Saturday, 13 December 2014

Why The Perfect Writing Space Probably Isn't.

Imagine for a moment that you are a rich and famous author. That you've 'made it' already as a writer and you're making enough money from your work to live very comfortably indeed, thank you very much.

(And don't any of you writers out there dare tell me you've never done that, because, quite frankly, I will refuse to believe you. Every writer's done that at least once in their lives, no matter where they are on the ladder.)

Perhaps you’re fantasising about the beautiful big house you’re now living in – or maybe you swap-rent between a few swanky places to grab the best of the seasons (a pad in the Bahamas for summer, a chic beach house in Hawaii for the chilly winter months and a des res near Hollywood for the rest of the year…) Maybe you've got a flash car – heck, maybe a whole fleet of them that you've been collecting like kids collect Pokemons (are they still a ‘thing?’) Or maybe you've been out-Kardashian-ing Kim, with the plastic surgery (sorry I mean ‘all-natural’ beauty enhancements) and style choices that would’ve made Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman go “hmmm, yeah, but it’s not very classy, is it?”

Whatever you’re imagining, at some point I'm willing to bet your attention turned to your Writing Space - that sacred temple where you go to Do Your Thing with the words and the pretend people and stuff. After all, this is the place that helped you get to where you (imaginarily) are right now, so giving that a major makeover as well can only send your success rate soaring even higher, yeah?

Right now, my current Writing Space can best be summed up as ‘small and cluttered.’ My desk area is just under 80cm x 80cm in size when my pull-out keyboard drawer is fully pulled out, and it’s between the doorway to the living room and the cupboard under the stairs, facing the dining room wall. Because said dining room is in the back of a house that is tiny, Victorian and terraced, it doesn't get much natural daylight even in summer; it literally has to be full-on sunshine outside before I can get away with not having some form of artificial lighting to support the glare from my computer monitor as the main source. And because the house has no internal doors on the ground floor except for the one to the downstairs bathroom, in the winter the wind whistles under the back door in the kitchen and chills my feet while I write. (On a good writing day, I only realise this when I finally get up from my desk to get lunch or something and wonder why it suddenly feels like my toes have snapped off.)

Put away those tiny violins please, this isn't my pitch for a Kickstarter appeal. My point is that, while I am perfectly able to do what I do in this space, when it comes to thinking of ways to improve it I'm not exactly short of options. Your writing space might be nicer and more comfortable than mine or it might be even less so, but either way I'm sure you also have plenty of ideas about what you could do to make yours better. Let’s look at some of the most popular fantasy must-haves:

-          Huge, stonking, mahoosive desk usually comes fairly high up the list – the kind you need a wheelie-chair for just to get from one end to the other. Preferably in some sort of posh, shiny wood for that added ‘yeah, I’m doing important shizzle here’-factor.

-          Talking of chairs… gotta look like it means business, which means it needs to be deliciously comfortable, with a good, high back and that all-important ‘twirl action.’ As a general guideline, if it’s good enough for Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, it’s just about serviceable for the average writer, I would say.

-          Windows! No, not the eternally-Frankensteining Microsoft ones – actual ones you can look out of with your eyes. Biiiiiig windows naturally, with the most fabulous views on the other side, so that you can gave upon the loveliness of your environment and be inspired, dahling! (Of course the only snag with this is it may involve moving house to a place that actually has said fabulous views – or if you’re really rich, perhaps you just buy the places and have them relocated to ‘outside the house I’m already living in, please.’)

-          Catering facilities! No more of that ‘toddling to the kitchen for a cup of coffee/tea’ malarkey, the multitasking writer should be able to just lean across her desk-the-size-of-Canada and grab her beverage of choice from her every own tea-and-coffee-making-thingy, right there within easy reach. And why stop there? Why not have a designated ‘snack drawer’ too? Oooh, hey – how about dispensing with that long ol’ walk to the kitchen entirely and have a mini-fridge and a microwave on hand as well? Now you see why you need that mahoosive desk..!

(Just so you know, in the process of writing the above list my eyes went all misty and Louie Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World began playing on the jukebox inside my head.)

As fantasy ‘wants’ for a writer, these are pretty darn good, yeah? But what about in real life? What if, by some miracle, all of these things were achievable for even the most cash-deprived of writers? Well, let’s see…

A mahoosive desk would require a mahoosive house to put it in, for starters. Which would mean more housework, ‘cause bigger spaces to clean and all that. How many of you writers out there love housework? (And I mean, love it when you haven’t hit a writing rough patch?) Mmmm, yeah, me neither. So maybe just ‘big enough’ then. But how do you define ‘big enough?’ I don’t know about you, but give me a space and I’ll fill it, no matter what size it is. Okay, so maybe size isn’t everything (insert your own innuendo here.)

Big windows with a gorgeous view? Sounds amazing in theory… but in practice that would probably be a very bad idea. I’m the kind of person who can be fascinated for a good twenty minutes by the pattern left in the dregs of an empty coffee cup, so add in a glorious vista to gaze upon instead of my usual magnolia-coloured dining room wall… Far from beautiful scenery being ‘inspiring,’ I’ve a feeling most of us would spend more time staring out through those giant picture windows instead, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed – and that sort of nonsense would seriously eat into writing time.

The same could be said of a luxurious chair too. Of course anything cradling your writing bum for long periods of time should be comfortable and supportive – but if it makes spinning around feel like too much fun that’s a potential time-wormhole right there. (Especially if it also generates an irresistible urge to stroke an imaginary cat and say “Mister Bond, I've been expecting you,” in a dodgy accent.)

And while having food and drink within constant easy reach might seem like a massive time-saver in the grand scheme of things… for me at least, the flipside would be ending up the size of a house, with diabetes and fingers too pudgy for my keyboard. As people whose calling in life is to sit down and make stories, opportunities to inject a little non-sedentary activity into our lives – even if it is just walking to the kitchen and back - should be embraced, not minimised.

So… the ideal writing space then? If the one you have now is kind of small, kind of basic and kind of boring… maybe it already is ideal. Maybe it shouldn't feel like a place of wonder and luxury - no matter how rich and famous you become. And maybe a ‘productive’ space is actually one that doesn't pamper you, keep you entertained or boost your ego.

What do you think?

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Dreaded D-Word and its Effect on Writing.

I haven't posted anything on this site for nearly three weeks just lately. And my posts in the two or three months before then were less regular too. I've also mentioned - oooh, maybe one or two (hundred) times - that draft two of Redemption has been going much slower than I'd like, with my daily wordcount grinding to a tortuous crawl. 

There were other things too. Having less and less energy over the last few months, to the point where the choice became having a twenty-minute nap during the day or actually falling asleep at the keyboard. Wanting to eat chocolate and junk food a lot more of the time - even when I really didn't (if that makes any sense.) And feeling like there was no hope for the world and we were all descending into the bowels of Hell every time I opened a newspaper or switched on the news to see yet another horrible item about how terrible human beings can be.

Looking at the above now, all the signs were there. But, as is usual for me, I didn't see them at the time. While I can pick up the very subtlest of signals in other people's emotions, when it comes to deciphering my own I have to be practically battered over the head with a blunt instrument. This is quite a common thing amongst those of us who suffer from these periodic bouts of sadness - we're generally the last to know that we're even having one.

...Have you noticed how very reluctant I am to use 'The D-Word?' You know the one I mean. That's also quite common, apparently, and there is a certain, albeit delusional, logic to it. Because when you call it The Blues, or a Periodic Bout of Sadness, or a Rough Patch or any of the other myriad of euphemisms that exist, it feels like a temporary, trivial thing. Like a little midsummer shower that'll be over soon and then the sun will come out and everything will be sunny and smiley again... nothing to worry about, just ignore it and time will fix it all by itself. 

However, the minute you utter the word 'Depression' you're officially upgrading the status to Problem - and one that won't just go away on its own if you ignore it for long enough. In fact, if you don't acknowledge it and sort it, it'll very likely get worse the longer you leave it. That's a pretty scary thought. So surely the best way to face up to the fact that what you have is a Problem is to... pretend even harder that you can't see it! Yeahhhh...

Mmmm, no. See, that's what I've been doing since... probably about August. And I was doing a blimmin' good job of it too, to everyone else and particularly myself. I came up with all sorts of creative excuses for all my collective quirks of lethargy and random over-emotion, and stuck to them like a crook to his alibi. This was definitely just a pesky ol' down period, that's all - and I was gonna get through it by harnessing the awesome power of denial! Yaaay, go me!

And then last week happened.

After weeks of growing more and more dissatisfied with my dwindling wordcount for Redemption, it was suddenly and unexpectedly slashed to zero when my computer died. As in, really died this time. It's 'died' twice before in the last couple of years, but on both of those occasions I was able to jump-start its corpse back to life again after some Frankenstein-esque skullduggery with its innards. The cheap and effective solution. But this time there was no saving it; when the motherboard (i.e. brain) of a twelve-year-old computer pegs out, you're pretty much looking at buying either an entire new computer off-the-shelf  or all the bits to build one. Which is of course an effective solution - but nowhere near as cheap. Luckily for me I was in a position to do that - but I wrestled with my conscience over it for an entire week. Spending all that money on something for me, instead of treats for the family? But I'm a writer and I need it, so I bought the thing, mentally slapping myself upside the head the whole time.  (And yeah, I'm still feeling the guilt big time, in case you were wondering...) 

