Logophilia

Yesterday, I finished the new draft of my latest book, currently titled In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea. My feelings about it are a mixture of happy pride, worry that it won’t be any good, relief that I’m done with it (for now), and exhaustion. Mostly exhaustion.
In any case, I’m now going to take a short break from it, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on one of the simple joys of writing: logophilia. The love of words. Not words as they are strung together to make a story, but words as things of beauty in themselves.
Here are some of my favourites, those words I love but can never find a reason to include in my actual writing.

Slubberdegullion noun, archaic
Someday I must write an historical novel set in the 18th century, just so I can use this marvellous word for ‘a slovenly or worthless person.’ Or perhaps we should bring it back as an insult – I could use it on my infant son next time he throws his breakfast on the floor. It’s one of those words which just rolls off the tongue so nicely, it seems a shame not to say it every day.

Velleity noun
One of my father’s favourite anecdotes to tell about me is when I was 12 years old and was introduced to one of his work colleagues. Said colleague was pleased to relate that just that day he’d come across a new word: velleity. And what did we think that might mean?
12-year-old me happily informed him that a velleity is a ‘desire too slight to lead to definite action’. He didn’t seemed quite so pleased with himself after that.
Velleity is a true logophile’s word: pleasing to eye and tongue, its etymology clear and its meaning precise; and, of course, gratifyingly obscure. The opportunities to use it are rare (after all, if a desire is too slight to lead to action, is it worth recording?) but should be taken with glee.

Affect noun
Yep, that’s right, noun. No, it isn’t a mistake for ‘effect’ – that’s a totally different word. Having sung the praises of the archaic and the abstruse, words which are trapped in amber, it’s time to talk about the joys of language evolution. And affect (noun) is a word in the ascendant. It has long been used as a term in psychology for an observable expression of emotion, but in the last few years I’ve noticed it being used more and more, in a general context. It’s still not exactly a common word, but it seems to have found its niche: it neatly fills a gap in the language. Maybe it will fade away again – that’s how a living language works. For now, though, I like it: an unassuming word which does a specific job, and does it very well.

Adult verb
Finally, it’s time for a rather more vernacular example of language evolution: the rise of ‘adult’ as a verb (and similar verbed nouns like ‘brain’). Some may decry this as language devolution, although they’re probably the same kind of etiolated old fuddy-duddies who think that you shouldn’t split infinitives or use ‘prestigious’ to describe anything but conjuring tricks. Here’s what I think: verbing nouns is fun, and I like having fun with words. Sure, I probably wouldn’t use ‘adult’ as a verb in a formal context, but as previously mentioned, editing my book has left me exhausted and now I wanna just relax for a bit. Too much adulting is bad for you.

Books are Bad For You

It will probably not come as a surprise to anyone that I love reading books, and I know a lot of other people who also love reading books. Periodically, I see people sharing articles about how reading books is good for you. According to assorted studies, reading makes you smarter, healthier, and more empathetic.

Well. As a writer, I’m here to say, while I am obviously always in favour of more people reading more books, I don’t like these articles, and nor do I like the idea that reading is good for you.

These articles say that reading books (and it’s usually not just any books, it’s proper old-fashioned literary fiction, not those trashy thrillers and romances oh no) makes you a better person. But how many people have ever read one of these articles, thought, ‘Oh, in that case, I’d better go read some more books?’ and then immediately got stuck in to The Brothers Karamazov?

I don’t know, although I’m going to take a little bet that the number of such people is not substantially greater than zero. Because those articles aren’t aimed at, or read by, people who don’t read books. They are instead read by people who already read lots of books, and are probably already at least a little bit smug about it, who then think ‘Oh, if reading books makes you a better person, I must be an even betterer person than I previously thought!’ The whole thing smells of snobbery and smug self-congratulation.

Plus, even without the snobbery factor, talking about how books are good for you (especially, lbh, GCSE Eng-Lit type books) makes them sound like the boring stuff you don’t wanna do. Eat your vegetables! Drink some water! Read your Dickens! Do some exercise!

If you really want to get more people reading, I can’t help feeling that, instead of marketing books as the intellectual equivalent of steamed broccoli and 5-mile-runs, you should try pitching the illicit-pleasure angle (and not just for *that* type of books).

So, let’s bring back the moral panic of the 18th and 19th century: books are bad for you. They encourage you to sit indoors by yourself, isolated from family and friends and fresh air. They cause you to neglect your real-world duties. Many books contain dangerous ideas, and still more of them contain descriptions of disgusting depravities! Worst of all, they draw you in with their seductive tales of adventure and excitement, playing on your emotions and making you care about the fate of fictional characters as much as, or even more than, your actual life. They are, in short, a menace to public health and decency, and should be avoided at all costs.

Writing FOMO

I’ve just booked my ticket for the 2018 Fantasy Convention in Chester. It’s almost exactly six months away and I’m looking forward to it immensely. To keep me going in the meantime I have Edge-Lit in Derby.

