Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Real Writer’s Block

It’s difficult to understand why I decided I wanted to be a writer. Whenever a successful author is asked to give one piece of advice to the masses it’s always the same – “just don’t do it.” Discouraging? Yes. But true? Certainly. Once you’ve spent a couple of months trying to write professionally you quickly realise just how tough it really is.

You realise that it’s not quite as simple as sitting down and writing a fully-fledged novel. That book you’ve just read that seemed to flow so well, was so organic and captivating and real, that didn’t just spring fully formed from a printer a few weeks or even a few months ago. It was designed. Every scene was crafted in a particular way using tried and tested techniques, every character created specifically to influence the reader’s emotions, to tug their thoughts this way and that in the most economic and effective way possible. It’s a wonder all successful writers don’t receive honorary degrees in psychology.

And it takes motivation. Easy for some, not so easy for others (like myself, for example). In November 2009 I was one of many thousands who undertook National Novel Writing Month, wherein I accepted the challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That’s an average of 1,667 words every day. It made my University dissertations look puny in comparison. But I managed it, eventually. Now consider that this novel was for personal gratification and not written to a standard worthy of public consumption. It took me three months to get Heavenbloom into a state that was vaguely publishable, and that was only 7,000 words long. Add in the fact that most novels weigh in at 100,000 words rather than a mere 50,000 and generally come with a four to six month writing deadline from their publishers and you’re starting to get an idea of why the best of the best say “just don’t do it.”

So you overcome these obstacles and have a piece of work you think people will want to read. Now what? Yet more obstacles. The big-selling, Waterstones-stocking publishers don’t accept work from just anybody, they take writings approved and marketed by the best editors in the business. And how do you get one of these editors to champion you? Simple, just have a piece of work that’s really impressive, and hopefully a track record of good sales. But how do you get sales if nobody will accept your work because you haven’t got an editor? That’s the REAL writer’s block! To write you need the mentality of a man willing to attack an iceberg with a pickaxe. A really big, ship-sinking iceberg. And a really small, blunt pickaxe. Just don’t do it.

If all this is true then why have I wanted to be a writer since age eleven? If I’d known then how much effort it would take would I have still wanted to be one? The answer is yes, of course! I’ve always wanted to be a writer because I enjoy writing! I’ve yet to hear of a successful author who doesn’t. Why do those authors say don’t do it when it comes to writing? Because the majority of people don’t like being told their work is crap 4/5ths of the time, and don’t like being paid in pennies 1/5th of the time. But if that doesn’t apply to you, if you write first and foremost because it’s fulfilling, then do it, do it, do it. There ARE publishers out there who will give you a chance, who look for hard workers and not just the big names, AND are willing to pay! Don’t give up. Because you know the second piece of advice those successful authors always give the hopefuls – when in doubt, just keep on writing”

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Meet New People – It’s Character Building!

I wrote the article below on character creation for the Seattle Examiner earlier this year. Since I’ve now got a blog, and there’s not a contract in sight concerning my writings for that online magazine, I thought hey, reprint time!

The concept of character creation appears to hold near-mythical status amongst those not familiar with the dark arts of authorship, to the extent that just today I read that someone is suing an author for using them in a book. The author didn’t really use them, but the character in their story is apparently so like the real life person that they feel entitled on getting a cut of the book’s profits. So just where do the characters that populate our books come from?

There is, sadly, no single answer. Each writer has their own way of building the personalities their tales revolve around, and one thing may not work for another. A common misconception seems to be that writers simply use the people that they know in real life. In a way this is true, but it’s considerably more complex than just that. Characters in books are, upon close examination, quite different from real people. They often perform actions no normal person would contemplate in order to further the story’s plot, and whilst good writers often manage to disguise these unaccountable, unnatural thought processes it still stands to reason that nobody you’ve ever met would act in such a way.

In a similar vein characters often come across as having “exaggerated” or stereotypical personalities. The villain, packed full of despicable traits, or heroic protagonist. The dim-witted brute. The jaded detective. The murderer with the eyes as cold as ice. We accept these stereotypes when we read them because we’ve come across them so many times before – they make us feel comfortable, and they allow us to understand the character without the writer having to waste time going into details. But how many of the people you know with ice-blue eyes are also murderers?

They say it’s impossible to dream about something new. You had a dream about a unicorn? No, you had a dream about a horse and a horn and your brain combined them for you. You think you’re dreaming about someone you’ve never met, but look closer – he’s got the nose of the guy you passed in the street, the ears of your barber, spots like the teenager living next door. For me character creation is the same principal.

