Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Following Are NOT New Years' Resolutions...

Yep, now that Christmas is over it's that other Time Of The Year again.

You know the one; that one where you make yourself all kinds of crazy promises which you then spend the rest of the year breaking and making yourself feel like crap. I'm talking, of course, about the New Year, and our species' somewhat masochistic response of making New Year's Resolutions to mark the occasion.

It's a not even a particularly logical thing to do when you really analyse it. I mean, I know our calendar says that, on January the 1st, everything that's gone before in the last 365 days officially 'ends' and a brand new set of 365 days 'starts'... but does planet earth feel that way too? I doubt it. It's just us, the little evolved-monkey-people, deciding that's the way everything works. It could all just be a good excuse to get drunk and behave like idiots all at the same time and for the same reason, of course. Nothing wrong with that; why not, life is for living so bring it on and all that. But that obviously wasn't good enough for some hand-wringing do-gooder somewhere. No, they had to inject some worthy into the mild debauchery and thus the concept of New Year's Resolutions was born; set yourself all sorts of high-minded, self-improvement-y goals for the rest of the year while you're too deliriously wazzered to even slur the words to 'Auld Lang Syne' properly. Yeah - perfect time to think about how to sort your life out and become a better person, that is. Genius move.

If you detect the bitter tang of cynicism in those words, I'm not going to deny it. This is because every time I've ever made a New Year's resolution on or around the actual New Year's Day, I have not only spectacularly failed to keep it but actually achieved the direct and dismally opposite result to what I had resolved to do. The year I resolved to stop agonising about my less-than-sylphlike body and finally learn to 'love myself' for who I was? Yeah, well that was the same year I went on to become anorexic, so that went well... (don't panic, that was a loonnnnng time ago now.) But, in the interests of balance, when I resolved to lose all my post-baby weight some years later I actually put on another two stone instead, so at least it worked both ways, eh?

(I have since got back to a healthy weight, in case you're wondering. Not my ideal weight, obviously, since Media-Land is constantly telling me that if I have any sense I should be craving a size-zero body, and all the time I'm just an ordinary, under-confident female devoid of movie-star cheekbones who am I to argue with their 'wisdom'? But I'm digressing - where was I? Oh yeah...)

All of which has shown me that New Year is not the optimum time to make big changes to my world. I think when you take a Big Event and try to attach Self-Improvement Goals to it, there's a tendency to shoot for the moon rather than take more manageable baby steps to the same desired result. For example, at any other time of the year you can say "I'm going to stop buying chocolate biscuits and walk down to the supermarket instead of taking the bus" and do that with very little fuss or tears.

But at New Year - fueled by alcohol and communal belief in the 'oh-my-god-that-completely-arbitrary-switch-is-gonna-flip-any-second-now' - those simple statements somehow morph into "I'm going to get into a pair of size ten jeans by next December!" Because next December's ages away from now, isn't it? Heck, you've given yourself a whole year to achieve that goal, so it's not unrealistic at all...

Except it is, because it focuses on the desired result rather than the process needed to achieve the goal. There's no plan there - it's all about the reward. And that's the kind of thinking you often get into when you're:

a) Feeling like the world (and, in some subtle way, you) is a little bit crap at the moment - i.e. in the winter if you're north of the Equator, when it's cold and dark for a long time every day.
b) Feeling like 'time is running out' or 'life is passing you by' - i.e. at that solely-human-decided moment when the timer dings and the whole universe starts all over again, for another 'year.'
c) Aware that squillions of other people (most of the ones in your immediate vicinity and indeed a sizeable proportion of your hemisphere) are feeling exactly the same way as you are, right now, for the same reasons. Oh, the camaraderie - we must all be in this together!

And so I have not made any New Year's Resolutions and do not intend to do so. That's not to say I don't have any goals to aim for; I've certainly got those, but they are the same as they were last year, and remain ongoing from the non-New-Year-moment I first made them. I shall continue working on The Renegades and not give up on it, I shall remain committed to the conditions of the Writing Contract I first drew up for myself over a year-and-a-half ago, and I shall continue to think of myself as 'a writer' even though I may not have reached the status of say, Stephen King or Chuck Wendig or any other 'properly famous' writers yet. Yeah, they're just baby steps towards big dreams. But I can do them.

If you are planning to make resolutions yourself, I am cheering for you right now - no really, I am. Goals are good; if you don't fire off them arrows you are nothing but a person standing around with a twangy stick and some pointy sticks. However, you also can't call yourself an archer until you've spent some time practising with those twangy and pointy sticks. Keep it real and I reckon you'll be okay.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Sometimes, A Little Time Apart Is Needed

You know how it is with your nearest and dearest. You love 'em to bits, and even when they drive you mad you'd still walk over burning coals for them - because hey, this is a commitment, dammit, and you're in it for the long haul. But every once in a while, you need a break from each other. A little time apart, so that you can both chill and regroup, learn to miss each other again - and basically just get other stuff done that you can't get done when they're demanding your attention on a regular basis.

Writing a novel is a lot like that too, I've found.

This week I have not written a single word of draft two of The Renegades. I couldn't even write that sentence without twitching. Yes, I too have absorbed the mantra so often preached by Stephen King et al - write every single day, exercise that muscle, use it or lose it... hey, you had me at hello on all that stuff, okay? So now, naturally, I accept that my job is to Feel Bad, like I have Failed and Become Lazy. It could even mean - horror of horrors! I don't actually have what it takes to make it as a writer. Because isn't it supposed to be that Real Writers Never Stop Writing, No Matter What Life Throws At Them?

Well whoever originally sold us that idea must've been someone who had no hand whatsoever in typical family Christmas preparations, for a start. No, I'm sorry - if yours is one of the voices screaming in dissent at that notion right now, allow me to make a random guess here... you are one of the following: a married man, one half of a childless couple or a single person, aren't you? Aren't you? Thank you. Come back when your status changes and see if you can still make your case quite as cast-iron then, matey.

So yeah, this week has, for me, been taken up almost entirely with Christmas shopping, Christmas baking (both for the family and for various school events that rear up at terrifyingly short notice in the last couple of weeks of term) and Christmas present-wrapping. And yeah, that is both my excuse and an excuse simultaneously. Of course I could still have found the time to write as well, if I'd made the effort.

But that's the point. It would have been an effort. I'd have been sitting at my keyboard like a wilting husk, trying to make words come out of my head and onto the page while stressing about all the things I still hadn't done and would need to do tomorrow. And I would have either failed to put down a single word or simply hated every single word I did manage to wring from my frazzled noggin. And that would have made me even more stressed and - most crucially - start to hate working on The Renegades, in the same way as even your most loved of loved ones can really wind you up when you're stressing about a million other things.

So I decided we needed to take a break from each other - just for this week. I'm still writing, of course - this Blog entry is proof of that - but The Renegades and I have not crossed each others' paths since last Sunday, and I don't intend for us to meet up again until the next one. And you know what? I refuse to let myself feel guilty about that. Because I know that, by the time we get back together again, I will be missing it; I'll be desperate to catch up and recreate all the good times again. I know this because I'm kind of feeling it a little bit already. But until Sunday, the focus will remain on visiting distant family members and sorting my Christmas shizzle.

I hear what you're saying, Stephen King and cohorts. If you wanna write 'every single day except Christmas Day and your birthday' that's great - have a ball (whilst I assume - not unreasonably, I feel - that someone else obviously organizes large chunks of your life for you.) But some of us writers really do need the occasional holiday. And if we do, I don't believe it makes us bad writers - although I do believe it stops us becoming bad people.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Hey 2013, You're Nearly Over

So.... 2013 then. Only a month of it left to go (and that'll go in a blur of Christmas-shopping-why-haven't-we-done-any-yet-we've-still-got-to-buy-the-food-and-who's-going-to-whose-house-for-what-day-anyway-aaarrggh!!) So I figured I may as well look back on it now, while I've still got enough brain left that hasn't morphed into Christmas Pudding.

In terms of life, 2013's been a bit of a roller coaster for me and mine. On the upside, husband got a new job with way better prospects than his old one - woohoo financial stability, we can finally see you out there on the horizon! The musical version of 'Cinderella' that Steven Rodgers and I co-wrote is undergoing a revival (you can hear samples of the all-new versions of some of the songs here) and it's all looking very exciting indeed. And I finished Draft One of The Renegades - hooray! Now knee-deep in Draft Two - something I believe I may have mentioned... oooh, maybe once or twice in this blog...

I have discovered some great writing blogs this year; my Top Three are as follows:

1 - Chuck Wendig's - he's irreverent, he's straight-talking and he's daaaaammn funny. He also has the heart of a warm, cuddly teddy bear, although he does not want you to know that, so pretend I didn't tell you. And he also gives the best writing advice there is, telling it exactly how it is - the fluffy kittens and nursery puddings of fake platitudes will not be found here. You are permitted to give this site a miss if you are of maiden aunt disposition (i.e. swearing and non-polite conversation makes you come over all peculiar) but other than that you must check it out. You'll be so glad you did.

2 - Patrick Ross' The Artist's Road site - Inspirational, encouraging and with a wonderful 'community feel' (Patrick responds personally to almost all comments, and the atmosphere on the message board is like that of a discussion among like-minded friends.) The place to go for great conversation about creativity - and for feeling good about being a writer. And lord knows, us writers need that a lot of the time!

