Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Wall of Self-Doubt

It's official; Simon Cowell has come to visit my brain - and he's brought a bloody great pile of suitcases with him. For the purpose of progressing with my writing, this is Bad News.

This week I finally trundled over the hill that is 50,000 words of Draft Two of The Renegades (now at 54,500 actually.) While I realise that, for the 'professional' novel writer, this ranks in terms of achievement roughly equivalent to getting up in the morning, for me this is a big deal. It's the furthest down the novel-writing road that I've ever travelled. So right now I should be doing The Carlton Dance while simultaneously trying to high-five myself, right?

Mmmmm... yeah, not so much, as it turns out.

I've seen all those talent shows Mr. Cowell has created. The ones where some people - not all, but definitely some - strut in front of him, brimming with the confidence of their own awesomeness, and then indulge in the most godawful spectacle of self-delusion a human could inflict on three minutes of other humans' lives. And when Simon systematically (and some might say, for the sake of humanity) tears their performance to pieces, they stand there wide-eyed and uncomprehending, as if they're not quite sure if they're dreaming all of this.

"He surely can't be serious, can he? He can't possibly be saying that about what I just did - it's obvious I am the most freakin' amazing bucketful of sheer, raw talent he's ever seen... "

Whatever they're hearing when they open their mouths and make sounds come out, it sure as hell can't be what everyone else hears. And they believe in their own hype too; like conspiracy theorists, there is no logical argument you can present to them to sway them from their conviction that they are fabulous and all the naysayers are just insanely jealous...

By the same logic, I could well be the writerly equivalent of those people. And, like them, I wouldn't even know it either.

Since I passed the 50,000 words mark of The Renegades Draft Two, more and more often I've found myself thinking "what if this really is just a gigantic pile of suck? I might think it's coming together okay, and that it makes sense and I've come a long way as a writer because of it - but what if I'm deluding myself? What if, when I've finally finished this thing, it becomes the solid, cast-iron proof that I'm actually a terrible writer who'll never get any of her novels published ever because every novel she writes is a steaming mound of horse-poo?" And then the Simon Cowell currently squatting in my brain does That Face at me, which really doesn't help.

Apparently this is what's known as A Typical Thing among writers. Apparently Number Two: I'm even  having this Typical Thing at a Typical Stage of the Writing Process. The Fear of Being Judged is tiptoeing away from the cozy sanctuary of fantasy and edging ever closer to becoming kick-in-the-guts reality. And yeah, it's blimmin' scary. After all, just because I've gone through large portions of my life expecting to be told I suck doesn't mean I learned to like it at any point...

But other writers have got past this. They've admitted that they too hit the wall of self-doubt - but they just kept on going anyway, until they got published... and then they kept on writing more stuff after that. If I'm not willing to let my novels be judged, I'm never going to finish writing one; I already know that's true from the stacks of half-finished and just-begun attempts languishing in W-I-P Hell on my hard drive. My personal Brain Simon may be right; in the end, even after a metric tonne of rewrites and polishes, The Renegades might turn out to be a legless donkey. And I'm sure, if that's the case, it'll hurt when I actually hear people tell me so.

But... it's a bit of a First-World Problem really, isn't it? There are worse things that could happen. The Fear of Being Crap is a powerful thing, but many of my fellow writers (god bless 'em) have assured me that not only can it be beaten, it must be. I've got through it with writing lyrics, and I've got through it with writing short stories - now I have to suck it up and deal with it when it comes to writing novels.

Does it end? Is this just a phase every writer goes through at a certain stage in a novel's lifecycle, until they come out the other side and say "Hell yeah, let's start submitting/self-publishing this puppy?" Or is it one of those things that pops up on a regular basis to mess with your head - like PMS, but with less chocolate consumption? (Ohh.... alright then, in my case, roughly the same amount of chocolate consumption...)

