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? 

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