In which I pitch my awesome movie based on the super-glam life of the writer

Yesterday the lovely Tora Williams had a very marvellous blog post about the ridiculous way writers are depicted in films and on tv. That got me thinking. Tora is, of course, absolutely right. Actually being a writer involves hardly any old-fashioned typewriter work, very little moody staring into the middle distance wearing only outsized designer knitwear and your knickers, and hardly any fighting crime. I find that last part particularly disappointing – Jessica Fletcher lied to us all, and, I’m at least 85% sure, was also a serial killer. Doing writing in real-life involves zero crime-busting, and you’re only allowed to bump off the made-up people.

Anyway, as I said some time ago before I got distracted by serial killing, Tora’s post got me thinking. What would a movie depicting the realistic writers’ life look like? All the best movies (and most of the worst) follow a basic three act structure, so what would the key plot points in our writer’s life be?

ACT 1

THE SET-UP/STATUS QUO:

Hermione Scribbler is just a regular ‘girl next door.’ There’s nothing special about her. No indeed. She has limbs, and very often bothers to wash her hair rather than just tie it back and hope for the best. That’s just the sort of crazy chick she is. Go Hermione!

THE INCITING INCIDENT

Hermione is made redundant/goes on maternity leave/gets fired for inadvertantly instant messaging a picture of her boobs to the whole office. Whichever it is, the point is this Hermione has time on her hands. She is temporarily disheartened, but then it hits her. She will write a novel, and then she will be rich like JK Rowling and Dan Brown and Zoella.

Initially Hermione is a flurry of writerly activity. She makes a little home office space in the useless bit of dining room that’s half under the stairs. She reads A LOT of blogs and webpages about How To Write a Novel. She googles writing courses. She sets up Word to do first line indents and 1.5 spacing. She opens her new document and…

TURNING POINT 1

Hermione stops. What Hermione has omitted to come up with so far is an actual idea for a book. Hermione has a cake instead. During her cake Hermione has an awesome idea about a clan of cake-fetishist vampires. The plan to write a novel is Back On!

ACT 2

This is where our heroine’s situation becomes increasingly complicated and emotionally fraught. This is the sort of stuff we can expect to see:

  • Hermione gradually stops wearing proper clothes. They are pinchy, and you have to think about which ones go together. This is hard. Pyjamas are much much easier.
  • Hermione watches a lot of youtube videos. She tells herself this is research. It isn’t.
  • One day, in a moment of high drama, Hermione finds an interesting brown stain on her pyjamas. She sniffs it. It smells like chocolate. Hermione resists the urge to lick the stain for at least 14 seconds.
  • Hermione googles literary agents and makes a list.
  • Hermione spends a whole day planning her outfit for when one of those literary agents takes her out for cocktails. It is, after all, only a matter of time.

THE MID POINT/POINT OF NO RETURN

Hermione has a brief golden period of writing. Everything falls into place. The cake-fetishist vampires behave exactly as she wants them to. The words flow out of her fingerless-gloved writing fingers. It is a window of perfect joy. It’s lasts 27 and a half minutes and produces 417 words, 250 of which are terrible, but it’s too late. Hermione is hooked.

ACT 2 CONTINUES

  • Hermione joins a writing group and then makes plans to meet other members for coffee on a regular basis. This is important because spending time with other writers feeds the creative instinct. It is almost like actually spending time writing. Almost.
  • It strikes Hermione that there are also writers on twitter, who she can chat to without ever leaving her writing desk. That is definitely almost like actually spending time writing. Almost.
  • Hermione develops a tricky condition known as ‘writer’s bottom.’ She resolves that, in addition to definitely always writing 2000 words per day, she will also go jogging.
  • Hermione searches for stylish jogging clothes on the internet.

DARKEST MOMENT

Hermione realises that it is now quite a long time since she was made redundant/went on maternity leave/did the booby instant messenger thing. She also realises that at no point during this story has she had a baby, so it was almost certainly either redundancy or the booby thing. Whichever. The point is her money’s running out. The book isn’t written, and she needs to get a job. Or, thinks Hermione, she needs to get her head down and finish the novel which will then make her rich.

ACT 3

Hermione prints out pictures of JK Rowling, Dan Brown and Zoella and sticks them up next to her computer for inspiration. She is going to Finish the Book. Cue montage of frantic writing activity. This will mainly be marked by Hermione developing a wild eyed look and an increasingly lax approach to personal hygiene. Eventually she emerges from the writing pit with 93,000 words about her vampires.

