Monday, 15 August 2016


One of the hoariest old writing chestnuts out there is 'write what you know.'

This is good advice, especially when you know that it doesn't prohibit you from writing about alien invasions or shape-shifting demons or even how to commit the perfect murder, because of a wonderful thing called extrapolation. You may not have direct experience of any of the aforementioned scenarios (in fact I hope you don't) but you can combine research with feelings and motivations you've experienced in your own life that would likely parallel what's going on in your characters' lives. Or you could actually be writing biographies - either your own or those of friends, relatives or clients who've hired you for the purpose. But either way, most, if not all, fiction writers find little bits of their own lives and selves creeping into their stories. It's certainly true for me, and in the many years I've been writing made-up stories, here's what I've discovered about the little sand grains of truth that end up in the oyster of fictional stories.

1 - You already do it more often than you think.

I would never describe my current w-i-p Redemption as an autobiography. For a start, it's a sci-fi story set some thirty years in the future in a completely different country, so how could it be? And while there always was one particular incident, even in my first draft, that I was fully aware contained elements of things I'd actually experienced, the rest were purely made-up scenarios from my imagination. Or so I believed back then.

But of course a first draft is just the initial brain-emptying stage, where you vomit everything onto the page without editing or analysing it too much. Now I've got the whole thing planned out into a coherent plot, I can see there's much more of my life in there than I ever realised; certain characters that are eerily similar to people I've known, futuristic environments that operate similar regimes to some from my past. They're not straight-up depictions of those things, obviously - more like the view you might get from one of those carnival mirrors - but they're in there all the same. I'll probably be the only one who ever sees them all clearly, although some of the people who are close to me might hazard the odd guess at a few of them. 

This of course is what happens when you go deep into a character's feelings and emotions. For the writer, the only way to connect is to empathise - and to do that, you have to use those moments in your own life where you've felt the same way you imagine your character feels right now. The good news is, unless those moments in your real life were particularly unusual, the average reader's not going to connect it to anything specific from your real life. Well, unless you decide to go on Barbara Walter's show and do a tearful confessional, I suppose.

2 - It can be therapeutic.

In my real life, I have been through Some Stuff. Stuff that resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and an 11-month stay in a psychiatric unit as an outpatient following a mental breakdown back in my mid-twenties. I'm better now, thanks (and thankfully) but there are still things that, to this day, I cannot bring myself to talk about. To anyone, ever. But that doesn't matter, because I have been able to write about them instead. 

Kind of. 

Again, it's like the carnival mirror analogy. By twisting it into a different shape and making it look like something else entirely, I've talked about it in Redemption and in some of my other works without directly talking about it. This means I can express my pent-up feelings about those things , but through the mouth and mind of a fictional character instead. And since I would never judge another human being - even a fictional one, as it turns out - as harshly as I judge myself, I'm essentially giving myself a free pass to have all those feelings 'for the good of the story.' Have them, explore them and then... well, maybe not completely exorcise them, but at least render them harmless in my day-to-day life.

It's not all warm hugs and self-acceptance, mind. Writing out your demons can burn emotionally and mentally, leaving you feeling like the loser in a boxing match. All too often you can find yourself thinking "Should I be writing this at all? Am I just being self-indulgent - is it fair of me to inflict this awful dark stuff on readers?" 

Well clearly George R.R. Martin was never troubled by such doubts, and he's done alright as a result. It's natural to feel all kinds of guilt and embarrassment about 'bleeding onto the page' in this way because, for you at least, it's personal. But it isn't for the average reader. And no matter how dark you might think your story could be, there's next to no chance some other author somewhere hasn't gone way darker. Seriously, it's been done already.

3 - Sweet sweet karma, baby!

Linking into the previous one here, but in everyone's past there are people from the past who did and said stuff that... just didn't make sense. That playground bully, the teacher who inexplicably hated you, and don't even get you started on that asshole boss you had, right? Why you? What in the holy heck did you do to make them single you out for their douchebaggery? Or maybe there was a relationship that crashed and burned and you never figured out why. That's the beauty of writing fiction; you get a chance to recreate the people and the situations and re-enact them - only this time you get to choose the outcome!

It's tempting to do it as a kind of revenge-fest - and that may be how it starts out - but more often than not something else happens. Because writing a well-rounded and believable character requires getting inside their head, understanding their motivations and realising that they at least believe they're doing the 'right' thing, so you often end up seeing their point of view, even empathising with their reasons for doing what they do. Suddenly you see the desperate insecurity behind that crazy ex's jealous tantrums, or how that smarmy boss who kept taking credit for other people's ideas spent every working day terrified his own bosses might find out he's not as dynamic and smart as he seems. The lust for revenge cools into something more like pity, as you realises their behaviour toward you wasn't about you at all - they had their own problems and demons to deal with. And even if you still can't forgive the real people your pretend ones represent... well, you've called them out now, haven't you? Doesn't even matter if no-one else ever knows it but you - the karma is still warm and fuzzy.

4 - ...But maybe don't serve it raw, yeah?

I wrote a post a while back about writing your Screw You Piece. As I said in that, every writer does it at some point in their life, I sure as hell did it and I still believe every writer should write those pieces. Write all that pain, rage and resentment out! Buuut.... don't go rushing out to publish it while it's still hot from all that burning passion. If at all.

Most of the fear and rage from my own life that made it into Redemption comes from events that happened to me years, even decades back. But I included them not because I still felt the pain of those emotions about them - but because I didn't, not anymore. I still understood why I'd felt that way back then, but the rawness has dulled over time. I'm detached from those memories now - which means I can write about them rationally, with the puzzle-compiling mindset of a writer, rather than the bitter incoherence of a wounded soul.

If you take injustices done to you and put them in fiction when you're still angry and hurting from them, it will show - and not in a good way.  The character you've chosen to act out your pain on your behalf (most often the main character but not always) will come across as immature, ranty and whiny - a thoroughly unlikeable person. For the reader, it feels like being forced to listen to only one side of an argument from a very angry person, who rips the attention back to them and shouts even louder if anyone tries to see any other point of view instead. We've all met at least one of those people in real life and we all try to stay the heck away from them, because they're not fun to hang out with. Readers won't stick around to read about characters like that either - and hell to the no if they're a main character.

So write that venty piece while the vitriol's still hot... and then file it away somewhere. Sit on it for a while - weeks, months, maybe years. Wait until you can look back on the events that inspired it with a sigh and a shake of the head rather than the urge to sob uncontrollably or punch a wall. Then get it out and maybe take another look at it. There may be stuff you can use - but not necessarily the stuff you think.

The basic plot events might seem trivial - even redundant - as story material now. The emotions will almost certainly seem one-sided and over-the-top. But there will most likely be... something underneath that could work in another story, where things happen that aren't the same as the things in this old story but share similar motivations and moods. You're no longer the patient - you're the therapist, and unravelling the pieces of your plot is an intriguing and rewarding task rather than a pain-wracked ordeal.

5 - Real life in fiction isn't REAL LIFE.

Even the most faithful of autobiographies don't tell everything that happened exactly as it was. This is partly because even the average human memory works like a Salvador Dali painting when it comes to recording the facts of any given situation, but it's also because a completely accurate autobiography would be the dullest reading to shamble out of Dullsville. Even when we tell anecdotes to others we tend to embellish them a bit, wringing out every ounce of comedy and drama for our audience.

But sometimes when writers use events from their own lives to paint over their fictional stories, they feel some sort of duty to 'stick to the facts' to make it 'authentic.' Even in a fantasy world full of mythical creatures, magical items and crazy spells, the beautiful mage can't dump her lover for the distinctly average peasant rather than the dashing knight because 'that's not how it would happen in real life.' (When what they really mean is 'that ex-girlfriend of mine dumped me for the college jock, not the janitor's son.')

It's not always about not wanting to look stupid. Sometimes we do it because there's a worry that, by changing the facts a bit, we're somehow being unfair about the real-life persons involved in the events that inspired the fictional ones - even wilfully lying about them to make ourselves look better. But that why we don't ever use people and places directly from our own lives - at least, not unless we're actually looking to get slapped with a libel suit. We change things; give our characters and settings different names, tweak their backgrounds a bit - do whatever we can to make sure no-one could follow the breadcrumb trail back to the actual source. (Unless of  course you're saying nothing but lovely things about them...)

