Monday, 30 June 2008

Why writers should have babies

I have a four month old baby. He doesn't talk. 

Yes, I know this is quite normal. I already have an older son and he didn't talk as a baby either. In fact, long before he emerged onto the scene I knew, like the rest of you, that babies don't talk. However, when you're confronted with the reality of caring for a tiny human, who does interact, but without words - and you spend most of your life using words, it is a bit of a shock. Not least because so much is 'said' without words. You end up having _years_ of conversations in which one party communicates entirely non verbally.

There were several positive side-effects during my son's first year. Characters in my writing started moving more, demonstrating by action as well as with words their intent. This new take on communication helped even more when I was writing stage plays. Because of how my baby and I were communicating I become much more in tune and more cognizant of how  physical communication between actors can work on stage.

And when he started to talk - number 1 son is now six - I found and still find that I have to be very clear with my directions and I am frequently called upon to define new words. I am of the school of thought that you talk to children as you would to an adult rather than in doggy-woggy terms. (This does pay off. When asked about his favorite animal my son replied without hesitation 'a chameleon' because of its 'natural ability in camouflage'. He was three and a half at the time.)

Effectively all mothers  teach their offspring language from scratch. It's quite a duty and if you're going to do it well you need to develop the ability to be an exhaustless and accurate, walking thesaurus. It makes you think very carefully about your use of language.

Now, I'm back again in babyland I'm finding my writing is again becoming more physical and it is all the fresher for it. As for the fact I'm having one-sided conversations most days, I've always both read and plotted aloud when I'm checking out ideas and difficult passages. It's rather nice to have a constant critic, whose worst remark is 'goo' and will smile even at the most tortuous of prose.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

When do you call yourself a writer?

It says 'writer' on my passport - even though it's out of date. At the time I got it I was working as a full time journalist and so 'journalist' would also have been an option, but I reckoned 'writer' would cause less fuss at foreign customers. To my mind, writers are viewed as mildly eccentric, but essentially harmless. Journalists, on the other hand, are more likely to be construed as noisy and possibly even up to no good.

But it was a choice I could make. Not being an ant I don't actually have a designation in my local hive or colony. I can describe myself as a I wish. A rather successful Scottish playwright I know tells the story of how he always described himself as a playwright, who was currently working in a game shop, while he waited for the rejections to cease and fame to begin. He had some really, really horrible rejections including one that asked him for the sake of theatre to stop writing. But he didn't.

Calling yourself a writer is about self-definition - telling the universe and everyone in it that that's what you are. You're also telling yourself. You can't claim to be a writer and not write. When you say it, enshrine it in various forms, you're drawing your boundaries and committing to a future - even if that future is full of rejection rather than success.

I'd like to say I started calling myself a writer when I had my first piece published in a newspaper (age 11) or even when prior to that I used to write plays at school that got performed to the whole school. But I didn't.

I'd like to say when I put writer on my passport application I felt strong and confident about it. However, despite the fact I was regularly writing for an international Sunday, I didn't. I felt like I was cheating. I was being read all over the world, working everyday including the weekends on pieces that were being published, but I didn't think I qualified.

It could be my good old British self-deprecation. It could be my very own special brand of lacking confidence. Calling yourself a writer is feels a big deal. But although I had success with short stories (even winning a couple of major competitions) it was only when I had my first son and decided I would be a mother and a writer - and started calling myself a writer to the outside world that the book publications, the mentorship and my involvement with the BBC came. 

As is so often true in life, you need to believe in yourself for others to follow. You also need to know that you are a writer regardless of success, publication or public opinion. While I'd never advise someone to call themselves a dentist because they felt like it, being a writer is different. You do have to believe it first yourself before others will follow.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Guesting at Lyrical Press

Drop by The Lyrical Press Blog to see my thoughts on School's Out for Summer.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Wide White Sky

There are always those days when you sit in front your screen fingers resting idly on the keyboard and tumbleweed blowing through your mind. More often than not the days when you can't get to your computer are spent frantically writing paper notes or when for some ridiculous and highly implausible reason you can't get to a pen (eg you're with your kids in the swimming pool or breastfeeding) you end up repeating an idea over and over to yourself like a small mantra until you can get to a pen or your miraculous idea dissolves into the soup of everyday existence. And then there are those times when you're at your computer looking at the urgently scored and unwritten notes that says 'Cat Jelly Soup' totally unable to remember why you wrote these three words and somewhat fearful that dementia has arrived sooner than expected. There are days when it simply seems that the creative muse likes best to play when its ideas are most likely to be lost to the moment. 

