Archives: Stuff I Learn About Writing

Resistance is Futile

Star Trek Picard GIF

Last couple of days, I’ve been doubting myself. I’ve considered quitting this book and writing something new. I’ve been thinking ‘oh, what if I wrote a series? Series are marketable’, or ‘oh, what about vampires? People LOVE to read about vampires’.

You know what this is? It’s bloody RESISTANCE. It’s my brain, once again, dodging the hard work and trying to convince me that another book will be easier. 

It makes sense: I’m in a sticky spot in my novel. I’ve got my 60 pages of exploration, and now I’m struggling to proceed. I’ve got character backstories, a tighter grip on the world, and a general idea about where it’s going. But I don’t have an outline, or any experience to guide me through a second long-hand draft.

Crucially, I also don’t have recent experience of finishing a new manuscript. Barring a novella, the last first draft I took to completion was THE flippin’ NIGHT MAGE, which I wrote in the arse-end of 2016. Somehow, thanks to my own bloody genius, I’ve managed to give myself finishphobia*.

Thankfully, this time around, I’ve caught myself quickly, identifying the stupid critical voice for what it is: an imposter for my lovely, imaginative creative voice. So, I swear, I WILL finish this book. No matter how long it takes. No matter how hard it gets. The damn thing will be completed. And if it’s a pile of crap then, actually, it doesn’t matter, because right now the most important thing I need to do is finish a book. Any book. I’ve got to cure this phobia.

 

*Yes I made that one up. 

Want More, Do Less

A realisation:

It’s better to stop writing when I want to do more, rather than push myself until the well is dry. That way, I approach the next session eager to continue. And as all writers know, starting is the hardest bit. 

It seems counterintuitive, but the key to doing more is to do a bit less than I can manage. I should be itching to carry on, not drained and out of ideas. 

End of realisation.

Current WIP: 18 pages. 

Fear

Nazgul. These dudes always scared the crap out of me. It was the idea of always being hunted, always being chased… I remember watching Fellowship for the first time (seriously the day my life changed) and being utterly terrified throughout as old memories stirred up (I started LOTR when I was a bit too young and stopped at the Prancing Pony). 

On a related note, I’m at 33 miles in my Walk to Mordor challenge, which means I encountered my first Black Rider yesterday. Think I might run today… Get them off my tail. 

Yesterday was an important day for Fear; not only did I brush past one of those scary mofos, but I also had a major breakthrough in understanding my own fear. I decoupled, at long last, the childhood survival-mode Fear from the adult me. Childhood Fear (which I picture living on the back of my neck at the base of my brain) was formed at a time when I was alone, afraid and unsure of my surroundings and relationships with others. It is terrified of failure for reasons that are no longer relevant. It’s terrified of dependency, not knowing that I need never be dependent again. I’m an adult now, and I can look after myself and my Childhood Fear. If we fall, I will catch us – no need for anyone else. 

This is relevant to writing because my Fear had latched onto writing, wrongly assuming that writing was associated with survival. It believed that if I fail at writing, we will Fail, and therefore have to rely on other people – people we can’t trust, or rely on to be kind and gentle and unconditionally loving. When in reality, my goal of becoming a successful writer is a privileged, top-of-the-pyramid dream, akin to attempting to become an astronaut or leader of a country. If it happens, awesome; if it doesn’t, well, it was a lofty goal to begin with, and I’ll learn to enjoy another path. But my Childhood Fear didn’t know the difference, therefore wreaking havoc on my mental health and leaving me in an almost-permanent state of stress, anxiety, fear and panic. It left me feeling like a child. 

But now I’ve cut the connection. I recognise the base Fear, and appreciate its role and the good things it’s given me (hey there, creativity, autonomy and tenacity!), and I’ve also gently removed its fingers from issues it’s not concerned with. If I don’t make it as a writer, then that’ll suck, but I’ll survive. I’ll find a way to make the most of life through other means. I’m an adult, and now it is my choice whether I rely on others or not. Childhood Fear can relax knowing I’m in charge, not other people, and that I have its back always. Unconditionally.

I can’t tell you how liberating this is. 

