Now I'm 29
Sorry I'm late (again). In my defence, I've recently gone through a significant life change. Brace yourselves: I have just entered the last year of my twenties.
I know – shocking, isn't it?
Well, actually it is shocking. I remember looking ahead to the distant day when I'd reach the grand old age of 30, envisioning all the things I'd have achieved by then. And now I have less than a year left before that milestone arrives. The question is, have I actually done anything I thought I was going to do?
As always, it seems far easier to bring to mind everything that hasn't happened as I intended it to. (People are good at beating themselves up that way.) For example, when I was thirteen or fourteen I fondly imagined that by the time I was in my twenties I would be confident, poised, glamorous and outgoing. I had visions of myself swanning around in discreetly expensive clothes, displaying charm and wit and generally being wonderful. My house would be full of beautiful things and look as though it had sprung straight from the pages of a lifestyle magazine, and I would know how to deal with every social situation I came across without blushing like a radish and stumbling over my words.
Cue undignified snort.
Funny how when we're in our teens, we think becoming an adult will somehow give us a personality transplant. Truth is, I'm still the mildly awkward, scruffy geek I always was – only now I don't mind. I should never have aspired to all that superficial outward polish. I should have aspired to what I actually ended up with: pride in who I am. Maybe if we took the time to examine our longstanding hopes for ourselves and our lives, we'd realise how many of them come from outward expectation and social convention – from what other people think is worth having, rather than what we've chosen for ourselves.
So let's set aside the things I thought I wanted, and cut down to the core: the things I'd still choose if I were to re-evaluate my ambitions today. When I look at that list, it turns out I've achieved more than I thought. I have a master's degree and a job that's genuinely interesting. I have my own house, even if it is a lot more, shall we say, cluttered than the one I envisaged when I was younger. I have a wonderful partner and a baby on the way. I have a lot. Yet there's one thing that still stands out, my first and deepest ambition: the only thing I really want beyond what I already have. And if you know me at all then you probably already know what it is.
I want to be a published author.
That's the killer – the one goal I haven't achieved and the one I've never stopped wanting. I've wanted it ever since I was six and wrote my first book (about a flying rabbit with superpowers). Of course, back then I thought it was going to be easy. As I've been climbing the mountain it's got steeper and steeper, the summit harder to reach, but I've also picked up the tools I need along the way. And I suppose that's the point, isn't it? When I was younger it was easy to set myself these goals, because I didn't have a clear idea of what they would involve. I thought I could reach the mountaintop armed with nothing more than a raincoat and a light snack. Over the years – as I've slipped and fallen, taken detours, and sometimes stopped for months at a time to enjoy the view – I've come to recognise the extent of my former ignorance. But I've also, slowly and steadily, equipped myself with the knowledge and experience I need to finish the climb.
So there it is. I've still got a year to get to the top, and I think I'm ready at last to make the final ascent. Fingers crossed I'll see you up there. In the meantime, we could all do worse than take a moment to be proud of what we are, what we've already done and what we believe we'll achieve in the future.
Due to birthday-related shenanigans, Write Every Day tips will be back next week.
I'd better start with a proviso: I'm not one of those people who thinks films and books are essentially the same thing and therefore require exactly the same set of skills to write. I'm well aware that the two media have different abilities, conventions and limitations. All the same, there are useful lessons that writers can learn from the movies – and here are some of them.
1. Show, don't tell
Yes, I know it's the most basic 'rule' we as writers have. Yes, I know it can sometimes be usefully broken. But if you're struggling with the concept of showing rather than telling, it might be helpful to think about film as a medium. Because 'show, don't tell' is precisely what a film does.
How do we know a character in a film is angry? By how he looks, what he says and what he does. How do we learn what someone's personality is like? By seeing her in a series of situations and getting to know how she reacts. You'll never hear a character who's experiencing a strong emotion yell 'I'm so angry!' or sob 'I'm so unhappy!' And (most of the time) you'll never see a character turn to the camera and tell you who they are, what they like doing and what's their greatest flaw. So if you want to show rather than tell, imagine your character in a movie. If they wouldn't naturally say a particular line out loud in that context, don't write it as part of their POV.
Incidentally, writers can go one better than filmmakers here – because we can describe a character's situations and reactions using all the senses, not just hearing and sight. Get it right, and your scene can be even richer and more immersive than it would be on film.
2. Cut the backstory
A two-hour film leaves no room for lengthy setup or exposition. Most of the time, the audience is thrown into the action and expected to work it out as they go along. This is particularly relevant to sci-fi and fantasy authors, who often feel as though they need to explain everything to their readers up front. In that sense, filmmakers tend to give their audience more credit than writers do. People don't want or need all the details of how a world works before they even get into the first scene. They can figure it out for themselves.
3. What you don't say can convey more than what you do
A good actor can make one speaking glance worth a whole paragraph of dialogue. Likewise, a good writer can say in a single sentence what someone else might have taken a whole paragraph to get across. Guess which one has more impact?
