Saturday, 28 June 2014

Striving For Perfection: A Great Idea (Theoretically.)

Well, it's all over; Number One Son's eighth birthday party went swimmingly, a fab time was had by all and my stress levels have returned to normal. Normally I would recover by eating cake, but today... cake is likely to make me run for the hills, to be honest. Don't want to see cake again for a very long time. Maybe even a couple of days...

As you might recall from my previous post, I had been tasked with making a Minecraft Island birthday cake, and I was determined to do it justice. The vision in my head was a work of art. My imaginary Minecraft Island cake was a thing of such cakey awesomeness that grown men would look upon it and wish they were children again, so they could have one just like it for their birthday. Every angle was mathematically perfect, every inch of the icing was smooth and flat and coloured to perfection. That was the cake my brain wanted to make.

Unfortunately my brain was just the foreman; the actual work was left to the pair of easily-distracted and somewhat unpredictably-coordinated flappy things at the end of my arms. And they clearly either didn't get the memo, or are spectacularly bad at interpreting instructions - either way, my brain wanted to fire them both on the spot when it saw what they'd done...

It's alright - I'm not fishing for compliments. It's not bad, I know that. But it looks nothing like my brain's interpretation (which was utterly freakin' incredible) so my brain is currently having a massive sulk and screaming that it's awful, a travesty - an insult to cakedom. My son pronounced it 'awesome,' and his little friends were suitably impressed - which I keep telling myself is all that really matters - but even so, I still can't stop myself doing a Simon Cowell Face every time I look at the chuffin' thing. When it came to recreating the sculpture of loveliness in my imagination, I failed.

And I do this so many times, in so many areas of my life.

Whether it's cake-making, arts and crafts, acting, singing - and yes, writing too - I start off with a picture of perfection in my mind, and when the thing I actually produce (inevitably) fails to live up to that ideal, I feel ashamed of both it and myself for faceplanting so far short of the impossible goalposts. It's probably held me back in my writing far more than I care to admit. And as I keep on truckin' through Draft Two of The Renegades, I'm starting to realise I'm going to end up feeling the same way about that too. I'm gonna need to fix that if I want to get this baby published.

I'm far from the only writer to point my arrow at perfection every time. Many of us - even if we don't admit it out loud - have a secret ideal in our minds of who we want our work to be compared to in terms of standard; 'the next Stephen King,' 'the new J.K. Rowling,' 'the Romance Genre's answer to George R.R. Martin' (mmm, okay, maybe that last one wouldn't work so well...) Anyway, those of us who are perfectionists tend to reach for the stars - which is fine, as long as we don't keep turning back in disgust the minute we've left Earth's orbit because our rocket's making funny noises.

There's nothing wrong with striving to produce only the very best work you can do; in fact, readers expect nothing less from any author whose book they've bought and rightly so. The difficulty, if you're constantly chasing perfection, is learning to accept that your 'best work' probably isn't going to be that, because it's simply not achievable - by anyone. If your Inner Critic is a drill sergeant he'll no doubt tell you to abandon all hope - if it looks like what you've produced isn't going to be a No. 1 Bestseller then you've already failed and you should just give up now. Inner Critics have their uses - but they can be a dick sometimes too...

While I was studying Performing Arts I had singing lessons as part of that course. Before that point, I did not sing with the intention of anyone actually hearing it - the very thought of it terrified me. During a one-to-one session with my singing tutor, I confessed to him that this was because I actually hated my singing voice. He asked me why, and after thinking about it for a bit I told him "because when I sing something from Les Mis, I open my mouth and I want Lea Salonga to come out - but all that comes out is me." He laughed and said "Well, you're not Lea Salonga, are you? You're you. So you've got a choice. You can either wait until you magically turn into her before you ever sing a note publicly - and then you'll waste the rest of your life not doing any singing at all. Or you can accept that you're you and work on making your voice the best it can be."

