Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Why I Write

This post is a bit different from my usual ones. The wonderful Chuck Wendig set a challenge on his blogsite for a 1,000-word piece entitled 'Why I Write.' (Full challenge details here.) Normally I post these on my Prawn Crackers Blog, but since this one isn't a short story I decided to post it here instead.
I'm well aware of the risk that I may come across as a pompous ass with this post. If that's the case.... here's my 'Sorry Face' in advance. My intentions were (and are) good, I promise. 


I learned from an early age that bad stuff happens in life. Lots of it, frequently and with no apparent limits on a person’s designated quota.

I learned that the Universal Karma System employed by life was pretty screwed up too. That no, being a generally good person and trying to Do the Right Thing didn't grant you automatic immunity from any crap flung by the Angry Monkey of Fate, in the same way that being a monumental asshat didn't cause crap to rain down from the heavens on said asshat in a constant shitstorm until they mended their ways. Life’s default setting when it came to crap-flinging was Bloody Unfair. And nothing could or would change that system, so best suck it up and deal with it while you’re still a kid, so you've got plenty of practice under your belt by the time you finally bungee-jump-with-a-blindfold-on into adulthood.

Imaginary life doesn't work like that.

Pick up any storybook and the life inside it is neat. Ordered. Controlled, from start to finish, by the author. In a good story everything works the way it’s supposed to, following the plan until it ties up into an ending that makes sense and feels right. The good people might get some Angry-Monkey-crap over them for a while, but in the end it’ll all be washed away, while the asshat drowns in the shitstorm of his own making. Balance is restored, karma dispensed, hugs all round. The way real life should work, but all too often doesn't.

For an insecure kid living in polite chaos as a failure-in-training, falling brain-first into an imaginary world where the rules were fair, consistent and easy to understand was the perfect escape.
Sometimes the imaginary worlds I visited were created by other writers, sometimes they were mine. In either case, I would spend hours in my room becoming explorer, anthropologist and detective all in one as I walked the same path and chewed the fat with the heroes in story-worlds. Like me, they were flawed and suffered for their screw-ups, but I always felt that, if I could hang out with them for a while, maybe some of the strengths and special talents that helped them win through in the end might eventually rub off on me.

But more than that, those imaginary worlds changed the way I looked at my own, real world. Sometimes this was because they were so different – but more often because of the subtle ways they were the same. The imaginary worlds often had the same problems, injustices and cruelties as the real one – but unlike the real world, they weren't smothered by a chorus of indifference. The story didn't just crash and burn against the wall of “well that’s just life isn't it? Life sucks and it’s pointless being a crybaby about it, so let’s all think about puppies instead.”

The characters in story-worlds could – and did - talk about that stuff. They were proactive, pointing to the shit that was wrong with a big neon arrow and saying “this needs fixing, and we’re gonna need help with it so come on, get on board!” And those who did were immediately members of Team Good, while those who didn't had, by their very inaction, signed up to Team Evil and the inevitable shitstorm-retribution finale.  The good people of imaginary worlds want them to be better, fairer places - for everyone, not just the career-driven, or the religiously pious, or the financially astute, or the ones with beautiful faces and ‘perfect’ bodies…

Of course, if they tried that malarkey in the real world they’d get squashed pretty damn quick; there are enough non-imaginary people on this blue and green ball of rock who like the status quo just as it is, thank you very much. Those people don’t like being made to feel it’s wrong that there are people starving in third-world countries while their leaders expand their rocket-launcher collection, because putting that right would mean having to pay more for their exotic grocery items. They don’t want to hear scientists shouting at them on telly that the ice-caps are melting thanks to global warming, because that messes with their dream of owning a gas-guzzling people-tank. And they hate being told that belittling someone just because they’re somehow ‘different’ from the idealised, cookie-cutter norm is unfair, because – well jeez, how are they supposed to feel good about themselves if they've got no-one to feel superior to?

It’s all about the self-interest, you see. In today’s world we’re all taught to look after number one first – “everything someone else gets might mean less for me…” So ironically, the more we see and learn about people suffering in every corner of the globe, the less we empathise with them. Instead, we fear. Fear that, but for random luck and geography, that could’ve been us. What if we ended up in their situation? No, mustn’t think that. Stick our fingers in our ears, la la la…

And that’s where the imaginary worlds from stories come in. The people who’ll shut their ears to reasoned debate and impassioned pleas will dive into story worlds without fear or hostility, because they always know where the exit is should the going get tough. It’s a safe space – for them and that world’s creator - to exchange messages that get drowned out by the Darwinian white noise of the real world. Messages that just might get through, hidden like the jam in the tasty doughnut…

That’s why I write. 