In a way, this is another example of 'give your readers more credit'. People are very good at picking up the subtleties and reading the subtext. And anything has more impact when it's used sparingly than when it's scattered all over the place like confetti.
4. Don't let the special effects drive the narrative
I'm sure we can all think of films that are stuffed full of special effects but have little in the way of plot, realistic characters or emotional heart. There are plenty of ways that this comes up in writing, too. Strings of gratuitous action/sex scenes with little to hold them together, for example. Or details of a fantasy world crammed in for the sake of it rather than because they're relevant to the characters at that moment. Even clever structural devices or a love of flamboyant language can become 'special effects' if they're allowed to take precedence over the story itself. Whether you're dealing with a book or a film, it's the characters' journey that the audience will remember in the end.
5. No-one will notice the deleted scenes
We've probably all been there: agonising for hours about cutting a particular scene from a book. We know it needs to go, for reasons of length or structure or plot. But we're convinced that everyone who reads the book will get to that point and see the gaping hole where the scene used to be.
If you ever find yourself in that situation, just think of a DVD. You've watched the film itself, and now you turn to the extras and start watching the deleted scenes. Did you notice their absence while you were watching the film? Can you even remember where half of them should fit? Probably not – because what you saw was the finished product. You weren't aware that the deleted scenes ever existed, and so you didn't miss them. That's what editing is all about.
That's it from me, but I'm sure there are other lessons that writers can learn from the movies (and indeed vice versa). Please feel free to add them in the comments section!
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a scene from your book and imagine it's going to be filmed. Now describe the scene: what happens on camera, what the characters say, details of the setting. Make sure you restrict yourself to only what the audience will experience – in other words, any explanatory or inferential text is out.
When you've finished, read back through the scene. What's it like? Is there anything in it you can use?
The importance of being pedantic
As some of you know, I'm an editor as well as a writer. Getting the right words in the right order is how I make my living. Which is why I get the tiniest bit annoyed when I hear aspiring authors say things like this: "I'm not too bothered about my spelling/punctuation/grammar [delete as applicable]. I know it's not very good, but a proofreader can sort it out."
Great. I'm glad you want to give a fellow professional some work. But at the same time, speaking as a writer … really? You're happy to let someone else decide what your words mean?
Spelling, punctuation and grammar are like the stage directions in a play. Without them, the actors all face forward and speak their lines without any shade of inflection or meaning. If you want to convey exactly what you had in mind when you wrote your words, you have to get these basic things right. It isn't a matter of being pedantic for the sake of it. It's a matter of being pedantic in order to make sure your meaning is understood.
In a similar vein, I've noticed a tendency for people to dismiss errors in their work as 'typos'. Fine, if they genuinely have made one or two spelling errors here and there. Even if you get five different people to read through your work, there's bound to be at least one mistake you and they all overlook. But consistent misspellings or misuse of apostrophes? They're not typos. They're tools being wielded incorrectly. If you met a carpenter who referred to his constant failure to craft a tight-fitting joint as a 'slip', or a plumber who described her recurring inability to fix a leak as a 'minor error', you'd assume they were incompetent. So why is it OK for a writer not to possess the full set of basic skills they need for their own particular trade?
I'm not saying that people shouldn't make mistakes, nor that they should be born knowing everything. Both are impossible. But what I do object to is an attitude that says I don't need to learn any of this stuff, because it's not important. Some people seem to think that an ability to write well is a natural talent and, as such, they don't have to work for it. Yet in taking that approach, they're confusing aptitude and technique. A professional in any craft needs both. You can be born with an amazing ear for music, but unless you learn how to play the piano you'll never be a concert pianist. You can have the potential to be the world's greatest athlete, but that won't get you anywhere without training. And you can have an innate ability to tell a story, but unless you learn how to tell it no-one will ever take you seriously.
I'm aware we're not aided by the world around us. The modern user relies on a spellchecker to point out mistakes and assumes that the computer rather than the human brain knows best. I've complained before about how the auto-correct feature on the iPod (among others) constantly changes its to it's, whether or not it's appropriate – a perfect way to teach an entire generation of people how to use an apostrophe incorrectly. And I'm often amazed by the basic grammatical errors appearing in promotional literature from the biggest and most respected of companies. But we are writers. We, of all people, should be standing up in defence of the conventions that allow us to convey our meaning clearly and accurately.
Yes, we need creativity. Yes, we need brilliant characterisation and a gripping plot and sparkling dialogue. Yet for our own sake, we also need to know how to spell properly and how to punctuate a sentence. If we let these things go then the subtle differences that it's possible to convey by using, say, a semicolon instead of a colon will also be lost. And as George Orwell knew very well, if a language loses its capacity to express particular nuances and shades of meaning then it won't be long before our ability even to think them begins to deteriorate as well.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Since I've got my editor's hat on this week, this is a tip about editing.