Perhaps I should just get myself a t-shirt with "I'm having a Mid-Write Crisis!" printed on it.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Writer's Life As An Online RPG

Yep, you read that title right. I have just outed myself as a geek - which probably comes as a huge surprise to precisely no-one.

But it's an idea that came to me a couple of days ago, and the more I thought about it the more I couldn't let it go. Because the similarities are definitely there, and it got me wondering if it wasn't actually quite a good way of charting the progress of an average writer's endeavours (and I count myself as being within that category.) Having been a writer for a long time - and also an online RPG-er for... not quite as long, but I know the drill - I am willing to offer myself as a guinea pig for the purpose of this experiment. So come join me as we play... World of WriterCraft!

*cue dramatic music and login screen*

Creating a character
Right, we're starting from scratch, so the first thing we need to do is create our writer avatar. We can pick any race and gender we like because, as we all know, they make no difference to our character's abilities... okay, done that. Now, do we want to pick a premade Character Class? Let's see, we've got Journalist, Screenwriter, Playwright, Lyricist, Novelist, Short Story Writer, Poet.... or shall we pick a Multi-Class character? Yeah, let's do that, give ourselves more options. Right... this hairdo, that eye-colour... jeez, do I really want a piercing there..? Okay, done. Right! Into the game - here we GO!

Starting Out
Right, here we are in the newbie area. Oooh, there's a lot of people running around here... they all look the same as our character.Oh hang on, a popup window's just come up. "Welcome to World of WriterCraft! Let's walk you through the basics of Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling." There's a button underneath that says "Skip tutorial" - do we want to do that? Well, we could do that and just get on with playing the game - those things are usually deadly dull, after all... but we all know that'll come back and bite us on the bum later, don't we? Oh heck, let's do the tutorial. You never know, we might learn something we didn't know - and we might even get some freebies at the end. (We can always sell them to a vendor if they're crap.)

*goes through tutorial*

Well that wasn't so bad. And look - we got a Pen of Scribing as a reward! And a rather nice pair of writer's gloves. And - oh yay - Ding! We just levelled up! An extra stamina point and now we're Level 2. Bring it ON!

Doing Some Basic NPC Quests
Right, now we need to do some questing; get some experience and maybe earn a bit of dough as well. Jeez, who are all these people shouting all these adverts repeatedly in the Chat Channels, over and over again? Must be the self-pub spammers... *sigh* will they ever learn? People buy from self-pubbed authors who behave professionally, not the ones who stand in public places shouting their heads off and making a nuisance of themselves.... Anyway, where are these Quest NPCs? Ah, here's one; he's got a glowing exclamation mark over his head, that's useful. Mr... sorry, Lord Genre. What's your quest then, mate? Ah - "Venture into the libraries and bookstores of this fair land and read twenty Booker Prize-winning books, then return to me for your reward." Aw, seriously? That's gonna take ages.. oh, alright then...

...Right - I'm baaack! And I've read your twenty books, as requested. What do I get?

"Well done, young writer! Have 50xp! And now.... I would like to you venture further into the dark and dangerous corners of this fair town's bookstores... and read twenty Penguin Classic books! Return to me once more when you have completed this dangerous task!"

You are kidding me, right? I've just been.... I already went.... Another twenty things to..? Well you could've said that when I was... oh, never mind. Okay, off I go again then...

...Right! I'm back. And I've done your sodding quest. Now where's my reward?

"You are indeed a worthy student, young writer! Here - take this Cap of the Well-Read and five gold pieces. Now I would like you to travel to the Big Library on the edge of town - and read twenty..."

*punches Lord Genre in the face* Y'know what... I'm gonna see if there are any other NPC questgivers around here.

Finally - Crafting!
Aha! This looks more promising - the Crafter! Okay... "So, you wish to learn Fiction, do you? Well, read the book I've just magically smuggled into your inventory, and then speak to me again." Oh, okay then.... right, done that! "Well done - you have now earned your own Crafting Station! Your Fiction Writing skills will improve with each new item you craft, and as your skill goes up you will acquire new recipes and techniques."

