JWTSB: Part 3 – The Fear

Ok, so this post is a bit late in the day. I hope you’ll forgive me – I hit a tiny little itty bit of a deadline to get the first draft of Juliet Bell Book 2 knocked into good enough shape for my co-author to take a final look before we send it into our editor at Harper HQ. In order to further earn your forgiveness though, I’m tackling one of the biggest and gnarliest topics for any writer, whether they are brand new and shiny or jaded and wading through the draft of book seventy-eight. Today I’m going to talk about The Fear.

What is The Fear? The Fear can take many forms. It can be the feeling that you’ll never be as good a writer as the author of whatever awesome book you’ve just read. It can be the feeling that the idea that felt so golden and shiny six months ago has turned to dust under your fingers and you don’t have the skill to bring it back to being something wonderful. It’s the feeling, when an idea first strikes, that the story is too big or too important or too complex for a little brain like yours to be able to tell. It’s the feeling when your last book got rejected EVERYWHERE that you might as well not bother writing the next one. It’s the feeling when your last book got a really good deal and then sold slightly less than the publisher was so obviously hoping and you think you’ve blown your chance and clearly don’t have what it takes after all. It’s the feeling when your last book went perfectly – it sold to a great editor, it was marketed beautifully, you were garlanded with awards – that you’ve peaked and whatever you do next will be a horrible disappointment to all the people who’ve put their faith in you so far.

The Fear is the feeling that stops you writing and The Fear happens to us all.

Sometimes The Fear is contained to the feeling X thousand words into your draft that this novel is crap and you will never be able to make it good. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer that doesn’t feel like that at least once (and usually more than once) during the process of writing and editing each book.

Sometimes The Fear is bigger and more amorphous. It can masquerade as normal procrastination to start with until you get to the point where you realise that you’re ironing your guest pillow cases ‘just in case’ and you haven’t actually opened your manuscript file for three weeks.

So what can you do?

  1. Take a break. Sometimes your brain simply needs a rest from the thing that is stressing it out. Walk the dog. If you don’t have a dog, walk yourself. Take a bath. Go to the gym. Do something creative but small – something with an achievable end point. Baking is good, because at the end you will have cake. I’m told by people less cake oriented that painting, knitting, and sewing have similar properties (but less calories).
  2. Let yourself write stuff that isn’t brilliant. Very often The Fear tells us that we’re not good enough – it mentally highlights every slightly cheesy, ill-phrased line in a manuscript and tells us that it will never get better. Well on this point, The Fear is wrong. Cheesy, ill-phrased lines can be rephrased. Sometimes their cheesiness might even tell us something about the character who’s speaking them. Stuff doesn’t have to be perfect straight away. If the stuff in question is a novel, it won’t be perfect straight away and that’s all right.
  3. Break things into bitesize chunks. The Fear can put us behind schedule, and the enormity of getting back on track can be overwhelming so we end up doing nothing. Just do something, even if the something is simply opening the manuscript and reading what you wrote last time. If you’re editing, break it down into steps and tick off one step at a time. A novel is massive. There will be lots that doesn’t work  – don’t let the scale of the problem overwhelm. Break it down. Baby steps. Doing something tiny is way better than doing nothing at all.
  4. Talk to people. You are not the first writer who has felt like this. You will not be the last. Just hearing people confirm that helps.
  5. Believe that you will get through this. In my very personal experience, ultimately you can’t go around The Fear. You can’t jump over it. The only way is through. That might mean that things get worse before they get better. That might mean moving from fearing that your manuscript is a mess to knowing with certainty that your manuscript is a mess. It might mean admitting how sad you are about how things turned out with the last book before you’re ready to move onto the next. But you can get through those feelings. And you will. Believe that you will.

And hopefully over time what happens is that The Fear diminishes down into a fear and finally into a memory of a fear. Good luck.

 

If you’re suffering from The Fear, or any other writing quandary, and would like some more personalised support please either contact me or check out my For Writers page for details of courses and manuscript critique services. 