Conventions like these are great for learning more about the craft and the business of writing, and for making connections with other writers – both those who are in a similar position to myself, and those further down the road who are able to give me the benefit of their wisdom.

Recently, a couple of my fantasy-convention friends have published new works. Cat Hellisen has a fantasy novel, Empty Monsters, while Joseph Cole and Ali Nouraei have stories in the Not So Stories anthology (a post-colonial take on Rudyard Kipling). Meanwhile, my brother Thomas J Spargo (also a writer) has a couple of stories coming out in anthologies soon. It’s great to see them having success, and a chance to read some excellent writing.

The only trouble is my lurking FOMO – the fear that I’m missing out, and things are passing me by. Why haven’t I written more short stories, and gotten them into some anthologies? Why haven’t I finished my novel yet and found a publisher for it? Why I am so slow? Such insecurities are common among writers, and if you’re not careful, they can fester.

Well. When such feelings surface, it’s time for some self-talk. Like reminding myself that this isn’t a zero-sum game. That I have a baby to look after, who is very cute but also kind of time-and-energy-consuming so no wonder my work rate has slowed. That I made a deliberate decision to concentrate on long-form fiction rather than short stories, and you obviously can’t crank out a 100k-word novel as fast as you can a 5k-word story. And that, since only I can write my novel in a way that’s truly my own, it’s impossible to ever really miss out, however long it takes.

Somewhere Out There

I’ve just made my return to the world of (paid, grown-up) work by teaching some courses on creative writing at Quad cinema in Derby. As part of these courses, I always talk a little bit about the eternal question of How to Get Published (short answer: with difficulty). Many aspiring writers want to know more about self-publishing, although it’s not a path I find I can recommend whole-heartedly.

Why not? Aren’t there authors who’ve done well out of self-publishing? There are indeed – the most prominent in the SFF genre probably being Hugh Howey, Becky Chambers, and Andy Weir. But self-published writers are the opposite of aeroplanes – you only hear about the successful ones. There are many more authors whose books get lost in the depths of the Amazonian jungle, never to be seen again.

I often hear it said that self-publishing is a way to get your book ‘out there’. This is true – if you leave your manuscript tucked away on your hard drive or in your desk drawer, it’s never going to get any attention, whereas if you make it available, it just might. However, from what I can gather from talking to people who’ve tried self-publishing, books seldom gather much attention on their own – you have to put a lot of effort into marketing if you want to see results. And there don’t seem to be any easy shortcuts. On my most recent course, I had a student who had entrusted her book to a ‘hybrid’ publishing company. She was not happy with the level of publicity the firm had provided, and I suspect this is a common experience with people using such companies. Another student on the same course had self-published and done everything himself – he said he appreciated the level of control this gave him over the whole process, but that he’d found it very time-consuming.

Meanwhile, at my local writing group we had a visit from debut author Jo Jakeman (who was lovely). She has written a domestic noir thriller called Sticks & Stones which will be (traditionally) published later this year, although she told us that she had previously self-published a couple of historical novels. She said she’d sold around 4,000 copies of her first book, but commented she’d had to work almost full-time on promotion in order to achieve those sales. While she didn’t speak negatively about the experience, I think it’s telling that she eagerly took the chance to sign a traditional publishing deal.

Self-publishing: it’s a lot of effort. And I can’t help wondering if, especially if you’re only just setting out, that effort would be better spent on honing your craft, and then trying for a traditional deal with a more polished book. Because, let’s be honest, while I’ve met many people who are enthusiastic about self-publishing from the writer’s point of view, from the readers’ perspective… not so much. Indeed, I’ve heard several people say they avoid reading self-pubbed books because most of them are simply not very professionally edited and put together.

So my general advice for other aspiring writers is: if you really want to self-publish, by all means go for it, and be prepared to put in the work. But try not to be too impatient: putting your book ‘out there’ before it’s really ready won’t achieve much. For myself, I’m continuing to try to make myself the best writer I can be.

Writing and Motherhood

For the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to be able to dedicate myself to writing full time, and a great time it’s been too. Now, however, I’ve moved on from the full-time writer phase of my life to a new phase: full-time mummy. My beautiful baby boy is six months old, and, at the time when many new mums are returning to the office after maternity leave, I’m about to do my own version of going back to work: I’m teaching some courses on creative writing at Quad Derby. One has now sold out; tickets for the other are available here.

I’ve been squeezing the preparation for these courses in whenever I can, making the most of baby naps and willing grandparents to provide time for my own projects. In some ways this is difficult: never knowing exactly how long I have until my bundle of joy wakes up and demands my attention, never quite feeling like I can just kick back and relax because I know that book isn’t going to write itself.

But in other ways it’s a luxury, and one I’m very lucky to have. I don’t have to make stark choices about my career and child care options in a world which still isn’t really set up to accommodate mothers with jobs outside the home, and which can feel judgemental either way. As for the writing itself, having limited time can focus the mind. You don’t procrastinate when you know the next chorus of The Wheels on the Bus is just around the corner. Much.

Fandom or Fan Dumb?