The words of insignificant little me won't change the world, but they’re my way of adding my tiny ant-squeak to the chorus of other tiny writer-ants, pointing out what’s wrong and how maybe we should try and fix that. I can whisper in the ears of others who are afraid they’re a failure and say “no you’re not. You’re okay, and it’s okay to be you.”

Because everyone needs an imaginary friend sometimes.  Even writers. Hell, especially writers.


Sunday, 19 July 2015

If You're A Writer, You're Probably A Bit Weird*

*But that's okay.

If you were to ask someone what they wanted to do with their life, and they told you "I want to put all the little people that exist inside my head through all kinds of intolerable hell just to see what happens, and then I want to tell as many people in the real world as possible all about it"... you'd probably back away slowly while wondering where to obtain the phone number of the nearest psychiatric institution.

But those of us in The Club know that this isn't a sign of mental illness - or at least, no-one's proved it is. (Yet.) It's just the Call of the Writer. To the non-writers of the world, however, this doesn't sound like the healthiest or most productive way to get life done, which is why they offer the subtle but customary eye-roll and suppressed snigger/groan whenever the dirty little secret is revealed. Add to this that many writers are introspective observers rather than table-dancing tequila-slammers at the party that is life, and it's easy to see how the equation 'writer = a bit odd' evolved.

I quite liked being on my own as a kid. I had friends that I played with of course, but on those occasions where they were elsewhere for whatever reason, the prospect of having 'no-one to play with' didn't faze me at all. In fact, the concept didn't really exist; I had 'friends' in my head that I could play with in the absence of real-world ones. Some grown-ups - and kids too - found this a bit weird. Some of my friends also found the way I played make-believe games a bit weird. Most of us have had favourite tv programmes that we 'played' as our own make-believe games. But while all my friends would pick existing characters from the show to 'be,' I preferred to invent a completely new one. This didn't always go down well with friends who were particular about Realism in Their Fantasy Games:

FRIEND: I've never heard of that character before. She's not in that show!
ME: I know. I made her up.
FRIEND: What? You can't do that! You can't just make characters up!
ME: Why not?
FRIEND: Well - because then she could just be anything! She could just be and do anything you wanted her to!

Well, duh!

But apparently, this sort of extreme roleplaying had the potential to Ruin The Game, so I did my best to temper my maverick tendencies in those situations. It wasn't that I had this megalomaniac urge to be a Mary Sue on Steroids - the characters I invented myself had just as many flaws and limitations as the pre-existing ones. I just wanted to take our make-believe games in new directions - create new adventures and scenarios, rather than just re-enact the episodes we'd seen on the telly. But I also didn't want to annoy my friends.

Not all of them felt this way, I have to say. Others were more than happy to jump on the creative train and swing it the heck off the designated track. But the ones who preferred to ground their fantasy in the undisputed reality of its TV series origins tended to be Leaders, Type-A personalities, They were assertive, persuasive and probably destined to be Managing Directors when they grew up. Everyone listened to them because they sounded like they knew what they were talking about. Heck, even I listened to them. After all, what did I know? I wasn't Managing Director material. I was too weird.

As an adult I had a string of office jobs - and never seemed to fit in with any of them. I was that tiresome, awkward one who would try and do the job a little bit differently, rather than doing it 'the way it's always been done' - "Wendy, I appreciate you feel a cartoon drawing of you as a skeleton waiting for a phone call from IT Support is a more succinct way of saying you waited for seven hours for them to fix your computer yesterday - but I'm afraid it's not standard company procedure for documenting progress in your Project Log Book." (Nobody ever looked at those things. Nobody. Until that one day I did that cartoon...)

