Saturday, 31 October 2015

3 Writing Monsters That Aren't Just for Halloween

Don't letcha Evil Bonnie getcha!
Since it's Halloween, I thought I might take the opportunity to discuss... the evil monsters lurking in the dark of the writer's mind. Because, since they're not limited to showing up only when the trick-or-treaters come round, they can be a lot more destructive a lot more of the time.

All writers have 'em. Yep, even the likes of Stephen King (and we're not talking the kind he likes to write about.) They can be habits that drag us into a rut, they can be destructive self-beliefs that are hard to shake off or they can be the damning voices of criticism from our own Inner Grinches. All of them can bring writing sessions to a screaming halt - sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. They're often the real reason behind Writer's Block, that phenomenon that may or may not exist depending on which side of the fence you stand on. 

Me, I got flippin' loads of 'em. This is why I've never even considered auditioning for The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent (I mean, apart from the fact I'd probably be laughed off the stage - and not in a good way.) Those same bugaboos that hit me in the writing doldrums would have an absolute field day if I ever decided to stand in front of Lord Cowell and his Big Red Buzzer. 

Well, they say the best way to deal with your inner fears is to face them head-on. And what better way to do that than list three of the biggies on a blog page and make them all terrifyingly public, eh? Hey - I'm doing it so you don't have to (unless of course you want to, in which case, come join the party! I got cake!) Let's do this...

1 - I cannot write unless The Muse is In The House

That feeling of sitting in front of a blank page when the brain-champagne just isn''t flowing is a soul-crushing one, I know. When this happens, writers are faced with a stark choice. They can either:

A) - continue sitting in front of that page and filling it with whatever crap they can pull out of their head - knowing, with every word, that it is pure, steaming crap and they're probably going to junk the whole lot when they read it back tomorrow...

B) - or they can say "the time is not right. I'm not in a Creative Frame of Mind today, so it's pointless for me to strain my poor artist's brain in this barbaric manner. I shall come back tomorrow, renewed and refreshed."

B is what happens when the writer believes that their creativity comes from some 'other' place, outside of them but channelled directly into their brain when the stars have aligned and their creative brain is most receptive to these psychic messages from the imaginosphere. Which sounds very lovely and spiritual on paper... but kind of makes your creativity a jailer and you its prisoner. If you have to wait for your Muse to show up before you can start writing... well, what happens if he's a massive tool who suddenly decides he doesn't want to hang out with you any more? How hard are you prepared to grovel, beg, offer up sacrifices to him in a desperate bid to persuade him to keep shaking his magic booty for you?

Don't let your creativity be the boss of you - you gotta be the boss. That's why A is most often the better option, even if it's the more painful one. Because even the worst writing in the world can be made better, and even if it really, truly can't... you've still done your mental push-ups for the day. Think of it in the way an athlete might think of training for a marathon. He might go out to run on a day when it's hacking down with rain, so he gets wet and cold and miserable, and then a bunch of kids laugh at him and call him a loser, and then some arsehole in a range rover ploughs through a puddle and tsunamis him, and then some little old lady's dog snaps at his ankles as he sloshes past...

Does he think the whole session was an utter waste of time when he gets home, simply because he was miserable for nine-tenths of it? No. He put the time in and worked his muscles. And your creativity is a muscle too. Use it or become the writerly equivalent of Homer Simpson.

2 - I cannot write if I don't have my [insert Special Thing here.]

I'll come clean - I am soooo guilty of this one. With me, it's Special Candles, Special Music and chocolate (all chocolate is special by default.) My candles must be scented - but they must be the right kind of scented; foody-type scented like Honey and Vanilla rather than Toilet-Duck-type scented like Midnight Rain (who decides what 'midnight rain' smells like anyway? Do they have the meteorological qualifications to make that call?) The Special Music must be instrumental (lyrics are too distracting) and atmospheric but not too spiritually uplifting (in case I get too lost in it and forget I'm supposed to actually be writing stuff.) Oh, and it also has to be only just loud enough for me to hear; not loud enough to distract me but also not so quiet I can't hear it over the other distractions I'm trying to distract myself from with my Special Music. Chocolate just has to... be chocolate.

