Writing Tips: Surviving the Skill Plateau

A remarkable thing happened while working on my latest novel, Grand Theft Octo. I wrote about 500 words that needed almost no editing whatsoever. Although I didn’t splurge them out in a carefree frenzy, I didn’t write them especially slowly either. They took about an hour. There were a few places where I had to ponder and a couple of lines that tripped me up but somehow I managed to write about 500 words that required almost no editing whatsoever in an hour. If you’re not a writer yourself, you might wonder why that’s a big deal, but for me it was a miracle. Let me tell you why.

Writing is Rewriting

People say writing is rewriting. Writing is the fun part whereas the real skill and effort comes during editing and rewriting. A lot of this depends on the way someone writes. Some people edit as they go whereas others bash out a first draft before editing it later. Either way, editing and rewriting is the largest factor in the quality of prose. Most first drafts are full of clichés and humdrum phrasing. They almost never shine. Although you’ll occasionally get lucky and come up with a great line on the fly, most of the real gems come later.

Welcome to the Skill Plateau

You wouldn’t want to live there

Editing is a skill you hone, a muscle you develop. There are books to help you on the way but for most authors it’s self-taught. When I first started writing as a child, I thought everything I wrote was a masterpiece. Even if I re-read a story, I couldn’t spot a single thing to change. Criticisms from my teachers seemed absurd. I assumed they were biased or too stuffy to recognise my dazzling skill. The more I wrote, however, the fussier I became. I’d take more time with my sentences and ponder over the story instead of splurging it out. Nevertheless, writing was a joy. Each story I wrote was like an adventure. I’d polish them the best I could and looked forward to my future as a world-famous author.

Welcome to the Skill Plateau

When I was a teenager, after two abandoned novels, I started on another. That’s when I hit the plateau. I scrutinised every single word, trying to make each sentence perfect. I tried to inject subtext, metaphors and hidden meanings to subconsciously influence the reader. I wanted every description to paint a picture so vivid that the reader would see a realer world than the one outside their window. I avoided every cliché, I ran from every trope. And at this pace, I managed to write a sentence an hour. That’s not an exaggeration. The first (and only) chapter of my third (abandoned) book took six months to write. I re-read it not long ago and although it has some inventive language, it’s clearly over-laboured and bordering on pretentious.

For my next book, I tried to limber up. I didn’t want to make the same mistake. The problem is, I’m a perfectionist. Only the best would do. Although I managed to work quicker, my next book took three years to write. I only managed to get it finished by drinking 4 litres of Diet Coke every day and staying up to 6am. With that book, I’d bash out a chapter in a couple of days and then spend a month or two editing it. Tricky paragraphs could take whole days. I’d read and re-read them over and over, changing words and tweaking commas while ruining my kidneys with Diet Coke and testing the patience of my long-suffering girlfriend (thankfully now my wife and the mother of my children).

Taylor Swift Enjoying a Diet Coke

I didn’t look this elegant

Sit at Your Chair and Bleed

My next book was even harder. I wrote the first draft in a couple of weeks and then spent four years rewriting it. One particular chapter took an entire year. Nevertheless, I kept my head down and finally finished the damned thing. Then I was struck by an awful realisation: the better I got at writing, the harder it became. This is something the narrator of my novel, Mervyn vs. Dennis, discusses:

Writing works backwards. The better you get, the harder it is. I missed how I wrote when I was eight. I’d sit down and splurge and love every word, absurd little stories that made little sense. Now I spent half my time sweating about passive voice and dangling participles. I’d fret and I’d fuss over each precious word then come along a month later and bin the whole chapter. I knew this was the graft to make fiction flow but sometimes it felt like the wrong way around.

I was terrified about the future. If I kept getting better, writing would keep getting harder. It would get to the point where writing became so hard that I’d never be able to write at all.

Sit and bleed

Bleed, dear boy, bleed!

