Random

Writers are not their characters

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When I was younger I used to write all the time. Then I got sucked into a terrible relationship and I stopped writing. Aside from being clinically depressed and being made to feel worthless on the whole in the relationship, the real reason I stopped writing was because the people I was involved with believed that every character I created was a representation of me. They used my characters against me. Every time a character in one of my stories did something wrong, I was blamed. If I wrote a character they perceived as sexist, I was sexist. If they thought a character was irresponsible or thoughtless, I was too. They focussed on the negative every time and slowly chipped away at my self-esteem until I just gave up on writing altogether because I was so terrified my characters would make a mistake and I would be found guilty.

It was a shitty way to live.

Now that I’m free of that relationship I’ve taken up writing again full force, but the thought that I’m intimately connected to my characters still lingers and sometimes it scares me so much I’m tempted not to explore taboos or subjects that could be seen as ‘risky’.

I sometimes get scared, but then I push on through with the mantra of ‘I am not my characters’.

As a writer it is vital to distinguish yourself from your characters, or else you’ll take on the burden of their mistakes and be tempted to keep your writing in a safe zone. But writing, and art in general, is not about being safe. It’s about taking risks, putting yourself out there and exploring the deep dark places where other people won’t go. As an artist I feel I have both the privilege and responsibility to rip myself open and show my inner conflicts to the world. Through our artists, humanity has the chance to examine ourselves and others and that is so important. Sometimes I hate my characters and disagree with them, but I write them anyway because art should be a place to explore anything and everything that’s in your mind.

Lately though, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people out there who think in the way I was conditioned to think: that writers are their characters. I’ve seen writers torn to pieces by politically correct activists because they dared to explore something that was taboo or because they presented a sensitive situation in what others consider ‘a wrong light’. Some people seem to hold the opinion that writers are personally responsible for the views of their characters. If a character in a novel or TV show is sexist, racist, homophobic, weak, stereotypical or any number of other perceived issues, then the writer is directly to blame and clearly holds all of the same values or flaws as their protagonists.

This is wrong.

If this was really true, why wouldn’t more writers be personally lauded for creating wonderful, heroic characters? When was the last time you heard a review of a book that included the idea that the writer personally must be a true hero because they wrote an amazing character? It never happens.

If this was true wouldn’t every murder mystery writer be a psychopath?

We can’t just cherry pick what traits an artist gets endowed with because we’re angry or upset about a certain piece of art.

My (unverified psychological) theory is that people look for the bad before they look for the good and when they find the bad they want a scapegoat, someone to blame for the fact that they’re upset or don’t agree with something a character has done. But unfortunately this is just a quick, easy way to alienate writers and make them scared to explore concepts or look at angles that might not otherwise see the light of day.

As a society we need our writers and artists to feel free to express themselves without fear of personal attack. We need them to plumb the depths of their souls and expose their dark places without a band of angry villagers with torches and pitchforks banging down their door. We need to adjust our view of fiction to see it for what it is: a fictional story with fictional characters.

Sure we can infer things about writers from what they chose to write, but to make assumptions and rage against the individual for making a piece of art and being brave enough to put it out there is nothing but a subtle form of personalized censorship. We should be better than that. We should understand that fiction is not necessarily indicative of a person’s beliefs and disagree with the characters and their actions instead of the writer who created them. Criticize the art not the artist.

Writers are not their characters and it’s a dangerous thing for the freedom of art to suggest they are. If we condemn our artists for their creations they might stop creating altogether, like I did once upon a time, and then where would we be?

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Story Notes

Story Notes: The Same

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My story ‘The Same’ was recently published in The Quilliad. I was so happy to be included in the publication and also to get the chance to read with some other fabulous writers at their Halloween launch party.

To read the story just head on over to The Quilliad and order a copy of the magazine!

Because I love to know about the origins of a story from the writer’s perspective, I thought I would share some notes about this story with you.