(But now, I must flee the Black Riders. Engage, Childhood Fear – you’re on!)

Walking to Mordor

No, not a euphemism for mental illness; I’m genuinely walking to Mordor. And back. Wanna walk it too? Scroll down to the bottom of this post.

I’ve decided that walking is going to be my exercise of choice because a) I like it, b) I have time to do it, c) I can take my dictaphone and Muse. Also, fresh air is supposed to be good for humans. Or so I’ve heard.

Anyway, I’ve been preoccupied with walking the last few days, so I’ve not been getting heaps of work done. I did outline two books yesterday, but that’s the most I’ve done this week. I have, however, figured out a way to track my productivity without being too tracky. Instead of counting time, pages or words, I’m simply rating myself out of four. 

My Scientific Ratings

1 – I did a wee bit of work

2 – I did a decent bit of work

3 – I did a big bit of work

4 – I did a bloody awesome amount of work and now I’ve sprouted rainbow wings

There are no official guidelines; I’m simply using my intuition. Using quantitative data with regards to writing MESSES ME UP. It’s cool for something like miles walked to Mordor, because you add to it every single day and you know you’re on the right track. But writing doesn’t work like that. It’s not as simple as putting your foot out the door and then one after the other. It’s back and forward, right, left, up and down, all over the bloody place. So, flying unicorns it is. 

Refining Realisations

I wrote 1000 words yesterday, which was a nice start to the week. I haven’t set myself a word target for April – I don’t think it would be helpful given my delicate recovery from the Block – but my goal is to write something every day. Saying that, I would like to get at least another thousand in today. 

As I’ve been refining my overall creative vision the last couple of days, I’ve realised that I was almost right when I thought I wanted to write fairytales, but I needed to drill down deeper into the genre. So, in the corner of fairytale fiction, I like to write fantasy that has a fairy tale feel (ala Night Mage), or I like to retell Scottish folk stories. I don’t actually like to write retellings of the big Grimm tales or other well-known western stories (mostly, I’ve come to realise, because those are not my stories to tell. I am not German or Danish or French); my interest lies in Scotland. As it should. Cultural appropriation is something I take very seriously. Scottish culture is appropriated all the time and it is annoying at best and offensive at worst.

Retellings aside, I also don’t like stories that involve lots of ballgowns and princes. Neither appeal to me. Instead, I like mysterious magic; dark, wintry woods; brave heroines; dangerous fairies and ill-advised wishes. That’s the sort of story I like – not pumpkins, wicked stepmothers and glittery frocks. 

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that it’s okay to change your mind, or to refine your ideas. Understanding the kind of stories I like to write is an ongoing learning curve, and no doubt my preference in stories will change as I grow older. But for now, I feel like I know where my little nook in the storyworld is, and I’m pretty damn happy to be here.

WIP: 1544.

Trusting the Gut Part 2

In light of my recent realisation regarding the book I had to be working on, I had another wee revelation…

The book is a standalone. The magic is low-fi. The biggest emphasis is on character, not world-building. It’s the kind of book I realised I wanted to write sometime in 2016. Before, I thought my heart lay in (typically 3rd person) big ole fantasy. But now I know that my favourite books and films don’t necessarily align to the type of story I want to write. 

The Night Mage was a pivotal book in my final realisation and acceptance of the sort of stories I want to tell – at this point in my life, anyway. After The Night Mage, I started a few other stories that never got anywhere, and then I landed on The Forest King. I wrote 30k or so, then read it through, declared it a disaster and decided to write three traditional retellings (think girls in sparkly dresses) over the summer. Why? Because I thought it would make financial sense. 

Yeeaaah. You can maybe see just how messed up my thought process was back then, and how much pressure I was putting on myself. What followed was nine months of battling Beauty and the BLOODY BEAST, when what I should have done was realised my mistake, accepted that books can’t be rushed and need many drafts, and gone back to the stories I like best (i.e. The Forest King). My ideas petered out, then dried up completely. The Block hit. And my mental health – on a downward trend for a couple of years – struck a frightening low.