You can only be the Anakin Skywalker of the office environment for so long before it starts to get you down. I was only 'let go' from a job once (and that was mostly due to my thinking that working on a telephone helpdesk was a savvy career move when you're hearing-impaired - you live and learn...) but I've ended up quitting every other office job I had because... well, to be honest, I couldn't believe they hadn't fired me already. I just seemed to be rocking the boat all the time, with my rebellious ideas and opinions and stuff. And yet my bosses were always surprised when I handed in my notice - as if the idea of not having me around anymore hadn't even crossed their minds. Maybe they secretly enjoyed getting exasperated at my efforts to do things differently - as if I was a variation of Christian Grey, but not so much with a Red Room of Pain as a Stationery Cupboard of Crankiness...

So I learned to accept the idea that I was A Bit Weird. That, even if they sort of liked me, Normal People were always going to think there was something a bit wrong with me upstairs, and any attempts I made to fake Normalness were destined to fail at least fifty percent of the time. Obviously I didn't like feeling like a social misfit, but I realised the only way to not get terminally depressed about it was to just admit that I had the problem and try to minimise the fallout when it occurred.

I never associated any of it with being a creative person though - until I started spending a lot more time among other creative people. I didn't feel like the Nutter on The Bus in their company; in fact, it felt more like I'd jumped on board the Busful of Fellow Nutters (no disrespect intended, guys.) They knew what it was like to feel 'all social-ed out' at the end of a day, only to realise the 'people' you'd spent the most time with during that day... were the imaginary ones in your current w-i-p. They understood that sometimes that statement coming out of my mouth was raw and undiluted from my brain, because it flashed along my neural pathways too fast for the oh-my-god-you-can't-say-that filter who knew that, actually no, it didn't sound like a good idea at any time. And they totally got the long-term love affair with all things stationery, and the deep truth that is there is no such thing as 'too many' pens or notebooks...

If you're a writer, maybe some of the things I've talked about have rung bells for you too. Perhaps they've got you into trouble on occasions - or at least earned you the odd funny look or two. Maybe you too have been forced to accept the idea that non-writer friends and family think you're a teeny bit strange. It's okay. Being somewhere to the left of Normal is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Without us, the world would be one giant Stepford Wives metropolis. And there would definitely be a lot less books to read.

What first clued you in to realising that you, as a writer, thought differently from non-writers? I'd love to know. Let all of us writers gather together - whether in real life or via cyberspace - and embrace our special kind of weirdness!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

5 Things I Wish I Knew about Novel Writing Twenty Years Ago

"Non, je ne regrette rien," sang French chanteuse and all-round stoic Edith Piaf. And while she made a good point, I bet even she succumbed to the odd facepalm now and then. It's only human to look back over your life and think "If I knew then what I know now..."

But until the time machine gets invented (and they sort out some way to deal with that pesky Grandfather Paradox) you can't nip back to greet your younger and more naive self and give them the almanac from the future. So all that's left is the next best alternative; to put what you wish you'd learned twenty years ago Out There for others to see, hoping to prevent them from taking twenty years to learn it as well.

It's not stuff about style, or language, or story construction or any of the mechanics of writing a novel. It's not about how to dream up the perfect story or how to get it published and become rich and famous. But it is stuff that, once you know it, makes all of the previous stuff more achievable. And yet you won't find it in most books about writing, or taught in most creative writing classes. So here is my Top Five. Do with them what you will...

1. - Finish What You Start. No REALLY. FINISH. IT.
Are you one of those people who starts a novel with megaton-bomb's-worth of enthusiasm, steaming through the first two or three chapters, and then slowing down a bit... and a bit more.... and then, about a third of the way in, deciding to 'put it aside for a bit' and work on something else instead? And over time, have you acquired a collection of part-written novels that still languish like embarrassing mad relatives in some dark and lonely attic (either physical or virtual?)

Yeah, I did that too. For years. I always had 'good' reasons for switching to a newer, shinier project in favour of the current one, of course - and I was never 'giving up on' a novel, nooo, I was just 'taking a break from it.' I was going to come back to it again in the future, of course I was, but... mmmyeahno, I never did.

That was a mistake, and one I repeated time after time. I shouldn't have given up so easily - and yes, if I'm honest that's what I was really doing. I gave up whenever the initial excitement of creating something new wore off as it became less and less new in my own head. But here's the thing; you can't achieve success at creating a thing until that thing is finished. How far would Mr Harley-Davidson have got if he'd said "Hey everybody, look at this cool bike I'm making here! Admittedly I haven't put the wheels on yet - or brakes - and yeah, I'm still sort of deciding how the engine's gonna work... aw, but trust me, when this baby's finished she's gonna freakin' rock!" He got where he got by finishing that bike we know and love - and probably after he'd already finished a few ropey prototypes that tanked.

