© J Davis Studio
After a Sunday diversion, here we are in the second week of the A to Z Challenge. H falls on the perfect day for me, since I've just come back from a weekend staying with my family – and it got me thinking about what home means.
When I went off to university, even though I was hundreds of miles away for more than half the year, home was always the house I grew up in – the place I came back to in the holidays. It was Christmas and Easter and long summer days. It was stripping off the layer of independence I'd grown while I was away and returning to childhood. I thought of it with love and nostalgia every term, only to be driven mad by it just a few days after each return. Home was something simultaneously comforting and frustrating.
Even when I moved out for good and headed off to start a new job and a new life in a new place, it was years before I thought of anything other than my family home as 'home'. I was alone in a strange place, renting a house with people I'd only just met – nothing I'd learned to associate with home was there. Yet at the same time, my family home was changing. The people in it were living their lives without me. My room was no longer my room, my possessions packed away until I had space for them. When I went back to visit, I felt like a guest. In a sense, I was homeless.
I only really found home again when my partner and I moved into a permanent house of our own – and even then it wasn't immediate. The uprooting that comes from leaving a childhood home is sudden; the process of putting down new roots somewhere else is much more gradual. But it did happen in the end. I can't pinpoint exactly when, but there came a time when I stopped referring to the place I'd grown up as home, even in my head. And now I've reached that stage in my life, I know I always will have somewhere to call home – because home is no longer where I was, but where I am.
You've spent a year working on the masterpiece that's going to catapult you to success as a published author. You've read every sentence five times. You've tweaked and rewritten, corrected the typos and filled a minor plot hole you didn't notice before. If you polished it any more then you'd only be changing, not improving.
The book is ready for submission.
So what do you do with this piece of your soul that you've spent so much time and care on? You print it off any old how, stick it in an envelope and post it to your favourite publisher without even bothering to find out the name of the editor in charge. Why not? Submission guidelines are for wimps. The quality of the writing will speak for itself.
It sounds crazy, yet it seems to be what many writers do. I've heard countless publishers and agents say, over and over again, that a large proportion of the submissions they receive don't follow the guidelines they set out. And what happens to those submissions? They go in the bin. There's no point even considering working with a writer who doesn't have the courtesy to follow simple instructions.
I'm always amazed by these stories. I can't understand why someone would spend so many hours of their life writing a book, then not be willing to spend just one more hour making sure they're supplying it in the format required. And it doesn't stop there. People write covering letters with spelling mistakes in them. They produce synopses that are stilted and confusing. They don't even bother to find out which agencies and publishers are interested in their genre.
All this is a mystery to me. It's like baking the world's best cake, then covering it in sloppy icing and presenting it in a battered old cardboard box. Why wouldn't you give your book the best possible chance to shine? Your chances of being picked up by a publisher are slim enough already, without giving them ready-made reasons to reject you.
I've been talking about the traditional publishing route, but the same principles apply to self-publishing. Taking the time to create (or have created) a polished-looking cover, writing a blurb without errors, formatting your text so that it looks right on Kindle and epub as well as in print - all these things are part of showing yourself to be a professional author.
Because that's the point. Whatever route we're taking with our books, or hoping to take, none of us like being thought of as amateurs who dabble in literature in our spare time. We're professional writers, and that means we ought to act accordingly. From how we behave in chat rooms to how we deal with rejection, we're presenting ourselves to the world in a certain way. And if we want other people to take what we do seriously, it's time we started taking it seriously ourselves.
The A to Z Challenge continues tomorrow.
When I was at school, the 'in' subjects were sports and drama. Not much good if you were shy and uncoordinated, like me.
At that age, it takes a special kind of strength to go your own way and not care what people think of you. I didn't have it. I've always cared far too much about other people's opinions. And so I played down my strengths, learned not to be proud of academic achievements, and convinced myself that being clever or interested in learning was a Bad Thing.
