How Long Can You Write For? And When Should You Stop?

How much writing can you get done in a day before your brain starts to melt? I’ve picked up a few tips over the years that might help…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. We writers talk a lot about writing habits, writing every day or writing regularly. But let’s have a think about when to stop writing. Now, to be clear.

I don’t mean stopping altogether and jacking it in. I’m talking about how do you know when you’re done for the day? First drafts I could write all day and collapse in a heap. But I’ve discovered that my daily limit is about 2 hours. After that my poor little brain turns to soft fudge and it starts to leak out of my ears.

Either that or I’ve got an ear infection. Anyway, because my brain goes soft, the writing suffers. It’s just not as good as those first 2 hours. For edits, I find that it’s even more important to set myself limitations. Now I was really in the zone this morning, knocked out a little over a thousand words, which might not sound like much, but I’m editing and this was a whole new chunk that I was grafting on to the beginning of a chapter and it was my allotted task for that morning’s writing session.

I’ve left myself a note, you know, fix this by doing X, Y and Z… And I did it.

I was happy with it and I was so buoyed up that I just wanted to keep writing. But I stopped. Well, the truth is, I didn’t have much of a plan beyond my alotted task. I could have carried on, but I would have been blundering about with no idea what to do. And as I said, if this was a first draft I might have sat down and made some notes or maybe carried on writing blind. And that’s okay with the first draft, but when editing I like to stick to that plan. I’ve been through the book, I’ve made tons of notes, done my edit triage, figured out what needs fixing and I’m tackling those tasks one at a time. Have a look at some of my earlier videos on how I prepare for an edit in more detail. So for the next few days I’m focused on one particular character.

After that I’ll switch to the next problem on the list because when editing, the temptation is to try and fix everything at once and then you end up making a right old mess, and there’s a chance you can do more harm than good. So when editing, make a plan and stick to it. One fix at a time. The other thing I do at the end of a edit session is make a few notes for tomorrow’s session. So here… Just 50 words.

I’ve told myself I need to change the POV in the next chapter, and I’ve reminded myself of the changes I’ve made and what consequences they will have. Better to do that when it’s fresh rather than tomorrow morning where I might sit at my desk — and it’s 7:30 in the morning, don’t forget — and wonder just what the blimmin’ heck I’m supposed to do. On weeks like this, it’s also important to set limitations because I’m working on two projects simultaneously. Not ideal. But it happens.

One is the next Woodville books edit. The other is the second draft of a screenplay. They are sufficiently different for me to separate them in my mind, but also having alotted time and tasks really helps, as does having a bit of time between them. I’m lucky enough to work from home. So it’s those between times that I get bits of housework done, which also gets me off my bottom.

Very important for a writer. So that’s just what works for me. Have you discovered your writing session limits yet? Pop something in the comments below. Of course, you might be like Chet Cunningham.

I was reading about this legend the other day, from the publication of his first book in 1968 to his passing in 2017 at the age of 88, Chester Cunningham had something like 350 books published. Westerns, adventure novels, military thrillers. He also cowrote the “Penetrator” books under the pseudonym Lionel Derrick. This is what sent me down this rabbit hole. I saw the covers on the Pulp Librarian Twitter feed, and they are extraordinary. Chet comes from that pulp tradition where a writer was expected to knock out a thrilling adventure weeks, if not days.

I think at one point he was doing one Western per month. Why the hell not? And here’s the thing. Chet never stopped. Here’s a quote from the FAQs on his website when asked about Writer’s Block, he says, “I came from a newspaper background. When the editor assigns you a story, you write it now. No ifs, buts, or I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today. I usually write from eight to 10 hours a day when I’m a roll on a book. Researching is another thing.”

And then he was asked about Writer’s Block. Do you ever get Writer’s block? He said, “I never use the term. I don’t believe it exists. Ever heard of a Carpenter not going to work because he has Carpenters Block?

If a writer can’t write it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper. Or he’s just plain lazy. There’s no such thing as writer’s block only writer-dumb-dumb-dumb.” Well, Chet, we may disagree on that, but I salute you. Me.

I’m going to have a cup of tea. Until the next time, folks. Happy writing.

How Many Characters is Too Many?

How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.

Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.

So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.

They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.

There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.

And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.

And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.

It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.

So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…

There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.

But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!