I have never met someone I consider to be fit character material for a story. Rather, I take the most exaggerated aspects of the people I know in real life, jumble them up, use them, and recycle them. I know a girl with startlingly pale blue eyes. Those eyes have been used for half-dozen ruthless special agents, snipers and assassins. Does she share any other traits with ruthless special agents, snipers or assassins? No, of course not, so it’s just her eyes that get used. Another person I know has loads of freckles. That’s fairly distinctive, I’ll use it. Her hair is brown though, not enough to make a character memorable, so I’ll take the thatched-straw blond of a third friend and incorporate that as well. In this way the artificial characters needed to populate my story are cobbled together from real life. They’re my little Frankenstein monsters, my patchwork people.

This is just one way of doing it, and doubtless there are as many variations as there are writers in the world. But we are all are trying to achieve the same end – we must take something artificial and invented, then make it act in a way that appears wholly natural. In this way the writer is tricking the reader into believing that they are following the tales of real, living, breathing persons. How the writer goes about this is their own special secret. One piece of advice though – it’s maybe not best to tell your friends if you’re using their traits for world’s next supervillain. Break it to them gently.

So, er, if you could build a secret lair anywhere in the world…

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The Easiest Job in the World

“I’ve decided I’m going to be a writer,” she said, beaming. I laughed. The beam faded somewhat.

“What’s so funny about that?”

“You can’t…” I faltered, struggling to get across the enormity of what she’d just oh-so lightly suggested. “You can’t just ‘be a writer.’”

“Why not?”

Why not indeed? I was lying, of course. Anyone can be a writer. The particular person in my example could probably be quite a good one, especially with screen plays. But the lie I told her when I said she couldn’t just ‘be a writer’ was well intentioned. It was an attempt to help her understand what is so often misunderstood. Writing is neither a) a sure way to riches nor b) as easy as it looks. The most important thing to bear in mind about writing (or at least the writing spoken of by my friend) is that it is, and will always be, a business. And businesses have rules and regulations that need to be learned, codes and conducts which have to be adhered to. Businesses are run by professionals and they must, if they are to continue to exist, have profits.

Cynicism, I hear you cry! You need plenty of it if you’re going to be a writer. There’s a side to the publishing industry that Joe Public doesn’t know about. On the outside looking in they see someone like Stephenie Meyer have a crazy dream one night, sit down at a laptop, writer 100,000 words, send them to a publisher and BANG, there’s a book contract, a load of money and film deals thrown in for good measure. She is one in a gazillion. You are not going to be the person that gets that lucky. Take a deep breath, smile, and accept it.

Acceptance, that’s something else you’ll need a lot of if you’re going to be a writer. You need to accept your limitations and accept failure. If you cannot accept rejection you will never, ever become a writer. We all get rejected. No exceptions.

Some stats should help sober you up. I don’t know what the sources for these are, but I’ve seen them in a few places and they sound like pretty fair guesses to me. Globally around 500,000 new books are published each year. That means in a world of 7 billion people 1 in every 14,000 has a book published every year. Of those 500,000 writers only 2% will sell over 500 copies. So 10,000 people, 1/700000 of the world’s population, every year, are successful in their ambition to become or continue to be a writer. The other 98% of works published rapidly fade into obscurity. And those are the ones that have been PUBLISHED. Of the works that have failed to reach print, or remain  only half finished, or are nothing more than an embryo of thought in their author’s head, well, who can say how great their numbers are?

I knew those facts when my friend, out of blue, told me she wanted to be a writer last week. That was why I laughed. I shouldn’t have. I gave her the advice I was given when I first started out, the advice given to all the young writer wannabes. Don’t do it. And I’m sure she thought the exact same thing I did when I heard those arch words of defeatism.

Pfft. Don’t do it? What a con. Writing looks like the easiest job in the world!

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Funny Looks

I set this up a few months ago because people kept giving me funny looks when I told them I was a writer but I didn’t have a blog. I already get enough funny looks just at the “I’m a writer” bit, so I decided to do what I could to cut down on incredulity. Apparently the fact I’m a writer means I love writing and want to write all the time, so I’ll naturally have a writey writer’s blog full of mundane writerish posts and complaints about editorial deadlines.

Someone, probably one of the incredulous bunch, or maybe that deadline-sadist editor, also mentioned publicity. When the default text beneath the blog’s headline is “just another site” you’ve got to wonder whether “publicity” is the right word – if I amassed all the “I’m a Writer” blog users together I suspect we could form our own hyper-creative, grammatically anal, comma obsessed little country. Being heard above the discordant opus of the blogosphere looks to be a task as daunting as, well, actually getting that novel published.

But I’m not only a budding, tryhard author wannabe, I’m also a student. And I can tell you that the stereotypes are true. I’ve got both a “what the hell, why not” attitude and a lot of spare time. So much time that I’ve actually just written my first blog post. Go me.


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