Thursday, 13 April 2017

Beating the Blues - When Productivity Fails

We've all been there at some stage. Sitting at the computer, staring at a blank screen. Yesterday you were running in full spate, rainbow threads being drawn from the aether into your brain and running out from your fingertips to weave themselves into a bright tapestry of story. Now, today, you sit and sit, and it isn't happening. Nothing goes in and nothing comes out.

As the hours grind by, you start to stress. Is this the dreaded Writer's Block?

Writer's Block

We see writer's block talked about a lot in writers' groups on Facebook, generally by people who have not published anything or finished anything. Those writers who continue to work successfully are remarkably silent on the subject, except when it's to make some scornful comment about it.

"My plumber doesn’t only fix my plumbing problems on mornings when it isn’t raining and when the moon was full the night before. He’s a plumber so he plumbs. I’m a writer so I write. " (David Bishop, in  Writing Tips From Authors, by Patti Roberts.

I have to say I'm with Bishop on this - I don't believe in Writer's Block any more than I believe in Santa Claus.

However, there's no denying that sooner or later, every writer is going to hit a rough patch, and today I want to explore some ways of dealing with that.

The following is not an exhaustive checklist. We all have things in our lives that affect us. Perhaps you have a sick child, or trouble at work that is nagging at your mind, But it is the process that is important.

When you Dry Up

Whenever there is a problem, the best way to start to deal with it is to know as much as you can about the problem. If you can find out what caused it, you can almost certainly fix it. There is one very useful question to ask yourself when your productivity hits the wall.

Is it Just This Book or Everything?

If you find you can't go on with the book you're working on, see if you are able to write something else. If you don't have another project on the go, try your hand at a little bit of flash fiction, or write something for your blog. If this goes well for you, then you will know that the problem is not general, but is associated with the particular work. If you find you can't write your blog or flash fiction or whatnot either, then the problem is more general.

It's The Book

If the problem is the book (or thesis, article, short story, whatever) then you've probably come up against some technical snag with it.

Are you working from an outline? Is there, perhaps, a gap or thin place in your outline at the point you've reached? I've had this happen quite often, and it's easily fixed by closing the manuscript and going back to work on the outline until it's clear enough for you to continue.

Are you pantsing and can't see how to proceed? I've had this, too. With my historical novel, King's Ransom, I wrote myself into a corner about halfway through the draft and couldn't see how to get out of it. This triggered a cascade of procrastination that went on for years, and I only finally managed to continue with the book under the pressure of Camp NaNo.

If this has happened to you, I would suggest the best remedy is to take a step back and start outlining, even if it's just ad hoc. Write a simple, point-form outline of your plan for the overall work, or for as much of it as you can. You certainly can do this for the part you've already written. Then, take it away and work on some planning. Just outline your next scene in a detailed way. Then, when you return to writing, you can translate that outline into words and that should be able to kick you off, and if you're a true pantser, once you feel the wind in your hair again, you'll be right.

It's You

If the problem isn't the particular work, this suggests that the problem might be you. I don't say this in a judgemental way. I'm not going to berate you about your attitude. What I mean here is that whatever is causing you to dry up is most likely associated with something in your life or environment. Let's look at that.

Your body

Have you been taking sufficient care of your personal environment, your body?

Did you start the day with a good protein breakfast, or have you been sucking down coffee and cigarettes and not much else? Poor nutrition will lower your energy levels like nobody's business, and creative writing, with its intensive use of the brain, is a high-energy activiry.

Have you taken a shower and got dressed, or are you still in your pyjamas or yesterday's trackies that you hauled out from under your bed? There's a bit of a culture among many writers that it's somehow indicative of a fine mind to neglect one's appearance and grooming. It isn't. If you look like shit, you probably feel like shit, and this isn't helping you.

Have you been getting enough, and good enough, sleep? Or are you running on empty? See my comment above, about nutrition.

Have you forgotten some medication you were supposed to be taking? Asthma medicine, for example? If your oxygenation is poor, this will affect your energy levels terrribly.

