Saturday, 29 March 2014

Writers' Snake Pits Part II

Last week I talked about Writers' Snake Pits, and how they can stall or even just distract a writer from getting on down and getting stuff written. I've come back for a second forage in the jungle, because there are more of them out there and Indy doesn't want us falling into them either. (At least, I'm pretty sure he doesn't - after all, he's played by Harrison Ford and he's a nice enough guy, isn't he? I mean, he's never punched a journalist or anything..?)

1 - "I wish I knew how to quit you!"
This was actually pointed out to me in the last post's comments section by Patrick Ross (who writes the excellent blog theartistsroad) so credit goes to Patrick for this one. It's sort of a contradiction to the first Snake Pit of Never Finishing What You Start (and as such is important to note, because the last thing we want to do is fall into a pit we weren't expecting because we were too busy avoiding the one we were.)

Sometimes we work on one thing for a long, long time because we love it - like that irresistible, bad-seed lover your mother and all your friends disapprove of because they're unreliable and don't respect you. We blind ourselves to their faults, thinking we can change them with enough love and attention. We turn a deaf ear to the warnings of our friends and loved ones, saying our Beloved is just misunderstood. But sometimes we need to face the truth; this romance is just never gonna work out. It's about knowing when to walk away from a work-in-progress that'll never progress - and that in itself is a whole other skill writers can only acquire through practice. So yeah, the postscript to 'finish what you start' is 'But know when to call it quits.' (And also 'hide all the cheesy photos in the attic, but don't burn them.')

2 - "So... I don't fit in with your club, huh?  Well, maybe YOU'RE the misfits around here - ha yeah, I'll show you!"
I'm going to tell you a true story now which doesn't paint me in a particularly good light (well there's a shocking change, but hey ho...)

I once joined a writers' group after seeing a poster in my local library. It proclaimed it would be run by an 'internationally famous author,' but other than that there were no other details except for venue, meeting dates and times. No matter; it was a chance to hang out with other writers, and I was well up for that. Within the first couple of meetings there was a brief 'tell us about yourself' session for everyone, to get an idea of educational backgrounds and writing experience - and it very quickly became apparent there was - well, let's call it a dominant dynamic in the group. Everyone in the group - the 'internationally famous author' presiding included - had struggled at school, either dropping out before getting any formal qualifications, or not achieving any they could really use to get ahead. Everyone that is, except for me and one other person.

I had no problem with this whatsoever. I've never believed that a person's level of education should be a permanent barrier to writing success. But as these introductions went on - accompanied by much fist-pumping and "yeah you go, mate, sticking it to all those educated snobs!" from other members - I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about getting to my turn. I'm no academic wunderkind, but I went to college and university, which, if the current vibe was anything to go by, was going to make me about as popular as a stripper at a mother and toddler group. I wasn't wrong; for both me and the other guy there - who was an ex-university lecturer - you could actually feel the atmosphere in the room change after we spoke. It was as if we'd told them we drowned kittens as a hobby.

Things got a bit frosty for the two of us from then on. If we made any comments or expressed any opinions we were met with a loaded silence followed by a sharp change of subject. When it came to the round robin of members talking about things they'd written, we were both told that the genres we were writing in were "dead" and  "not the sort of thing normal people want to read." Loud comments were regularly made along the lines of "all these snobs who've been to college thinking they're better than us." And at one point the author/group leader himself made a long speech with the theme of 'don't let all those pretentious educated people tell you that spelling and grammar and all that crap is important if you want to become as famous as I am; they're just trying to stop you achieving because they're jealous you've got raw, natural talent without all the schooling they had!' And stared at me and the ex-lecturer throughout, as if daring us to respond. (We didn't. We both just sat there in meek silence, occasionally swapping uncomfortable glances.)

Now I can obviously only speak from my own perspective. I don't know; maybe when I did voice an opinion in the meetings, I used  the odd long, fancy word when a shorter one would've done the job. I and my ex-lecturer friend wouldn't have noticed that so much, but perhaps the others did and it wound them up. Perhaps, in our efforts to show we didn't think any less of them just because they hadn't taken the same paths we had, we overcompensated and unknowingly came across as patronising or smug instead. We'll never know, because nothing was ever openly articulated like that - it was all snarky asides and dirty looks. All of which came to a head when it was announced that the group would be producing an anthology of members works, to be published and sold in local bookshops. It was, as the author/group leader put it "our chance to show the world that real writing talent isn't all about getting a fancy education and knowing how to spell properly."