Escaping the Skill Plateau

At the time, I didn’t know there was a skill plateau. I honestly thought I was doomed. My own standards had become so cripplingly high and writing itself had become so hard that a lot of the pleasure of writing was lost. I’d put so many years into writing, at the expense or learning other skills, that I couldn’t simply give up on the only thing I seemed half-decent at. But the prospect of writing another book was so daunting that I couldn’t face it. Having just written a dark, complex thriller, I decided to write something light and easy. That’s where Mervyn vs. Dennis came from. Although it has many dark moments, it was a genuine pleasure to write, and much easier than my previous book. This time, I edited as I wrote, managing a steady 500 words per day. I finished the book in 9 months.

Despite being easier to write, I still spent a lot of time rewriting and editing. Those chunks of 500 words that I wrote and edited every day were several hours of work each. Nevertheless, I wrote an entire novel in under a year compared to writing a single chapter in a year. Having said that, I never had a moment like I did recently while writing Grand Theft Octo. I have never had a moment where I managed to write 500 words that required almost no editing whatsoever. So what has happened to me? Why am I finally able to write at a reasonable pace without feeling like I’m bashing my head against a wall? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately, and I have a few possible answers.

Beyond the Skill Plateau

The cynical answer is that my standards have slipped. I used to labour over my craft and now I churn out books without quality control. The problem with that theory is I think my writing is better than ever. I’m currently working on a dark fantasy novel and it’s the best stuff I’ve ever written. So if my standards haven’t slipped then what on earth is going on? I think, after countless years of toil and suffering, I’ve finally escaped the skill plateau. I’m not saying that I’ve mastered writing. I want to keep improving. But now I can write and edit much more efficiently. I’m no longer wandering in the dark. I know much better now what works and what doesn’t.

There are, of course, still moments when I bash my head against the wall. In that past, I would have been stuck for weeks but now all it takes is a contemplative walk or pensive shower. I now see 500 edited words per day as my absolute minimum. If I don’t have any freelance work from my day job, I can manage 1000 words. Once upon a time, that was unthinkable. Right now, not only do my first drafts need less work than they used do, but my editing process is so much more focused and efficient that it no longer feels like an uphill struggle. That allows me to look beyond the minutiae of the words themselves and focus even more on storytelling and character.

Never Give Up Hope

If you’re suffering in a skill plateau of your own, I have one message for you: there is hope. It won’t last forever. What you’re doing right now is improving. It might feel like a never-ending struggle but what’s really happening is that you’re becoming a better writer. All those hours you spend contemplating a tricky sentence aren’t wasted at all. They’re all part of your journey to improve your craft. So, keep on suffering, but always remember that it won’t last forever. There’s a chance, of course, that another skill plateau is heading my way. If that happens, hopefully I’ll be able to follow my own advice.

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Marc Crepeaux’s Video Review of Mervyn vs. Dennis

Video Review of Mervyn vs. Dennis by Niels Saunders

I’ve been a been a bad father lately. I’ve neglected my firstborn in favour of my latest offspring. Before you call child services, hear me out a second. I’m not talking about my daughters, but the other children in my life: my books, of course. I published my debut novel Mervyn vs. Dennis in 2016. Since then, a sapient talking Wotsit has moved into the White House and the United Kingdom has had a nervous breakdown. Undeterred by the apparent unravelling of civilised life as we know it, earlier this year I published my second novel, a satire about the world’s most unusual businessman entitled Grand Theft Octo. It’s already getting some great reviews and people seem to enjoy the mix of satire, surreal professions and invertebrate-based violence.