3 - Nathan Bransford's Blog - he's not been quite so prolific of late, but that's probably because he's just published his new book and is no doubt caught up in the whirlwind of marketing that - congrats, Nathan! Another goldmine of writing advice and insider information about the world of publishing (he's an ex-literary agent and now works for the Freelancers Union. Whilst also writing his own books - yeah, I do feel totally lazy next to him!) Upbeat, funny and insightful, his site is well worth a look.

Of course, the thing about roller coasters is that it has downs as well as ups. And the very big 'down' this year was the death of my father-in-law in August (which I talked about here.) Although he was already in hospital this time last year following a heart attack, this will be our first Christmas truly without him; particularly hard since he was always 'Mister Christmas,' throwing himself into the decorations and yuletide spirit with the enthusiasm of a child. We will raise a glass or two to him as we miss him desperately.

But for now, it's all about frantically getting ready for the Big Crimbo. Have you; done all your Christmas shopping, bought all your Christmas food, made all your arrangements with friends and family and (if you fit the criteria) got through the final weeks of your kid's school making random pre-Christmas end-of-term 'requests' for help/costumes/assorted 'stuff' for fundraising and parties at massively short notice? (In my case, 'No, no, almost and I should be so lucky,' if I'm honest.) Or are you one of the Other Half of People, who leave all that organizing stuff to their partner/parents/children and basically just show up for the big day with this warm, fuzzy feeling that everything will probably be just fine? (If you are I will try to suppress the urge to squash a mince pie in your face...)

Whichever it is, it's counting down. My kid knows how many 'sleeps' it is until Christmas Day - I don't and have no wish to, even though I know I probably should. (Roy Wizzard, you're a bloody fool - let's see if you still 'Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day' when you've got to organize the thing!)

But other than that - yaay, woohoo, Christmas, bring it on!

Friday, 6 December 2013

When You're That Kind of Writer - But Not That Kind of Person

One of the many roles of a writer is to be a grade one douchebag. And many, many writers are really, really good at it.


Not really. You see, part of what makes a good story is when horrible things happen to the characters in it. And that can only come about when writers take their precious, beloved characters that they've built and nurtured and developed like a loving parent... and then, in a literary (and in some cases literal) sense, punch them repeatedly in the face. And then wait patiently for those characters to stumble back to their feet, wiping the blood from their pulped nose - and punch them again, just for good measure. Writers do this because they love their story and they love those characters, goddammit!

It's the kind of 'cruel to be kind' ideology that would get you arrested in the real world, but in a fictional one is totally awesome and makes those poor saps' lives waaaay more interesting. That takes a special kind of sadism, if you sit down and analyse it. But of course most writers aren't sadists in the everyday, non-writing portions of their lives. Most writers spend those parts of their lives being completely balanced and lovely people who do all the ordinary things that everyone else does. There's something distinctly Jekyll-and-Hyde about the personality of a writer, and it's a necessary component of writing good fiction. But it's no exaggeration to say that, for non-writers, this split-personality thing often causes confusion and misunderstanding.

In his book 'On Writing,' Stephen King recalls the reaction he got to a scene he wrote for his novel 'The Dead Zone,' where he had the antagonist kick a dog to death. He says he received tons of letters from people accusing him of animal cruelty. Of course he explained to them - as patiently as he could - that both the dog and the dog-killer were imaginary entities in an imaginary world... but I suspect even that didn't pacify some of those outraged letter-writers - largely thanks to that good old 'no smoke without fire' philosophy. The one that insinuates "If that person can think it through enough to actually write about it, they're probably capable of doing it too..!"

No-one would think a daft thing like that, surely? That anything a fiction writer writes about is a direct window into secret evil corners of their soul? Okay then... how many people do you think believe writers of erotic fiction must be right raunchy slappers who are kinkier than a garden hose? Or that romantic novels are only written by women? Hmmm....

There's no getting away from it; writers will be judged by what they write. And if you're a writer, you'll need to be okay with that. Even if it means being quite horribly misjudged...

My current novel-in-progress, the Renegades, goes to some dark places in terms of story. Parts of it are set in seedy, crime-infested parts of town where the line between right and wrong no longer exists for its inhabitants; even the 'good guys' of the story have been forced to make less-than-moral choices just to survive. Choices I had to decide were the 'best' ones. And unsurprisingly, given their backgrounds and situations, these characters also swear. A lot. Which sort of means I do as well, since I'm the one writing their dialogue...

If my mother were to read The Renegades, she would struggle to believe it was written by her quiet, placid and sensitive eldest daughter (that's me, in case you weren't sure.) I'm rather hoping my mother-in-law won't read it, for the very same reason and the fact that her lovely son went and married the person who wrote it. If they do read it, one of the first things - if not the first thing - I can imagine them thinking is  "How did she hide this dreadful dark side of her personality from us for all this time? Who knew this is what's really going on inside her head?"

I won't be the Wendy they knew anymore - I'll be Sweary, Lairy and Morally Dubious Wendy. Even though, outside of my novel, I'm actually not. (Well... no more so than the average person, anyway...) It's certainly true to say I've drawn on some experiences in my life to add meat on the bones of fictional events in my story - but that still doesn't make it an autobiography. And just because I know all those naughty cuss-words my characters use doesn't mean that's how I talk whenever I'm not in polite company...

Fellow writers understand. They know that, in order to 'know' what kinds of awful things an evil character would do, writers have to push their imagination beyond the boundaries of what they themselves wouldn't do. They also know it's possible for writers to create incredibly real-seeming people that are completely opposite to themselves... precisely by knowing the ways in which they are opposite and using them accordingly. In either case, it doesn't mean they also have to approve of their behaviour to do it convincingly.

However, while even the most 'non' of non-writers will accept Stephen King is probably not a telekinetic, author-crippling, vampire-dog-killer in real life, there's plenty of people out there who wouldn't trust him alone with their kids - a prejudice based not on any evidence, but purely on the kind of novels he's written. Many more will happily state that he's 'creepy,' 'sick' or 'twisted,' for the same reason. I don't know the man personally, but from what he's said in interviews and the like I don't believe he is any of those things - although I would certainly agree his books are often about people and places that are.

So... what does this mean for writers hoping to get their work published? It means you have one of two choices when you consider what kind of stuff you want to write:

1) If you want to keep your reputation and social standing pristine and lovely, you must only write about the kind of people you want to be compared to, doing the things you feel are worthy of doing and achieving all the things you aspire to. Preferably in the neighbourhood, profession and social class you would prefer to be a part of. You may find this rather boring, if not soul-destroying - and so too, may your readers - but your work will advertise you as a perfect fit for whatever peer clique you're dying to gain membership to. You'll be luvved by them, luvvie!

2) You can write about the things you're passionate about - no matter how dark, controversial or elephant-in-the-roomish they are - and practice growing yourself a thick skin. (You're going to need one of those anyway - life as a writer isn't all cupcakes and fluffy kittens.) People will think you're as dark and subversive as your subject matter - and won't believe you aren't, probably not even after they've actually met you, in person. But writing will make you feel good. Heck, it might even do some good, out there in that mad, bad world.

The choice is yours. Take the money - or open the box...

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Fiction Writers: A Special Kind of Crazy People

I hope that title didn't make you nervous. If you've only just started walking along the road to Being a Writer (or you're close to someone who has) it might sound like some kind of ominous warning. "Beware! Becoming a writer will turn you into a lunatic!" Relax. You don't have to wait for that to happen - that's pretty much how you qualified for the club, bwah ha haaaah...

Of course fiction writers are a bit bonkers; they have to be, to do what they do. "Come and play with me in my completely-made-up world, and meet all these people who don't actually exist, but have become my imaginary friends over the past... oooh, months now! Do you know how long it's taken me to invent all this stuff in my head - at the expense of doing so many other things in the actual, real world?"

Let's face facts here, that's not how grown-ups are encouraged to behave. It may go some way to explain why anyone who chooses to be a writer often gets The Look whenever they reveal this information to others. You know The Look I'm talking about. It implies certain words are popping into The Lookers head, like some kind of secret word-association game; words like 'deluded,' 'too lazy to get a proper job,' 'pretentious'... you get the idea. The only way to not get this Look is to be a very famous writer who's made squillions from selling their books and has legions of devoted fans across the globe - in this power and fame-obsessed world we live in, it seems you can be as deluded/lazy/pretentious as you like as long as you're all of those things and loaded. But not many writers get to sit at that highly exclusive table, so the rest of us spend much of our careers - if we're lucky - standing around the edges of the room catching the crumbs that might occasionally get tossed our way. And through it all, getting The Look.

And yet still we keep on walking down that road, which must mean we want to be there very, very much. And not just for the crumbs that fly off the famous writers' table either; if all we were after was food we could get that elsewhere with much less effort. So, if living in a world where not taking the easiest option to rake in the cash and glory is considered crazy... I guess us writers had better order our straitjackets now. Writing is meant to be hard... but secretly, that's obviously how we like it.

And yeah, sometimes we're... not easy to live with. I'll grant you that one.