I haven't done any singing in public since graduating from that Performing Arts course, so I think I shall take his words and apply the essence of them to writing instead, since that's my focus now. And to any fellow perfectionists out there: have a high-five from me. Our best is better than 'perfect.' We need to remind ourselves of that whenever we beat ourselves up.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sometimes Kids Make Great Writing Teachers

This week (and pretty much all of next week) is going to be one of those times when my writing has to be downsized in priority (i.e. I'm gonna have to resign myself to probably not getting a lot of it done.) This is because on Wednesday my seven-year-old son will be making the leap into eight-year-old-dom, which he will celebrate with eleven of his friends, soft-play-party-stylee, on Saturday afternoon. And the organising of such things, as anyone with kids will know, can make a military operation look like an ad-hoc event.

Even though the party takes place at an indoor soft play area, I have opted to do all the food myself, so I'm... doing that. And the party bags for each child to take home at the end (it's like fashion shows at kid's parties these days; a take-home goodie-bag is practically mandatory, don'tcha know.) I'm also making the birthday cake myself, which, according to the terms and conditions set out by my soon-to-be-eight-year-old client, will be a Minecraft Island cake, complete with trees, little square animals and little TNT boxes. That's why this blog post is a day or so later than usual; today I have been mostly printing out, cutting out and then glueing together teeny-tiny Minecraft thingies to use as decorations for said cake. (And lemme tell you, activities like that are a way more effective method of making you face the fact your eyesight's going than any commercial eye test could ever be.)

But as I was doing all of that, my wee laddie was playing on the carpet nearby - and I found myself listening in to his games. While he does play Minecraft on the computer, he also has a collection of cardboard minifigures of Minecraft characters, animals and furniture items that he can use to make his own, live-action version of the computer game. Except his live-action games are not just games; they are epic, dramatic productions. Number One Son is the scriptwriter, producer and director and even provides all the sound effects for his cast of characters, who are really put through the mill in terms of what their roles require. (A directing team of Baz Luhrmann, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino combined would probably give those guys an easier ride.)

When my kid makes his toys act out the stories pouring out of his brain, there are no limits. Anything goes. His plots will not be constrained by piddling little details like the laws of physics or what is considered morally acceptable; if he wants his Minecraft Chicken to blow up Minecraft Steve with a watermelon and then turn to his friend the Minecraft Cow and sing mournfully "Mamaaaaaa, just killed a maaaaannn..." then that's what goes down (and indeed did, although it was hard to see why Mummy was laughing at something so serious...) If a particular plot twist doesn't work, or ends up complicating the rest of the story, well that's no problem either - he just does a quick mental rewind back to an earlier plot point and replays from there as if nothing ever happened. No angst, no negative self-talk, no "Oh my god, all that time and effort wasted!" And - best of all - he does it all openly, enthusiastically and with no trace of self-consciousness, whether he's alone in the room or with a crowd of other people. He's not bothered if an audience thinks his games are weird or silly. He's in the moment. He's creating.

Kids, of course, are brilliant at that. It's a skill that many of us lose as adults - or at the very least it gets watered down by the burden of responsibilities and societal pressure to conform and compromise. And when us writers feel a pressure to take our writing 'seriously' there's a real risk of getting bogged down in the Rules of Good Writing, so intent on Doing It Right and making our prose tighter, leaner, smarter, stronger...

It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking that, as we get more experience with writing, we should be making fewer 'mistakes' less often. We should become 'quicker' and 'more efficient' at outlining new stories; less likely to create plot holes and more mindful of doing the proper research before we even start to write them, so we already know that what we're writing is at least plausible in theory. It's easy to feel like we're surrounded by competition from all sides and that, if we want to get anything published, we need to have a Professional Attitude and bring our A-game to the table every time we sit down to write. And, to a certain extent, all of this is true.

But I also think there's a lot to be said for thinking like a kid sometimes too. Sure, outlining is the sensible and grown-up approach to planning out a new story - and a plan is certainly what you want to end up with before you begin to write 'properly' -  but what's wrong with having a little fun beforehand? Maybe we could try shedding some of those adult inhibitions and allowing ourselves to 'play' our ideas out in our heads, in the same way a kid does. Suspend all adult disbelief about what's 'right' and 'plausible' and 'sensible' and just go nuts - all bets are off, the universe is your oyster. Create without boundaries - leave the 'sensible' stuff for later. That's the rewriting stage.