And then I got some sort of virus that temporarily made my throat swell up and swapped my joints for those of an eighty-year-old. I spent two days unable to swallow anything solid and mostly asleep on whatever horizontal surface I happened to flop down on. After two days I'd recovered though, so all in all the whole Disaster Period only lasted about ten days.

So... why did I then spend the days after that feeling permanently like I wanted to just burst into tears and sob like a baby? But whenever I was alone and thought "Oh sod it, just do it then. Let it all out - no-one's around to see..." I couldn't. The tears were most definitely there, but I couldn't persuade them to fall, even though it constantly felt like I was losing the battle to hold them back. That's like having an itch you can't scratch - except even that makes more sense than feeling like you can't stop yourself from crying while simultaneously not being able to start either.

And let's be clear here. I had that virus for just two days. I had a new computer to replace my dead one in just one week. I didn't even lose any of the writing work on my old computer (the only stuff I really cared about) because I've always backed all of that up to the point of paranoia on a USB stick and the Cloud, so copying it and the writing programs I use to my new computer took twenty minutes, tops. If you're looking for definitions of First World Problems, they're right here. Getting that upset over such things is ridiculous. But I did anyway. For days

But now I realise that's because they were the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The one piece of crap too many in the game of Buckaroo that is life. Which means, if I want to get back into my writing groove so that I don't have to keep beating myself up about lousy wordcounts and missing blog posts, I'm gonna have to Sort My Shizzle Out. Admit that, actually, if I'm truly honest with myself, I have... 

*screws up face, fights facial tics and takes a deep breath*

... depression at the moment. About something. Or maybe nothing. Maybe it's just one of those who-knows, sometimes-it-just-happens depressions. Either way, I need to sort it.

And that goes for anyone who suffers from depression, whether they're writers or not. As tempting as it is to not upgrade the status to Problem, you can't fix it - or anything else that's not working with your life - until you do. It's not 'selfish,' you're not 'weak' and you're certainly not 'attention-seeking.' You're being kind to yourself, and you deserve that. And if you're suffering, it's a fair bet your loved ones are too, watching you suffer and wishing they could help. Let them help. Apart from anything else, it's a great way of showing them you love them too.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Going Through The NaNoWriMo-tions

Yep, it's That Time of The Year again. Writers and would-be writers across the world are sharpening their pencils and clearing some space on their hard drives for the literary stress-fest challenge that is NaNoWriMo. Flippin' heck, a year goes fast!

Some writers look forward to it all year. For them, it's like the Writers' Olympics - a chance to flex their muscles and show off their already-well-honed skills of speed, dexterity and stamina in all their glory. Others view it as the Kick Up The Bum They Need, so they can finally stop dreaming about becoming a writer, put their money where their mouth is and actually write that novel they've always dreamed of writing, dammit. Some don't care if they don't meet the 50,000 word target by the deadline - the point is just to write and have fun doing it. Others take it deadly seriously - for them, failure is not an option.

And then there's the folks like me. At least, I'm assuming I'm not the only writer on Planet Earth who feels this way.

The minute the word NaNoWriMo starts popping up everywhere, I'm that person who dips her head down and tries to disappear into the wallpaper. Don't get me wrong - I love the idea of it. If it gets people writing who would otherwise not have the courage or motivation to write I'm all for waving my pom-poms at that ball game. Just so long as I can do it quietly and discreetly, without anyone asking "So, are you doing it too then?"

Because that's where it gets awkward. 50,000 words, in one month? I already know I'd fail at that, thanks. I get two hours a day at the most for writing and I'm - well, just not that fast at transferring my brain contents from their squishy home to the digital page. And that's been my reasoning for not doing NaNoWriMo for... probably since forever. Is there any point in setting yourself a challenge you are almost 100% certain to fail, other than for the purpose of kicking yourself when you're already, if not down, at least not that far up?

Besides, for the past two years I've had another excuse reason for not NaNoWri-Mo-ing; I'm concentrating on Redemption, and trying (and probably failing) to write 50,000 words of another, completely different novel will set my progress back - and maybe even cause me to lose focus on Redemption completely. I've come this far with it, and I intend to see it through, no matter what.

But something weird's happened to me this year. I've found myself thinking things like "Maybe I could give it a go..." "It wouldn't matter that much if I didn't make the 50,000 word target..." and even "Maybe a bit of freewheeling-down-the-hill-with-no-brakes-style writing is just what I need to get my mojo back while I'm thrashing my way through The Difficult Middle Phase of Redemption..." In other words, I think I may be, kind of... warming to the idea.

Of course, the longer I leave it to make my mind up, the more failing to meet the 50,000 word target becomes a given; it's November 2nd now, so I've lost two days of potential writing time before I even start. But since I've made peace with that already, perhaps I can tweak this whole NaNoWriMo thing a little more. I've got lots of story ideas tumbling around in my head right now, and I'm going to have to write them down at some point anyway...

So, for those of you like me, who find the official NaNoWriMo goals a tad too intimidating, here is my proposed 'lite' version:

To write 10,000 words a week of anything creative during the month of November.

- This includes (but is not limited to); novels, novellas and short stories - and ideas, character profiles and outlines for any of the former, scripts, poems, lyrics, comic strips, blog posts, free-writing exercises and (non-work-related) journal entries.

- This does not include; letters and emails, comments left on forum messageboards, the blog posts of others or social media sites, forms and questionnaires (both in paper form and online) shopping lists, to-do lists and post-it note messages to friends and family.

Personally, I may well fail at this too. But no matter - what's important is the process of freeing up those brain cogs and grinding the rust offa them. And if it goes well, I might continue the regime for the next month - and the next, and the next. 10,000 words a month every month - of anything creative. Let's see if that helps me get through the Difficult Middle Phase!

What are you doing for NaNoWriMo-vember? Are you embracing it - or avoiding it? How does it normally go for you? I'd love to know.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Why Engaging With the Haters is a Fight Everybody Loses

This week, an author by the name of Kathleen Hale wrote an article for The Guardian, describing her attempts to track down and confront 'Blythe Harris,' an alleged 'Goodreads Bully.' If you're an author or aspire to be one, it makes for disturbing reading.

Personally, I don't think either 'Blythe' or Kathleen emerged from the story as morally victorious. Yes, 'Blythe' certainly displayed all the hallmarks of a professional online troll - but the tactics Kathleen gradually descended to in her somewhat obsessive mission to unmask and confront her nemesis could justifiably have qualified as stalker behaviour by the end. (Not to mention put her in considerable danger - all she knew of this woman was that most of the personal details she'd posted about herself online were lies. What if she - or maybe even he - had turned violent in response to being finally confronted?)

It all started with a tweet, apparently. 'Blythe' offered suggestions to Hale about her next book, to which Hale responded pleasantly - and then subsequently discovered 'Blythe' had already left a blistering, one-star review about her latest book on Goodreads. It wasn't the only one-star review she'd received there, but Hale was particularly aggrieved by this one and so, ignoring the warnings about responding to negative reviews issued to those signed in as Authors on the Goodreads site, she commented back to 'Blythe.' And that, as they say, is when it all kicked off. 'Blythe' enlisted her friends to mount a campaign of hate on Hale and anyone who supported her, while Hale, on discovering that 'Blythe' was on the Badly Behaving Goodreaders list, Followed and Googled the woman to within an inch of her life, to the point where she actually visited her house and, when that failed to result in a face-to-face meeting, phoned her up at her workplace pretending to offer her a book reviewing gig.

A week earlier, the law was changed in the UK so that persistent trollers could be jailed for up to two years, which indirectly resulted in the suicide of a woman who was alleged to have trolled the parents of Madelaine McCann. Trolling has suddenly got a lot more serious, for all parties. But why do people do it in the first place? I'm no psychiatrist, but I have a theory or two.

Imagine your life is... well, not all that great at the moment, in these uncertain times of wobbly economies and our governments getting us into wars for reasons they're never quite clear about. Perhaps you're in a dead-end job you hate, with no chance of promotion or getting a better job because no-one appreciates your skills. Or perhaps you don't have a job at all, and you're finding that the longer you don't have one the harder it is to convince potential employers of your capabilities - whilst simultaneously dealing with the media ranting about the long-term unemployed not really wanting to work anyway, because they're happy to sit around on their backsides claiming welfare for the rest of their lives. More than anything, you've probably got to a stage where you feel like nothing you do or say matters or makes a difference in the world anymore; you're just an invisible drone that just gets walked all over and shouted down at every turn.

Now imagine you've found a magical place where all your thoughts and feelings can potentially be seen by the whole world, in an instant. You can speak the deepest, darkest thoughts of your mind and millions of people will see them. If people agree with them they'll say so, and you'll know you're not alone in thinking and feeling that way - you'll have new allies. And the people that don't agree... well, they can shout at you all they like, but they can't find you or know who you really are, because you're using a secret identity. In fact, you can even work it this way for yourself: anything you say that gets a good response is you, but anything that gets a bad response is actually your online alter-ego - an alternative personality you can slip in and out of like a comfy suit, but isn't the real you at all...