At least with non-writer people, if you've spent the past half-hour talking to them about something important only to realise they were tuned out and didn't hear a damn word you were saying, it'll be because they were thinking about their more worrying, real-world problems instead. With us writer-types, it's far more likely that we're stewing over people that don't exist in a land we've completely made-up. Non-writers may, for some bizarre reason, believe that such things are not of equal importance to real-world issues - and unfortunately can't be educated to the contrary (don't try, trust me - it rarely ends well.)

Sometimes we can also be inexplicably sad or grumpy - but not because of something the person actually with us in the real world has said or done. No, it's because of something an imaginary person has just pretend-said or done whilst we were skipping through its made-up world! And whilst we accept it's probably a bit irrational... that doesn't help while we're so damn choked up about it, okay? We'll be fine in a bit, don't worry - just pass us another cookie and let us work through this...

And of course there's that most notorious one; the one where we bark at anyone who comes within five feet of us while we're Working "Do NOT disturb me while I'm writing! How am I supposed to get anything done when PEOPLE KEEP INTERRUPTING ME??!" When it's blatantly obvious that we've spent the last two-and-a-half hours alternating between whimpering at a completely blank screen and forlornly checking our emails. And no, in such a situation as this, don't - just don't - ask us "how's it coming along then?" Not a good plan.

But apart from that, I'd say we're pretty low-maintenance on the whole. And, because we embrace our own craziness, we're generally more tolerant of the vast pick'n'mix of craziness exhibited by everyone else. Heck, we're even interested in it. (Admittedly because we could potentially stick it in our next book, but hey -  we're still feeling the compassion - and we'd change the names and everything...)

Writers need to be crazy, so they can travel to the places everyone else is to afraid to go. Embrace your inner crazy - let it take you to your weird and wonderful places that don't exist. Because you are the tour guide for people who'd never get to those Disneylands any other way.

Friday, 22 November 2013

When Writing What You Know Is What You'd Rather People Didn't Know

It's a Writing Commandment so old it was probably originally carved in stone by Ancient Neolithic Writer (no doubt with his or her Neolithic mates rolling their eyes in the background and yelling "Stop messing about with that and come and invent the wheel or something!") It's guaranteed to generate debate - mainly due to how easily and frequently its meaning can be manipulated and misunderstood. And, if you're a writer, it has probably been said to you so many times that, had you written it down each time you heard it, you could probably wallpaper a room with it by now.

The clue is in the above title of course, but - it is "Write what you know."

Now before you groan inwardly and click away to watch YouTube clips of cute cats falling off furniture instead, this is not going to be another one of those 'What Write What You Know Really Means' posts. I am well aware that's been done to death already. We all know it doesn't mean 'you can only write about stuff you have personally experienced' and how research and using your own emotions can fill in the gaps for just about any subject under the sun and so that makes everything okay, yada yada and can we get at the coffee and biscuits now, right? Good. Just checking.

No, this post is taking a not-often-travelled side road that branches off from that main highway - although you can still see it through the trees. Today I'm chewing the fat about... *cue dramatic, sci-fi-B-movie-style music* ...when your fictional world and the real one procreate! You went and did that Frankenstein thing - and now you've got the hybrid baby-creature squealing in your writerly arms .

This is something that happens... pretty much all the time when you're writing fiction. Yes it does, because when you're writing about lives and people and places - even fantastically surreal ones - everyone has to start from a basic template, and that template is usually your own life. It has to be, because it's the only one you get given, in its entirety, for free. It's partly why most writers get better at writing as they get older; apart from clocking up the practice, they've lived more life and so have more stuff stashed away in their magic brain-closet.

 (It's also why many highly talented teenage writers get those slightly patronising looks from older writers who tell them they won't be able to write 'properly' about 'serious, adult issues' until they've got themselves a mortgage/had kids/complained about something and realised - with horror - that they really are turning into their parents. If you are one of those teenagers... sorry. I kind of get what they're saying - but don't let them clip your wings, okay? They're not right about everything all the time - and sometimes the best way to prove people wrong is to say "yeah, well thanks for the advice" - and then do it anyway.)

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. The point is, when you read back any fiction you've written, you can often see where you've drawn on things you've experienced in your own life to cook up the meat and potatoes for events in your story; relationships, career choices, personal milestones - the whole pot noodle. And how you feel about that depends greatly on how you feel about certain parts of your life. And I'm talking in particular about the painful parts.

There are bucketloads of what you might call 'universal' painful life experiences. Being dumped by a boyfriend/girlfriend, the death of a family member, being the only loser in the room not invited to the Cool Club for whatever reason... the kind of thing you'd actually have to work quite hard to not have happen to you at some point in your life. For the most part, those things are reasonably okay for even the most sensitive little writer-flower to write about. The real-life events might still hurt, but often turning them into a fictional event in a book doesn't - in fact it can even be cathartic. And if people read it and assume this event must have actually happened to you, the writer, at some point in your life... well, so what? It's stuff that happens to everyone, so who cares? We're all in that one together.

But what if it's something traumatic and emotionally-scarring that, while it (unfortunately) has happened to other people, it isn't a universal thing that everyone goes through? Something in your life that damaged you so deeply you can't bring yourself to even talk about it?

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Well, duh! I'm never gonna write about it either then, am I?" Brace yourself. You might just be wrong about that.

When I first started writing my current novel-in-progress, The Renegades, it was, as far as I was concerned, a 100% fictional story. Actually it was a coming-together of ideas from two or three other sci-fi novels that I'd started but then over the years just left to fizzle out and die because they weren't really working. It's the first complete novel I've ever written - okay, it's still got to go through next drafts and edits, but I reached the end of it. I know in my heart that the only reason for this is because, right from the start, it felt like the story I had to tell. It didn't feel like something I'd had to wrack my brains about and plan and invent and devise; it was as if it just unfolded quite naturally in my head and I just wrote down what was going on. I never stopped to wonder about why that was. And I never, for a second, thought of it as even the remotest bit autobiographical....

...Until I got to about the last third of the story.

That was the point when a lot of stuff had already happened, in ways that were destined to shape everything else that would happen after it. I realised that something in particular was, inevitably, going to have to happen; something that couldn't not happen if I wanted to remain true to the characters involved and the situation they'd now got themselves into. And to write it, I was going to have to dig into deeply personal dark places that I didn't want to revisit. Use stuff that only a handful of people in the world knew about me - and that I had no wish to put 'out there' for all to see.

It was a genuine shock; I never even saw it coming until it was staring me in the face. What the hell was I going to do? I couldn't just chicken out and not include it; no matter how nasty it was, having it not happen at all would make no sense and the reader would know something didn't add up and feel cheated. I could go way, way back to a much earlier point in the story and just rewrite it all to go in a different direction.... but then it wouldn't be the story I needed to tell anymore. In spite of where I was with it now, I couldn't bring myself to turn it into something it wasn't - or abandon it like all those others. This story didn't belong inside my head, locked away from the world forever - it needed to be set free.

So I wrote those bloody awful scenes. It was hard, and it felt wrong every step of the way, but I did it. I'll probably change them on subsequent drafts; take bits out, tighten things up, maybe even (god forbid) add bits in. But I'm resigned to the fact that those scenes have to be there, whether I like it or not. I've also since read Draft One in its entirety, and realised there are other parts of the story that draw on darker patches in my life as well. It's still a long way from being an autobiography (I can honestly say I've never lived in a post-oil-crisis New York in the year 2044, for starters) but it's still the closest I've ever come to doing that Hemingway thing of bleeding onto the page.

So, for any writers out there who find themselves in a similar situation, I'm hoping that reading this will reassure you that a) you're not alone and b) you can get through this. Here are some of the things those negative little voices might say, and the best responses I can think of for them:

1. "Everyone will ask me if this really happened to me" - yeah, they might - and if you don't want to put that information out there that can be scary. You can tell them the truth if you feel up to it. Or you can lie. Or fudge it and just tell them it's a novel, and novels are found in the fiction category. Your story, your choice.

2. "I shouldn't be writing about this - it's wrong to put such an awful thing into a fiction story" -  awful things happen in made-up stories as well as in real life; it's unlikely you're writing about something that's never been written about before. And this is more awful to you because it's personal to you. Other people won't feel the same way you do, because their experience of it - if they even have any - will be different.

3. "It's just a sneaky, self-indulgent form of therapy" - it might ultimately prove to have some sort of therapeutic effect. But if the end product is also a well-written story that people enjoy reading, how is that sneaky or self-indulgent? And do you honestly think you'd be the only writer ever to have exorcised their demons in their work? That it's something great writers would never ever do - great writers like... ooh, I don't know - Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Tolkien, Johnathon Swift, Sylvia Plath, for example?

4. "It's going to look like I put it in there just to get attention/publicity" - to repeat the sentiments in  point 2, it's unlikely you'll be writing about something that's never been written about before. Besides, unless you've written it in such a way that the scene just leaps up out of nowhere, with no inevitable build-up and completely out of context with the scenes just before and after it (and if you have, that's a problem with the writing, not the subject matter) people will accept that the scene is there because it needs to be, and not just slapped in as a cheap gimmick to sell your book.

5. "People might say in disgust 'Oh god, not ANOTHER one of those books with [insert controversial subject here] in it!'" - well... yeah, they might. That's because people have likes and dislikes, and they're all different. Remember that thing about 'you can't please all of the people all of the time?' Well, that'll be them. No-one on the the planet, in the entire history of the universe, has ever written a book that every human, living or dead, unanimously liked. Can't be done, chum. So don't write your story for them. Write it for the other chunk of the human race who don't feel that way.

