Writing Realities No-one Tells You About

Once upon a time it was easy to picture Jack Kerouac hiding in a cabin, on the corner of Wilderness and Misanthropy. Today, writing as a solitary pursuit is no longer the norm. Editors want to collaborate and writing groups are around to offer their opinion, and in many ways, it’s beneficial. However, there are certain truths about the writer’s life that can’t be escaped – even if you have the greatest, most forgiving support network around you.

Here’s a list of the main ones:

You won’t find another person as excited about your unfinished story idea as you.

You have an interesting plot, fascinating themes you’re exploring and characters so well-drawn (in your mind, at least) that they seem to have a will of their own. You’ve made a heap of progress, and desperately want to tell other people about it in the hope they will jump up and down in giddy elation for you.

Except … nobody cares. No, seriously – even the ones who are Academy-Award-contention good at acting don’t care. They will smile at you and nod, blank-eyed, but they will not care that, while Timmy is trapped at the bottom of the well, he finds an alternate dimension akin to Water World and he’ll become the emperor of the mermaids and it’s the best idea EVER, LIKE, LITERALLY. Even Stephen King’s friends would love to shove a bagel in his face hole to shut him up.

The reason this is the case is simple: the many disparate elements of a story are confusing, overwhelming and sometimes plain yawn-inducing to most people, including writers. Members of your writers’ group may offer you sound advice and show enthusiasm that is genuine, but they are looking at your whole story through a microscope, and having you explain the whole premise to them will only slow down your progress. You are pretty much alone with your story – as the ultimate decision-maker on plot points and as your personal cheerleader.

You won’t be taken seriously until you outsell the titans.

‘Big Exciting Publishers have picked up my manuscript!’ you shout at anyone who doesn’t ask.

‘Awesome/Amazing/How exciting!’ the masses cry.

Editing. Revision. Editing. Revision. Proofreading. Printing.

Launch party.

‘Let me sign this copy of my book you bought, Nan/Dad/Aunt Shirley from New Hampshire who came down especially for this momentous occasion!’ you say, signing your name with a flourish.

‘What a terrific/grand/wonderful achievement!’ the masses reply, clutching their new favourite novel.

Days pass. Weeks. Months. You get a few well-worded reviews on Goodreads. Mum asks how many copies you’ve sold and is shocked to learn you are not on the New York Times best-seller list. The fanfare peters out. Your publishers lose faith and don’t offer you a contract for three more novels. You shuffle back to your desk to write something better.

‘What are you up to these days/Got a real job yet?’ the masses ask, concerned.

‘Of course not. I’m a writer! I’m a published author!’ you insist.

‘But not really,’ they whisper. ‘You’re not a proper one, like J.K. Rowling/Neil Gaiman/that Patterson guy who gets his interns to write his novels so he can go fishing. But, hey – you gave it a shot!’

TL;DR: you will constantly have to legitimise your work. Real writers write every day, whether they are being paid or not. But it is not viewed by the wider population as a profession because it rarely comes with a salary/benefits/opportunities to move up to larger projects. Your scribbling in a greasy spoon diner for three hours every other day is definitely work in your mind, but not to others.

You are not intellectually superior to anybody.

This one might seem left of field, but ego is something I encounter frequently in writing circles (not among my writer friends, I must stress). Sure, writers tend to me more observant and well-read than other people, but it’s nothing to brag about and it certainly doesn’t make you cleverer than anybody else – no matter how successful you are.

‘Oh, I’ve had nine short stories published and my manuscript has been picked up by an agent; I think I’ve got this writing thing down.’

‘True. But that won’t fix the fucking chasm of a plot hole you have in Chapter 13 here, old pal.’

You should always be open to learning new things to do with your craft. Those who excel in their respective field do so because they acknowledge they don’t know everything, despite their experience, and the landscape is ever-changing. There is no limit to your growth, so try to listen to advice, criticism and warnings from others, take it on board and decide if it will benefit you to accept it.

Only you can get yourself out of a plot hole.

Being bogged down with minute details in a story is one of the most frustrating things about the process. You’re convinced your novel/screenplay/space opera is trying to kill you with a combination of panic attacks, insomnia and perpetual headache. You find yourself in a random place, weeping from fatigue and the genuine belief all your hard work has been in vain.

