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…

The Fantasy of Greater Britain

Or, a fantasy writer’s view of the referendum.

This Thursday is the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and frankly, I’m worried about it.
I’m worried that my country’s future is going to be thrown into at best uncertainty and at worst utter chaos by a Leave vote.

The Remain campaign seems to have most of the facts on its side – the certainties of trade agreements and science funding and freedom of travel and workers’ regulations and all that stuff. It has the support of major political parties and most public figures for whom I have any respect.

But the Leave campaign has something intangible – something whose power I can’t deny. A fantasy. Now I spend pretty much my whole life either weaving fantasies of my own or losing myself in those created by others, so I know how powerful fantasies are, how they tug at the emotions and pull on the power of dreams. To a certain extent, fantasies are necessary – we all want a dream to chase, an ideal to aspire to.

Fantasies become dangerous when they turn into a substitute for rationality. And that’s what this referendum campaign feels like – when it doesn’t feel like a lot of low-grade squabbling with a big dollop of racism. A fantasy of Greater Britain, an idea of us as a shining isle, splendid in our isolation, with a God-given right to rule the waves. A concept that Brits should be able to live and work and boss people around wherever in the world they like, but that we should be able to stop foreigners coming here. A dream of the sun never setting. The idea that, split apart from the rest of the continent, we’d somehow recapture our rightful place at the head table of world politics.

Oh, it’s an attractive fantasy, there’s no doubt about that. All the best fantasies are. What avid fantasy reader doesn’t dream of going to Hogwarts, of visiting Middle Earth or Narnia? Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear more than a tangential relationship with reality. We don’t have an empire any more. We’re not the Big Bad Boss of the world. We’re a modern, multi-cultural nation, deeply intertwined with the other nations of Europe (and elsewhere) in myriad ways – culturally, legally, politically, financially. Attempts to extricate ourselves from these bonds would be drawn out and painful, and what would be left at the end of it? A country magically transformed into a greater version of its former self? It doesn’t seem likely to me. It seems far more likely that such a process would only leave us diminished in search of a dream.

Fantasies are great. I can hardly claim otherwise. But not when they intrude into reality and consume common sense.

New New Year’s Resolutions

Back in January, I laid out my New Year’s Resolutions for 2016. We’re now nearly half-way through the year, so I thought it was time to re-visit those resolutions and do a progress report.

My first resolution was to finally finish my novel The Silvergreen Sea. Status: Confident green tick. It’s all done and out on submission as I write these words.
Second resolution, to finish the rough draft of my new novel The Tide of Fire. Status: Slightly more wobbly tick, probably in blue ink. It’s done – albeit only to a given value of ‘done’. It’s still nowhere near ready to be sent out on submission and I’m putting it aside for now, to be re-visited later.
Third resolution, to read at least 50 books. Status: Firm tick. I have successfully consumed 50 books in various forms – 29 paperbacks, 11 audio books, 5 hardbacks, 4 electronic books, and a graphic novel.

All my resolutions are already done, and it’s not even the end of June. I’ve officially won at New Year’s Resolutions. So what comes next – shall I just put my feet up and watch Netflix for the next six months? It’s certainly tempting – the new season of Orange is the New Black has just come out, so that’ll keep me occupied for a few days at least.

Some of my reading material for the second half of the year

Some of my reading material for the second half of the year

But after that, perhaps it’s time for some New New Year’s Resolutions. 2016 Part Two, if you will. What’s up next? Well, I’ve started writing a new book, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell, so I want to finish that in rough draft. I also want to read 50 more books, to get me up to a nice round hundred for the year. And as part of that I’ve got a mini-resolution, to read all the books which have been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s Best Fantasy Novel and Best Horror Novel Awards, before they’re given out in September at the convention in Scarborough. I’ve made a start on the winning novels from last year as well – Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, and No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill. The only problem is that they’re both kind of freaking me out. Oh well, New Year’s Resolutions can’t be too easy, can they?

The Wrong Words

Writing stuff is easy, except for one thing: choosing which words to use. And I think fantasy authors have it doubly difficult in this regard. We’re describing our own worlds, which are often completely unlike the real world: they’ve got different cultures, a different history, they’ve got magic and mythical beasts. But in order to describe these worlds, we’re restricted to Earth-languages (well, ok, you can always make up your own languages like Tolkien did, but then you’ve still got to translate back into English or else nobody will understand your books). And a problem many fantasy writers encounter is this one: all words, in any language, have a history behind them. There are the original word-roots, and then there are the extra layers of meaning and nuance they accumulate through repeated use in a specific cultural context. Uproot these words, put them in a different context, and they can end up sounding weird.