Writers feel. Writers bleed. That's how they roll, and - no matter how much it hurts - they're at their best when it's how they write, because it's honest writing. Readers appreciate and connect with honesty - even in a work of fiction. Heck - especially in a work of fiction. It's the golden thread that weaves through the entire garment and holds it all together. So don't be afraid to feel - and don't be afraid of others seeing you feel in the words you write.

Because if you've done it right, they won't be thinking about how you're feeling it anyway.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Writing For Respect: A Mission of Crushing Disappointment

Well, there's a depressing title for you. "Thanks a lot, Wendy Christopher! I thought you were all for being encouraging and supportive to your fellow writers - and here you are, peeing all over their dreams. You turncoat, you!"

Relax, and put that blunt instrument down, please. I am very much on the side of my fellow writers - be they seasoned veterans or fledgling newbies. Which is precisely why I'm raising this rather thorny topic in the first place.

Indulge me for a moment, if you please, by thinking of that moment in your head when you first decided you wanted to be a real, 'proper' writer. As in, one who wrote stuff lots of people would actually read someday - and like! This moment may have happened years ago for you, it may have been a fairly recent desire or you may have only just had it now because I mentioned it; no matter, any way you shake it out it's completely relevant to where I'm heading with this. What did you imagine were the carrots on offer?

We can start with the obvious one of getting to spend regular portions of your life doing something you love - that is kind of a necessary bonus if you want to really make a go of it, after all. Well, the good news is, you can have that one for free. Comes with the territory, you might say. Maybe you hope to make some money out of it - even earn an actual living out of your writing. We-ell... it may happen and it may not. Work hard enough at it for long enough and who knows? Or perhaps you even fantasised just a little about fame skipping hand-in-hand with the fortune - you, the next J.K. Rowling/E.L. James/George R.R. Martin! No shame in that; dreams are, after all, what keep us walking down the road to our goals. (Although it's probably better to at least acknowledge that having this one come true is a bit more of an ask from the fickle Hand of Fate.)

But here's the one I'm interested in; how many of you thought "Once I make it as a writer, all those people who doubted me or dismissed my writing ambitions as a waste of time or pointless dreaming will finally respect me - and my writing! They'll have to - because I'll have proved all my hard work was worth it in the end!"

This is not an unreasonable thing to hope for, not at all. If you started out as a mail clerk in an office and slowly worked your way up to manager level, people would acknowledge that you'd gone up in the world and you done good, go you, etc. It's simple logic; you went from the bottom to higher up the tree, and that's something that will impress even the most hardened cynic...

In any ordinary, non-creative field, that is. The painful truth is, in the fields of writing, performing or art of any kind, it doesn't seem to work that way.

The average lay person does not assume that the job of, say, a brain surgeon, is easy-peasy and that anyone can do it (and if you also look really hot that helps you enormously to be a much better brain surgeon - far more than any, y'know, actual talent for it... ) They also don't assume that, if you're not a really famous brain surgeon and hardly anybody's heard of you (because they've never seen you on telly on in 'Heat' magazine) then you must also be a totally shite brain surgeon who's just deluding themselves that doing all those operations without killing anyone makes them good at brain surgery. And yet writers and artists are judged this way all the time - by those who are not writers and artists themselves (and - it pains me to say - even by some who are.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying for a second that, in terms of services to mankind, an artist or writer can compare with a brain surgeon; if I had something wrong with my cranium, I know who I'd prefer to have scrubbing up for my op. But it's no exaggeration to say that, when it comes to gaining respect as a creative person, the bar is raised way higher, right from the start.

'So, you're a writer, are you? What have you written? Never heard of that. So, are you, like, really rich? Oh, you still have an ordinary job as well, do you? Not actually a successful writer then? Bzzzz! Sorry, but it's a 'no' from me - come back when you're J.K. Rowling and then maybe we'll talk...'

And here's the hardest piece of gristle to chew on; the odds are depressingly high that anyone and everyone you know who started out with that mindset when you first told them (or they found out) you wanted to be a writer... will continue to feel that same way forever. Or until you do actually become J.K. Rowling and could buy them a Porsche with the loose change in your wallet. Just being happy, doing what you love and creating all this stuff out of thin air and imagination, will remain as worthless a pursuit in their minds as it ever was. And they will never, ever change their opinion about that. Only fame and fortune of the most ridiculous proportions is likely to impress. Maybe. But don't put money on it. If you're hoping that having success as a writer will finally make your unsupportive friends and family see you in a whole new light and respect your creativity... you're pouring a lot of energy into one big black hole.

I promise I'm not telling you that to make you cry, or make you throw down your writing tools and give up on your writing (god no - never do that.) I'm telling you so that - I hope - you can feel okay about letting go of any need/desire to 'prove yourself.' Do what you do - for you, not for their approval. You don't need to prove a damn thing to anyone, and you certainly don't have to 'justify' your choice to be a writer or artist of any flavour.

If you want to push yourself, to stretch yourself to the very limits of your creativity or pour your whole life and soul into your craft, then go right ahead - and enjoy the ride. But don't make yourself miserable leaping through hoops of fire in a nylon tutu that doesn't fit properly, hoping to finally get a round of applause from an audience who aren't interested in the show anyway.

Forget about them - save your best shows for the people that 'get it.' Do what you want to do and do it your way - because when you love what you do, it shows. And that's what makes other people love it too.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Second Draft: It's Just The One After The First

I learned a valuable lesson this week - and it's all thanks to Chuck Wendig (whose latest novel, Under The Empryean Sky is out now. Of course I'm going to inform you of that - and not just because I'm grateful, but because I also happen to think it's a ruddy marvellous book, so there.)

As you may have noticed in my previous posts, I have whinged about this Draft Two of my novel-in-progress The Renegades taking much longer and seeming to be much harder than Draft One... ooh, maybe several gazillion times. Anyone still in possession of their World's Smallest Violin has probably long given up on the idea of just playing it at me and moved on to fantasies of smashing it over my whiny little head.

*Shrugs.* Sorr-ee. I'll stop now.

No seriously, I will. I'm sure it was annoying - and now that I've made this amazing little leap I shouldn't need to do it anymore. Much. No - at all, honest! Because now I see why my Draft Two was causing me so much angst - and how changing my attitude to it, even in these last couple of days, has helped me get my Renegades mojo back again.

It started when I wrote my previous post about NaNoWriMo. I believe there was this little statement I made along the lines of 600 words a day being a really productive writing sesh for me, yeah? Well, I'm doing my embarrassed face right now as I admit that was a massive lie.

I get two hours of 'writing time' a day in my life, so I doubt I'm ever gonna be one of those writers who can churn out two novels a year - but there was a time when 600 words a day would've been a piece of cake for me. (Mmmm.... cake...) But I haven't been writing anywhere near 600 words a day for... urrgh, at least a month now. I've been squeaking 300,  maybe 400 at very best  - and even then, only with the aid of PURELY MEDICINAL chocolate supplements. Fun and tasty as that is, I'm not sure chomping my way to Type II Diabetes is a great strategy for raising this novel into a functional, publishable grown-up, so I knew I needed to fix my shizzle. But how?

And then I read Chuck Wendig's blog, where he stated that it took him five years to write his first novel, 'Blackbirds.' Well, heck - if a real, properly famous and successful author is allowed to take five years to write his baby, then surely that means a little ol' 'who?' like me can take that long as well! I'm only on Month 20 since the entire Renegades Process began, so I'm kind of on schedule, if you look at it that way...

Then another thing occurred to me. If he really spent five years on it, then it can't have just been on Draft One, Draft Two and then a final spit and polish for grammar and typos. In other words, he probably had more than just a couple of gos at getting the story part right, before he even got as far as moving on to the technical bits.

And that's why I was struggling so much with my Draft Two!

All this time, I'd been thinking of Draft Two as my final chance to get the story right. After this, all subsequent edits would be purely for trimming and polishing the language and sorting out inconsistencies and the aforementioned grammar and typo bombs. Which meant I was putting my Editor Hat on - and an awful lot of pressure on myself - every time I sat down to work; "This aint no disco - this is Draft Two, Cupcake! (Mmmm... cupcake...) So every word you hammer out had better be freakin' good, if you don't want to prove to the whole world that you're not a good a writer as you like to think you are..!"

I'd lost that mindset of "just write - you can go back and fix it later" and gone headlong into "this has to be right now!" But the truth is, I'm still putting the story together in many areas; now I know all of it, I've realised there are bits in Draft One that don't need to be there, and important stuff missing that definitely does. I can't expect to fix all of that and have it all flow perfectly, first time, as well. So I'm going to need to do a Draft Three for that. And maybe a Draft Four... and Five...

And if I do...*fanfare*... IT DOESN'T MATTER!

It sounds so simple when it's written down, in actual words. But it's taken me a while to see it. So, if there needs to be a Draft Three, and Four, and Eleventy-One... so be it. No-one dies if I cock it up on Draft Two; I just get another go at putting it right. Which feels... kind of good, actually. Yeah.

So if you'll excuse me - I got some more Draft two to write. It'll probably be crappy, but I'm down with that now...

