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12 Books in 12 Months

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Writer’s Block

My last email from Edinburgh blogger Elaine from Dreams and Whispers covers the tricky subject of the creative block…

My last question is about creative writing in general, and blocks that can hinder creativity -for example perfectionism, comparing your work to others, an internal critical voice, etc. Personally I got stuck when I attempted Nanowrimo last year: I’d think “Ugh, that last sentence was horrible, I can’t possibly leave that in. I’ll just go over that for a second…”, then suddenly a whole paragraph would be edited and the word count would actually reduce! So my question for a prolific writer like yourself is: do you ever get stuck with “writer’s block” and if so, what helps you move past it?

I think everyone gets creatively blocked from time to time.  I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts and tweets I’ve read that claim sitting in front of an empty page or screen is the hardest part of the writing process.  But to be honest, I don’t find it to be as much of a problem as I used to.  I found it incredibly hard to write fiction when I was at uni and only finished a few things. For those four years I blogged (although not as regularly as now) and did journalism (mainly singles reviews and occasional comment pieces) and spoof news stories for the uni satirical paper… but I rarely finished any stories.

After graduating in 2008 I continued that trend for a bit.  By that point I had sort of decided that my fiction style was a bit too flippant or glib for anyone to really care about, but I continued with blogging and started to write news stories and stuff for hyperlocal websites.  So yeah, I have been known to go ‘no, I can’t do it, and even if I did have an idea I wouldn’t do it justice..’

So I merrily continued with short articles and blog posts till November 2009, my first go at NaNoWriMo.  What I liked about NaNo was that they recognise this tendency people have to lose confidence in what they’re doing, like me, or as you mentioned in your email, to start but then sit and get stuck, re-reading and editing and worrying about it all  and never getting anything done and eventually giving up and moving on to something else.  As you know, that is why they set the 50k in 30 days challenge – the idea being that you do not physically have time to stop and go back over stuff because you have to get at least 1,667 words written every day as well as going about your daily business.  In order to get there you need to accept that a certain amount of stuff will in all likelihood not be very good, and do it anyway – you can go back and fix it later.

Although I didn’t finish in 2009 because work was insane, I got about 15k done and I think I was cured of the notion I’d developed that fiction wasn’t for me.  I also had a strong sense that I probably would have finished if a couple of specific and relatively unusual incidents at work hadn’t got in the way.  Which is good, because the whole time I was growing up “author” was one of my top career choices, refined to “children’s author” when I went to high school.  Then when I reached the age of 15 and realised “author” was unlikely to be my first job, I decided to go for “journalist” and then segue once I had ten years or so of writing for a living under my belt.

NaNo 2010 cured me completely I think.  I guess I’d been resolving to do it for a year, mulling over these ideas of not editing and just writing anything that comes to mind, so by the time it came around it didn’t even occur to me to read back over what I’d done already!  I do genuinely think of editing as a totally separate entity to the initial writing process now, and with 12 books I quite often don’t read back over anything at all.  In fact there are only two scenarios when I read things over again: when I haven’t written for a day or two and can’t quite remember where I left off, or when I’m putting an excerpt on the blog – because I do read back over blog posts and edit them a bit before putting them up.

It also reminded me not to take myself too seriously.  There is no freaking way that the first draft of any novel is going to be the next Moby Dick, War and Peace, or whatever, regardless of how much you’ve planned and researched.  There’s no point in panicking because it isn’t perfect, because if you’re going to give up after the first draft you probably aren’t that passionate about it.  Crafting something literary takes time and effort – writing is a job and you have to work at it.  And anyway, those aren’t the sorts of things I want to write – you remember I said I convinced myself nobody would want to read my stories because they tend towards the silly or glib – but then I thought actually, I’d read them.  I like books that make me laugh, and I can’t be the only one.  Otherwise Terry Pratchett would be out of a job.

12 books has continued the good work of NaNo in helping with creative blocks.  It means I have to force myself to write, to the extent that it feels odd if I haven’t done anything that day, and when I get into the way of it I can get a lot done in one sitting – my WPM has definitely got quicker over the past few months!  And because I’m doing one a month, plus a lot of other short articles at the same time for other blogs and websites on different topics, I never have the chance to get bored with any of them.  I still get frustrated, but that’s often as much because I know exactly how I would fix things if I had the time to do a bit more research or whatever.

