Saturday, 20 September 2014

How Chasing The Muse Can Sometimes Scare Him Away

In my previous post I talked about how my word count for Redemption had plummeted in the last few weeks or so. You may remember that one of the reasons I put forward for this happening was that I'd got too deeply into Editor Mode, which wasn't the right one to be in considering I was still doing a lot of restructuring of the plot. I still feel that's the problem, but I decided to go deeper and try to work out what made me free-wheel down that particular one-way street in the first place. And, after a great deal of thinking (and the odd portion of medicinal chocolate) I've uncovered some interesting evidence.

I'm still excited about this story. It still feels like the one I'm meant to write before I try and write anything else, so it's not that the fire's burned out and I'm subconsciously hankering to do something else instead. I know the story I want to tell now, inside-out and backwards - heck, I've even abandoned my pantsing tendencies and outlined the thing - so I can't use the old 'I don't know where I'm supposed to go from here' chestnut either. For the first half of Draft Two I was chugging along nicely, so whatever's dragged me down to a snail's pace has happened only in the last couple of months. Hmmm.... what have I changed about my writing routine in that time?

And that's when it hit me. Quite a few things, actually.

When you want to write the best book you possibly can, you look for ways to help you do that. Ways to help you first find your Muse, and then chase him down and hold him like a hostage to your writerly bosom. You want his mojo raining down on you whenever it's Writing Time. And so, if you discover suggestions for helping you do that, you grab them and give 'em a whirl. I grabbed a few in the last couple of months, courtesy of a myriad of Writer's How-To books. I lurve those books. I gobble them up and swallow them down like a big blue whale hoovering krill. And some of the advice I read in these books - and have tried to follow - will probably work tremendously well. For some people. But I've now come to realise they didn't - and don't - work for me. I'm sharing them here so that, if it turns out they're as unsuitable for you as they are for me, you can avoid making the same mistakes as I did (I kick sand in my own face so you don't have to, as it were.) So here they are - the Things I Must Now Stop Doing Because They're Totally Not Helping:

1 - I must stop reading so many writing how-to books!
Did I mention I lurve those books? There are a million, squillion of them out there - and the lion's share of Kindle versions of them are ludicrously cheap as well. I'm talking less than the price of a cup of coffee. And loads of them are pretty good too - brilliant even. I've learned a ton of genuinely useful and insightful things from them. So I got into a habit of reading them regularly - a little, bite-sized chunk of one in a ten-to-fifteen-minute feast every morning, just before I begun my writing session. And boy oh boy, was that inspiring! I would put the book down, infused with the heady cocktail of Successful Writers' Secrets and absolutely panting to get to my computer and immediately put them into practice. In terms of giving me a massive kick up the motivation it was like an intravenous double espresso - if I hadn't felt in the mood to sit down and write before each reading session, I sure as heck was afterwards...

Until I actually started tapping out words onto the page, that is.

Suddenly everything I was typing didn't look good enough anymore. Was it showing not telling in the clever way described in that book I'd just read? Is putting that bit in a terrible cliche like that other book warned against? In fact, does this whole scene follow the arc structure recommended in that other book that was so great...? I'd studied the texts, and now my poor old brain was thinking I had to pass the exam to prove I'd learned it all properly. Not the way to write freely and creatively.

I still stand by my original statement; there are some fantastic books out there on the writing craft that I would thoroughly recommend because I do believe they can help people become better writers. But, like the yummier versions of stuff we put in our mouths to feed ourselves each day, too much too often is not good for your writing health. So I'm putting myself on a How-To-Book Diet - I can still have them, but only as an occasional treat, not a daily snack before writing sessions. I may well get cranky and headachey for a week or so, but in the long run I think it will do me good.

2 - I must stop obsessing about my productivity!
One of the pieces of advice I read in one of the aforementioned how-to books talked about pinning down your most productive time to write. Some people are at their creative peak early in the morning, it stated, while others find they work better late afternoon or even late at night. The key to ensuring you're always working at maximum capacity, therefore, is to discover when you are at your most creative and strive to set that time aside in your schedule for writing. The process advised for doing that was to devise a spreadsheet to track not just the hours you spent writing each day, but the precise times you began and ended those writing sessions and the resulting word count for each of those sessions. Within two or three months, it was assured, a definite pattern should emerge as to which hours of the day produced the highest word counts.