JWSTB: Part 2 – the saggy middle

Another last Thursday, time for ‘Just Write the Sodding Book’ (my very sensibly named advice for writers series) part 2.

The saggy middle is the death of many a good novel idea. We start with an awesome concept and, if we’re lucky, a clear idea of where the story is ultimately heading, and then somewhere in the middle the lovely, crisp, focused words we’re writing turn to into a sludgey, mess of boredom and unnecessary subplots. This, lovely reader, is what writers refer to as the saggy middle.

In my experience, both as a writer and writing tutor, most early drafts have a saggy section somewhere. And they are nearly always fixable. Here’s just a taster of the ways to fix, or avoid, a saggy middle in your manuscript:

1. Stuff has to happen

Have your characters stopped doing stuff? Have they retreated to a coffee shop/ballroom/spaceship/base camp (well I don’t know what your book is about) and sat down to have a jolly good think about how they feel?

If so, that might be your problem. Try to make sure your characters show the reader who they are and how they feel by what they do. So make them do stuff, not just think about stuff. Which brings me neatly to point number two…

2. Show don’t tell

A good old writing tutor cliché and a subject for a whole JWTSB post in itself one day. But look at your writing to see if it feels as though events are unfolding in front of the reader. Is your reader experiencing the stuff that happens alongside your characters, or is it being relayed after the event one step removed? The more the reader feels like they are alongside your characters experiencing what they experience, the less saggy your story will feel.

3. Have you gone wide, instead of deep?

‘Go deeper, not wider’ is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received and something I still mutter to myself regularly when I’m revising a manuscript and trying to resist the urge to bolt on extra whistles and bells. Unfortunately I can’t actually remember who told me it – it might have been Sue Moorcroft – and Sue is certainly very wise, so I’m happy to give her the credit for this one.

The idea of going deeper rather than wider, essentially means – try to focus on your main character(s)’ emotional journey and make that as real and immediate as you can, rather than throwing more and more external stuff at your story. When we feel like a manuscript is flagging it’s very natural to add another subplot, or a big dramatic external event. And sometimes, that will help. But more often what helps even more, is really drilling down into the central character(s)’ emotional situation. One really common problem in early drafts is a character who has a huge emotional event – a bereavement, a long-held secret revealed, a rejection by a loved one – but there’s no emotional punch for the reader. The emotional pain of the event doesn’t play out on the page.

‘But, wise Alison,’ I hear you say, ‘you just said characters shouldn’t just sit and emote.’ And you’re right I did say that. You still want to aim to show us the emotional depth of an event by what your characters do in reaction. If they do something that shows their emotion, that should have the effect of sparking off further plot developments in reaction to whatever it was they did. And this makes more stuff happen, further shoring up the saggy parts of the novel, with action that is rooted in the emotional journey of your main characters. Hence many many birds killed with one little stone.

And here endeth today’s lesson. For more information on my courses, manuscript critique service, and mentoring for writers take a look here. And if you’ve got a topic you’d like to see covered in a JWTSB post, then let me know in the comments.

JWTSB: Part 1 – there are no rules

JWTSB is the abbreviated version of my single favourite piece of writing advice – ‘Just write the sodding book.’ I’ve essentially built a career as a writing tutor on that gem of wisdom and happily spend weekends shouting it at poor innocent developing writers. When they start to look a tad jaded I do occasionally mix things up with a jaunty cry of ‘Stuff has to happen’ or ‘Editing is fun!’ But, fundamentally, ‘just write the sodding book’ sums up most of what I tell new writers about how to write a novel. You can spend a lot of time and energy building your social media platform and attending writing conferences, and it will all be for nothing if you omit to attach bum to chair, fingers to keyboard, and get the damn thing written.

That doesn’t mean that writers, at any stage of their career, can’t benefit from courses and advice and critique. That’s all part of developing your skills and honing your craft. So this is my new monthly* writing advice column. Please feel welcome to add your requests for topics you’d like to see covered down in the comments. I’ve already had requests for avoiding the dreaded info-dump, writing a synopsis, handling dialogue and how to make nice guy heroes super-sexy. Please do add your requests to the list.