Desperate, you reach out to your writing comrades:

‘PLEASE. PLEASE HELP ME WITH THIS DETAIL/SUBPLOT/CHARACTER!!!’ (Read: ‘Please write my novel for me or I shall perish.’)

Time for some cold hard truth. For the same reason that nobody cares about your unfinished story, nobody can throw you a rope and remove you from your dire situation. You, and only you, can get your story back on track. It’s a sobering thought – isolating and debilitating, if you handle it with the wrong attitude.

Take the age-old advice you constantly hear from one source or another: step away from the project for awhile. Let the story sit in the back of your mind, bubbling away like a potion. Read/watch other things and try to find some inspiration. Often the solution will present itself, but when it doesn’t, your only option is to make a decision and stick with it. If Timmy is allergic to water, make the alternate dimension a land in the sky. If the mermaids don’t cooperate (i.e. fall into line with the plot points), torch the buggers.

We get so caught up with our ideas, and fall so desperately in love with tiniest little details, that we forget the writer is the boss of the story. It is absolutely okay to eliminate something if it is not working. Nobody knows what the story could have been, remember?

See the first point; they don’t care.

The Author is Not Dead.

I’ve returned after a year of silence with a rant. See, six months out of 2015 was dedicated to my first year of study at university, which exposed me to various discourses and ideologies (and also taught me words like ‘discourse’ and ‘ideology’). Don’t fret; I’m not about to try and teach you anything (though I intend to be a qualified teacher by the end of my double degree). Instead, I want to talk about one thing that really got my goat.

Roland Barthes introduced the death of the author to the world in the late 1960’s. ‘The author is dead’ essentially means that the intentions of the person/s who created a piece of art are not relevant when it comes to understanding said artwork. In other words, it doesn’t matter what Emily Bronte was trying to tell us when she penned ‘Wuthering Heights’ – the only thing that counts is how you can effectively dissect it, what underlying meaning you can find evidence of.

This was a revolutionary concept in the day, and probably felt quite freeing to bibliophiles (‘I can have my own opinion on the meaning of this novel? Huzzah!’). My real disdain towards this comes not for the general overlooking of the author’s motivation (though that is a tough pill to swallow), but how poorly this idea has translated in this here Tumblr age of people/trolls heading to cyber space with the sole aim of starting a fight.

Take Love Actually. I saw this film when I was seventeen and belly-laughed my way through it. Hugh Grant whining, ‘Ooooh, would we call her chubby?’ is something I quote to myself randomly, frequently, and still chuckle about. That being said, it appears that the internet’s populace does not share my enthusiasm for this ensemble piece.

The feminists have a problem with it. ‘None of these women speak!’ one blogger complained. ‘It’s a piece of patriarchal garbage.’

It’s true – I checked. Not only is there a foreign female who is only understood (by the English-speaking audience, I should point out) at the end when declaring her love to Colin Firth (and by God would he be motivation to learn an entire language), but every other female character – with the exception of those portrayed by Laura Linney and Emma Thompson – are little more than glorified set pieces. So I understand where the perception comes from, and they’re absolutely entitled to complain about it.

But.

You may have noticed a pattern with Richard Curtis’s films. What do Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, About Time and Love Actually have in common? They are all about men who are emotionally retarded, stereotypically British in the sense that they have a lot of trouble accessing, understanding or expressing their feelings.

Andrew Lincoln does not, I repeat NOT, stalk Keira Knightly in the latter film. If you’ve seen the whole film, it’s pretty clear that he does all he can to avoid her, while appreciating her from a distance. And the famous declaration-of-love placard scene is not an attempt to nab his best friend’s wife. One of those damn things actually has the words ‘[let me say] without hope or agenda’, for Barthes’ sake. Sometimes people need to get their feelings off their chests so they can move on. He even leaves after she kisses him, and he never intimidates her or coerces her into doing anything she doesn’t want to do.

This is why I say the author is not dead. Aside from the fact that – at the time of my posting this – Richard Curtis is alive and well, this determined hoard of argumentative people would have a lot less trouble controlling their blood pressure if they were to take a step back and consider, if only for a second, what the writer was trying to say within the context of the story. You can certainly argue about whether or not they succeeded in their aim, which is the basis of all good critiquing.