And if you've done a good job of that, you're not beholden to telling the absolute 'truth' about them and every shenanigan you get them involved in. When you turn your characters into blundering toolmuffins you're not really mocking the real-life people who inspired them - even when it feels like you kind of are. In fiction, the story comes first, and the only 'reality' that counts is the one that works in your story-world.

As long as you never tell anyone, your secret's safe with you.


So how do you feel about using your own life in fiction? Has it benefited you - has it help you deal with stuff you couldn't deal with any other way? Feel free to drop a line in the Comments.

Friday, 29 July 2016


When it comes to possessing skills we all start at zero. True, some people start with a better zero than others, which is what enables them to eventually rise to loftier heights than the rest of us mere mortals (I'm a-lookin' at you, Mr Stephen King) but other than that no-one pops out of the womb fully-equipped with all the necessary knowledge and experience to be the best they can be. We all gotta try and fail and learn and then try and fail and learn again, in a never-ending cycle until... well, there is no 'until,' actually. Oh wait, yes there is - it's 'death...'

But it's not all bad; in between the try-fail-learn cycle there will also be try-succeed-learn cycles too - and hopefully there will be enough of the latter to make the former feel worth enduring. This is true of most skills in life, whether it's a sport or a humanitarian or creative endeavour, and it's definitely true of writing.

however, the period of time between someone first saying "I want to be a writer" and becoming a successful author is glacial compared to, say, learning how to use Microsoft Office. Even the so-called 'overnight successes' like E.L. James actually weren't, in spite of what the hype tries to claim (you'll never convince me a woman who worked her way up to an executive position in an advertising agency had never written a single creative thing before embarking on her Fifty Shades.) And the learning process never stops. It shouldn't stop, because the day you tell yourself as a writer "Well, that's it, I know everything I need to know about writing now - there is nothing more I can learn" is the day your writing peaks as high as it will ever go - and the only way from there is down.

So what can we do as writers to keep on learning? How can we keep on improving?

1 - Write. A Heck of a Lot.

Well duh, is the entirely reasonable response to this one.... isn't it?

You'd be surprised. This is because what constitutes 'a lot' varies wildly between people. Many writers - properly famous and respected writers - have talked about how many words the average writer needs to have written before they become 'good,' and the ballpark figure is usually around a million words. They've certainly achieved that, but how many other writers have? What about the ones who punch the self-pub button on Smashwords or CreateSpace for their first draft versions of 30-page 'novels?' Or the 'aspiring writers' who've been trying to write the same novel for the past twenty years of their lives because they can 'only write when they feel inspired?'

Don't get me wrong - if any of you out there fall into either of those categories this is not a snarky dig at you. I'm simply giving you the maths; if it really does take a million written words to become a 'good' writer, you are, by definition, going to take longer to hit that target. Someone who writes every day - whether it's for a full-on, working day or even just a quick half an hour in their lunch break - even when they don't particularity feel like doing it, is going to hit that million-word target sooner than the one who has to wait for the right 'mood' or motivation' to strike before they can put a word to the page. As is the writer who rewrites and edits the heck out of their first draft to make sure it's the best it can be before they put it out there for public consumption, rather than hitting that 'Publish' button three seconds after they've typed 'The End' on their virgin manuscript.

When I look back now on some of the abandoned novels and short stories I wrote twenty, ten - even five years ago, I can see how much I've improved since then. Heck, I'm damn glad I never published any of that stuff, even though I probably thought it was pretty awesome at the time. It's the best proof you'll ever get that you've levelled up on your writing journey, and the only way to get further on that journey is to put the petrol in the car and drive. Every day? I find it helps me, even if it's just for half an hour and not necessarily on my work-in-progress - even a quick poem, journal entry, book review or new story idea counts. If that really isn't possible for you (and it may not be, what with full-time jobs and homes and families to run) then I'd suggest at least a regular schedule - knowing in advance that you can and will write for, say, an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays does at least build a sense of commitment that becomes easier to stick to the longer you do it.

But if you only ever write when you're 'feeling it' - waiting for those moments when inspiration strikes like lightning from the Gods of Creativity... well, you're going to waiting a long time for actual results. If you want to be a successful writer, the idea that writing should always make you feel happy and be a purely pleasurable activity is a myth, I'm afraid. Ask any published author and they'll tell you writing feels like work a lot of the time - that it should feel like work. But if it's work you truly believe in, you'll love it. Even when you hate it.

2 - Read. A Heck of a Lot.

How many of you out there have heard at least one of the following statements from wannabe writers:

1 - "I don't have time to read. I'd rather spend that time writing instead."
2 - "I'm afraid that if I read too much I'll just end up copying other writers instead of developing my own style."
3 - "Reading is boring. That's why I started writing in the first place - to write something people like me would actually want to read."

I'll bet you have, because there are genuinely people out there who think that way. The first two I can sympathise with. There's a logic to thinking the best way to improve your writing is by clocking up the hours and 'finding your own voice' - mainly because it's true. But your creativity is also like a bank; if you only ever make withdrawals and never deposits... well, you're going to drain your account eventually. If words and ideas are your currency, surely it makes sense to keep your bank topped up? Stephen King put it best "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the tools to write."

The good news is, you don't have to trawl your way through all 'the classics' to consider yourself well-read. Nor is there any point in forcing yourself to read something you hate, just because the Literati have marked a particular book as a 'must-read' for 'anyone who's serious about writing.' Non-fiction counts as much as fiction - in fact, I'd argue it's even more valuable if you want to write in specialised areas like historical fiction and sci-fi, where research is essential (this also means magazines have the advantage over books, since the information in them is far more likely to be up-to-date and therefore accurate.) And of course it makes sense to read other books in the genre you want to write in, if only to be aware of what's already been done to death.

If, however, your reason for not reading is number 3... well, you'll certainly end up writing stuff people like you will want to read. But - how can I put this gently? - you're the one seeing a problem with what's already out there, not the bajillions of readers who are quite happily reading all this stuff you find 'boring.' Your 'niche' might end up being smaller than you think.

3 - Spy on People. A lot.

Not literally, obviously. Well okay, maybe kind of literally - just stop short of anything that might get you arrested (installing hidden cameras and bugging phones is a bit of a no-no, for example.) You want to write great characters, you have to find out how real-life people work, and you can only do that by spending time amongst them, watching them and listening to them. Friends and family are great, but when you interact with them both you and they have an agenda. They know you, so they know what bits of themselves to hide from you to make the conversation go their way. Total strangers on the other hand, who are interacting with other people and not you, and therefore don't care what you think of them...

This is where it pays to hone your eavesdropping and people-watching skills. Some of the greatest stories ever written have been as a result of the author overhearing a snippet of real-life conversation or observing some real-life moment between strangers.

4 - Expand your vocabulary. A lot.

Relax, I'm not suggesting you chomp your way through a Websters. In fact, please don't do that. The popular idiom about not using a fifty-dollar word when a five-dollar one will do is sound advice; no-one wants to have to keep referring to a dictionary to understand what they're reading.

I am, however, suggesting you make friends with a thesaurus; a dead-tree copy is great, an online one even better. Having twenty alternative words for common ones like 'walked' and 'looked' is a godsend for any writer avoiding the dreaded repetitive sentences, not to mention for finding the right alternative to that word that sort of means what you need it to mean but not quite... There are also some great books out there filled with descriptive and emotive phrases and action beats, for when you can't picture the body language a character might use when they're irritated, for example (Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan and The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are two great resources.)

And expanding your vocabulary can also include slang - not so that you can use it in your own work, but so that you know when - and indeed if - you should use it. Some slang dates quicker than others, is regional rather than universal and only used by specific generations, and if you're not aware of the conventions around that you can end up looking like the embarrassing youth club leader who tries to get 'down with the kids' and just ends up alienating them.

5. Question EVERYTHING. All the Time.

Multimedia these days is flippin' amazing. News is flung at our eyeballs and earholes every second of every day, whether we ask for it or not. Google, Bing and dozens of other search engines will answer every question you could possibly conceive, and plenty more you couldn't. Information is everywhere.

Just one problem: a huge proportion of it is garbage.