But unfortunately for me, I was clever. I was interested in things like science and numbers. I enjoyed reading and playing board games and watching sci-fi films. I had no desire to spend all my free time hanging around a shopping centre, or trying to look older than I was so I could get into clubs and drink alcohol. My ideal Saturday morning was spent in the fantasy section of the local library. In fact, I was a geek.
Even at university, when it was finally OK to be academic, there were some things I felt I had to hide about myself. There was a role-playing fantasy group on campus, and most people I knew laughed at them. But secretly, I wanted to join. I wanted to have the confidence to wander around with a bunch of other people wearing cloaks and swords, saying things like verily and forsooth. I wanted to be comfortable with my own geekiness. But I wasn't.
It's taken me nearly thirty years to finally be proud of being a geek. To say yes, I love fantasy and prog rock and astronomy and jokes only mathematicians can understand, isn't that great? I wish it hadn't taken me so long. I wish I'd enjoyed my geekiness sooner. But I hope I've at least achieved it in time to teach my children that it's OK to like what you like – whatever that is.
What else could F stand for, really? I'm a fantasy writer. It's what I do.
I've talked elsewhere about why I think fantasy is great. So instead, here are a few reasons why I choose to write it.
1. It's what I like to read. Well, I like to read all kinds of things, but certainly when I was a teen I liked fantasy most of all. In those days there wasn't anything like the amount of brilliant YA fantasy fiction available that there is now. Nor was there the same amount of crossover between YA and adult. Furthermore, fantasy wasn't a mainstream genre; it was for nerds only. I'd skulk about in the fantasy section of my local bookshop, looking for a different world I could lose myself in and hoping I wouldn't bump into anyone I knew. So even though fantasy is far more widely accepted than it used to be, I still want to write books I think my younger self would have enjoyed.
2. It's all about 'what if'. Fantasy allows you to explore unusual or extreme situations that wouldn't be possible in ordinary fiction. In that respect, no other genre is better at examining the fundamental questions we as people face. What does it mean to be human? How can we hold on to our morality in the face of extreme trials? Is murder/torture ever justified? What is loyalty? What is love? You know, little things like that.
3. It's also all about imagination. Writing fantasy is a perfect opportunity to become the creator of your own world, a world bounded only by the limits of your own mind. As long as you can think of a valid reason why currency is based on crystals or people live in floating sky-houses, you can let your imagination run riot. And it's that magical quality, that unfamiliarity, which throws the fundamental questions of point 2 into stark relief and allows us to see them in a different way.
4. It's fun. Everything I've said so far sounds quite serious, but the truth is that writing fantasy is a lot of fun. It's a genre that lends itself to play, to light-hearted takes on old tropes and gentle self-mockery. It allows – and in fact expects – nail-biting fight scenes, acts of heroism and the occasional life or death situation. At heart, it's a damn good adventure. And we all need one of those from time to time.
Evening has always been my favourite time of day. I am most definitely an owl rather than a lark. It takes my eyes at least half an hour to fully open every morning, never mind forming a coherent sentence or managing anything tricky like breakfast. To me, people who are upbeat and energetic in the mornings are like flesh-eating bacteria: a fascinating alien species that should ultimately be avoided.
Evenings, on the other hand, are a different matter. There's something magical about the setting sun and the gathering twilight that no morning, however beautiful, can match. People talk about the dawn chorus, but the dusk chorus is far more haunting – as anyone who's heard a lone robin singing his heart out from the topmost branch of a silhouetted tree can testify. Evening is when the stars come out and the world hides its face behind a veil. Evening is a time of mystery and wonder.
More personally, evening is when my brain begins to wake up and my ideas start to flow. Left to myself, I'd probably start my writing day in the late afternoon and finish in the small hours of the morning. Much as I enjoy sunshine, it doesn't inspire me to do anything more than sit out in it with a book and a nice glass of something cold. Creativity requires darkness, or at least the promise of it – preferably with a little wind and rain thrown in for good measure. When it's two in the morning and the rest of the house is asleep around me … that's the perfect time to be writing.