Yes, Love Actually is a male-centric film, but there is an almost even ratio of male to female speaking roles, which has become an unnerving rarity in more recent films. Yes, Love Actually has people occasionally behaving in a dodgy manner, but it’s a comedy, and it does its best work when it’s making fun of itself. Yes, Love Actually is not the best film ever, but it is Richard Curtis doing what Richard Curtis does best: creating portraits of the English male that are identifiable and entertaining.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what you want from two hours of escapism?

Here’s an overview for those just skimming this post (a TL; DR, if you will): if you’re seeking out films in order to complain about a lack of representation, fine. You are welcome to like or despise a film for any reason. But I believe it’s unfair to call a film bad just because it doesn’t align with your ideologies. That is not how quality is decided.

Every Episode Of: ‘2 Broke Girls’

1. INT. DINER – NIGHT

Caroline counts tip money at the register. Max stands around, avoiding work.

CAROLINE: Being poor sucks! Wah, wah, wah!

MAX: Vagina Joke!

Han approaches the girls.

HAN: I’m just here because I look funny.

MAX: Short Joke!

Oleg sticks his head through the server’s window.

OLEG: I wish someone hot would walk in so I can make suggestive comments about them.

The diner door opens. Sophie walks in wearing a bandage dress.

AUDIENCE: Stifler’s mom!

MAX: Another Vagina Joke! Also, I’m kind of a slut.

OLD BLACK GUY: Yeah, I’m in this scene.

CAROLINE: I still can’t believe this is my life. Even though our apartment has a backyard. And a horse.

MAX: SLUTTY VAGINA!

CUT TO: END CREDITS

‘White Oleander’ Author: What Makes Greatness?

Thought-provoking.

Janet Fitch's Blog

This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
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 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
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The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
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I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
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1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a…

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On Empathy

Certain skills are required to write professionally. While the internet is rife with lists and tips to improve the standard of your work, few — if any — cite empathy as a useful aide.

Empathy is necessary on two levels:

1) the writer must understand their characters in order to capture their motivations and portray their emotions convincingly;

and 2) the reader must empathise with the characters or she/he will lose interest in your story (no matter how unique or epic it is).

If the reader needs to empathise with characters in order to truly engage with a story (and they do), how does a writer go about cultivating empathy?

empathyshoes_by_veracallahan

I’ve been an empath all my life. I feel other people’s pain intensely and have always been able to “put myself in their shoes”. It comes naturally to me, but it doesn’t for others. That’s okay; growing as a person is beneficial to you growing as a writer.

So, if you’re prepared to try something new, here’s a list of approaches you could use to get to know your characters better.

  • Try to understand each character’s perspective on a situation. Make up an event — regardless of whether it belongs in your novel/screenplay — and put all your characters in the situation. How does each person feel about what has transpired?
    E.g. a family arrives home from a holiday to find their house on fire. What do the parents think compared to the children? Who reacts first? What do they do?
  • Be your character for a day. This one I recall reading on a screenwriting website. Motivation is everything. Take a character that’s giving you trouble — say a minor character who doesn’t get much screen time but has some significance to the plot. Go about your daily errands but pretend you’re the character. You might speak politely to telemarketers, but the character might scoff and hang up. Do it. Knowing how a person operates on a daily basis reveals how they might influence your story.
  • Complete character profiles. There are thousands of these online. Find one that is in-depth and allows you to think about a character’s history, family, habits, fears and desires. All of these things inform their decision-making and even their personality.
  • Eliminate over-achievers. This is strictly for your protagonist. Nobody likes a know-it-all or a show off; save these traits for the villain of the piece. Your main character should be a notch above ordinary, and not a shade more. If they’re good at anything, they should be unaware or embarrassed about it.
    Please note: they don’t have to be modest — but they do have to be real.

Try taking a walk in someone else’s shoes, and see how your story develops.

NaNoWriMo: a Recap

I’ve been absent for a few weeks, but for good reason this time: throughout November I (unofficially) participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

I’d never attempted NaNo before, which requires writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I set a personal goal to run alongside the main objective of the challenge: to complete the story arc of my novel, regardless of the final word count.

I’m pleased to say I wrote 40,000 words and got all my characters from point A to B, alive and unscathed (mostly). But rather than pat myself on the back in a public forum, I want to share what I learnt about the writing process, and myself as a writer.

  1. YA is brilliant

I’m one of only a couple of people in my group of writing buddies who writes YA. The literary community tends to sneer (sorry – there’s no other word for it) at writers who dedicate themselves exclusively to YA. I don’t really care, because I don’t write for the critics – I write for myself, and for readers who would potentially enjoy my work.