Can't envisage how a scene might play out between two key characters? When that happens in a kid's game, he grabs a couple of LEGO men and some bricks and acts it out. Why can't an adult writer do something similar with their fiction? No honestly, I'm serious. You don't have to do it in public - no-one need ever know. In fact... I DARE YOU. Pick a scene from any of your works-in-progress - preferably one you're having trouble with - and do precisely that. It doesn't have to be LEGO men; it could be action figures, soft toys - you could even cut out little paper people if you live in a child-free zone.

Yes, you will probably feel silly at first - even if you're on your own with all the doors and windows shut. But go with it. Embrace it. Dig deep and find that inner child that's still there inside you somewhere. And see what happens.

It'll be our little secret. I won't tell, I promise. And you never know - it might even help.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Starting a Novel is The Easy Part

Okay - for a bit of fun, let's imagine for a moment we somehow have the attention of everyone in the world all at once, for just the next five minutes. I'd like to see a show of hands, please. How many of you good people believe, as the popular saying goes, that you have 'a novel in you?'

Ooooh, lordy - that's a lot of people! Okay then, keep your hands up if you've 'always wanted to write a novel someday...'

Well, that's put a few hands down - but not many. There are still loads of you in the game! Right - keep your hands up if you've ever started writing a novel...

Oh yes, the numbers are dropping a little bit more now. But there are still a lot of you with your hands up - goodness me, who knew there were so many aspiring novelists in the world? Okay, final question: keep your hands up if you've ever written a complete novel - as in, finished it, right to the end...

Woah! What just happened? That's a whole lotta hands just dribbled back down... the group left standing suddenly looks very small...

Because that's the bit no-one tells you about. When they interview the likes of Stephen King and George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling on the telly or in a magazine, they never ask "How in the heck did you manage to finish writing even one of your books, never mind all of them?" And even if they did, I can imagine those authors staring aghast in response, as if the very idea of not finishing their work was akin to never getting out of bed again for the rest of their lives. Because famous writers finish all the novels they start. Proper writers finish their novels. Which makes The Rest Of Us squirm in our seats and shoot uncomfortable sidelong glances at our writing workstations, where all our half-finished ideas and aborted works-once-in-progress now lie in permanent stasis.

You know who you are. If it's any comfort, up until recently I knew who I was too. We've had tonnes of ideas for great novels over the years. Stories we got really excited about, writing or typing at breakneck speed as the inspiration poured out of us and onto the page. We could see it all clearly in our heads; the characters were fresh and three-dimensional, the setting was original and vivid and the plot... oh, the plot even kept us - the lucky pup writing it! - hanging in sweet, sweet suspense. Until - ooh, rough guess here, but - usually about a third-to-halfway through our wonderful, sparkly new novel.

And then, somehow, it all goes a bit pear-shaped. The enthusiasm begins to feel a bit more forced every time we sit down to work on it. The doubts start to creep in; does that plot twist really make sense, or is it just ridiculous? Is this character really likeable, or is she a pain in the arse? (And since she's a bit based on me, would that mean I'm a pain in the arse as well?) With every day that passes, we start to feel less like we're crafting a story and more like we're trying to shore up a building that's destined to collapse from just one wrong smack of our hammer. In the stress of trying to decide if carrying on with it will only increase our chances of breaking it, new ideas start to sprout in our minds - little seeds of characters, settings and plot points for a brand new story... The excitement builds again, the cogs begin whirring - and, like children, we shove the old and worn-out toy to the back of the drawer, so that we can explore the intriguing possibilities of the new one.

 It doesn't matter, we tell ourselves; we haven't given up on the old story completely - we've just put it aside for a bit while we work on this new one, which has much more promise. We'll come back to it again someday. Except 'someday' never comes. And the 'new' story that siren-sang us away from the first one goes the same way as its predecessor a few months later - out-charmed by an even newer, even better story. And so it goes on - until that little Work-in-Progress file starts to look more like the Story Graveyard, where novel ideas go to die...

Ring any bells? Of course it does - because this is the thing that happens to so many writers so much of the time, but nobody ever talks about it. Well, certainly not the writers that are finishing books and getting them published, anyway. But here's the secret; that's not because they've never done it. No writer on the planet has ever finished every single novel they've ever started - no, not even writing superhuman Stephen King (and if he claims otherwise I'm afraid I shall not only refuse to believe him but demand some form of proof.) Every writer ever has abandoned at least one novel at some point in their writing lives. Even the most famous and and successful ones. Some of them still do it, even today.