Your mind

If you're unable to work, it is possible that you may be suffering from depression. Failure of productivity is one of the big indicators of depression. Mild depression can be treated at home. Although it's written for children, I don't know of a better resource for this than Susan Day's wonderful book, Astro is Down in the Dumps. It gives you a great rundown on ways to treat the onset of depression, and stave it off. You can get it HERE. 

Serious depression, of course, is something you should get help for. See your doctor. If you don't have a sufficiently good relationship with your usual doctor, get another one. You do not want to mess about with this. Get right on it, before it takes over your life and destroys you.

A sudden decline in productivity, however, is unlikely to be caused by the kind of serious depression that needs medical intervention. This stuff doesn't happen overnight, and if you were writing cheerfully away just yesterday or last week, it probably isn't that.

Have you been outside in the last twenty-four hours? I don't know about you, but when things are going wrong, nothing helps me more than getting outside, under the sky. If I get stuck with a story plot, I take my dog for a long walk and discuss it with her. I don't know if it's the fresh air, or the exercise, or the non-judgemental company, but this nearly always sorts me out.


If none of these things is the cause, it's possible that you just need a break. Have you been working every day? Pounding away at your novel all day, or perhaps going out to work and then writing into the night? You may be burnt out. Now don't panic. 'Burnout' sounds very serious, but all it really means is that you've been overdoing things. Give yourself a break. A long weekend, perhaps. Make a pact with yourself that you won't touch your work for that time. Close all the windows on your computer that relate to it and put any notes, printouts and so on away in a drawer. The last thing you want is to be constantly catching sight of your unfinished work.

Ideally, a break of this kind is taken away from home. If you have a beach house or something like that, go there. If you aren't that lucky, at least plan a couple of expeditions. A day at the seaside, or in the botanic gardens, or perhaps go to see a couple of shows or films you've been wanting to see. Even a trip to the library is good if you're broke. Take yourself out for a leisurely brunch. Call that friend you've been meaning to catch up with. Reconnect with life generally. Read a good book - not something about writing, or something that's on some intellectual reading list, or something you've got to review, but something you choose purely for your own pleasure. Go out dancing till dawn. Sleep in the afternoon. Spend a couple of hours in a bubble bath with a bottle of champagne. Whatever is going to lift your spirits, that you normally are too busy/broke/spartan to allow yourself.

Serious Burnout

Really serious burnout can be identified by the fact that a long weekend of the kind described above doesn't do the job. I remember once at a time of dire stress saying to a friend, "I'm just so tired." "Have an early night," she suggested, and I told her, "it's not an early night tired, it's a month in the country tired."

If you've let yourself get to this point, you've probably been struggling for a long time and ignoring the early warnings. Again, in this case your productivity failure will have been gradual rather than sudden. If this does happen to you, there's nothing for it but to put it all away and take a long break. Traditionally, a month in the country or a long sea voyage. But if you are careful and sensible, it probably never will.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Setting Up As A Writer

Few writers can really pinpoint the time at which they started writing. For many of us it's been a low-level part of our lives for years. But in every writer's life, there comes a sort of naissance, a time when we either realise that we have begun to take our writing seriously, or when we determine to do so.

This often, but not always, coincides with the start of a particular project. For many new writers, this will be their first novel. This is, I think, the most common scenario, and so this is the one I'm going to talk about.

So, you've been writing for a while, perhaps you've even had a couple of short stories accepted somewhere - or not - but the day has come when you have decided that you are going to write your first novel.

So, let's talk about setting up, because your setup is going to support your effort, so it's worth giving a little thought to it.

The way I see it, there are three variables in a project of this kind. Time, Space and Tools. I think that's pretty well the order of importance, too. Let's look at them one by one.


There are two aspects to any project resource:

1) How much of it do you have?
2) How are you using it?

With time, of course, we all have the same amount each day, and none of us knows how much we have left altogether. So that really isn't worth thinking about. But how much time do you have for writing?

Unless you've been in prison, or hospital, or something, you probably weren't spending hours of every day staring blankly at a wall, so whatever time you take for writing is going to have to be taken away from something else. There is no way around this. You're not Hermione Grainger with a nifty little device that lets you add hours to your day.

