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!