The one I wrote when I had a cold
(clears throat, which turns into a small coughing fit)
Sorry. Yeah. Hi. Well, we've been meeting here for several weeks now, and so far we've learned that (1) I'm a terrible procrastinator with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, (2) you guys don't talk much and (3) the tentacles may all be in my head. At least, the dog is the only other person who seems to be able to see them.
Since I'm not feeling up to much today, I'll keep this one – ah – ah – (holds finger up in mute plea for audience patience, before turning away and doubling over)
Short. I'll keep this one short.
Have you ever noticed – and I make this observation with no bitterness at all, mind you – how the protagonists of fantasy fiction almost never seem to catch the common cold? Maimed, stabbed, blinded, hacked and gouged, I grant you, but not once do they have to suffer the special humiliation of a red nose, blocked sinuses and a cough that could cut through a plank of wood. One can only assume that most fantasy worlds have, for whatever reason, failed to evolve a highly adaptable and easily transmittable virus of the kind we are so familiar with ourselves. Really, it's pretty darn lucky that none of the people who have ever found a way through from our world to another had a cold at the time. Think of the havoc that could have been wreaked on the unsuspecting immune systems of the indigenous populations.
Of course, there is another possibility, which is that authors hate making their characters appear undignified. Life-threatening injuries are fine. A few scars or missing limbs just show off how noble and heroic a character is. But there's nothing very noble or heroic about walking around with half a Kleenex stuffed up each nostril.* Because, let's face it, authors want readers to find their characters attractive – not necessarily in a would-love-to-sleep-with-them way (though that always helps), but certainly in a they're-so-goddamn-awesome way. And a cold, my friends, is the very opposite of awesome. A cold is where writerly dedication to making a character 'real' takes a little detour.**
(blows nose defiantly with a sound like a honking goose)
And that's it. In the words of Bilbo Baggins, a notable exception to the no-colds rule, 'thag you very buch' for coming. Please help yourselves to Lemsip and Vicks VapoRub on your way out.
* Believe me.
** This detour also handily avoids questions such as sewage arrangements, the personal hygiene levels of people who have been on the road for days, and the whole issue of toothbrushes in a faux-medieval society. Some things, we just don't want to know about.
You don't have to be strong
People often talk about the importance of strong characters in books. Fictional women, in particular, seem to be assessed on some kind of imaginary scale – the phrase 'strong female lead' gets thrown around like a balloon at a birthday party. But in my opinion, there are a host of common misconceptions as to what actually constitutes strength. Today I'm going to talk about a few of them and why they're nonsense.
1. Strength equates to physical strength (or some other talent).
Again, this particularly seems to be applied to female characters. Some people appear to believe that a strong woman ought to be able to wield a broadsword with the best of them. And indeed, a female warrior can be a strong character just as much as a male warrior can. But she won't be strong because of her fighting ability. Any character, male or female, is strong despite his/her physical attributes, not because of them.
We fantasy writers are prone to loading our characters with rather unrealistic talents – whether those are perfect swordplay, skills in magic or an ability to see in the dark. I guess that's because the situations we put our characters into are correspondingly extreme compared to real life. But those talents don't define the character. Strength comes not from what we have, but from what we choose to do with it.
2. Strength means never being afraid, upset or otherwise emotionally vulnerable.
Maybe this is a cultural thing – and I guess this one gets applied more to men. (Sexist, I know, but we'll talk about that another time.) There's a perception that fear is weakness. That crying should be avoided at all costs. That grief is something to gloss over and move on from as quickly as possible.
In answer, I would simply say: it takes more strength to overcome your fear than never to feel any. The character who is not emotionally vulnerable is not human. Strength lies in feeling the vast range of emotions that life has to offer, but finding the courage to do what has to be done anyway.
3. Strength means always doing the right thing.
This is a tricky one. I'd love it if my characters always did the right thing, for the sake of their peace of mind if nothing else. But, of course, that's not what people are like. People are messy. They act for all sorts of reasons. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, they get it wrong.
Again, it comes down to the same principle: there is more strength in failing, and being knocked down to your lowest point, and getting up and trying again, than there is in succeeding first time at everything. A strong character, for me, is one who has the weaknesses and frailties we all have – but despite that, keeps on trying and learning and changing. That's the kind of strength I'd like to have, and that's the kind of strength that interests me in fiction.