Cool! My own Desk and Crafting Computer! So... I just keep writing lots of beginner-level stuff then, until my skills level up and I can start writing more complicated stuff? And I can sell all the stuff I've written on the Auction House as well? Ooh, maybe I'll make some money! And if no-one wants it on the Auction House I suppose I could just flog it to the vendors...

Joining A Guild
Wow - check out those guys over there! Look at their armour and weapons - they're much cooler than mine! I wanna be in their gang....

Hi guys - loving your look, are you looking for new members? What's my what? My Gearscore? What's that? Oh, I see... well actually I'm fairly new to this at the mo... no, I haven't got any higher-level alts to kit me out with Epic Gear, I'm afraid... um, no I haven't done any Instance Raids yet.... *sigh* no, I'm not after some power-levelling.. Fine, I'll come back when I've got 'more xp' then...

Let's try this lot instead... Hi guys, are you looking for new members? You're always happy to accept new members? I can be any level to join? Cool! Where do I sign? Oh, there's a fee - okay, fair enough, how much? How much? *chokes, splutters.* Erm.... okay, maybe I'll think about that later then... yeah, thanks...

Maybe I'll start my own guild then...

The First Big Boss Fight!
Right, I know this one's an important quest, because I got the loading screen when I started it... Stage one, create the Plot Outline.... pppffft, lots of traipsing all over the place and looking in dark corners then.... right, I've collected all the pieces for that, what's next? Find the Great Opening and use it to navigate the Beginning Section.... okay, done that... oh, now I have to navigate through the treacherous Sagging Middle... well, that was tough but - I made it! Now I cross this bridge to the Great Ending... and inside this room is the Final Boss... the Tough Critic! Okay, I'm armed with my Completed Draft... here goes...

Aaaarrgghh! He's flippin' huge! And he's got big claws and pointy teeth.... I am sooo gonna die..! Oh no - he hit me with Adverb Contempt! That's a big chunk of health gone right there... let me just swig a Spellcheck potion.... well that's helped a bit, but - aaarrgghh! Not the Passive Voice Attack! I'll have to put my Good Grammar Aura on... okay, that's mitigated some of the damage.... crap, now he's going to hit me with a massive Plot Hole! There's only one thing for it... I'll have to use my Rewrite Spell!

Yaaayyy, I did it! The Rewrite Spell finished him! I defeated the Big Boss Critic! Now let's go raid his loot chest to see what I get.... oooh, Armour of Thick Skin+1.... nice!

The PVP Arena!
Okay... normally I stay away from PVP, 'cause I'm not the type who goes looking for a fight, but apparently the rewards are awesome, so here goes... here's the venue - "Writers' Conference" - let's do this!

Oooh help! There are tons of people here and I don't know anyone and I don't know what to do! Okay, calm down. Just follow the big groups and do what they do. Don't take on a big Boss Fight on your own - join a big gang who are already taking him on... safety in numbers and all that... Might as well face it, I'm probably not gonna get any of the epic stuff on my first time; there are loads of people here who've done this loads more times than me and know all the tricks for that. I'll just watch them and pick up tips, I think. Ooh, that person over there looks like a fellow newbie... Hi, I'm new here too. Yeah, good idea - let's stick together...

Hmmm... this might not be as scary as I thought it was gonna be...


Well that was fun! I think I've got up to about level 5 - which is still a long way from being a 'Leet' player (that means high-level, for any non-nerdy people who didn't run away from this post long ago - thanks for sticking around, by the way.) But that's not a bad start - and it's not like I'll be banging my head on the Level Cap any time soon.

This is one RPG I'm going to be playing for a long, long time yet...

Friday, 11 April 2014

Questions That Boggle A Writer's Brain

If anyone has known you're a writer for more than, say, five minutes of their life, you can bet they've asked you at least one of the aforetitled (is that a word? My spellcheck says no, but my brain is saying "it is now, bucko!") You know the kind of questions I mean. The ones that any writer knows can only be answered with a blank expression and a New York shrug.