CLIMAX

Hermione prepares her agent submissions. This involves writing a synopsis. Hermione cries a lot. Hermione thinks bad thoughts about setting cake-festishist vampires on whoever invented the synopsis. Eventually her first submission is ready to send. Off it goes! Followed by another, and another, and another.

RESOLUTION

Hermione waits for a reply. And then she waits some more. Then she gets a flurry of rejections, including one that says that although the cake-fetishist vampires aren’t right for the agent’s list, she would love to read more of Hermione’s work. Hermione fails to realise that that is completely brilliant and has a long cry. Later she finds a cornflake in her bra. She has no idea how it got there.

The End.

And if you’d like some slightly more practical tips on writing a novel, there are still a few spaces left on my Developing Your Novel workshop in Birmingham on 28th March

In which I randomly assert that writers are not special

I have two jobs. I have one job where I sit just exactly here on my rapidly expanding bottom and type words into documents that I hope one day people will want to read. In my other job I try to help people learn stuff. Sometimes I help them learn how to understand the welfare benefits system. Sometimes I help them learn how to write books. In the past I’ve helped people learn good interview skills, presentations skills, employment law, IT skills and various other things besides. It’s never crossed my mind that there might be some careers that you can’t learn to do. But some people think that my first job – the bottom sitting one – is just such a thing.

Back in March, Hanif Kureishi termed creative writing courses a ‘waste of time’. This caused a heightened level of eyebrow raising because Kureishi is a professor teaching in various areas of writing at Kingston University. It’s always good to see a tutor who’s confident in the quality of their own work, isn’t it? Having said that, other writers agreed with Kureishi about the limitations of creative writing courses, and he wasn’t the first to express reservations. Ray Bradbury, for example, told the Paris Review that college was a ‘very bad place for writers.

It seems to me that there are two things going on here. Firstly, there’s an unjustified leap in logic between identifying a bad course or poor teacher, and concluding that something can’t be taught. I’ve never been to one of Professor Kureishi’s lectures or tutorials, but if you find that a high percentage of your students are failing to learn the thing you’re supposed to be teaching, you’ve got to wonder if the problem is you rather than them. Many of Bradbury’s criticisms centre on the problem of tutors teaching based on their own preferences and likes/dislikes – that’s not a sign that’s something’s unteachable. That’s just a crappy teacher. There are lousy courses out there in plumbing, maths, crocheting, engineering and Japanese – it doesn’t mean that any of those things can’t be taught and learnt either.

And that brings me to the second thing I suspect is going on here. Us writers do sometimes have a slightly unattractive tendency to think that we’re special. Again, that’s not something that’s exclusive to writers – we all like to think that we are special unique snowflakes sometimes, but I think that sometimes as writers we tell ourselves that what we do is somehow different from other jobs. And in some ways it is – there’s a lot more pajama wearing than the average, for example. But we’re part of a whole raft of creative careers – from writing to fine art to theatre to engineering to graphic design etc. Any job that involves a moment where somebody says ‘What if we do…’ and the next thing that comes out of their mouth is an idea that wasn’t there before is creative. Creativity is brilliant, and precious, and, if you take a minute to look, absolutely bleeding everywhere.

I share my living quarters with EngineerBoy, and people often assume that we must have little or nothing in common in terms of how we work and how our brains work. But actually we talk about work all the time.* Designing engineering solutions and writing a book have a lot in common. Both start with an idea of what you’re trying to get to. Both suffer from the fact that that idea will, inevitably, change part way through the process. Both work best when you keep things simple. Both are marked by a bit about a third of the way in where you’re absolutely 100% certain that what you’re working on is a massive pile of poo that will never work. And then another bit like that about two thirds of the way through. And then another one just around the time you have to hit send and deliver the thing to your customer/publisher.

Writing a lesson plan is another act of creativity with lots in common with writing a story. A good lesson has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a point that you hope the student will take away, and is has a great unknown quality that is beyond your control – for a lesson, that’s the student; for a story, it’s the reader. Both are going to take whatever you offer and respond to it, hopefully in the ways that you anticipated, sometimes in a completely different way, and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, in a way that makes the whole thing better, and richer and more successful than you ever thought.

Lots of jobs are like writing – some in small ways, some in much bigger ones, and generally we have very little problem with the notion that you can learn to do all those other jobs, but somehow we want writing to be innate. It’s not innate – at least not beyond the level at which human beings have a shared instinct to communicate and storytell. It’s something you can develop and improve. You can learn to be more creative, and you can learn to channel that creativity in specific ways. You can learn the skills of plotting and characterisation and editing and point of view.

