Today is the last Sunday in March, which means we’re about a quarter of the way through the year already. (Tries to restrain sense of overwhelming panic that wells up at that realisation.) So I thought it would be appropriate to look back over the past three months and see how my plan to write every day has been going.
In short, it’s not going great.
The observant among you may have noticed that the number of days showing on my little homepage counter is slightly fewer than the number of days that have passed so far in 2012. There have been a couple of days when for various reasons – some more valid than others – I haven’t managed to write a word. And with a baby due to arrive in the family soon, I have no doubt there’ll be more of those to come. That’s OK. It’s the spirit of the thing that matters, not following it to the absolute letter.
Still, you may be thinking, missing a total of three days in three months is pretty good. I must have got a lot done in that time, right?
Well, no. And that’s the point of this blog post. To highlight some of the bad habits I’ve fallen into, so that maybe you can avoid them. (Don’t say I never do anything for you.)
First of all, giving myself the goal of writing every day has allowed me to fall into the trap of thinking that if I write something every day, however little, I’m succeeding. So as soon as I’ve written a few sentences, a switch will be triggered in my mind that tells me I’ve done what I need to do. After that, if I’m not careful, it’s very easy to give in to the demands of some other claim on my time (even if that claim is something wholly unimportant, like – just to pick an example at random – singing along to cheesy love songs on the radio).
Added to that, more often than not, there won’t be time for more than those few sentences. Because I tend to put it off. I come home after work and I’m tired, so I take a rest (usually in the form of Big Bang Theory and some chocolate). I eat my evening meal. I get sucked into watching a film with my partner or debating the relative merits of white versus cream tiles in the bathroom (we’re very good at spending hours getting all the information we need to make a decision, not so good at actually making it). Before I know it, it’s 10:30 and I’m falling asleep. At which point, I’ll just about manage to scribble a paragraph of some degree of coherence before it’s time for bed. And the next day, I’ll get up and do it all again.
Weekends bring a bit more time. But even then, I’m way too easily distracted – mostly, it has to be said, by books. I’ll take a break from writing to have a snack, decide I need to read something while I’m eating, and three hours later I’ll still be reading. This happens even with books I’ve read before. (I probably shouldn’t keep a bookcase of fantasy favourites in my spare-room-stroke-office.) The annoying thing about that is there are plenty of things I could be reading that would be more useful – other writers’ works in progress that I’ve volunteered to give feedback on, or even my own stuff that needs editing. But it’s just not the same. Reading critically requires an entirely different brain from the one I use for reading as a distraction. The secret would be not to pick up the book in the first place, but somehow I just can’t help myself.
As a result of all this, yes, I’ve been writing (almost) every day. But the amount I’ve actually got done hasn’t improved significantly on last year.
I know the solution to all these problems would be to have more self-discipline. I ought to come home from work and hit the computer for an hour before I do anything else. I ought to get up first thing on a Saturday and get a chapter written before breakfast. I really have nothing and no-one to blame but myself. Yet I’m sure you know how it is. Having a full-time job and trying to be a writer is essentially like having two full-time jobs; sometimes a person just needs to relax and stop concentrating for a while. It’s an excuse, yes, but it’s not a totally invalid one.
Still, I haven’t given up. I will try to do better. But if anyone has any suggestions as to how, I’d love to hear them.
I’m a rational sort of person, on the whole. I don’t believe in luck – or certainly not the idea that a spoken phrase or a particular gesture can somehow affect what’s going to happen to me. Yet I find myself referring casually to it all the time. ‘With any luck we’ll get there before dark.’ ‘Fingers crossed it won’t rain.’ ‘Touch wood it will all be OK.’ And it’s not just me. I’m surrounded by a nation of people who swear by their lucky pants and their four-leaf clovers. We pick up pennies, salute lone magpies, and follow our own little rituals before an important match or a public appearance. Most of us probably don’t believe in what we’re doing, not really. But we do it anyway, partly out of habit and partly because, well, you never know.
Superstition in one form or another is common to every culture and belief system. It’s part of human nature to look for associations between things; the ability to make a connection between cause and effect is vital in the fight for survival. And the flip side of that is a tendency to see cause and effect where there is none. We ignore those events that don’t fit our model of the world, and remember those that reinforce it. Of course making wishes on birthday candles works. When I was ten I wished for a puppy and I got one. And if I hadn’t had my lucky mascot in my pocket I never would have passed my exams. The one time I forgot to bring it, the question paper was really hard. It’s the same mental structure that turns coincidence into fate and randomness into ‘everything happens for a reason’. Making sense of the world, even where there’s no sense to be made, is hard-wired into our brains.