It may surprise some of you to learn that I'm really rather an emotional person. It's easy enough not to show it online, but in real life I'm up and down all the time. And as a result, I've had plenty of encounters with that little voice inside my head. You know. The one that never switches off. The one that treats everything as a research opportunity. The one that comments on your life as though it's watching someone else.
To take an example, there was a time when I used to get drunk on a reasonably regular basis. At the risk of upholding numerous clichés, I'll tell you: it was when I was a student. I would run around doing all the ridiculous and potentially life-threatening things that people in that state get up to. Yet even as I was climbing into a skip or trying to ride home in a shopping trolley, a small part of me would always remain detached. More than detached – faintly scathing. What are you doing? it would ask the rest of me. Do you know how ridiculous this is? You do realise that one in ten deaths in this country are caused by drinking alcohol, don't you? Yet at the same time, it would urge me on. Try doing this. See how it feels. I might need to know one day.
So far, so annoying. But it doesn't stop there. Every time I'm frightened or nervous or upset – every time I'm feeling any emotion beyond mild contentment – out comes the mental notebook. No matter how intense the feeling, there's always a part of me that isn't involved. Instead, it just sits back and observes, because it knows these observations could be useful to what I do. This is how a person behaves when they're in a towering rage. Perfect for Chapter 23. Even at the moments of greatest sorrow in my life – of which there have been thankfully few, but by no means none – that detached little presence is always there at the back of my mind, taking notes. So this is what it feels like when you lose a close family member. Interesting. I could use that. Oh, you're going to cry now … It doesn't matter how much I want it to go away. How much I hate myself for thinking that way at such a time. I can't switch it off. It gathers and files my life experiences, while the rest of me is shaken and battered by every emotion that flows through my veins.
Because, in the end, that's what it means to be an artist – a writer or a painter or a musician or anything else. We feed off the things life gives us, the good and the bad. We feed off our own experiences, and more than that – we feed off other people's. Anyone who has ever heard the news of a tragic event and felt genuine empathy for those involved, but at the same time thought This would make a great plot for a novel, will know what I'm talking about. In some sense we are all exploiting the people around us, constantly searching for real experiences, real emotions, real lives. That's not to say, of course, that we are malicious or unfeeling. Empathy and a good story go hand in hand: without the one, we wouldn't recognise the other. The greatest artists are often those who have suffered pain or despair or hardship yet recognise a spark in the darkness, the potential for transformation into something beautiful. Without the ability to take our raw emotions and turn them into something that speaks to others, we wouldn't be much use as writers.
So here's to the little voice. Though it can be frustrating, even disturbing, I wouldn't want to be without it. May it take the bad times in my life and turn them into literature.
A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted the following: 'Beginning to wonder if I spend so much time editing because I'm scared to attempt the next step. Sometimes perfectionism is just an excuse.'
Since then, for various reasons, I haven't been able to spend much time on my writing projects – editing or otherwise. My laptop is gradually gathering dust in a corner. And with that enforced break has come a chance to reflect on the truth of what I said.
As with so many things in life, I have come to the conclusion that it's both true and false.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be as good as you can be. I don't have much patience with people who make no effort to learn how to spell, punctuate and construct a sentence properly before they go rushing off to find a publisher for their masterpiece. I know quite well that my own skills have improved since ten years ago when I first finished writing a book. If I'd tried submitting back then, I would have been terribly premature – and I know I would have ended up disappointed. Luckily for me, my own self-criticism prevented that disaster. I wasn't ready. I could do better. Some of the ideas were good, but the whole thing needed work. I would start again.
Trouble is, I still feel that way now. And it's become the weight that's holding me back.
No matter how good I get, I always know I could be better. That goes without saying. Even the books I love most aren't perfect. But somehow, I've let that turn into my excuse. Every compliment I get, every comment from a reader along the lines of I love this sample and am longing to read more, settles briefly on my skin and then slides right off again. It makes me smile for an hour or two, but its effect doesn't last. I don't believe it, not deep down. Whereas criticism, well, that lodges in my flesh like a tiny barbed dart, and I believe every word. See? There were three things Reader X didn't like about it. That means it's not ready. If it were ready then there would be nothing to dislike.