This month though I’m starting by laying out my stall with the second piece of advice I want all my students to internalise, hold dear and understand. It’s beaten only by ‘just write the sodding book’ in the hierarchy of essential novel-writing advice. And it is simply this:

There are no rules

When it comes to writing a novel, there are no hard and fast rules. In my own writing I’ve been told with absolute certainty that you can’t have multiple points of view or multiple timelines in a novella; that you can’t start a novel with a character waking up; that you can’t start a novel with a dream; that you shouldn’t write first person; and that you shouldn’t write present tense. I’ve done all of those in books that were published, some of which went on to be award nominated.

There are things you can do that will make your novel more or less likely to find a traditional publisher, but taking creative risks doesn’t break any rules. For every ‘rule’ that says you can’t have too many point of view characters, there’s a Game of Thrones. For every declaration that boarding school books are out of fashion, there’s a Harry Potter. For every earnest edict that a novel can’t be to short or too long, there’s an Agatha Raisin or a Pillars of the Earth.

In novel writing it’s very rarely a hard and fast line of ‘you can’t do that.’ So it’s good to take advice, it’s good to understand the market you’re writing for, and then it’s up to you, the writer, to make whatever it is you’re trying to do work.

So that’s the ethos of these JWTSB advice posts – there are no rules. There is just the question of how on earth you’re going to make your crazy, unruly, disorganised mass of a half-formed novel into something that works.

For more advice for writers including courses and one-to-one critique and mentoring services click here.

*I mean I’m aiming for monthly. Last Thursday of the month, but y’know, it might just be sort of when I feel like it.

In which I wonder about writing what you know

‘Write what you know’ is a common piece of writing advice. The modern interweb isn’t even really sure where it originates. It could be Mark Twain, but most quotable nuggets could, at least according to the internet. If it ain’t Shakespeare or the Bible it was probably Mark Twain. Other corners of the web think it was Hemingway. He definitely did say ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ which includes many of the same words but is not, really, the same at all.

At face value the idea that you should ‘write what you know’ is silly. It would require all crime writers to engage in light serial killing, all sci-fi authors to actually build that damn time machine, and all rom-com writers to only ever settle down with a single partner for the gap between books, before throwing themselves headlong into yet another humourous love triangle when the next first draft starts.

But on another level the advice to ‘write what you know’ makes total sense. Your time-travelling sci-fi heroine might be doing plot stuff that’s way outside your own more pyjamas and sofa based lifestyle, but her shock, fear, determination and enthusiasm can be mined from the seams of those emotion inside your own experience. Maybe rather that ‘write what you know’ we could say ‘write what you know to be emotionally true.’ Which is less pithy but possibly more useful.

But even that is limiting. If you’ve never lost a partner or a child, does that mean you can’t you write the grief of a character who loses both? If you’ve only ever been in love with one person at a time, can you write the conflict of a character torn between two lovers? Well writers do, so I guess the answer clearly is, yes you can. You might not have lost a child, but you have experienced loss – grandparent, parent, friend, relationship, job – it would be an extraordinarily charmed life to never have lost something that mattered to you. So as a writer you try to distill those feelings and magnify and redraw them through the filter of the character you’ve created. ‘Write what you know to be emotionally true’ doesn’t have to be the precise emotion you’ve experienced – writing is an act of imagination twinned with empathy for the person you made up.

There are two more issues that spring to mind when I think about writing what you know: cultural sensitivity and what people will think you know when they read what you wrote. So…

Cultural sensitivity covers a whole universe of issues, but essentially comes down to the problem of one group of writers (or artists or directors) depicting a group they’re not part of, often in a way that screams of a lack of cultural knowledge or understanding. Given that publishing generally tends towards the white, the able-bodied, and the middle class, there is a problem here when those voices overtake and overwhelm all others, meaning that other experiences aren’t depicted at all, or are depicted in cringeworthy cliche. We’ve all read examples of an author writing outside of their own experience really badly – the male-authored heroines who spend weird amounts of time considering the perkiness of their boobs, the female-authored heroes with a tendency to notice what shoe designer the heroine is wearing before anything else, the white-authored black man who talks like a ‘My First Gangsta Rap’ how to book – those are the products of writers writing what they don’t know, and not recognising their own lack of knowledge.

