Saturday, 23 May 2015

Why Writers Shouldn't Be Scared of Bleeding Onto the Page

Can you remember the first piece of writing you ever wrote that really made you cringe? That made you squirm with embarrassment and think "no-one must ever read this - I must burn it to ashes and then bury the ashes under fifty feet of concrete and then deny to my dying day that these ashes ever existed?" (Or, if you're not a teenage me, a little less melodramatic variation?)

If you can, I'm willing to bet it wasn't because that piece of writing was bad from a technical point of view (even if it was, as well.) No, I'm putting money on the actual subject matter being the source of mortification. What began in your brain as passionate stream-of-consciousness prose, pouring unchecked from the very depths of your soul, somehow morphed into one of those embarrassing mental home videos, like the ones your parents always pull out at family get-togethers, because remember how you messed up sooo bad and it was soooo funny when you got so cross because mummy was filming you looking like a prize tool...

Mine, as I've mentioned previously in this blog, was birthed when I was about fourteen. It was a short story about an elder daughter who was sidelined and ignored in favour of her beautiful, popular and much-more-loved-by-everybody younger sister, who also thought, along with everyone else in existence, that my heroine was a massive loser who would never amount to anything. Except - ha HA! - when they both became adults, it was the loser elder daughter who was living the happy, fulfilling life and all the people who ever dissed her who were suffering and discontent... for no discernible reason other than sad-sack teenage writer deemed it so! But of course it was completely fictional - no way on this earth the aforementioned SST-Writer was channelling her real emotions, oh no...

When I found that piece of writing several years later it was excruciating. What I saw wasn't just the scribblings of a young writer trying to grow her wings; I saw a teenager who was angry, confused and in a shitload of mental pain. Or as the nasty little grinch in my head put it "over-sensitive, self-absorbed and childish." And I didn't want to acknowledge that I'd ever been that teenager (because hey, no normal teenagers are ever like that, are they?) I wanted to be the capable, oh-so-together grown-up I was supposed to be, who didn't just let people walk all over her and then whine about how unfair life was. Nobody likes a Moaning Minnie - and I was pretty sure I had enough reasons already for people not to like me...

Think back to that piece of yours that makes you cringe - or, even better, if you've still got it somewhere go dig it out. It's okay, I'll wait. It it basically a fictional (or even non-fictional) smokescreen over past moments in your real life when you were actually, truly hurting inside?

That's probably why you hate it.

Hemingway called it 'bleeding onto the page' - when you draw on the very real pain, anger and confusion from your own life and use it to fuel your fiction. It's lauded as the thing all writers should do if they want their work to sing with truth, and definitely something most writers strive for in terms of improving at their craft.

But here's the thing; even the most stupid of people associate blood pouring out of their body in a place it's not designed to as a sign that something's gone horribly wrong somewhere. It usually scares enough crap out of them to motivate them into trying to stop it. And that same instinct kicks in when writers 'bleed' emotionally as well. It's bloody scary, seeing a page of your work, made by you and nobody else, covered in stuff that's supposed to be hidden away deep inside of you - where it belongs, thank you very much...

At first, when you're still a young writer - and I'm talking in terms of experience rather than actual age here - it can be too scary. You back away with this creeping sense that maybe you've gone a bit Dr Frankenstein, and this creature you've created might actually be a monster. You might get your Mr Rochester on and decide the best place to keep it is locked away in an attic, where no-one else can ever see it and be hurt by it and you can pretend it doesn't exist anymore. Or you might even summon up your inner Frodo and decide it must be cast back into the evil fires from which it was created and melted out of existence before it destroys the world. But ultimately, you walk away, because no-one wants to see your inner pain, right? Can't put it out there, all naked and raw, for others to see. It's too much, too personal. Too dangerous.

Most of the malformed corpses of stories I've abandoned in the past have fallen into this category. I got to a stage where I was starting to say things I wasn't comfortable with people knowing I was saying, and rather than sticking with it and writing through it, I walked away. It's partly why I switched to writing lyrics for so long; you can only 'bleed onto the page' in short bursts and at a more superficial level for a three-to-four-minute song, and I could handle that.

But now I'm writing Redemption, and it's not so much bleeding as ripping out my heart and smooshing it all over the page like I'm garlic-rubbing a chicken for the oven. There are more times than I can count when that feels hella wrong, believe me. If I had a pound for every time I've asked myself "should I be writing this?"... well, I could buy my own publishing company and self-publish the book without giving one single monkeys if no-one on the planet bought it, ever. But actually, that last point is the thing that's made the difference this time around.

This time around, I'm prepared to put myself on the line and let the potential audience decide. Give people the chance to hate it if they're going to, rather than decide for them that they will and then walk away, like I always did before. Warriors don't become warriors by being invincible right from the start; they have to cock things up a few times first, and then learn from the experience and do it better next time. And they certainly can't run screaming from the battlefield at the sight of their own blood.

If you're a writer, you're also a warrior - a Warrior of Words. We're gonna bleed, guys, and it's gonna hurt like hell. But it's part of the job, and what we signed up for even if we didn't read that in the small print at the time. So we might as well start getting used to it.