Now, there are things you cannot avoid. You didn't pop into the world brand new, so you already have a life. Perhaps you're employed, or you are the support person for your family and must maintain the residence and feed everyone. There will be other things that take up your time, For example, I've got three mornings a week largely taken up with church, dance class and my dog's hospital job. Those are scheduled things that I am not prepared to give up, and I'm sure you, too, will have things like that.

This is a good time to sit down and really have a think about where your time goes. Write it all down. What time you spend sleeping, going to the pub, whatever, in perhaps a week. A week's a handy unit to think in. Now, if it doesn't add up to pretty much the whole week (168 hours) then you have left something out, and if there's a significant shortfall, you may not be aware of where your time is going and may want to embark on a fact-finding mission. This is easy enough to do, although very tedious - you just carry a notebook around for a whole week and write down what you're doing ALL THE TIME. If you need some help with all this. there's a very good introductory course on Time Management for writers at The Writing Academy. I do recommend this, if you haven't been exposed to time management principles in your occupational life. It's a real game-changer.

Once you've analysed where your time is going, you can make your decisions about what time you can set aside for writing. This ought to be a solid appointment booked, otherwise you will find that all kinds of nibbles will keep getting taken out of it. You may have to make some sacrifices. Perhaps you'll get up an hour earlier, or ditch some pub time. Sometimes this hurts, but no gain without some pain.

At the end of this exercise, you should have a rough schedule. I find it's best to keep the working hours the same each day, but if you work outside the home, this may not be possible, so your basic schedule may be weekly rather than daily. I myself work five hours a day, four days a week, but when you're getting started, it's probably better to try to write every day. Later on you'll be more practised at getting yourself going again after a break, and then you may want to revise your plan to allow for days off.


If space is limited, even a corner can be enough

Now we come to the fun part - setting up your workspace. Depending on the constraints of your situation, you may not be able to dedicate a home office, although this is ideal. Be that as it may, do try to take a space for your writing. If you are working at your dining table and you have to keep putting everything away to serve dinner, it's all very difficult, and it doesn't foster that attitude of commitment and taking your work seriously that is so helpful. Even if a card table in the corner of your bedroom is all you can manage, try to set up something where you will not be having to keep moving it. Apart from the obvious convenience, entering such a space tells your brain that it's time to go to work. When you're a writer, you do not have a supervisor to keep you up to the mark, so you need to make everything work for you that you can.

If you have the luxury of an actual desk, there are several decisions to be made here. Phone or no phone? Internet or no? I have said yes to both these things, but there are also arguments against them. If your phone rings a lot, it may be a distraction - but it can be even more of a distraction if you must get up and leave the room every time it rings. Also, if you handle the call at your desk, there is your work staring reproachfully at you, and you're less likely to get sidetracked into a long analysis of Debbie's new hairstyle.

You'll want, at the minimum, whatever your means of writing is to be (we'll discuss that in a minute, under Tools), space for storing whatever materials you may have (reference books and so on) some stationery, a good light, and a comfortable temperature. Don't set up in the garage if it's unheated and you live in Minnesota or Norway or somewhere cold like that. An uncomfortable worker is not a productive worker.

You may also want some music. I prefer silence for any concentrated work, but there are many, many people who say they find it helpful to use background music. If you're one of these, you will want some kind of mechanism for that. What we are aiming for here is that once you sit down to work on your novel, you are not going to have to get up until you stop work.

This space should, especially at the beginning, be reserved only for your writing. If you use your workspace for other activities, such as dealing with mail, your workspace may become silted up with things that will be distracting to you. Making the space exclusive combines with making the time period exclusive, as we discussed supra, so that both things support each other.

Optional Extras

If you are lucky enough to have the space for it, nice touches are an extra futon or basket for your dog, a big bookcase, perhaps a whiteboard or corkboard. Don't get too carried away at this stage, When you've been writing for a few months, you'll have a better idea of what you really want.


Now we come to the really fun part. The tools you will need for writing can be separated into two categories - production and support.

Production Tools

Production tools are the things you need to write. This means at the very minimum some mechanism for getting words down. Most people nowadays use a computer, but this isn't mandatory. You can use a typewriter. You can use a notebook and pencil, or whatever. Some people use an ipad. You can get a little keyboard to plug into them, I believe. I myself use a computer, and I think this is not only standard but the best possible option, because in that one device you also have file storage and support tools and research capabilities.