Unfortunately, though, most employers aren't really interested in an employee who wants to start work around the same time everyone else is finishing. And somehow I don't think referring them to my natural body clock is going to cut it. So for now, I'll have to keep working during the day like everyone else – and make the most of my magical evenings when I can.
What about you? When's your most creative time of day?
Why oh why didn't I take the BLUE pill?
I am absolutely terrible at making decisions.
Part of the problem is the vast range of options in the world. For every taste and scent and colour you pick, there are hundreds more you don't. How can you be sure the option you're choosing is the best possible? Other people don't seem to have this problem. They know what they like and they go for it. I don't know what I like; or if I do, I'm not convinced that I might not like something else better.
When I was very little, I got into trouble in a sweet shop. It wasn't, as you might expect, because I was being noisy or greedy or difficult. It was simply because I couldn't decide which chocolate bar I wanted. I was meant to be getting a treat (and in my book there's no treat better than chocolate – see C), yet it had turned into an ordeal. Faced with a wall of sweets so vast that to my limited perception it might as well have been infinite, I didn't know what to do. How could I decide? How could I know which option out of a hundred was my favourite? I hadn't tried them all, compared them side by side, rated them out of ten and come up with a winner. I kept trying to get a decision out of my overwhelmed brain, and all it came back with was insufficient data.
Since then, what I consider to be an important decision has changed. But the problem remains the same.
Unfortunately I married someone who is more decisionally impaired than I am. We'll stand in the supermarket for twenty minutes trying to pick the right kind of bread. We still haven't decorated the house we moved into four years ago because we can't make up our minds what colour the walls should be. When we go out for a meal, we tend to go to the same restaurant every time and order the exact same thing, simply to avoid the trauma of decision-making. We are the world's most indecisive couple. (How we ever managed to pull together an entire wedding is a mystery to me.)
Yet even vacillation has its good points. I like to think that the reason it takes us so long to make decisions is that we see things from both sides. We don't close ourselves off to the possibility that there's a better way of doing things. We're willing to throw out our preconceptions if the situation arises. And that's better than being stubbornly convinced we know what's best all the time.
At least, I think it is …
Everyone has an Achilles heel. Mine is chocolate.
Good chocolate, to me, is like poetry in edible form. It sings in the mouth and dances in the heart. If I could take the satisfaction of finishing a good book, the beauty of watching an ocean sunset and the nerve-tingling excitement of attending a live concert, and whip them up in a big bowl, I doubt I'd get anything that looked or smelled or tasted even half as good as chocolate.
Basically, I like it a lot.
And like anyone with a weakness, I've always hated the fact that people know about it. When I was a child, they would try to use it as a comforter. I'd get all upset about something, and the response would be Cheer up. Have a chocolate.
Naturally, that would annoy me.
This is a serious problem, I'd say (or would have done, were it not for the fact that getting upset completely destroys my ability to communicate). It is not to be trivialised with your puny offering of cocoa-based confectionery.
But as I sat there in a cloud of frustration and general misunderstoodness, the thought of chocolate would gradually loom larger and larger in my mind. And as a result, the problem would shrink. Faced with the prospect of the good stuff, it would assume less and less epic proportions until, quite soon, I'd forgotten what the fuss was about. I'd eat the chocolate, even though part of me despised myself for giving in to it, and all would be well.
Now I'm on the downward slope to 30, I'm slightly less easy to cheer up with chocolate. Yet despite that, if I'm feeling particularly sad or frustrated, it's usually my old friend cocoa that I turn to. Other people may have cigarettes or alcohol or prescription pills. I have a giant bar of Galaxy.
So, now you know my secret. If you're a supervillain and I'm all that stands between you and world domination, just offer me chocolate. I'll be like putty in your hands.
In around two months I'm going to become a parent for the first time.
Am I excited? Yes.
Am I peeing my pants with fear? Also yes.