I'm afraid it brought out the petty side in me. By this time my ex-lecturer friend had quit the group, sick of being sidelined and snarked about, so I was the only Enemy Within left. I probably should have done the dignified thing and followed his example. But something about the battle cry for that anthology irked me. I resented the implication that being educated somehow automatically meant I grossly over-estimated my writing ability. So I made up my mind that I was going to submit to that anthology - and I was going to make it the best quality I could. I was going to use correct grammar and punctuation and I was going to spell every damn word right - and it was still going to be good enough to get included. I was going to show them that - well, y'know guys, maybe sometimes a person with an education is allowed to be a talented writer after all...

It was a petulant motivation from an immature place in my soul, and I'm not proud of it. It was the first time in my life I ever wrote anything purely with the goal of 'sticking it to the haters' - and I will make sure it's also the last. In the end I got one short story included in that anthology, while almost all of the other members had at least three. My work doesn't stand out as the shining beacon of correct writing style - in fact, it barely registers a ripple within the book as a whole. That's exactly as it should be. I left the group shortly after - and I doubt they were sorry to see me go. I was never going to fit in there - I just wish I'd had the maturity to see that earlier.

But it did teach me something important; writing isn't a giant battleground, where opposing sides flail their swords of technical skill and shields of style. There's room for everyone - and just because there's a ton of writers rampaging around the field, it doesn't mean they're all waiting to stove your head in with a mace so they can be 'the winner' and not you. So just write, and try to be the best writer you can be. Forget about being 'better than [insert random category of writers here.]'

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Avoiding The Snake Pits on The Writer's Road

Writers are a bit like Indiana Jones; at random times in our lives, we choose to abandon our stuffy day-jobs and set out on perilous adventures in unexplored worlds, to hunt down and claim the golden thingamajig as our very own before some rival gets there first and grabs all the glory.

Well, alright - that's what's going on in our heads rather than our everyday lives, but... the adrenaline rush is the same. (Hey, there are people out there who put prosthetic pasties on their heads and speak Klingon for fun, so don't judge us, okay?) And, like Indy, we have to negotiate ingenious and deadly traps along the way. Writers' traps, designed to stop us reaching our goal and remove us from the movie before we even get a chance to have our name listed in the credits. Snake pits. And of course Indy hates snakes...

I've fallen into many of them in the years I've been a writer, and lots of my writer friends have too. In fact, if you haven't, you aint no Indy yet. And during that time, I've realised that half the battle of getting out of a Writer's Snake Pit is knowing you've fallen into one - because it isn't always obvious. Sometimes you can mistake it for a Hole in the Road of Destiny, a Sign that your work-in-progress/writing career just Isn't Meant To Be. Or sometimes it just doesn't feel like a bad hole to be in at all - heck, you could sit in here for a while quite happily while you carry on diddling about... But either way, you're trapped; treading water (or snakes)  instead of moving forwards.

I don't claim to have The Answers. If I did, I'd be doing this blog from my beachfront property in Hawaii, sipping on a strawberry daiquiri and wearing a tropical-flowered kaftan that doesn't care how much chocolate I've eaten. And I'm definitely not doing that right now. But I figured that, by listing snake pits I've become aware of, others who've fallen into them might be reassured to know they're not alone or going crazy. And hey - maybe we can swap hints on how to get out of them too.

1 - This One Aint Working - Oooh, Let's Try This One Instead!
In the case of novel-writing, I've spent years doing this. My cupboards, hard drives and data sticks are filled with so many draft one novels that never made it past chapter five I could probably fill the shelves of The Crappiest Library in the World with them. Maybe even if I had finished any of them, they would still have been monumentally shite (in fact, I deeply suspect that would be the case for just about all of them.) But at least I would have learned why.

By never finishing any novel I started, I never allowed myself to know where I failed with them. I also never allowed myself to experience writing a novel when it was hard work, or 'not fun' - or just plain felt like kicking my own poo into my own face. As soon it stopped being enjoyable, I dropped it like a hot brick and moved on to the next idea to excite me. It's only now, with The Renegades, that I'm finally learning the truth; writing novels aint fun all the time, and it's not meant to be. Like... pretty much anything worth doing well. It's like a relationship; you want it to be the best it can be? You gotta stick with it and work at it, even when the going gets tough.

Finish stuff. Even the crappy stuff. It's the only way to make the next stuff less crappy.

2 - Oh my god, this author's already written a story about [insert theme or subject here] - and it's brilliant! My story's going to seem like a sub-standard rip-off by comparison... I'll have to give up on it right now!
Yes, it's definitely true - there are story ideas that seem to have been popping up, over and over again, for eternity. And bandwagons that haven't so much been jumped on as are starting to buckle under the weight of people hanging off the sides and other people hanging on to those people. From lovelorn, non-murder-y vampires, to naive nice girls hooking up with kinky-but-damaged rich guys, from brave adventurers of different races banding together on a quest for the magical doodad, to a group of brave young kids with special powers fighting the ultimate big bad guy...