If I have all three of these Special Things going on for my writing session - man, I am going to kick ass! I will be totally in the zone and everything that flies out of my brain will be solid gold keepers, for sure. Except of course when it isn't - but that's okay, because I don't remember those times anyway because selective dissociation... however, I do remember every single time where I didn't have my Special Things and my writing suffered as a direct result of that...

It's all tosh, of course. Breathing in nice smells, chillaxing to mood music and shovelling chocolate in my face definitely improve my mood - but do they really have a magical mojo effect on my writing? Even now, my heart wants to say yes, but my brain has got her sensible pants on and says no, of course they don't. I've written some pretty good stuff without all that palaver going on, and, if I'm honest with myself, I also know I've written the equivalent of steaming horse-dump while high as a kite on my Special Things triad.

And Special Things come in all sorts of guises. Some people feel they can only concentrate on their writing when the house is tranquil and close to silent - i.e. spouse and child-free. Others need their 'proper writing space,' with a big desk and all their equipment within an arm's reach. Nice if you can get it, obviously - but real life isn't always that obliging. And many successful authors didn't get those kind of optimal environments until after they hit paydirt - which means they must have first spent an awful lot of time putting up with less-than-ideal conditions and carrying on writing anyway...

Special Things are nice to have... as a little treat. They're even good for motivation when you really don't feel like writing ("just write for an hour and you can have that luvverly chocolate bar that's siren-calling you from the fridge!") But letting them become the equivalent of your lucky rabbit's foot ("I can't write without it - it brings me luck!") is, like the Muse above, just another way of making some otherworldly thing responsible for your creativity rather than owning it yourself. You make the magic happen, not your talismans. If background noise distracts you, wear headphones (fun fact: even if you don't even listen to anything through those headphones, just the feeling of having something blocking your ears can be enough to 'cancel out' background distractions.) Try writing something away from your writing space, even if that means doing it the Stone Age way with a pen and notebook. Embrace the power of adaptivity!

3 - This book/I will never be good enough, and I'm too deluded to see how terrible it really is/I really am.

I saved the worst for last. You're welcome. It's that feeling, when you're squirreling away at your latest w-i-p, that comes over you in a flash and sucks the love right out of you - "Why the heck am I still bothering with this? No-one's going to read it, and if they do they're going to hate it... why did I ever imagine this was something anyone would want to read? Everyone's going to tell me I suck and I should never write another thing ever again, not even a shopping list..."

It's your Inner Grinch, popping up to mess with your head. His official job is to make sure you never settle for half-assedness (or at least, that's what he'll tell you if you ask him) but he often goes a bit overboard, because, well, he's a bit of a dick like that. And you take everything he says to heart, because you do actually care about your writing and you really don't want to inflict donkey-barf on your reading public... and props to you for that, because it's the right attitude to have. But you're probably judging yourself way too harshly.

Want proof? Allow me to introduce you to... the world of e-book self-publishing!

Now don't get me wrong. There are some fabulous e-books out there where the authors went completely indie and did it all themselves, from writing the thing in the first place to designing the cover, compiling the whole thing into e-book format, self-publishing it through one of the many digital options available now (Amazon, Smashwords, CreateSpace et al) and all their own marketing. Indeed, I've read and loved quite a few that are of a quality easily equal to anything published by the Big Six.

But... I've also seen a metric tonne of self-published e-books of woeful quality (thank the stars for Amazon's 'Look Inside!' feature, which must surely have saved millions from making the mistake of actually parting with money for those atrocities.) And by woeful quality I don't mean I just didn't dig the story, or the author's 'voice,' or the subject matter they were writing about. I mean they were badly written at even a basic, technical level. Littered with typos and spelling and grammar errors, sometimes to the point of wondering whether what you're reading is actually in English. Characters changing the spelling of their names, their hair and eye colours and even their genders - sometimes in the space of a single paragraph - not as part of the plot but simply because the author wasn't paying attention and couldn't even be arsed to do the most basic of proof-reads before hitting 'publish.'

