Write what you… no.

I’ve written here before about some of the bad advice writers often get given. Today, I’m going to talk in a little more depth about my least favourite piece of writing advice: ‘write what you know’. Which is, in my humble opinion, possibly the single worst thing you can say to an aspiring writer.

Why do I hate it so much?

I’m going to – ironically enough – answer that question by writing about what I know. When I was a young impressionable lass, trying to get started as a writer, I heard this little gem trotted out repeatedly by a bunch of people (who, in hindsight, didn’t really know what they were talking about). And I found it, quite simply, paralysing. Because I didn’t know anything. When you haven’t yet had the chance to accumulate much life experience or in-depth knowledge, being told to write what you know is the opposite of helpful. What I needed to hear instead was something along the lines of: write whatever comes into your head and have some fun with it.

It’s easy to say I should have disregarded this unhelpful advice and found my own path, and yet it was presented to me as such received wisdom that I largely internalised it, to the detriment of my inspiration and motivation. Even later on, once I had some experiences under my belt, I found writing things based on them difficult, and had little success. Partly, I think, it’s a personal thing: some people seem to thrive on more confessional forms of writing, while I just don’t.

While I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone who wants to from using their own life as a source of ideas for creative writing (hey, whatever works for you), I also think there are some broader problems with the ‘write what you know’ mantra. For instance, there’s this brutal question: is your life interesting enough that anyone else would want to read about it? Or are your experiences actually very similar to a lot of other people’s experiences (ie the ones they read books to escape from)? While some authors do have the skill to spin the frustrations of everyday life into fictional gold, many don’t. And even if you do have exciting and unique experiences to write about, there’s another problem: what do you do once you’ve written about them? What comes next? For instance, I loved Caitlin Moran’s memoir How to Be a Woman, but then found her novel How to Build a Girl disappointingly similar (even the title is almost the same!), and I note she hasn’t followed it up with more novels.

There’s also the issue of the nature of real life: it rarely falls into neat character arcs and plot resolutions. Real people and situations tend to be far more messy and self-contradictory than those in fiction. I personally struggled to turn one into the other, or to get enough distance on my own feelings to write about them convincingly. In my case, it was only when I finally abandoned any attempt to write anything based in any way on reality, and plunged instead into the realms of fantasy fiction, that I set my creativity free and I wrote some stories I feel proud of. My current novel, In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, features a cast of characters including: the captain of a sailing ship, a dragon, a transgender magician, a torturer, and a flying assassin. I have no idea what it’s like to be any of those things, but that doesn’t matter: I use my imagination. And, if need be, I do some research.

Which brings me round to how I think this zombie-like piece of writing ‘wisdom’ can be improved markedly: by flipping it. Instead of ‘write what you know’ try this: know what you write. Read extensively, soak up the world, keep an open mind, and if you don’t know something relevant to the tale you want to tell, find out. Most importantly, write what you know you want to write, not what you think you ought to write. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger.

Note: my little bundle of joy is due to arrive on the 12th of August, so I may not be updating this blog for a while, but I’ll be back as soon as I’ve mastered the skill of typing with one hand whilst feeding a baby with the other.

‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

Fantastic Fiction?

I’ve finished the first draft of my new novel, tentatively entitled In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea (I have developed a thing for titles being in iambic pentameter) and I’m currently letting it ferment for a week or so while I get on with some long-neglected real-life tasks. It’s another fantasy novel, and I thought I’d reflect a little on my choice of genre.

Fantasy fiction has become increasingly popular and mainstream in recent years, but it still suffers from a certain lack of understanding in the wider world. For every person who reacts with enthusiasm when I tell them I write fantasy, there are at least two people whose reactions are a bit more… puzzled. Some people assume that fantasy always involves erotic content, while others assume it’s always for children. One guy (I don’t know if he was joking or not) said ‘Fantasy – what, like Mills and Boon?’.

Um, no.

Besides being a frequently misunderstood genre, fantasy also gets unfairly maligned by literary snobs who consider it ‘trashy’ or ‘silly’. I’ve seen some fantasy fans respond to such criticisms by carping that all literary novels are tedious exercises in self-indulgent wish-fulfilment by middle-aged English professors with inappropriate sexual urges who write books about middle-aged English professors who have affairs with their students. Personally, I’ve never read a book like that, but I have read a lot of fabulously well-written and emotionally engaging fantasy books, so if anyone wants to have an argument about the respective merits of fantasy and litfic, I’d suggest sharing recommended reading lists first.

As for the criticism that fantasy is not good because it’s not ‘real’… well, neither is any other work of fiction. Any given novel is about imaginary people doing imaginary things, so why not stretch your imagination a bit further and have them doing awesome things like riding dragons, instead of boring things like drinking cups of tea on rainy afternoons? Why should the mundane be considered superior to the fantastic?