If you have a daily newspaper - or even one particular one that you either buy regularly or actually have some sort of subscription to - you are not learning about what's going on in the world, you are being told what to think about it by whoever is editing that newspaper (who is probably in turn being told what to tell you by the owner of that newspaper.) Same as if you only ever watch one news channel, or go to a select handful of websites for particular areas of interest. ALL media is run by corporate businesses who have a vested interest in selling you something - whether that's a product or service they happen to provide, or an ideology they want you to believe because it benefits them. The recent EU referendum here in the UK is a perfect example of this. The vote went to the Leave Camp because many of the owners of our newspapers wanted to leave; Rupert Murdoch certainly did, and he owns two of the biggest-selling newspapers in the country (The Sun and The Times) along with the BSkyB tv channel. Others who were very clearly pro-Brexit were The Mail (a bastion of bigoted and xenophobic thinking at the best of times) The Star (ditto) and The Telegraph. In short, a huge proportion of the British public were brainwashed into voting Leave, because that was the mantra being thrust in front of them every single day by their newspaper of choice.

This is what happens when you just absorb the first piece of information you hear on a given subject and don't bother to see if there is anything out there that contradicts that information. It's why people rant on forums quoting random 'facts' they read on Wikipedia as gospel, when that very 'fact' was most likely typed in by Some Drunk Dude who had a spare twenty minutes to kill and fancied a giggle (because that's how Wikipedia works - anyone can edit it.) And it's how many a writer throughout the years has been horribly tripped up by something they wrote in their novel because their 'research' for it consisted of one five-second Google search, and hordes of angry and better-informed readers have left ranty reviews pointing out the glaring inaccuracies.

On the other hand, questioning a piece of information and searching for the opposing view is the very thing that has spawned countless brilliant stories over the years. Wicked would not exist, for example,  if the author Winnie Holzman hadn't asked herself what the witches' take on the events in The Wizard of Oz might be. Animal Farm would not exist if George Orwell hadn't asked himself "could Communism work as a political regime?" In fact, you could argue that every story that begins with a 'What if..?' scenario is an example of the author hearing an idea or point of view and then, rather than simply accepting it at face value, testing it to its limits to see what happens. Even if the conclusion they eventually reached matched that in the original information, they still did it by taking it as far in the opposite direction as they could first - and in the process, created a story.

6 - Life your live. All of it, all the time.

You know why teenage writers sometimes get so annoyed with middle-aged-and-beyond writers? Because we have this tendency to tell them things like "when you're older and have had more life experience, you'll be able to write with more authority about [insert real-world tribulation here.]"

Mmm yeah, sorry about that, all you youngsters out there. I know it sucks when we do that. And there are many times when we are wrong to do so - a sixteen-year-old who grew up in a south London council estate is going to have a darn sight more experience of the harsher aspects of life than a middle-class thirtysomething who went to Cheltenham Girls' College and is currently writing her novels from her converted barn in the Cotswolds, for example. So when I talk about 'living your life' I'm not simply talking about racking up the year-count. That alone does not fill your life-bank with writeworthy 'experiences.'

You know what else doesn't? Watching television. Playing computer games. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying don't do those things. Just... maybe don't do so much of those things so often. Don't make them your primary sources of entertainment in life. And don't - definitely don't - mistake anything you see on tv or play through in a computer game as an acceptable substitute for the same experience in real life. Watching Michael Palin travel Pole to Pole on tv does not mean you've experienced a little of what it's like to do the same thing - you haven't, you've just watched someone else do it. You still have no clue how it actually feels for you to do it yourself.

So don't cloister yourself away for years in some seat of higher learning, taking creative writing course after creative writing course in the belief that this alone will make you 'a better writer.' Get a job or two - even if it's just a part-time one. Bonus points if you get at least one crappy one you hate so much you eventually end up quitting. Go to a club or two. Get drunk at least once in your life, just to find out what it feels like. Travel - see as much of the world as your budget will allow. Stay in a one-star motel at least once, as well as a five-star swank-pad. Heck, do that Gap Year Thing in ratty hostels with toilets that are little more than holes in the floor if it floats your boat. Try weird food, meet eccentric people. Once in a while, do stuff that scares you. It's all gold for the Creative Bank - y'know, along with all that reading and writing you're doing.

Well, these are my starter for six. What would you add to this list? I'd love to know in the comments below,

Thursday, 14 July 2016


Imagine for a moment that you want to build a building - one you believe people need and hope people will want and make use of.

You know how you want it to look and what functions it should serve, and because you are the only person who knows this information you are the person who has to design and build this building. So you gather up the appropriate tools and set to work.

It's a long, hard job. Some parts require skills you don't yet have, so you have to learn on the job how to do it right. Sometimes it rains or snows, so that working on the building is uncomfortable and miserable. Sometimes delays happen. And then there are those times where you realise your foundations are wonky, or that supporting wall you put in aint gonna support anything, so you have to tear a whole chunk down and start over again from scratch. But still you keep going, because you believe in this building...

Even if lots of other people don't. You don't talk about your building with anyone except maybe a trusted few, because something about telling people you're a builder who's making a building has them doing That Look at you. The one that makes you suspect they think you're a delusional fool, being so self-indulgent and arrogant as to think you could build a building anyone would want to use. How dare you give yourself such airs and graces! Get back in the real world, you loser! So you keep your work secret, knowing that the only way you could ever change their minds is to build something so magnificent it makes the Sagrada Familia look like a garden shed. And you're not sure yet if you can even aspire to garden shed.

Every so often a building inspector comes around to give your building the once-over - and every time he does he finds massive faults. This bit doesn't conform to building regulations, that part there just doesn't look right... you agonise over whether to start the whole thing over again or just plaster over the faults and hope they won't be noticed when the building is complete.

Either way, you soldier on. Gradually your building begins to take shape. Yess! you think to yourself, it's finally starting to come together now. Feeling like a proper builder at last, you grab a refreshing beverage with a bunch of other builders in your local watering hole and swap building stories. And there's a distinct theme to all of theirs. "Oh yeah, my first building was shit - I ended up demolishing the thing in the end..." "Yeah, mine too - it's still sitting out there somewhere, abandoned and rotting..." "'Course we all know now that's because everyone's first building is shit..." "Yeah, no-one ever wants your first building - or your second or third a lot of the time..." "Tell me about it - I had to build ten buildings before I built one anyone actually wanted...!"

Of the entire group, you are the only one who desperately hopes they're wrong. Who hopes that they were just the unlucky ones, and everyone else has more success sooner. Except there's a whole bunch of them and only one of you, so you already know arguing with them is going to make you look, at best, naive and, at worst, arrogant and delusional. So you sit there in silence and nod along, while a picture of your beloved building-in-progress hovers in your mind, like a child waiting for its parent to tell him he is loved and special, no matter what everyone else says...

Now imagine repeating that whole cycle, over and over, perhaps until you die.

Welcome to the Writer's Life.

Writing is a creative art. And in today's social media-obsessed society, where fame and fortune is the new religion, people often see the creative arts as the 'quick' and 'easy' way to achieve that fame and fortune, because anything that people often do for fun and as a hobby must be easy, right? How many people whose singing ability could at best be described as 'can sing in tune without going purple in the face from lack of breath on the long notes' genuinely - without a trace of irony - rate themselves 'as good as' or 'better than' the likes of Adele, Lady Gaga and Beyonce? Loads of them. They genuinely believe it too; take the old Autotune away from all those global superstars (because they're convinced said superstars must be using that) and hell yeah, they could give those upstart divas a run for their money in a sing-off!

But here's the thing the wannabes forget; the genuine stars didn't get there on just talent alone. They got there through hard work, determination and continuing to show up and bring their A-game every single time, even when it wasn't fun.

Look at The X-Factor. Every year, thousands and thousands of hopefuls are sieved down to about fifty that get to appear on the telly as part of the auditioning process. Those fifty-odd are then ruthlessly chopped to a small handful, who are then even more ruthlessly Hunger-Gamed down over a series of weeks to a Top Four, from whom one is selected as the overall winner. With a culling process that long and calculated, you'd think a glittering music career was more or less guaranteed for the one that comes out on top. If the public believed in them that much, they must be superstar material, surely?