Obviously no book will please all of the people all of the time. I recently read a brilliant self-published sci-fi e-novel about a same-sex relationship between a civilian man and a cyborg-soldier who deserts to live a normal life with his lover, and while I loved it I can imagine how hard it would have been for that author to persuade any of the Big Six to even consider it for publication, because, sooo not mainstream, y'know? On the other hand, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series has been hugely successful, gaining millions of adoring fans... but I would rather watch paint dry than read any more of it than I tried to, not because of any perception about the writing quality but because it's just not my thing.

But, even when you encounter the badly-proof-read, shoddily-cobbled-together messes I mentioned previously, a quick look at the accompanying figures show that some people out there in cyberspace are actually buying - and, presumably reading - even these books. Of course, it's highly likely it's the last book they ever read by that author in most cases, but still... it begs the question: how confident of their writing abilities must those authors have been that they would have slapped up the first draft of their novel for public consumption without even bothering to read it through for mistakes? "Pfffft, nooo, I don't need to check it, I'm frickin' George R.R. Tolkien, I am!"

If you're doubting your own writing skills, and worrying that you're not 'good enough' to publish anything... chances are pretty damn solid that you're already a lot better than those jokers. And some folks out there have actually bought their books. A few might even have... actually liked them - enough to look past the structural and technical car-crashes because they just really dug the story that author was (albeit cack-handedly) trying to tell. Let's be realistic here, those numbers will be teeny-tiny and there aint no way in hell those 'authors' are gonna make any kind of proper living out of their writing unless they pull their socks up. But one thing you can't argue with: they didn't let their self-doubts stop them from putting their work out there for people to see, Why then, as someone who does care enough about the quality of their work to want it to be the best it can be, should you?

Yeah... not everyone's going to love your stuff. And, certainly to start with, you're going to be writing stuff that... isn't that good. (Trust me, when you re-read some things you wrote ten years ago that you thought were fab at the time it can be a cringeworthy experience - been there, done that, worn the *embarrassedface.*) But that's why we keep writing; to learn from what we did before and get better and better. This isn't like The Hunger Games - it's not 'kill or be killed' every time you write something you want others to see. It's a series of stepping stones to where you want to be. Occasionally you'll slip off and get an icy, dunked ass. But that's when you get back up and carry on, because the stones will still be there.

What are YOUR Writing monsters? 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Why the Drafts Don't Get Easier As You Go Along

As I said in a previous post, I recently spent a week in hospital with cellulitis and blood poisoning, which temporarily nixed any opportunities for productive work on Redemption.

That was about a month ago now, and, yeah, I have been working on it again since then. But progress has been slow. This is Draft Three of the story now, and even though I've got the whole plot sorted out and properly hanging together thanks to the detailed outline I finally managed to draw up (after a draft one of pantsing and then a draft two of... well, basically slightly more organised pantsing) I'm not exactly banging out the word-count like a monkey on Sunny D.

This has been confusing for me. Surely, now that I've got a proper, scene-by-scene breakdown to work to, the words should come thicker and faster, right? I mean, the hard part - the planning and plotting - has already been done, and all that's left is putting the meat on the fully-functioning skeleton. So why did I just spend nearly fifteen minutes swapping between typing 'as he ran past' and 'and ran past' because I couldn't decide which sounded better? Why is writing this starting to feel like trying to explain quantum string theory to my mum after I've drunk several Jaegerbombs?

I'm pretty sure it's not because the uber-doses of antibiotics I've had to take in the past month have eaten large chunks of my brain away and now I'm an imbecile. Could it be my period of AWOL from Redemption has left me feeling distanced from it? Maybe... but again, my outline should help me get over that hurdle. It surely couldn't be because I've fallen out of love with the story and I'm secretly not that into writing it any more, could it? Nope, that definitely isn't true; thanks again to my proper, working outline, I'm probably more pumped about the story now than I've ever been.