First up, Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 make all your dreams come true. Except for the weird naked ones. (Unless you want them to…)

Second up, in February I’m teaching my first courses since I became a mama. I’ll be teaching folks at Quad in Derby how to write SF, horror, and fantasy, and how to create fantastic plots and characters. Tell your friends!

Third up, I’d like to share with y’all a few thoughts I’ve had lately about the topic of fandom. There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about fan entitlement, and fans’ attempts to change things they don’t like. The latest iteration of this is the petition by some Star Wars fans to try and get The Last Jedi movie excommunicated from the canon of the Star Wars universe because they didn’t like what the film did with Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, many Harry Potter fans were vocally annoyed about the failure of Magic in North America to address crucial aspects of American history, and – more recently – about the continued presence of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

These attempts to change things about beloved franchises can sometimes seem misguided – the originator of the Star Wars petition has now backtracked on the idea. But they show the depth of passion people feel about their favourite things, and if that’s sometimes uncomfortable for the creator, so be it.

Independently of all this, I was recently involved in a discussion on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group on the topic of fanfiction. Some people were pro, some anti, but what struck me most was the number of people who said something like ‘fanfic is fine so long as you don’t make the characters gay. If I wanted Character X to be gay, I’d have written him like that in the first place’. Which, well, anyone who knows anything about fanfic will tell you that making the characters gay is frequently the entire point of the exercise (see my own previous comments on the topic). And also, I feel these authors are deluded if they think they can control what fans do with their characters.

Once a book, or a movie, or whatever, is out in the world, then you as the creator to some extent lose control of it. We have copyright laws which mean people can’t just rip it off, but you can’t really predict or govern fans’ reactions. They might love it, they might hate it so much they start a petition to have it wiped from the face of the earth, they might decide it’s great but would be that *little* bit better if Harry ended up with Draco instead.
Various authors have tried in the past to exert a greater measure of control over their works’ reception, probably most famously Anne Rice, who has expended a great deal of effort trying to put a stop to fanfic of her Vampire Chronicles series (incidentally, there are currently 757 VC fanworks on Archive of Our Own, most of them gay). She also responded to poor reviews of one her books by posting a long rant on Amazon. Needless to say, this didn’t endear her to many.

My take on all this is simple: I would love it if people felt passionately about something I’d written. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with the direction of their passion, but hey, it’s their passion. Creators can start the fire – they can’t stop it spreading.

Writing Mistakes

Writers are, contrary to what you may have heard, only human. As such, we make mistakes. I know I’ve made plenty, and I’m trying to learn from them so I won’t make the same ones again – instead, I’m progressing to exciting new mistakes.
In the hopes that some others may learn from my experience, here’s my personal selection of Writing Mistakes:

0) Not writing.
Writing is so fundamental to being a writer that it might sound stupid to even mention it. And yet. There have been times in my life when I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about writing, reading about writing, going to workshops about writing, but not actually writing. Needless to say, the only way to be a writer is to write. Which leads me on to…

1) Being too fussy about when you’ll write.
It’s great to sit down in your favourite spot at a convenient time, with a cup of your favourite beverage, feeling relaxed and inspired and ready to create. The only problem with this picture is that – as I’ve previously found – if you only ever write when time and circumstances and mood are all in perfect alignment, you tend not to write very much. Getting a serious amount done requires a more serious commitment, even if not everything is perfect. In fact, not having everything perfect can actually help avoid that constant curse of the writer, procrastination. If you don’t have much time or you don’t feel quite comfortable or you have a slight headache, that can help you focus on getting the most important stuff done as quickly as possible.

2) Having too many projects.
Starting a writing project is easy. Finishing it – once the first flush of happy inspiration has faded – is hard. There’s a temptation to put a project to one side, and start a new one. Now, having more than one thing on the go at once isn’t necessarily a problem – in fact it can be very helpful to keep thing fresh – but if you end up (like me a few years ago) with loads of first-chapters and no finished novels, then it might be time to focus on one thing until it’s done.

3) Taking too long on one project.
I’ve also made the opposite mistake: spending years perfecting one thing. A perfect novel is great, but if you’re at all interested in progressing as a writer, four not-quite perfect novels are much better. Like any other work of art, they are never quite finished: at some point, you simply need to stop working on them.

4) Not knowing anything about the marketplace
This was an interesting mistake, inasmuch as I made it consciously and deliberately because I wanted to concentrate purely on creativity until I’d finished my first novel. Which was fine, but combined with the other mistakes above, meant that it took me a very long time to get anywhere approaching a breakthrough.
If you’re writing purely for your own amusement, then it doesn’t matter how wacky and unsellable the results are. And if you’re too obsessed with trying to write ‘to the market’ then it’s likely your writing will lack originality and spark. However, if you want your writing to have a fighting chance of getting somewhere once you’ve finished it, it’s a good idea to have at least a vague idea of what the marketplace looks like and where your work might fit into it, before you get stuck in.

Does anyone have their own writing mistakes they’d like to share?

 

 

 

 

 

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…