So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, two things. One, folklore and superstition are a wonderfully rich source of inspiration for fantasy books set fully or partly in the real world. What if this particular belief was true? What if this children’s rhyme had meaning? What if this old tradition had a hidden purpose? Lots of enjoyable novels have drawn on our folk heritage in this way, from Mike Shevdon’s Sixty-One Nails to Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, and I’m sure there are more out there waiting to be written.
Two, if you’re building your own fantasy world then a rich system of belief, lore and superstition can really help to bring it alive. And it’s important to remember that all superstitions have a logical reason behind them, even if it’s so lost in time that the people themselves don’t remember what it is. For instance, the phrase ‘touch wood’ probably comes from the pagan belief that spirits inhabited every tree and could be summoned or deterred by knocking on the trunk. But it may relate to the Christian cross, or to a ship’s mast, or simply to a children’s game*. ‘Fingers crossed’ again may be Christian or pre-Christian in origin (or both – it seems likely that as with so many things, the older belief systems were subsumed by and incorporated into the new). Black cats derive their negative associations from the Middle Ages belief in witchcraft. And so on. Fantasy superstitions with this kind of historical background can tell your reader a lot about your world.
Bear in mind, too, that in a world where some form of magic exists, certain superstitions may not be superstitions at all. Maybe a particular gesture or set of words really does keep you safe in battle. Or maybe it used to work, but has become so corrupted over time that it no longer does what it’s meant to – or does something completely different. It’s often the case that snippets of knowledge trickle from those who have access to them to those who don’t, frequently in a distorted or misleading form. Thus it’s probable that ‘lucky’ gestures or phrases used by people with no magical ability at all will have their origins in genuinely effective magic. Now that’s a plot point waiting to happen.
So there you have it. Get working on your superstitions, and I’ll see you next week. In the meantime, don’t walk under any ladders …
* The word ‘simply’ is misleading here. Children’s games are often steeped in folklore. But that’s another story.
"Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing."
– Stephen King, On Writing
All of us, at one time or another, have probably sat through the same English class. You know: the one where the teacher got you to write a paragraph describing an everyday object in new and unusual ways. The one where the difference between similes and metaphors was hammered out as laboriously as your homework on a Sunday afternoon.* The one where you had to come up with better synonyms for overused adverbs like 'quickly' and 'loudly'. (No-one told you that in ten years' time you would come to look upon all adverbs as a thing of evil.) At the end of the lesson, you left with a head full of purple prose and the vague feeling that you'd never be able to look at a cloud again without seeing sky-sheep grazing on an endless field of cornflowers, but you'd also absorbed one key message.
Description is Important.
What you probably didn't learn at school – or at least, I certainly didn't – was when and where to use these new-found skills in a piece of fiction. Personally, back then I was under the impression that the right thing to do was start a chapter with a nice long description to set the scene, before launching into the action. And indeed, I can remember reading plenty of books at the time that followed that kind of structure. If the description was too long then I'd skim it (being more interested in plot than beautiful words in those days), but nevertheless I thought it was the convention. Write the opening description, write the following action, then stitch the two together.
Whether that was true or not (and I think it becomes more so as you look further and further back in time), things have now changed. The move away from third-person omniscient and towards third-person limited – the tendency to stick to one character's viewpoint for the course of at least an entire scene, rather than hopping from person to person – means that this kind of description is usually no longer appropriate. The omniscient narrators of the past would describe a scene from their own perspective and with authorial asides to the reader; they had no problem intruding upon their own narrative. Today's writers, with close POV as their mantra, don't have that option. It feels artificial for a character to stand around describing the landscape for several paragraphs before getting on with whatever they're doing. Description has to be integrated into the character's other experiences and perceptions – and it has to be specific to that character.
Of course, this doesn't mean being able to write good descriptions is no longer important. In fact, it means the exact opposite. Authors can no longer indulge themselves in two pages of clever wordsmithery about exactly how dark and stormy the night was. Rather than being separated from the characters, description becomes part of them. In a close third-person or first-person novel, good description is both brief and idiosyncratic. It gives the reader a mental picture of what's being described, but it also reveals something about the character whose viewpoint it's written from. And that's actually a lot harder than the kind of description we learned at school.