Unsurprisingly, this is going to go to the heads of some people. As long as you never meet the people you're horrible to face-to-face, it's all too easy to kid yourself that you're not doing any real damage, and anyone who gets upset by mere words on a screen should get a grip, grow a pair, etc., etc. Completely forgetting that, if you were to say those same words out loud to the face of the person you're directing them at, you could reasonably expect some nasty repercussions from pretty much anyone in earshot. What the internet has done is to remove the consequences of screwed-up social interactions, and as a result many people have got lazy and unlearned the fine art of treating others as they would wish to be treated. Sounds logical written here, but the problem is hard to solve in practice because human beings don't evolve at nearly the same pace as our technology. Our little fleshy brains are still trying to catch up - and by the time they've done that technology will have sprinted on further down the line anyway.

Bearing all of that in mind, is it really worth calling out someone who gives your work a nasty review?

Are they allowed to rip into all your hard work and call it a pile of stinking trash, using horrible grammar and spelling that would embarrass a five-year-old? Do they have the right to tell everyone outright lies about your book, saying they found it racist/sexist/anti-ginger-people when it clearly, absolutely is not? Are they entitled to say they think the author must be a brain-dead moron with no talent for writing whatsoever?

Erm... yes, they are. Sucks I know, but that's the way it is, unfortunately - because it's their opinion. And any time an author responds to a reviewer to tell them their opinion is somehow wrong... well, you'll never score any points for that, I'm afraid. Yes, that even applies if you think the reviewer got some facts wrong - "I honestly don't know how you can say my book is racist when it doesn't even have any ethnic minorities in it" - because again, that's an opinion the reviewer formed from reading your book. Most importantly, if the angry reviewer is the kind of person who's going to enlist all their friends to carpet-bomb you with bad reviews and generally try to kick your writing career in the 'nads if they decide they don't like you... do you really want to hand them ammo by engaging in dialogue with them? Even if you try to make it friendly and polite?

So stay out of it. Bite your tongue, step away from the 'net, walk away and eat cake (or whatever it is you do to make yourself feel better.) I'd like to say I'm speaking from an unblemished standpoint on this - but of course I'm not. I've had a couple of smackdown reviews of parody lyrics I've written online in the past - and yeah, I did respond to them. I was as polite and friendly as I could possibly have been (considering I was telling them I thought they'd misunderstood the motives behind my lyrics - and yes, I am facepalming as I type this) but even so, my response added absolutely nothing of value to the conversation, and if I could go back now and erase what I wrote I would, in a heartbeat.

Bad reviews hurt, I know. Bad, malicious and completely unfair reviews hurt like hell. But at the end of the day, once your book is published it's not your job to fight for it anymore. Your baby's all grown up now and it has to make its own way in the world, and you can't keep roaring up like a mother tiger every time someone rips into it. Let it go. And write the next one.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Why Writers Have To Be Their Own Simon Cowell

It's that time of year again - the emotional human cheese-grater that is The X-Factor is back! And yes, I have been following it, but much more for the window on homo sapient psychology than for the actual singing part.

I've heard the Speeches, delivered by wobbly-lipped wannabes accompanied by a backing track of suitably poignant music. With glistening eyes, they tell of how they've been gigging in pubs and clubs for years because singing is their whole life and that's why they've just got to win the X-Factor because if they don't that's it, it's ovah for them! Singing is all they know, so if the X-Factor dream ends for them today they simply can't just go back to the life they had before, which was... um, singing, wasn't it? Yeah, but that was just singing in pubs and clubs, so it doesn't even count, man..!

Yeah okay, I'm being cynical here. I'm also being cynical (probably) when I say that the programme is more about creating ratings-grabbing, reality-tv-stylee dramatics than actual recording artists (it's nice when that happens of course, but I refuse to believe the producers of the show spend much time agonising when it doesn't.) And I'm probably being most cynical of all when I say it's created a whole section of society that totally believes getting yourself on a telly talent show is a giant springboard to instant fame and fortune. Forget all those idiots slowly grafting their way up from the bottom for years and years but still aren't platinum-selling artists yet - that route's for losers, baby! Nah - get yourself on a talent show and you can bypass all that boring hard work rubbish and get straight to the good bit.

And, while we're on that cynical train, you could also argue that the self-publishing revolution enabled by Amazon, Smashwords and the like has generated a society with a similar mindset in the world of writing.

An X-Factor style programme for writers would never work, of course. The Live Shows would be pretty boring, for a start:

"So, what are you going to write for us tonight, Hermione?" "I'm going to write Chapter Sixteen of my Zombie Romance Novel, Simon." "Okay then, off you go - good luck."
*Two hours later*
"Hermione, why did you stop to get a cup of tea in the last half-hour? You could've nailed that last paragraph, but you let yourself get distracted!" "I'm sorry Louis -  please give me another chance, I'll do better in the second draft, I promiiiise!"

Yep, definitely not gripping telly. So writers don't have an equivalent to the instant-springboard-to-stardom promised by reality tv shows. No - because that would just get in the way of the even-more-instant-springboard-to-stardom that upload-and-click-to-publish provides! Heck, compared to that, an X-Factor-style gig would practically slow the whole process down!

And so... y'know all those people you laugh at in the first-stage auditions of those talent shows? The ones who clearly rocked up with no plan, no rehearsals and no idea how utterly terrible they are compared to even the mildly talented people who at least tried to do their best on the day? The writer equivalents of them are pumping out self-pubbed books on an almost hourly basis. 'Novels' that are ten pages long, that have been nowhere near even Word's Spell- or Grammar-Check, never mind an editor, and that the authors are asking you to part with ninety-nine of your actual pence for the 'privilege' of 'reading.' (You can get two litres of milk for ninety-nine pence - and that'll take you a darn sight longer to get through than one of those 'novels.')

That's the downside of the upload-and-click-publish facility of course. Gazillions of people - the same kind of people who think all the pop bands they don't like are 'talentless' and "I can sing better than that" - are publishing their books because they can, without giving a nanosecond's thought as to whether they should. And there's no Simon Cowell around to give them a reality check.

I'm not saying those authors should stop publishing altogether. I appreciate that finding agents and getting traditionally published is devilishly hard these days, and self-publishing is the only way for many cracking good authors to get their work and the recognition they deserve out there. But to those other 'authors' out there - those of the ten-pages-of-badly-spelled-grammatically-mangled-nonsense-pretending-to-be-a-'novel' variety - I'm simply saying the following:

"For the love of all things writerly, make an effort and stop assuming that writing a book is as easy as taking a dump after a hefty portion of bean casserole. See, here's the thing. If it only takes you a week to finish cranking out your latest ten-page masterpiece, y'know what? You could probably afford to spend a little extra time on improving it. Making sure you've spelled everything right for starters, and that the grammar is right. Double-checking your story makes sense and that there are no giant plotholes is another thing you could try, along with making sure your characters don't suddenly change their names, ages or even genders halfway through for no discernible reason. Oh, and by the way - a ten-page book is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'novel.' Even a novella - which is the name given to a book considered 'too short' to be a novel - has an average wordcount of 30,000 words, which is about 75-90 pages depending on linespacing and font size used. So... ten pages, a novel? Nah.  Maybe call it a short story instead. Or a 'leaflet.' 'Cause I can walk into a doctor's surgery and get a ten-page leaflet about Managing My Asthma - that'll be grammatically correct and spelled right all the way through - and I won't even have to pay ninety-nine pence for that.

"But most of all - and this is probably the most radical suggestion, so apologies if it blows your mind at first - chew on the notion that the first and only version of the story you write generally isn't the one to just go ahead and publish. I know it looks okay to you, right after you type 'the End' and hit Save - but trust me and a million other writers, it really isn't. If you don't believe me, put your latest aside and don't go near it for a week, and then come back and read it again. I guarantee you'll see places you can make it better - and pick up on mistakes you didn't even know you'd made. Just try it, okay? What's the worst that could happen?

"I know what you guys are thinking (if you're still reading at this point.) "Ha, it's just another one of those jealous 'old-skool' writers getting all angry and defensive 'cause trailblazers like me are rewriting all the rulebooks and they can't deal with the competition!" Well yeah, you're right - we are getting angry and defensive. Here's why. Imagine you're a single person planning to have a night on the town, a good time, maybe even find yourself a hot date. Do you decide not to shower, and grab the grungiest clothes out of the laundry basket to wear - y'know, that top with the two-day-old pizza stain down the front and the pants with the baggy elastic that smell vaguely of wet dog? Do you eat a tin of cold beans and drink a bottle of cheap cola down in one before you go out, so that you can spend the whole of your night out being a human fart-tornado? No you don't. Because you know that will send any potential suitors running, screaming, in the direction of far far away. So you make an effort; you put your best gear on and make sure you present yourself in the best way possible.

"So now imagine this scenario. After you've made an effort, both hygienically and sartorially, and you step out on the town lookin' your best, everywhere you look you can only see pizza-stained, doggy-smelling-baggy-pantsed, fart-tornado people. No clean, tidy, non-farty people at all. "Where are all the nice people, the kind I'd want to meet?" you ask. "Oh, they don't come out here anymore," you are told. "They've got so fed up with only finding skanky, farty people that they've given up and just stay the heck away." "But that's not fair," you cry. "I'm not like that - I've made a proper effort! How am I supposed to meet the nice people if they won't even bother to look for people like me anymore?" And all you get in return is a big, fat shrug.

