Friday, 28 February 2014

I've Been A Terrible Writer - Which Is Good To Know

At some point in their life - many, many points, if I'm to speak from my own experience - all writers worry that they're maybe, actually... rubbish at this writing lark.

They look at the Stephen Kings, the J.K.Rowlings, the George R.R. Martins and cry "I am not any of them, therefore I must suck!" They look at their current work-in-progress, stalled halfway through that awkward middle zone, and fret that it's not so much Writers' Block as 'writer is a blockhead.' Or they get yet another rejection from a publisher/agent, and imagine them cackling and emailing snippets of the submission to colleagues for them take the piss out of it, before struggling to type out their 'thanks but no thanks' with a straight face.

This week, I discovered that reading your old stuff is a great antidote to those 'I will never become a good writer' blues.

Sounds like a no-brainer, I know. But the reasons it can work so well are twofold. First, it lets you know you were definitely more rubbish in the past. And second, you can see exactly where and how you were rubbish. Both of which means you are now less rubbish - so if you keep on doing it, you can only get less and less rubbish until you are - pretty darn good at this writing malarkey. There's hope! It's not impossible - you just might make it someday!

Reading through the half-dozen or so novels I started but never finished, still languishing in their WIP Folder of Death on my hard drive, it was very clear I made the same mistakes with them, over and over again. That was why they never got finished. These were classic writing flaws; the kind that make successful authors and writing gurus do that face like they've just had lemon juice rubbed in a paper cut. I wouldn't have seen those glaring errors back then. I probably thought I was doing great. But now I'm doing the same lemon-in-the-paper-cut face - which is no easy feat when you're trying to bang your head on your desk at the same time. How could I have thought this was the right way to do it? What an utter plank!

In order to elaborate - and hey, maybe give you a laugh and help you feel better about your own insecurities - let me give you some idea of my cringiest sins. Don't worry, I'll spare you the actual text itself, in favour of brief summaries that could be applied quite universally to just about all of my early attempts:


Main Character Info-Dump!
 "Chapter One, first paragraph - right then, here's my main character. I'm now going to tell you everything about him; what he looks like, what he does for a living, a nice big chunk of background info about his childhood - ooh, and all his issues and insecurities as well. Hell, can't forget THAT! Hey wait - where are you going? No, come back - you NEED to know all this stuff before I can start telling you the actual story..!"
 I did this Every. Single. Time. In every half-finished novel from my past. You'd literally only just met my main character and there I was, giving you not so much an introduction as a case study from his psychotherapist. Readers don't want that. It feels like they've met the literary equivalent of The Nutter On The Bus (you know - that complete stranger who comes and sits next to you and within five minutes they've told you their entire life story, including that bit about their operation that meant they couldn't sit down properly for six weeks afterwards...) Most importantly - and it clearly took me a while to realise this - they don't need to know it all upfront. Get on with the bloody story, and drip the background stuff in quietly as events unfold.

I'm Going To Tell You Exactly How She Really, REALLY FEELS!
"She's upset! Really REALLY upset! I need you to be in no doubt about just how upset she is - how can I convey this? Goddamn it, I don't think there are enough adverbs in the English language to fully convey the depths of her upset-ness -  I've already run out, and I haven't even finished the paragraph!"
Ermmm... yeah. When it came to Big Emotional Scenes, I had this tendency to go huge. If you'd turned any of my early efforts into a movie, they'd probably look like one of those early talkies from the 'thirties, where the heroine would clasp her hand to her forehead and fling herself face-down on the bed to show she was unhappy - in case the audience didn't quite get it from her wailing "Aaarrrggghh, Rodrigo NOOOOOO!!" and bursting into tears. Lesson learned: you really can have too many adverbs. Way too many. In fact, you don't need them at all more often than you think.