Well, as an ex-software techie and ever-so-slightly-OCD person, I was definitely up for that! I already had an Excel spreadsheet for tracking my hours devoted to writing projects (to make sure I kept up my targeted at-least-ten-hours-a-week schedule) so it was just a matter of tweaking that to record the extra layer of detail. Soon the secrets of my productivity peak would be revealed to me... what could possibly go wrong?

Well... turns out that, in a situation like this, being ever-so-slightly-OCD is something of a hindrance to the process.

Well I spent two hours writing that page there, but in that time I deleted large chunks and rewrote them three times, so is the total wordcount Microsoft Word's giving me an accurate assessment of how many words I actually wrote in those two hours or isn't it? And if I stop for lunch now, do I stop my 'session' and resume it once I've finished - even if that means I've only been writing for half an hour - because I can't write while I'm eating so if I included the time spent eating lunch in my session that wouldn't be a true reflection of my word count either?  What about toilet breaks - they probably distort the accuracy of my word counts too, surely? And since I've got this column that calculates how many words-per-hour I'm writing in each session... Excel can only handle time in decimal format, so if I don't want to give it (or, more accurately, myself) a migraine I'll have to make sure I only write in chunks of time I can divide decimally. And I can't record any times of less than an hour, because the formula I'm using to calculate words-per-hour multiplies any value of less than one (no, I don't know why either but it does - hey, I became a software technician to tell computers to do maths on my behalf, okay?) And that'll distort my word count even further...

And I'm supposed to concentrate on writing my novel when I've got all that swimming around in my brain?

But the most ironic thing of all? The results I did collect told me... nothing at all. Actually no, that's not entirely true. They told me that I always seemed to write roughly about the same time of day every day, give or take an hour. Well, yeah - there's a reason for that. That part of the day every day is the only time I get to fit in my writing sessions - at all other times of the day I'm busy doing the things I have to do to run a house and raise a kid and all that other stuff. And in the two months of tracking, my word count for those times every day was so varied the only 'pattern' emerging was that there wasn't one. Chocolate consumption probably had more of an effect. Or possibly... the brain-screwing stress of tracking my every writing moment to the nth degree..!

So I've reverted to a simpler, less scary spreadsheet. I track the total hours spent on a project each day, and the word count for that. I then have weekly totals for hours and word counts. And that's it. If I was the Mel Gibson version of William Wallace I would be painting my face blue and screaming "Frreeedommmm!" right now.

3 - I must stop treating the prep for my writing sessions like Sacred Rituals!
Lots of writers have their little 'things' they like to do to get themselves 'in the zone' for a writing session. Some like to have a pot of coffee brewing, so they can imbibe as they write. Others have specific snacks within grabbing distance. My main two are my Writing Soundtrack - a specific collection of instrumental pieces of music that reflect the mood of whatever I'm working on, playing low in the background as I write - and burning scented candles (the latter is particularly helpful if I'm also banning myself from eating chocolate that day.)

As I said, little things like these are great for getting yourself in the right frame of mind for writing. But if you get into a mindset where you believe you can't write as effectively without them... that's when they can start working against you. Sometimes I buy a different brand of scented candle than my usual, preferred one - and when I use it at home it doesn't actually have any scent at all, because it's just a cheap rip-off of a scented candle. Or my husband finishes his appointments early to work from home, and I can't have my music on because he needs to be able to make work-related phone calls without 'background distractions.' Just recently - well, round about the same time as I started getting snared by the above activities, actually - if either of those things happened it felt like someone had slammed the brakes on my writing session. How could I possibly bury myself in my writing and produce anything decent without the scent of Vanilla Honey wafting around, and tunes like Still Alive tinkling away in the background? No wonder my word-count-per-hour was so low today! And no wonder I was failing to make proper use of Setting to show not tell in this scene, like it said in that book I read earlier..!