"That, in a nutshell, is why we're angry and defensive - because we worry about that scenario becoming real someday, but in the world of self-publishing. It scares us - and it should scare you authors of ten-page-non-edited-pretending-to-be-novels too. Because after The Public stop looking for our work anymore, they'll stop looking for yours too, because they'll stop looking completely. Yep, you lose out as well. So doesn't it pay to know how to make the stuff you publish the best quality it can possibly be? Even it means - horror of horrors! - it takes you longer to produce them?

"So take a little time to find out how to do that. Go to a bookstore or a library, look at the books there. See how thick they are, and how many pages they typically have - maybe even read some of them. Hell, read lots of them. Brush up on your spelling and grammar - or if you have problems with that stuff, find someone who'll help you with it. Read about writing; there are so many websites with writing advice, tips and whatnot that there's really no excuse not to take advantage of them. Talk to other writers - if not in person, via online forums. Let those other writers (not just best friends and loving family) read your work and offer you feedback on what you could improve before you publish it - and consider that feedback carefully. And finally, don't just publish the first version of everything you write. If you're as good as you already think you are - and you must think you're pretty damned good if you're happily slapping up your work and asking people to part with real, actual money for it - then waiting a while and polishing it up can only make it better. And that's a good thing for everyone - both writers and readers."

/End rant.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Genre Writing: Whose Rules Are They Anyway?

I'm at that stage in my current work-in-progress Redemption where the big-picture doubts are starting to creep in.

These aren't related to the actual mechanics of the story per se. The plot fits together, the characters do what they're designed to do and the story world is coherent enough that any consistency boo-boos that do appear can be ironed out with very little heartache. No, the doubts I'm referring to are the ones over which I have far less control - the ones my Inner Grinch gets a massive kick out of taunting me with. And his favourite one at the moment goes something along the lines of:

 "No-one will ever read this novel of yours, because it's not 'proper' sci-fi! You're doing it all wrong! The people who like proper sci-fi will hate it, and the people who might like it won't notice it because they won't be sci-fi fans and you've classed it as a sci-fi novel!"

So... am I an ignorant dumbass who mistakenly thinks Redemption is a sci-fi novel when it is in fact not? Well, let's see... it's set some thirty years in the future, in a city under the martial law of a rogue organisation that deposed the elected government following worldwide resource shortages. Almost all of the technology available can only be obtained by the rich and powerful, and anything else is retro junk that clever hackers and tinkerers have recycled and learned to jerry-rig into functionality. And the aforementioned rogue government have an army of super-enhanced soldiers to dispense 'justice' to rebellious citizens. Well, that sounds pretty sci-fi to me. But what does my Grinch mean by 'proper' sci-fi? I believe the clue to this question lies in my previous writing experiences...

You see, Redemption is the first sci-fi novel I've ever completed (even to Draft One stage) - but it's not the first one I've ever tried to write. In the past, I began at least two other sci-fi novels and - being a naive and not-well-versed-in-the-etiquette noob at the time - posted a couple of chapters to writing critique forums to get some feedback. (I have since learned that it's best to have at the very least a completed draft one of the entire novel before I even consider posting chapters for critique.)

A lot of the feedback I got was very useful. Some people even liked what I'd written. But the ones who didn't, really, really didn't - and had two very distinct things in common. Thing One: they all hated the 'emotional stuff' in it, and Thing Two: those reviewers were all men.

I'm not coming over all angry feminist now; those are the plain, simple facts of the matter. Their universal complaint - and one they clearly felt very strongly about judging from their feedback - was that characters having any kind of internal emotional issues alongside the more practical, external conflicts of the story was not what proper science fiction was about. For example: in one of my stories I had a major character who was a scientist that had become a virtual recluse both in his home and work life, following the death of his little girl some five years ago in an accident he blamed himself for. It formed a huge part of his character arc and influenced his actions in relation to the plot - but that, apparently was the problem. As one of those critics put it (this isn't a direct quote, but as close as I can remember to what he said)

'Why put in all this emotional crap about him being tortured about his dead daughter? You're turning what should be a straight science fiction story into bloody chick lit! Stop trying to girlify the genre and you might actually write something genuine sci-fi fans would want to read.'

Now let me assure you, at no point did this scientist character ever pour out his feelings to his friends at a Boys Night In, where they all watched Bro movies and trimmed each other's facial hair. Nor did he record all his emotions in a private diary, along with the calories he'd consumed that day and whether or not he was having a Fat Day. In fact, the character never spoke about it to anyone else at all - the information was revealed to the reader gradually through his own internal dialogue and the odd remark from people who knew him well enough to know the history. So I was (and still am) a little baffled by the 'chick lit' comparison.

But the fact still remains, more than one person had echoed this sentiment - and that makes it a Thing, an ethic that at least some proportion of readers of the sci-fi genre subscribe to. Question is, how established is this ethic? Was I really violating deep-seated genre conventions, upheld by the Masters for generations? And did that really mean I had to completely change my whole writing style, or forever remain unpublishable?

If that's the case then I'm already in trouble, because Redemption is chock-full of characters with various 'emotional issues.' Not to the point of the whole thing reading like a Dear Deirdre problem page, but... well, dammit these characters have got to have some reason for doing the things they do, other than simply 'because, woooh - sci-fi plot!'

Of course every genre has conventions that, by their very nature, are what enable the publishers to define those genres in the first place. You can't put a novel in the Romance genre if the two main characters don't remotely fancy each other, and a Thriller where the only crime committed is Mrs Pendles forgetting to return her library books on time would certainly be considered a violation of the Trades Description Act. Those conventions exist for very good reasons.

But surely, within the more concrete rules of genre, there's some creative wiggle-room? Is it not possible to have a Comedy-Thriller? An Urban Fantasy Romance? Steampunk Vampires? An Emotional Science Fiction story?

Whatever the answer, it's not going to stop me writing Renegades - and writing it my way, the way this story needs to be told, not to fit some pre-defined template of What Sci-Fi Stories Should Look Like. If that renders it 'unpublishable,' or 'something true sci-fi fans would never read' - well, so be it. While I can and will always strive to improve the way I write and how I write it, nothing could ever change the why in everything I write. Because the why is me - it's who I am.

Can we bend the boundaries of genres? We won't find out unless we try. If enough of us are bold, I think we can do it. The publishing world is changing, with more opportunities for experimentation than ever before. The laboratory's open - let's get mixing potions!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

How Chasing The Muse Can Sometimes Scare Him Away

In my previous post I talked about how my word count for Redemption had plummeted in the last few weeks or so. You may remember that one of the reasons I put forward for this happening was that I'd got too deeply into Editor Mode, which wasn't the right one to be in considering I was still doing a lot of restructuring of the plot. I still feel that's the problem, but I decided to go deeper and try to work out what made me free-wheel down that particular one-way street in the first place. And, after a great deal of thinking (and the odd portion of medicinal chocolate) I've uncovered some interesting evidence.

I'm still excited about this story. It still feels like the one I'm meant to write before I try and write anything else, so it's not that the fire's burned out and I'm subconsciously hankering to do something else instead. I know the story I want to tell now, inside-out and backwards - heck, I've even abandoned my pantsing tendencies and outlined the thing - so I can't use the old 'I don't know where I'm supposed to go from here' chestnut either. For the first half of Draft Two I was chugging along nicely, so whatever's dragged me down to a snail's pace has happened only in the last couple of months. Hmmm.... what have I changed about my writing routine in that time?

And that's when it hit me. Quite a few things, actually.

When you want to write the best book you possibly can, you look for ways to help you do that. Ways to help you first find your Muse, and then chase him down and hold him like a hostage to your writerly bosom. You want his mojo raining down on you whenever it's Writing Time. And so, if you discover suggestions for helping you do that, you grab them and give 'em a whirl. I grabbed a few in the last couple of months, courtesy of a myriad of Writer's How-To books. I lurve those books. I gobble them up and swallow them down like a big blue whale hoovering krill. And some of the advice I read in these books - and have tried to follow - will probably work tremendously well. For some people. But I've now come to realise they didn't - and don't - work for me. I'm sharing them here so that, if it turns out they're as unsuitable for you as they are for me, you can avoid making the same mistakes as I did (I kick sand in my own face so you don't have to, as it were.) So here they are - the Things I Must Now Stop Doing Because They're Totally Not Helping:

1 - I must stop reading so many writing how-to books!
Did I mention I lurve those books? There are a million, squillion of them out there - and the lion's share of Kindle versions of them are ludicrously cheap as well. I'm talking less than the price of a cup of coffee. And loads of them are pretty good too - brilliant even. I've learned a ton of genuinely useful and insightful things from them. So I got into a habit of reading them regularly - a little, bite-sized chunk of one in a ten-to-fifteen-minute feast every morning, just before I begun my writing session. And boy oh boy, was that inspiring! I would put the book down, infused with the heady cocktail of Successful Writers' Secrets and absolutely panting to get to my computer and immediately put them into practice. In terms of giving me a massive kick up the motivation it was like an intravenous double espresso - if I hadn't felt in the mood to sit down and write before each reading session, I sure as heck was afterwards...

Until I actually started tapping out words onto the page, that is.