Non-writers ask them because... well, if you're not a writer they seem like the Great Mystical Secrets that writers keep from the rest of the world, lest they become common knowledge and the truth emerges that anyone and everyone can be Stephen King with the right set of tools and ingredients. Which is true, of course... but neglects to point out that Stephen King and all the other uber-famous and mega-rich writers are just naturally in possession of a more 'right' set than the majority of writers just trying to make a living. And even they still can't answer those really head-mushing questions.

Am I going to attempt to answer them? Am I heck! I'm going to join all my fellow writers in blankness and New-York-shrugginess. But while doing that, I shall be pondering and marvelling on how unanswerable they truly are. Questions like:

1 - "Where do you get all your ideas from?"
Do we have a special box hidden in the attic, marked 'Story Ideas?' Do we sit within a circle of candles, chanting "om" until inspiration strikes? Head into the woods at midnight and play Black Sabbath songs while sacrificing a chicken to Underlord of Stories?

Shrug Number One right there. I dunno - where does a person get the idea he wants a pizza with pineapple and anchovies but NO OLIVES? Part of it comes from life experience ('had that one last time and it was awesome') but other than that it was just... there, in that grey mush under the skull. Non-writers must get ideas, surely? Maybe the only difference between writers and non-writers is that when writers have ideas... they write stuff from them?

2 - "Why do you write [insert genre here]?"
Stephen King, why do you write horror novels? Why don't you write Mills&Boon romance instead? Far less people would accuse you of being weird if you did that, y'know. And you, Catherine Cookson - why didn't you ever have a crack at writing cyberpunk, you silly old thing? You could've been so much more 'down with the kids!'

It's as if they think writers hover over a great List of Genres and either: a) shut their eyes, stick a pin in it and see where it lands or b) scan the choices and think "Hmmm, which one's making the most ker-ching for authors at the moment?" Of course neither of these is true (although that's not to say it's never been tried... it's just never really worked that well as a strategy.) The simple answer is that writers tend to write in the genres they enjoy reading. But then that leads to "Well, why do you like reading those genres in particular then?" Well jeez... why does anyone? Time for another New York shrug...

3 - "How can you write a [insert opposite gender to yourself] main character when you're a [insert your own gender]?"
There seems to be a belief in some sections of the book-buying public that this is somehow impossible at an X-chromosome level. And on one level, I can... sort of see their point. After all, if you as a female have never possessed your very own love sausage, how can you really know what it feels like to carry one around in your pants every day of your life? (DON'T - way ahead of you and let's not go there, thanks...)

But consider this; do the people who ask this question of writers also ask them "How can you write a main character who's a horse when you're not a horse?" No-one considers that an arrogant thing for a writer to attempt - and yet I'd have thought imagining life as a horse would be a lot tougher than imagining life as a fellow human of the opposite gender. Especially since humans are gifted with the power of asking questions of their opposite gender if there's stuff they want to understand. Questions that couldn't be answered by horses. Or dogs. Or mice. Or pigs...

4 - "What's the best way to write something guaranteed to be a bestseller?"
The writers that truly know the answer to this question are the ones who own a continent, eat grapes coated in gold leaf hand-plucked for them by their own personal Oompa-loompa and walk barefoot on specially-constructed clouds, so that their precious tootsies are never sullied by that dirty old thing they call the ground (that's for mortals, losers!) Let's take a moment to count those writers up, shall we? Oh yeah, that's right...

I'm pretty sure even Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin and Stephanie Meyer would lurve to know the answer to this question. But even they don't. Getting each new idea to a completed first draft is only the first stage in a long journey - and even doing that is a Herculean milestone that every writer has to reach before they can even think about how great their final work might (or might not) be. Writing isn't like baking a cake or building an IKEA wardrobe; put all the right bits together in the right quantities and the right order and you'll get the same thing every time. It's more like alchemy.