I’ve been busy promoting Grand Theft Octo, editing my upcoming thriller The Papyrus Empire and also writing a dark fantasy about a macaque in mythological Japan. As such, Mervyn vs. Dennis has been feeling rather neglected lately. His new siblings are getting all the limelight, and he’s wondering why he’s not the apple of my eye anymore. That’s one of the many reasons why Marc D. Crepeaux‘s hilarious video review of Mervyn vs. Dennis is so utterly delightful. Inspired by a mysterious subplot in the novel, it starts with him fleeing for his life with a pineapple under his arm. From there, he gives his witty and insightful views on the book itself along with an uproarious discussion on the alleged differences between British and American refrigerators.  Here it is, in all it’s glory:

Rather delightfully, he applauds the covers of my books and says I should pay my designer more. As they’re all designed by me, I guess I’ll have to treat myself to a nice bottle of pinot noir for breakfast. When I first wrote Mervyn vs. Dennis, I always hoped it might inspire reactions and interpretations such as Marc’s, so this video review means a lot to me. Seeing him summarise the plot while chuckling about the moments he found particularly amusing is truly delightful. Please be sure to like his video and subscribe to his YouTube channel for lots of other great reviews.

Marc has also taken the time to pen an excellent accompanying written review which you can read here.  His books are available to buy on Amazon and be sure to check out and follow his blog.

Video Review of Grand Theft Octo

Last year, cake-loving author J. Cassidy took the time to make a smashing video review of my first novel Mervyn vs. Dennis. As you’ll hopefully already know, I’ve recently released my second novel Grand Theft Octo and J. Cassidy has done another fabulous video review. In discussing the story, she describes main character Jonathan Doe as “One of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever come across.” I guess you can’t say better than that! As those of you who’ve read the book will know, Jonathan Doe is certainly an enigmatic man (as his name would suggest), but it’s fantastic to hear someone have such a strong opinion toward him. Here’s the video:

J. Cassidy has just released her latest novel Sweet-Pea’s Thief, a fantastic and original story which is available at Amazon right now.

 

Grand Theft Octo – Promo Gallery

Promo images of Grand Theft Octo

To promote the release of my latest novel Grand Theft Octo, I’ve been sharing promotional images on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Here they all are, along with their quotes, in one handy place:

Jonathan Doe - Professional Octopus Teaser

“Octopus owners until now have been thinking, ‘My octopus is sluggish, sure, but they’re docile creatures.’ Bullshit, I’m saying, you’ve just got a boring octopus in need of a good teasing. Listen, don’t expect it to turn into the sea life of the party. It won’t somersault from the tank like a dolphin or do a flawless impression of Sir Michael Caine, but after I’m done you’ll own a livelier, friendlier and more interesting invertebrate. And you’ll notice the difference within twenty-four hours.” – Jonathan Doe, Professional Octopus Teaser

Herbert Malt from Grand Theft Octo

“Teasing an octopus is nothing so vulgar as a bullfight. It’s an act of precision, the threading of a needle. I began my training by convincing cats to climb down trees just by frowning at them.” – Herbert Malt, Apprentice Octopus Teaser

Holly Sarashina from Grand Theft Octo

“I’ve rather wear a mask than live in a hall of mirrors.” – Holly Sarashina, Lady of the Dead

Hank Butterfield from Grand Theft Octo

“Hank Butterfield is smiling right at me. Against my own wishes, my heart skips a beat. I’d always assumed I was immune to being star-struck but all I want to do is giggle like a teenage girl and throw my knickers at him. He bids his crowd farewell and strolls toward us while sniffing his martini. I’m so excited about him coming over that I feel weirdly violated.” – Jonathan Doe, Reluctant Hank Butterfield Fan

Harry Jenkins from Grand Theft Octo

“I try to remember the Harry I knew, the man who met insults with wounded smiles, so terrified of treading on toes that he ended up sidling through life. Who are we, truly, deep down? The child we outgrow or the shell we become?” – Jonathan Doe, Professional Plant Killer

Rupert Whistler from Grand Theft Octo

“That’s it. Down the steps, one at a time. Not too slowly, not too snappy. If you get too snappy, I might snap, and I can be a very scary gator.” – Rupert Whistler, Man of Leisure