Suddenly everything I was typing didn't look good enough anymore. Was it showing not telling in the clever way described in that book I'd just read? Is putting that bit in a terrible cliche like that other book warned against? In fact, does this whole scene follow the arc structure recommended in that other book that was so great...? I'd studied the texts, and now my poor old brain was thinking I had to pass the exam to prove I'd learned it all properly. Not the way to write freely and creatively.

I still stand by my original statement; there are some fantastic books out there on the writing craft that I would thoroughly recommend because I do believe they can help people become better writers. But, like the yummier versions of stuff we put in our mouths to feed ourselves each day, too much too often is not good for your writing health. So I'm putting myself on a How-To-Book Diet - I can still have them, but only as an occasional treat, not a daily snack before writing sessions. I may well get cranky and headachey for a week or so, but in the long run I think it will do me good.

2 - I must stop obsessing about my productivity!
One of the pieces of advice I read in one of the aforementioned how-to books talked about pinning down your most productive time to write. Some people are at their creative peak early in the morning, it stated, while others find they work better late afternoon or even late at night. The key to ensuring you're always working at maximum capacity, therefore, is to discover when you are at your most creative and strive to set that time aside in your schedule for writing. The process advised for doing that was to devise a spreadsheet to track not just the hours you spent writing each day, but the precise times you began and ended those writing sessions and the resulting word count for each of those sessions. Within two or three months, it was assured, a definite pattern should emerge as to which hours of the day produced the highest word counts.

Well, as an ex-software techie and ever-so-slightly-OCD person, I was definitely up for that! I already had an Excel spreadsheet for tracking my hours devoted to writing projects (to make sure I kept up my targeted at-least-ten-hours-a-week schedule) so it was just a matter of tweaking that to record the extra layer of detail. Soon the secrets of my productivity peak would be revealed to me... what could possibly go wrong?

Well... turns out that, in a situation like this, being ever-so-slightly-OCD is something of a hindrance to the process.

Well I spent two hours writing that page there, but in that time I deleted large chunks and rewrote them three times, so is the total wordcount Microsoft Word's giving me an accurate assessment of how many words I actually wrote in those two hours or isn't it? And if I stop for lunch now, do I stop my 'session' and resume it once I've finished - even if that means I've only been writing for half an hour - because I can't write while I'm eating so if I included the time spent eating lunch in my session that wouldn't be a true reflection of my word count either?  What about toilet breaks - they probably distort the accuracy of my word counts too, surely? And since I've got this column that calculates how many words-per-hour I'm writing in each session... Excel can only handle time in decimal format, so if I don't want to give it (or, more accurately, myself) a migraine I'll have to make sure I only write in chunks of time I can divide decimally. And I can't record any times of less than an hour, because the formula I'm using to calculate words-per-hour multiplies any value of less than one (no, I don't know why either but it does - hey, I became a software technician to tell computers to do maths on my behalf, okay?) And that'll distort my word count even further...

And I'm supposed to concentrate on writing my novel when I've got all that swimming around in my brain?

But the most ironic thing of all? The results I did collect told me... nothing at all. Actually no, that's not entirely true. They told me that I always seemed to write roughly about the same time of day every day, give or take an hour. Well, yeah - there's a reason for that. That part of the day every day is the only time I get to fit in my writing sessions - at all other times of the day I'm busy doing the things I have to do to run a house and raise a kid and all that other stuff. And in the two months of tracking, my word count for those times every day was so varied the only 'pattern' emerging was that there wasn't one. Chocolate consumption probably had more of an effect. Or possibly... the brain-screwing stress of tracking my every writing moment to the nth degree..!

So I've reverted to a simpler, less scary spreadsheet. I track the total hours spent on a project each day, and the word count for that. I then have weekly totals for hours and word counts. And that's it. If I was the Mel Gibson version of William Wallace I would be painting my face blue and screaming "Frreeedommmm!" right now.

3 - I must stop treating the prep for my writing sessions like Sacred Rituals!
Lots of writers have their little 'things' they like to do to get themselves 'in the zone' for a writing session. Some like to have a pot of coffee brewing, so they can imbibe as they write. Others have specific snacks within grabbing distance. My main two are my Writing Soundtrack - a specific collection of instrumental pieces of music that reflect the mood of whatever I'm working on, playing low in the background as I write - and burning scented candles (the latter is particularly helpful if I'm also banning myself from eating chocolate that day.)

As I said, little things like these are great for getting yourself in the right frame of mind for writing. But if you get into a mindset where you believe you can't write as effectively without them... that's when they can start working against you. Sometimes I buy a different brand of scented candle than my usual, preferred one - and when I use it at home it doesn't actually have any scent at all, because it's just a cheap rip-off of a scented candle. Or my husband finishes his appointments early to work from home, and I can't have my music on because he needs to be able to make work-related phone calls without 'background distractions.' Just recently - well, round about the same time as I started getting snared by the above activities, actually - if either of those things happened it felt like someone had slammed the brakes on my writing session. How could I possibly bury myself in my writing and produce anything decent without the scent of Vanilla Honey wafting around, and tunes like Still Alive tinkling away in the background? No wonder my word-count-per-hour was so low today! And no wonder I was failing to make proper use of Setting to show not tell in this scene, like it said in that book I read earlier..!

They say a bad workman blames his tools - and that was me, blaming a lack of access to tools that - in all honestly - weren't essential to getting the job done. Nice to have, yeah - like a massage is a nice thing to have at the end of a stressful day (so I'm told.) But does not having said massage render you incapable of functioning? No. You just carry on without it. My writing rituals are not magic spells that enable me to channel my Mystic Writing Spirit Guide - they're just Stuff I Tend To Do while I'm writing.

So there we go. I tried to chase my Muse - but he thought I was hunting him down and ran the hell away. Guess that's what happens when you go after him with an arsenal of equipment and a slightly deranged look in your eye. Next time I shall just remember the wise words of Stephen King - just  show up at the page regularly and eventually he'll hang around of his own accord.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

What Keeps Writers Writing?

It's a question I've been pondering a lot this week, and for many reasons.

It was my son's first week back at school for starters, which meant that my Monday-to-Friday two-hour writing slot would no longer be dominated by yells, shouts and fragments of  random pop songs (their lyrics mangled into unintentionally hilarious surreality in the way only an eight-year-old can. I still haven't quite recovered from Lordes 'Royals' new-and-'improved' line "we don't care, we're drying anoraks in our dreams...")

So, back to nice, calm, focused writing sessions again - yee-hah! Where the only sound is my Redemption-themed writing soundtrack and the tippy-tapping of my industrious fingers rattling at a hundred miles an hour across the keyboard... erm - well, okay then, the first one of those two is a reality. The second one? Not so much. Word. Count. Has. Plummeted. Nope, I'm not even going to write it here, it's that bad.

Maybe it's just because the first week back at school for the new term involves more planning and sorting and adjusting than I've anticipated, and it'll all slot back into place again next week. That's what I'm telling myself anyway - and with only the smallest hint of panic in my voice as I do so... Or maybe it's because I haven't quite come out of that sludgy, quagmire-y part of the novel-writing process yet; that part where you become convinced that everything you're writing is crap, the whole premise of your novel is probably crap and it's probably been done by somebody else somewhere before and even if it hasn't no-one's ever gonna wanna read your crappy novel anyway...

And because I'm still wading through that quagmire of self -doubt, I'm second-guessing everything I'm writing before I even write it and slowing myself down to a crawl in the process.

Thing is, a huge part of this draft two process has involved some major reorganization of the plot; moving events around, adding structure in that previously wasn't there but should have been, taking parts out that didn't need to be there even though they seemed like they did in draft one - not to mention big changes to allocated 'screen time' for various characters. It's rewriting in the most literal sense - as if draft one was actually draft zero and this current draft two is the 'real' draft one. (Which is what happens when you pants it rather than outline beforehand, I suppose - yes, all you Outlining Fans, consider my wrists well and truly slapped, I hear you now.)

And maybe that's what's causing the slowdown in my word count. I have outlined the novel now, because - having actually finished a first draft - I've figured out what I was really trying to say all along. So for each and every scene I know what has to occur and how the characters should react and respond - it's all there, in my notes. But because it's re-writing - changing a story I've already written - my brain thinks of it as editing. And perhaps editing is not what this is - or at least, not the mental mindset I should be adopting to do it. Perhaps I should be treating this as if it's my second Draft One instead. Get down the bones and worry about putting the meat on it in the next pass - and the next, and the one after that... it'll be done when it's done, as they say.

Except that's a bit of a depressing thought. It's already taken me two years to get to this stage - and now I'm taking myself a stage backwards again? Back to Draft One Mark II? At this rate I'll be a senior citizen before I get this novel finished!

But here's the thing... I have to finish this novel now. It was easy to abandon all my previous novel attempts, because I felt that I couldn't take them any further anyway at that particular time (which is why I left them languishing in Hard Drive Hades on my computer rather than deleting them completely.) But Redemption is the novel I have to finish writing, and with the aim of making it the very best I can make it. To use a computer gaming analogy, it's like the quest I have to complete before I can Level Up as a writer. And since there's no way I could ever allow myself to do anything but my very best work on it, if it takes me flippin' ages to get it finished.... well, I'm just going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

This is a commitment that feels a lot like a marriage - for better or worse, richer or poorer, 'til death do us part... Is this the way it is for veteran writers too? Is it something of a rite of passage for just your first novel, until you fall into a way of working that just makes writing novels feel like a natural process that ends with 'job done, now on to the next one?'