How It Works 101
"Okay, if you're going to believe in this funky new techie thing I've invented for the purpose of this novel, you need to know EXACTLY how it works... Whaddya mean, 'you don't care?' This is SCIENCE FICTION, you Luddite! Now pay attention..."
A variation on the Main Character Info-Dump, this was a side-effect of working as a software technician for four years. In that line of work, if you came up with some new snippet of coding, software program or Way of Doing Stuff, you had to justify the hell out of it if you didn't want to endure the ridicule and scorn of your peers and superiors (especially if you were one of that rare and peculiar species, a Female.) And, for a long time, I got into a habit of thinking I had to do that for the pretend techie stuff in my novels as well. You don't - at least, not to that extent. You still need to do enough research to be sure what you've invented is at least plausible - because if you don't, there are certainly people out there who'll pick holes in it if it isn't (I've worked with some of them.) But you don't need to include the instruction manual in your novel.

Green Screen, Green Screen, Blah Blah Blah...
"Where are they? Well... it's a ROOM, isn't it? What kind of room? A - a ROOMY room! Aw jeez, bored now - can I do dialogue instead, please?"
For all my Baz Luhrmann-esque enthusiasm when it came to conveying character emotions, when it came to setting the scenes I barely even bothered to phone it in. Obviously you can go over-the-top when it comes to painting your scenic visuals - but it's fair to say I was under-the-bottom. It seemed to me like an unnecessary chore to offer any description of the venue in which my characters were acting their little socks off; I'd already said they were on a street, and everyone knows what a street looks like, don't they? Y'know.. roads, pavements, stuff...
Maybe I forgot that readers didn't have an admission ticket to the inside of my head, to watch the same brain-movie I was watching. As it was, all they were getting were the blank green-screens, while I was taking my full-on, writer's-privilege-CGI-experience completely for granted. I still find writing descriptions of my settings a bit of a chore. But now I take the time to do it anyway, because if I'm always the one getting the best view of the movie, it's only fair.

Thunderbirds Are Go!
"Okay... so now we're on the Adverb Diet, how else can I make my characters convey emotion? Nodding heads - yeah, that's a good one, especially when the character's about to answer a question with a 'yes.' Ooh - and head-shaking for 'no' - GENIUS!  And don't forget arm-waving and shrugging - whoops, I mean shrugging HIS SHOULDERS... and - oh look, if I pull this string his leg goes up and that makes him look anxious..!"
Yep - that was my compensatory strategy after identifying and attempting to cure my Adverb Overload Disorder. Hey, why make them sound bloody ridiculous when I can make them look bloody ridiculous instead? From thirties pulp movie to sixties puppet show; there's progress for you. I had a whole bunch of 'stock gestures' I would roll out for each specific emotion - over and over and over again.... In one of my novels, I used the phrase "he raked his hand through his hair" so many times I began to wonder if this was actually a story about mullet gardeners. It's not a bad phrase for describing character action - but after bingeing on it so indiscriminately in that one project it'll probably be a cold day in hell before I ever use it again. And if I'm honest... this is an affliction I'm still battling. I'm aware of it now, which is a good thing - but I'm still very much in the process of trying to cure myself. One day at a time, and all that.


Betcha glad you never read any of my early works now, eh? (I know I am.)

I've still got a long way to go before I'd be comfortable actually saying, out loud, the words "I am a good writer." But after today, I'm totally happy to say "I'm not as rubbish a writer as I used to be." I have grown. I have improved. I haven't reached my destination yet - but at least I know it's worth carrying on up that highway.

I might go back to some of those old novels one day; with my new perspective, the basic ideas behind them could still work if I took the time to write the actual stories properly. I'm glad I looked at them again, and I'm glad I don't do those things I used to do anymore (or at least that I'm better at catching myself when I do.)

But most of all, I'm really glad I don't still believe those early works stood a chance of being published - as I'm pretty sure I must have done back then. Now that would be embarrassing....

Friday, 21 February 2014

Life: Too Short for Regrets, But Long Enough To Be A Writer

I had another birthday last week (and no, you're not getting a number out of me.) I'm reasonably sure I'm still only having the requisite one a year, but sometimes it feels like more; I know there's a sad part of my brain that's still clinging to the fantasy of being thirty, and reality is starting to seriously mess with that now.