So why is it that, in the ten years of the show running, only a few of the 'winners' have gone on to fame and fortune? And why have other contestants who only came runner-up or didn't even make the finals done way better than the 'winners' they lost to (i.e. Olly Murs and One Direction, to name but two?)

Because wanting the fame and fortune isn't enough. The 'winners' that crashed and burned did so because when the rush of winning was over, all they saw ahead of them was the years of long, hard slog to stay at the top of the heap - and that didn't look nearly as much fun as the comparatively short space of time duking it out on a reality TV show. If dreaming of the fame and fortune is the only thing that keeps you going through the day-to-day grind of doing your creative thing as a job, at the metaphorical coalface... well, that won't sustain you for long. There's nothing wrong with keeping your eye on the prize - but you need to want to keep running toward it anyway, no matter how far away it appears to be. Even - heck, especially - if you suspect you might never win it at all.

That's how a writer has to feel about writing to make it as a writer. Fame and fortune can only ever be a desirable but by-no-means-guaranteed cherry on the cake, not the cake itself. Sure ,there are a metric tonne of books out there with titles like "How to Make Millions Writing Bestselling Novels in 30 Days." They probably do make a fair bit of money for their authors - but not because the advice in them is any good. It's simply because they're selling a dream that so many people want to believe in - the dream that you can make money and become famous by doing something that never feels like hard work.

Writing is hard work. Even when you're writing something you love and truly believe in, there will be days when showing up to write it is the last thing on earth you feel like doing. There will be days when you doubt any human will ever want to read a word you write and you've probably wasted months, if not years of your life on it already. And yes, there will be days when you see a seven-page-long, hideously-written abomination calling itself a 'novel' has apparently made the Amazon Bestseller list and sold 200 copies at $35 dollars a pop, while your latest submission that you spent months getting right has been rejected by ten publishers in a row.

And when those things happen, there's only one thing to do. Pick yourself up and keep on writing - because, as with breathing, giving up isn't even an option.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016


Well, it's happened. The votes have been counted, and apparently Britain wants out of the EU. Well, 52% of Britain does anyway. Or maybe not, if this article is anything to go by.

As someone who voted Remain (after doing some research and concluding that, while there were advantages to leaving they were outweighed by quite a lot of disadvantages) reading this made my jaw hit the floor so hard I still have the chin-bruises.

Let me just get this right... there are people out there who voted for something they didn't want, purely because they believed enough other people would vote for the thing they did want? Others saw their vote not as, y'know, an actual vote that could change the future of this country, but a way to tell the politicians of this country "You can't tell me what to do - look, I'm deliberately voting for something I don't actually want to happen in reality, just to annoy you! Yeah, chew on that, losers!"

Do they not realise how voting works then? Are we going to have to start introducing IQ tests for people before deciding whether or not they're actually capable of rational thought? I'd like to say this applies equally to those who voted Remain and now 'wish' they voted Leave -  because it does - but let's face it, they're unlikely to be feeling the same levels of guilt about it, since they actually got the result they now realise they wanted all along.

"We weren't given enough information," is the number one excuse offered in their defence of voting for something they've subsequently decided was a bad idea. Well no you weren't, if by 'given' you mean 'lovingly spoon-fed into your open mouth while you lay supine on your couch like an overgrown baby bird.' If your only source of 'information' is whatever daily newspaper you favour, then you are basically being told what to think by whatever fat-cat magnate owns that newspaper, and  believe me, his reasons for wanting you to think that way have nothing to do with your welfare or future. I'm sorry, but this is the age of the internet, the smartphone and all manner of  WiFi-connected devices; "there wasn't enough information" just doesn't cut it as an excuse anymore. If you want an unbiased opinion you gather more than one from more than one source, and if you don't know something you go look it up. That's the way the modern world works. (I bet if you wanted to know the name of the actor who played the guy standing next to Littlefinger in that scene from Game of Thrones in order to win the entire box-set you'd know how to Google that shizzle, wouldn't you?)

Before you come at me, this is not a hate rant at everyone who voted Leave. I accept there are plenty of people who did so for their own reasons that have a direct effect on their lives; I've spoken with long-distance lorry drivers, fishermen, people living in areas dominated by warring eastern European gang communities and others who've had to live with consequences of being part of the EU that I have no experience of myself, and I accept my point of view is not going to cut it balanced against their personal experiences. You guys had the right to feel the way you did and to use your vote the way you did.

No, the people I'm annoyed with are the ones who switched off their brains when it came to making possibly the most important decision about this country's future in decades, and are now bleating about how they'd have voted differently if all the vital information they now realise they needed to know could have been magically piped into their brain - preferably while they were sipping a cold one and watching Take Me Out on telly. And, because it didn't happen that way, it's so unfair and and totally not their fault that they voted for something they don't want anymore and actually, now they think about it, never really did. Well, wake up and smell the coffee, because you made the mistake, guys - not the newspapers, the tv or the internet, but you. You can't undo it, so the least you can do is have the decency to own it. Media is just food, and your brain is supposed to decide what type and how much of it you're going to eat. Y'know, like when you have to choose between, say, a sandwich and a packet of lard.

The other people I'm annoyed at can be found in the Comments section of the article referenced in this post. A lot of them (although not all) appear to be pro-Brexiteers who chose that path because they are in fact raging bigots with outdated Little England fantasies about restoring Britain to the days of Colonialism, but I'm sure that's just an entirely unrelated coincidence...

Anyway, these particular individuals seem to have contracted an unfortunate neurological disorder. Whenever they encounter someone with a point of view that doesn't match theirs, they are completely unable to discuss things rationally, but can only spew out toxic personal insults, questioning the other person's sanity, intellect and even right to exist as a human. These are most likely the same individuals who are now wandering randomly up to anyone of an ethnic minority they see in the street and snarling at them, with gleeful venom, to "pack their bags" and "go back home." (This includes, by the way, black, Asian, Indian and Pakistani people who were born in Britain and even whose parents were.) They're probably also responsible for making up the laminated cards with "go home" written on them and then posting them through the letterboxes of the Polish communities.

Sadly the most dominant symptom of this neurological disorder is the delusion that the entire purpose of the Leave vote was to restore their entitlement to be xenophobic assholes as some sort of constitutional right - heck, even make it cool to be a frothing-mouthed bigot. Since they are immune to reasoned argument, and derision seems to provoke them into fits of uncontrollable rage where even expressing intelligible thoughts becomes impossible, expecting them to change their behaviour and eventually adapt to living with other humans who Aren't The Same as Them is probably unrealistic and demanding more of their fragile cognitive abilities than they can cope with. And God forbid we should treat them with the same contempt they reserve for 'immigrants.' Hate on a group of people just because of who they are, what they believe and how they live? Jeez, that would be really unfair...

The brain is a wonderful, precious thing - and the human brain in particular has evolved into a thing of eye-popping complexity. Unfortunately, while you can justify not giving a chainsaw to a child, you can't restrict which humans get to have a brain purely because a proportion of them are never going to learn to use it sensibly.

And that's where us writers come in. We have to use our brains every time we write, so the responsibility is even bigger on us to use it wisely and for the good. If this referendum (and the 'Bregretters') has proved anything, it's that many, many people in this world soak up written information as passively as a sponge soaks up water, without questioning it or even looking for deeper meanings, while others only absorb the bits that sound like they agree with what they already think. All of which means we need to think harder about what we put out there.

We can make a difference. We can create stories, poems, movies, songs and art that challenges racism, sexism, genderism and all the other nasty isms out there. We can include what we currently call 'minorities' in our work in a way that's so natural and 'normal' the very term 'minorities' becomes redundant. And most of all, we can send out the message that hating people just because they're 'not like us' is not okay - in a way that the spongebobs can soak up without realising they're doing it and the bigots can't twist to suit their own agendas.

So write from the heart and let's fill those voids. And help those who complain there's 'not enough information.'

Saturday, 11 June 2016


If you are a young writer today - twentysomething, teenager or even younger - you've picked a great time, let me say.

