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.

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.

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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.

Paying the Bills with Dreams

Two weeks ago I told you all about my first world problems. Since then, I’ve baked cakes and roasted pork in my new shiny kitchen. I’ve also been fired from my part-time job at a local cafe – turns out washing the dishes really isn’t my forte. Who would have guessed?

I’m not that cut up about the sudden loss of employment. It gives me more time for my writing, which after all is the whole point of the big choices I’ve made – to devote my life to what’s really important to me. And the latest reminder of mortality is the death of my dear Grandpa, a natural storyteller if there ever was one. I remember the entertaining sermons he gave as a minister in the United Reformed Church, and the tall tales he told us when we were children, most of them featuring crocodiles.

In the middle of musing on these things, I’ve encountered two pieces with different views on Life. One is a webcomic from Zen Pencils which encourages you to pursue what you love and forget about money, because spending your life doing something you don’t enjoy is ‘stupid’. Another is a Salon article which points out that many professional authors are actually supported financially by wealthy parents or – in the case of Ann Bauer, the article’s author – a spouse. Her situation is very similar to mine in some ways, her ability to write full-time enabled by her husband’s well-salaried job. She openly says that the stability she enjoys – both financial and emotional – has meant she can now write the books she was unable to write back when her life was far more precarious.

I have to admit, I identify with her strongly. My life in my twenties was nowhere near as difficult as hers, but I had my struggles, and it took me years to write a similar output to what I now manage in months. Writing books whilst working a full-time demanding job is not easy. But should I have quit earlier, and followed my dream from the start, instead of spending years working at a career I found ultimately unfulfilling? Well, you can’t eat words. Or dreams. They won’t pay your rent or your bills either.

And that is the uncomfortable truth about Follow Your Dream and Do What You Love. It’s an awful lot easier when you’ve got someone else putting food on the table. Oh sure, if what you love happens to lead to a high-paying career, you’ve hit the jackpot. But writing simply isn’t very lucrative for the vast majority of people. And we all need to eat – so most of us end up doing something else as well, whether it’s washing dishes or auditing accounts. I’m incredibly lucky that, like Ann Bauer, I’m sponsored by my husband, and I never take that good fortune for granted.

I would always encourage people to pursue their dreams, but I also think we shouldn’t pretend it’s always that easy. Until we arrive in the utopia where we’re all free of the yoke of work and can spend our time on the pursuits that make us happy – which let’s face it doesn’t feel like it’s coming any time soon – someone needs to pay the bills.

First World Problems

It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster week for me. Last weekend I was at the Fantasy Convention, an annual get-together for fantasy and horror writers, editors, and fans, held this year in Scarborough. It was great. Writing is a lonely profession and the chance to go from writing blog posts about Mike Carey to actually meeting him doesn’t come round that often. I met up with old friends and made some new ones. I saw some fascinating panels on topics like magic in fiction and the apocalypse (time until first mention of Donald Trump: less than five minutes). I went to some great sessions with publishers, and I got to meet some of my favourite authors including Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear. I also sat near Zen Cho at the banquet and cheered loudly when her excellent book Sorcerer to the Crown won the Best Newcomer prize at the British Fantasy Awards ceremony. Two other prizes were won at my table and I basked in reflected glory for a brief time. The weather was glorious and Scarborough was beautiful.

Then on Monday I drove back to Derby in the rain, and on Tuesday I was washing dishes in a cafe to try and help make ends meet. Talk about returning to normality with a bump.

On top of this, I’ve had the everyday stresses of our kitchen refit, familiar to anyone who’s ever had work done on the house: the noise and disruption, the schedule over-runs and extra costs, the annoyances when something goes wrong, having to live off microwave ready-meals for weeks on end. By yesterday morning, I was feeling pretty frazzled.

It is, of course, all very First World Problems. We’ll shortly have an awesome new kitchen complete with a Rangemaster cooker and one of those American-style giganto-fridges, so whingeing about how long it’s taken us to get there is – at best – a pointless self-indulgence. Which is partly why I enjoy doing voluntary work – helping out with some decidedly more third-world problems at the refugee centre really puts my own issues in perspective.