I was a writer before I could actually write; by the time I was three I was apparently filling sheets of paper with rows of  meaningless squiggly lines and telling anyone who'd listen that I was "whiting a storwee." At the age of seven I made my first, proper book, with sheets of paper folded in half and stapled through the middle, that had not only a story with real, readable words in but pictures as well. I don't remember much about it, except that it was a shamelessly plagiarized hybrid of Louisa M.Alcott's 'Little Women' and whatever random Famous Five book I'd recently read (and yeah, it probably was as dreadful as it sounds.) Over the next few years I won some storywriting competitions and a playwriting competition twice in a row. It looked very much like writing was going to be My Thing when I grew up.

When I first read Stephen King's book 'On Writing,' it struck me that, even though I'm almost twenty years younger than him, I caught the writing bug at a much earlier age than he did. He's since done pretty darn well for himself, selling gazillions of novels all over the world and acquiring a devoted fanbase the size of a small planet. Whereas I... well, I won't compare my achievements to his, if it's all the same to you - I don't need that kind of kick in the self-esteem nuts, thanks.

Now I'm not begrudging Mr King one ounce of his success; it's very clear from his book that he worked his ass off to get where he's got, and everything he's achieved is down to putting in the graft and never giving up. But, aside from also being ridiculously talented with a healthy amount of self-belief, this is precisely why he's achieved everything he has and... I haven't.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not so arrogant as to think that's all it would take for me to be as successful and revered as him - I'm highly unlikely to reach those heights no matter how much graft I put in. But I do know that now I'd be further along the path to my own level of success if I'd followed his example. He applied bum to chair and churned out those words every single day - even when it was hard, even when it was the last thing he felt like doing - and never letting anything in his life stand in the way or distract him from his goal.

And I didn't. I let everything get in the way; work, relationships, mental dipshittery... you name it. I only wrote when I wanted to write, when I was 'in the mood' to write - when writing was an exciting, considerate lover that got my mojo revving and made me feel good. Which was nowhere near often enough. Writing when it's fun is easy; it's writing when it's hell on earth that sorts the Michelin-starred from the McDonalds Happy Meals. I wish I'd learned that some twenty years earlier.

And it became obvious to me this week, after speaking to several 'older' writer friends, that I'm not the only one feeling this way. All of us mourn our lost opportunities; so many wasted years, missed chances, if only if only, what have I done with my life..? And now, with the free-for-all that is digital self-publishing, it's hard not to look at all these self-pub authors half our age churning out books by the bucketload - and feel like hopeless slackers by comparison. We've already lost the race... and now maybe we're too old and knackered to ever shamble across that finish line?

It's all right for the likes of Edith Piaf, singing "non, je ne regrette rien" - at least she got a hit record out of it. For the rest of us though, it's hard not to count up all those 'wasted' years and think of ourselves as failing somehow. But we're forgetting something; during all those 'wasted' years we may not have been banging out literary masterpieces... but we were doing something equally valuable in the quest to become better writers...

We were living our lives. Filling them with the richness of experiences - of other people, places, professions, cultures, lifestyles - everything. All manner of things that can't be learned from a How-To book or any number of creative writing courses. And all things that add depth and meaning to whatever we choose to write now, when we've looked back over them and turned them around in our more mature minds and made new sense of them.

If you wanted to be an Olympic athlete or a glamour model... well yeah, those are career choices that have a limited age span. But writing isn't. Many of our best-loved authors didn't achieve success until they were well into their forties and fifties - and 'The Camomile Lawn' novelist Mary Wesley was 71 by the time she was first published. You're never 'too old' to be a writer! As long as you can still hold a pen, bash a keyboard or talk to someone else who can (Barbara Cartland dictated all her novels to her PA in the latter years of her career) you can still produce the goods. Time hasn't run out for you - time's only just beginning!

So, if you only started 'taking your writing seriously' at a later stage in your life, maybe there's a very good reason. Maybe you just needed to come to it when you were ready. And there's no shame in how long it takes to do that; some writers are minute steaks, others are pot roasts. Both are equally delicious - but only if they're cooked in the right way, for the right amount of time. Be proud to be a pot roast if that's what you are, because even the best minute steak in the world can never taste like you.

Friday, 14 February 2014

An Experiment in Improving Creativity

I am a writer, but I would love, love, love to be a better writer. And I can't see that desire ever going away - even if I were to somehow reach writing superhero status.