That's all very reassuring of course, but how does knowing this help those who've yet to complete even their first novel? Well, if my own experience is anything to go by, the stage of Never Finishing Any Novel You Start Writing is exactly that; a stage in your writing journey. A metaphorical puberty, if you like. I'm still going through it myself; last year, for the first time in my life, I completed a first draft of my current novel. I'm currently knee-deep in draft two, so I haven't made the full transition from girl-to-woman yet; if we're gonna use the puberty metaphor I may have finally got the bra, but it's still only a training one.

But the process feels different this time around. This time there's a dogged, bloody-minded determination that wasn't there through all my previous years of aborted, half-written attempts. I'm gonna get this novel done, to publish-ready standard, no matter what - even if it ultimately gets rejected by every single agent and publisher in the known universe. That doesn't even matter anymore - because by then I'll be writing my next one anyway, which I'll know I can complete because I'll have already done it before.

I've heard some authors say it takes the 'right' idea for a story, the story you were always destined to tell, for the breakthrough with completing a novel to be made. I'm not sure if that's true. Looking back over many of my aborted novel attempts, it's certainly true to say there are little pieces of what's now become The Renegades scattered through them, so maybe I did have to collect all the elements of the story I was 'destined to tell' from the discarded fragments of what went before. Maybe you could try taking a look through your own files of half-stories and see if there are any common themes, ideas or scenarios that keep cropping up in all of them. That might turn out to be the story you're 'destined to tell.'

 I've also only recently learned the mechanics of outlining and plotting novels, after years of being a Pantser, so maybe that's played a part too. It might even have been hitting my forties and having my kid reach school age that suddenly gave me the kick-in-the-pants thought of "jeez woman, half your life's gone by and you still haven't finished a single novel you've ever started!" And last - but by no means least - it sure as heck helped to read Chuck Wendig's blog, where mantras like "finish your shit" turned on all kinds of lightbulbs in my head. (Seriously, if what you need to fire up your writing mojo is tough love, that's a site you wanna bookmark.)

It could have been any one or a combination of all of those things. But I think, more than anything, it's a just switch that suddenly flips in your head. Something just clicks into place and your mindset changes from that moment on. I wish I knew where that switch was and how to flip it at will - not only would I have flipped it years ago, I'd have done whatever I could to help others do it too. I've heard so many other writers beating themselves up over this very issue, and I know only too well how hard it is to get past it. All I can say is, if this is you, don't get down on yourself about it. I don't have a solution I'm afraid - and I'm not even sure if there is one - but don't ever stop believing you'll get there eventually. Keep on starting those new novels, keep on having better ideas that make you give up on finishing the novels you've started... keep on writing, no matter what. And one day it will all fall into place. You might not know when, or where, or even how - but it will.

Keep on writing. As long as you're doing that, you're still winning.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Outlining is My Elephant in the Room

While still beavering away at current w-i-p 'The Renegades' - with a determination so grim I am now 100-per-cent positive I'm actually gonna finish this thing (it might take me until I'm old and grey, but dammit I am gonna finish it...) - my brain, for some reason, decided to do a time-jump into the future. And as a result, presented me with a whole new set of things to worry about. Cheers for that, Brain!

The Renegades is actually planned as Book One in a trilogy. I've learned so many things about how to write a novel from writing this one, that I'm anticipating the process for writing books two and three to be a little quicker than the snail's pace I'm currently achieving. Once I get to the stage where I'm ready to start submitting Book One to agents and publishers, I'm obviously going to have to already be working on Books Two and Three if I don't want to look like an all-mouth-and-no-trousers kind of writer. Which means I need to be at least thinking about the storyline for Book Two...  oooh, right about now.

Because if an agent or publisher should like The Renegades enough to actually want to do something with it (other than bin it or burn it on a ritual pyre of Novels That Should Never See The Light Of Day, obviously) I can't wiffle about taking an eternity to write the two follow-ups. I need to work smarter - and that means having proper outlines in place from the start. All the most respected authors say you must have an outline for your novel (the only exception I can think of  is Stephen King, but then he's a writing superhero from the planet Writeon. I, on the other hand, am me.) So I realised I was going to have to get serious about the process too.