Here's the bad news: no story idea in the world is completely original. Somebody somewhere will have thought of it and written or told it already. Even the great classics, written by those we consider literary giants, used ideas that someone else had used before them. Many people have said that Star Wars is Lord of the Rings in space, and even that the Harry Potter Series is Lord of the Rings at boarding school. The world would be a poorer place if J.K Rowling and George Lucas had never written their works based on that assessment (although I won't get into a debate about the Star Wars prequels here, thanks very much...) The point is, there's still plenty of room for variations on classic storytelling themes. The difference is - you.

Even if your story treads a well-worn theme or idea, it can still be original - because you are original. And the way you choose to tell that story doesn't have to be anything like the way it's been told before. You can change up so many things; setting, era, worlds, characters... There's no limit to your imagination, so if anything does start to feel like a straight imitation of something already done at any point.... well, that's when you can stop and think "how can I tweak this to make it my own?"

Sure, there have been stories written that are terrible rip-offs of existing stories - but those are the ones that, in many ways, were trying to copy the originals. That's because there are people out there who believe writing a novel is like building a LEGO model; follow the step-by-step instructions, using exactly the same bricks in exactly the same order every single time and - ta-dah! There's your little car. Those people are not writers in the true sense. They are people who, above everything else, want to make money and have got it into their heads that applying the same tactics they would use for any other get-rich-quick scheme, like pyramid selling or 'shipping a mass-produced product,' will work for producing a novel as well. But y'know what? Even they will sell copies of their novels. There are people out there who will buy them and read them - and even love them - nonetheless.

So don't be overly afraid of 'borrowing.' After all, as a writer you are also a Word Artist. By all means take a template - just be prepared to cover it with your own crayons, paints and glues. Get messy!

3 - When people ask how my novel's coming along, they do it with 'That Look' on their face. They 'know' they're indulging me, being oh-so-kind to me by 'letting' me write this thing and 'allowing me to chase my dream.' But I can see they secretly believe I'm wasting my time and I'll never get anywhere as a writer. And they're probably right.
People who aren't writers don't 'get' how it feels to be one. To them, it's the same as the little kid who says they want to be an astronaut or the Prime Minister when they grow up; kind of cute while they're still little - as long as they eventually grow out of it and start thinking about what they really want to do. But most of us don't 'grow out of' wanting to be a writer. For us, it isn't like we just decided to pick the job we thought sounded the coolest until maturity and cynicism gives us a reality check - it's a need, an inbuilt passion that won't go away just because now we've got the right to vote and a mortgage. But, to non-writers, it's not a grown-up passion to have. And as such, there will always be this little part of them that sees you as that lovely person who still has that funny little childlike side... who just hasn't quite grown up yet...

That, my dears, is a fact of life. Even if you have proved yourself as someone with writing talent in the past. Until you are The Next Stephen King/J.K Rowling/George R.R. Martin, you will be regarded at best as nice but deluded, and at worst as arrogant and pretentious. And nothing you do can or will change that.

But... that doesn't mean you have to buy into that too. You want the truth? You probably were a slightly rubbish writer to begin with. There is a possibility you might... *deep breath*... actually-be-a-slightly-rubbish-writer-at-the-moment. But that's not a static status you're doomed to remain in forever - the more you do it, the better you'll get. Especially if doing it is what you love to do. Your writing is NEVER a waste of time or effort if that's what you want to do.

Smile politely at the disbelievers, the patronisers, the eye-rollers and the constipated grinners who give you that subtle feeling they think you should quit writing and do something more sensible instead. But don't let them crush your passion. You are the one in charge of your writing destiny, not them. They have no power at all over that. And if, by the time you're on your deathbed gasping your last gasp, it turns out they were 'right' all along, and you didn't get to be the published author you dreamed of being...

Well, so chuffin' what? At least you stayed true to yourself and never gave up on your passion. And you'll have had a much better life for it.


Friday, 7 March 2014

An Experiment in Improving Creativity: The Results!


Yes, it's that time. Just over three weeks ago, as detailed in this previous blog post, I embarked on a self-hypnosis program designed to give my creativity a kick in the mojo, and I promised I would report back on my experience. This was in no way a promotional gig, nor was I getting any kind of kickback, favours or other form of backscratch-love for doing this; it was an experiment, pure and simple. And for that reason what you're about to read is a completely honest account of how successful (or not) that experiment has been.

As I stated previously, I have done hypnosis therapy before; I used it as a pain-relief method during labour when I had my son. It worked extremely well for that. However, I wasn't about to let that sway me in my assessment of this program, because a) it was for a completely different purpose and b) seven years have passed between the two, and both I and my brain have changed a lot during that time. This is why I've been extra cautious about providing a fair and balanced assessment. I'm well aware that my previous success with hypnosis might easily lead me into looking for more positives into this experiment than were actually there.