Is there one particular novel you've written that you feel defined you as a writer?

Saturday, 6 September 2014

6 Reasons Your Reader Doesn't Like Your Hero

A story isn't just about plot - it's about characters as well. Memorable protagonist characters (or heroes) are what make readers stick with a story, if only because they have to know whether or not they make it to the end of the plot. But sometimes those characters are memorable for the wrong reasons.

Most of us can probably think of at least one book they've read (or film they've seen) where they were left thinking "Y'know, I would have loved that story a lot more if I hadn't constantly wanted to kick that character right in his Crumple Zone." A badly-drawn hero can ruin the most exquisitely-crafted story. It's something I've had to think about a lot while writing Redemption, and so I decided to put the good guys in that through some rigorous testing, just to make sure they didn't fit any of the offending criteria (and so I could fix them quick-smart if they did.) What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but picks up on some of  the deadliest of  Protagonist Sins...

1 - Your Hero is Super With A Capital S
Protagonists are of course allowed to have amazing powers and abilities if that's the kind of story you're writing. Readers love a truly badass hero, after all. But there's a big difference between 'badass' and 'invincible.' Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers, I call you to the stand. Now don't get me wrong, I loved me a bit of Buffy as much as the next person  - and there was plenty to love about that series - but one thing that always got to me was her apparently titanium-built body when it came to scrapping with monsters. I mean, seriously - that girl was supposedly a 'normal' high school girl who just happened to battle vampires for a hobby; she was bloody tiny, probably barely even a size 6. And yet whenever she got punched, kicked or even, on numerous occasions, thrown across a room by angry behemoths from the underworld, when the fight was over the most she got to show for it was a couple of cutely asymmetrical facial boo-boos. Are you kidding me? She should've ended up in hospital with at least a couple of broken ribs for half of those ass-kickings!

The point is, if readers come to believe your hero is going to walk away from every instance of brown stuff hitting the fan with little more than messed-up hair, why should they continue to worry about them whenever that happens? And, following on from that, if they don't worry about them when they're in trouble - why should they care either? "He'll get himself out of it 'cause he always does, no need to stick around to find out..." And that's when they toss the book aside. So if your heroes are doing dangerous stuff, don't be afraid to hurt them sometimes. And I mean really hurt them - like 'short vacation in A&E'-type hurt them. They might hate you for it for a while - but your readers won't.

2 - Your Hero is a Shining Example To Us All
Your hero is patient and kind and tolerant. She's funny, smart and multi-talented; everyone loves her and respects her and the only people that don't are the villains - booo, nasty, bad villains! She's the girl every other girl wants to be and every man wants to be with.... yeah, hurry up and pass me that sick-bag, please.

Think back to your high school days for a moment. Remember that girl who was The Most Popular Girl In The School, who looked immaculate and got straight A's in everything and was Head Prefect and always got the lead in every school production? (Clue: there's always one of those in every high school in the world, and it's never you.) Did you feel as if life was that bit more worth living if she thought of you as a friend? Or did you spend the whole time hating her guts while simultaneously feeling vaguely guilty about it?

Exactly. Same with readers and oh-so-perfect characters. Readers will follow a character to the ends of her world if they can relate to her - if it feels like she could be us, or we could be her. Most of us know our own faults and vices even if we don't shout about them to the world, and so we can't relate to perfection in human form. Characters who never show a less-than-perfect side make us as readers feel inadequate by comparison - and are dull as hell to boot. So give your Little Miss Perfect (or Mr - because there is a male equivalent) some honest-to-goodness flaws to balance out the awesomeness. It doesn't have to be anything major - something we could take the piss out of her for on girls' nights, for instance. Most of us do that with our real-life friends and still love them anyway. And you want your hero to feel like a friend to your readers.

3 - Your Hero Gets What She Wants With The Power Of Beautiful
This is otherwise known as Disney Princess Syndrome. Yes of course your protagonist is allowed to be drop-dead gorgeous if your plot demands it - after all, there are real-life people like that so it's not like you'd be defying any universal laws or anything. But things go screwy when your hero wields her gorgeousness like some kind of ramped-up superpower. If everyone around her is falling in love with her because she's sooo beautiful, if people drop everything and move mountains for her just because she chose to point her beautiful face at them and they were helpless to refuse her - if evil henchmen who've been tasked with doing evil things to her find at the crucial moment they simply cannot go through with their evil plan because they looked upon her loveliness and their evil heart spontaneously melted into a puddle of mercy... just, no. That era has gone, folks - we're living in the modern world now, where women can work and vote and - and have opinions and stuff.

The male equivalent of this is of course the super-stud, who has every woman falling hopelessly in lust with him at first sight. A popular staple of action thriller stories, this guy generally gets to have a lot of sex, with women he only met thirty seconds ago but whose knickers spontaneously combust when he smiles at them. And naturally, the sex he provides always rocks said women's world - to the point where they want to be his babe while at the same time being totally okay with the idea that he's probably screwing legions of other random women as well...

Repeat after me: HOTNESS IS NOT AN ACHIEVEMENT. In real life OR in fiction. It's just a circumstance, like being born into a rich family (or the Western World instead of the Third World, if you want to be really blunt about it.) Sure, it has its advantages, but as far as I know, no-one's managed to cure cancer or bring about world peace with it yet (dream on, all you Miss World contestants.)

Some authors have tried to get around this problem in what they imagine to be a very 'creative' way. Does this sound familiar? The character constantly refers to herself as being average-looking - plain, even. Her hair won't do what she wants it to, her clothes aren't right - oh trust me, she, like, totally knows she's nowhere near as pretty as every other girl on the planet. And honestly, why every single person who lays eyes on her immediately wants to date her is, like, a total mystery to her... guess it's just one of those tiresome things she has to deal with in her life...

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. For the love of humanity, do NOT do that. If Angelina Jolie did that, you would have to fight an urge to slap her impossibly flawless face - and don't you dare deny it.

By all means let your hero be hot. But please, please don't let that be their only life skill.

4 - Your Hero's Life Consists Of Standing In A Crapstorm With No Umbrella
Every story needs conflict; it's the engine that drives it. But what makes conflict interesting is seeing what your hero does when faced with it. And if all she does is sigh and suffer her way through it, while everyone else around her does all the hard work of Solving That Shit... she's not a hero and she aint even a saint -  she's just a wimp, pure and simple. An emotional parasite who sits on her arse staring forlornly at the aforementioned Shit, instead of getting up off it and giving that Shit a kicking. (Hmmm... as analogies go that one's pretty disturbing, but it does fit so I'll leave it with you...)

There are people like that in real life - you might even know someone like that. That one who always seems to have ninety-nine problems but doing something about them aint one. You suggest solutions to their problems - even offer to help - but they always brush your offers away and ignore any advice given to them, spouting convoluted reasons about why nothing suggested would 'work.' So the problems remain, and get worse and more complicated - and all they do in response is sigh and look pained and 'soldier on.' In real life, even if you started off being sympathetic you eventually get fed up and leave them to their misery, feeling that if they're never prepared to help themselves then some part of them must want to be the eternal martyr. It's the same in fiction. Readers won't get behind a 'hero' who never fights back - or worse, lets all the other characters do all the fighting for her. Don't have her being 'rescued' by everyone else and his pet chihuahua all the time; let her grab the tools to solve her own problems. Or at the very least, give her the determination to go and find them herself.

5 - Your Hero's Life Is Just, Like, A Neverending Suck of Sucky Suckness
Yeah, being a Hero sucks a lot of the time. A large part of your job description involves being thrown into the depths of all kinds of Hell on a regular basis, purely for the entertainment of those folks called Readers. And yeah, not even the most hard-hearted of those readers would blame you for complaining about that sometimes.


But not all the time.

No matter how crap the world your Hero inhabits might be, if she hates everything about it all the time, and has no friends because nobody understands her, and can't get a break in this life because nobody will even give her a chance... well, most readers are going to think maybe her world and everyone it in might have a point.

Yep, as readers, we get it - your poor hero is trapped in a terrible, life-sapping existence that she's desperate to break free from. The whole point of this story is that she will eventually triumph over all of this adversity and emerge vindicated and victorious. But bloody hell, even Officer Ripley in the Alien movies managed to crack an occasional smile in between the face-huggers and mangled corpses of colleagues. No one wants to hang out with a Moaning Minnie for hours on end, and - surprise! -  they actually want it even less in depressing and dire situations, even if they are only fictional.

So give your poor readers a break and let your sad-sack Hero chew on some happy-flavoured bones now and then. Readers won't stop sympathising with them as a result, or suddenly imagine that all their problems must be solved now 'cause they're smiling, so hurrah end of story, yeah? Let your Hero have people she loves and who love her in her life - even if it's just one. Things she does to escape the pain in her life, even if it's only for a while. And dreams that keep her going when all she feels like doing is giving up. Then you'll give your readers reasons to not only want your Hero to have her happy ending, but to believe she deserved to have it.