Lewis Caputo from Grand Theft Octo

“The only way to never get whiplash is to never slow down.” – Lewis Caputo, Hotdog in the Centre

Gertrude Pot Plant from Grand Theft Octo

“Caring for plants is a delicate form of starvation. Of water, food and affection. You can’t give one species too much attention. It’s a process of balance. You shall be Libra, holding the scales.” – Harry Jenkins, Lord of the Plants

Green Man from Grand Theft Octo

“You know when you wait at the side of the road for the little green man to appear? Well today we are the green man. Nothing is going to stop us. Beep beep.” – Jonathan Doe, Professional Octopus Kidnapper

If those pictures and quotes have piqued your curiosity, Grand Theft Octo is available in ebook ($2.99) and paperback ($7.99) from Amazon right now. You can also read the first couple of chapters for free there too. Do you have a favourite image or quote from the gallery? Are you even more baffled about what the book’s actually about? Here’s a brief synopsis, to help you find your way:

When Jonathan Doe is fired from his office job for stealing too much stationery, he becomes an entrepreneur of businesses the world has never seen. After a disastrous start at freelance taxidermy, he moves onto professional octopus teasing. Will he fail again or make his fortune? Is he really a professional or just a con artist? Desperate to succeed, his plans become more outlandish, from stealing theme park mascots at gunpoint to fighting deranged restaurant tycoons. As the enemies he makes seek revenge, both his life and business are threatened, until his world spirals into mayhem and violence. Set in the fictional city of Vestibue, England, Grand Theft Octo is a wild and hilarious ride that strikes at the heart of aspirational culture.

Grand Theft Octo – What is Octopus Teasing?

Jonathan Doe - Professional Octopus Teaser

Meet Jonathan Doe

I’ve just released my latest novel, Grand Theft Octo. It’s available in paperback and ebook from Amazon worldwide. The narrator, Jonathan Doe, becomes the world’s most unusual businessman after being fired from his mundane office job for stealing too much stationery. First off, he tries his hand at professional plant-watering. This is soon followed by freelance taxidermy. Due to his irrational hatred of plants, and total lack of experience at taxidermy, neither go well. That’s when he has a brainwave: professional octopus teasing. Doe believes this unconventional (and some might say utterly insane) business idea will earn him a fortune from the affluent and gullible. To find out if he succeeds, you’ll have to read the book, but let’s hear from Doe himself about his business plan.

Professional Octopus Teaser

I’m opening gaps in markets that don’t even exist. When someone reads my advert, the gap opens up. They think: Perhaps my octopus needs to be teased. It floats in its tank forlornly, and maybe it needs pizzazz.

Clear the stage, enter Jonathan Doe.

People never stay happy for long. If someone’s dream is owning a pet octopus, they’ll feel like a king on the day they bring their own home. But soon they get peckish. They browse catalogues for nifty treats to buy their beloved invertebrate: a bigger tank, a fifty-kilo Tufa rock with artificial corals, a little waterproof tuxedo to wear for Sunday best.

Octopus teasing costs a premium. It’s deluxe, a luxury. No one else provides it, so I’ve already got the monopoly. I’m going at 360 different angles. It’s therapeutic for the octopus, a treat, a way to say sorry. I need to get word on the octopus circuit, work an interview into Regional Aquatic and come out with this sort of stuff: “It’s like a massage for your octopus, based on scientific research and new understanding of their anatomy.”

Everything’s on its mark. I’m going to make a fortune. According to my research, octopi are rather dull. Many only sneak out of their corners for meals while others get scared at the drop of a hat and fart out a payload of ink. Octopus owners until now have been thinking: My octopus is sluggish, sure, but they’re docile creatures. Bullshit, I’m saying, you’ve just got a boring octopus in need of a good teasing. Listen, don’t expect it to turn into the sea life of the party. It won’t somersault from the tank like a dolphin or do a flawless impression of Sir Michael Caine, but after I’m done you’ll own a livelier, friendlier and more interesting invertebrate. And you’ll notice the difference within twenty-four hours.