They say a bad workman blames his tools - and that was me, blaming a lack of access to tools that - in all honestly - weren't essential to getting the job done. Nice to have, yeah - like a massage is a nice thing to have at the end of a stressful day (so I'm told.) But does not having said massage render you incapable of functioning? No. You just carry on without it. My writing rituals are not magic spells that enable me to channel my Mystic Writing Spirit Guide - they're just Stuff I Tend To Do while I'm writing.

So there we go. I tried to chase my Muse - but he thought I was hunting him down and ran the hell away. Guess that's what happens when you go after him with an arsenal of equipment and a slightly deranged look in your eye. Next time I shall just remember the wise words of Stephen King - just  show up at the page regularly and eventually he'll hang around of his own accord.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

What Keeps Writers Writing?

It's a question I've been pondering a lot this week, and for many reasons.

It was my son's first week back at school for starters, which meant that my Monday-to-Friday two-hour writing slot would no longer be dominated by yells, shouts and fragments of  random pop songs (their lyrics mangled into unintentionally hilarious surreality in the way only an eight-year-old can. I still haven't quite recovered from Lordes 'Royals' new-and-'improved' line "we don't care, we're drying anoraks in our dreams...")

So, back to nice, calm, focused writing sessions again - yee-hah! Where the only sound is my Redemption-themed writing soundtrack and the tippy-tapping of my industrious fingers rattling at a hundred miles an hour across the keyboard... erm - well, okay then, the first one of those two is a reality. The second one? Not so much. Word. Count. Has. Plummeted. Nope, I'm not even going to write it here, it's that bad.

Maybe it's just because the first week back at school for the new term involves more planning and sorting and adjusting than I've anticipated, and it'll all slot back into place again next week. That's what I'm telling myself anyway - and with only the smallest hint of panic in my voice as I do so... Or maybe it's because I haven't quite come out of that sludgy, quagmire-y part of the novel-writing process yet; that part where you become convinced that everything you're writing is crap, the whole premise of your novel is probably crap and it's probably been done by somebody else somewhere before and even if it hasn't no-one's ever gonna wanna read your crappy novel anyway...

And because I'm still wading through that quagmire of self -doubt, I'm second-guessing everything I'm writing before I even write it and slowing myself down to a crawl in the process.

Thing is, a huge part of this draft two process has involved some major reorganization of the plot; moving events around, adding structure in that previously wasn't there but should have been, taking parts out that didn't need to be there even though they seemed like they did in draft one - not to mention big changes to allocated 'screen time' for various characters. It's rewriting in the most literal sense - as if draft one was actually draft zero and this current draft two is the 'real' draft one. (Which is what happens when you pants it rather than outline beforehand, I suppose - yes, all you Outlining Fans, consider my wrists well and truly slapped, I hear you now.)

And maybe that's what's causing the slowdown in my word count. I have outlined the novel now, because - having actually finished a first draft - I've figured out what I was really trying to say all along. So for each and every scene I know what has to occur and how the characters should react and respond - it's all there, in my notes. But because it's re-writing - changing a story I've already written - my brain thinks of it as editing. And perhaps editing is not what this is - or at least, not the mental mindset I should be adopting to do it. Perhaps I should be treating this as if it's my second Draft One instead. Get down the bones and worry about putting the meat on it in the next pass - and the next, and the one after that... it'll be done when it's done, as they say.

Except that's a bit of a depressing thought. It's already taken me two years to get to this stage - and now I'm taking myself a stage backwards again? Back to Draft One Mark II? At this rate I'll be a senior citizen before I get this novel finished!