As we all know, writing the words is only half the battle. Editing them is just as important and can often take far longer. In the past I've tended to write a book, then spend the next period of time concentrating solely on editing it. But in fact that's probably a bad idea, for two reasons.
First, focusing on editing means you're no longer maintaining the creative flow that sustained you while you were writing. I'm not saying editing isn't a creative task – because it is – but it's a different kind of creativity. If you spend months editing a book, and nothing else, then when it comes to writing the next one you'll have a hard job getting going again.
Second, you learn things while you're editing. You learn what works and what doesn't, how to phrase things in a tighter way, which words you overuse. If you start writing your next book while you're still editing the last one, those lessons will be fresh in your mind and you can apply them – which means the next time you reach the editing stage, your task will be shorter.
So, in short, I'd suggest that even when you're ready to edit a project, you don't stop trying to write every day. Instead, maintain momentum by writing short fiction or experimental scenes or another book at the same time. Both your writing and your editing will benefit from it.
Let's talk about sex
My defence of fantasy last week stirred up a lot of interest, leaving me feeling like an obscure band who have suddenly achieved a hit and are wondering how on earth they can top it. After all, there's unlikely to be anything that fantasy readers and writers agree with more than Fantasy is a Good Thing. So what would my theoretical band do in such a situation? Well, I suspect they'd obey the three main rules of the follow-up single: start with a catchy hook, build to an exciting finale, and – most importantly – make sure there's a half-naked woman in the music video.
Yep, you guessed it: I'm going to talk about sex.*
But first – it being February, the season of valentines and, er, other heart-shaped things – I'm going to talk about romance. Most fantasy novels these days (and I'm referring to mainstream fantasy rather than fantasy romance, which is a genre of its own) seem to have some kind of love story in them. I have no particular objection to that: relationships are a significant part of what it means to be human, after all, and that's what fantasy is all about. Yet at the same time, there are a couple of things that frustrate me about romance in fantasy.
There's nothing worse than feeling as though a romance has been tacked on because the author thought they ought to include one ('readers like love stories'). If I as a reader can't see how the two people in question ever came to be together – because they're completely incompatible, or because they go straight from hating each other to falling into bed together – then my belief in the novel as a whole is completely shattered. It often amazes me how much effort an author puts into every little detail of their world, only to fail to convince in this most fundamental of areas. Your average reader won't know whether it's realistic that a warrior should carry two swords and a throwing axe, or that a city's sewage system is based on bacteria. They will know if a relationship feels forced or unrealistic. As I always say: get the people right, and the rest will follow.
The best romances are the ones where you're longing for the characters to get together, without it feeling as inevitable as a sob story on a reality TV show. Where the romance plays a key role in character development, in that the parties involved have to change and grow in order for their relationship to come to fruition. Most of us know that real-life love stories are rarely as simple as 'their eyes met across a crowded room'. They require time and patience and compromise. For me, there are too many romances out there in which the woman apparently wants the man for reasons as superficial as looks or unusual talents or that good old standby, his alpha male status. In which the man wants the woman for some so-called special 'quality' about her that's nothing to do with her personality whatsoever (yes, Twilight, I'm talking about you). Can we please have relationships that, while by all means involving mutual attraction and a bit of sparky argument, also involve things like shared values and a sense of humour and the gradual development of trust? Thank you.
Now. I promised sex, and here it is – because while romance is a fantasy staple by now, sex is still a contentious issue. For some reason we're perfectly happy reading about people hacking each other to pieces, but as soon as they take their clothes off we come over all prudish about it. Personally, I'm not one to write in great detail about sex – at least, not in any mechanical detail – because that kind of thing seems better left to erotica. But then, nor would I write in great detail about blood and gore and intestines spilling out all over the place. I'm generally of the opinion that imagination is far more effective than graphic description when it comes to both sex and violence. Whether you agree with me or not, the point is that I'm consistent. But if one is going to write about these things at all, I fail to see why people finding joy or solace or simple carnal pleasure in each other is more offensive than people trying to murder each other with a variety of bladed instruments.
If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably psychological. Most of us are taught as we're growing up that sex is something to be discussed only in private. Something to be embarrassed about. A teenager wouldn't be at all disconcerted by his parents walking in while he was watching a violent film, but make that an explicit sex scene and there's a world of shame right there. We're used to killing people in a variety of interesting ways through the computer games we play – we're surrounded by images of weaponry on movie posters and book covers – and as a result we end up being much more offended by graphic sex than graphic violence, when arguably it should be the other way round.
Of course, there may be another reason why the ratio of sex to violence in fantasy is so low: authors are afraid of making their readers cringe. Because, after all, it's very easy to write a bad sex scene. Enjoy!
* The title was a bit of a giveaway in that respect.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
It's a short one this week: don't give up. As I know from trying to keep a diary when I was younger, this is the time of year when initial enthusiasm for new projects begins to fade. But stick with it, and soon you'll break through that invisible barrier to find a place where writing every day has become second nature to you … at least, that's what I'm hoping!