Monday, 4 November 2013

Saying Nah-Nah-No-No to NaNoWriMo.

So... NaNoWriMo is upon us again!

And yes, you are correct in concluding - simply from the fact this post dates from 4 days into the event itself - that I am not partaking. But I'm cheering all you guys on who are, rest assured. Go team! and all that.

It's a fabulous idea, of course. The bestest kick up the backside an aspiring writer could have, with the added benefit of instant membership to a club of like-minded masochists comrades-in-arms for support. For many it provides the motivation for writing that novel that would otherwise never be written - and I'll admit it, I have an admiration bordering on awe for those people that actually complete the challenge. Fifty thousand words in one month? You guys rock. Seriously.

But NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. I know this because, for this year at least, I myself am very much not one of those everyone, even if I wanted to be (and oh! I so want to be..!) I could offer up the usual excuse - I'm a mum who has to juggle looking after a lively kid and running a house with my writing, blah blah, etc. etc, and yeah, I get it so put away that teeny-tiny violin RIGHT NOW...

But that, of course, is complete baloney and an insult to those who hold down full-time jobs AND have kids AND still manage to churn out best-selling novels by the bucketload.

No, the real reason I would fail at NaNoWriMo this year is because I am in the wrong place, at the wrong stage, to have any hope of achieving the goal. As anyone who has read this blog more than once will know, I am currently in the Draft Two stage of writing my novel The Renegades. I love this book like a sibling, i.e. it frequently drives me nuts and makes me want to pull its hair when it annoys me, but I am fiercely loyal to it because I believe I need to write it even if it ends up never being published. So I am not about to abandon it for another story, even for a month.

I did the maths (well, okay - I got a calculator to do it for me) and it soon became clear that, in order to complete the challenge of fifty thousand words in thirty days, I would need to write at least 1,667 words a day (I rounded that up because I'm not sure how you'd write .6-recurring of a word, but anyway...) And that's if I wrote every single day; if I decided to do the standard 'working week' thing of five days a week and two days off, that word count goes up to 2,381 words a day. On a Draft Two manuscript.

That's never gonna happen for me. At the moment, 600 words a day is me on fire. It's not because I'm lazy, or a crappy writer (well I certainly hope it's not the last one...) it's simply because I'm spending more time unpicking and rebuilding what I've already written to make it better - and that's harder and more time-consuming. No free-wheeling, brain-candy-dumping in that process...

And that's the key to succeeding at NaNoWriMo; having the freedom to write whatever crazy-ass stuff comes pouring out of your noggin. When you don't have to care about what you're slamming down on the page because, hey, you can fix it all later, you can party on through the alcoholically-liberated moonings and dodgy one-night-stands that constitute the average Pantser Draft One novel. After all, you get the prize just for writing those fifty thousand words; no-one has to actually read them as well.

(But even if you do end up writing fifty thousand words of utter pants at the end of the thirty days, you still rock. I wouldn't dream of taking that away from you, never fear.)

Some people like the ceremony of NaNoWriMo. Perhaps there's a part of them, deep down inside, that feels like they need... I don't know, permission to knuckle down and all-out focus on Getting A Novel Written. Maybe they don't have partners, friends and family who are supportive of their writing ambitions, and so they feel guilty about indulging in it - as if it's little more than a slightly nerdy hobby to be confined to snatched moments of free time. To do it with any degree of conviction at any other time feels self-indulgent, maybe even (shudder) selfish - but hey, it's November, so for this month being crazy-OCD-dedicated to that hobby that everyone sniggers at is officially allowed... the calendar says so. Well then - hell yeah, let's do this!

For those people, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful thing, and I'm glad it exists if only for them - although I can't help wishing I could just wave a magic wand instead, and give them the power to claim their writing time for themselves, all year round, without feeling guilt or shame. (If this person is you, hear this: you deserve that time, it's yours and you've earned it. CLAIM IT!) Or maybe getting a proper, formal kick up the writing jacksie that comes bang on schedule every year is a much better motivator for others than trying to maintain it all year round at a lower intensity. I'm glad NaNoWriMo exists for those people too. 

I wish you all the very best of luck if you are partaking - go nuts, enjoy the ride. But I will be cheerleading from the sidelines, if that's alright with you. I can't bring myself to cheat on The Renegades with some flighty new November fling - or, alternatively, to give her a month's worth of lousy lovin' just to rack up the number of times we've Done It. (That may well be the weirdest analogy I've ever used to make a point... but hey...)

Whether you write slow or fast, a trickle all year or a massive burst every November... enjoy it and claim it. It's yours. Do it.

Write! Go!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Writers and Depression

...Writers and Depression, go together like a horse and carriage. Apparently. Even if they don't rhyme very well.

Agatha Christie had it. Charles Dickens had it. So did Mark Twain, Will Self, David Foster Wallace and Evelyn Waugh. Sylvia Plath quite obviously had it. And that's just a few random names, off the top of my head.

And, if we're 'outing' members of The Sad Writers' Club here, I may as well add my own name to this list (even if that does make me look like I'm doing the literary equivalent of photobombing the Actually Properly Famous Writers' portrait session.) All of which is pretty compelling evidence that this a Real Thing.

But... does that make it a Necessary Thing?

Like the popular myth that famously drunk writers like Hemingway could not have been the writers they were without also being drunk (something I touched on in this previous post ) there is another popular mode of thinking that, for famously depressed writers, their depression was the source of their creativity - like some magical misery fountain that poured brilliance on some of their greatest works. Some even go so far as to claim that, had these writers been happy little rays of sunshine instead, many of their best works simply could not have been created.

Now, the myth of the drunk writer is pretty easy to disprove (as anyone who's ever sent a 2am text after ten Flaming Sambuca's will tell you - writer or non-writer.)  There are certain practical obstacles to writing when you're utterly wazzered, i.e. trying to hit the right keys on your keyboard when your dribbling face is in the way, for starters.

But the theories about writers with depression? Much harder to dismiss. Because, unlike drunkenness, many writers with depression are not only still able to physically write as competently while depressed as when they're not, but some even become more productive than usual while the Black Cloud is raining on their heads. Which is handy for them - albeit in a way that's less than ideal, obviously - but where does that leave those of us who aren't yet famous but often have to do battle with depression and other mental health issues? It leaves us with a big question, that's what: 'Will recovering from those mental health issues (and subsequently spending more of our lives that bit happier) also kill our creativity stone dead and leave us unable to write anything decent?'

This fear can be so real it even prevents some writers from getting help for their condition; medication might 'block my creative thoughts,' numbing the mental pain might 'stop me feeling anything anymore.' If you do happen to be one of those people who seems to churn out a ton of stuff when you're in the depths of depression compared to when you're not, that fear will seem even more justified. But, speaking as a writer who's also battled some pretty major mental health issues in the past, I'd like to offer some alternative theories.

My reasons for doing so are simple; I know how rotten depression feels, and I hate to think of other writers out there shunning help and continuing to endure that godawful rottenness just because they're worried it's the only way to hold onto their creativity.

If I look at my own past, and the minor successes I've had, it's tempting to believe that being mentally messed up seems to work a strange magic on my own creative mojo. For instance, I wrote the lyrics for a musical that was performed in Washington, Virginia - and received very good reviews - while I was an outpatient in a psychiatric hospital, recovering from a nervous breakdown.

But then I wrote the lyrics to another one which was also performed - and equally well-received - about a year after I'd recovered from that. Apart from the states of mind I was in when I wrote each of them, the other main difference between the two musicals was the weight of the subject matter - the 'mood' if you like. The one written while I was recovering from the breakdown was a retelling of the Cinderella story; it was a light, frothy comedy fairy tale. The second one, written when I'd recovered, told the story of the Russian tsar Peter The Great - a much darker, grittier tale altogether.

When I also took into consideration some of the short stories and plays I'd written that had been published or performed, I noticed a distinct pattern emerging. In the periods when I'd had mental health problems, the works that had done well were all light, whimsical comedy stuff - while all the works that had done well whilst I was well were much more serious and hard-hitting. It's pretty logical when I think about it; writing dark, heavy stuff when feeling emotionally shitty wouldn't do me any favours at all - I'd need to be able to pull myself out of it afterwards, and I could only do that if I wasn't ill. On the other hand, when I'm in the doldrums of depression, it makes sense that I'd prefer to write things to make people laugh and cheer them up (me included.)

So may be that's a more encouraging answer to the conundrum; it's not how much writers who battle depression write, but rather what they write about depending on whether they're currently on the Light or the Dark Side.

If you too are one of those writers, it may be worth looking at your own work to see if there are patterns depending on your own moods - so that you can work with them and keep your writing flowing no matter how low (or high) you feel. It's got to be better than beating yourself up for being 'unproductive' or 'only productive when you're miserable.'

And if things are really bad, and you know in your heart that taking medication or having some kind of therapy would make your life more bearable - happier, even - then for god's sake go and get it. A writer's life is one of suffering, yes - just ripping those words out of your brain and smooshing them onto the page can be torture in itself sometimes - but that's not the whole of your life. And for the parts of your life that aren't to do with writing - i.e. the rest of it - you deserve to be happy. Yes you do.

You can't write if just simply living is hard for you. In fact, if you are emotionally dragging yourself along the floor on your face day after day right now then screw writing - screw it until you fix that shit.