Desktop or Laptop?

This is a very personal decision, and I'm not going to say a lot about it here. If you're one of those people who travels a lot, or if you find you work well with bustle going on around you and want to be all posy at sidewalk cafes, a laptop is the obvious choice. More importantly though, you need at this point to give some thought to backup capabilities. 


You can use removable media, cloud storage, even gmail - but you MUST have something, and the time to think about it is NOW, before anything goes wrong. There's OneDrive, Google, removable hard drives, sticks - any number of hardware and software tools to choose from. An exhaustive comparison of their relative merits is beyond the scope of this article. But you must choose something and set it up, and you must incorporate using it into your routine. There's nothing sadder than losing your work to a malfunction. It's a terrible, terrible thing to happen, and so easy to protect yourself from.

Specialised Writing Software

There are many software tools available to help you write your novel. There are pros and cons to these. Scrivener is one that's highly spoken of. I myself have made the decision to eschew these fancy tools. I don't need extra complication, and as an ex-computer geek, I certainly do not need the temptation to waste hours, or weeks, playing around with all the fancy features in my software. I stick to the Microsoft Suite because it's usually available everywhere, and the file formats are compatible with pretty well everything, and it's easy. 

If you do decide to get Scrivener, by the way, you can get 50% off the price by completing NaNo or Camp NaNo.

Support Tools

Support tools are those things that are not essential to the actual work of getting words down, but that contribute to your project. For example, a good dictionary is worth having. You'll also want some means of tracking your project. I use Microsoft Project, but that's expensive to buy, and it's rather overkill too, especially if you're working on a single novel and don't have multiple things going on. Excel or a comparable spreadsheet program is probably all you need, and you can get Open Source ones if you don't have the Microsoft Office suite. 

Another useful support tool can be a whiteboard, corkboard or both. Ideally these should be mounted on a wall, but if you're occupying a corner of a room whose principal purpose is something else, you probably won't want to do this. You can buy small corkboards that can be hung like a picture, and this could be worth considering, especially if you're a highly visual type who likes to have a lot of pictures organised to look at. 

Whiteboards are fantastic for planning a structure. A big whiteboard can be especially useful if your project is one of those huge family structures, or a book like George Martin's, with many plot threads interwoven. The big, free-standing ones are expensive, though, and take up a lot of space, and for most writers, I don't think these really pay for themselves. But you may find it worthwhile to get yourself, say, a spiral-backed sketchbook - the huge pages can be useful if you're doing any kind of graphic plan.

Your Filing Structure

This is a biggie. Once you've been working for a while, you may have files and versions of files all over the place. This can lead to some awful problems, like accidentally working on an old version. One client wasted weeks constantly sending me the wrong manuscript version for editing. 

There are two elements to a good filing system. One is your directory structure, and the other one is your naming conventions. Naming conventions are the system you use for naming your files. It's worth spending a bit of time on this at the outset, because if you decide to rationalise it all when you've been working for years, it's a terrble, terrible job. Ella Medler's book, The Author Organiser, gives you setup instructions for a filing system that works well and has the capacity to expand. You can find her book HERE. It's cheap as chips and well worth the download.

Portable tools

Even if you're setting up with a desktop machine, you may well find it helpful to have something that goes with you everywhere. When ideas pop into your head, or you see a name that's perfect for a character, or you observe some behaviour that will add a touch of humour or grittiness or whatever to your work, it's good to be able to get some notes down right away. My favourite means for this is a small (A5) spiral notebook and pencil. I have a miniature one, too. I carry one of these everywhere I go, and they are gold. 

You may prefer a more technological approach - there's the smartphone, of course. I don't use mine for this, because what with the predictive text and the little keyboard and all, I find I am slowed down below the speed where I can most effectively get my thoughts down. A notebook and pencil are so immediate. You whip it out and write. And you don't have to worry about your battery levels or anything, or whether you're on a plane/in a hospital/ somewhere its use is forbidden or even just rude, like church.