(Not to be confused with "ALCHEMY, Khashoggi... pure ALCHEMY!" Although that would be pretty darn cool...)


Is there a writer alive who could actually provide the all-seeing answers to any of these questions? Truth is, you might as well ask them what's the best way to guarantee you'll win the lottery...

(Except I have a nagging suspicion there actually might be a way to do that. Not a legal way, but a way, nonetheless... )

Writing is not for sissies, 'cause there aint no guarantees. It's years and years of slogging away, our work possibly being ignored for most of our lives - heck, maybe all of them, we don't know for sure until that magic bell rings. And even when it does, we might end up being hated for it as much as loved (I'm sure E.L. James has had to grow a skin of armadillo-esque strength since 'Fifty Shades...') That's why some of us drink and get depressed sometimes.

But that's also why we love it. We're suckers for a challenge. And just a little bit crazy.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Writing Distracted versus Knowing When You're Beaten

At this very moment, I'm sitting here attempting to write this post while my seven-year-old son is playing a computer game on his daddy's computer, less than five feet away from me. Which means that, while attempting to put words on a screen that actually sound like a human being with a working brain, my world is filled with the sounds of:

"CHING-CHING-CHING CH-CHING! DUUUUUUDDDE! AWW DUUUUUDDDDE," *pounding of jumping feet and sound of several nearby objects crashing to the floor from the vibrations* "CHI-CHING CHING AAAAAAHHHHH NO-NO-NO-NO DUUUUUUUUUDDDDE!!"

And guess what? Today is the first day of his two-and-a-half weeks of Easter holiday.

Now don't get me wrong. I adore my little laddie and I'm thoroughly looking forward to spending time with him, doing all kinds of things out there in the big wide world outside while he's off school. And he is independent enough now that he can find other things to occupy himself for a two-hour period of a day without needing my constant supervision. So, grabbing my precious two-hour daily writing slot even while he's at home should still be doable, right?

Well yeah - in theory... the 'theory' being that I can still make my brain work while an accompanying backing track that sounds like a cross between the lyrics of a Katy Perry song and a battle scene from 'Lord of The Rings' plays constantly at ear-splitting volume nearby. Seven-year-old boys are incapable of playing any game - computer or otherwise - quietly, as anyone who has one will know. And, as a mum, I am also constantly aware of the potential for damage and/or danger that can come from the actions of a mega-excited seven-year-old living the dream of being a Jedi Knight in a tiny terraced Victorian house. It's not like you can afford to just switch off and ignore the racket entirely - you gotta keep one ear open just in case...

I don't know if this is a universal truth (since I'm only married to the one bloke) but my impression is that Dads (i.e. men) appear to be wired differently. They have this innate ability to focus in so deeply on whatever they're doing that the rest of the world almost seems to disappear into the ether. My husband can sit in the same room with my son, tapping away at his laptop or watching something on the telly, and remain completely oblivious to the chaos unfolding around him, to the extent that my son will come and find me elsewhere in the house and say "Mummy, can you get me a drink, please? I've asked Daddy ten million times but he won't listen to me." (Don't worry - it was probably only about three times really, but my son has a sublime gift for exaggeration.)

HOW DO YOU GUYS DO THAT? No seriously - what's the technique? Because if I can't master it, I'm thinking that I might have to give up on the idea of sticking to my writing schedule for the next two-and-a-half weeks. I don't really want to do that - even thinking about it makes me sad. But then, so does the idea of spending every two-hour session writing six words (five of which I hate so much I'm probably going to to delete next time anyway) because I can't stay 'in the zone' for more than thirty seconds at a time.

Hmmm. Need to decide which of the two options I hate the sound of less, I suppose, and go with that. Sorry this isn't an upbeat post today, but I have, throughout the time of writing this, been hearing mangled lyrics of various songs mixed with shrieks, lines from Star Wars movies and occasional suspicious-sounding crashes and clatters. And it's kind of hard to concentrate.

I am completely and utterly open to any advice or suggestions, believe me.