So if you start something, finish it. Try it with short stories first, if finishing anything you start is a real problem, and then work your way up to full-on novels. But finish it. Because...

2 - You'll never learn how to write a novel properly until you COMPLETE (at least) your first novel.
You can read all the books on writing that ever existed. You can take a million writing classes. You can read the wise words of every successful author on the planet who's already been there and done it. None of those things will teach you even a tenth of what actually getting out there in the trenches and doing it will teach you. Even just completing a first draft of a novel will be a massive learning experience that no amount of tutoring and sage advice can offer.

Why? Because until you've got that far, all the lessons and lectures are just words; the equivalent of the instruction manual for flat-pack furniture. Sure, they'll take you through every step of building that wardrobe, but they won't tell you all the stuff you can only learn by doing - like how if you don't hammer those wooden pegs in pixel-perfect straight you're screwed, trying to build the thing in a room with furniture already in it is just asking for trouble and the Allen Key is the most stupid and infuriating invention in the world. (Yeah, IKEA don't stick those little gems in their cartoon-men diagrams, do they?)

Most of us would prefer to think surgeons at least had a practice on something before they embarked on hacking and slashing real patients for a career, and the principle is the same with novel-writing (albeit with less chance of actual death.) Once you've completed your first novel, you'll have a brand new set of tools that you now know how to use when you write your next one. At which point you'll discover there are even more tools, and you can have a practice with them while getting more proficient with the tools you picked up previously. Learning by doing. It's the best way.

3 - Set goals for yourself. And stick to them.
But not just any old, floaty-cloud goals; make them specific, measurable and realistic. "I am going to finish this goddamn novel," for example, is a great goal in terms of passion and drive, but it's not specific or measurable enough, which renders it unrealistic by default. It's also flippin' huge in terms of ambition; like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, ninety percent of it is sitting under the water where you can't see it. If you're going to nail this project, you need to break it down into smaller chunks. You'll need a way of tracking your progress too; I use an Excel Spreadsheet I made for the purpose, but you could just as easily use an old invoice book or draw tables on some squared paper - whatever works for you.

First off, start with time. Look at your week and decide how much time - realistically - you can devote to writing. If you have a day job that isn't writing, or your time is taken up with caring for other people, you'll probably have to snatch hours when and where you can. That's okay; pinpoint those precious hours and own them. No ifs or buts, claim them as your writing time, tell everyone who needs to know that those are your writing hours - hell, mark them down on a calendar or weekly planner so you can see them too. Make them official, like a real, proper appointment that you must show up to. Add them up, and that'll give you your minimum target of hours per week. (You can split up those hours any way you like; the same amount of hours spread over each day or big chunks on some days and small or no chunks on other days - it's the weekly total that matters.)

Later on, when you've got yourself into a regular routine of showing up for your target hours each week (and that can take a while, especially if you haven't done that before with your writing) you can start tracking your weekly word count as well. But don't set concrete targets for that until you've tracked it for at least a couple of months, so you can see what your average weekly output is and come up with a target that doesn't shoot ridiculously beyond that (because setting goals that are impossible to achieve is way worse than setting no goals at all.)

That's when things like deadlines and completion dates can become more concrete; the average novel is 100,000 words long, so if you can write 10,000 words a month, for example (which is only 2,500 words a week, which in turn is less than 355 words a day...) well, that's a full draft of an entire novel in ten months. So you see, even the smallest efforts done regularly can amount to great things in less time than you might think. But it's only by seeing it happen, right in front of your own eyes, that you can motivate yourself to keep at it.

4 - Writing a novel isn't fun all the time. And that's totally okay.
You're a writer because you love to write. It's the only thing you can imagine yourself actually wanting to do for a career rather than just having to do for, like, money and stuff. And because you feel this way, if something you're writing starts to feel like a grind, a miserable chore that makes the ironing look like a thrilling diversion, something must be so wrong with it that you should probably give up and start something else, right? Because writing's supposed to be fun - it makes you feel good and happy and creative...