These days, we can no longer treat description as being distinct from a character's thoughts, dialogue or actions. When writing close POV, all these things stem from the character herself. Anything that's described is described for a reason: because it's what was important or noticeable to that character at the time. Someone who's in a strange place will observe all kinds of details, particularly those that differ from his previous experience. Someone who's afraid for her life will focus on what might have an impact on her chances of survival. Someone who's deeply upset may very well be more caught up in himself to the exclusion of the world around him. And so on. As for comparisons, take this: there was a metallic scraping sound, like a sword being drawn from its sheath. All well and good, you may say … unless the POV is that of the archetypal farmboy who's never seen (or heard) a sword in his life. In that case, even if you know it's a sword, he'd be much more likely to compare it to a chinking bridle or a piece of machinery.
In short, to all questions of description – what makes a good description? how frequently should I add them to my writing? how do I know if my descriptions are too florid or too sparse? – there is now a single answer: it depends whose viewpoint you're writing from. Know your characters inside out, and everything else will follow.
* See what I did there?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Take a short descriptive scene that's written from one character's point of view, and try writing it from the POV of another participant in that scene. How do the descriptions vary? Do the two people notice different things, or the same thing in different ways? Are the descriptions appropriate to their personalities and previous experiences?
Remember when you discovered your favourite books for the first time? The ones you loved so much you've read them five or six times more since; the ones that were so real to you, you almost believed they were true?
Me too. Brilliant, isn't it? There's nothing quite like that feeling of being totally caught up in another world, to the exclusion of the one around you. That sense of knowing the characters, of caring about them, of desperately wanting things to go right for them. You can't beat lifting your head from a book and realising it's two o'clock in the morning and your eyes are sore with reading so much, yet it doesn't matter because the story has temporarily become more important than anything else in your life. I had that with Lord of the Rings when I was 9. I had it with The Wheel of Time when I was 16. I even had it with Kushiel's Legacy when I was 23.
Funny, though – it's rare for me to feel that way about a book any more. Or about anything else, for that matter. These days, I find it almost impossible to lose myself in a story. I can read it and appreciate it, even be gripped by it to a certain extent, but I can always put it down when it's time for bed. There's always a part of me that remains detached from the unfolding events, no matter how dramatic they are.
In short, my friends, I have lost my sense of wonder.
Some of it, I'm sorry to say, is probably an inevitable function of age. When I was a teen I had an almost limitless capacity to immerse myself in things that interested me. Maybe I had fresher eyes; maybe I had better powers of concentration; maybe I wasn't afflicted by that awful sense of time passing that seems to have crept up on me as an adult. (Now, I spend more than a couple of hours with a book and a little voice inside my mind starts yelling that I should be doing something else.) Whatever the reason, I consumed fantasy literature voraciously and uncritically. More than that – I lived it. I can't do that any more.
Another part of it is surely the job I do. I'm an editor. It's my job to notice the niggles, flaws and holes in other people's writing. And as I've become a better editor, I've become a worse reader – because it's very difficult to switch off the critical part of the brain and just go with the flow. I suppose it's like becoming a wine connoisseur: once you know how to identify good-quality wine, you'll never again be able to enjoy the £5.99 bottle of red you used to pick up from the supermarket. It's the same for most writers. Once you learn how to be critical of your own writing, you soon find yourself applying the same analysis to other people's – even if you don't want to.
Yet perhaps there's still more to it than that. When I started out as a writer, many moons ago, I lacked technical ability and a knowledge of the industry and pretty much everything else I needed to succeed. But I did have one thing going for me: I believed in concepts like heroism and bravery and honour. I had a sense of the importance and grandeur of fantasy. I found real meaning in it. Since then I've become more cynical, and it seems fantasy has too. Yet while I appreciate the grit and the ambiguity, the anti-heroes and the playing with tropes, I feel as though I've lost something along the way. The sense of wonder has gone, to be replaced by something more knowing and concomitantly less pure.
To enjoy fantasy in its truest form, you have to take it seriously. And sometimes I worry that with our collective deconstruction of the genre, we're losing the ability to do that. If you don't believe in acts of selfless courage or breathtaking heroism – if all your protagonists are morally grey – then you may achieve realism, but you'll lose sight of the true heart of fantasy. Because at heart, fantasy is the struggle between light and darkness that's in all of us. And when we see the light win in fiction, we can be inspired to believe that's possible in real life too.
Do you agree that the ability to lose yourself in literature diminishes with age/writing experience? What books have you read recently that rekindled your sense of wonder?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Are there times when you become heartily sick of your main project? If so, rather than stop writing altogether, why not try something completely different? This one was sent to me by @mlhroberts a few weeks ago: How to Start a Twitter Novel. If you decide to give it a go then please let me know!