I’m not planning to scam anyone. If you look for a difference, you see a difference. It’s tabloid astrology. You see what you want and ignore the rest. “Wow!” people gasp after reading their star sign. “I do have money trouble!” Let’s get it straight, nobody’s a prophet. You’re not the only chump who’s short on cash and matters of the heart are always convoluted. So let Jonathan Doe read your sign. You’ve got a boring octopus and I’m here to jazz it up. “I’ve just had my octopus teased,” you explain, “and this morning it span like a top while changing colour.” All octopi do that, you fool. It’s nothing to do with me. Coincidence, people. There’s gold in them hills.

Michael Caine With Octopus

Is Octopus Teasing Right for You?

Clearly, Doe talks the talk. Whether octopus teasing is a worthwhile service or it’s simply his eloquence and verve that attracts customers is one of the main questions posed by the book. Doe is a showman as much as a salesman. He sells things to people they never knew they needed. Some are delighted by this, others furious. As you can see from the above extract, octopus teasing itself is a satire of aspirational culture. It mocks both the consumers who are so easily duped and the cynical advertisers who make us want their products. Throughout the story, the reader wonders whether Doe is really just in it for the money or if he’s a misunderstood artist hiding behind the posture of a conman.

If you enjoyed this edited extract of Grand Theft Octo and would like to see Jonathan Doe in action, I hope you’ll consider buying the book or reading the sample chapters which are available at Amazon.

To keep up with my regular writing news, please follow me on Facebook.

 

Book Launch – Grand Theft Octo by Niels Saunders

Niels Saunders - Grand Theft Octo Cover
Hello everyone. Yes, I am still alive. Sorry it’s been so long since my last post. As you can probably tell from the fact that I’m launching a book, I’ve been extremely busy, well, writing a book.

It’s called Grand Theft Octo and is now available to buy in paperback and ebook from Amazon. Here’s the synopsis:

When Jonathan Doe is fired from his office job for stealing too much stationery, he becomes an entrepreneur of businesses the world has never seen. After a disastrous start at freelance taxidermy, he moves onto professional octopus teasing. Will he fail again or make his fortune? Is he really a professional or just a con artist? Desperate to succeed, his plans become more outlandish, from stealing theme park mascots at gunpoint to fighting deranged restaurant tycoons. As the enemies he makes seek revenge, both his life and business are threatened, until his world spirals into mayhem and violence. Set in the fictional city of Vestibue, England, Grand Theft Octo is a wild and hilarious ride that strikes at the heart of aspirational culture.

For those of you who read my last book, Mervyn vs. Dennis, you’ll either be delighted or despondent to hear there are no pineapples in this one and almost no toilet humour at all.

Here are the links, for your purchasing pleasure:

UK ebook £1.99:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grand-Theft-Octo-Niel…/…/B071V8XRQC

UK paperback £5.99:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grand-Theft-Octo-Niel…/…/1521121516

US ebook $2.99:

https://www.amazon.com/Grand-Theft-Octo-Niels-…/…/B071V8XRQC

US paperback $7.99:

https://www.amazon.com/Grand-Theft-Octo-Niels-…/…/1521121516

It’s also available on Kindle Unlimited, if you’re a subscriber.

I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks everyone!

Writing Tips: The Author as God

The Author as God by Niels Saunders

Don’t mess with Zeus

As an author, you are god to your characters. No matter their religious beliefs, when your characters pray to their own gods, they are really praying to an empty sky. You, as god, decide which prayers to answer and which to ignore. Likewise, if your characters are atheists, you choose whether to fulfil or crush their irreligious hopes and dreams. As authors, we play god, and we have to choose what kind of god we’ll be. Will we be a vengeful and interventionist Old Testament style deity? Or will we be a caring and peaceful god who loves their characters like their own children? The choice you make will make a huge impact on the style, tone and content of your story, so it’s wise to consider what kind of god you’ll be before you start writing.