*Deep breath.* Not doing that. This is going to be 100% objective, clean slate stuff.

And so...

First off, let's start with the practicalities. In order for each session to be effective, you need to have between 35-45 minutes of your daily life all to yourself, alone, with no interruptions of any kind at all. People without children are the ones not laughing hysterically at this point  - and hell yeah, this was definitely Major Difficulty Number One for me. Weekdays during term-time were fine, but weekends and a perfectly-placed half-term holiday in the middle of the program did cause some headaches (yeah... well, that's why none of the jobs I've ever done in the past have had the word 'Planner' in the title, isn't it?) Fortunately on the Kindle the sessions can be adjusted, so that you can choose between ending them with a 'Wake,' 'Delayed Wake' or 'Sleep' setting. By setting it to the 'Sleep' session on those days when I was going to be shadowed all day by a rampaging seven-year-old, I could do my session at night, just before I went to bed. There's also a choice between 'Long Induction' and 'Short Induction,' which varies the length of the talky bit that sends you 'down' into the hypnosis session proper. After the first week I changed it briefly to the Short Induction, believing (particularly with my previous experience of hypnosis) that I no longer 'needed' the long one - but changed it back to the long one after only three days, because... well,  the short one just didn't feel as effective. Which brings me on to my next observation...

The days when it really felt like a session had 'worked' (i.e. that I really had 'gone under' and hit that deep-trance state) were the days where I felt tired prior to that session. I am a very poor sleeper; I cannot seem to remain asleep for more than two hours at a time. This means that, for years, I haven't slept through a whole night without waking up  - and I mean fully waking up, for about half an hour - at least twice before I have to get up for the day.

At weekends and during the half-term, when I could get away with sleeping in a bit (some days as late as 7am - woohoo!) I was obviously less tired. Those were the days when I felt I wasn't really absorbing all the positive messages; I was just dutifully listening to everything that was being said - and actually getting a bit bored as the weeks went by, because by then I'd heard the same words so many times already... 

However, on school days, where I was having to get up at ridiculous o'clock to get everything sorted in time and then hitting that Wall of Knackered halfway through the day... well, let me tell you, those hypnosis sessions kicked ass. Hell, regardless of whether or not my creativity was being enhanced - and even though I wasn't actually falling asleep during those sessions - they were ten times better than a quick nap on the sofa. When they finished I felt as good as if I'd slept all the way through the previous night (I think I can still remember what that feels like...) So, as a quick daytime energy-topper-upper for the sleep-deprived I can definitely recommend this program.

(Ironically though, when I switched the ending of the session to the 'Sleep' setting so I could play it at night, it had the opposite of the desired effect. I was wide awake when the session finished, and my positively-hypnotised brain had no inclination whatsoever to go to sleep for a good hour or so afterwards. Maybe that's just me, but after a night-time session I just felt... I don't know, is there such a thing as 'benevolently wired?')

But now we get to the meat of the experiment... has it done what it said on the tin? Has it 'improved my creativity?'

Well, in terms of making me more committed to writing... I've got to be honest here, it scores a 'meh.' I track my writing hours each week with an Excel spreadsheet (my personal version of 'clocking in') and I haven't noticed myself doing much in the way of 'overtime' since I embarked on this program. Still hitting the targets... but no sign of striving to exceed it, judging from my timesheet.

But... within those hours at my keyboard, my word count appears to have gone up. for Draft One of The Renegades, I was hitting 400-450 words per two-hour session. In my Draft Two Phase (when my Demon-ass Internal Editor started showing up) that had dropped to about 200. In this last week or so, my word count has consistently hovered around the 500-600 mark. And... I'm liking what's coming out this time around - more so than I have since starting on Draft Two. To the point where I'm looking at what I've been rewriting over the past week and thinking "Hmmm... looks like I'm going to have to do another rewrite of all the previous chapters just to get it up to the standard of this one now." (Notwithstanding, naturally, the next stage of rewrites that will come after Draft Two is completed.)

(Of course even saying all of that has given me the heebee-jeebees, and I am touching everything wood-based and clutching rabbit's feet even as I lay the words down. But... if these are permanent changes, that's gotta be good.)

So, to conclude, it seems to have made a difference - for the moment, at least. And I can't deny it, when you get to the point where you've slipped into that cozy, shut-the-whole-world-out state of trance-y meditation it is the best feeling, ever. Better than being wrapped in a warm blanket, drinking hot chocolate, in front of a crackling log fire, with the rain beating down outside. That good.

I shall certainly be using it again, as a top-up measure for when Novel Constipation strikes in the future (as I'm sure it will.) And I shall definitely be using it in place of a quick daytime nap on the sofa to avert those times when my lack of sleep becomes so cumulative I start responding to everything and everyone like Kramer from 'Seinfeld.'