I did the research. I read books about outlining your novel; detailed books that turned it almost into a science. They were a revelation, suggesting techniques and procedures I'd never even dreamed of before. "A-haaa" I thought. "So that's how the professionals do it - jeez, no wonder my writing process has been so disorganised all this time!" I absorbed all the things about Plot Points; Key Points, Mid Points, Pinch Points... I dunno, Decimal Points as well probably. I made up special sheets with all the correct headings on them, in order to construct the most mathematically-perfect outline from beginning to end. And then I sat down in front of them, notebook and a gazillion different coloured pens at the ready (you need them to categorise your thoughts between character, action, setting, dialogue etc., apparently) and got ready to kick the plot-shaped ass of The Renegades Book Two...

...And monumentally failed to get anything useful done.

Problem is, the kind of Plot Outlining these books are championing, by their very nature, require your brain to think in a very structured, procedural way. Clearly they've never met my brain, which doesn't do that.

(If yours does, I can highly recommend Rock Your Plot: A Simple Guide to Plotting Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys For Writing an Outstanding Story and The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot. I'm sure they'll work like a dream for those of you whose brains are compatible. I did learn incredibly useful things about story structure, pacing and arcs from them.)

If the process of plotting a story for a novel could be compared to a car journey, this is how my brain works. It has a big picture of the landscape it's going to be travelling through - but it's more like a Google Earth photo rather than an actual road map with highways and placenames marked on it. It sure as heck doesn't have a satnav/GPS. It doesn't set out with a clear idea of where it wants to end up or look at the map to work out the towns and cities it needs to go through to get there. Instead it sets out with no clear idea about a final destination, but notices there's a big blue bit that might be a lake over in that part of the Google photo, and a yellowy patch that might be a desert or a beach or something... so maybe heading north-east-ish might be a good start. And, rather than reading the map to look up the names of places of interest in advance, it just pootles on its merry way using only the Google photo as a guide, seeing where the road takes it and making a note of anything that looks cool as it drives through, with a view to plotting it on the journey it'll take the next time through (i.e. in my case, Draft Two.)

And that's it. An approach about as structured as a Jackson Pollock painting, if I'm honest. And definitely not suited to the kind of meticulous plot-point-by-plot-point-breakdown trumpeted in the books I read. If the methods prescribed in 'the books' truly is the only way to outline a novel in advance of writing that first draft, I'm going to fail every single time. I'd even put money on it.

And then I revisited the Index Cards System of outlining a novel.

I'd read about it before, but didn't think much of it because, at the time I read it and the way it was presented, it looked to me like it was just a variation on the methods described in the books I've just read; deciding on your diversions and pit stops was a bit more flexible, but for it to work you'd still need to know in advance where your story started from, which direction you were going to travel in and where you planned to end up.

But then I read about how the author Michael Crichton uses the index card method to outline his stories. Rather than try to break down the skeleton of a story that already half-exists, into index cards that he can then swap around to 'fit' that structure, he instead spends a good few weeks carrying blank index cards around with him wherever he goes. If he gets a great idea for the story in the course of his day - whether it's for a snippet of dialogue that reveals a character's motivation, an unexpected twist, or even just a fantastic moment that just has to happen at some point in the tale - he scribbles it down onto a blank card... and then stuffs it in an envelope. And leaves it there, to marinate.

Over time, he scribbles on more cards and puts them in the envelope, until it's bulging with cards full of these little 'magic moments.' Only then does he tip them out and look at them all - and that's the moment he starts to move them around into something resembling a story outline.

For him, the plotting process is not looking at a road map, tracing a route from a to b to c and then writing an  index card for every place of interest that route takes him through. For him, it's more like finding all the pieces he needs to complete a jigsaw; he has to gather millions of them from everywhere and anywhere first, and then lay them all out in front of him to decide which of them belong in the jigsaw and where they should go.

And that, I've come to realise, is how my brain works too. I already have ideas for killer scenes and plot twists for Book Two - I just don't know where the heck they should occur in the story. So I'm going to give Michael Crichton's method a whirl; at the very least it's something I can do while I'm still writing Book One. In the past couple of days I've already added a small handful of cards, so it seems to be going well so far.

I'll let you know how it goes.