Now You're Sorted

I think I've covered all of the essentials. If you think I've left something out, do please message me or reply below.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

When Everything You Write Is Crap

It happens to us all. Sooner or later, you've been working away on your novel, or whatever, and you dry up. You find yourself sitting at your desk, staring at the last sentence you wrote, half an hour ago. An hour ago. An hour and a half....

Realising you've tabbed into Facebook and have been looking at pictures of cats/ deerhounds/ bats for the last hour, you close your browser and force yourself back to work, We're actual writers, right? We don't whine about 'writers' block', or cry that our 'muse' has deserted us. Right?

So, you force yourself to continue. You write a sentence. You stare at the sentence for twenty minutes. You experiment with changing the word order. You delete the sentence.

After another hour or so of this, you realise your wordcount has only gone up by three words, and two of those were 'Chapter Fourteen'.

Note, by the way, my clever use of the second person in the foregoing paragraphs. This is what's known as a 'literary device'. I'm trying to pretend all of this has never happened to me, but alas! It comes to us all.

You decide to read back over the last few pages to take a new hold on your story, and that's when you notice that everything you have written is rubbish. Perhaps at this point you cry a bit, or compress your lips in a manly way, or express the turmoil of your emotion in some other way. You consider whether you need a break, a few days off to refresh body and soul. Then you remember that it's still Monday morning and you've just got back from a week at the beach.

Then, because you're an actual writer, not a wannabe, and because you've been paying close attention to my blog, you realise that the buck stops here, that either you write the book or it isn't going to be written, and all the reasons you had for starting it still exist, and you roll up your sleeves and go back to work.

It doesn't come easily, not like those other days when you sat at your keyboard pounding away, your mouth dry with exhilaration, the words streaming out of the aether to weave themselves into a bright tapestry on the page. But, because you're a writer, you go on, until you can give yourself permission to stop, whether that's a wordcount achieved, or five o'clock, or whatever.

Here's the thing. You may be worrying at this point whether all this suffering, this agony of forcing yourself to write on when the words coming out of your keyboard are dry as dust and about as interesting as a page of the telephone directory, is even worth it. Why suffer so to write awful crap, right?  But you don't need to worry about that. Later on, when you read over your finished work, you will not be able to tell which parts were written in this painful way and which were the ones that flowed so easily. Bottom line - it doesn't make the least difference to the quality of your finished work how much you suffered to produce it.

You don't need to take my word for this. Yes, I'm speaking from experience. But I'm far from the only writer to say this. Brandon Sanderson says the exact same thing, and you can believe him, right?

Friday, 7 April 2017

On Pandering to Snowflakes

Noodling about on Facebook today, looking for something to write about, I came across someone else's blog: THIS ONE. In moving terms, the blogger writes about having hurt people with her writing and become afraid to continue with it.

My initial reaction was contempt, but as I read on, I saw her point. Who among us has not cringed when some careless comment struck at a friend's hidden insecurities? Who has not experienced a little compunction when attacking a controversial subject? Who has not held back from repeating certain words?

Now, I'm not saying Ms Corcoran, who wrote the blog I've mentioned, was wrong in her reaction. She does not tell us in what way her writing hurt people. Perhaps it was in some direct and personal way. But it got me thinking about the shifting way in which a lot of writers seem to be approaching their work.

The culture among writers, at least among the independent community, seems lately to be moving ever away from frank and fearless expression and towards the safe. We discuss in writers' groups whether certain things will offend readers. We put 'trigger warnings' in blurbs. God forbid a reader should encounter anything confronting. Note here - I use the term 'we' loosely. You will not find me putting 'trigger warnings' on anything. I think that's bullshit.

There has even been a move to bowdlerise classic works. Twain and Lovecraft, for example, both freely use a certain word that most decent people today would not allow to pass their lips, and rightly so. I am sure you know the word to which I refer; I cannot bring myself to write it, even in this clinical context. It's the word that, as soon as you see it or hear it, you know the writer or speaker is a racist of the blackest stamp, and not someone you want to know. Yes, that's the word I mean. You've got it now, haven't you? 