Personally I don’t hold to the view that white, middle-class authors should only write white, middle-class characters. I think that adds to a boring homogeneity of output, and cultivates the sense that we are all intrinsically different rather than striving to find the truths that are universal. My advice to writers would be to remember that your character is an individual first. Being gay or straight or bi, or being able-bodied or disabled, or being black or white or asian or mixed race – those things all affect our experience of life. But alongside them we might also be stubborn or naive or brave or scared. People are individuals first – write what is true for that individual. (And also, if you’re white and middle class and you’ve managed to make it as a published author, remember that however hard it was, it’s probably harder for others, so don’t pull up the drawbridge behind you. Because, purely from a self-interested perspective, writers are readers too – and more varied, more diverse books makes for more interesting reading.)

My last little bit of this particular round of wittering on is about readers and what they will think you know from reading what you write. My next book, currently titled All That Was Lost, is out in September, and I’m nervous. I’m nervous because I know that there’s stuff in that book that some readers, the readers who know me a little bit but not that well, will think is autobiographical. The novel is about a young woman growing up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. I grew up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. My character, Pat, rebels against that experience in a fairly extreme way and we see that life through her eyes, which isn’t always a flattering point of view. I, on the other hand, had a very positive childhood. I loved the sense of belonging and community. So I’m writing what I know, but filtered through the point of view of a very individual character.

Will readers see that or will they assume that Pat is me and I am Pat? I don’t know. And ultimately I can’t control that. Once the book is done and published it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to readers. They get to draw their own conclusions about whether what I wrote was emotionally true, whether I’ve trampled all over someone else’s cultural experience, whether I sound like I know what I’m writing about. And some of them will assume that Pat is acting out a rebellion I wish I’d had. Which I can live with. And if some of those people give my parents a touch of side-eye because they’re wondering if Pat’s horrible, messed-up family life is based on my own, then very sincerely I am sorry mum, but, this time, I really did just make it up.

In which I think about the lack of recent blogging

I’ve been a bit lax about blogging lately. After resolving last week to get back into it, I find myself, this morning, staring at a blank screen devoid of blogging inspiration. And that’s been a problem a lot recently. There are plenty of subjects I could opine my little heart out about. Just yesterday I overheard someone talking about the refugee crisis, and saying ‘I’m not racist but…’ And yes he actually said that in real-life – it’s the sort of line I’d edit out of a book for being too cliched but she really really said it. Anyway, ‘I’m not racist but,’ he said, ‘what they have to understand is that they’ve got to earn our trust back. You know, after Paris and everything.’

Now I have Views on that statement. By golly do I have Views?* But I increasingly find myself weary of sharing those views on the interweb. One thing the internet does not lack is people who reckon stuff about things. Whether you like to be irritated and get into twitter fights with people you vehemently disagree with or whether you prefer to create a perfect little social media echo chamber of people who entirely agree with you, the internet offers a ready supply of opinion for you to be enraged or cosseted by.

So I could write you lovely blog posts about novel writing instead, but again, blogs about how to be a writer are not in short supply. There are blogs that will tell you how to write, edit, submit and promote your book. And, here’s my one piece of writing advice for this post, reading them can be interesting and lovely, and a fab way of meeting and interacting with other writers, but it’s also probably procrastination. Writing themed procrastination, which is the highest form of procrastination, but procrastination nonetheless.  There is no substitute for just writing the sodding book. Harsh, but true I’m afraid.

So that leaves me wondering what on earth to blog about on weeks when reckoning something about the news of the day fails to fill my heart with inspiration. And I’m genuinely wondering. Suggestions and ideas more than welcome in the comments… Otherwise I might have to abandon all pretense of coherent thought and just post pictures of baking. Mmmm… baking.

 

* They are about the ignorance of othering, and the general heartlessness and stupidity in mentally dividing the world into us and them, and grouping the them together based on race/religion/nationality.