And yes, part of the reason I’m saying this is because I’m a creative writing tutor and I have an upcoming workshop (spaces still available – click the link for details, go on, you know you want to) to promote. But it’s more than that. Telling people that certain skills can’t be taught is an example of people who’ve already achieved success adopting a mindset that keeps those who are still trying firmly in their place. It’s about saying ‘Well, I made it without any help. Why can’t you?’ And that’s just a bit of a miserable, divisive way of being. So bah humbug to that. Jolly good.

* Sounds dull, I know, but look. We’ve been married a really really long time. Any conversation beyond ‘What’s for tea?’ is frankly a marvel to be cherished at this stage.

In which I scrape the layer of dust off the blog and finish a book

Ahoy there, good morning, merry greetings and hello. I have been away from the blog of late due to having got myself into something of a pickle with the writing of novel 2 and ending up having to spend the last six weeks ignoring all activities that weren’t actually writing the sodding book. The sodding book (possibly not its final title) has now been sent off to my lovely publisher, Choc Lit, and I’m permitted to not think about it for a while, or at least until they send it back and tell me to have another go.

So, here I am with an unfamiliar sea of free time rippling in front of me. All sorts of excitements await. When I’ve finished here, for example, I am going to put some laundry in and then – and this is an exciting one – I’m going to wash my hair. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to live.

Before all that though, there’s some bloggy bloggy blogging to get blogged, which is tricky because my brain is still stuck in the imaginary world of novel 2. That’s one of the oddities of writing as a job, as opposed to being a lollipop lady (or lollipop gentleman) or managing a premiership football team. Writing is a freakishly blinkered affair. You invent a whole world, and people it with people (at least in my case – you can of course people it with elves or dragons or sentient lever arch files – the choice is yours), and then you live in that world for however long it takes to transfer that world and that story from brain to typing fingers to screen to page. That means that once the manuscript is done with and sent away, you find yourself in something of a lull. It’s what fellow Choc Lit author, Janet Gover, describes as the post-book meltdown.

With all the other jobs I’ve had the periods of stress usually came when there were too many diverse things to think about, competing for time and attention. With writing, at least when you’re in the final lead-up to a deadline, there is only one task: Write the sodding book (still not the final title). That single-mindedness is, for me at least, what leads to the meltdown. At the moment I’m at the crawling into the light stage, and I keep catching sight of all the things I’ve  been putting off for the last few weeks: the form that came in the post at the start of March that I haven’t filled in yet; the piles of laundry that need putting away; the things in the back of the fridge that I’m not sure I can throw away without breaching the federation’s Prime Directive. All these things will need dealing with, before I regain the power of sufficiently complex thought to write you a blog post about something more interesting that the fuzzed up state of my brain.

Hopefully, that will be next week’s task, alongside starting the next book and doing it all again, obviously. I shall see you all there.

 

And as always, if you want to buy any of the lovely things I’ve already written, this is the place.

In which I crawl blinking into the light and try to do a shoulder stand

So as discussed in last week’s blog I have just undertaken a little writing hermitage in order try to break through the great Novel Two Impasse of 2014. I didn’t quite manage the 25,000 words I was aiming for but think I ended up on around about 22,500, and more importantly I got to the bit where you get to type The End. I didn’t actually type The End. I never do, personally, and weirdly the discussion of whether you should is something that can get writers quite astonishingly hot under the collar. Some are adamant that you should mark the end of your manuscript with the words The End. Others are definite that the definite article is unnecessary and one should simply type ‘End’. Others still declare that you should never mark the end of a manuscript in either way – if it’s not clear that the story is finished, they opine, then your ending isn’t good enough. I hold to a fourth school of thought – one that says, ‘Oh ffs, you know you could have sent the bloody thing off about eight times in the time you’ve spent debating whether to type The End.’

Anyway, I digress. The point was that I got to the end of the final chapter. Unfortunately, the end of the final chapter isn’t anywhere near being the end of the book, partly because first drafts are always horrible (at least for me), but mainly because I’m about 20-25,000 words short of a full length novel. Now if this was going to be another digital only release, that wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem. Ebooks can almost be any length you like, but a print book has to be economical to print, and realistically that means it needs to be somewhere around 100,000 words. Less than about 80,000 makes for a very slim volume, and more than about 140,000 leads publishers to worry about the commercial viability of such a tome (at least in women’s fiction -some genres, like sci-fi, tend to run a bit longer.) Now some of those words will come from adding depth to the first half of the story. There’s lots I didn’t know about the characters when I wrote the earlier chapters, that I’ve learnt as I went on, and that all needs layering into the early sections, but even then I think I’m going to be a bit short, so that means I need to feed another subplot into the novel. I have a very clear idea of what that plot will be, and now it’s just a question of writing the thing. So all in all, after last week’s bonkers level of word production, I need to do pretty much the same again this week. Happy days.