Spoiler Alert: There are spoilers in the story notes below. So if you want to read the story with fresh eyes check it out first at The Quilliad before reading the notes.

About ‘The Same’

At the reading I introduced The Same as an existential horror story inspired by the roving gangs of teenage girls who prowl the streets of my neighbourhood, and I would definitely stand by that description.

A funny thing happened at the reading of this story though, one of the other writers (also a fellow reader that evening) came up to me and told me she found my story to be very sympathetic (given the subject matter), and her words struck me.  I had never before considered my attitude towards my characters to be particularly sympathetic but once I thought about it I realized in a way, I am.

The Same is definitely meant as a comment on individuality (or lack thereof) and the trend these girls seem to follow of blending seamlessly into one another.  For me individuality has always been important, something to aspire to.  I’ve always wanted to stand out and trying to fit in (so much so that you find yourself look and talking the same as everyone else) has always been a mystery to me.  So what do I do with mysteries?  Write about them.  And the more I write about something or someone, the more I step into their shoes (or Uggs in this case).  I find myself (often unwittingly) creating sympathetic conditions for them and in the effort to get to know them in my story I find myself feeling as though I’ve gotten to know them in the real world.

I’ve done it before when writing about real world subjects; the woman in my building who talks to her dog, loudly and incessantly; the man asleep under a down comforter on the beach; the blob of orange goo on the sidewalk in Chinatown.  Once I write about a thing it becomes a part of me, I build a connection with it and in that connection I find a point of sympathy, or more accurately empathy.

Maybe if people wrote more about the things that confused them or even pissed them off we’d have a more sympathetic, understanding world.

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My Year in Writing

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It’s been a crazy year.

I was shocked the other day when I checked the date I made the first document for the first draft of my first novel because it was March 2013—not even a year ago.

Starting A Girl Out There for me meant committing to being a writer.  I had written some stuff before then of course, fiddled around with it and loved it from a distance, but I had never actually said: ‘I want to be a writer’ out loud or even in my head.

So when I sat down in March to write my first book, I said: ‘I’m going to do this, I’m gonna be a fucking writer.’  And here I am…a writer.

Since writing A Girl Out There I have written three other books (A Memory in the Shape of Delilah, What it Means to be a Man & By Any Other Name) as well as getting a good start on my fifth book (Nil).  I’ve published a short story (in Grim Corps) as well as being a winner of the Fringe contest for Eden Mills Writer’s Festival for which I was asked to read on a gorgeous stage at the festival with a bubbling brook and a heron flying majestically by behind me.  I joined and quit one writing group and joined and stayed in two (Ashdale Writers Group & Eggs).  I’ve submitted a load of stories and received a bunch of rejections (which I’m told is a big part of writing).  I’ve written some websites for corporate clients and I’ve met a director who wants to make one of my short stories into a short film (coming soon).  And finally (and possibly most excitingly) I’ve recently had a promising phone call with an agent.

So in short, I’m a fucking writer.  Yeehaw!

So in this very short and very sweet burst of time what have I learned?

Let’s see…

Make Time

I love writing and when you find something you love, you just have to grab onto it and rock it.  I’m kind of an all or nothing gal.  I like to pour every bit of myself into what I love, whether it’s a relationship, an activity or in this case a new career.  I have noticed a lot of articles on writing websites talking about making time for writing and I have to say that’s one of the most important things I have done this year.  I just crammed everything else around the edges and wrote like there was no tomorrow and thanks to that I’ve come out of the year with a bunch of different projects under my belt.

Learn To Let Go

There have been a couple of times this year when I have started projects that fizzled out miserably because I just wasn’t feeling them.  Although I’m loathe to let things go unfinished sometimes you just have to admit you hate a book’s guts and toss it to the side.  And frankly, the sooner the better.  Why waste time on shit you hate?  You should…

Be Passionate About Your Project

If you like pulling teeth, go be a dentist.  Sure, sometimes there are hiccoughs, moments where you loose clarity.  But if the passion is gone ask yourself: was it ever there in the first place?  Some projects just suck the life out of you and seriously…what’s the point?  If you don’t feel excited about your story it’s very unlikely your story is going to feel excited about you writing it.  If it doesn’t set you on fire (or at least light a little flame) then toss it to the curb and find something that does!