This kind of misplaced consideration is as far from the attitude a working writer needs as it can be. Once you allow yourself to change your story from your own vision of it to something that won't offend or upset anyone, you have taken your first steps down a dark path that will end with your being dismissed as a 'mere hack', along with the people who churn out formula books at the rate of one a fortnight. It is analogous to the demands of science. My mother-in-law, an eminent scientist in her day, always used to say, 'Once you become a True Believer, you've stopped being a scientist.' And with her, I would say, 'once you become a nursemaid to snowflakes, you've stopped being a good writer.' 

Remember, it's not your job to prevent the reader from experiencing negative emotion. There is no plot without conflict. There is no story without an antagonist. You want to pick your reader up by the scruff of the neck and take him where you decide he is to go. Perhaps you'll lull him with a soft pleasant sequence and suddenly kick him right in the guts. That's a dramatic moment, and good stories are full of them. Perhaps you'll bear down on him with a relentless sequence of darkness and evil, and suddenly tickle him into wild laughter. It's your call, and you need to do some of this, or your story won't have an impact. And a story with no impact is a story that's forgotten as soon as the book is closed, no matter how pleasant it was. The important thing is that you write your story. And when you do that, if it's a good story, you'll engage your reader.

Sometimes, when you engage your reader, it isn't going to be pleasant. Cujo  almost broke me. I cried buckets reading that book. But it didn't turn me against King. My early devotion to King's work did run out, but that was because he went too far for me. You see, it was important to me that when I read the last page and closed the book, I could find myself once again in a safe and familiar place. Thank heaven, I'd say to myself, there are no vampires/wendigos/evil alien spacecraft buried underground. When I read Misery, although the book had all the same character engagement, excitement and horror I was used to from King, I lacked that 'safe space' when I finished it. Because cruel nurses really are a thing. I've met them myself. There used to be one at Bendigo Base Hospital; this woman had mastered the art of using one of those harmless ear thermometers to produce an instant of intense, searing agony. So with King's progression to the evil of ordinary humans, I regretfully parted ways with him.

Was King wrong to take this new direction? I don't think so. Certainly from my personal, selfish viewpoint I regretted it, but in his shoes I'd not have done anything different. Perhaps at some stage he asked himself, is this new direction 'going too far' for some readers? Perhaps not. Either way, I can almost hear him saying something along the lines of 'bugger that, I'm sticking to my story.' 

If King did, in fact, consciously advert to the possibility of some of his readers being driven away by the new direction he was taking in his work, he certainly didn't allow himself to be deterred by it. And I believe he was utterly right. If he had deliberately turned his back on where his vision was leading him, I believe his work would have lost the authenticity that it has; that voice of conviction that makes his books work as well as they do. And, of course, his enduring popularity has proven him right, at least in a commercial sense. 

Just as you shouldn't be put off writing your story because of the imagined feelings of some snowflake reader, neither should you chicken out from reaching into the damaged places in your own soul. If you're an adult, then bad things have, at some point in your life, happened to you. In fact I'd go a bit farther than that, although it's only speculation, and suggest that if you're a writer, you're probably damaged in some way. The hurt, the fear, the anger of past suffering are like fuel to the engine of your writing. If, for instance, which God forbid, you're a rape survivor, then at some point you are probably going to want to write about that, and your own experience is going to give you a particular authenticity when you do so. 

This, of course, means that in the course of your work you'll have to confront your own demons, those long-buried monsters that you'd consciously forgotten. This can be painful and frightening. And you know what? You need to suck it up, because, along with copy-editing, that's one of the painful aspects of writiing.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Ask Tabitha... A Novice Writer's Cry for Help

I was having some trouble thinking of a topic for today's blog, so I asked for suggestions in one of the writers' groups I frequent. Within a short time I received a cry for help from this young woman who is embarking on her writing career. With her permission, I've quoted her words verbatim:

I don't have enough words to express myself. Been reading a lot to improve on my vocabulary but when I get to the writing process words fail me. Also looking at other writers' works discourages me. Everyone is writing so beautifully, so meticulously ...apart from me. Yet I really want to tell stories, talk to an audience out there through writing. That's my challenge.