Playing God by the Rules

First off, you need ground rules. In my writing, as god, I have control over luck, the weather and coincidences. This means if a character goes to a casino, it’s entirely up to me whether they win or lose. Likewise, I decide if it’s sunny or rainy. This is where John Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy comes into play. We can use the weather to mirror a character’s emotions or we can use it ironically as a contrast. It’s something of a cliché to have a broken-hearted character walk through rainy streets but it doesn’t have to be so dramatic. A depressed character, for example, is more likely to notice the grey clouds in the sky than the warm and pleasant breeze on their face.

Don’t Reveal Yourself

As god, you have a responsibility not to reveal yourself. Imagine having a character who won the lottery ten weeks in a row. Both your character and your reader wouldn’t believe it. By fixing the odds irresponsibly, you’ve broken the reader’s suspension of disbelief and also likely driven your character insane. They might, understandably, start to believe they’ve been blessed by a higher power. This would cause them to act irrationally and doubt the very order of the universe itself. This could make a good starting off point for a story but you’d have to balance all that good luck with something else to satisfy the reader’s desire for order. If a character prays, they are actually praying to you. If you choose to answer back, you’ll have to accept the consequences.

Telling a Good Story

What does a good story typically need? Conflict. As god, it’s your job to engineer situations whereby characters will find themselves entrenched in conflict. This is where it starts getting tricky to be a benevolent god. If you grant all your characters’ wishes, your story will be over. Therefore, you have to take a step back and allow your characters to achieve them on their own. Unfortunately, happiness is rarely interesting for long. To tell a compelling story, we need our characters to struggle and suffer. For the greater good of your story, you have to be cruel to be kind. As always, though, it’s a balance. Be too cruel and the reader may become so depressed they can’t even finish your book.

The Power of Free Will

As a god, you have a lot of power, but you also have your limits. Never force your characters to do things they don’t want to. It’s tempting to do this if you have a great idea and want the character to fulfil it, but I can guarantee one thing: if you allow your characters to make their own decisions, they’ll do something more interesting than what you had planned. If you force your godly will upon your characters, there’s a good chance your characters will revolt and you’ll suffer from writer’s block. Throw as many obstacles in their path as you want but never influence their will. If you want to change their mind, try doing it obliquely through metaphors and coincidences. In this way, your characters’ interaction with their god (you) may well mirror your own interaction with God (if you’re a believer).

Do You Believe in Fate?

If you’ve sketched out your story in a plan, you may have plotted the deaths of certain characters. In my experience, these rarely change. This might contradict what I said above about free will but if you’ve decided a certain character is fated to die, it’s likely you’ve foreshadowed that death and made it such an integral part of the story that they simply have to die. This is one place where, as an author, you can make death mean more than it does in real life. Whereas death in our own world often seems random, pointless and cruel, in our stories, death is a narrative device to drive or resolve conflict. Have fun killing your characters but make sure it means something.

Authors Work in Mysterious Ways

As writers we are bound to the conventions of storytelling. Readers expect mysteries to be revealed and conflicts to be resolved. As the author, it’s up to you choose if you’re a fickle god or not. Will you punish the good guy and reward the bad? Will the wishes you grant be double-edged swords? A lot of it is guided by the kind of story we want to tell, whether moralistic or nihilistic. For the sake of a good story, I tend to put my characters through the wringer. On more than one occasion, I’ve had characters directly curse me, as their god, for the situations I’ve engineered. The weird thing is, I adore them all. My characters are like my kids. Even though I love them, I want them to have compelling stories, so I make bad things happen to them (which I wouldn’t wish upon my real life kids).

What Kind of God Are You?

Are you benevolent? Malevolent? An interventionist? Do you agree that characters should have their own free will? Let me know in the comments!

Update: Here’s a great  piece of flash fiction from mythicalmusingsblog that was inspired by this post!

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