Take A Break, But Always Go Back

I have two problems:

1) I am impatient
2) I like to finish things and move on (and not look back)

In some ways these things benefit me, because they allow me to slam through things.  But in other ways it makes going back really hard.  I like things to be neat and tidy—then gone.  So going back to my first novel was a bit painful in the beginning.  I was tempted to erase and re-write the whole damn thing.  But that wouldn’t do, so I had to take it slower than I usually do.  The key here is that taking a break from the story really helped my look back with perspective (especially after having written a bunch of other stuff in the meantime).

So definitely take a break, walk away and do something else, but never be afraid to go back and take a fresh look.

Really Listen To Feedback

Feedback is awesome.  Just release the ego (I know it’s there, but try to ignore that asshole for a bit) and get to the listening.  Find some people who give good advice and let them have at your work—the more the merrier.  You are ultimately the final arbiter of your own words, but listening to others will give you a whole new outlook you didn’t know you had and if you can just get over yourself for long enough to listen it will help you.  Really.

Love It

Every single day I feel so lucky to have found something I love so much and to be allowed to do it.  I never, ever take it for granted.  Life is short and I wish everyone, everywhere could have the opportunity to do what they are passionate about because it’s just awesome.

I’ve heard a diverse range of opinions about writing as I’ve explored websites and forums and had different discussions with writers.  From time to time I come across people who bitch about writing, say how hard it is and how they hate it but just ‘have to do it’ and I want to shake them.

As a writer I feel privileged to be able to compose every sentence and share my words with people (hopefully sometime soon to lots of people) and I can’t imagine hating it.  If I did, I’m sure I would do something else because what’s the point if you don’t love what you do?

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m lucky and I think it would behoove all writers to stop for a moment and consider how lucky they are too.  I love writing because I feel I have something important to say and I have finally found a way to say it.

Why do you love it?

Happy New Year!

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Don’t settle

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Ben and I had a great idea for a book a little while ago.  It seemed like it would be perfect, right up my alley.  We decided we would make a plan for it, unlike the last book which was a bit of a free-for-all, so we sat down and worked it out.

We figured out the whole story, plotted the chapters and I was completely, terribly uninspired.  It was confusing, because the concept was interesting, the characters were compelling, but my my interest in the book was painfully flat.  I hated it.

There’s something about making a plan that makes me feel like I ought to like what I’m doing.  Like I would be a flake if I just called a timeout and changed horses mid-stream.  It’s a weird feeling.  I guess it’s partially to do with the investment of time, we spent a great deal of time coming up with the story, discussing it, being excited about it.  But as the idea of actually writing the damn thing drew near, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

In the end I finally said ‘I hate it’ out loud and we gave it up, put it aside.  Maybe I’ll like it in the future, who knows?

When I’d finally accepted the fact that I didn’t give a fig about the book I was going to write, Ben and I went for a walk on the beach and worked out a new book in about half an hour and I was instantly inspired to go home and start writing.  I am now ten thousand words in and going strong.

The point is sometimes things don’t fit and here’s a solid piece of advice that can be applied to absolutely every aspect of like (including writing): don’t settle.  A story should reach out and grab you, bite you, shake you, gnaw at you in the night.  I always say to Ben that I know it’s a good story when I get up in the morning and don’t want to go back to sleep because there’s too much to write.  Writing should propel you, inspire you, make you cry and laugh and all those good things about living.  If your story isn’t doing it for you, don’t force it.  No matter how much time you invested in the outline or world or making a new language for the alien species on your world it doesn’t matter because it will feel flat and lifeless unless you love it with a passion.