The fact is, I love reading fantasy, and I love writing fantasy, and so I’m sticking with it for at least the time being. I love the freedom it offers to create magical worlds where anything can happen, and the sense of wonder and excitement it can generate when done well. Sure, not everyone ‘gets’ it, but then there’s no such thing as a book that will please all readers, and the first person I need to please is myself. And then hope enough other people will like it too…

The Long Con

I’ve just returned from attending this year’s Science Fiction Convention, aka EasterCon, aka Innominate, in Birmingham. For the past few years I’ve been going to its Fantasy counterpart – held last September in Scarborough as recounted in this blog post, but this year I’m going to have my hands too full of newborn baby to attend, so off I went to EasterCon instead.

The Science Fiction convention has a few differences from the Fantasy version – it lasts a full three-and-a-half-days rather than just two for starters. It also has a more fannish feel, with many attendees in costume, and workshops on an assortment of crafts and LARP-related topics like hair braiding, lock picking, and martial arts. But in essence it’s much the same sort of thing – panels and workshops and meet-the-author sessions, not to mention plentiful opportunities to spend one’s hard-earned cash on books, art works, and assorted memorabilia.

The first time I went to broadly a similar event – the Swanwick writers’ summer school back in 2012 – I went to every session I could possibly get to, and soaked it all up like a thirsty sponge. These days, I have a lot more knowledge and experience of both the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and with several more conventions under my belt, I’ve come to realise something. No matter how much you think you know, you can never stop learning (unless you actually *want* to stagnate, of course!), but I find that a lot of the value of these events lies not just in the official sessions, but in the serendipity of socialising. Meeting new people, making new friends, catching up with old ones… call it ‘networking’ if you want, but it’s also a chance to learn, enjoy, and – hopefully – share the benefit of one’s own wisdom. This weekend, for example, I’ve learned some tips about how to decode publishers’ press releases, and how to kill a man with a blunt weapon. You never know when such knowledge might come in handy…

How to Read 100 Books in a Year

Some of you may recall that last year I had a New Year’s resolution to read at least 50 books, which half-way through the year I amended to 100 books. How did I do? Well, I had a bit of a shaky autumn, but with a concerted late-December push, I got myself over the finish line, and read exactly 100. And yes, I was sufficiently nerdy to keep a spreadsheet recording the details every single book I read. And I can remember enough about pivot tables from my time working in an office so that I can now play around with my own reading statistics, and tell you that, for example, my preferred format (with 58% of total titles) was the paperback, that my favourite genres were fantasy and science fiction, and that, as a result of making a concerted effort to catch up with contemporary writing, I read 68 books from the 2010s but a mere 8 from the entire 20th century (and 6 from the 19th century).

When I tell people about my reading achievement, I get reactions ranging from dismissal (’only 100 books? Easy!’) to disbelief. One common response is a slightly awestruck wistfulness: an ‘I wish I could read more books but…’
Well, if that applies to you, fear not! I am here to share with you my secrets, and get you past that but.

1) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t know where to start.’

I confess this one is a novel (see what I did there?) problem for me, because I always have dozens of books I want to read. However, help is at hand. The simplest approach is just to ask friends and family for their recommendations, and there’s always the good old-fashioned try-asking-in-your-local-bookshop method, but these days there are all kinds of electronic resources as well, from Goodreads to Amazon algorithms to countless book bloggers. The main thing, I think, is to accept that tastes differ and you’re not always going to enjoy something, however highly it comes recommended. If that happens, don’t give up: try the next thing. Sooner or later you’ll find the book for you, and then you can read everything by that author, seek out things in that ‘if you like x, you’ll love y!’ category, and delve into the fanfic. Discovering stuff you might want to read has never been easier.

2) ‘I wish I could read more books, but they’re expensive!’

They can be. But if you want to read, there’s no need to shell out on a load of brand-new hardbacks. I’m consistently astonished by how few people make use of libraries – they have hundreds of books! And you can borrow any of them for free! It’s amazing! And I can’t speak for all library systems, but the one in Derbyshire is pretty good (for now, at least) at keeping stock up-to-date and arranging inter-library loans for the princely sum of 45p if the title you want isn’t available locally.
If e-books are your thing, I’ve heard about (but not tried myself) something called Bookbub, which sends you emails recommending cheap or free books. There’s also Kindle Unlimited, although I personally found their selection of titles didn’t match up to my reading interests. And, while genuine second-hand bookshops are a rarity these days, there are charity shops a-plenty, not to mention millions of second-hand books being sold online, many for 1p+p+p. Getting hold of cheap books has never been easier.

3) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t have the time!’

This is by far the commonest reason I hear why people can’t read more. My invariable answer is: audiobooks. Listen on long drives. Listen while you cook dinner. Listen while you exercise. Audiobooks let you read while you do that other stuff that keeps you busy. They’re great, and these days thousands of them are available via your phone (I use Audible and I swear by it). It’s never been easier to find books to listen to. Another idea: if you can’t find the time to commit to a full novel, try short stories. You can get a complete narrative in just twenty minutes or so. Perfect for the time-strapped.