So much information, literally at your fingertips, not just about writing but everything ever in the whole world! So many forums and societies of like-minded folk to belong to, many of them free or at least pretty darn cheap! So many blogs written by real, actually famous authors, sharing their wisdom and experience and giving you the opportunity to 'talk' back to them! And if you want to show the world something you've written, these days you don't have to go cap-in-hand to one of the Big Six, begging them to please please take a look at your stuff, or pay some vanity publishing company squillions to make you a cardboard boxful of your masterpiece to store in your garage for eternity. You can publish it yourself via Amazon, or post it online at sites like Wattpad and Smashwords or a tonne of others.

All of which means that most young writers today are a darn sight more savvy about getting their work out there than I ever was as a young 'un. Back then, the internet was probably something you caught fish from other countries in, a tablet was what you got from the doctor when you had a nasty infection and a blog was the noise someone made when they threw up (yep, it was that long ago.)  Proper famous authors were an elusive species, enigmas that kept themselves to themselves and only emerged from their magical hobbit-houses blinking in the sunlight for occasional interviews with magazines, radio and television - and even then, they weren't speaking to you, they were speaking to the interviewer. Writing advice and encouragement? Pfffft. Pretty thin on the ground back in those Stone Age times.

Put away your tiny violins please, I'm not wearing my flat cap and waving my cane at you. This isn't going to be a grandma rant about How All You Young 'Uns Have It So Easy These Days - far from it, actually. Because while there is a lot more information and support being passed around for young writers today - and hurray for that - I feel there are some things that aren't said very often, and should be. They're the kind of things most of us oldie writers have learned through experience - the long and often painful way. Some of us are starting to talk about them, a lot - Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog, for example, is a champion of the knowledge that should be screamed from the rooftops but rarely is.

And that's the motive behind this post. If I had a time machine and could go back to my teenage writer-self to give her a list of Things You Need to Know Already about Being a Writer, this is what I would put on that list. It's the stuff I wish it hadn't taken me twenty-odd years to figure out.

1 - Finish what you start.

So easy to say it sounds like a no-brainer the second it flies out of your mouth - but so much harder to do in reality. Especially when each day brings new ideas fluttering through your head like butterflies,  oh so pretty and enticing... so you put aside the thing you're working on to chase the new, shiny-pretty thing. Until that one gets old and another shiny-pretty flutters by...

Before you know it you've got a drawer or hard drive full of half-finished pieces, languishing in eternal limbo. Oh, you have good intentions to come back to them again - someday. But someday never comes. (It doesn't, trust me - I've got half-finished novels that I started a full fifteen years ago, still sitting there crying "Pick me! Oh please pick me!" every time they see me poking my face inside their little folder-home. They're still waiting, and are likely to be doing so for a long time yet.)

I'm not saying I never finished anything I wrote when I was a young writer. Short stories? I finished quite a few of them (even got a few published.) Lyrics? I finished loads of them (even managed to write a full set for two stage musicals.) But short stories and lyrics are 100-yard sprints compared to the marathon that is a full-length novel. That takes some serious endurance, and when the finishing line is still too far ahead to see with the naked eye it's easy to believe it's not there at all, and just give up.

You have to believe that finish line is there - even when you can't see it. And the only way to motivate yourself to keep heading for it is to....

2 - Treat writing like a job.

I loved to write, I really did. And because it was something I loved doing, I very quickly fell into the trap of believing it was something I should always enjoy doing, every time I deigned to plop my creative ass in front of a computer or notepad. Whenever I felt inspired I would let the words pour forth and create magic! And when I didn't... I'd play World of Warcraft instead. Or watch a film on telly. Or do pretty much anything other than writing. After all, what was the point in trying to write when I just didn't feel in the mood for it? I couldn't possibly produce anything decent that way, could I?

However much you love it, writing is work. Hard work, if you want to be any good at it. If you only want to write as a hobby, to fill your free time amusing yourself with no serious intent for others to ever read your work, by all means write only when you're feeling the good vibes. But if you want to be published at some point - well, you won't achieve that in the soft play area, kiddo. You gotta pay your dues, clock up the hours and work your way up the ladder, like you would in any other, real-world job. Writing whenever you feel inspired is easy - but writing even when it feels like the last thing you want to do is what separates the dreamers from the doers.

So you have to treat it like a real-world job, which means agreeing your contracted hours and allocated duties and showing up accordingly, on time and ready to graft. You don't have to show up every day, or for a full-on 9-to-5 day, but whether you go full or part-time it needs to be regular and a 100% commitment - even if it's only for your half-hour lunch break Monday to Friday. Sick leave, domestic disasters and holidays are of course allowed - but not ducking out because you're just not feeling it today.

I know, I know - you're a creative and it just doesn't work like that. And you're right, it doesn't. At first. But the longer you force yourself to stick to it, the better you become at sticking to it - to the point where you'll eventually start feeling antsy and vaguely guilty if you try to skip a session. And that's exactly what you're aiming for. If I'm making it sound like I'm trying to suck the fun out of a writing career... well, good. Because that's the reality - writing isn't always fun. Sometimes it's a slog and a chore. But still worth it - always worth it.

3 - Track your progress.

But yeah, I still just made it sound like a massive, fun-sucking chore, didn't I? So what's needed is a little motivation to keep you running on that hamster-wheel, and showing you just how worth it all that effort truly is. And nothing does that better than numbers, baby.

So set yourself targets and aim to meet them; daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. But make them realistic - nothing ridiculous that sounds great but you have no chance in Hell of achieving, because that's worse than having no target at all. Start with time first; resolve to sit down and write for, say one whole hour a day. Then do it and record how many words you wrote in that time. Do it a few more times until you can get a clear average number of words per hour you could consistently produce, and then look at your timetable of hours per week you've set aside for writing (as per Number #2 on this list) to work out how many words you're likely to produce in total. Then commit to achieving it, week in, week out (barring ill-health and domestic emergencies, obviously.)

Review your targets every once in a while, and if you're showing a pattern of beating them/not meeting them, adjust accordingly. You should be always aiming to challenge yourself without over-reaching to heights you can't achieve.

You can record your results in a spreadsheet if you want, viewable only by you. However, if you like the idea of joining a group of like-minded folks, indulging in a little friendly competition and mutual support, there are doggone flippin' fabulous sites like MyWriteClub, where you can set your own writing goals and indulge in online 'writing sprints,' in real-time with other writers. You can see your word count racking up as you write, along with other fellow 'sprinters,' and send and receive congratulatory messages in Chat. Writing can be a lonely old business, and nothing motivates like mutual support.

However you choose to do it, it's seeing those numbers in black and white that will spur you on and keep you writing. The average novel is 100,000 words, which might sound huge and impossible to reach if you've never written anything that large before. But once you start seeing that you're regularly banging out even 5,000 words a month (which is not much more than 1,000 a week - pretty doable with a regular writing schedule)... well, it doesn't look quite so daunting, does it?

4 - Save EVERYTHING you write. Yep, even the terrible stuff.

Here's the painful truth; in the early years of your writing journey, what you produce will not be good. You might not believe it now - you may be able to think of a few pieces you've written only recently that are actually pretty damn good and the best you've ever written, thank you very much - and I will say "Suuuure, forget I said anything then," and pat you on the head.

But then you will dig them up a few years later and read them again, and you'll realise I was right. Without me ever even reading them, I was right. Because even if you're already a bloody marvellous writer right now, you're still not as good as you will be in, say, a years' time, or five years' time - provided you keep practising, and learning, and striving to improve, of course. And part of that process of learning and improving is... writing an awful lot of crap first.

But in order to know what your own, personal interpretation of crap is, you have to give yourself the opportunity to perceive it as crap - and you can only do that if you can actually see it years later, in all its brown-hued glory. For all those future-moments when you doubt yourself as a writer and worry that you'll never make the grade, going all misty-eyed over the turds of your past is a wonderful thing. It gives you hope. There it is, the proof that you really have levelled up from the wooden-penned noob you once were.

Another reason is that it helps you discover who you really are as a writer. You may find that it takes you aaaaages to complete a novel for the first time. As in, years of false starts and aborted attempts that never get beyond Chapter Five (sticking my own hand up right now...) Or you may find every novel you do write gets universally rejected for the first few years. In both cases, this is often because you haven't figured out what 'your stories' are yet - the stories your writer-soul desperately wants to tell as opposed to the stories your wanting-to-be-a-published-writer-brain is saying you 'should' tell. Those clues to your writer-soul will be hidden in all your previous work, like a psychological treasure map; recurring themes, characters that share distinctly similar personality traits, and familiar questions that keep cropping up. It might (no, scratch that - it will) takes years of collecting, but only by trawling through your previous works and gathering up those pearls will you finally discover the parts that make you the writer you are.