So what the heck's going on then?

I asked several writer friends about this - authors who are further down the novel-writing path than I am - and it seems this is actually normal. The most organised outline in the history of outlining can tell you everything you need to say to tell your story - but it can't tell you how you're going to say it.  And since the point of each successive draft is for it to be better than the ones before... the pressure's on before you even commit fingers to keyboard, whether you're consciously aware of it or not.

Deep down, I know this third draft can't suck at the same level as my first and second ones sucked; I've got to up my game or I'm just wasting my time. So I'm reviewing each sentence as I write it, checking it for quality against the blueprints of my previous drafts. After all, I don't want to repeat the same mistakes...

But then I risk creating whole new ways to doof this third draft up - as a result of trying too hard to avoid those previous mistakes. Annnd maybe I'm thinking about that a little too much as well. I know my characters way better now than I did in my previous drafts, and... okay, maybe I've started to care about them enough to want to make sure I don't misrepresent them - yep, even the villains of the piece. Things matter more now; getting it right matters more. Which means the fear of getting it wrong looms that much bigger as well.

That's why, as my author friends confirmed, the drafts get harder each time, instead of easier.

And since things that get harder need more work and take longer... it all adds up to the prospect of 'less fun.' But that's the cold, harsh truth of it; writing a novel isn't always fun. There are times - sometimes long, lonely times - when it totally sucks, and every session in front of the computer feels like eye surgery without an anaesthetic. And that's when the writer has to get their Inner Masochist on and knuckle down, no matter how much they don't feel like doing it.

For my part, I want to complete Redemption to a standard good enough to publish, however long that takes me. Heck, it's gone past that; I need to do it (and will do it) before I can write any other novel ever. A huge part of any writer's determination to complete a novel comes from believing in the story they're writing, and I do believe in Redemption (even in those dark moments when I'm utterly convinced that I'll never be a good enough writer and I'm just deluding myself that I have any talent at all...)

When you love your novel and believe in it, it can feel like you're in one of those toxic relationships where the object of your affection treats you with disdain but you keep on giving them chances. Non-writers will look at you with pity and shake their heads, wondering why you put yourself through this when you could just save yourself the heartache and move on - but you keep going, because you know in your heart that you're meant to be together and it'll all work out in the end. We're a pretty bonkers lot like that.

So let's embrace the Hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would be doing it. Yes, I know when it comes to writing novels it sometimes seems like everyone is doing it, but honestly, for every ten people that start writing one, only one or two will actually finish it. Whatever it takes to motivate; the allure of potential fame and fortune, the thrill of seeing your work 'out there' for others to read - or even the promise of a mountain of chocolate as a reward for getting the job done. (Whaddya mean, you haven't done that? Doesn't everybody do that?)

What do you tell yourself to help you keep on trucking when the going gets tough?

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Who's Writing Your Novel?

I know - you're the one with your bum glued to the chair, making words and smooshing them together to make story-things. But it's the characters you create that make all that stuff happen. So... how do see your role in that process? Are you a Puppet Master, making your little pretend people dance to your tune - or are you David Attenborough, spying from conveniently-placed bushes and reporting everything in hushed tones of reverence? In other words, do your characters 'write your story for you,' or they merely your actors, following the script you devise for them?

True Believers - the ones who favour the David Attenborough approach - will say things like "The characters in my stories are real people to me - they have their own agendas and I can't make them do anything they don't want to do." Meanwhile, Architects regard characters as simply part of the overall construction; to them, treating their characters as sacred makes no more sense than saying mortar is more special than bricks when it comes to building a house. And of course, both camps strive for 'characters that feel real in their stories; that their readers can connect with - even if they don't particularly like them.

But it can all go horribly pear-shaped too. No matter whether you believe your characters are semi-sentient beings living inside your story-brain or the building blocks of your story-sculpture, sometimes they just won't do what you want them to do. They throw their toys out of the pram, the pieces won't fit together properly... pick your poison, the end result is the same. You find yourself saying some variation of  "She won't do this anymore! I needed her to do this thing but now I can't make it work and I don't know what to dooo!"