Trying to publicise it has also forced me to talk about what I’m doing, which can help a lot when you’re stuck.  I used to be very anxious about sharing anything before it was finished – I couldn’t even sit next to my boyfriend writing out a blog post on my laptop because I felt like it was raw and unfinished and if he happened to read any over my shoulder he would be thinking ‘well that isn’t very good’.  He wouldn’t, of course, but I was paranoid anyway.  But with 12 books I have to talk about it so that people will give me suggestions, and I’ve done a couple of interviews with local news sources about it too, which has helped me lose that fear of somehow failing or people thinking badly of me.  And also, talking about a story and the problems you’re having with it out loud quite often gives you ideas of how to fix it yourself, even before other folk jump in with their suggestions.

The other thing that helps creative blocking is reading lots.  I know it can make you despair at times because you feel there’s no way you’ll ever be as good as whichever author has captured your imagination on any given day, but it can also help you decide who to emulate and who to avoid, it gives you ideas about how you would approach something, and it all feeds in to the imagination lobe of your brain (I don’t think it’s called that but there must be a bit that deals with that type of stuff) and stews in there and recycles itself into new ideas and a better writing style.  It can also make you insanely jealous that someone else has created something so awesome, which can be quite motivational :p

The main thing I would say though is to never ever beat yourself up about not having written anything.  If I was doing that this project would have been over before it began.  Feeling a bit blocked is fine and normal, and it’s OK to give yourself a few days off.  The thing about writing is that even when you aren’t physically doing it, ideas are probably floating around in the back of your mind, whether you’re conscious of them or not.  It’s alright to not get anything down for a while.  But, if you suspect that it’s less a case of not having anything to write and more about being lazy, then just sit down and start.  Start in the middle, or at the end, or with a generic ‘Once upon a time’, and write whatever the hell comes into your head, for at least ten minutes.  Chances are you’ll get into it and keep going for longer than that.  Don’t worry that you have nothing to say – everyone has something.  Something they like or hate, or that they think everyone else should know about; a terrible secret of their own or someone else’s; a funny anecdote; a hope or aspiration.  And if it turns out when you’ve written a few hundred words that actually that isn’t what you wanted to say, that’s OK.  It’s a first draft and it’s up to you whether anyone ever gets to see it.  Just don’t delete it till you’ve gotten the thing you actually meant to say out there on the page.  And backed up.

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Which One Will You Choose..?

It’s the third day of questions courtesy of Elaine from the Dreams and Whispers Blog, and she asks something I’ve never really thought about before… to choose which of my children I love the most!

Today’s question is about the characters in your books. For me as a reader, I find that interesting characters can really make a book brilliant. With you being on your fifth book now, you must have invented and thought about a fair few people, so which of them stand out the most – which two have been your favourite and least favourite so far?

I agree with you that characterisation can make or break a book.  Good characters stay with you and you want to find out more about them – this is presumably why so many authors write in series.  Whereas bad ones can make it difficult to carry on reading (although I’m pretty tenacious – it’s rare that I don’t drag my way kicking and screaming to the end of a book).

So far my favourite character is probably Caligula, if I can legitimately claim him as a character!  I enjoyed trying to get into his mind and second guessing why he did the crazy things that he was meant to have done – that’s the revisionist historian in me trying to come out, I think.  The sources on Caligula are fantastically biased but it makes for interesting reading.

I have a lot of affection for Victor McGlynn as well – he was the main character in the Western and I gave him quite a rough time of it with a pretty sad back story and a not amazing here and now, but he coped with dignity!  I am also really looking forward to writing the main characters in my kids’ book in July, because I’ve been developing them in my head for about two years.

There aren’t any characters I haven’t enjoyed writing at all, but I suppose my least favourite is Jennifer, the protagonist of the last book.  This is partly because I swithered an awful lot over how to write her – this has been the most difficult book so far.

I was trying to write her as a stroppy teenager but I think I may have gone a bit overboard with her lack of empathy and self involvement, so I’ll have to sort that out when I go back to edit it!  Think I should make her a bit more likeable!  Although having said that, Stephanie Meyer didn’t bother making Bella likeable and she did alright.  Maybe I’ll just leave it….

Mister Grumpy

My last email from Andrew of Far too Snug and Twitter fame.  You may remember the other day we spoke of what book shops do with genre fiction and where I would like to be shelved if I was a published author.

I think when you are editing the 12 books you should insert a recurring character. I always meant to do that with a guy called ‘Mister Grumpy’ but I’ve never quite got round to it. This is mainly because when you are trying to sell an individual story to lots of different magazines it doesn’t really make any sense to have a character whose presence is explained in another story.

I think most people write based on an initial idea that develops and snowballs. It isn’t a conscious effort on most people’s parts to think ‘Today I will write a space opera’. However your interests will certainly shape the kind of ideas you have. In your case you have had to do research into the genres you haven’t been as familiar with as others, yes?

Do you feel that writing lots of different genres will actually sharpen your voice, as you will have to find your way of writing each one?

