Advice to writers – tribes

One of the great things about writing is that it’s an art form with very few pre-requisites. You need to be able to read and write. You need something to write with. If you want anyone to appreciate your work you need access to an audience. Writing well is a bit harder though. Staying sane while writing well is harder still.

It helps if you don’t try to do it alone.

The first person you need is the one who believes in you. It’s not always easy to believe in yourself when you’re trying to be creative. It helps if you have someone else’s belief to push you onward when your own belief fails.

Adam Savage (yes the Mythbuster) talked on one of his fantastic youTube videos* about how a maker needs at least one person who believes in them. They don’t have to understand you or the things you make but they have to believe that you have value and your creations have worth. To that I would add that they don’t have to be physically close to you, online friends count. They don’t have to still be alive, the memory of a parent or grandparent who believed can be a light that you hold within.

If you’ve just realised that you don’t have that one believer in your life then don’t panic. You can find one if you start by being one. Find other creative people and believe in them. You’ll find that some of them will believe in you in return. You’ll also find that it’s easier to believe in yourself because you’re strengthening that part of your personality.

Once you have that one person who believes in you it’s time to fill out the rest of your tribe. You need people who face the same challenges as you. Even if they don’t meet them in the same way. So if you’re a writer you need other writers, if you’re having trouble balancing creativity and a busy life then you need others who’ve been through that, if you have to deal with mental health issues or disability getting in the way then you need people who’ve been through that.

You need people who are following the same path. So if you’re writing fanfiction you need to have some fanfiction friends in your tribe. If you’re planning to self publish then you need to reach out to others on that path. If you want to go the traditional publishing route then you need others who understand the pain of querying. When you’re writing your first novel then it helps to be around other new writers.

You need people who like the stuff that you like. They don’t have to be writers but it does help if they’re makers in some way. If you write scifi then you need friends who get scifi, people that you can go to movies with and binge watch TV with and discuss books with. You need people with whom you can get into knock down drag out fights about who’s the best Doctor, or Star Trek ship captain and whether Malcolm Reynolds is a bigger scoundrel than Han Solo.**

And finally your tribe needs diversity and generations. You need to reach out to people younger and older than you. You need people from the widest possible range of backgrounds and experiences and cultures and ethnicities. You need beginners and old hands and every level of experience in between. And you need to listen to them. People will tell you about their experiences both in creativity and life and you need to listen and respect. Not only will you be a better writer but you’ll be a better person.

Reach out to people. Find your tribe. Support them and accept their support in return. Be there for them But a word of warning. In your journey you may meet people who seem to be part of your tribe but who never repay. They’re happy to accept your praise and lean on you and others in your tribe but when the call for help goes out they’re never there. It’s ok to let them go. You don’t have to call them out. You don’t have to confront them. You can just withdraw from them. Concentrate your attention on the people who know they’re part of a tribe not the people who think you’re part of their entourage.

* I can’t find the exact video but here’s a link to the channel, Tested. I recommend it.

** The correct answers are: all of them, Sulu (yes he counts), and yes but Han has the cooler ship.

Life Lessons: You can enjoy stuff you’re not good at

When I was a kid I hated being bad at stuff. I hated it so much that I would avoid doing things that I was bad at. Which is a problem because when you’re a kid you’re bad at most stuff and you can’t get better at stuff if you don’t practice it.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that if I wanted to be good at something I would have to endure being bad at it first. I would force myself to practice things in the hope that I would eventually get good enough to enjoy it. That’s a good attitude to have but it’s not the complete lesson.

The complete lesson is that, with the right attitude, you can enjoy being bad at something.

Which brings me to World of Tanks. I’ve been playing it a lot recently and on a good day I’m kind of sort of ok at it. On a bad day I’m terrible. I will never be a world class player. I will probably never be great at it. I might eventually be quite good (probably not though). But that doesn’t matter because I can enjoy it anyway.

Sometimes it’s a tough game to enjoy. I’m in the wrong tank on the wrong map with the wrong team and the wrong attitude. Sometimes I’m playing my socks off and I still lose because my teammates are donkeys. Sometimes it feels like I’m faced with a team of psychic tank drivers who move out of the way the moment I hit fire.

But then sometimes I’m the psychic tanker hitting tanks I can’t even see because I’ve worked out where they are and sometimes I’ll carry that team of donkeys to victory anyway. Best of all are the battles when I’m playing well and so is everyone else.