In summary, it’s never been easier to find books you’ll want to read, in the format you want, at a price you can afford. In theory, it’s never been easier to read. So why do so many people seem to struggle to consume as many books as they say they’d like to? Well, the answer is obvious: because it’s also never been easier to get distracted. Just as thousands upon thousands of great books are now readily available, so are games and movies and TV shows and YouTube videos and web forums and blogs and cute cat pictures and every other thing you can possibly think of (and an awful lot more you can’t think of and probably don’t want to). And I feel like, behind 90% of those ‘buts’, the real reason is that the person would rather spend their spare time watching Netflix or playing World of Warcraft. Which is fine – I’m not going to get snobby about different forms of entertainment – but I have to say, if you really really want to read more, there’s ultimately only one way to do it: you need to put down the Internet and pick up a book.

A belated welcome to my 2017

*coughs* um, hi. Yes, it’s me. Happy new year! Hope the first eight weeks of 2017 have been treating you well.

So I’ve been a bit absent from this blog for the last couple of months. But hey, I have my reasons. For one, I’ve been teaching a four-part course on how to write fantasy, science fiction and horror, entitled ‘Fantastic Tales and How to Write Them’ (see what I did there?). It was an enjoyable if exhausting experience, and I’m pleased to report that the venue (the Quad cinema and art gallery in Derby) has asked me back to repeat the course later in the year.

2017-02-02-18-51-07

Yep, this is me, in teacher mode.

I’ve also now got stuck into writing another novel, provisionally entitled The Land New Risen From the Sea. This one is about dragons and magic and volcanoes and not-quite-pirates. One person, when given this description of it, said ‘oh so you’re writing for children now?’ so I feel the need to add that it’s also about torture and slavery and themes of free will and redemption. I’ve been making decent progress so far, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that 2017 might turn out to be the breakthrough year I’ve been waiting for.

Another reason for my online absence has been health-related: my dominant feeling of 2017 so far has been ‘under the weather’ – both figuratively and literally. I’ve been suffering a combination of general exhaustion, picking up every cough and cold going (I’m sitting here regularly snotting into a paper hanky as I write these words) and what is laughably known as ‘morning sickness’ (actually, in my experience, ‘all-bloody-day sickness’ would be a more apt name). Oh yeah, and that’s my other Big News of 2017: come August, there’s going to be a new human being in the world who will know me as Mummy. So I’m going to try my best to get that new novel finished before I have all the fun of sleepless nights spent in the company of a screaming, pooping bundle of, um, joy.

Wish me luck, and while I expect my 2017 blog update schedule will be more than a touch erratic, I’ll try to keep you posted.

In Defence of the Echo Chamber

It’s (probably) my last blog post of 2016. A lot of bloggers would take the opportunity to reflect back on the year just gone, but frankly, I’d rather not. Instead I’m going to talk about something that’s attracted a lot of attention recenly, at any rate in my web circles: the ‘echo chamber.’

The echo chamber, in case you’re not familiar with the concept, is the effect whereby opaque algorithms on various websites – Facebook is usually cited as the main culprit – filter our feeds so that we’re only presented with the stuff we’re more likely to like. Which, in the case of political content, can lead to us only seeing posts we already agree with, and hence to the false impression that everyone sees things the same way. I’ve seen this effect blamed for complacency and increased polarisation, and in some extreme cases for the fracturing of society as different groups fail to build bridges between each other.

Well, for what it’s worth, I’m here to defend the echo chamber.

another-2016-story

Medieval Reactions twitter, on point as usual

Why? And how? Ok, so the starting point, as so often when people whinge about the impact of new technology, is to point out that there’s nothing actually new about living in a relative bubble. Most people tend to predominantly hang out with other people who broadly share their outlook on life – whether deliberately, or just from the fact that people with similar backgrounds often have similar world views. And most British newspapers offer a decidedly partisan viewpoint. If anything, the internet has made it a great deal easier these days to find a wide range of opinions on any given issue at the touch of a button. Whether you touch that button, or not, is of course up to you.

Keeping yourself well-informed is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, and there are plenty of tools available both on- and off-line, whether a news aggregator app or your local corner shop. So your Facebook feed gives you a distorted view of the world – go look elsewhere for your balanced news and views, and encourage your friends to do likewise.

The other point in defence of the echo chamber is that, unless you want to go crazy, you need to apply some kind of filtering to your online life. Building bridges and fostering debate is all very well if you’re at the level of polite disagreement between reasonable adults, but let’s be honest, that isn’t always the case. Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there with strongly-held opinions that are misinformed, bigoted, irrational, or just plain wrong. Seeing their views is infuriating at best, offensive at worst, and trying to debate with them is like playing chess with the proverbial pigeon.

My final point in defence of the echo chamber is that, for much of 2016, political discourse on my side of the fence has felt a lot like mourning. Hearing strident opposing views in that atmosphere would have felt like someone at a loved one’s funeral yelling out ‘I’m glad he’s dead I never liked him anyway!’. You might know some people feel that way, but you don’t want to let them into the wake.

Best wishes of the midwinter to you all, and may the returning sun light our way to happier times.