Maybe when you’re published you find yourself having to write a certain way. Madeleine Wickham wrote her  books before finding success with the Shopaholic series under the Sophie Kinsella pen-name, but the latter’s success allowed her to return to her initial interest in writing more Wodehouse-esque novels (which, incidentally, got described as ‘Literary Fiction’ on World Book Night. They seem more like comedies based on the descriptions though).

For example, I have recently read The City and The City by China Mieville and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. Mieville’s previous books have been fantasy/steampunk, so City… was shelved in that section. Raw Shark… was Hall’s first book, and is shelved in Fiction, but there’s certainly overlap between the two to my mind involving conceptual space and the human mind’s compartmentalising of things. Either could be shelved in the other’s section.

Both are very good, by the by.

With that in mind, would you rather be a popular fantasy author who moved into other territories but still got shelved in the same place, or a critically acclaimed Fiction author who dabbles in other genres?


I think that writing in different genres will challenge me and develop my voice in other ways, yes.  I hope it does, anyway.  And of course the more research I do the more likely that is to happen, because reading other books in the genre gives you an understanding of what works, what doesn’t; what has already been done to death and what might benefit from a different spin being put on it.  The main thing that’s come out of this so far is that I need to spend more time reading and absorbing other people’s stories – I perhaps don’t yet know enough to be as clever about things as Dianna Wynne Jones or Neil Gaiman, but I’ll get there!

I think I’d rather be popular than critically acclaimed, to be honest.  I would like to think people were reading my books because they enjoyed them, rather than because they’d been told by a panel of self appointed experts that it was clever or deep.

I don’t think I’m in too much danger of being critically acclaimed though, because my sense of humour comes through in everything I write and unfortunately I do tend towards the silly.  I would edit things out that looked in danger of becoming too serious or po-faced.  That isn’t to say that I don’t write well or have interesting ideas… but I’d rather be Pratchett than Tolkein.  Although if I come out with anything as good as China Mieville does I’ll be insufferably smug.

I do sort of think I’d get annoyed if I got pigeon holed in one genre, but there again it would depend on what that genre was.  I can’t envision writing the same character for 30 crime books, like Ian Rankin or MC Beaton – but if I was writing fantasy, the nature of the genre might well involve overlapping without having to focus on the same protagonist every time.

Freedom to write and do different things is always nice, because if you open yourself up to new experiences it can give you other viewpoints and ideas that work quite well in separate contexts.  As well as writing fiction I do local news journalism, cultural comment and reviews, and the odd comic or illustration; then when I return to 12 books I’ve got different ideas and perspectives to filter in there on top of specific genre research.  However, if I had a character like Harry Potter or Rebus that people really loved and wanted to hear more about, I can’t imagine that I would say no!

In summary – I would like to be popular and able to dabble in a few different genres, but my main hope is that people enjoy reading what I write.  Preferably enough that I can make a living out of it, one day…

Research

I’ve done bugger all research for this book, and as yet I haven’t had time to come up with any sort of outline, let alone a chapter plan. Nevertheless I’ve steamed on and written around 10k so far, most of which is actual fiction as opposed to stream of consciousness padding.  I’m not sure whether my voice comes through in the same way as it has done with the last couple of books, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In the last issue of Mslexia, Susan Hill gave an interview in which she suggested that ‘write what you know’ is a load of old cobblers.  Who would want to read about the minutiae of your daily life, she asks. Surely the point of fiction is to take you away from such mundanity?  Writers ought to use their imagination.

A somewhat cynical look at the already fading Paranormal Romance genre may not be entirely what she was getting at, but a certain amount of imagination is required to write about a teenage vampire.  I’m not immortal, or overly sensitive to UV, and I didn’t spend those formative teen years sucking blood.  Well, not any more than is normal for young persons of that age range.  So most of this is going to have to be made up.

Still, I’m a bit worried about running into clichés.  The imagination is influenced by what you’ve seen and read, which means that the more research I’ve carried out the better because I can avoid doing things that have already been done.  Unfortunately I’m limited to ironic viewings of the Twilight movies, 3 episodes of Being Human, and half a short story.  I am, therefore, a mite concerned that my imagination will tread paths already trod.  Frinstance I have been leaning towards sticking a werewolf in there – like that hasn’t been done to death.

Unless I think of an original twist.  Maybe it could be a werewolf FROM SPACE.  M. Night Shyamalan eat your heart out…

April’s Genre…

… is romance.

