less (aka having a job instead of a career)
I would love to earn a living as an editor or an agent, but editor or agent aren't jobs you can easily get. You have work hard and (usually) intern or (maybe) do an MA to even get your foot in the door. What I want more is to be an author. In other words: I have no time to intern or do an MA to help me get a "career". I have only time for a job. But what my job gives me that's far more important than career satisfaction (for the moment anyway) is the fact that I can leave it at the door. I don't think about it when I'm not there. I don't get the dreaded Sunday blues. I don't lie awake at night worrying about it. It doesn't make me so drained that all I want to do when I get home is watch TV (incidentally, I don't have a TV - another time management strategy). Add it together and I have so much more mental space to create.

Money is tight. But my motivation to be an author far out-ways my motivation for ... well ... anything else. And the longer I go not buying or wanting things, the easier it gets. That Salvi concert pedal harp can wait. There'll be plenty of time for driving when I'm old! A new ruck sack? But the last one has completely fallen to pieces yet! Right now, poor doesn't matter. Productive does.

  1. Working to my natural rhythm.
9pm, without fail, I get better at writing. I don't know why, but there's something about that time. I get more done from 9 - 10 pm than I ever can from, say 4 pm - 7 pm. Knowing that I will want to write at 9 and I will be better at writing at 9 and I will enjoying writing at 9 means that I can let myself be lax the rest of the time. It also means that I need to start at 8:40 because it always takes me twenty minutes to get into anything!

  1. Making Sacrifices
I'm lucky in that I'm an introvert. I find social interaction draining and need very little of it to get by. But prioritising my writing over friends, family and quality time with my boyfriend doesn't make me particularly happy. Unfortuntately, I have to. I have two families, six siblings, not to mention my "in-laws". I just don't have time to see everyone! And if I did, I'd be less happy, because I need to write! Sometimes, you have to put yourself first in life. You'll only become resentful if you prioritise other people's needs before your own. And anyway, that's what the "acknowledgements" page in your first published book is for!

Drawing inspiration from the bad

I know this isn’t a particularly noble post to be writing. Regarding someone else’s creative endeavours in a  negative way (when you yourself are aware of all the effort they must have put into it) is pretty low. That said, you can’t pick and choose where inspiration comes from, and I, unfortunately, am often inspired by reading something bad.

So in an attempt to glean back a slither of self-respect, here's what reading bad fiction has taught me:
  1. There’s a market for anything

    We all know the "guidelines" for writing fiction ... show, don't tell, active voice over passive voice, no head-hopping, no deus ex machina ... They’re helpful "tips", but when you read a book that’s broken every single one of them, you’re forced to accept that there is no right way for a book to be. Worried your Zo-Ro-Co (zombie romantic comedy) about a love-sick cow won't appeal to the masses? Don't be! Put your self-doubt monster to bed. No matter what you’re writing, someone out there wants to read it. Just stay true to yourself and write the book that you love.

  2. They must be doing something right

    I think a good book needs to have complex, action-filled plots, snappy writing, believable dialogue and 3D characters. Reading fiction that lacks what I view to be the basic and necessary components of a story forces me to consider what is good. More often than not, it's fantastical world building and a unique premise. I can certainly accept that my writing suffers from the dreaded “white room” syndrome. No coincidence that my current re-draft of Pearl is to give it a more visceral sense of place...

    3. I could do better ... couldn't I?

    The dreaded, "I could've done that"  is one of my pet hates. You hear it a lot in relation to modern art. "A toilet? Call that art?" The point, however, is that you didn't do it. They did. They thought of it. They put the effort into creating it. They pitched it and got it accepted. You didn't. 

    However, there's a big difference between dissing someone's work when you've never put any effort into achieving something similar and recognising that you are better at doing something than someone else. The second can be motivational. If you're striving to become an Olympic swimmer and in your practise you surpass the score of the lowest competitor, then you can congratulate yourself. You're achieving you goals. That's a good thing. But in the same way that there's more to being an Olympic swimmer then just being fast, there's also more to getting a  book published than writing one. Yes, you've recognised that the basics (swimming, or writing) are better than the competition, but what else did that person have to do to achieve their dream? What have they sacrificed? Are you willing to sacrifice stuff too? Did they write an amazing query? Did they do their agent homework thoroughly and keep querying despite hundreds of knock-backs? Did they hit a trend bang on time? There's more skill involved in success than just basic talent. Reading a bad book is proof of it!

    Until next time x