Live first, write second. You deserve it, and so do all the people who care about you.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Wherefore Art My Writing Mojo?

Writing is flippin' hard sometimes.

Admittedly it's not 'hard' in the same way as, say, going to war or working in an A&E department is hard...

(I see you amazing people there... what's that you're holding? Oh - the world's smallest violin. Okay, well, that's fair enough...)

No - writing-flavoured 'hard' is a different kind of challenge altogether. Not least because, when it is hard, it has this magical ability to make you feel like you have suddenly become the most stupid person in the universe.

I started learning to talk from about... ooh, fourteen months old, according to my mum. I've been doing it ever since - maybe not as much as more extrovert people, but even when I was shrinking against the wall trying to be invisible I was still practicing in my head. I started learning to write at about five, when I first started school - and I've been doing that ever since as well. With both of these abilities under my belt, that's a lot of years of using words and stuff to get my point across.

So you'd think, after all that time, I'd have got the hang of it by now. And, for most of the time I believe I function quite ably. But, in those dark periods when Writing Gets Hard, it seems as if something freaky happens to my brain.

I know what I want to say. The movie scene playing in my head is very clear; I can see every detail of the action and hear every word of the dialogue. All I have to do is take what's unfolding in my brain and put it down on the page in front of me, right? Simples.

Except, for some reason, it isn't.

It takes me ten solid minutes of word-wrangling to convert one teeny-tiny aspect of the scene in my head into one sentence - and when it's done that sentence reads like someone whose native tongue is Chinese and they only just started learning English half an hour ago. When I read it back, even I think "What the heck does that mean?" I started writing 'The Renegades' because I thought I actually had the ability to do it - what the gubbins happened to my brain between believing that and now?

I can state with conviction that I didn't have this problem with Draft One. Draft One poured out of my brain in a crazy, uninhibited gush and I just spilled it all over the pages like a kid let loose with the nursery paints. That's because Draft One was my happy-fun-go-nuts-and-CREATE! time, when there were no limits and no 'wrong' way to do anything.

But now I'm about a third of the way through Draft Two - and  Draft Two is the time to put on the Serious Pants and say "Right - let's sort this shit out then." This is the stage where I'm supposed to be rebuilding the story foundations so they'll actually take the weight of the unfolding events, making sure all the pieces fit together and that it doesn't look so bloody awful it'll bring down story property prices for the whole neighbourhood. In Draft Two, it seems, there's a wrong way to do everything - and I seem to be pretty damn good at finding them all.

Everything I write looks messy and repulsive at the moment. I almost wish I could just pull out all the story-stuff dancing around in my brain and squish it onto the pages and say "There you are - ta-dah! Screw words and sentences and all that crap -  that's how it's supposed to look." But I suspect that would just look messy and repulsive in an entirely different way.

I have been assured by many writers that this is normal - indeed, some have even gone so far as to say that it's a necessary part of the Draft Two process. (Oh. Hooray then.) But it's not a fun part, no it surely isn't. Writing like a drunk idiot without the actual fun of first getting drunk and then behaving like an idiot is not good for the self-esteem, it has to be said.

But I made myself a promise with this book; I was going to FINISH IT. Come what may. Even if, at the end of all the hard work and effort, it turns out to be monumentally crap. And I intend to honour that promise. Because, even though I don't like how hard it is to get this thing written at the moment, I still like writing it. Crazy-ass writer-type that I am.

So I'm going to keep turning up, keep on truckin' through it and keep on working through the pain. Apparently (according to my writing friends) by doing that I can eventually come out the other side of this Tunnel Of Crapness and into the light of Yay, I Might Be A Writer After All-ness.

Until then, I may have to get emergency supplies of chocolate shipped in. Dig for Victory, and all that...

Friday, 27 September 2013

Writers vs. Writers Who Write

I've often wondered if there was a certain, defining 'thing' that separates the wannabe writers from the real writers.

In this modern era of self-publishing, e-publishing and reality TV shows making 'stars' of the kind of people you wouldn't normally even want to sit next to on the bus (who then go on to 'write' their autobiographies) it seems like just about everybody in the world these days has 'a book in them,' just screaming to get out in all its chest-bursting-Alien-esque glory.

And the e-publishing revolution that's kicking off now potentially brings that birthing process even closer to reality; all those people who can't get past or don't want to deal with 'The Gatekeepers' (otherwise known as publishers and agents) have another way to crash the party. In some ways this is a good thing; they might turn out to be the greatest party animal ever, the one who should've been invited all along. Or they might just be the one who cries for no reason and throws up everywhere before passing out in the flower bed. Either way, the point is that when it comes to getting your work published, it no longer matters if your name's not down - you can still come in.

So now your nan could publish a book if she wanted to - along with your next-door neighbour, your boss or even that weird kid you knew in school who pulled the legs off spiders and ate them. On the whole though, most of them don't. Even if they talk the talk, the majority of them will not walk the walk - or, if they start to, they end up doing the literary equivalent of giving up about halfway through, nipping into the shop for a Mars bar and calling for a taxi to take them back home.

But what is the difference between the people that are really, truly writers at heart - and the ones who just like the idea of being a writer every now and then, when the mood feels right? Is there a difference - I mean, a real difference, like a variation at DNA-level or something? Until some scientist somewhere actually finds it, there's no way of knowing for sure. But I think this article on the i09 site shines a little light on the debate.

It showcases an 'open letter to J.J. Abrams' video, made by one Prescott Harvey who was previously a production assistant on Abram's Mission Impossible III movie. The renowned director has just landed the job of directing George Lucas'/Disney's next Star Wars movie, and Harvey's video basically offers four golden rules on exactly how Abrams should go about the whole thing to make it great.

(I could of course take a minute to laugh myself silly at the breathtaking chutzpah of an ex-production assistant issuing a set of  How To Make A Movie Properly Instructions to a highly experienced and successful director of blockbuster movies. Okay then, I'll admit it - I did.)

And then I read all the comments below the article, from other Star Wars superfans. Loads of comments, all debating the finer points of The Rules as laid out in Harvey's videos; whether they were right or wrong, what other rules should've been added, what they would tell J.J. Abrams to do if they had the chance...

Again, I couldn't help marvelling at the - well, okay, I'll stick to the nice word 'chutzpah*' - of all these hordes of Star Wars fanboys (and girls) essentially telling a famous and highly successful director "do this movie this way, asshole - and try not to mess it up or we'll have your balls on a silver platter." I think I'm probably right in assuming that a fair number of them aren't famous and highly successful directors themselves, yeah?

If I hired a builder to do some work on my house, I'd probably tell him what it was I wanted him to build (well, that would certainly help...) and make sure we were both on the same page regarding what it would look like when it was finished.

What I wouldn't do is give him a giant list of Must Haves, like what cement he should use to stick the bricks together, the best and most efficient way to do all the wiring and where he should go to get all his building supplies to obtain the best quality for the right price. Why? Two reasons:

1 - Because I'm not a builder, and I have no experience or training to be one. He is and has, because that's his job.

2 - If I was a builder, with the aforementioned experience and training, I wouldn't have hired him to do the job. I'd have done it myself.

And I think that, in a nutshell, is the 'thing' that separates the real writers from the ones that are only in love with the idea of being a writer.

Real writers write real, actual stuff, not essays on how other writers aren't doing it the way The Public wants. They don't waste precious time telling the world how they would've written the Harry Potter books, or what Stephen King should do if he wants to make his novels more cerebral; they see a gap, they hunker down and fill it themselves.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for those who tell others how to write rather than do it themselves; some do it for a living and do it very well. I just think it's a good idea to determine which category you really belong in - if only to rid yourself of a lot of unnecessary pain and struggle in the long run. If you are a real, writing writer you can free yourself from the tyranny of keeping one eye on what everyone else is writing and just write what you want to read - because if that's what's in your heart, being compared to what's already out there isn't important.

Alternatively, if you're the back-seat driver writer, who prefers to analyse what others have written and suggest ways to fix it... well, recognising that means the pressure's finally off you completing that novel/screenplay you've been slogging at for years (and years and years...) just so you can hang out with the writing writers. Don't worry - it doesn't mean you'll get disowned, or that your membership to the writing club automatically expires; if nothing else, you could have a fine career as a beta reader, and they're like gold dust in the writing world. You'll just need to accept that, while other writers will be happy to listen to and respect your opinions about their work, they may still prefer to ultimately do things their way in the end. And if they do, it doesn't necessarily make them an idiot/arrogant/stubborn.

So, for the purpose of discovering which of the two flavours you are, I offer the following litmus test:

Imagine you've been given a glimpse into the future - and discovered that everything you write will sink without trace. Even if you do get anything published you will make no money from it and remain a complete unknown - even if you self-publish it. Forever. Everything you write. Knowing all of this to be true, an absolute certainty - do you still keep writing the stuff anyway?

If you answered 'yes' - you're a real, writing writer. Pull up a chair and get cosy.

*Best definition of 'chutzpah' I ever heard, courtesy of comedy actress Maureen Lipman: little boy pees through the letterbox of a house and then knocks on the door to ask the occupants how far it went.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Sound of (Multimedia) Silence

Aaah... TV. The internet. Newspapers and magazines. Books. Computer games. Where would we be without them all, eh?

Ever tried finding out for yourself?