How can this have happened? How can people that were made by you, in your own head, suddenly turn around and do a Kanye West on you with the plot you carefully and lovingly constructed for them? And more importantly, what's the solution? Do you treat them like real-life rock stars and bend over backwards to please them - the natural instinct of the True Believer? Or do you, as the Architect,  get your own Inner Kanye on and decide that, actually, you are the God around here and you decide what goes down?

If you're a True Believer, you're faced with two options. Option One is to find someone else to carry out the part of the plot your troublesome diva character won't, or change your plot to fit in with what said diva 'wants' to do instead. This may still require at least some plot tinkering, because even once you've found your willing backup character, if he wasn't around for that moment originally you'll have to engineer some way to put him there now, that makes sense and doesn't muck things up for other characters or plot points ("but he can't be rescuing Mildred's cat from the burning building - he's supposed to be bonking Pedro's wife in a grungy motel two hundred miles away!")

If that's not possible, you're left with option two - and that's not automatically a bad thing. You might only have to tweak things a bit, so that you change a few events but everything still basically heads in the same direction. You might even find you like the new ideas much better than the old ones. But sometimes the changes you have to make are so radical that it means you're now telling a different story from the one you set out to tell. And that's fine - as long as you're more emotionally invested in your characters than the story they're enacting for you. But if the original story was one that was dear to your heart - that made a point that your storyteller soul felt driven to put out into the world - and now that message has been sacrificed for the 'integrity' of your characters... well, it might be difficult to tell the new story with the same passion. Especially if a part of you is still grieving for the loss of the old one...

By now the Architects will be facepalming at the whole touchy-feeliness of the above and crying "Oh for god's sake, get a grip!" Since they view their stories and their characters like an infinitely-supplied box of LEGO, their attitude is that they built this world and the characters in it, and if some of them bricks aint doing what they oughtta they're gonna get a smiting from the all-business Hand of Story God. Characters and plots can be broken apart just as easily and efficiently as they were made, and then rebuilt into whatever serves the story they're determined to tell. Hermione's phobia of clowns means she won't date Frank, the Ronald McDonald mascot at her local fast-food joint? Pffft, get rid of her phobia then. Or have Frank flipping burgers instead. No biggie - as far as an Architect's concerned, making it all work together is surgery, not psychiatry. No mourning the demise of the Story From Their Soul for them...

What they have to watch out for though, is that they don't allow this single-minded approach to blinker them. While it's certainly possible to 'change' a character to fit the story by removing certain personality traits and replacing them with more suitable ones, Architects need to be sure they're not doing so purely through stubborn determination to make that character fit no matter what. Because if it's done badly or with poor judgement, you get the Frankenstein's monster effect where it looks like a character has been randomly bolted together from a mix of different kits, just so that it will behave the way it 'should' at any given moment.

And this is why character biographies are a writer's best friend - whether you're a True Believer or an Architect. Sometimes just tinkering with one key event in a character's backstory can be enough to change their personality completely, believably - and, crucially - in ways that better fit their role in your story ("Mungo always felt inferior to his older brother, who was lauded as 'the smart one.' What if Mungo was the smart one instead, and felt that his brother resented him for it?") You can go as deep as you feel you need to; some writers approach it in the same way as a therapist might profile one of their long-term patients, while others include even the teeny-weeny tidbits like favourite colours, tv shows and ice-cream flavour. (Personally I feel the latter is where you can potentially cross the line from Useful Knowledge to Pointless Time-sink, unless knowing that level of trivia actually plays some crucial part in the story. But hey, if it ices your gateaux, have at it...)

So... which are you? Are you firmly one or the other, a bit of both - or do you flip between the two depending on what you're writing? (I'm probably more inclined to the last one.) How do you deal with the challenges of 'unruly' characters? I'd love to know.