Why I Want to Help

Usually when I see posts from novice writers in these groups I just cringe and keep scrolling. Most writing wannabes are all too clearly not willing to put in the hard yards. But look at this one. Look at how articulately she's expressed herself, and how succinctly she's summed up her problem. Not to mention the correct use of the apostrophe. This young writer is on her way, and is well worth spending some time on. I suspect her writing is already much better than she thinks it is; in my experience, the worst writers tend to think they're the greatest thing since Austen.

The Issues

Two issues are identified here: paucity of vocabulary and quality of writing. I'll address them in turn.


First of all, I'll say this: vocabulary is probably not such an issue as you think. You do not need an enormous vocabulary to write well. Sure, it helps, and there are ways to extend it, but it has its dark side too. You don't want to be one of those writers who's always searching for fancy words. It's off-putting to readers to have to be always looking up words. One or two new words can be a pleasant bonus for a reader, but if they're having to access their dictionary every few pages, most people will get irritated. Even if they know the word, you can overdo it. An example of this is Stephen Donaldson's flogging to death of the word 'intransigence'. It made me want to smack him with my Shorter Oxford.

How to Increase Your Vocabulary

One word. Read. You've already been doing this, and so this won't be news, but the very best way to improve your vocabulary is by lots of reading. This isn't a quick fix, of course. You'll need to read hundreds, thousands, of books, but then we are all works in progress. You can increase your hit rate in two ways:

Read the good stuff

The kind of thing you read makes a big, big difference. Hopefully, you're already reading the classics. But if you've been scared off them, don't be. Classics got that way because they are good books, and this means they are fun to read. They're also easy to find, and many of them can be downloaded free.

Never let a chance go by

It can be tempting, when you're engrossed in a thundering good story, to let a word go. Don't do this. Stop everything when you encounter an unfamiliar word. First, see if it's clear from the context. Then look it up - even if it was clear from the context. You may find there are nuances to it, or alternative uses, that you missed. Then, for a few days try to use the new word as much as possible yourself - even if you get a few strange looks in conversation. Using a new word, in both written and spoken form, will accustom you to it and will nail it firmly into your mind; if you don't use it, you're liable to forget it again.

How to Improve Your Writing

The process for this is very similar to that for expanding your vocabulary.

Read the Good Stuff

As I said above, read the good stuff, the great writers. As you read, try to look objectively at what you're reading - don't just get immersed in the story so that the actual writing becomes invisible. If you're one of those readers who sinks right into a story and loses track of your surroundings, a second reading is the best way. It won't hurt you to read the book twice if you really enjoyed it.

Take notes

As you read, have a notebook and pencil at your side. Whenever you strike something that impresses you, make a note of it. Examine it. Is it a technique? How does it work? What attracts you to it? Does it depend on something else to work or is it standalone? 

Try it Out Yourself

Whenever you have some time, go back over your notebook and look at the notes you've made. Try out these things in something of your own. One thing that can be interesting to do is to write the same short scene in several different ways and compare them. Remember, you're not just looking for whether you can do a particular thing, but whether it meshes well with your own style. As you go on, you'll start to get a feeling for whether particular things will work for you or not.

Particular writers do specific things better than others. Make notes of this too. For example, Stephen King's use of his narrative voice is worth a look. He uses it almost like a Greek chorus. It's an interesting technique and works well for him. Dickens is great at describing a scene. Robert Ludlum has been widely praised for his action sequences. Wodehouse and Pratchett are great comics. Over time, you'll develop your own list of 'go-to' writers - people who excel at particular techniques, and this can be very useful if you feel you're struggling with something specific, or if you feel drawn to a particular area.  

Practise, practise, practise.

Do as much writing as you can. If something interesting or funny happened in your day, and you want to tell a friend about it, instead of picking up the phone, recount the incident in an email. See how exciting, funny or what-not you can make it. If you see an accident in the street, write it up as a witness statement. If you meet a person who's different or intriguing, write something about him. Something upset you? Let your writing be your catharsis, before you cry on a friend's shoulder. You'll sharpen your powers of observation as well as your writing, and this is gold for a writer.

Don't Give Up

Like just about everything that's worth doing, these things will take time to show a result. You may work at your writing for years before you're ready to submit or publish. Don't worry about that. It is the people who rush into print before they are ready that end up looking stupid, not the patient craftsperson who goes the extra mile.