Words To Cut To Make Your Prose More Punchy

Want to make your prose more punchy? Try cutting a few of those filler and filter words. Note: these aren’t hard and fast rules. Of course you can use adjectives and adverbs whenever you like. But if you’re editing, it’s not a bad idea to trim as many as possible.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. Want to make your prose a little more punchy? When editing, look for those adjectives and adverbs that can really make your writing drag. All those filler and filter words. Find them and get rid of them. For example… Deep breath… “Thought”, “touched”, “saw”, “he saw”, “they saw”, “just”, “heard”, “he heard”, “they heard”, “she heard”… “Decided”, “knew”, “noticed”, “realised”, “watched”, “wondered”, “seemed”, “seems”. That’s one of mine. “Looked”. That’s another one of mine.

“He looked”, “she looked”. “Could”, “to be able to”, yeesh. “Noted”. “Rather”, “quite”, “somewhat”, “somehow”. Although I think these are OK in dialogue, if used sparingly. “Feel”. “Felt”. Now this… this one always starts alarm bells ringing. Don’t just tell the reader that Bob is feeling angry. Try and describe his rage in a way that is unique to Bob. Which is easier said than done, of course. But no one said this would be easy. “And then” — paired together. Cut one or the other. “Had”. If you have two hads in the sentence, one of them has to go. Hads: two hads together… “had had”, which does happen. See if there’s a better way of writing around that. You might have to completely rethink the sentence. “He looks”, “she looks”. “He turned to her and said”, “she turned”, “they turned”… All this turning can make the reader feel dizzy and you can have whole conversations with people turning around and it goes absolutely nowhere. “Supposed”. “Appeared to be”.

“Apparently”. All of these can be weak and they can make your characters feel passive. If you’re writing the first person, these filter words can be doubly harmful. So… “I turned and looked up and saw the elephant raise its foot to squish me” is, well, it’s fine. “The elephant raised its foot to squish me” is a lot more direct. Keep those physical movements to a minimum. All that turning, twisting, looking… Give the reader just enough to animate the action in their own head. You’re not choreographing a musical.

So when you’re editing, look out for these filter words. Do a “find and replace”. Most of the time you’re better off simply cutting them. Other times you might see an opportunity to replace them with something a little more dynamic. What I mean by that? Okay. Add a bit of movement or action or texture. Instead of the “look to”, “turn to”… have them raise their chin, look down their nose, scratch their ear, run their hands through their hair, drum their fingers nervously.

Action that underlines what the character is trying to say or might be thinking. I find it useful sometimes to act the scene out. We’re all writers, spending far too long sitting on our backsides, so a little exercise won’t do us any harm. Get up, move about, film it, film yourself. No one ever needs to see it but you. But seriously, most of the time just cut the buggers. You’re better off without them. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes we need these words to add clarity to a sentence, but too often I find myself relying on them when I should be trying to be a bit more zippy with my prose.

But hey, that’s editing is all about. Hope you found that useful. Until next time. Happy writing.

You’ve Written “The End”… Now What?

I finished the first draft of my novel this week… but what happens next? Jump right in to edit? Or…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, I typed these beautiful words earlier this week… (The End) Of course, this is nothing like the end. This is a raggedy mess of a first draft where three quarters of the way through I realised there were two characters that were completely redundant. So they were left by the wayside. The antagonist had almost completely changed in their nature. And there are several strands that have been left dangling in the wind. Still so far to go. But why not allow yourself this little moment of triumph?

Most people who want to write a book never get this far. So, hurrah! Cheers. I… I don’t drink. So this American champagne will have to do in lieu of actual champagne. But, I hear you cry, if I know what’s broken, why don’t I just go back and fix it right now? Well, those problems I mentioned, those are issues that occurred to me as I’ve been writing. Experience has taught me that there’s going to be a ton of whole new problems that I’ll discover.

And if I were to jump back in now, it would feel like an insurmountable heap of problems and my brain will probably melt in the process. It’s time to take a break from this book, at least. So here’s what I recommend… Leave it for six weeks. Six weeks!? Yup. Especially if you’re new to this. You need to come back at this draft with your eyes as fresh and objective as possible. And you do that by not even thinking about the bloody thing for at least six weeks.