5 - There will be times when you absolutely freakin' HATE writing. And that's totally okay.

I absolutely love Redemption, my current w-i-p. Love the story, utterly love the characters - even the bad guys - and love the progress I'm making with it.

Except of course on the days when I hate it so much I want to drop-kick it in the 'nads and punch its stupid drooling-chimp face. On those days, it feels like every word I type is the incoherent ranting of a drunk who's had a DIY lobotomy, and my whole plot is a stinky pile of recycled barf that's already been done a million times before a million times better and why am I even doing this anyway, because no-one's ever gonna want to read this festering heap of garbage...

I've felt the same way about short stories and lyrics I've written too (to this day, there are lyrics I wrote for one particular musical number years ago which I can still flip between loving and hating on a day-to-day basis, depending on my mood, the weather, heck I dunno...)

And you will have days like that too - days where you'll look at whatever you're writing and think "Why am I even bothering? This is truly awful, and titanium-coated proof that I'm never ever going to make the grade as a writer." You'll want to rebel. An urge to throw the work aside and stomp away in a massive huff will overcome you, and you might decide to give up on all of it - screw writing and screw being a writer, it's too damned hard for too little reward!

You'll come back though. Maybe in a day or two, maybe in a few months time. But you will come back, because the real writers always do.

And when you do, don't feel bad about that thing you did when you were angry - you didn't mean all those things you said, we know that. We love our spouses, kids and other family members to death but that doesn't mean they don't occasionally drive us screaming, spitting mad - and it's the same with writing. You're allowed to fall out with it sometimes and lock yourself in your room, refusing to come out until it sorts its stoopid attitude out. It doesn't mean you don't have the stuff in you to become a 'proper writer' (hell, if it did there would be no writers at all in the history of ever, since even the great and the good will have kicked their toys out of the pram at least once in their lives.)

Sometimes taking a step away from writing for a while will even be necessary. Life has a funny way of randomly throwing steaming piles of brown stuff at you, whether in the form of periods of extreme stress, traumatic events or debilitating illness (either physical or mental.) In those circumstances, your health and well being has to come first. If stepping away from writing is what you need to do to get through whatever you're going through, then of course you must do it. No-one will condemn you or 'question your commitment' (and if they do they're not worth listening to.) Writing's not going anywhere. Unlike some kinds of people, it's a faithful love, and will be waiting for you when you're ready to return to it again.

So there you have it - that's the list I would give to Teenage Me. All I have to do now is figure out a way to post it into The Past...

Thing is, would I even have listened anyway? I remember Teenage Me. She got advice on a variety of subjects from lots of older people, and while she was very polite and smiled and nodded in all the right places, I knew deep down she was thinking "This is great, but you don't know me." I wasn't arrogant enough to think I knew it all, I just felt their advice could only work for the smart and confident - for those who had their shit together. And I didn't believe I was any of those things as a teenager.

So if you're a young writer, I wouldn't blame you if you felt the same way about my list. I'll admit there's plenty on here I wouldn't exactly have been thrilled to hear back then either - it sounds like a lot of work and heartache at times. But I'd still hand them to my younger self anyway, because I've had enough years of learning the hard way that they do make sense, and if I could save myself that bother I would. And I'd quite like to save you that bother too, if I can.

Just sayin'.

Monday, 30 May 2016


This week I read the article 'What Makes Bad Writing Bad?' on The Guardian UK website. If you are at all insecure about your abilities as a writer this rather high-handed pontification will not help matters, so I suggest you proceed with caution when it comes to reading it for yourself.

From just reading the title, it would be reasonable to assume it's about the things that make bad writing bad. wouldn't it? You know, the usual suspects; adverbs, passive voice, filtering, repetitive phrases...

Spoiler alert - it isn't. Somewhere along the line the author decided instead that it was certain kinds of people who made these grievous errors - and they personally were the 'things' that made bad writing bad. His issue wasn't so much with the way words were laid out on the page, but with the personality and motivations of the person who was putting them there.

I will concede he did make one or two good points. It's certainly true, for example, that any writer who believes they have nothing more to learn because they've become Masters of the Craft are generally full of something, and it isn't good writing. But overall I feel he swung his Bat of Shame in a pretty broad circle without much regard for who he might have been hitting. If you are an aspiring, as-yet-unpublished writer - or even an already-published one - I challenge you to get through the entire article without feeling at least a little bit stung by the end of it, because it's cleverly worded to stab little needles of doubt into the sensitive writer's self-esteem.

Aspiring to write boundary-breaking fiction like influential authors such as Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace and Maya Angelou? You're probably a Bad Writer then. Been working for a few years on the novel that's been burning in your brain, and can't start another until you've got this one out of your head? You're probably a Bad Writer too. Writing a novel that explores certain ideologies and issues that are dear to your heart? Yep, you guessed it - you're a Bad Writer as well.

Now these declarations might make sense if every author who's ever written anything that fits in any of those above categories has always produced something bad. But that clearly isn't true, as - ooh, I don't know, several thousand classics and bestsellers over at least a couple of centuries will testify. Yes, these things can certainly be done badly by writers who lack the necessary skills - but that in itself shouldn't be clarion call to all writers to never even attempt to write what their heart wants to write. The problem is, this article doesn't make that distinction; it takes what it regards as 'bad writing,' looks for the genres and motivations most commonly associated with it and then brands everyone who writes or wants to write that stuff as 'bad writers' before they've even begun.

Bad writers don't realise they're bad, is the takeaway message from this article. They keep on writing their terrible stuff, convinced it's what they're meant to do, that their instincts are right and they should keep on writing, no matter what everyone else says. Bad writers believe in themselves and their writing ability when they really, really shouldn't.

And isn't that the very head-demon most halfway-decent, good and even great writers fight, every day of their writing life? That, actually, they're not as good at this writing lark as they think they are, and they should just quit their narcissistic dreaming and get back to the Real World? How many of us have heard those same sentiments echoed out loud by the naysayers among our friends, families, teachers, peers and work colleagues?

I bet you can picture the looks on their faces as they say it too. That half-pitying, half-contemptuous look that says "I'm just trying to make you see how much of a delusional loser you really are, because I'm smart enough to predict your eventual humiliation and kind-hearted enough to warn you about it in advance." Ironically, they're often not so kind-hearted that they'll be happy for you if you prove them wrong - in fact, their little hearts will shrivel with secret fury if you dare to defy their cutting non-expectations at some point in the future. Because here's the secret those people don't want you to know; if you're a creative person who's actively chasing your dream, you break their world view and that scares the crap out of them.

Society at large is not encouraged to 'think big.' If you want a guaranteed system for Making It in life, you work your arse off in a normal, steady job that pays a regular wage for practical skill sets that can be applied to everyday life - skills like retail, office-based, trades, hospitality, catering and managerial skills. Not only that, but if you're really serious about supporting yourself and then later on providing for your family, this is the path you should be committing your energies to. That's how you get respect in this society - playing the game by The Rules.

But while a large proportion of society accepts and abides by these Rules, that doesn't mean they're always happy about it. Even people without a single creative bone in their body have crazy dreams about the kind of life they'd live instead, if they didn't have to do their duty in their job that Pays The Bills and Puts Food on the Table. But they bury those dreams, shoving them aside for the Greater Good, and the only way they can do that without tumbling into a pit of inner misery is to convince themselves that they're doing it because the way they've committed to - the sensible, real-world-thinking way - is the way that works. That taking the rule-breaker path of following their dreams and sucking up knockback after knockback - probably for years and possibly forever if they never succeed - is the choice so life-wrecking and impossible it shouldn't even be contemplated. They need that to be the absolute truth in their life if they are to keep trudging down their safe but humdrum life of stability.