Originally I had planned to write some kind of beautiful unrequited love story, but then I thought no, that’s altogether too literary – I’m going to get my paranormal romance on and sell 100 000 e-books like Amanda Hocking

I’m still going to include an element of unrequited love, though.  What better narrative reason is there to keep people apart than having one of them a vampire who cannot reveal his or her true feelings because he or she loves the other person too much to compromise their safety?  And what better way of gearing this towards a Twilight loving audience than have the vampire a fifteen or sixteen year old girl, loving a boy she can never have from afar?  That’s an experience everyone has at some point or another.  Well, except for the being a vampire part.

The only suggestion I’ve had for this month was that the girl should be called Jennifer and that she should work in a dog grooming salon.  I think I will change this slightly so that she has a job walking dogs, ostensibly to earn a bit of extra pocket money but in actual fact to help her blend in and feel more human.  This girl has teen angst to the max.

This decided, all I need to do is conduct a little bit of research into the genre.  An initial Google search in my lunch break led me to the Harlequin website (that’s Mills and Boon), and the rather brilliant first chapter of ‘Demon Seduction’ by Pat White.

Stand-out lines of exposition include:

“back then she was just a girl, terrified by Marcus’s demon cousin who’d wanted to slake his need with a human virgin.”

I hate it when that happens.

“Having been created from human ash of the Great Fire of Rome, Ash could assume human form better than any other creature of the dark realm.”

As documented by Pliny and Tacitus, no less.  This author is quite the classicist!  Well, that or she read the Wikipedia entry, like I did.

“His mission was to fill her with his demon seed against her will, the very act he’d defended her from when she was but sixteen.”

Is this a good time to mention that whilst I love romance, I can’t take it seriously?  I feel this will add to the challenge.

Some excellent dialogue in the tale included:

“Mickey, you wanker, what’d you do that for?”

Which I think was to reemphasise that the story is set in Engerland, and:

“Go find yourself a husband to take care of you.”

This places our heroine as a frustrated feminist trying to make it in a man’s world – we later find out she also wears baggy jeans and army boots.  FYI, that means it’s OK for her to become a sort of sex doormat later on.  So what if she allows herself to be seduced by a poorly characterized Ash Demon?  That doesn’t mean she’s conforming to a stereotype, if anything she’s breaking it by defying the expected spinster/dyke path.

 And so what if she flunked out of uni because she was busy lurking around in thickets searching for demons to kill in order to win her father’s grudging respect/love?  She doesn’t need all men to validate her, just her disinterested, misogynistic old pa.  Is that so wrong?  Of course not.

I don’t think this is quite the type of tale I’m aiming for, though.  The nearly having sex but not quite scene is right there in chapter two; all inappropriate nudey fairy statue stroking and nipples akimbo. Stephanie Meyer doesn’t reach that point till three books in!  I have severe doubts about my ability to write a non-comedy sex scene, so I think I’ll probably follow her example.

This will involve looking out a few of the more popular paranormal romance / dark fantasy (is there a difference?) authors, I suppose.  Popular authors at the library where I used to work included P.C.Cast, Charlaine Harris, Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon.  Anybody know any more?  I’d be particularly interested in short stories and flash fiction, just because of time constraints…

The Social Network

Yesterday I dedicated a not inconsiderable amount of time to attempting to get the 12 Books in 12 Months Facebook page more ‘likes’ – 100 by 10pm, as a matter of fact.  I failed.

However, some nice people did help out, and I think you should check out their work to help me say thanks.

Props to my lovely retweeters:

– Kirsty Wilkinson is an Edinburgh-based genealogist.  She runs her own business called My Ain Folk, and if you are looking to find out about your family tree, she can almost certainly help.  Her blog, The Professional Descendant, covers all kinds of information about genealogy and family history, and of course you can also follow her on twitter.

– Emma Livingstone is studying for an MA in publishing at the University of the Arts in London.  She blogs about publishing, arts, music and culture here, and you can also follow her on twitter.  And if you’re good, maybe one day she’ll help you get your book published…

– Sam Kurd is a writer and philosopher who reviews sci-fi and fantasy games, books and telly for places like Den of Geek, Sci-Fi Heaven and  Cirque Des Geeks.  He has also recently started work on a film script.  Follow him on the twitter too.

And thanks to the people who helped me get from 85 to a more respectable 97 – Rab, Ian, Rachel, Juliet (aka The Crafty Green Poet), Bob, Alastair (overlord of STV Local North Edinburgh and Greener Leith), Emily (Jewellery Designer), Caro, Ellen (St Andrews Uni DoSDA contender 2011/12) and Cougar.  If any of you want any links publicizing, let me know!

I appreciate that Facebook is deeply annoying in a lot of respects, but social networking feels like a pretty crucial part of getting this project into the public domain and that makes it a necessary evil.  So please keep liking the 12 Books page and spreading the word through the power of stalkerfeed!  Books 4-12 will thank you!

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