I want to write things that I can’t wait to write more of, that I need to write, that I love to write and I’m not willing to settle for anything less.

Screw settling, write it like you mean it!

Tell me about a time when you refused to settle.

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How I plan

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The truth is, I’m not much of a planner.

I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda gal.

I think I’m too impatient for planning most of the time and sometimes it’s gotten me into trouble, other times it’s led me on the greatest adventures of my life.  I flew to England a while back with the single goal of going to Stonehenge for the summer solstice and the rest I left up to the winds of fate.  I ended up living in Brighton, making friends and hitchhiking around Europe.  Hooray for no plans.

When it comes to writing I have difficulty planning as well.  Having a vague idea for a story constitutes a plan for me.

My most recent completed novel (in beta reading now) started out as an idea and I didn’t really start plotting until later when events unfolded that needed to be explored.  It was an adventure to be sure, but still a little unnerving as it left me wondering, is this going to work?  As it turned out it did (at least Ben and I think so, we’ll see what other people have to say), but after that writing free-for-all I thought it might be a good idea to try the next book with an actual, full out plan.
Ben and I started that process yesterday.  After a bumpy start (sitting there staring at each other), we went for a walk (apparently the only way we can actually think) and worked out some ideas.

So here’s how the planning is going so far:

Step 1: Idea – the idea for the book came from a short story I wrote (which is how it seems to go for me) and I told Ben.  Ben said…‘hmmm…interesting….’ and off we went.

Step 2: How to plan as we’ve never officially done this we had to work out how to plan, which basically consisted of a discussion about the best way to approach the idea.

Step 3: Characters/research – as many of the characters are based on gods of various pantheons we had to do some research, so we spent some time on good old Wikipedia.

Step 4: Define characters – as this more of a character study than an adventure, the characters seemed more important than the plot.  The plan is to create the plot around the characters but first they all need names, backstory etc…

Step 5: Define the world – as the world has limitations we needed to make some decisions about what it is and how it operates.

Some basic ideas about all of the above is as far as we’ve gotten, but it seems to be going well.  The next steps will involve plotting and more fleshing out of the backstories so that they connect with the main plot and create a little drama.

Ben is perfect for me for a million reasons and one of them happens to be that he loves plotting and planning stuff like this.  We’re essentially planning the story like it’s a D&D game, but instead of playing it, I’ll be writing it.  Personally, I love the writing part most, making the words go together and sound beautiful and interesting and meaningful.  I like to live in the now, minute by minute.  He’s a bigger picture kind of guy which works for me perfectly, because without him, I’d probably just write a lot of rambling novels.

So planning.  I’m still trying to work it out, but it seems to be going well and I know the more we plan now, the smoother the process of writing will be and that will make it even more fun in the long run.

How do you plan?  Have any hints or tricks you use to plan effectively?

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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Books on writing (and why I don’t believe in them)

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You can’t learn writing from a book.

There are hundreds (probably thousands) of writing books out there and some that are even considered essential, like ‘On Writing’ or ‘Elements of Style’.  You can read all the books you want though, but the only thing that is going to make you a better writer is…writing.

Reading is good, great even for a writer.  You should read widely to get a feeling for different styles and to expand your mind, but in my opinion, your reading shouldn’t necessarily include books on writing.  I’ve read a couple and at the end of the day, the main message from all of them is: get writing.  And so they should be.  Everyone has different opinions on what makes a good story, beautiful prose and stunning poetry.  Everyone has a different story to their writing life and, although interesting and sometimes inspiring, hearing the stories of how other people write (or got famous doing it) does little to help make you better.  Sure you can learn grammar rules from books like ‘Elements of Style’ but ideally, before you start trying to be a writer, you actually have a grasp on the basics.