Here’s my advice on how to enjoy stuff you’re not good at:

  1. Accept that you have to suck in order to improve.
  2. Accept that there are some things you may never be brilliant at.
  3. Accept that you’re going to lose a lot.
  4. Realise that the more you lose the sweeter those victories are.
  5. Take full ownership of your wins even when you know it was through luck or the incompetence of others.
  6. Try to make new and interesting mistakes, if only for variety.
  7. Remember that it’s not the end of the world.
  8. Forget about external validation.
  9. It’s ok to laugh at yourself when you fuck up in entertaining ways.
  10. It’s also ok to laugh when other people fuck up in entertaining ways but only if you also laugh at yourself.
  11. Sometimes it won’t be fun it will just be frustrating and it’s totally ok to go and do something else for while.

Advice to writers – playlists

This is a departure from my previous posts aimed at young writers. This one is for everyone because this post is something I really needed to know ages ago but instead had to find out the hard way.

Music while writing can be controversial. Some writers, like Ian Rankin, swear by it and some, like Philip Pullman, can get quite salty on the subject. Even the writers that like to write to music tend to say that they can’t listen to music with words.

For years I resisted writing music, even though I love music, even though my husband would make me writing playlists based on the book I was working on, even though I tend to turn to music videos for inspiration when I’m all out of ideas. Gentlepersons, I was wrong. Sort of.

I come to you today not to praise the writing playlist but to suggest a new use for it.

One reason that we use music in films is because it’s great at setting the scene, creating mood, driving emotion. That’s not necessarily great while you’re writing. Unless you’re very careful you can end up with the music you’re listening to driving the scene instead of the characters. But writing doesn’t just happen while you’re sitting at a keyboard or a notebook.

My best writing often happens while I’m standing at a bus stop, or shopping, or looking out of a moving vehicle. It’s not really writing then, of course, at that point it’s still story. It doesn’t become writing until I sit down at the computer and write it. But that purposeful daydreaming of story is a vital part of my creative process and I can’t be the only one.

Here’s how to use a writing playlist to make your purposeful daydreaming more useful.

  1. Create a playlist for each writing project. Name it after the working title.
  2. Give each of your characters their own theme songs, they can have as many as you like.
  3. Pick some songs that reflect the major themes or moods or events of the story.
  4. Every time you add a new element to the story try to add a relevant song.
  5. Listen to this playlist whenever you’re doing something boring, like housework or shopping or walking somewhere.
  6. Only listen to the playlist that’s related to the current project. When you switch projects switch playlists.

This is so useful because the playlist creates a headspace that you come to associate with the project. That means that you can stop working on it for a while, do something else, come back and the music will take you back to where you were when you were working on it. The music pulls your imagination in the right direction. It becomes the soundtrack to the moving pictures in your mind.

Try it out, folks, don’t make the mistake I did and write another four first drafts before giving it a chance.

Advice to a young writer part 1

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

Since her problem is with writing that’s what I’m going to focus on but hopefully this will be helpful for other arts.

There will be many more parts. Each one will set some homework.

You are not alone

The very features of the mind that make a person creative also make it harder to stick to just one thing. The very imagination that flits from place to place and links together disparate ideas and images is also as distractible as a puppy in a room full of squirrels.

All artists have trouble finishing things. All artists try to find methods to harness their imagination to the task. Some struggle with it their whole careers, some beat the problem so comprehensively that you would think they had never had to fight it at all.

Vincent Van Gogh was so prolific he could complete several paintings on a good day, but he sold only one in his lifetime and had to be supported by his brother. Leonardo Da Vinci was a chronic procrastinator who completed only 15 works but was supported by a series of wealthy and powerful patrons.

But they were painters. How about writers? The two greatest writers of humorous sci fi/fantasy of my lifetime were Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. At his most prolific Terry was completing two or more novels a year as well as countless short stories and articles. He was so successful he had to change banks because he filled the old one up. Douglas Adams wrote some of the greatest Doctor Who scripts ever, he wrote the groundbreaking radio drama Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he also wrote several novels and a book on natural history. He was such a chronic procrastinator that some of the episodes of the Hitchhiker’s where completed minutes before they had to be recorded. He once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” One of his novels took three and a half years to write, but most of the actual writing was done in the last two weeks, and most of that was done over a single weekend.

My point is that having trouble finishing your stories does not mean that you are not a writer. It means that you have the same problem that every other writer has. And because it’s a problem that every writer has there are loads of solutions to it. Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing in advance which one will work for you so it’s going to be trial and error.

Homework

Your first task is to research some solutions for yourself. Pick a couple of your favourite writers and do some googling. You’re looking for interviews, articles and blog posts that talk about how they work. For example if you google “Derek Landy on writing” you’ll find the writer of the Skulduggery Pleasant books giving his thoughts on writing and answering questions about his method.

 

A writer is always writing

The thing about writing is that there is no down time. Regardless of what they’re doing with their hands or their brain or where they currently are a writer’s imagination is always at work. Once you get into that mindset there’s no getting out of it.