Next time something you're writing makes you think "Should I be writing this? Is this too much, too controversial? Is it wrong for me to put this in here?" look that Inner Grinch straight in the eye and say "Shuddup and let me write, dude." And keep right on writing it. Elbow-deep in all that blood. Your blood.

You earned the mental scars that helped you create that stuff, and this is your chance to own them. Not to endure them as some sort of Badge of Shame that you got for screwing up or not being good enough that one time, but to put them out there and say "Yeah, this is real shit and it happens, so let's deal with it."

Sure, some people won't want to. They might even jump on you for making them see this thing they'd much rather close their ears to and go "la la la, can't hear you so it doesn't exist." Not everyone is willing or able to face the things that scare them. Doesn't matter - you're not writing for them anyway.

You're a warrior. So get out there and fight.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

When Are You Good Enough To Call Yourself A Writer?

I did a scary thing the other day. Scary because it felt foolhardy, in a burning-your-bridges, no-coming-back-from-this-one-chutney kind of way.

I told someone I was a writer. In the real, non-internet world so he was, like, a living breathing person right in front of me as opposed to a name and a photo on a web page. Just came right out and said it, like it was normal conversation.

And I didn't even say it in that wishy-washy, half-assed sense of "Oh y'know, in my spare time when I'm not watching Deadliest Catch or playing Gems of War, I do a bit of writing." Just proper put it out there and made it sound like... well y'know, my actual job - "Oh, I'm a writer."

Of course my brain immediately went into Panic Mode and inwardly-screamed "Shud-UP, fool! Why'd you go and say that? Now they're going to be looking at you and thinking you hang out with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, you dummy - when the only Stephen King you've ever known was a boy in your class at school who just happened to have the same name and barely noticed your existence!" (True story. Especially the second part, sadly. Oh, the curse of the teenage crush...) I hope it didn't show on my face at the time, but I suspect there was a least a hint of the rabbit-caught-in-headlights in my eyes...

Because saying you're a writer - even if that's what you genuinely do - isn't like saying you're a doctor or a lawyer, for example. A doctor or a lawyer has no qualms about calling themselves what they are, because they've been to the appropriate school and earned the magic piece of paper that proclaims "Congratulations! You have now earned the right to call yourself what you've just spent the past bunch of years studying to be!" And then some hospital or law firm hires them and off they go to do their job - heck, they even get to dress the part. And when you watch them at work, they are genuinely doing the kind of doctor-y or lawyer-y things that only a person with the appropriate magic piece of paper is legally allowed to do.

But a writer? They don't get the magic piece of paper saying it's officially okay to call themselves that. Oh sure, there are things like MFAs and Creative Writing degrees and all that stuff... but let's face it, in terms of career legitimacy they're just icing, slathered on top of an already-existing cake, to make it look and taste better. The pieces of paper you get from one of those courses don't have the same legally-binding power as a medical or law degree - "Here is your certificate, bestowed only upon those we have deemed worthy of the title of Writer. You are hereby permitted to go forth and write." You don't need an MFA or a Creative Writing Degree to be a writer, and you're certainly not going to be arrested or slapped with a malpractice suit if you write without one. In short, any old Joe Public and his dog can sit in front of a computer, typewriter or notepad and pen and become a writer, right now and on the spur of the moment if the fancy takes them.

And therein lies the problem. There are no entry restrictions, no industry codes of practice and no quality control procedures, so it's basically an open-house free-for-all. This is even more true since self-publishing got a bomb up its arse with the advent of Smashwords, Amazon KDP and their ilk; suddenly people who were producing ten-page 'novels' consisting of fifty shades of badly-spelled, dinosaur porn could feasibly be classed as 'authors' because they'd managed to dupe ten relatives into buying their work for 99 pence a pop. Along with 'authors' of badly-spelled and grammatically incoherent ten-page manuals about how to make a fortune writing novels.

Of course there are also a lot of highly talented authors out there who produce incredible work that we might never have got to read without the freedom these new self-publishing options offer - but unfortunately they're floating around in a bloody big ocean, and as yet there's no way of filtering them out from the aforementioned garbage bobbing up and down with them. So how in the world is a struggling writer supposed to know if they're 'good enough' to wear their colours with conviction? Because surely, only if you are 'good enough' have you truly earned the right to call yourself a Writer with a capital W. But 'good enough' compared to who? To Stephen King and J.K. Rowling? To the purveyors of ten-page spelling-and-grammar-abominations? To whoever falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes?

Well, I reckon if you're asking yourself "am I good enough?" that's already a good sign. The people who don't regularly ask themselves this question are the ones who don't feel a need, because they've already decided what the answer is - and that's fatal, because a question considered definitively answered is a question that never gets re-examined. If you're good enough already, why bother improving? Why go the extra mile of trying to become better?