The other main work-in-progress chez Alison is the ongoing project to decrease the general Alison-girth. I won’t lie. Recent attempts at weight loss have mainly fallen down as a result of the combined problems of a) a deeply sedentary job, b) IBS leading to a tendency to mainly eat beige foods (bread, pasta etc), and c) cake being really really nice. However, last Friday I weighed myself and discovered that a line in the mental sand had been crossed. I was 95.3kg. (Yes – I weigh myself in modern money. I find it oddly less emotive than stones and pounds.) Anyway 95kg is A Lot. It’s nearly 15 stone, which is also A Lot. It basically means that a person my height needs to lose 5 stone which, again, is A Lot.  Those of us who are not naturally skinny minnys often have personal mental cut off points for what is Too Fat. The transition from a size 18 to a size 20 is a common one. Something about being ‘out of the teens’ in dress size terms can be a tad depressing. Well I just hit mine. 95kg was a shock. So 1300 calories a day – there’s an app for counting it and everything. Zumba or Bokwa four times a week. Yoga once or twice a week. And the exercise regime is for life not just for diet time. Because coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes are Bad Things are one should not inflict them on oneself.

Which brings me to the shoulder stand. I went to yoga for the first time in six months on Friday, and my friendly local yoga instructor has starting incorporating a shoulder stand section in her class. This is a new development. Not a problem I thought. I can do a shoulder stand. Shoulder stands are easy. Only it turns out, they’re not if you’re nearly 15 stone and really out of shape. I incurred the humiliation of the of the yoga lady offering me a big cushion to put under my bum. Now I know that yoga isn’t supposed to be competitive and all that, but the only other person who needed a cushion under their bum was about 80. Not great. So since Friday I’ve practised my shoulder stand at home every day, and now, with a bit of a comedy rocking motion to get started I can just about do it. First main achievement of Operation Reduce Girth and Improve Health achieved.

So that’s me for this week. Basically – more words, less girth. So what’s anyone else been up to?

In which I become a little bit hermity

Ahoy dear blog readers and welcome. I say welcome. What I actually mean this week is more along the lines of ‘The key’s under the mat. Let yourself in,’ because despite appearances to the contrary I am not here. I am actually writing this three days ago, because this week (by which I mean the week you are currently really in as you read this, which from my time-travelling blogger point of view is actually next week) I am officially a hermit.

There are reasons for the hermitage, and happily they don’t involve the concealment of any sort of embarrassing facial growth. Indeed, if I were possessed of a facial growth I would probably be posting pictures of it and asking for your best internet-informed medical opinions on how to proceed. Actually going to the doctor is so terribly time-consuming don’t you find? Anyway, the hermitage is for reasons of writerlyness. Not reasons that involve a deep yearning in my soul to retreat into a quiet and reflective artistic space and commune with my muse. That would not be practical. That last time I saw my muse he was sitting on the kitchen floor weeping and eating Philadelphia with his finger directly from the tub. He’s a terrible muse. I’m thinking of returning him to the seller – that is, I suppose, just what you get for buying a secondhand muse on ebay.

Anyway, the writerly hermitage is being undertaken for reasons of simple pressing need to just get the next book written already. There is a point in the gestation of most books where the writer decides the idea is awful, the writing completed so far is unmitigatedly terrible, the plot is unbelievable, and there is no imaginable way to fix these problems. Generally speaking, at this point, the writer will also believe that this is absolutely the first time that they’ve felt like this, and that it is definitely not ‘just a phase.’ I am in that ‘phase’ (well I say phase, it’s really really not a phase this time…) at the moment.

When I talk to other writers who are in that phase (because, obviously, when it happens to other people it is just a phase), I tell them, quite bossily, to stop being a moaning-minny and jolly well buck up and carry on writing. This is harsh but entirely good advice. I know it’s good advice because it’s been given to me by other much wiser and cleverer writers. And this week (also known from my current point of view as next week) is when I put that into practice. I’ve created myself a little writing retreat at home. Engineer Boy has been banished.* Groceries have been pre-ordered. All the good telly has been set to record. This blog post was written some time in the past. I have absolutely no excuse not to get my bum on my chair, my fingers on my keyboard and bang out some words. My target is 25,000 words in 5 days, which is ambitious but doable. That will get me to well over 60,000 words of novel which is probably about two-thirds of the whole. Hopefully that will be enough to get me past this hump and onto the home straight. Wish me luck.