What’s kind of annoying is I made a similar mistake the year before, pursuing a book for months and months when it was clear I didn’t want to write it. Yes, books are hard, but if a book is giving you endless pushback, then I believe that book isn’t meant to be written. I should have learned my lesson and given up on B&B, but sadly, I kept going. Sometimes tenacity can be a flaw.

Anyhoo, as I said, my ideas gradually shrivelled up during my months of chasing Beauty and the Beast. Well, in the few days that have passed since my relearning of an old lesson, I’ve had four ideas spring up. These ideas will probably amount to nothing, BUT, it’s like the good old days, when I had bolts of inspiration on a regular basis.

The lesson I must learn is this, folks:

DO NOT write a story because I think it will be commercially viable.

DO NOT pursue a story that is fighting me every inch of the way and giving me nothing in return.

DO stop and think about what’s wrong if I feel myself becoming blocked.

DO pursue the kind of stories I love to WRITE, which might not be identical to those I love to READ and WATCH. 

I’m determined not to make these mistakes again. Always, always listen to the gut.*

 

*Ever read GUT by Giuilia Enders? I recommend it. Makes you think twice about where the centre of yourself lies… (And about the junk food you inflict on your poor digestive system.)

Suspicious Pants

*moonwalks onto the page*

I am feeling GOOD about this book. YES! I’ve been working on the main characters and their relationships (and I’m getting somewhere in the lovey-dovey department), and my next task is to cobble together a rough outline of all the stuff that’s going to happen. 

Which brings me to the issue of plotting and pantsing. (Actually, it’s not an issue. It’s just something writers like to talk about when they’re stuck on a problem.)

So, I was wondering how much to plot before drafting. I fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes (like 99.99% of writers out there, hence the lack of Issue), but, in the last couple of years, have drifted more to pantsy waters, the reasons for doing so being, A) I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark and it struck a major chord, and B) I grew suspicious of outlines that never stick the landing. What’s the point in planning something out if you always veer from the plan? Sounds like wasted effort to me. 

HOWEVER, I’ve had a thought. What if the reason I ditch plans is because I’m doing a crappy job matching my words to my vision? I mean, if I know the character well enough, then what’s the difference between planning their actions in an outline and writing them out in prose? Yes, it’s possible that rushed and shallow planning can result in character actions not making sense when it comes to writing scenes; however, it seems strange to me that, with proper thought, characters behave naturally in my head, then magically try to act another way when it comes to the actual page.

All of this has me wondering: is it more a case of reality not matching the imagined, thus causing me to give up? When I write by the seat of my pants, I don’t have a clue where it’s going, therefore I have no vision to compare it to, therefore there’s a smaller chance of me thinking it’s a pile of crap. Hmm… While I can’t say for sure, I’m certainly suspicious. 

With this in mind, I’m going to sketch out an overall rough skeleton for the book, and plan each scene before writing it. I’m hoping to have my outline done by the end of this month, so I can draft all through April. (Fun fact: I like to do big stuff in April, for the obvious reason. Last year, I made sure to publish The Night Mage in April. For luck? I dunno. It just felt right.)

Tomorrow is Mine

Okay. Another day, another day of figuring stuff out. Today, I realised that I need to get back to the keyboard. If I rest for much longer, I’ll allow this bloody Block to grow into a monster. I can’t give it that power. I have to pick up my sword and keep hacking. 

Saying that, I needed a break. It was honestly my first one in years (except five days I spent in New York where I’d written 30k the previous week). I mean, I’ve not written every day all this time, but I’ve always been attempting to write a novel. Always. My brain has not once switched to the off position. And for that reason, I believe this break of two-three weeks has been necessary. It’s also something I need to incorporate into my schedule on a regular basis. 

HOWEVER, I think I’ve been guilty of giving up too easily on projects, especially in the last year. In the past, I’ve had ideas that have walked into my head and then onto the page, resulting in completed books (The Night Mage was one of them). I’ve also had many ideas that have stuttered and failed, mostly resulting in half-finished manuscripts. Because of this, I think I’ve come to believe that I can only finish a book if the original idea dances into my brain on top of a glittery unicorn.