Excuse me. Windy pops. Coke. Fizzy pop. So what to do in the meantime? Read. Read all you can. Refill the tank. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre, read good books, read crappy books. Read to remind yourself what a finished narrative feels like. Also, I’m editing a client’s book… Did I mention that I edit and offer reader reports…? Visit my Writer Services site here.

Doing this, reading another writer’s text in such a way that you want to give them a constructive critique, will exercise all kinds of new synapses in your noggin. Sparking up the same part of the brain that you’ll be using when you come to edit your own text.

It’s good exercise. Limbering up for the main event. That doesn’t mean you have to be like a professional editor or anything like that. This is where you go to any writers you know, and offer your services as a Beta Reader. Ask if they have any finished novels that they need reading, and offer your eyes and brains… In a… Brains, not ears… In a quid pro quo agreement, because you’ll need a beta reader once you’ve finished your next pass. Why not cue one up now?

You’ll learn so much by reading another writer’s work in progress. You’ll see the same kind of issues that you will encounter. You might, even in the process of offering your own notes, come across a solution for your own problems. Happens to me all the time. I’m very lucky in that I have a couple of trusted readers for my stuff and I’m happy to read their stuff at the drop of a hat. It’s a great arrangement, and by the time you’ve read their book — or books — you might get through two or more in those six weeks, you’ll not only find that you’re ready to return to your own work, but what once seemed insurmountable will simply be a bunch of problems to be solved. But that’s a whole new video. Until next time. Happy writing… Or reading… Or critiquing. Cheers.

The First Round of Edits Are Away!

Why do I love editors? Because they help me create a better book. I’ve spent the last week or so in the first round of edits for my next book Babes in the Wood, and here’s what I learned…

Apologies in advance for… the wind…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, Mark Stay here. Last time we talked, I’d just started the edits on book two of the
Witches of Woodville: Babes in the Wood. Well, after a week and a bit
of intense editorialising they’re done.
They’re off to my… Well, I say “done”. This is probably the first round, but they’re off to my editor, Simon & Schuster, Bethan, for her to have a look at. Lessons learned? Well, um, this took longer than the first book. Now, the first book was Alpha-read and Beta-read up the wazzoo. Lots of eyes on that before it went off to any publisher. So it was in very, very good shape.
This one was in good shape, too. But, uh, there is a murder mystery element to it.
Which… Writing any kind of mystery like that is, is storytelling with the hood off, you know, everyone can see the working parts because you put them there on display for people to… To notice things. And if everything doesn’t quite make sense, then it really stands out in a way that other stories, you know, you can probably get away with the odd teeny weeny plot hole. So this one, most of Bethan’s notes were just little clarifications. Can you make this a bit clearer? Can you hang a lantern on this? You know, can you emphasise this a bit more? Uh, of course, during, uh, during my edit, I realised one massive plot hole was that I have a murder and never once explain how the murder was done. Only I could do that. Um, this is why you have editors, folks. So, uh, that was handy. I was able to… The thing is I’d written it down. I put it in my notebook. This is one good reason why you should have a notebook, folks, for each project that you’re doing, because I had actually written it down. I just hadn’t put it in the actual novel. Small point. But, you know, we always catch it in the end, which is good.
So, yeah, really happy with it.
And it gave me the opportunity to add a few extra layers, a few extra flourishes that… Particularly towards the end I wanted to ramp up the tension a little bit more. So I’m really happy with it. Really happy with it. So that’s gone off to Bethan. She’s in the middle of editing another book. So it might be a few weeks before I see it again.
But until then, I’ve got a short story to edit. I’ve got a short story to finish. These are the Miss Charlotte Quartet stories. So, I’m gonna spend this weekend… Beautiful… I’m gonna spend this weekend rereading that and giving that a final polish, and getting that ready. So if you subscribe to my newsletter, you can get these stories for free. Free! Number one’s out already.
I know.
Good, innit?
Number two is coming on the fourth of April in ebook and audio… Got to record that too. And then
three and four are on their way. So that’ll keep me busy. That’ll keep me out of trouble. So yeah. If I hear any more on the edit…
I’ll let you know. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, I’m just going to pop into my local library.
Happy reading.
Happy writing. See you again soon.