There is a fabulous selection of books by Julia Cameron called 'The Artists' Way'; each one is basically a course-in-a-book that... well, I suppose the best way to describe them is to say they change your attitude to exploring your creativity. (If you're someone who dreams of getting into a creative field but has guilt/confidence issues about investing your heart and soul into it, you need to read at least one of these books. You will be forever glad you did.*)

Anyway, one of the exercises given to you as part of that course is to take what amounts to an 'information vacation.' For one week, you must abstain from: watching TV, surfing the web, listening to the radio and reading. Yep, that's one whole week - the whole seven days, baby.

The reasoning behind it is that all these forms of multimedia fill up your creative brain passively, with stuff you didn't necessarily ask for - like junk mail or spam in your Inbox. After a while your brain gets so used to being bombarded in this way it gets lazy and stops thinking up ideas for itself - and that's when your creativity gets stale and unoriginal. So what you need is a purge - a Media Detox Diet, to give your creative brain some quiet time to fill itself up with its own, new thoughts and ideas.

I first attempted this exercise several years ago, with a group of online writer friends. And I think we were all perturbed and sceptical in equal measure. A group of writers, not being allowed to read? How was that even humanly possible? And if anything, I think we were all fully expecting to be less inspired at the end of the seven-day period, not more - after all, without our daily diet of news and entertainment, where would all those creative sparks come from? Thin air?

The next step of course was clarifying The Rules. Being creative types, there were a lot of things we thought of that "maybe didn't really come under the remit of 'media' as such..?" *hopeful face.* So here's what we came up with regarding what was banned and what wasn't:

# TV - No dice; non-negotiable. That big flashing box stays OFF, 24/7, for the whole seven days. (And yes, DVDs and videos do count as 'TV!')

# RADIO - As for TV. It is, after all, basically TV without pictures.

# MUSIC - Anything instrumental is fine. Anything with lyrics - sorry, banned.

# COMPUTER - Internet is banned completely - and yes, that does include FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr et al. You can write a blog entry, but you can't read any - same goes for emails. Computer games: puzzle games like Tetris and Jewel Quest - yes, okay then, but no cheating and reading the game rules/credits/options menu! Any games with characters/quests/storylines/dialogue - no way. Banned.

# READING MATERIAL - All books, magazines and newspapers are banned. And yes, so is anything on Kindle or other eBook gizmos (we didn't have them then, but they would have been nixed if we had.) Recipe instructions ('cos you've suddenly, inexplicably, taken a massive interest in cooking...) - you big cheater! No!  You can read the backs of packets if you desperately need to be sure you're reconstituting those instant noodles just right - but save your Great British Bake-Off ambitions until the end of the seven days.

Oh okay then... you can read road and street signs - but for safety and navigational purposes only, y'hear?

# SUPPLEMENTARY RULE - Regarding engaging in conversations with friends, family and colleagues about any of the above (i.e. "Soooooo..... anyone catch what happened on Downton Abbey last night then? 'Cos I missed it...") Obviously it would be next to impossible to prevent other people discussing all the things you're currently banned from indulging in - but if you are encouraging them this WILL be considered cheating.

How harsh all of the above sounds depends very much on your own lifestyle. For me, the TV part was pretty easy; I don't watch much telly anyway, and I've never really been one of those people whose entire week is ruined if they miss an episode of a programme they like. Same with radio - and even the music ban wasn't hard while I could still listen to instrumental stuff. Computer games - little bit harder, since I'm partial to the odd RPG or two, but doable. The biggest killer BY FAR was the reading part; swearing off magazines, newspapers and books for seven days was cold turkey of the highest order. And although the internet ban wasn't tough for me back then, I reckon if I did the exercise again it definitely would be now.

But I guess the million-dollar question is... how did it go?

Well, the first day was fine - "yeah, no probs, I can do this..." Day Three and I was beginning to wonder if reading the nutritional information on tins of beans really counted as cheating, because - oh! that stuff was fascinating..! By the time I got to Day Five I had rediscovered several crafting hobbies and was stringing beads and weaving scoubidous with a slightly manic expression on my face. And trust me, I was starting to effin' hate Jewel Quest.

But by the time I completed Day Seven I was actually sad the exercise was over. The multimedia vacation truly had felt like... a vacation. I realised just how much time there really was in the average day - without multimedia, there's loads more of it. I really did have the time to write a novel if I wanted to; it had always been there, I'd just never known how to look for it before. And, far from my Information Detox Diet leaving me with a head full of nothing, my brain was practically bursting with new ideas and scenarios. It had filled the void, all on its own. My friends all reported similar results, and many of us resolved to repeat the exercise again in future, whenever we felt blocked or stale as writers.

So... if you're worried you've become a slave to multimedia I'd say give this a go. Alternatively, if you're pretty sure you're not a slave to multimedia I'd say give this a go, because - ooh boy - you might just get a surprise. You'll find out just how big your life - and your creativity - can be. At the very least, you'll discover you have much more 'spare time' than you ever imagined.

If you feel like picking up the gauntlet, let me know how you get on...


*Embarking on an Artist's Way course is a totally worth-it exercise in improving your writing - or indeed any other creative endeavour - provided you are able (and willing) to make the time for it. If you're living a completely manic life where you don't even have time to drive over the flowers on your way to Somewhere Important, never mind stop and smell them, attempting the steps of this course will just make you depressed and frustrated with that life. (This may be a great thing if you were secretly looking for a reason to ditch your max-stressful routine for something more spiritual - not so great if it's the only way to get your bills paid.)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Can A Little of What You Fancy Do Your Writing Good?

Writers are creative people, yeah? And creative people are sensitive, requiring a higher degree of stimulation in their daily lives than non-creative people.

(Not in a kinky way, of course. Well, okay, maybe some... s'okay, I won't ask. Not my business after all...)

This is the reasoning behind the popular idea that many writers have vices - which, in spite of messing up their everyday lives on a scale of 'not that much' to 'monumentally,' are also what 'fuels their genius' and 'frees their creativity.' Hemingway, for instance; a man renowned as much for being a great drunk as a great writer. Lots of creative types in other fields are also well-known for having a strong liking for stuff that's not entirely good for them; Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones regularly consumed enough drugs to floor an elephant.

This has led to another popular idea/myth; that, without those hedonistic lifestyles, these people would not have been able to create their masterpieces. The drink/drugs/debauched sex orgies were the oxygen for the raging fire burning within; take away that and there would never even have been a spark, never mind a flame.

Sorry, but I think that's mostly bollocks.

When Hemingway famously said "Write drunk, edit sober" people probably took his words a little too literally because of his obvious liking for the former state. I'm willing to bet that the 'drunk' he was talking about was more to do with shutting out your internal censor, writing without stopping to read over what you're writing - not 'drink Jack Daniels until you're writing in your own drunken drool.' I doubt even he would have got much writing done in that state. All the same, the idea persists that his problem with the falling-down-juice was as much what 'made' him a writer as the fact that he... well, y'know, wrote. Would he never, ever have achieved what he did if he'd just limited himself to a couple of beers a week? Seriously?

Then there's Stephen King; in the earlier years of his writing career he admitted to being a massive coke-head, whacking out bestseller novel after bestseller novel while flying high as a kite on the white stuff. He hasn't touched drugs for over twenty years now, but he's still just as prolific - and as popular - as he ever was. He didn't need the drugs to be great at what he did - he already was.

So no, if you want to become a better writer, taking the kind of 'trip' that doesn't involve some form of transport is not a required part of the process. Sure, some dubious substances make you hallucinate, see wondrous visions, smell colours or simply transform your iPhone into Robert Pattinson's butt-cheeks. That's not your imagination on fire. That's just your brain going funny, and it doesn't just happen for the 'creative types,' it happens for the dunderheads too. Y'know, the kind of people who think The Jeremy Kyle Show is a documentary...

On the other hand... there is another school of thought that's become popular recently to at least preach about, even if it's not necessarily practised. You've probably heard it at least once or twice - feel free to stop me if this sounds familiar...

'A creative mind requires a healthy body; you should eat only healthy food that nourishes you, and take plenty of exercise to keep yourself fit - don't put junk food into your body, you must treat it like a temple in order to be a productive writer... ohmmm... *sound of wind chimes*...'

Sorry, but I think that's bollocks too. Well, just a little bit anyway.

I like chocolate. No, let me put that into better perspective. There are times when I would crawl through fire, acid rain and shards of broken glass for chocolate. Chocolate, however, as all those nutritionist-types and Government Health Officials will tell you, is Bad. Naughty. To add to this, I also have a medical condition similar to diabetes type II which means I have to restrict my sugar intake - bad news if I had any plans to embark on The Chocolate Diet. So I don't eat it as often as I'd like to - along with all other sugar-packed naughties like tomato-based sauces, bread (yes, bread!) and - somewhat surprisingly - an awful lot of diet foods (honestly - check the packets. Who knew, eh?)

But here's my confession... when I'm drying up on the writing front, when nothing's coming and I feel like I have the world's worse case of literary constipation - I eat chocolate. And not just your cheap, everyday bar of chocolate either. I'm talking badass chocolate; the really good-quality stuff with a ridiculously high cocoa content and the ability to make you put on ten pounds just by reading the ingredients on the wrapper. Hey-ell yeah - bring it on, baby!