Why am I telling you this? Because I thought about writing an adult novel during NaNo, but it immediately felt wrong. If I could offer any advice to budding novelists, it’s to write what you are passionate about.

Half the battle of NaNo is finding motivation to keep typing when you’re stuck midway through chapter three and can’t figure out what should happen next. Knowing your subject or genre is unbelievably helpful. Yes, you may fall into using cliché ideas or images, but that only becomes your concern later – during editing.

YA has everything – angst, romance, drama, comedy, heartbreak – and is incredibly versatile, allowing for genre to be blended in seamlessly. It’s accessible and engaging, and I’m more than happy to tell people that I write YA predominately, in prose and script form.

  1. Have a story idea going in

Several enthusiastic writers may sit back while the impending start day approaches, thinking, ‘I’ll just start writing something and see what happens.’ This is the most efficient way of quitting after the first week.

Plan something. At least have a list of significant characters, settings and an outline of the major events in the story plot. Letting the story ferment for an extended period prior to writing will allow the narrative to unfold automatically.

My novel idea was devised over four years ago. I’d attempted to write it once before, and only got to 12,000 words. I’ve carried the events, characters and themes with me for so long that, even when I changed major details or turning points, I was able to continue writing, virtually interrupted.

  1. Yes we can!

With respect to President Obama, this catch-cry is just as applicable to anyone readying themselves to hike up Mount NaNo. It is a mental battle (1,666 words per day is daunting at best), and a physical test of endurance, if you can believe that (I pretty much wrote, ate and slept for the whole month – and lost three kilos).

The key is not to look at the peak, thinking you’ll never make it. Take it one day at a time and know your limits. If you feel unwell (my eye-condition flared up on Day 8, resulting in a persistent, strong headache) try to work through it (I wrote 1400 words on paper the next day, just so I could have a break from my computer).

It’s also important to reward yourself. On five separate days I wrote between 2500–3200 words. For the 24 hour period following these individual instances, I wrote less than the daily required word count, because I was already ahead. Be kind to yourself and don’t diminish your achievements along the way; it all helps keep you motivated.

I personally discovered that I can write everyday – even when I’m in a bad mood or am not particularly enjoying the story.

  1. Prose bores me to death

I started writing short stories and novellas when I was 16. At the time, I was book-obsessed, consuming novels like they were due to be thrown on top of a pyre by radical Christians at any moment. When I finished high school, things changed. Without daily access to a library, I quickly became invested in TV and films.

Long story short, over a decade, I became fascinated with screenplays, and through studying them, grew to love the brevity in their structure. It fed into my appreciation for dialogue, too, and so it became the most comfortable medium for me to write in.

I had been writing screenplays exclusively up until a few months ago. But going back to prose writing for a novel was not the simple gear-change I’d anticipated. It was a grind, and on some days I felt like throwing the entire story out, or turning it into a script.

The one thing that kept me going was the promise I’d made to loved ones that I’d give NaNo all of my energy. I’m really pleased I finished my novel (draft one of it, at least), but the process definitely woke me up to an unshakeable truth …

  1. I’m a screenwriter

I’ve always been a visual person, attracted to photography, art and the moving image. The film medium captures nuances I couldn’t hope to capture in prose. That’s what draws me in as a storyteller: those moments between characters where intentions are conveyed in a look; the settings you spend pages describing that are presented in five seconds of footage; that instant connection between the audience and a new reality.

I did not set out to write a wordy screenplay when I wrote my novel. I made every effort to stay inside the protagonist’s mind and to slow down the pace. But the NaNo experience made it even more apparent how much my style has changed. As a result, my novel has an action-based narrative, divided into short chapters that play out more like scenes.

I cannot shake my need to be concise, to include only details that are relevant to the story, and to keep things visual (even though all of these things may be to the detriment of a novel).

In conclusion, NaNo was a learning experience – gruelling but ultimately rewarding. I look forward to polishing my novel and sharing it with the world one day.

But I can’t wait to get back to my screenplays next year.

What was your NaNoWriMo experience like?

Signing Up For NaNo

I’ve already told everyone I know that I’m unofficially participating in NaNoWriMo in a few days.

I wondered, however, if anyone reading this has done NaNo previously, and what the benefits of being signed up are. Were you successful in your endeavours?

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

 

Cheers,

V.