6 - Your Hero Does Whatever Shitty Stuff She Wants, Because She's The Hero So It Doesn't Count And Shut Up Already
There's a reason your Hero is called the Hero, and not, say, the Wrecker of Other People's Lives. It's because the reader expects the Hero to ultimately Do The Right Thing to solve the problems presented. Now 'right' doesn't necessarily mean 'legal, or 'intellectually logical' - or even 'honest,' in certain situations. But it should always be the thing the hero chooses to do with good intentions - even if it all goes horribly pear-shaped later. And if that does happen - well, the Hero should feel suitably remorseful about it and try to make amends in some way. What she certainly should not do is shout and scream about how it's everyone else's fault instead, or that those people are horrible anyway so they probably deserved it...

I once beta-read a story where the young female protagonist slept with the bridegroom of her best friend the night before said friend's wedding. Naturally she devoted some sharp internal monologue to what a low-down scumbag this man was  - while she enjoyed some rumpy-time with him. Not only that, but because of his selfish cheating ways the heroine now had to avoid her best friend completely in order to not feel uncomfortable about having secretly bonked him, and this whiny, needy best friend of hers just didn't get that at all. She kept phoning the heroine up all the time, wanting to know why her one-time best friend had suddenly frozen her out, to the point where the heroine felt she was being annoying and extremely inconsiderate and told her to stay out of her life and never call her again. And then later on in the story, when that same heroine's mother confessed that the marriage to her father ended because he found out she had a one-night stand with another man, the heroine's reaction was to be mortified that "all this time, I never even suspected my mother was nothing but a common slut"!

And yet the author was dumbfounded when I said I found the heroine completely unlikeable. Like an over-devoted parent, she had indulged her protagonist's every whim, allowing her to have whatever she wanted just because she wanted it and making excuses for her bad behaviour whenever she threw a hissy fit. And, unsurprisingly, that character had subsequently morphed into the ultimate spoiled brat.

Such people aren't popular even in real life, and readers certainly don't want to be forced to root for them in fiction. Yes, anti-heroes with unlikable elements to their personality can often work, along with protagonists who keep on making the same stupid mistakes until they learn the error of their ways. But in the end it always comes back to good intentions. If the Hero is not at least always trying to do the right thing - and she feels no guilt or refuses to accept any responsibility when she does the wrong thing...  well, sorry, but she's not the true Hero of your story. You should fire or at least demote her, and find another character who's better equipped to handle the role.

Well these are just for starters. What traits do YOU hate in a Hero character? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

What Doesn't Kill Your W-I-P Makes You Stronger (Hopefully)

Yeah, I've been away from this blog for a while. August? Soooo not a good month for me, it would appear.

Apart from the obvious change in routine that having my eight-year-old son at home on school holidays inevitably brings, this particular August has been something of a lesson in stress management for me. I've had a catalogue of minor disasters occur, which has led me to conclude that this first book in The Renegades Trilogy has more lives than a cat and must really, really want to be written. After all it (and by association I) have been through these past few weeks, I practically owe it commitment now.

Disaster Number One pretty much put the mockers on me writing anything at all on my computer, since sitting at it felt like having arrows shot through my shin-bones. Remember that allotment of mine I told you about in this post?  Yeah, well, about three days after that I spent an evening out there doing my Monty Don thing, and managed to get bitten by some nasty flying midge-y things. Four of them, to be precise. I know it was exactly four, because some three weeks later I still have the four slightly hideous puncture wounds on my shins as evidence. Y'see, as the doctor helpfully explained to me, ninety-five percent of people suffer only itching and stinging for a couple of days from said midge-y things, but about five per cent will have a reaction that requires antibiotics and staying horizontal for a couple of days until their lower legs deflate back to their normal size and stop oozing. Guess which category I fell into? It's fine, don't worry. I now wear wellies and bathe in insect repellent spray before I set foot in my allotment. And I'm not a leg model so the unattractive holes in my shins are no big deal - although if I were to audition for a role as a Plague Victim I reckon they'd at least earn me a callback.

Disaster Number Two was what you might call of a triumph of my own stupidity. I use Scrivener to organise my novel, which is saved on the hard drive of my computer. But, in the interests of averting disaster (ha ha) I also keep a 'backup copy' of it saved to a USB stick, which I copy over at the end of every writing session. Or at least, I thought that's what I was doing. It turns out actually no, I wasn't. Somehow I had managed to make two copies of the Master Version on my hard drive; one that I'd been diligently adding to every day, and another that hadn't been touched for about six months. When I discovered there were two copies I thought it made sense to delete the old, redundant one - after all, if I left it there I might get confused and accidentally do something terrible to the wrong copy, mightn't I? So I solved this potentially terrible possibility by deleting one of the copies on my hard drive.

The wrong copy, as it turned out.

Did I double-check beforehand that I was deleting the right one? Noooo, because that's how sure I was I knew what I was doing. But that's okay, I hear you cry, because you still had the backup on your USB stick, right? Erm... yeah I did. A backup of the six-months-old, redundant copy I thought I'd just tried to delete. I'd been diligently copying the wrong version to my USB stick for the past six months as well.

I looked in my Recycle Bin, but for whatever reason the deleted files weren't in there. I went into Scrivener and tried to restore the most recent backup, but for some other reason it wouldn't let me do that either. I could of course have gone into full-on meltdown at this point, but for some reason I didn't - I was actually quite calm, if a little depressed about the huge amount of work that potentially lay ahead of me if I couldn't retrieve my files somehow. After a day or two of posting queries on the Scrivener forum and preparing to start the whole thing over from scratch I got some helpful replies and, with a lot of tweaking and fiddling, was finally able to restore a backup of the right file that only had about a days' work missing. And you can bet your life the very first thing I did was delete the real redundant one and put my new, restored one in a sensible place I was sure to remember. And backed it up to my USB stick as well. That's how to learn a lesson the hard way, let me tell you.

They say disasters come in threes, and clearly Fate didn't want me to feel I was being short-changed so Disaster Number Three followed less than a week later. My computer began to die. I'd switch it on and it would chug along happily for about - oooh, ten minutes - and then suddenly go to blue-screen and try to restart. Sometimes it was successful - until another ten minutes had passed and it would blue-screen and try to restart again. Other times it wasn't, and just hung there in blank-monitored silence like the proverbial dead parrot of Monty Python fame.

Needless to say this was a problem that trumped the preceding two. Being permanently without a working computer would mean I wasn't going to get much of anything done - but I didn't have the money to buy a new one. There was always my local library, which offers free computer access - but that often means waiting for ages for one to be available, and while the Scrivener program does fit on a USB stick (and I'd managed to copy it to mine before my computer started its death throes) running it from there is so agonizingly s-l-o-w it's unworkable in practice. And libraries definitely don't like you installing your own software on their machines.

Buying a new computer was out of the question, but fortunately I have a computer-y background, part of which involved a previous job at a large, well-known computer retailer with a technical support department. If I could get an expert opinion from one of the guys there on which bit of my computer had gone belly-up, I could possibly afford to replace that one component. (I'd already previously replaced the hard drive in the past, when my old one succumbed to the effects of a particularly malicious virus.) So I packed it up and took it into the store I used to work in, and after a forty minute diagnostic the verdict was in. Praise the lord, it was simply clogged up to the max with dust, which was stopping the fan from turning and making it overheat and shut itself down! A quick blast with their air-jet thingy and, like Lazarus, my beloved old 'puter rose again.

So yeah, a stressful month - but all of this has convinced me I am meant to write this novel. Even if it takes me years, even if I end up self-publishing it because no-one in the Legacy Publishing industry wants anything to do with it - hell, even if I end up never publishing it at all and just moving on to something else instead. And since it fights so hard to live, no matter what, I've realised it needs a little more respect than I've been giving it so far. It's planned as Book 1 of The Renegades Trilogy, so I can't keep calling it The Renegades; it needs its own, stand-alone title. And in keeping with both the theme of the novel itself and its ability to keep getting back up from every little setback, it will be known from this point onwards as Redemption.

Well... until some agent or editor somewhere tells me it sucks and suggests changing it to something else, of course. That could happen. But I'll chew on that gristle if and when it gets served up to me.

So come on, Redemption - we've got an appointment. You and me, at my computer, now. I'll bring the chocolate.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

How My New Allotment is a Lot Like Draft One of My Novel

Yesterday I finally become the proud owner (well - 'leaser' anyway) of an allotment - a lovely patch of land about forty feet by twenty feet for the purpose of growing stuff to eat.

I'd been on a waiting list for a while, so when this came up I jumped at it. If I hadn't, my eight-year-old son would probably have jumped on my behalf, since he's been panting to have his own little patch to grow things ever since our next door neighbours got their allotment plot. Needless to say, he is beside himself with an excitement which hasn't been dulled in the slightest by the current state of our newly-acquired plot. Because... yeah. Ready-to-plant it aint. Not by a long shot.

Its previous owner was a man in his eighties, who gradually stopped tending to it because it just became too much for him. So when we took it over yesterday afternoon it hadn't seen any action for at least two years. As a result, any soil there is hidden under a thick carpet of knee-high grass, ivy and a particularly virulent form of thistle - not to mention long-discarded bags of fertiliser, bits of wood and wire netting and other assorted rubbish scattered all over the place. So yeah, something of an unholy mess that's gonna need a lot of clearing up, digging up and tearing out unwanted stuff before I can start putting in the things I want to grow and nurture.

