Writing tips from The Other Side…
Ramblings About Writing, Murder, and Gargling My Talent-Juice
Now stop me if I’m going too fast here, but there are times – just times, mind – when I reflect that the world of writing (and especially would-be writers) can attract some of our more delightfully personalitied comrades in this great melting pool of humanity. The same observation can be said of sci-fi and fantasy, of course. It amuses me that SF&F still attracts this attitude of being the fiefdom of geeks and nerds when some of the nerdiest people I’ve ever met were those who could rattle off the make, model, and horsepower of a car simply by hearing its engine, and yet would be appalled if someone could identify an episode of Buffy or DS9 merely from its opening moments. Everyone – and I do quite literally mean EVERYONE – is “nerdy” about something.
So when you combine these two worlds, would-be writers and SF&F, as myself and the good ship Kenneth Gregory did on Saturday 13th September at Titancon to run our Writer’s Workshop, you do so with some measure of healthy trepidation. This wasn’t my first rodeo to use an appalling phrase; myself and Ken had run a similar workshop the previous year. 2013’s vintage really was my first rodeo and, full of Vimto and vinegar, I’d designed little sheets for people to map out story ideas thinking we could come up with a few outlines for stories. It didn’t work. An hour isn’t nearly enough time to get people to do anything remotely practical, especially writers, who aren’t remotely practical at the best of times.
This year there were no such grand ideas. We turned up in the little antechamber – in true Titancon tradition it had been renamed “The Riverlands” with not much more than a big table, some pages and pens, and a vague notion of passing on some wisdom. Happily, we ended up having quite a decent turnout – in the end there were about 13 or 14 people, upon whom I inflicted the civil service cruelty of introducing themselves and checking that they were there for sci-fi and fantasy tips. This sounds like a no-brainer but believe it or not at last year’s event we did have a few people who admitted they “didn’t really like fiction” or “weren’t that into fantasy”. I politely replied that perhaps Google Maps had rather let them down in accidentally directing them to a BLOODY WRITER’S WORKSHOP IN A BLOODY FANTASY CONVENTION.
No such misfortune this time. The group was bubbly and friendly and I regret very much that it only occurred to me thereafter that I should have taken the time to record everyone’s Twitter handle and set up a little Twitter post-workshop list – definitely one of the lessons learned if the Workshop is going to recur in 2015. Ken and I chatted freeform (that’s a fancy word for “off the top of our heads”, kids) about writing and, whether by accident or desi…yeah yeah okay, completely by accident, we ended up with a series of recommendations for would-be writers, which I shall try to recount here. I hope they’re helpful but please attach to them the usual disclaimers that these are only myself and Ken’s thoughts and in no way should be taken as ineffable facts.
1. If you’re claiming to be a writer, you gotta do some writing.
Sounds obvious this one but it’s been my experience from chatting to people about writing that very very few people will say “oh writing I could never do that!”. Most people will instead opt for “oh I’ve always meant to write a book myself”, and a disappointing number of people will add “about the goings-on in my office, only no one would believe it!” YES, YES THEY WOULD. YOUR OFFICE IS EXACTLY LIKE EVERY OTHER OFFICE IN THE WORLD. NOW PISS OFF.
My point here is that when you ask them for evidence of this writing habit they’ve produced precisely sod all. Millions and millions of people have written amazing, Joyce-beating, shitting-over-Shakespeare-from-orbit novels and plays and poems that don’t exist outside their heads. It’s not that hard, you know. If you can spend time in work posting tweets and Facebook status updates and replies to BBC Sport message threads, you can spare a few minutes here and there to start work on your magnificent octopus.
2. Show, don’t hoard
Another seemingly obvious one. I talked during the workshop about how in my view people get wannabe actors and wannabe authors confused. Wannabe actors don’t necessarily have to be extroverts but they do have to overcome the shyness thing; acting is performing, after all. For authors it’s different. We’re not the story, our story is the story, we cry. I’ve always been convinced that authors are people-watching voyeurs (and if they’re not they bloody should be) and that sometimes means we’re a slightly shy and retiring bunch content to let our characters and plots do the talking.
