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.



  1. A thought-provoking post! I'm particularly struck by your first item about taking things to completion. That is important.

    I'll admit to stalling when I'm near completion of a written work; usually it's because it's not as good (in my mind) as what I thought it might be. That said, I've learned that it's equally important for a creative to know when to abandon a project, or perhaps put it aside. Sometimes something just doesn't work, or we're not at a place in our creative growth or life to give a project justice. That is why we should always hold on to those aborted drafts, however!

    1. You're absolutely right, Patrick. Not everything we create is destined to be a sparkly diamond, no matter how much we polish it - particularly in the early years. I guess every writer has their own secret grotty rock collection somewhere...

      Even though I've been a writer since forever, I was also a messed-up individual until I hit my mid-twenties, and then had a lot of catching up to do on learning how to live like a proper, confident grown-up. It showed in my writing - probably another good reason for it never to have been seen in public!

      But I still have all of those aborted attempts sleeping, cocoon-like, on my hard drive. I know now that none of them could carry the weight of a full-blown novel on their own; they were story ideas, not stories in their own right. But I like to think that, at some point in the future, I might get a spark of some new idea that might work as the glue to smoosh a couple of those aborted jobs together into something that COULD work. Reduce, reuse, recycle, as they say. :)