I think that's true of most other writers too. And there are certainly a ton of resources out there to help us in our quest for self-improvement; writing courses, forums and critique circles, blogs, videos and of course the obligatory and quite wonderful plethora of How-To books. All of which can be obtained both out there in the Real World and from the virtual online haven of our computers or whatever techie device takes our fancy.

But that's not all the cheese on the board. There are other options available too. Things that might be considered a little more 'out there' in terms of helping you improve your creativity. And I'm nothing if not open-minded about giving something a go... which is why I'm currently road-testing 'Creative and Inspired Writing: Erik Brown Hypnosis.' Yep, deal with it - I've gone all New Age on you!

I found it through my Kindle; it was a free-download app that promised to 'awaken and inspire my latent creativity' through the power of hypnosis. Here's the blurb: "Inspired and Creative Writing Hypnosis will speak to your Super Conscious Mind, clearing barriers that are blocking your creativity and creating a flow of inspiration. Powerful suggestions for deep relaxation and positive change will be received by your mind, opening your mind for inspiration, increasing your self-esteem, and helping you to nurture your writing instead of judging it."

Now normally I am more than a little sceptical about what you might call alternative therapies. I have never felt an urge to stick lighted candles in my ear, and anyone who wants to stab tiny needles into me needs to have a way better reason than "it'll balance your chi." Hypnosis, however, I am prepared to cut some slack. I already know from previous experience that I am one of those people who can be hypnotized; I used hypnosis as a pain-relief method when I gave birth to my son and it worked extremely well. (This is also why I am never ever going to a stage hypnotist's show; no-one's making me bark like a dog and snog random strangers for their own entertainment, thanks very much.) I read the afore-quoted blurb and, as someone who is currently slogging through Draft Two of a novel, thought "Hell yeah, I could use me some of that!" And - the chocolate sprinkles on the chocolate cake -  this was an entirely free, zero-pence opportunity... It seemed daft not to take it, so take it I did. I downloaded and installed it on Monday.

I then had my first 'session' - nothing complicated, just a matter of plugging some headphones into my Kindle and chilling out on the sofa for about half an hour (and it's nice to have an actual reason for doing it that doesn't include the word 'laziness.') In order for this programme to be effective, it seems I have to listen to it once a day for a minimum of twenty-one consecutive days. (It's official then; hypnosis is just a more spiritual version of nagging.) I must also not listen to each session while driving - which is great, because the last thing I wanted was to have to learn to drive before I started doing this. And then, once the trailers were done, came the Session Proper.

Erik Brown has a nice American voice that sounds a little bit sleepy and sometimes kind of echo-ey, which is either because he's had those things SFX-ed onto his normal voice as part of the whole Hypnosis Vibe, or I was just hearing it that way because he had already Taken Control Of My Brain. Either way, it's a little bit freaky until you get used to it. As is the moment in the Long Induction version where he tells you to 'relax your genitals' (I'm not used to obeying instructions like that from a man I've never even met.)

The middle bit... well, that's where it all gets a bit hazy. Erik Brown says that if your mind wanders during the session, you fall asleep or you simply don't remember anything he's said once the session's over, it's all good; you're still absorbing everything he's saying in your subconscious mind. For me, it didn't feel like I fell asleep, it was more like that thing that happens when you're on a long drive and then you suddenly realise you've reached your destination but you can't remember the journey. I've done four sessions so far, and I've 'tuned out' in this manner every time - but weirdly, not at the same point every time, so I'm still not sure how many fragments of sessions I'll need to hear before I've pieced enough together to actually know everything that's said.

The session ends with him telling me that I every time I see the colour red I will associate it with releasing my creativity, so I've now put up some pictures directly above my computer screen; a person in a red suit writing, a hand writing with a red pencil in a red book and a diagram showing the (red) Writer's Toolbox and its contents. If I want to get my writing mojo on, it seems smart to have it kickstarted at the place where I'll be doing the writing, so I'll see if they have any added effect.

It's too early to make any judgments after only four sessions, so I shall keep this experiment going for the full twenty-one day extravaganza and see what happens. And I shall of course keep you posted on my progress.