And then someone like you comes along. You, the creative, who hasn't locked her dreams away in a box marked 'Unrealistic' and stuck to The Rules like you were 'supposed to.' You're taking all the risks they're too afraid to take and - well, you may not have achieved all the things you've dreamed of achieving, but you also haven't died or been left destitute and friendless either. You're making chasing your dreams look... kind of attractive as a life strategy. You even look like you're enjoying the process, damn you! You're breaking everything - if you can do it and not get swallowed down a hair-clogged plughole of disaster, that means it might not be wrong for them to try it either... You're making everyone who takes the safe path look like wusses, you troublemaker!

You must therefore be stopped, before you convince others to follow in your footsteps and make those too scared to try feel even more resentful for choosing to stick with their safe life choices. And since rejecting and ridiculing what you do clearly hasn't been working so far, because you still insist on doing it anyway, the only alternative is to go personal and reject and ridicule what you are.

And that's how you get from 'Bad Writing' to 'Bad Writers' in a single web article. It's  also why you can swap out 'writing' and 'writers' for 'art' and 'artists, 'performances' and 'performers...' You imply the two are one and the same, a symbiotic relationship where each 'partner' feeds off the other to survive.

And no creative person on the planet is immune from such a judgement - if the kind of person who judges creatives in this way decides they don't like the way Stephen King writes his stories, they will judge him a Bad Writer until the day they die, in spite of a cosmic crapload of evidence that this can't actually be true. That's not to say he hasn't produced bad writing in his career - the man himself has owned up to that on more than one occasion. But doing anything badly is part of the process toward becoming good at it; every one of us once had to have bums regularly wiped clean by an adult because we hadn't figured out toilets yet. Imagine if, instead of being encouraged to keep trying, we'd all been branded 'bad children' and told to give up on our dreams of ever being able to control our own bowels?

So yeah, when people tell you they don't like your writing... they're entitled to their opinion, and you're entitled to make up your own mind whether you want to try and change it or not. If people tell you what you've written is 'bad writing,' the same applies, but it might be worth your while taking another look at your work and seeking some other opinions to see if there's any truth in what they're saying.

But anyone who tells you you're a 'bad writer?' Unless you're stabbing them in the eyes with your pen, abusing people on social media or committing crimes that have nothing to do with written prose it's a meaningless criticism. No writer in the history of forever was ever born a 'good' writer. We all suck in the beginning, and no two writers' journey from 'crap' to 'okay' to 'good' (and maybe even 'great') are the same, or take the same length of time to travel. That person who produces 'bad writing' now might bang out a kick-ass best-seller in a couple of years' time - or ten years' time, or maybe it'll take them twenty or more years to finally crack it. Meanwhile, another writer who wrote fantastic stuff in his early twenties might struggle to maintain that standard as he slides into his thirties, spend his forties in creative doldrums and then suddenly have a resurgence in his fifties and beyond. You could try and slap the 'Bad Writer' label on both of them - but you can't make it stick.

Even when your writing is bad, it is not because you are a bad writer. Remember that in your deepest, darkest moments of self-doubt. Mistakes are things, not people.

Monday, 16 May 2016

4 Ways 'The Book of Human Skin' Changed How I Write Characters.

It's a well-used mantra, quoted by everyone from Stephen King to Chuck Wendig to Neil Gaiman - as well as writing a lot, writers must read a lot too. Stephen King even goes so far as to say that if you 'don't have time' to read other people's books, then you'll never have the skills to become a decent writer.

But have no fear if you think you 'don't read much.' I used to think that too. Whenever I heard the advice 'read widely and read lots,' I used to curl up inside and think "well that's me stuffed then - the last time I read a 'classic' was in an English Lit. class in sixth form." But then I looked at my bookshelf, crammed with books I'd collected over the years and covering all subjects imaginable - fiction and non-fiction. I remembered all the science and history magazines I like to buy on a regular basis. And then I realised my Kindle, which I got three years ago, currently has over 200 books stored on it...

Because the good news is that you're not confined to intellectual, classy or 'recommended' reading when it comes to broadening your horizons. All reading is good - and not just fiction in the genre you write in, but in the ones you don't and even the ones you couldn't in a million years. And sure, the Classics are named so for a reason, but the mass-market bodice-rippers, quirky chick-lits and rip-roaring thrillers are just as valuable for adding credits to your Experience Bank. Non-fiction is just as useful; books about science and history and nature and stuff are pretty much acorn factories for the research stash you'll rely on at some point in the future. So are books that cover the craft of writing.

But best of all, you don't have to be sniffy about the quality of the books you read either. A badly-written book can teach you just as much about good writing as a well-written one.

One book that taught me a lot about writing characters is The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to other writers and readers alike - as much for the things I didn't like about it as those I did.

Set in eighteenth century Venice and Peru, it tells the stories of Minguillo Fasan, collector of books bound in human skin and self-appointed torturer of younger sister Marcella, and a Peruvian nun called Sor Loreta who does for religion what the Ku Klux Klan does for race relations. The tale alternates between the POV of the aforementioned three main characters plus two supporting ones - Marcella and Minguillo's manservant Gianni and Doctor Santo - Marcella's 'love interest' (well, kind of. More on that later...) So you have five POV characters altogether - some of which were a joy to read, while others... not so much. Here are my top takeaways on writing characters, learned from reading this book...

1 - The greatest villains think they're heroes.

There were two villains in this story: Minguillo Fasan and Sor Loreta. They were without doubt the best characters in this book, even though they were, at least on the surface, very different from each other.

Of the two, the absolute, stand-out best was Sor Loreta. From the moment we first 'meet' her as a child, it's clear she's several beads short of a rosary, and as her story unfolds she just becomes more and more deranged. The only thing larger and more terrifying than her obsessional religious piety is her monstrous ego, believing as she does that she is quite literally the Bride of God, representing His will on earth. But what really kept me glued to her portions of the story - and longing for her next bit when the other characters got their turn - was the feeling that I, as a reader, was the only one seeing her for what she truly was. Everyone else in the story seemed to be either blind to her wickedness - totally taken in by her sob stories or a conveniently-timed 'miracle' she performed - or, if they did have suspicions, pretty much dead by the end of the scene (covertly by her hand, of course.) Even she believed she was a virtuous holy woman who was simply carrying out the will of her God - she did not, for one second, consider anything she did to be morally wrong. For example, she drowned a young nun in a bathtub of ice-cold water believing she was purging that nun of her sins (and therefore saving her soul.) So the question that burned in my head every time she made an appearance - and upped the ante on her evilness even when I thought she couldn't go any further down that path - was "Is anyone ever going to catch this psychotic woman out and stop her?" Because - and all credit to the author for achieving this - it never looked like anyone would, right up until the very end of her story.

In fairness, this was also true of Minguillo. But his attitude was different; he knew the things he did were considered evil by the rest of society, and he cared not a jot about that. In fact, he even taunts the readers about it, asking them directly to reflect on what it says about themselves that they are so interested in hearing about his evil exploits. This is a hard trick to pull off in a villain without making them look like a moustache-twirling pantomime character - "Oooh, I'm so eeeevil, muha ha ha haaa!" But for Minguillo it works because, while he might 'know' he does immoral things, he believes he has just reasons for doing them. Disliked and ostracised since babyhood because his debilitating skin disease has left him permanently scarred (and therefore physically unattractive,) he has decided he is an undeserving victim of a judgemental society, and all he is doing is exacting payback for wrongs done to him (whether real or imagined.) In that sense, he's as much of a 'hero' in his own mind as any morally-upright pillar of society.

And that's the key to making a really memorable villain. You actually can go into the shades of grey about whether a hero considers himself a 'good' or 'bad' person - as long as that villain is convinced he's entitled to be that way regardless of whether or not anyone else in the story universe agrees with him. If he believes that doing callous and immoral things to those who've behaved in a callous way to him somehow 'cancels out' the immorality of those acts, the reader will accept that he can be as bad as he likes while still believing he's on the side of 'right.' We may not agree with their mindset, but we can understand it, and - sort of - empathise with it. Even if we don't want to.

2 - Heroines with the patience of a saint just try your readers' patience.

Minguillo's little sis Marcella was the heroine of the story - although it has to be said, that really depends on what qualities you think a protagonist should possess to be considered 'heroic.'