FIVE TIPS: BEFORE YOU EDIT YOUR NOVEL

I’ve got the notes from my editor on my manuscript. Now what? After a week of avoiding my edits, it’s time to knuckle down. Here are five quick tips to help you sort through editor notes before you start your next draft…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, about a week ago, I put up a video talking about how I just got my edit notes from my editor, Bethan at Simon & Schuster, for the next book in the Witches of Woodville series, the The Babes in the Wood book.
And if you were watching that video, you might think, oh, he’s got his notes. And we talked a bit about things like the edit triage and and, you know, just looking at headlines, bullet points
and making notes and stuff like that. And you’d be perfectly forgiven for thinking that immediately upon me, you know, finishing that video, I would jump straight into the edit. So what have I been up to since then? Procrastination, mainly, we can talk about procrastination, if you like,
maybe later. But, actually to be fair, I have had a couple of rewrites on two short stories and also some light rewriting on a horror movie which essentially took all week. So, you know, I’ve been doing that. I think, to be honest, it is a good thing not to jump in with both feet. As soon as you get your edit notes, you know those ideas, you know, you read and review those notes that your editor has sent you. Let them simmer in your brain, gain some acceptance from that time. Procrastinating.
That’s my excuse. And I’m sticking to it, During the meanwhilst, here are five tips on the first things to do before you start your edit…

Save a copy.
Seriously, save it. The original one that your editor sent you. Save it, file it away, leave it untouched. Don’t change anything because there will come a point in the edit where you’ll come across something and you think, oh, what did my editor say about that? And you won’t have any way of knowing…

Accept all changes.
I’m going to show a little video here. There’s a thing in Word and other similar word processors called “track changes” where the editor will turn that on and every single change that they
make comes up as a change. And you have a choice to accept or reject that change. Frankly, when it comes to the punctuation and grammar changes, there will be hundreds of them. Just “accept all”, you know, there’ll be a way of doing that easily on your bit of software. Google it. You’ll find a YouTube video that will tell you how to do that just “accept all” because frankly, they know their
punctuation and grammar. Just accept it.
They may make changes to a sentence or may make changes to a particular word. A good editor will leave a note saying, “I’ve changed this… Is that OK?” Or “Does this make more sense?” And, you know, you can maybe go back to your original document, which you will have saved, and have a look and see if that change is harmful or gratuitous in some way. But frankly, in my experience, they don’t make any crucial difference. These these are words that, you know, just there for clarity… Changes
are just there for the reader. This draft is not for you. It is for the reader. Hence, all drafts from now will be for the reader as well. Just ask yourself, “Is this a hill I’m willing to die on?”
Because in my experience, by the time you got round to the copy edit and the proof edit you’re kind of… You can’t even remember what that word was anyway, so just accept all changes.

So after that, you’ll be left with the comments. I’ve got about three hundred and thirty comments left on my document now from down from five hundred something. Go through those comments, read, make notes, reply to yourself, you know, make quick fixes if you want. Sometimes, you know, you’ll have duplicated word in a sentence or a paragraph and they’re pretty easy to fix. But don’t be tempted to make any big changes yet. Wait till you get to the end, because sometimes editors will see something that bumps them out of the story, make a comment about it, suggest changing it, and then later on, when they get to the end, they realised that was actually part of a plot twist all along. So don’t change it because it may be something that just needs a little bit of clarification or might be fine, just as it is. So read the comments, make notes.

Don’t just focus on the criticism. Look at the praise, too, because a good editor will leave you praise. It’s called the praise sandwich. It’s like, “This works.” “This is a bit rubbish.” “This is wonderful.” Fragile egos of writers strikes again. But actually praise is really helpful because it tells you what’s working. Lean into that when you rewrite.

And don’t feel you need to reply to the editor’s comments. You know, sometimes they’re just posing a question just to prompt a thought from you. You know, they’ll say, is this really necessary? Do you really… Does this make sense? Did they really do that back then? So the editor isn’t necessarily asking for a reply when you send back the next draft, although if you feel you would just want to clarify a point, that’s fine. But it’s usually a good sign that it’s something that’s bumped them out of the story. Might need a quick fix. So think of it that way.

So, folks, five tips. I think that was five. Pretty sure it’s five… Five tips for when you start your edit. I hope that was useful. If it was, give us a thumbs up, leave a comment. All that jazz. Share with writing groups, all that good stuff. If you’ve got any comments pop them below and I will reply. Stay tuned for some goodnews coming about the next book. Some cool news coming on Friday (cover reveal). So, yeah, stay tuned for that. And in the meantime, happy writing.