A large part of the reason Stephen King still sells his stories in the gazillions is because even he still asks himself if he's 'good enough' every time he sits down to write (as opposed to just thinking "Hmm, think I'll just kick back and crank out some brain-candy while I contemplate my navel, 'cause let's face it, everything I write is gonna sell...") Which leads me to think that, if you wait until you're 'good enough' before you summon up the courage to wear the writer badge... well, you might end up waiting forever.

So when are you 'good enough' to call yourself a writer? There's no way of measuring, so don't wait for the moment to arrive. Haven't had anything published yet? You're still a writer. Haven't earned any money from anything you have published? Still a writer. The only qualification that matters for being a writer is that you write - simples. Don't worry about being 'good enough' or 'worthy' of owning the title, because, like the stuff you write, you're a constant work-in-progress in that sense. Writing is one of those jobs where you learn the most valuable lessons by just doing it; having a go and either succeeding or (more often) messing it up and trying an alternative strategy.

So go on, take a deep breath and say it - "I'm a Writer." Say it the next time someone asks you "So what do you do then?" It might be scary. You might feel a little bit like the kid in the playground who tells ridiculous lies to big themselves up amongst their mates. But once you've said it, you'll be that little bit more determined to live up to it. And, if writing really is your passion, that can only be a good thing.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

How Sorting Out My Plot is a lot like Sorting Out My Other Plot

Way back in 2014 I talked about how I'd managed to bag meself an allotment plot, for the purpose of growing my own fruit and veg in the future instead of bothering the likes of Tesco and co. Not that it was in any fit state for that at the time; the plot I'd inherited hadn't been touched in two years, and as a result looked like part of the set for Jurassic Park (except minus the dinosaurs. At least, I assumed there weren't any - but it was hard to tell what might've been lurking in there...) Lotta work to be done before I could get it even close to cultivatable (is that a word? 'Tis now.)

Fast-forward about six months through a cold and soggy winter, and that plot has now had a serious shave and a haircut. I have three patches I've worked over enough to actually have some seeds of the vegetable kind planted in them (and *fingers crossed* growing as we speak) and another five big brown squares that I'm still working on, but should be able to bring up to standard ready for my baby seedlings I'm currently nursing indoors on every available windowsill. Happy days!

But lordy, it's hard work. This is good though, especially - surprisingly - for my writing. Going to the allotment and doing some heavy-duty digging, lifting and shifting for an hour or so before I sit down to write seems to have improved my ability to focus - not to mention dramatically improved my ability to stay awake at my keyboard without the aid of medicinal chocolate and copious amounts of tea and coffee. Heck, if I carry on like this I might even end up looking like Kim Kardashian! (Well, okay then, maybe her mother... hang on, that's Kris Jenner - oh heck no, scratch that...)

But anyway, back to the important improvements. Far from getting less writing done and not meeting my weekly targets for hours and wordcounts, as I'd feared might happen once I started tackling my allotment in earnest, I've actually been exceeding them. I haven't needed twenty-minute 'top-up' naps during the day anymore. And I can go to sleep at night and only wake up about once or twice during that night, as opposed to every hour-and-a-half as had been the norm for me for god knows how long. I'm even having actual dreams again - and this time not the kind I don't remember but still wake me up with a pounding heart and the vague feeling I might have been crying. I'm talking proper dreams, with plots and characters and everything.

And maybe as a result of all this, I'm feeling a lot more positive about my writing - and my progress with Redemption. And as I've been knee-deep in soil and garden tools, I've noticed that some of the things I'm having to do to get my land in shape are very similar to things I'm doing to get my novel in shape too.

A large part of a second draft involves working out what you really meant to say in your first draft. The ideas are... kind of there, but it's as if you enlisted the help of some very drunk person to speak on your behalf, who only half read the memo and is really more interested in getting back to the bar and necking some tequila slammers. So after a period of leaving your first draft to mature you go back to it and you start the process of digging - just like I've been doing with my allotment. And just like in my allotment, this has meant digging my fork in really deep and turning everything over, to expose what's underneath that surface layer. You find a lot of surprises that way - both good and bad.

The good ones in my allotment have been worms and centipedes (good for the soil) and plants already there that I can still harvest (a massive clutch of rhubarb that'll be ready in a couple of weeks.) In my novel, it's been new depths to characters that I didn't notice before, extra nuggets of setting I can add in from further research I've done and places where I can strengthen and polish the themes. Bad things? Well, in my allotment it's been weeds that were sown by the devil himself - bindweed, thistles and couch grass, all with mahoosive roots that go down so far they have an Australian accent by the time you get to the bottom of them. In my novel it's weeds of a different kind; repeated words and phrases, using words that look different but are basically saying the same thing again that I just said (see what I did there?) And not forgetting, in my desperate bid to Show Not Tell, so many gestures and movements and - oh god! - soooo much looking, staring and turning to - that in some scenes my poor old characters read like Thunderbirds puppets on crack.

In both cases, it's been tough and dirty work, but worth the effort. And... it's been fun too. So I shall continue with both projects in tandem. With any luck, I shall eventually end up with both a completed novel worthy of publishing and dinner.