If your idea of a strong female character is a woman so passive she practically floats through every injustice done to her like a leaf in a raging river, who sucks up her suffering so quietly and patiently her cheeks are permanently Velcroed to her tonsils and who never does one single, goddamn thing to stand up for herself ... well, you'll love Marcella. Yes, Marcella's superpowers were her jaw-dropping beauty and a saint-like disposition that would make Mother Theresa look like a mardy old battleaxe. 'Crippled for life now because Minguillo smashed my legbone into toothpicks? *Sigh* I do wish sometimes he wouldn't do things like that, but, y'know, I'm so blessed to be so pretty and have so many friends when he's so ugly and unloved I probably shouldn't complain...'

 Aaaarrrrggghhh! By the time I'd got halfway through the novel I bloody hated her - which made me feel oddly guilty considering the only people who seemed to hate her more were the two main villains in the story. I don't know how or where the author got the idea that making Marcella a simpering, uber-placid paragon of virtue would equate to being a tower of strength and resilience - if anything it had the opposite effect of making her look weak and, quite frankly, dumb. Thanks to her brother she was permanently crippled, then packed off to a lunatic asylum and finally banished to a convent - at some point in her miserable life she should've got at least a tiny bit cross about that. Not left it to everyone else around her to do on her behalf, while she just smiled inanely and carried on being Minguillo's human punchbag. In fact that was the other annoyance with Marcella; she never did a thing to help herself at any point. But then again she never had to, because all these legions of people who randomly fell in love with her for her pure, sweet passiveness were practically falling over themselves to fix every problem in her life, big or small. Everything that wasn't either a villain or an inanimate object not only decided Marcella was the most wonderful creation in the universe since time began, but often discussed the matter at great length with the other characters, while wringing their hands at what such an unworthy mortal like them could do to ease her suffering and fill her life with the ponies and rainbows she so richly deserved.... it's okay, you can have a quick break to throw up now if you want....

So yeah, Marcella will forever be my go-to example of a Mary Sue in fiction. If they ever invent a Glossary of Writers' Terms, they should probably just stick her name in as a catch-all reference. I will never, ever write a character like her in my stories, I promise. Unless of course I intend for her to die before the end in some horrible - ideally comical - way.

3 - Sometimes the colloquial accent DOES matter.

As I mentioned previously, one of the secondary POV characters was Gianni, loyal manservant of Minguillo and Marcella (although inevitably he was far more loyal to the latter than the former.) Let's note that his name was Gianni, and not, say, Wayne or Deano. This was because he was a rural Italian peasant living in eighteenth century Venice, and while it's fair to assume that his lack of formal education and general peasant status means he's not going to have a wide vocabulary and immaculate spelling, he's still going to sound - well, like he's lived in Italy all his life...

So why then, did he 'talk' like a Mitchell brother from EastEnders? I'm not much of a historian, but I'm pretty sure there weren't many Cockernee geezer-peasants around in eighteenth-century Venice.

I get what the author was trying to do. She wanted to leave the reader in no doubt that this guy came from a poor, unsophisticated background, where he would have gone into servitude as a child instead of learning the three R's like the rich folk. And yes, one of the best ways to highlight that is to have that character use bad grammar and spelling in his 'diary entries.' But there's a hidden danger with this technique, and it comes down to how readers pronounce those errors in their head as they read them. Everyone does it as they read - they hear what the character is saying as an actual voice talking. The problem is, anything where the words are being 'heard' differently because of the way they're written is going to translate to that reader as some sort of accent - and if that accent is geographically wrong for that character it jars. (That's also why characters in historical novels don't tend to say things like "Whatevs, babe, catch you later, okay?" Unless they're terrible historical novels, of course.)

The lesson I learned from that? If you really must use mis-spellings and shortening of words to convey a character's social status, read your dialogue out loud to hear what it actually sounds like as a voice coming out of a person. I don't know if the author actually did that for Gianni, but if she had I'm sure she couldn't have failed to notice he sounded more Essex Man than Italian Villager. In this case it may have been better to just go with the bad grammar rather than mis-spellings, which are after all phonetic errors (and how on earth do you translate an Italian peasant's phonetic errors in his native language into written English anyway?)

4 - He's called the Romantic LEAD - not the Romantic ON A LEAD.

Now we come to the other secondary POV character, the gentle and caring Doctor Santo (and the one guy given the actual job of being Marcella's Love Interest, even though God knows every other non-villainous human in the book probably tried out for it at the audition stage.) And I'll admit, the takeaway I got from him may well be a lot to do with personal preference. 

Not every romantic lead has to be a badass, I get that. They don't all prove their love by punching out the lights of every evil schmuck who so much as raises a hand to the love of their dreams, or by figuring out ways to protect said love from said schmuck - or even by alerting someone in authority who could do something that this evil schmuckery is going on. Instead, they - um, wring their hands and agonize from a safe distance, refusing to do anything that might jeopardize their position with the evil schmuck in case he blocks access to their lady-love? Especially since they haven't even revealed their true feelings to her yet, because oh my god, how could they ever be worthy of the love of one so perfect and beautiful..?

Mmmmyeah, sorry, but that's why Santo didn't exactly light my fire. If there was some sort of Saint-Off going on in this tale, Marcella and Santo were definitely going head-to-head for most of it. Santo starts off as Minguillo's doctor, treating him for his terrible skin condition, but ends up treating Marcella's smashed-up leg after Minguillo has a game of whack-a-limb with it, which is when Santo first falls hopelessly in love with her. So, his secret crush is permanently crippled by one of his own patients that he already knows is a horrible person - and how does he feel about that? Nope, not angry, that's not what he says. He tells the reader he feels 'sad.'


As in "Darn, that's really put a downer on my day?" Well, cheers for that moral support, hero! He also gets his knickers in a knot because, no matter how 'sad' he feels about his crush's appalling treatment, there's 'absolutely nothing he can do to help her' - and certainly if it involves harming so much as a hair on the head of Minguillo. Of course there bloody is you fool, you're a doctor. Here's how it goes: "I have this tincture for your skin condition, Mr Fasan. We've had some great results with it in other patients, but unfortunately the side-effects include stomach cramps and uncontrollable diarrhoea... you might as well just strap your arse to a toilet for the forseeable future. Sorry about that, but thems the breaks." (Hey, medicine wasn't that advanced back then - he could totally have got away with that...)

Even at the end, when he finally - finally! - starts doing stuff to free Marcella from her dreadful existence in the convent and get rid of Minguillo once and for all (like, after more than three-quarters of the way through the entire book) he beats his breast and agonizes about it as if it means he's turning into the Antichrist. Dude, I know the woman you've fallen for is more angelic than Gabriel, but let her win that contest and get this shizzle done, will you?  At least as a couple they're pretty much made for each other. Proof of that comes when they finally escape to a grotty little shack together, along with manservant Gianni, who asks what on earth they'll all live on now they have no money and Santo has no patients any more. Santo and Marcella's answer - spoken, of course, in unison? "Love!" Uuurrrghh, you bloody idiots..!

Like I said, maybe this is just me, but I like my romantic leads to have a bit more agency. To get more than 'sad' when the love of their life has the crap repeatedly kicked out of her, and to not feel the need to go off and have a cry after doing something that makes a really evil person die in a very long-distance, indirect way.  I mean, look at it this way - most of us wouldn't jump on a chance to actually kill an utter bar-steward in real life, for oh so many reasons. Which is why we like it when fictional characters do that stuff for us. It's cathartic, in a vicariously safe way - "You be the champion mate and we'll be... right over here in the corner, cheering you on every step of the way! Yaaay, go you!" No-one actually dies in real life, but we still get those feel-good vibes from Justice Being Served. 

That's your job, hero-characters. And if you can't handle it - well, maybe you'd be better suited to the plot equivalent of burger-flipper at McDonalds. 


I realise this may sound like I didn't enjoy reading The Book of Human Skin - but I did, and I would certainly recommend it to others. Its shortcomings were more than made up for by the gloriously-drawn villainous characters (along with many interesting minor characters) vividly-described settings and well-researched historical details that made the story feel real. If you like your historical novels on the dark and twisted side, this one certainly ticks the boxes.

Which novels have you read that have changed your writing in fundamental ways? Who are you favourite good guys and bad guys? Feel free to leave a comment below.