But here's the thing... I have to finish this novel now. It was easy to abandon all my previous novel attempts, because I felt that I couldn't take them any further anyway at that particular time (which is why I left them languishing in Hard Drive Hades on my computer rather than deleting them completely.) But Redemption is the novel I have to finish writing, and with the aim of making it the very best I can make it. To use a computer gaming analogy, it's like the quest I have to complete before I can Level Up as a writer. And since there's no way I could ever allow myself to do anything but my very best work on it, if it takes me flippin' ages to get it finished.... well, I'm just going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

This is a commitment that feels a lot like a marriage - for better or worse, richer or poorer, 'til death do us part... Is this the way it is for veteran writers too? Is it something of a rite of passage for just your first novel, until you fall into a way of working that just makes writing novels feel like a natural process that ends with 'job done, now on to the next one?'

Is there one particular novel you've written that you feel defined you as a writer?

Saturday, 6 September 2014

6 Reasons Your Reader Doesn't Like Your Hero

A story isn't just about plot - it's about characters as well. Memorable protagonist characters (or heroes) are what make readers stick with a story, if only because they have to know whether or not they make it to the end of the plot. But sometimes those characters are memorable for the wrong reasons.

Most of us can probably think of at least one book they've read (or film they've seen) where they were left thinking "Y'know, I would have loved that story a lot more if I hadn't constantly wanted to kick that character right in his Crumple Zone." A badly-drawn hero can ruin the most exquisitely-crafted story. It's something I've had to think about a lot while writing Redemption, and so I decided to put the good guys in that through some rigorous testing, just to make sure they didn't fit any of the offending criteria (and so I could fix them quick-smart if they did.) What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but picks up on some of  the deadliest of  Protagonist Sins...

1 - Your Hero is Super With A Capital S
Protagonists are of course allowed to have amazing powers and abilities if that's the kind of story you're writing. Readers love a truly badass hero, after all. But there's a big difference between 'badass' and 'invincible.' Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers, I call you to the stand. Now don't get me wrong, I loved me a bit of Buffy as much as the next person  - and there was plenty to love about that series - but one thing that always got to me was her apparently titanium-built body when it came to scrapping with monsters. I mean, seriously - that girl was supposedly a 'normal' high school girl who just happened to battle vampires for a hobby; she was bloody tiny, probably barely even a size 6. And yet whenever she got punched, kicked or even, on numerous occasions, thrown across a room by angry behemoths from the underworld, when the fight was over the most she got to show for it was a couple of cutely asymmetrical facial boo-boos. Are you kidding me? She should've ended up in hospital with at least a couple of broken ribs for half of those ass-kickings!

The point is, if readers come to believe your hero is going to walk away from every instance of brown stuff hitting the fan with little more than messed-up hair, why should they continue to worry about them whenever that happens? And, following on from that, if they don't worry about them when they're in trouble - why should they care either? "He'll get himself out of it 'cause he always does, no need to stick around to find out..." And that's when they toss the book aside. So if your heroes are doing dangerous stuff, don't be afraid to hurt them sometimes. And I mean really hurt them - like 'short vacation in A&E'-type hurt them. They might hate you for it for a while - but your readers won't.

2 - Your Hero is a Shining Example To Us All
Your hero is patient and kind and tolerant. She's funny, smart and multi-talented; everyone loves her and respects her and the only people that don't are the villains - booo, nasty, bad villains! She's the girl every other girl wants to be and every man wants to be with.... yeah, hurry up and pass me that sick-bag, please.

Think back to your high school days for a moment. Remember that girl who was The Most Popular Girl In The School, who looked immaculate and got straight A's in everything and was Head Prefect and always got the lead in every school production? (Clue: there's always one of those in every high school in the world, and it's never you.) Did you feel as if life was that bit more worth living if she thought of you as a friend? Or did you spend the whole time hating her guts while simultaneously feeling vaguely guilty about it?

Exactly. Same with readers and oh-so-perfect characters. Readers will follow a character to the ends of her world if they can relate to her - if it feels like she could be us, or we could be her. Most of us know our own faults and vices even if we don't shout about them to the world, and so we can't relate to perfection in human form. Characters who never show a less-than-perfect side make us as readers feel inadequate by comparison - and are dull as hell to boot. So give your Little Miss Perfect (or Mr - because there is a male equivalent) some honest-to-goodness flaws to balance out the awesomeness. It doesn't have to be anything major - something we could take the piss out of her for on girls' nights, for instance. Most of us do that with our real-life friends and still love them anyway. And you want your hero to feel like a friend to your readers.