And you know what? It helps. It always helps. Badass chocolate never lets me down! 'Treat my body like a temple?' Pffft - yeah right - only if it's a chocolate temple! Yes, I know, before you even say it - the effect is psychological rather than because of any magical wonder-substance in Badass Chocolate (why has nobody marketed a product called that? Hell, I'd buy it..!) Don't care. It works.

A little of what you fancy does do your writing good - don't be bullied by the Healthy Body Healthy Mind Brigade! Embrace your chosen vice; chocolate, coffee, cake, pizza, whatever - for those times when your writing soul needs a big hug. (Although I'd still discourage embracing hard drugs as your chosen vice, of course - 'a little of what you fancy that's not illegal and likely to seriously mess you up' is more what I mean.)

Just remember though, that - like a hug - if it goes on too long and with too much enthusiasm it gets restricting and just a little bit creepy.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Book Reviews

Well, a hornet's nest got a right old kicking on the Goodreads site this week, what with the Lauren Howard incident!

It's hard to know exactly what really went on, as even the lady herself has since backtracked on many of her original claims, but the gist seems to be that she felt some bad reviews for her latest book were products of online bullies who were specifically out to get her, rather than being genuine (if extremely negative) opinions about her work.

Regardless of whether she stands by her original statements or not, enough people joined the debate with horror stories of their own to make it clear that this is not an isolated incident; bullying and 'trolling' of authors is a real and ever-growing problem that's not just confined to the Goodreads site.

Of course there are always going to be reviews from the kind of people who secretly fancy themselves as some kind of online stand-up comic, honing their talents tearing into the work of others with the kind of visceral glee that would make Hannibal Lechter say "Whoa, that's a bit harsh..!" Some of those people, even if their approach is cruel and ruthless, do make valid points - albeit hidden beneath the swirling cloak of bitchiness. But for every one of them there's the other kind; the type who treat it as a kind of blood sport, where they are the lion and the hapless recipients of their assessments are the tender, juicy antelope.

In either case, the one thing you can't do is snipe back at them. Or rather, you could - but it won't do you any favours at all. Because, while your potential public can be as nasty and rude about (and in many cases, to) you as they like - because, as the old saying goes "the customer is always right" - if you appear to be even the slightest bit huffy about their damning review of your literary baby you will instantly be perceived as arrogant, pompous and self-deluded. And arrogant, pompous and self-deluded authors tend to sell less books in the long run.

So your best defence against such sharp-clawed attacks seems to be... no defence at all. Smile sweetly and keep your mouth shut. Maybe even thank them for their contribution (but only if it's sincere - any potential brownie points will be thoroughly wiped out if your words are at all sarcasm-flavoured.) Walk away with silent dignity - and wait until the door is firmly shut (and it better be a soundproof one) before you allow yourself to wail/rant/kick stuff/eat ice-cream until you're sick. (Hey, whatever works for you...)

Unfair? Well, maybe... but then a lot of other things in life are like that too. This is the part where I say all that stuff about you being the better person for it - you know the drill...

The other thing you can't do is let them get to you. Even if their attacks are personal and intended to chew your soul into itty-bitty pieces, remember that it's still motivated by something you've created rather than who you are. You have complete permission to ignore anything that attacks your personality/emotional intelligence/morals, because that's something they really can't judge from your book - no matter how much they might believe they can. (Unless, I suppose, you've written a non-fiction how-to book about mass murder or something.. but then you haven't done that, have you? You haven't, right..?)

That doesn't make it hurt any less, granted - but things you've created can be fixed if you decide, on reflection, that the haters might be... sort of right.. about some things.... Anyway, you can still create other stuff; more stuff, new stuff. There's a reason the saying "you can't please all of the people all of the time" got invented - it's because it's true.

Yes, your book is your baby. And saying your book sucks is like being told your baby is ugly. But unlike a real baby, you don't have to love it for what it is. If you end up agreeing with those who've criticised it you can brand it a mistake, analyse its flaws and failings in microscopic detail - even pronounce it the black sheep of the family and disown it - and all without incurring the wrath of Social Services. And if you don't agree with the criticism... well, remember it is just a book - you can write another one without the first one getting upset and saying "You wrote him because I just wasn't good enough for you, didn't you..?!"

When writers write from the heart, they bleed. When they read what others have written about their writing, sometimes they bleed a little more. Yep, there's a lot of bleeding going on when you're a writer.

Best to get to like it then. Or at the very least get used to it.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

You Need To Write Badly Before You Can Write.

There's a lot of fear involved in writing fiction. One of the biggest is that, as a fiction writer, you might, y'know - ssshhh, say it quietly - actually suck.

If a footballer has a rubbish season where he doesn't score any goals and... I don't know, plays football badly in whatever way that works (don't judge me - I'm not a football fan so I know squat about the game, okay?) people will almost certainly say he's a rubbish footballer. But unless he's been getting up to the kind of scandalous-private-life stuff that keeps the tabloids in business, it's very unlikely they'll also say he must be an arrogant, badly-educated, horribly-flawed person, who's cheapened the good name of football for all the real, proper footballers out there who've worked hard to get where they are and have real talent... in other words, he'll be judged on what he's failed to do, not on how he's failed as a person.

Aaah... if only being a writer worked like that. But it doesn't.

This is because it is universally believed that, as a writer, you are what you write. And I think that's sort of true. I don't believe any fiction novel is a direct window into a writer's soul (otherwise the local cop shop should be deeply worried about people like Stephen King...) However, I think it certainly is true to say that, with every word you write, you're saying to the world "This what moves me, what hurts me, what makes me laugh, cry and get angry - this is why I think the way I do." That's very personal, because you're baring your soul  - and it hurts deeply if the overwhelming response to that act of bravery feels like the bully kid from The Simpsons pointing at you and going "Ha ha!"

When I was fifteen I wrote a short story. I'd written many short stories before then - even won a couple of competitions in fact - but I was particularly pleased with this short story because... well, unlike most of the ones I'd written before it, this one wasn't written specifically for anything, like a competition or a school assignment. I wasn't confined by pre-defined boundaries like subject matter or word count; it was just me writing about what I felt moved to write about, using as many words as I needed to tell my story. It came straight from my teenage heart, uncensored and raw, and when I finally wrote 'The End' in that pastel-papered A4 pad I decided it would be the first - heck, maybe even the best - of a collection of short stories I planned to write and publish. Like a real, proper writer.

A few years passed before I picked up that pastel A4 pad and read that story again. I'd been writing other stuff in the meantime and pretty much forgotten about this bygone 'masterpiece,' so you can imagine how excited I was to read it again and get that warm and fuzzy feeling about how good I was - even back then - at writing really emotional, sensitive stories...

Hoooo boy... was I ever in for a massive kick in my egotistical pants...

It. Was. DREADFUL. It read like a melodramatic, clich├ęd tale of "this poor heroine's life is TERRIBLE 'cause everyone around her is being SO UNFAIR - but - ha! In the end her life turns out to be BRILLIANT and everyone else's life is HORRIBLE 'cause they were so mean to her - so YEAH, CHEW ON THAT, BIG CRUEL WORLD!"

I had to face facts; it was not the great, emotionally-charged nugget of literary marvelousness I'd fondly imagined it to be; it was a whiny, self-pitying rant against everything the average moody teenager thinks is JUST NOT FAIR about their TERRIBLE LIFE... And - ooh, hell yeah - I was mortified that I'd ever written such drivel. So mortified in fact, that I spent the next twenty years writing other things instead; comedy stories, light-hearted plays and musicals, parody lyrics - anything but serious, gritty stuff. I made the decision that writing about things that affected me emotionally was something I should just never, ever do ever again... I clearly wasn't cut out for it, because look at the dog-poo I produced when I tried...

There's no doubt that godawful teenage story should never, ever be published. But it's only now I'm older, with more writing experience under my belt, that I realise it absolutely needed to be written. I had to get it out of my system; that and many other works I wrote in later years when I first began to dip my toes in the waters of Serious Writing again. To get to the clear, pure emotions of the story you really want to tell, you gotta purge an awful lot of sewage first...

It's only now, as I'm writing Draft Two of The Renegades, that I'm starting to regain the courage to dig into my emotions again. I've discovered an uncomfortable truth about this novel, which it took me a while to realise and may explain why it's taking me so long to write it; like that angst-ridden short story of my teenage years, telling this tale is requiring me to  delve into raw and vulnerable areas of my inner psyche. But I'm not that inexperienced teenage writer anymore; I 've learned a lot, both about writing and about life in general. This time around I can use all that pain and struggle with a more balanced perspective than I had back then.

So I guess that's my Musing For Today; when you first begin to dig deep and write from the heart, for a while you may only dredge up piles of steaming shit. But never let that make you afraid to keep doing it. Baring your soul in your writing is scary as hell, yes it is - but you have to keep doing it badly before you can learn how to do it well. Feel the fear of writing shit and do it anyway - and when you're afraid that everything you write for the rest of your life will be shit, write some more! Because the alternative is writing from 'behind the wall' - telling without showing, talking without understanding. Trying to tell your story without letting your reader peek into your soul is cold, dead writing. And your apprentice-level shit may be smelly, but at least it'll keep you warm until you can come up with something better.

And you will, Padawan - with time, practice and patience, you will...