Mmmmyeah, not always. Even with a novel you love like your own baby-child, there will be days when you hate its plot-stall-ed, wooden-character-ed, nonsense-dialogue-d guts. When the mere thought of sitting down and opening up that document - again - will fill you with an urge to weep and watch marathon sessions of Keeping Up with The Kardashians instead. Suddenly this baby isn't a joy anymore, it's a wailing, demanding poo factory that takes up your valuable time and energy. And it's starting to look pretty ugly as well.

So surely, if you carry on trying to write it when you're this 'uninspired,' won't the effort suck every last drop of creative fire from your veins like a vampire, leaving you jaded and unable to face writing anything else ever again? You cannot let that happen! It would be Creative Death! Writing is your mission, your life - writing should only ever be Fun Times...

Ask any published author on the planet, and they'll tell you there were days when sitting down and writing the next chapter of their novel was the last thing on earth they felt like doing. But they still did it anyway. Inspiration doesn't fall from the sky like rain, it's the sweat that comes from exercising those writing muscles. You don't exercise, you don't sweat. And sometimes you have to do a lot of dull and miserable exercising before that sweat appears.

So if the urge to write that next scene from your w-i-p isn't there, get your arse in front of that manuscript and write anyway. Remember those targets I talked about previously? It doesn't matter if all you end up with is a steaming pile of donkey-poo. Even donkey-poo can be shaped and sculpted into something amazing - but you need the donkey-poo to be there in the first place.

Of course there's nothing wrong with only writing what you want to and when you want to... if writing is just a fun little hobby and you have no desire whatsoever for anyone else to ever read your work. But if you're hoping to be published someday, you can't afford to sit around waiting for creative lightning to strike. Gotta make them sparks yourself, Chutney.

5 - Not all writing advice is helpful or useful.
No, I didn't stick this one at the end just to mess with your head. Well maybe a little bit...

The point is, what works for some writers won't work at all for others, no matter what. However, this doesn't mean you should stop looking and listening to advice and feedback on how to improve your writing chops. In fact, the more advice you seek out and absorb, the better you'll continue to get at knowing what to hold on to and what to drop like a deep-fried Mars Bar (a great idea in fantasy, a Crime Against Chocolate in reality.)

For example, by now I must have read the equivalent of a small forest and a PC hard-drive's worth of books and eBooks about writing, writing fiction and writing novels - and that's before you even start to include the blogs of other authors I follow. That's more advice than one person's brain can hold or needs in a lifetime. In the course of gathering all that information, I have discovered that, although I do have some plotting and organisational tendencies, overall as a writer I am a natural, red-blooded Pantser.

Now there are some fabulous writing how-to books that are perfect for all the Plotters out there - but I've discovered the hard way that, for me at least, they are Kryptonite in literary form. Anything that involves measuring the progress of your plot by dividing your entire story up into small fractions and making sure you hit a certain 'beat' by a particular percentage of pages written.... jeez, even reading that back makes me want to head-desk. My brain don't work like that, Professor! So I've learned to stop reading them in the first place now, because they just make me feel like a thicko (and it's not like I need that in my writing life as well...)

On the other hand, anything about the craft of writing - creating great characters, settings and dialogue and what I suppose you'd call 'making better use of language in your writing' - well, those are the kind of books that get my blood pumping and me desperate to sit at my keyboard and write my stubby little fingers off. So those are the books I seek out when I feel the need for a little Writing Espresso.

Not all writing advice is supposed to fill your heart with glee, obviously. Much of it is meant to instil in you just how much hard graft is needed to write a good novel, and that's as it should be. However, if any advice you get - whether from books, websites or even other authors - makes you feel like you have no hope of ever succeeding as a writer, because you just can't think that way or buy into that concept, then it's probably the wrong advice for you. Don't sweat it. You won't have to look very hard to find an alternative viewpoint from someone else who's had just as much success doing things the opposite way. And don't ever - ever - let anyone else tell you you'll never make it as a writer unless you subscribe to [insert Success Blueprint of the Moment.] There is no magic one-blueprint-fits-all. You are your own blueprint, made of whatever components of advice work for you.

So... over to you. What do YOU wish you'd known about writing a long, long time ago? What stuff do you think all writers should be told when they're just starting out? Why not drop it in the comments below, and maybe we can pass some nuggets of real-world wisdom around!