Nonsensical, I know. The subjective nature of opinion means there will always be something to dislike. Perfection is an unattainable goal. But now I'm confronting this honestly, I realise that's the very thing I like about it.
See, I've always been a dreamer. I guess that's why I became a fantasy writer in the first place. And the thing about dreams is, they're safe. They're in the future. By definition, they haven't happened yet, and that means they still could. Pursuing perfection keeps me in that comfortable place between coming up with a goal and actually trying to make it happen. As long as I'm attempting to be perfect, I can claim to be working towards my dreams without ever being forced to test their robustness. I'm like a scientist who beavers away at a hypothesis and never carries out the experiments that would prove or disprove it.*
Because what if I try and fail? What if I get the book as good as it can be, submit it to publishers and agents large and small, and none of them are interested? What if I decide to go the self-publishing route and watch the book sink into obscurity, selling only five copies (and those to my pets)? What if it turns out that the one and only ambition I've had since I learned how to read will never be achieved? What if I've been wasting my time?
Faced with questions like those it's easy to sit on a project, polishing and re-polishing endlessly, safe in the knowledge that my dream could still come true. Safe in the knowledge that if I haven't tried, I haven't failed. But let's face it: never trying is really the worst failure of all. I'm failing to believe in myself and what I do. I'm failing to have the courage to put myself out there and get knocked back. I'm failing, miserably, to stare rejection in its mad little eyes and say At least I gave it my best shot.
And so, finally, it's time to put down my red pen and take the plunge. I have to overcome my own fear of failure and face the fact that my dream may only ever be a dream. Maybe I'll get what I want. But if not … well, 'tis better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.
* Yes, I know it's not actually possible to prove a hypothesis. Allow me a little artistic licence, please, science bods. Your geek is not my geek.
She's so lovely
OK. Who here suffers from an irrational hatred of something or someone? A hatred so blind and all-consuming that you only have to see the object of it to start foaming at the mouth? A hatred that you can’t explain in logical terms – a hatred that is the exact opposite of love at first sight?
Yeah. Me too.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. I’m here to talk about my perfectly reasonable hatred of character descriptions in books.
I’ll be gallivanting happily through my latest fictional adventure, caught up in the political machinations of the Zo’aran people or a race across the plains on dinosaur-back, or whatever, and then I’ll come across a sentence like ‘Xyantha pushed her flowing blonde hair back from her face and folded her slender arms’.
In one line, the book has lost all its joy for me and I want to give the author a good smack around the head.
First of all, no-one thinks of themselves in terms of their physical characteristics. An easy way to tell this is to rewrite the sentence in first person. “I pushed my flowing blonde hair back from my face and folded my slender arms.” I’d get some funny looks if I tried telling that story over a few drinks, and not just because flowing blonde hair would look pretty weird on me. As a general rule, the only time anyone ever notices their own appearance is when they look in a mirror. (But please, please don’t let your character look in a mirror. Not unless it’s important to the plot. And maybe not even then.)
Second, it strikes me as both lazy and self-indulgent on the part of the writer. Self-indulgent because there’s no denying that all writers fall in love with our characters. We know exactly what they look like, and we desperately want to share that with our readers so they can appreciate how dashing/beautiful/badass our darlings are. But let’s face it, author comrades: readers don’t give a damn. They’re far more interested in what the characters do. (When was the last time you decided you really liked a character because of his eye colour?) Which brings me to lazy: there are so many better ways of letting your reader know what your characters look like, without boring them with a shopping list of attributes. And the most obvious of these is only to describe a physical characteristic when another character has reason to notice it. That way, it’s a reaction – a character-revealing response – and not just a fact.
The exception, of course, is if the characteristic is a key part of the story – Xyantha wondering why she’s blonde when every other member of her family is dark. But in that case, the description of her blondeness wouldn’t be an intrusion by an author who wants us to know how awesome-looking Xyantha is; it would be a way to show important aspects of her character, her emotions and reactions. And that’s OK with me.
Of course, inevitably, in that particular case it would also turn out that Xyantha is not her parents’ child, but a half-elven orphan who is the heir to an ancient magical bloodline and destined to save the world. But that’s the subject of another rant entirely.