If I believe this, I’m not going to have a long-term career writing fiction. That’s the brutal truth. Funny thing is, I know that writing is a grind – and I’ve been capable of great grinding, believe me – but it’s like I’ve forgotten it. Maybe months and months and months of Failure and feeling like UTTER SHIT has slowly morphed my thought process. Well, this break has given me perspective. Just because some books have been glorious, doesn’t mean they all will be. And if I wait around for the glorious ones, I’m not going to produce enough content to earn a living. #hardfacts

So, I’m getting back in the saddle.  Today I’m going to go to a coffee shop with my notepad, and think. No pressure – simply think. Perhaps one of my previous ideas can be resuscitated, or perhaps I’ll find the spark of something new. 

I’m also making some general changes, to stop myself falling so far down the hole again.

  1. I’m adding more activity into my life. Maybe some people can write all day every day, but I’m not one of them. As I said in my previous post, my Muse is a vampire. It needs rest and darkness, and my well of ideas needs refilling. I also need to do something about the horrible loneliness I feel throughout the day, so hopefully a wee volunteering gig will help.
  2. I’ve found a little pocket of the internet where I like to engage with writers. I’ve been searching for a space for so long and think I’ve found it at last. This should make the daily slog a little less gruelling.
  3. I’ve acknowledged that I’m way too hard on myself, and that needs to change. Hopefully, with the help of a counsellor, I can learn to be kind to myself while maintaining my ambition. 
  4. I’ve given up caffeine and refined sugar (for the most part) because they make me ill/mess with my mood. Hopefully this will alleviate the dreaded afternoon slump. 
  5. I’ve accepted that books take a loooooong time. I can’t write a book a month or anything like it. I think my range will be one-three books a year, depending on the project(s). 

Lastly, I’m reminding myself that I’m not a failure. I am a fighter (wooyeah! I’m blasting the Bayonetta soundtrack as I write this) and I AM COMING FOR YOU, BOOK. 

Bloody Fangs

While on sabbatical, I’m learning more and more about writing and myself. The latest realisation is this:

MORE TIME ≠ MORE WRITING

When faced with lots of time, I don’t get more done. What happens is I beat myself up for not writing eight bajillion words a day, and therefore live in a constant state of guilt, panic and anxiety (sounds fun, doesn’t it). So, right now I’m thinking of all the things I want to do (exercise, other forms of art, volunteering etc) and slowly building them into my day. I want to practise committing to other activities, and then fitting my writing in around them. Basically, my Muse shrivels up if I shove it under my full beam of focus. My Muse prefers to skulk in the shadows and work when I’m not properly looking. 

My Muse is a vampire. This is what I’ve learned. 

In general, I’m feeling okay, but there is this voice at the back of my head that’s always whispering you’ve broken yourself bravo all is lost. I have, essentially, become a meme.

Steady Now

OKAY. I was wrong. About being blocked. I don’t have a shortage of ideas; I have a shortage of good ideas.

http://www.poorlydrawnlines.com/comic/an-idea/

I realised this after reading an interview with Philip Roth (well, half an interview, because I’m too cheap to subscribe), and a bunch of other quotes about writer’s block. Ideas take time. Ideas sputter and fail. You can spin your wheels for months. This is all part of the process. 

I’ve been trying to write my way out, going through idea after idea after idea, which seems to be recommended practice. And after my two-week holiday, I’ll get back to the keyboard, hacking away until something catches. 

I’ve decided to believe that all this toil is a good sign. It shows that my standards are rising, that I’m not willing to settle for a mediocre idea. I mean, this might be a load of rubbish, but it’s what I’m choosing to believe. So there 🙂

Obviously, I have a new idea! It popped up late Tuesday night, and I spent all yesterday mulling it over, scribbling in my notebook. I know I’m on a writing holiday, but I honestly couldn’t help myself! The urge to start Chapter One is strong, but I’m going to resist until Monday. I need this break. My plan for the next few days is to keep reading, keep mulling, and with any luck, this latest idea will still be calling to me come Monday morning. If not, then…I’ll keep plugging away regardless.