With every writing book I read, the writer tries to guide and suggest and I don’t always agree.  I usually agree with about half of the things they’re saying and wholeheartedly disagree with the other half.  One person suggests writing in a coffee shop is for people who are just seeking attention, but I like the atmosphere and the bustle.  Another person suggests not to show your work in progress, but I love having Ben read my chapters as I go along.  Then, of course, there are the attributes that supposedly describe writers, stuck in your head, crazy, lonely, dramatically melancholy, plagued by stories and characters that kick you in the brain until you writer them.  These things seem to be universal, but I don’t really feel as though they fit into my vision of myself as a writer.  Then, on the flip side, there is the good advice: write every day, don’t be discouraged by rejection, dig deep to find good stories, focus on character.  All sound advice, but frankly it just seems like common sense.

I understand that writing is tough and sometimes you’re just looking for a little inspiration, a little moment where you can read someone else’s story and struggles and realize you are not alone.  The appeal of books on writing is that they allow us to connect with like-minded people.  But other than that, these books offer a wealth of advice I could either take or leave.  Simple logic.  So, ultimately, I hold fast to my original thought on the whole matter:

You can’t learn writing from a book.  The only thing that will make you a better writer is writing.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know!

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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A Good Read

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I read a lot.

I guess that makes sense, because they say a writer ought to do that, but as much as I read, I’m also pretty picky.  I want a lot of things from a book and I have my preferences (just like you do I’m sure) and I’ve lately been finding what I’ve been able to get into and what I haven’t interesting.  For example, despite my love of urban fantasy, I just can’t get through ‘American Gods’ (by Neil Gaiman), I enjoyed some of his short stories in an anthology of his I read, but there’s just something about American Gods I don’t like.  ‘Gone Girl’ (by Gillian Flynn) however caught me and kept me reading until late in the night and there’s not a hint of magic in that book.

So what is it that keeps me reading and makes me loathe to put a book down?

Let’s see here…

Emotional over physical

I like a style that gives more personal and emotional information than information about the environment and appearance of the characters.  I often try to do that in my stories and I’ve been told in the past that I don’t put in enough physical detail (someone told me once they didn’t like that they had to work to imagine the environment), but I like to use my imagination.  If I’m drowned in detail I get bored pretty fast because it slows down the pace and does all the work for me.  I also like to know what the characters are thinking and feeling as well as their emotional history, this gets me involved and makes me feel like they’re real.  I want to feel like the characters have an impact on the world and the story isn’t just taking them along for the ride.

Cheese factor & exposition

Contrary to popular belief, it is easy to be cheesy.  Exposition and info dumps are the bane of a good story’s existence.  I don’t like a story where things are constantly explained or dumbed down.  Cliche also falls into the cheese factor camp.  Unfortunately things are cliche for a reason, because they are true or good ideas, so sometimes one can’t avoid it altogether but it’s best to try wherever possible.  The stories that keep me up all night are the one’s with high amounts of realism (this can be achieved even in fantasy) and low exposition.

Keep moving

I love a story that moves swiftly.  I want to be pulled along on an adventure, I want to get lost in other worlds and learn new things.  Good pace is essential to keeping my attention.


Defying expectations

I’m currently trying to read Game of Thrones.  It’s a bit of a slog for me because it’s so rich in detail.  High fantasy has always been a tough nut for me to crack because of that, but what I love about the concept of Game of Thrones is that Mr. Martin writes with the specific intention of defying expectations.  I like that.  I want to be surprised, shocked and even horrified.  I want to experience things and think about things in ways I never would have thought of myself.  Because that’s the joy of reading to me, exploring the depths of other people’s minds and lives.

Solid Characters

If a character is solid enough I’ll care about them even if they’re sitting there eating cheese and playing solitaire.  Good characters are the foundation of a great story.

A little love

I like a little love.  If it’s all war and politics and business it eventually gets boring to me, and unrealistic.  Love is all around us, it motivates us and permeates the fabric of our existence.  Without a little love in our lives, things tend to fall flat.

Those are a few of my thoughts on what makes a good read…tell me about yours.

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!