* Not actually banished. Just on a course to learn to be a Better Engineer Boy.

In which I suggest some ways in which you can help a struggling writer

When’s the last time you did something to help the struggling author in your life? I’m assuming you all have one. If you’re not sure whether there’s a struggling author in your social circle just look out for the person wearing pyjamas in the middle of the day. The one who doesn’t look like they’ve washed their hair yet this week, and who prods you lightly when you talk to them because they’re not used to the voices they hear coming out of a real physical person. If you’ve got someone like that in your life, chances are you’ve got yourself a writer. Or possibly just a crazy person. Either way, I imagine you will be very keen to help such a person out. And helpfully, I have some easy suggestions as to how you might do that.

1. If your writer is of the published variety, just buy the book. If they’re not published, please try to desist from asking them when the book comes out. They may find dwelling on the subject disheartening and you may find the bit where they growl at you and try to rend their pyjamas a wee bit socially awkward.

2. Once you’ve bought the book, things can go one of two ways. Either you will like the book, in which case tell your writer you liked it. They will get embarrassed and socially inept, but they will appreciate it. If you really really don’t like the book, lie. Seriously, lying is fine. You’re talking to somebody who makes stuff up for a living. The lines between reality and fantasy are already pretty fluid.

3. If you really actually did like the book, write it an Amazon review. I know. It’s time consuming and you have to try and think of something to write, other than, ‘Yeah. It was good. There were words and stuff,’ but the reality is that Amazon is the all-encompassing big brother of book sales these days, and good reviews sell books, and selling books is what allows your pet writer to buy new pyjamas and proper non-supermarket-brand hobnobs. These things are like fresh hay and a lovely nosebag to the struggling writer. They will make your writer happy.

And that’s how you look after a struggling author. Indeedy. Yes.

So, just hypothetically if any of you were thinking you fancied buying a book, Much Ado About Sweet Nothing is still just 99p until the end of January. Totes bargainissimo.

In which I think about the difference between real-life and makey-uppy

‘Fiction makes sense and real life doesn’t.’ The very clever and lovely Julie Cohen has just announced that to me out of my computer (via Writers’ Web TV – she doesn’t actually live in my computer, I don’t think). And that thought set off a little ping inside my brain because I’ve been thinking about that very question of the distinction between real life and makey-uppy a lot of late.

I’m currently working with my delightful new editor on the final tweaks to Sweet Nothing, which, barring last minute delays, will be out in the world next month. And I’m starting to think seriously, for the first time, about the fact that people might read it. Realistically, as it’s a debut novel by a total unknown a high percentage of the people who read it will be friends or acquaintances. And at least some of those people are going to read my story of a bickery and weirdly dysfunctional relationship between a nerdy thirty-something year old man and an artsy-literary woman, and they’re are going to look at myself and EngineerBoy and they’re going to make a fairly obvious assumption about where the inspiration for those two characters came from.

And when they do that I will huff and puff, and get offended and bang on about how it’s obviously fiction and it’s not based on real life, and I shall probably say that it’s shows a lack of imagination to assume such a lack of imagination on the part of the writer. And when I react like that I shall be at least half right.

But actually it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Those two characters absolutely aren’t based on EngineerBoy and me. I can’t, personally, think of anything more skin crawling than consciously and intentionally typing out the details of your most intimate relationships and then sending them to a beta reader and an editor and then out into the world. I feel faintly exposed just typing the notion onto this blog. Developing and writing those characters, I didn’t start by thinking about any real people. They, and all the characters, are absolutely the product of my imagination.

However, my imagination is absolutely the product of my environment. What I imagine about how relationships work is entirely borne out of my own relationships. All the characters I write are products of my overcrowded, butterfly brain. It’s all completely made up, but I can only make-up what I can make up and that is bounded by the life I’ve lived and the people I know. So it’s kind of a circular problem. The characters I write and the stories I tell are definitely made up and definitely aren’t based on real life, but they’re made up out of my imagination, which is sculpted and defined by my real life, and round and round and round we go.

So, if you are so kind as to read Sweet Nothing when it comes out and you think you recognise a person or a place or an incident, don’t be scared – I promise that it isn’t you, or at least, if it is, I don’t know that it is, so there’s no need to feel weird. And here end my random writerly musings. I shall return soon, when hopefully Michael Gove will have annoyed me in a new and interesting way and I’ll be able to get a proper rant going. I’ve not had one of them for a while…