So what do you do?

I try at all times to have a pen, a notebook, an electronic notebook and in the worse cases a SMLAVSRD - supportive mobile listening and variably successful recording device (otherwise known as a friend) on hand. (NB never attempt to use your cat as SMLAVSRD. They may appear to listen, but the playback is always flawed.)

As for white screen - white screen time is for plotting and world building. When it comes down to it free flowing writing in character or the creation of great description is huge fun, but for most of us it rarely makes a novel. Whether you're writing fantasy or keeping it contemporary you need to know where your characters live. You need to know how their locations lie in relation to each other. You need to know who is in authority, who has jurisdiction over whom. And, of course, if you're writing fantasy you need to work out if a gerb is bigger than a greeb - and that's only the start. 

Plotting is more complicated. The structure of the novel has been evolving since the first psychological novel was written. - I think this was Genji, but I'm open to correction - But novels do have structure. This structure rarely just comes into being. It's a puzzle that needs piecing together. If you can get the outline of this puzzle in place then the free flow of writing the A to B parts is not only enjoyable, but tends to comes more easily. (The writing programme scrivener is hugely helpful for plot and structure development.)

And if you're feeling utterly, utterly uninspired, it's time for housekeeping ie submitting to agents, publishers and trawling through relevant blogs and news sites.

But, and this is for another entry, writers are very like fields. We also need our fallow time.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Workshops Update

At the start of this blog I mentioned I was running two workshops at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 'Dealing with Solitary Creativity' August 12th and 'Dealing with Rejection' August 13th. Both workshops are part of the Writing Business strand and sponsored by the Society of Authors (of which I'm both a member and a committee member).

Tickets went on sale yesterday morning. Solitary Creativity is already sold out and yesterday afternoon there were a few tickets left for the Rejection Workshop (which is a reprise of one I ran last year.)

So I strongly advise if you want to come to the second workshop - or indeed any of the writing strand workshops you book today, either on line or by phone. You can ask to be put on a waiting list for any returns, but it's at the discretion of the festival whether they do this (ie if they're too busy they'll ask you simply to show up on the day and wait for any returns caused by plague or disaster.)

What's the point of going to workshops? I can only tell you what happens in mine. I offer a mix of  practical points, short exercises to demonstrate these and a query session. It's a lot to cram into 90 minutes and all my participants work hard! I also get a huge buzz from running these events because beginner writers are not only enthusiastic, but supportive of each other. My workshops are definitely not competitive (a major achievement in such a cut-throat industry!) and encourage writers to network and support each other. My hope is when you leave one of my events you are not only armed with practical skills, but you feel lifted, more optimistic and inspired.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

What's left unsaid

I take a great delight in the charming peculiarities of my friends. Small comments and actions can be such a window into someone's personality or life. Below are two examples. Names and faces are changed to protect the unwary.

Recently one friend told me about her family 'big book of health' and another about how all her family 'had a special place for their shoes' when they came in from a walk and then added how angry she was her husband never used his.

Friend number one, I assume, wants to be in charge of her own health. Being at an age where she is rapidly becoming older than the average doctor at her GP surgery, she wants to be able to question the suitably qualified, but often young, hurried and inexperienced experts. She is an extremely sensible person and this attitude seems in keeping with her over all persona. It also gives me a lovely picture of her pouring over this giant book of health, which is possibly almost as big as she is.

With Friend number two you don't have to know her to understand. It's the frustrated statement of a woman whose communication with her husband is breaking down. She's talking about shoes, but it's actually about her marriage.