Here’s the rub, though; sooner or later, if you’re in this with any sort of commercial ambitions, you gotta get over the shyness thing. The work has to come out of drawers and hard drives and has to be sent to friends, to family, to everyone whose opinion you respect. Critique has to come and it has to come thick and fast. Watching people read Folk’d was one of the biggest thrills of my life but there was also this tiny little nugget of discomfort too. I pour a lot of myself into my books, I think everyone does, so it feels like people have a backdoor to your subconscious mind when they’re reading your stuff AND FROWNING OH GOD WHY ARE THEY FROWNING THEY HATE IT I HATE THEM and that can be hard to get over. Letting someone read my stories is kinda like letting a stranger place their hand on your thigh; it’s violating, it’s unnerving, but it’s…erm, completely necessary…? OK that metaphor ran out of legs. SHUT UP.
3. Find your Happy Place, Happy
Shameless Happy Gilmore reference there, I admit. I’m talking about the alchemy of the exact atmosphere you need for the magic to happen and words to come pouring out. Ken loves going to a writer’s retreat sort of place in Donegal where with no Internet and no distractions he can crank out 8,000 words a day. As someone who lacks a car, a brother with such a house, and the time to do such a thing, I can only hate Ken and hope his car explodes suddenly and he loses a leg in the resultant fireball. My own Happy Place is quite different anyway; I write in my living room, surrounded by my partner and kids, with a big ole pair of headphones on and some musical accompaniment. I’ve tried the solitude and seclusion thing and it genuinely doesn’t work for me, but it might for you. Experiment. Try things, see what works, and then…
4. Make Time
…yeah, this one is the kicker. I found myself listing the elements of my life that provide a distraction, including my job, the aforementioned two kids (and all of the homework-marking Transfer Test preparedness craziness that goes on with that) plus the small matter of planning for my wedding at the end of October. Yet in August I decided I was going to write a new Folk’d story and more or less exactly a month later my novella was complete, all 32k words of it, completed here and there in dribs and drabs and stolen moments. How did I do this? Because I’m amazingly awesome. Haven’t you been paying attention? Christ. Go back to point 1, immediately.
Right – reached here again? Good. Whilst my undoubted oceans of talent-juice cannot be gargled by most mere mortals like you, I’m sure you too can aspire in your own pathetic way to emulate me. Grab moments. If you’re one of those weirdos who can wake up before 7.30am of your own free will and not wander the planet in a daze wanting everything and everyone to burn, use that time. Grab some time during the day at work. Break the law flagrantly and often, you little scamps. It’s OK, tell them Laurence allowed you to. You’re never going to buy a fantastic new novel and then open it up to find nothing but blank pages except for one that says “swear to God, if I’d had time to write this, it would have been ruddy BRILLIANT”.
5. And finally…Use the Fanfic, Luke
Yes, it has a terrible reputation. Yes, deservedly so. Yes, it consists mainly either of 14 year old girls Mary Sueing themselves frantically into every fandom known to (wo)man, or some frankly upsetting slashfic featuring the most unlikely male-male pairings you will ever have the misfortune to read about. Ah, but! World-building is hard. Creating characters is hard. They always sound fake. I could invent a guy called Harry Latimer and now, already, he’s sounding fake to me and probably to you. What an asshole he is. Who cares what he’s up to? Oh sod this writing a story lark, I wonder how Bake Off’s doing.
Therefore, my advice if you’re wanting to dip your toe into fiction is this: pick a movie or a TV show you love, and write a fanfic about it. The world is already there, ditto the characters. Put words into their mouths. See how well you can work within the limitations of the genre and do justice to the toybox you’re playing in. Hone your muscles there, and then – even more importantly! – get OUT! Do not linger in fanfic, whatever you do. Come up with your own ideas, your own world, your own mythology. One day you’ll be writing a story in your own little world and you’ll realise you’ve got the same feeling of playing with a toybox you did when writing that early fanfic, but now it’s YOUR toybox and YOUR world, you beautiful bastard.
And that’s about all I can remember, to be honest. There was probably loads more ramblings and Ken might have said something funny at some point, but I was too busy cutting his brake cables to pay much attention. I hope these prove useful and fingers crossed Titancon will invite us back in 2015. If they do, come along! Sure it won’t be the same if you don’t show up. Ha ha ha (winks at camera as it pans back) until next time everyone, goodbye from me and (suddenly serious) be careful out there, OK?