And it struck me that my first draft of w-i-p The Renegades looked a lot like that too, when I first came back to it after a six-week 'fermentation period.'

In both cases I think I went through the same emotions. I started off  by staring at it and going "Whoa... that's a whole lotta work to do right there." I definitely doubted my stamina and determination to commit to the task. My track record in the past hadn't been that great, particularly with novels; I'd put in the hard work for a bit, but as my enthusiasm trailed off so did the hours I put into it, until it got to none at all. But that was with even getting a draft one finished, and this time I'd done that - I'd finally got to the stage where I had a completed draft to work on. I finally proved to myself that I can do it after all - I can commit when I feel something's worth the effort. The Renegades is worth the effort, even if it ultimately never gets published - I'll still have learned so much about how to write a novel from it, which I can use towards writing more and better ones in the future. And this allotment will be worth it too.

So yesterday, within minutes of acquiring my new plot of land, I decided to approach it the way I approached my other plot - the one I'm currently shaping into Draft Two of The Renegades.

Golden Rule Number One: start small. I can't fix everything right away, and trying to make the whole thing look better overall in just one pass is just too big a task and will ultimately leave me feeling like I've barely made a dent in terms of progress. So I set to work on clearing just a small section of the plot, a six-foot-square corner overgrown with thistles and trailing ivy. I ripped them all out, broke up the soil underneath and dug it over, so that I had a nice, bare patch of ground to plant things in. Okay, it might only be six foot square patch, but it's the best patch, and when I look at the whole plot overall it's very obvious that I've done something to improve it. Which makes me think "hmm, yeah, I can do this. A bit at a time, in regular little chunks, and I can do all of this."

I've reached the halfway point in draft two of The Renegades so far - and that too, was done in regular little chunks each day. Of course I'll still need to go back over them and tighten them further - but, like my little patch of earth, they already look miles better than the draft one sludge pond they emerged from. And that spurs me on to keep going, in regular little chunks at a time.

I'll be the first to admit I'm no gym bunny, so after yesterday's efforts in my allotment I was fully expecting to wake up this morning feeling like I'd fallen out of a first-floor window. But actually it's... not bad. The only place I ache is, somewhat weirdly, my hands, from tearing all those stubborn thistles up (a writer who's fingers are out of shape - how ironic is that?) And I probably felt the same way the morning after my first time at the coalface with draft two as well.

Each morning, before beginning my writing session, I've also been reading a metric tonne of books about novel writing and plotting and outlining and dialogue and show don't tell... Because if I'm gonna do this thing - and I am gonna do this thing - I'm darn well gonna do it armed with every tidbit of knowledge and advice I can get my hands on. So now I'm planning my library trips to get books about growing fruit and veg, not to mention trips to garden centres to ogle all those lovely seeds and gardener's charts and all the other fancy-pants things that now look like I desperately need them (I probably don't - a bit like I don't really need another notebook divided into six sections, or another set of highlighters that - oh look! Can be hung on a keyring this time..!)

And now I must leave you - I have an allotment to tend to. And my eight-year-old son has already planted it all out in his head and is nagging my ears off to make it a reality - by the end of today, if possible. Hmm... looks like not everyone can see the benefits of 'regular little chunks...'

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Writing A Novel vs. Writing Lyrics

I'll be the first to stick my hand up and say I was a late arrival to the novel-writing party.

 I'd certainly tried writing novels in the past - I think the first one was when I was about eighteen or so (for the life of me I can't remember what I called it or what is was about, so it must have been so godawful I've blocked it out.) As the years went by I tried to write several more, many of which still languish in tatty old notebooks in a dingy cupboard somewhere or in the Story Graveyard Folder on my computer. So yeah... novels? Something I was more than a bit crap at, judging by the evidence (or rather, my consistent lack of it.)

Lyrics for songs, on the other hand...

I'd been writing lyrics since my early teens - and unlike novels, I did finish the majority of them. I wrote them for myself (although I was way too shy to sing in public, so god knows what I thought I was ever going to do with them) I wrote a few for some singers in local bands (no formal copyright stuff, just gave 'em away - hey, it was in the hippie-chick-ing, doing-it-for-the-karma-man period of my life...) And, in my mid-twenties, I collaborated with Stephen W. Rodgers, an American composer, to write the lyrics for two stage musicals - Cinderella and Peter the Great. Both were performed publicly and received good reviews from theatre critics. And ever since then I've continued to write lyrics; 'straight' ones geared towards the mainstream music scene, comedy ones and parodies of existing songs a' la Weird Al Yankovich. (I've written over 100 parody songs alone.)

Lyrics were always things I could write pretty easily - and finish pretty easily. Novels... not so much. And yet every time I started a novel I wanted to finish it - but somehow, for years, never could. Eventually, after stumbling upon Chuck Wendig's excellent blog and being inspired by his advice (the most important bit of all being "finish your shit") I began to wonder why. What was it about writing lyrics that I found easy - and writing novels that I found hard?

The most obvious theory is of course to do with length (said the actress to the bishop...) The average song is designed to last somewhere between three and seven minutes, while the average novel  is designed to last... um - flippin' ages - well, a lot longer than a song, anyway. Aha,  it seems I've found the answer - when it comes to writing I clearly have the attention span of a goldfish!

Except that doesn't really hold water when it comes to writing lyrics for stage musicals - particularly in the case of the second one, Peter the Great. There were no previous stage productions - musical or otherwise - that I could read to 'get an idea' of the story; it hadn't been done before. Instead, Stephen and I had to research his life using academic and historical textbooks, pulling out the parts we felt would be interesting and structuring them into a coherent plot. In other words, using the same process used for outlining a novel. And while it's true to say that in place of chapters containing scenes in a book we had scenes containing songs on a stage, the commitment to a cohesive story as a whole was just as important. So no, it wasn't simply that I was only capable of creating five-minute-long stories.

However, when I started breaking down the structure of stage lyrics compared with the structure of novel chapters, some key differences emerged. Particularly when I compared my strengths as a lyricist to my weaknesses as a novelist.

 Description, for example, has always been my weak point in my novels. Like an over-geeked George Lucas, I tend to dump my characters in front of little more than green screens a lot of the time, with this vague idea that the awesome CGI-o-vision that's rocking in my head will somehow magically translate to the readers without me having to paint anything in myself at all. This is a direct result of writing lyrics, of course. In a song on a stage you've already got the set doing the work - and since you've only got a few minutes to tell the audience what's going on plot-wise (about 20-30 lines of lyrics) you can't waste them bibbling on about the view and the ambiance. Being good at describing scenery was something that I not only didn't have to learn as a lyricist, but would even have been a handicap to the process - so in a sense, I almost had to train myself not to be good at it.

Another key difference is the speed at which plot is given. In a novel the pacing ebbs and flows; some parts are more emotional and therefore more at a slower pace, while the more action-packed parts move faster. Either way, the pace still feels 'natural' to the reader, even when there are jumps forward in time. Stage lyrics, on the other hand, because they're also songs as well as chunks of story, tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you can have an entire song for one small, special moment (rare, but usually saved for the 'memorable songs' - y'know, the ones you envisage being the 'favourites,' that wannabe actors will pick for their 'audition pieces' in years to come.) Or, on the flipside, one song can whoosh through a whole chain of events like a high-speed train. "Peter needs a wife! We must invite tons of women to the palace! Oh look, here they all are - why, they all seem to want to marry the rich and powerful tsar-in-waiting! Not her, she's too fat! Not her, she's not classy enough! Not her, she looks like a horse! Oh wait - this miserable-looking one looks like she'll be a proper doormat, so let's have her! Well, that's quite a random choice, mother, but hey - you're the boss I suppose..." (Those aren't the actual lyrics to the particular Peter the Great song in question, but it does give some idea of how quickly the events zip past.)

And then there's the whole 'rhythm and rhyming thing' that you have with song lyrics. They've gotta fit the tune they're going to be sung to, and, while they don't have to rhyme, audiences do seem to prefer it when they do. Obviously, doing all of that and still making it sound like normal, naturalistic speech is next to impossible, so, in exchange for all of that lyricists - like poets - are granted huge amounts of creative license when it comes to proper use of grammar and sentence structure. And cliches too. Cliches are the invention of Satan in novels - but can be almost comforting in song lyrics. Basically, in their quest to Make Stuff Rhyme And Fit, lyricists can do things with the English language that would make Strunk and White cry like babies.

All of the above traits have helped me write lyrics over the years, because lyrics are compact and fairly abstract boxes, where getting your point across involves packing as much as you can into the small amount of space you have to work with. By comparison, the landscape of a novel is a vast, open wilderness; you must still choose your words carefully and not waste them, but that doesn't mean applying the same principles as for lyric-writing and then simply scattering the results over a bigger area. That, I've come to realise, is where and why all my previous attempts at novels failed.

So... it's been Back to Writing School for me while writing The Renegades, metaphorically speaking. I've been reading tons of writing how-to books to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, along with following the blogs and online tutorials of various authors who know their stuff. I've focused mainly on improving my outlining and plot structuring skills, and learning how to incorporate descriptions without resorting to cliches. It'll be a long, hard road I'm sure - but I'll stay on it for however long it takes to make The Renegades the best it can be.