3 - Your Hero Gets What She Wants With The Power Of Beautiful
This is otherwise known as Disney Princess Syndrome. Yes of course your protagonist is allowed to be drop-dead gorgeous if your plot demands it - after all, there are real-life people like that so it's not like you'd be defying any universal laws or anything. But things go screwy when your hero wields her gorgeousness like some kind of ramped-up superpower. If everyone around her is falling in love with her because she's sooo beautiful, if people drop everything and move mountains for her just because she chose to point her beautiful face at them and they were helpless to refuse her - if evil henchmen who've been tasked with doing evil things to her find at the crucial moment they simply cannot go through with their evil plan because they looked upon her loveliness and their evil heart spontaneously melted into a puddle of mercy... just, no. That era has gone, folks - we're living in the modern world now, where women can work and vote and - and have opinions and stuff.

The male equivalent of this is of course the super-stud, who has every woman falling hopelessly in lust with him at first sight. A popular staple of action thriller stories, this guy generally gets to have a lot of sex, with women he only met thirty seconds ago but whose knickers spontaneously combust when he smiles at them. And naturally, the sex he provides always rocks said women's world - to the point where they want to be his babe while at the same time being totally okay with the idea that he's probably screwing legions of other random women as well...

Repeat after me: HOTNESS IS NOT AN ACHIEVEMENT. In real life OR in fiction. It's just a circumstance, like being born into a rich family (or the Western World instead of the Third World, if you want to be really blunt about it.) Sure, it has its advantages, but as far as I know, no-one's managed to cure cancer or bring about world peace with it yet (dream on, all you Miss World contestants.)

Some authors have tried to get around this problem in what they imagine to be a very 'creative' way. Does this sound familiar? The character constantly refers to herself as being average-looking - plain, even. Her hair won't do what she wants it to, her clothes aren't right - oh trust me, she, like, totally knows she's nowhere near as pretty as every other girl on the planet. And honestly, why every single person who lays eyes on her immediately wants to date her is, like, a total mystery to her... guess it's just one of those tiresome things she has to deal with in her life...

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. For the love of humanity, do NOT do that. If Angelina Jolie did that, you would have to fight an urge to slap her impossibly flawless face - and don't you dare deny it.

By all means let your hero be hot. But please, please don't let that be their only life skill.

4 - Your Hero's Life Consists Of Standing In A Crapstorm With No Umbrella
Every story needs conflict; it's the engine that drives it. But what makes conflict interesting is seeing what your hero does when faced with it. And if all she does is sigh and suffer her way through it, while everyone else around her does all the hard work of Solving That Shit... she's not a hero and she aint even a saint -  she's just a wimp, pure and simple. An emotional parasite who sits on her arse staring forlornly at the aforementioned Shit, instead of getting up off it and giving that Shit a kicking. (Hmmm... as analogies go that one's pretty disturbing, but it does fit so I'll leave it with you...)

There are people like that in real life - you might even know someone like that. That one who always seems to have ninety-nine problems but doing something about them aint one. You suggest solutions to their problems - even offer to help - but they always brush your offers away and ignore any advice given to them, spouting convoluted reasons about why nothing suggested would 'work.' So the problems remain, and get worse and more complicated - and all they do in response is sigh and look pained and 'soldier on.' In real life, even if you started off being sympathetic you eventually get fed up and leave them to their misery, feeling that if they're never prepared to help themselves then some part of them must want to be the eternal martyr. It's the same in fiction. Readers won't get behind a 'hero' who never fights back - or worse, lets all the other characters do all the fighting for her. Don't have her being 'rescued' by everyone else and his pet chihuahua all the time; let her grab the tools to solve her own problems. Or at the very least, give her the determination to go and find them herself.

