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.