And the great thing about being a writer is that any unpleasant experiences can go straight into the story-pot. Which I’ll then stir up and transform into a tasty stew with the help of my new cooker.

The Girl with Some of the Gifts

I’ve just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey and I can 100% recommend it if chilling-yet-also-strangely-heartwarming post-apocalyptic horror sounds like your bag. It’s an interesting take on the zombocalypse concept, in which the zombifying plague is caused by a fungus instead of the usual virus. The story follows an, um, special little girl called Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, a crazy scientist, and a couple of soldiers, all on the run together in a zombie-overrun Britain.

There’s a movie adaptation coming out this week, which has had good reviews, but I’m so disappointed in the casting that I’m planning to avoid it. Why?

In the book, the character Miss Justineau is both brainy and beautiful – Melanie has a massive schoolgirl crush on her, and both the soldiers find her attractive too. She’s brave and resourceful too, but saved from Mary Sue-dom by her occasionally reckless behaviour and blind spot towards Melanie. She’s also a 40+ dark-skinned black woman. Now, awesome-but-fully-rounded female characters are sadly rare in films (and not frequent enough in books either for my liking). Awesome-but-fully-rounded older female characters are even rarer, and as for awesome-but-fully-rounded older black female characters… Name one. Go on. Who isn’t Annalise Keating.

This could have been an amazing part for someone. Maybe Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Or Viola Davis, if you don’t mind an American playing a British role.

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But who did they cast as Miss Justineau for the film? Not either of those ladies. Not even Gina Torres or Sophie Okonedo or Zoe Saldana or Naomie Harris. Nope, they cast Gemma Arterton.

Huh? Yeah, that’s right, Gemma Arterton. Who is a) only 30 years old; b) white. The character has been totally white-washed, and de-aged to boot, to fit a Hollywood idea of what a leading lady should look like. Not cool, film-makers, not cool.

But, some people are saying, it’s all right, it’s not whitewashing, they’ve just race-swapped the cast! Melanie, who was white in the book, is now black! And so is one of the soldiers, Pte Gallagher, who was also originally white! So that’s two for the price of one! Why are you complaining? Mike Carey himself has said that he was happy with ‘colour-blind’ casting, so long as the overall diversity of the characters was preserved.

[spoilers in this paragraph] The thing is, I don’t think diversity is just a numbers game. It’s also about the kind of characters you have, their role in the story, and how those things interact with pre-existing ideas and media portrayals. No story exists in a vacuum. Melanie being made black instead of Miss Justineau makes me uncomfortable because Melanie is a zombie (or ‘hungry’ in the book’s nomenclature). Sure, she’s a higher functioning zombie, but she does kick into animalistic flesh-eating mode a few times, usually to protect Miss Justineau. And a monster black girl going feral and ripping people’s throats out to protect her pretty white teacher has some unfortunate implications, which the book’s version doesn’t. Oh, and did I mention Melanie spends a lot of the story tied up and muzzled like an animal? Like it or not, a white woman keeping a black girl on a leash has different – and deeply icky – cultural resonances from a black woman keeping a white girl on a leash. And as for Pte Gallagher – he’s the first of the group to be eaten by zombies, so by making him black all you’ve done is given TV Tropes another example for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ page. So while ‘colour-blind’ casting might be the ideal, I can’t see it really working here.

[no more spoilers] Now I’m just a sheltered white girl who can bleat about racism online but doesn’t have to live it every day, and whether or not I go to see this film isn’t going to make much difference to their box office numbers. At least I can use the questions it raises to inform my own writing, and try and make sure I’m helping, not hindering. And hope that, if one of my books ever gets adapted for the screen, the casting is more sensitive.

Edit 14th Oct: I have now seen the film version of The Girl with All the Gifts and I actually enjoyed it very much – it’s an excellent zombie thriller/post-apocalyptic drama. The cast all acted very well, and it was good to see a woman kicking ass while wearing baggy clothes. The cultural resonances of the race-bent casting weren’t as bad as I feared, but they were still present, so while I would recommend the film, I still stand by my comments above.