In both instances it's what is inferred that is important. Every textbook ever created on writing says 'show not tell' - and this is often used as an excuse for labored description or over using very mundane dialogue. ('Hello' rarely _needs_ to be written in prose or play.) But if you listen to the very, very best dialogue it isn't someone speaking their feelings or giving a direction, it's about what they say without saying it. 

With my Friend number one her comment has its biggest impact when you know some of her backstory. Friend number two's comment is immediately accessible.

Inference is a skill we develop as children - something my six year old is just learning to do, but once we learn it, we do it all the time. Allowing readers to infer what is going on pays tribute to their intelligence. It engages their brain and makes them more interested in what is going on. As humans we are programmed to make sense of things, to look for meaning and even when we're seeking entertainment we can't stop. Nothing is more boring than simply being told what is happening - not least of all because real people don't communicate directly. Hardly any of us are capable of saying exactly what we mean especially when emotions are involved - just like Friend number two.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Life and writing

Not so long ago I went for an interview with the director of playwright sponsoring and training scheme here in Scotland. She's a lovely lady and very easy to talk too. Our interview took place in a graveyard. There were little plastic seats and there was tea and a small cafe, but I found myself repositioning my chair so as not to be on the edge of what I had taken to be a rather large paving slab, but on closer inspection clearly had 'dearly beloved' inscribed upon it. Now it might have been the perspective altering situation (carrot cake and coffin anyone?). It might have been the pleasantness of my interviewer. Or it may simply have been that generally I am pretty open about my life to date. But near the end of the interview my questioner took a deep breath and said, "Well, you certainly have a good seam of experience to mine."

She said it kindly, but in a never mind things will get better sort of a way. Now, I don't think I'm having a bad life. A great deal of my life (including hewhoshallbenameless and our offspring) is quite wonderful. But anyone who does know me in real life will know there have been the odd bump in the road - my diagnosis of having MS being one of them. In fact if I fly off into the air in my virtual helicopter of imagination and look down at the road I am choosing to follow and have followed there are quite a few bumps. But they're bumps, not dead-ends, not charmingly little cul-de-sacs of mind numbing suburbia, not huge great maws of hell belching flame onto my feet - such as we read every day in the news some poor innocent is experiencing. I seem (on some metaphysical level) to have taken the mandate of 'a little and often' when it comes to incidents into my life.

Sometimes it feels like I hardly ever get a moment to draw breath and add this to the very normal demands of two small children and a house that will never be tidy and life inside my head can be one barely sub-light blur.

And this is how I know I'm a writer. 

Not because stuff happens to me - yes, my interviewer was right it does give me more to write about, but because despite stuff happening when I can't get to write at length I'm making notes. When I can't get to make physical notes I'm making mental ones. Because despite whatever crazy odd shaped bumpy bit I'm thrown nothing stops me writing.

For me, writing is an incurable condition.

Friday, 13 June 2008

epublishing and sticks

Today I'm also posting on - where I will be guesting on the 13th of each month.

Lyrical Press are a new e and pod publisher. They love all kinds of stories and are the first place to offer a home to my urban fantasy meets supernatural meets romance style writing. 

When I first told the more traditional of my author friends of my intention to epublish their reaction was quite startling. The UK, where I am, is definitely not as technically forward in this area as the US, Canada or Japan, but one comment I received was 'Why are you doing this? Do you even know anyone who downloads and reads ebooks?'

But the thing is I do.

I'm a bit of a technophile and for a very short time during my first degree was in danger of becoming a computer scientist. But while I am a gamer I don't tend to wear a big belt to clip all my gadgets onto and I did have a habit of falling asleep in lectures about C++, so it wasn't going to be career path for me.

But I love science. I've even recently remembered how much I used to love New Scientist and I've been thinking about re-establishing my paper subscription rather than searching through the net. (Feb's edition this year had a major feature on why 2008 will be the year zero for time travel, and while my maths isn't quite good enough I can recognize a tardis at a hundred paces.)

I also subscribe to the idea  that science fiction often drives science. I think the most often quoted example is of the overhead bed monitors in the sick bay of the original startrek that became a real world hospital reality. If you think about it it's hardly surprising that those who adore sci-fi as children and young adults might be inspired work in real world science to move our reality closer to their beloved fiction.