And now if you'll excuse me, I need to lie down on a sofa and deal with an American stranger telling me to 'relax my genitals.' Again. Well, no-one said the path to enlightenment was easy...

Saturday, 8 February 2014

When Your Middle-Aged Novel Has a Mid-Life Crisis

I am now officially (well, okay then, mathematically if I maintain the illusion that I can see into the future) halfway through Draft Two of The Renegades. Yep, fifty percent done. Who'd a thunk it?

It's okay, I'm not asking anyone to hang up the balloons or book the band. I realise, in the grand scheme of everything, that this news is basically some writer you've never heard of getting halfway to achieving something most writers you have heard of have already done, several times over. Unlike the gazillions (it sometimes seems) of self-publishing authors who are banging out novels and novellas with the regularity of a person on the Stewed Prune Diet, I am taking a ridiculously long time to push out even just this one (is two years already a ridiculously long time?)

This is the paragraph where my excuses would normally go, but I'm not going to bother this time, because I'm pretty sure they're all Pollock-spattered through many of my previous posts and I'm even starting to bore myself with them now, so there's no reason to bore everyone else as well. If I want this novel to be as good as I can make it, it'll take as long as it takes and that's the way it is. There. Defiant Battle Retort over.

However, what the aforementioned milestone actually means is that I am now ears-deep in that sticky quagmire of the novel they call The Middle Zone. The bit where the whole thing is in danger of sagging, dragging and just generally going horribly tits-up, according to accepted wisdom.

Theoretically, since I'm on Daft Two, I've already done this bit before so it shouldn't be a problem. And it wouldn't be... if my Draft Two looked anything like my Draft One. I'm still telling the same story in both... but the two drafts are only alike in the way that Sally the Sensible Office Clerk is still Sally the Sensible Office Clerk after ten Jager Bombs and a 2am kebab. So yeah, this is a second-time-around Middle Zone - and it's harder this time because it's not the glorious, just-get-it-all-down brain fart that is the typical first draft.

Like a middle-aged person, my middle-aged novel is in danger of acquiring flabby bits that head south at the slightest hint of gravity. Of getting tired and cranky more quickly. Of marching into a room full of purpose - and then promptly forgetting why it was going there in the first place. I'll admit I've even started to see signs of a developing mid-life crisis; it's trying to hang out with novels half its age to prove it's still 'got it' (i.e. I've wondered more than once if  it could fit into the YA genre; some of the subject matter and a quick tally-up of f-bombs dropped by my characters answered that with a resounding 'no.')

I suppose it's to be expected. Again, like a middle-aged person, the middle bit of a novel can end up feeling like the under-appreciated workhorse of society; the one who does the lion's share of the hard work and gets very little of the glory. In the great 'How-To's of novel-writing, everyone talks about how important it is to have a brilliant beginning and a stonkingly great end, and those are the bits people often cite when talking about what elevates a story from 'good' to great.' The middle bit is just expected to be well-written enough to guide the reader between the two; if it is everyone takes it for granted, but if it isn't... ooh, that's the reason the entire book fails. The Middle Bit is too old to be considered sexy and exciting like the Beginning, and too young to be revered for its wisdom like the End. No wonder it often has a massive sulk and dreams about driving around in a two-seater sports car listening to that rappity-hop music the youths like these days...

So perhaps the answer is for me to treat the middle of my novel like a middle-aged person having a mid-life crisis - or at least try and empathize with its confusion and cut it a little slack sometimes. Remind it on regular occasions that yes, it really is an important part of the whole story and yes, I will devote as much love and attention to it as I give to my hot young beginning and wise old ending. And accept that, because of its moods and occasional hot flushes, I'm going to have to work to its schedule, rather than trying to bully it to march to mine. Writing, rewriting, then rewriting some more. It'll be done when it's done.

Yes, it will baffle me, drive me up the wall and embarrass the bum off me at regular intervals. It's already started doing that.  But, like a husband or a relative, I still love it and I know it'll get over itself eventually, given enough time to work through all its issues.

Although if it starts copping off with other novels, it will get its ass kicked...