Because what if I'm a terrible parent? I'm trying to do everything right. I'm thinking about safety and nutrition and educational value. I'm not planning on neglecting my baby or absent-mindedly leaving him on a train. But that doesn't mean it won't all go horribly wrong. Because presumably, through no fault of their own, some people just aren't very good at bringing up children. And I might be one of them.
I'm sure everyone who's expecting a baby for the first time goes through the same thought processes, but that doesn't make me any the less anxious. I'm about to cross the invisible line that separates parents from children. I have absolutely no idea what it's like over there, and no number of reassuring/terrifying/helpful stories from people who have already crossed can change that. It's like I'm emigrating to a country I've never visited, all the while knowing I can never come back. An adventure, but a pretty damn scary one.
Still, I have my partner by my side. I have people I can turn to for advice. And I also have one fundamental thing in my favour: I already love this baby, even though I haven't met him yet.
I guess that will have to be enough.
A couple of days ago, through Twitter, I found out about the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Now, I already have more to get done in April than I have time for. I have short stories to edit, manuscripts to comment on and a book to prepare for submission. I have a house to overhaul in readiness for my impending parenthood. I have my actual day job to fit in somewhere. And for that reason, I did what any sensible writer would do.
I jumped right in.
The idea is that this month, I write a short blog post every day: one for each letter of the alphabet. Because there aren't 30 letters, the other Sundays in April are free – except that Sunday is when I put up my usual longer articles, and I don't want to disappoint my regular audience (the dog can be quite demanding). So brace yourselves, my friends. I'm going to be with you, to a greater or lesser extent, every single day in April. Yep, that's right: 30 whole days. Please restrain your excitement.
As you've probably noticed, I happen to begin with A, and so I was going to call this first post after myself. (Self-centred, I know, but since I've also called this whole website after myself it's a little late to worry about that now.) But then it struck me that Anonymous would be a far better title. Because that's what no author wants to be these days, yet when I started on my literary path it's exactly what I intended.
It's the same dilemma we all face when confronted with this newfangled interweb malarkey. How much of myself do I reveal? What's private and what's public? I'd already decided that as a writer I'd use a variation of my name that gave away as little as possible, mainly in the belief that some male readers might be put off by an obviously female name, and vice versa. (As it turns out, that doesn't seem to be much of an issue any more, but I thought it was sensible at the time.) In addition, I had a stupid kind of pride that meant I didn't want my writing life to be connected with my personal or work life until I became a 'success'. I imagined dropping in on a group of acquaintances one day and happening to mention, oh so casually, that my first book was due out in the autumn. So when I started online as a writer, I didn't post a photo of myself or anything personal at all. I didn't encourage my family and friends to come and support me; most of them still don't even know I have a blog or a website or a Twitter account. I was determined to go it alone.
Now, I'm beginning to wonder if that was a mistake.
Because the thing is, the writer and their work are bound more tightly together now than they ever have been. Readers find out about new books through what the authors post on Twitter and Facebook. They can feed back instantly on what they liked and didn't like. They want to know who a writer is, not just what s/he does. And in fact, there's no longer really a separation between author and audience: all writers are readers, and many readers are writers. As the politicians are so fond of saying, we're all in this together. By making myself anonymous, I'm detaching myself from a new and collaborative way of doing things, just because I'm afraid to let anyone I know in the 'real world' see me fail. And that's just silly.
Admittedly, I'm not ready to bring all the parts of my life together yet. I don't want to try and sell myself with a glamorised photo, or use my family to boost my Twitter numbers. But I do want to get to know people and let them get to know me. For that reason, my plan for the month is to reveal something new about myself every day. Make myself a little less anonymous by sharing some of my personal fears, dreams and opinions. Stick around, and you might even get to find out what A.F.E. stands for …
But probably not.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
It's not too late to join in the A to Z Challenge! You have until Monday night to sign up, so if you want some encouragement to write every day then why not give it a try?