Today the majority of science fiction I find is fairly hard core - whereas my interest has always been in how science can influence both culture and society. And not least that we live in a world where some of us carry touch sensitive pdas and wireless communicators as a matter of course while far away in the amazon there remain tribes that have yet to be contacted by the outside world (Did anyone see those recent aerial photos of tribes men throwing sticks at helicopters?)

Now, while I wouldn't describe my traditional writing friends as quite throwing sticks at this newfangled epublishing lark, I do think they are missing the huge and exciting possibilities this world is opening up. Yes, there are internet publishers who appear overnight and disappear within a few weeks (sometimes dragging those all important rights with them), but there are people like Lyrical, who are new, but who are doing their best to promote and channel their merchandize and ensure as much as they can they only turn out top quality work.

As a writer of fiction I imagine worlds - and as one very good friend once told in a fit of fear that means we have to be everyone in that world - not a mean task before breakfast when only the cat is awake to keep you company. I also look around in this world and imagine possibilities here. When you've been reading news on the net it's all too easy to imagine the incoming darkness, but I think writers, more than anyone else, have to help imagine real futures. We have to work with new technologies and we have to take risks. We have to say this is a new form of communication and yes, it might not all be plain sailing at first, but it's a world we need to embrace. Otherwise I fear the more traditional writers - and publishers - will be left behind under layers of very eco-friendly dust. 

My gut feeling is that paper books will continue to exist for a long time, but that our and subsequent generations will become more and more accepting of reading books via a screen of some kind - perhaps even with various embedded links in it so you can follow through thoughts and ideas. How about a story told from four different viewpoints, so that in every scene you can click through to another character's point of view -but only if you wish-. The whole form of the novel has never had more exciting possibilities.

A very long time ago when I was very young, in an age my six year old son does not believe existed, there was no internet. At the time I was working on an international Sunday newspaper and I said to my section editor 'Do you know what's coming? Do you realize how email alone will transform our world?' He told me not to be so foolish. He wanted facts and this internet and email business was only a fad. I was right then......

What do you think?

(Oh, and do pop over to Lyrical and see what I was rambling on about there too!)

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Opening moments

The strangest thing about opening this blog is I know it is mostly likely to be widely read if I am successful. Now, as I fully intend to be successful, I have to bear in mind I'm writing for the future. This poses the problem of being warm, witty and entertaining without offending anyone-  ever. Fortunately, I am very nice.

Well, maybe not _very_ nice, but interesting in a slightly off beat way. 

I am a mildly published author, an aspiring playwright, an ex-psychotherapist (in that I no longer run a private practice) and a creator of writing workshops such as How to Deal with Rejection (for which I am all too well qualified). I'm also the mother of two little boys and partner to he-who-shall-remain-nameless, but whose unqualified support makes my life lighter and my ambition not beyond the realms of possibility.

I can hypnotize people, read runes, shoot a bow, do several tai chi forms (both unarmed and with weapons - or used to be able to before the kids), have MS (mostly benign), can kill almost any plant by touching it, used to be a journalist (and sporadically still am) and will one day get round again to inspirational cooking and kitchen opera. 

This is only a small collection of my defining features, like you, I have an awful lot of variables.
Oh, and I spend a significant amount of time trying to figure out why human beings, who are capable of such wonderful emotions, spend a large amount of time being mean to each other - or worse. The desire to figure out how other people work fuels a lot of my writing. Or perhaps this is about, more sinisterly, where else but in fiction can you make other people do exactly as you wish?

This blog will be dedicated to my writing exploits, past, present and future. And to that end, if you're also a writer I'm running two workshops at the Edinburgh International Book Festival - How to Deal with Solitary Creativity, 12 August, 11am- 12.30pm and Dealing with Rejection on August 13th same time. There are only twenty five places per workshop and they literally always sell out in days - not just mine, but all the Writing Workshop series. The book festival's website is where you can find a whole chocolate box of literary delights.