Here’s an example for you: while reading a scene of airships attacking a city in the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, I was struck by his use of the word ‘zeppelin’ to describe these machines. Now, to me, this word sticks out from a fantasy context in a way the more neutral ‘airship’ doesn’t. It’s too historically specific, too German, too World War I, too Stairway to Heaven. Using it in a world where neither Jimmy Page nor Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin ever lived just feels, well, wrong.

But it can be difficult to avoid such terms. In my first book, The Heartland of the Winter, I spent ages agonising over my use of the phrase ‘Adam’s Apple’ – since Adam and Eve were never a thing in my world, surely I should call it something else? But ‘laryngeal prominence’ would surely cause puzzlement, while any circumlocution along the lines of ‘male throat lump’ just sounds strange and calls more attention to itself. I considered cutting out the reference entirely, before eventually deciding to leave it in and hope nobody would mind. More recently, in The Silvergreen Sea, I struggled with ‘hell-bent’ when the culture doesn’t believe in ‘hell’ as such, and ‘stalemate’ when they don’t play chess.

What’s to be done? Well, generally in fantasy we assume there’s some kind of Translation Convention in place – the characters are talking their own language, and everything has been translated into idiomatic English for the reader’s convenience. This is all very well but can still sometimes be a bit jarring when you get people casually referring to things that don’t actually exist in their world.

One clever thing you can do is use things like idioms and swear words as part of your world-building: think of the way George RR Martin has his characters say things like ‘Seven Hells!’ and ‘The Others take it!’ Since many real-life curse words are religious in origin, this can be an excellent way to clue your reader in to how your fantasy religion works. You can also use language to hint at cultural taboos and/or preoccupations. In modern English we have a lot of terms with a nautical origin – ‘change tack’, ‘three sheets to the wind’, ‘loose cannon’ etc. In a fantasy society where they never had the Royal Navy but do have the Royal Dragon Corps you might find them using different terms – like ‘change wing stroke’, ‘three tails to the wind’, or ‘loose fire-breather’ for example.

Language can be barrier to successful world-building, and it can also be a tool. Either way, it’s something that fantasy authors have to think about in a way mundane-world writers don’t have to. As with so many things about writing fantasy, it adds to both the challenge, and the enjoyment.

Guess who’s back

Hello there my lovelies. After a three-month hiatus, I’m back in business!

So what’s new? Well, my original plan back in October was that I would get my head down and finish my novel The Silvergreen Sea before Christmas. That, um, didn’t happen as planned. Instead I did NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, this is national novel writing month, an annual thing where you attempt to write a novel in November. ‘A novel’ is deemed to be 50,000 words, which is a tough-but-achievable target, and without a day job, I had no excuse not to hit it.

The great thing about NaNo is that, because it’s a big event, you can go to meetings – or just hang out online – with lots of other people attempting the same thing and swap tips, make connections, and generally appreciate the fact that you’re not the only insane person out there. I’ve done it once before – back in 2011 – and decided it was time for another plunge. So I started a completely new book – working title The Tide of Fire – went to a bunch of meetings, and dutifully churned out my 50,000 words of magic, murder, and mayhem. It was good fun, and now I have the makings of another novel – about half a rough draft.

But what about my current novel, the one I was supposed to have finished by Christmas? Well, to be honest with you, I’d been working on it for so long I was thoroughly sick of the thing, and I desperately needed a break. NaNo provided that while keeping the creative juices flowing. Now, refreshed, I’ve picked up The Silvergreen Sea again and started on the final edit, aiming for completion by the middle of March.

All this brings me round to the two questions which must always be asked at this time of year: what’s my new year’s resolution? And did I achieve last year’s resolution?

Checking back, I see that my 2015 resolution was to finish The Silvergreen Sea. Oops. Guess I dropped the ball on that one. Oh well. So, my 2016 resolution is – guess what – to finish The Silvergreen Sea.

But – famous last words – that’s not going to take a whole year, and so I’m going to have a couple more resolutions. One is to finish The Tide of Fire in first draft. And another is to read at least 50 books. (Last year I watched an awful lot of television, so I’m thinking 2016 should be the Year of Reading). I’ve read three-and-a-half so far, so I’m off to a good start. Let’s see if I can keep up the momentum, and not leave my to-read shelf as neglected as those gym memberships.

Best of luck for all your endeavours in 2016. Unless your endeavours involve annihilating the human race.