I took my son in to see Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 this weekend. I’m not going to talk about the film yet. All I’ll say now is that if you even slightly enjoy action movies, family movies, superhero movies, or soft sci-fi you should go and see it at the next opportunity. Also stand by for spoiler heavy posts about it in the coming weeks. If you’re a writer you should definitely go and see it even if you don’t usually like the kind of thing that it is. I will be talking about why in future posts once more of you have had the chance to see it.

After we saw the film we went for coffee. Well, I had coffee, my husband and son had some milkshake type thing from Costa. We got to discussing the details of the film and what we liked about it and what were its narrative components and my son did something that made me very proud and also reminded me that a writer is always writing even when they think they’re parenting.

My son, who is only 12 years old, broke out the word hubris. I wasn’t even talking about the classical flaws but he correctly identified a fantastic example of that one while I was still talking about how people sometimes behave like dicks because they’re afraid of losing themselves. I can’t wait to see the kind of critical essays he writes for his English classes.

Change of plans

I have decided that maybe it’s time to give my completed novel a rest for a bit. Maybe it’s the wrong work to query? Maybe I was thinking too big, too long, or too crazy?

I’m going to concentrate on another story. As it stands it’s a complete first draft of a novella but I think it could be more. I think it could be a short novel. It’s smaller in scope than the novel I was querying though I think it will get a bit bigger as I expand it. Maybe it’s more what agents are looking for as a first novel? I know that the setting will be easier to pitch to Scottish publishers and easier for them to sell to readers.

Of course it’s probably displacement activity. It’s easier to write another novel than it is to query the finished one. The novel has to be finished before someone can reject it and, by extension, me. Writing is the bit that I know I’m good at. Well, think I’m good at. Most of the time.

It’s something a bit different for me. The narrator character is disabled. Writing stuff that’s too close to home is something I usually shy away from. It feels like cheating somehow. But I keep seeing agents and publishers asking for diverse storytelling and diverse characters. Maybe they actually mean it. And if they don’t I’ve got this other story I can whip out when they tell me that they can’t sell a locked room mystery set in Aberdeen where the central character is an unglamorous disabled woman.

Achievement Unlocked: Defeat Procrastination!

I have spent all of February and the first 2 days of March not sending in my submission for the Dundee International Book Prize. I finally broke the spell of procrastination today. Huzzah!

It’s been a month long Boss fight against a Boss that keeps levelling up (Think Sephiroth at the end of Final Fantasy VII).

The first form was Fear of Success. I beat that one with the knowledge that failure in a competition like this is virtually certain. There will be many entries and only one winner. The judges are looking for literary fiction which I can’t define much less write.

Then came Fear of Failure. I bargained with that one. I pointed out that entering the competition would mean I wouldn’t be able to submit the novel to any agents or publishers until the end of March so this would be the only failure I’d have to deal with and since this failure was virtually certain it was also mostly meaningless.

The final form was Fear of Screwing Up. If you send your novel in the wrong format or have too many words in your synopsis or fill in the entry form wrong then your novel is immediately disqualified and you can only enter once. For a smart person I have an embarrassingly long history of miss-reading, miss-remembering and miss-understanding apparently simple instructions. This was a tricky fight. I must have read the instructions a dozen times today alone. In the end I was only able to send it in by pretending that I was only doing it so I could close the tab on chrome with the competition rules.

So it’s done. Go me! I am victorious and mighty. But only because I had help with the synopsis (thanks to Bob, Cat, Lindz and Niles). Only because my husband kept bugging me to send the submission in. Only because my various writing friends help me to stay enthusiastic about the whole writing thing (which is impressive as I was born with a malformed enthusiasm gland).

This is a reminder of something I’ve heard Adam Savage (the ex Mythbuster) talk about. In order to be creative you need at least one person who believes in you. He talked about how even when he was a teenager rejecting boring regular work in favour of building weird stuff his mother believed in him. He said that person doesn’t have to understand you or the things that you’re doing they just have to believe that it is good or has the potential to be good.

I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary for every creative person but I know when I had no cheering section I accomplished nothing. I know that when my mother bugs me to print out the novel so she can read it she’s doing it because she believes. I know that when my husband bugs me to finish stuff he believes. I know that when my beta reader pestered me for the next part of the book she believed.

Another thing I know is that I can pay it forward. When I bug my friends to write stuff, or take photographs, or do art I’m taking my place in their cheering section. Whenever I like, or plus one, or favourite or re-blog their stuff I am saying “I believe in you”.

If you’re reading this and you aspire to be creative then this is your reminder to defeat your own Bosses and make stuff. This is your reminder to be there for other creators. This is your reminder to cheer for others as you would have them cheer for you.