5 - Your Hero's Life Is Just, Like, A Neverending Suck of Sucky Suckness
Yeah, being a Hero sucks a lot of the time. A large part of your job description involves being thrown into the depths of all kinds of Hell on a regular basis, purely for the entertainment of those folks called Readers. And yeah, not even the most hard-hearted of those readers would blame you for complaining about that sometimes.


But not all the time.

No matter how crap the world your Hero inhabits might be, if she hates everything about it all the time, and has no friends because nobody understands her, and can't get a break in this life because nobody will even give her a chance... well, most readers are going to think maybe her world and everyone it in might have a point.

Yep, as readers, we get it - your poor hero is trapped in a terrible, life-sapping existence that she's desperate to break free from. The whole point of this story is that she will eventually triumph over all of this adversity and emerge vindicated and victorious. But bloody hell, even Officer Ripley in the Alien movies managed to crack an occasional smile in between the face-huggers and mangled corpses of colleagues. No one wants to hang out with a Moaning Minnie for hours on end, and - surprise! -  they actually want it even less in depressing and dire situations, even if they are only fictional.

So give your poor readers a break and let your sad-sack Hero chew on some happy-flavoured bones now and then. Readers won't stop sympathising with them as a result, or suddenly imagine that all their problems must be solved now 'cause they're smiling, so hurrah end of story, yeah? Let your Hero have people she loves and who love her in her life - even if it's just one. Things she does to escape the pain in her life, even if it's only for a while. And dreams that keep her going when all she feels like doing is giving up. Then you'll give your readers reasons to not only want your Hero to have her happy ending, but to believe she deserved to have it.

6 - Your Hero Does Whatever Shitty Stuff She Wants, Because She's The Hero So It Doesn't Count And Shut Up Already
There's a reason your Hero is called the Hero, and not, say, the Wrecker of Other People's Lives. It's because the reader expects the Hero to ultimately Do The Right Thing to solve the problems presented. Now 'right' doesn't necessarily mean 'legal, or 'intellectually logical' - or even 'honest,' in certain situations. But it should always be the thing the hero chooses to do with good intentions - even if it all goes horribly pear-shaped later. And if that does happen - well, the Hero should feel suitably remorseful about it and try to make amends in some way. What she certainly should not do is shout and scream about how it's everyone else's fault instead, or that those people are horrible anyway so they probably deserved it...

I once beta-read a story where the young female protagonist slept with the bridegroom of her best friend the night before said friend's wedding. Naturally she devoted some sharp internal monologue to what a low-down scumbag this man was  - while she enjoyed some rumpy-time with him. Not only that, but because of his selfish cheating ways the heroine now had to avoid her best friend completely in order to not feel uncomfortable about having secretly bonked him, and this whiny, needy best friend of hers just didn't get that at all. She kept phoning the heroine up all the time, wanting to know why her one-time best friend had suddenly frozen her out, to the point where the heroine felt she was being annoying and extremely inconsiderate and told her to stay out of her life and never call her again. And then later on in the story, when that same heroine's mother confessed that the marriage to her father ended because he found out she had a one-night stand with another man, the heroine's reaction was to be mortified that "all this time, I never even suspected my mother was nothing but a common slut"!

And yet the author was dumbfounded when I said I found the heroine completely unlikeable. Like an over-devoted parent, she had indulged her protagonist's every whim, allowing her to have whatever she wanted just because she wanted it and making excuses for her bad behaviour whenever she threw a hissy fit. And, unsurprisingly, that character had subsequently morphed into the ultimate spoiled brat.

Such people aren't popular even in real life, and readers certainly don't want to be forced to root for them in fiction. Yes, anti-heroes with unlikable elements to their personality can often work, along with protagonists who keep on making the same stupid mistakes until they learn the error of their ways. But in the end it always comes back to good intentions. If the Hero is not at least always trying to do the right thing - and she feels no guilt or refuses to accept any responsibility when she does the wrong thing...  well, sorry, but she's not the true Hero of your story. You should fire or at least demote her, and find another character who's better equipped to handle the role.

Well these are just for starters. What traits do YOU hate in a Hero character? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment.