Wonderfully Weird Words

We’ve all known someone with a passion for quirky words, and for me it was my grampy. If a word was obscure, unusual or ridiculously long, he would hoard it like a treasure and drop it into conversation to amuse himself.

So I’m channelling Grampy today, and celebrating five unusual words related to books and writing…

  1. Librocubicularist

Are you a librocubicularist? I certainly am. It just means someone who reads in bed.

2. Hypergraphia

Hypergraphia is an overwhelming desire to write. So it’s basically the opposite of writer’s block.

3. Rhapsodomancy

This is the practise of divining the future by picking a passage of poetry at random. I tried this myself with a book of Dylan Thomas poems and got the following stanza:

Sing and strike his heavy haul

Toppling up the boatside in a snow of light!

His decks are drenched with miracles.

Oh miracle of fishes! The long dead bite!

So now I’m feeling slightly nervous about what the future has in store for me, especially with that last line.

4. Bildungsroman

This is a literary genre that focuses on the protagonist’s formative years. Think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, or even the Harry Potter series.

5. Omnilegent

I hope to be omnilegent someday. An omnilegent person is someone who has read ALL THE BOOKS, or at least has an impressive familiarity with literature.

Got any quirky, book-related words to add to the list?

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Does Fanfiction Encourage Bad Writing – The Case for “Yes”

Writing this post was more of a challenge than the previous one because I love fanfiction. I enjoy reading it, I’ve dabbled in writing it, and I’m strongly in favour of anything that turns fandom into something creative rather than just consuming a product.

But that doesn’t mean that fanfiction teaches good writing. I feel like there are genuine issues with developing your craft through fanfiction, and I hope you’ll bear with me while I explore those issues. Starting with…

Those characters aren’t yours

If you write stories about characters and worlds that have been created by someone else, then half the work has been done for you. This can be great if you’re just starting out, or if you want to focus on something specific, like maintaining a consistent character voice. But it won’t teach crucial skills like character development or world-building.

It also means that your writing is more likely to reflect the existing media landscape rather than changing it. Your favourite Hollywood blockbuster franchise might be a great starting point for a fanfic, but the voice of Hollywood executives is not your voice.

Tropes, tropes tropes

Avoiding clichés – anything that is overused or unoriginal – is one of the first and most obvious lessons for a writer to learn. But in fanfiction, these clichés are called “tropes” and positively celebrated.

The thing is, a lot of people read fanfic for comfort. If you’re looking for something to read that’s challenging and subverts your expectations, fanfiction.net probably won’t be your first port of call. But if you want something fun, soothing or heart-warming at the end of a hard day’s work, it might well be.

This means that familiar situations where the outcome is obvious are popular in fanfiction. But they aren’t so popular with publishers, and they may not be popular with someone who’s just spent £7.99 on a novel.

Bad romance

Being dismissive of fanfiction is often seen as being dismissive of genre fiction. Fanfiction snobs are all literary writers who don’t understand the joy of a good sci-fi or thriller, right? Well, if you look broadly at fanfiction – both at the quantity of fics and the most popular ones – there’s really only one genre that dominates, and that is romance.

Because “shipping” (pairing characters up with each other in a romantic/sexytimes way) is such a big part of fandom, every fantasy series and mystery drama seems to get turned into a smooch-fest.

Of course, if you want to learn how to write romance, this is ideal. But if you’re more interested in other genres, there are limits to what you can learn. I won’t blame fanfic for the way so many writers shoehorn lacklustre romantic subplots into stories, or use overly flowery language when describing appearance (“obsidian eyes”, etc.) but, honestly, I think it plays its part.

Queer stuff, hooray?

People often talk about fanfiction as a beacon of LGBT+ inclusivity, and it’s true that the most popular fanfics tend to be novel-length M/M romances. What better way to learn how to write complex and thoughtful queer stories, right? Well…

Unfortunately, LGBT+ content in fanfiction has a clear hierarchy. Stories about M/M pairings tend to receive more attention and feedback than F/F, and stories about trans or intersex issues are often undervalued. Asexual and aromantic stories aren’t popular either, because who wants to read about characters not hooking up?

Also, a lot of the M/M romance is written by women, many of whom are straight. And while this is a contentious issue (lots of women write M/M romance to help them work through queer feelings of their own) there are potential pitfalls to this.

For example, there’s a tendency to take two canonically straight male characters and make them fall in love with each other with zero exploration of queer identity. Nothing about coming out, dealing with prejudice or being part of a queer community. Regardless of how cute the love story is, this doesn’t reflect the reality of LGBT+ people.

Fanfic bad?

There are definite disadvantages to learning to write through fanfiction, but personally I’ve never met a writer who expected to go from fanfic to a bestselling novel in one swift leap. It’s just one tool for developing writing skills, and I still think it’s a valuable one.

Also, we need to stop pigeonholing fanfiction as writing practice. Many fanfic writers are already published authors of original work. Others have no intention of getting published – they just write for fun, or to be an active part of the fandom community, or because they think Bridgerton would be better if it was mashed up with Doctor Who.

So, what’s your thinking on learning to write through fanfiction? Do you think it develops vital skills? Encourages bad habits? Both? Neither? I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences in the comments.

Does Fanfiction Encourage Bad Writing – The Case for “No”

I’ll never forget the time when, in a meeting of my old writers’ group, we had to explain fanfiction to a writer in her seventies. We told her that sometimes people take the characters from their favourite films, books and TV programmes, and write their own stories about them. She seemed both baffled and charmed by the idea.

If you’re younger or nerdier than her, you probably have a passing familiarity with fanfiction and might even be aware of the small twitterstorm it provoked recently. Basically, someone said she was appalled that so many new writers were cutting their teeth on fanfiction, because it actively promotes bad writing.

An army of fanfic writers vehemently disagreed. And though I personally developed my writing the old-fashioned way (by writing stories about dragons in old exercise books) I was on their side. People who trash fanfic always seem to be writing snobs who think you need an MFA for your work to be worthy of attention.

But then I chewed it over for a while and realised her points weren’t all that easy to dismiss. I decided to explore this question – Does fanfiction encourage bad writing? – from both sides. I’m starting with “No” because, frankly, I’m a massive fangirl and this is my knee-jerk response. Here are some reasons why…

Instant audience = Quick feedback

The writing world is full of gatekeeping, much of it financial. Writing workshops can be expensive. A degree in creative writing is hella expensive, especially since it prepares you for a job that doesn’t have a salary. Writing groups are cheaper but can still be inaccessible for other reasons, e.g. if there aren’t any in your area.

Because of all this, it can be difficult to get any kind of meaningful feedback on your work. But if your story features Iron Man or Captain Kirk, you already have an audience for your work that is global, diverse and enthusiastic.

Granted, most of the feedback you get is likely to be along the lines of “OMG great story I love it!” but if you’re looking for more detailed constructive criticism, just ask and ye shall receive. Many fanfiction readers genuinely appreciate the free content and are happy to provide free critique in return.

Also, every “like” or positive comment is a little bit of encouragement, which is often what newbie writers need the most. Let’s face it, writing is hard, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a little validation to keep you going on the long journey of developing your craft.

Learn the art of reader satisfaction

Many young or inexperienced writers think writing is all about self-expression. And sure, if you don’t plan on publishing, it absolutely is. But if you want readers, you need to give them something they’ll actually enjoy.

It sounds obvious, but so many writers talk about writing as if the whole point of it is to be very original and impressive and win fancy awards. If that’s your goal then fine, you do you. But traditional publishers want to turn a decent profit. Consequently, they’re unlikely to publish books that no-one will fall in love with, regardless of how elegant the prose is.

Fanfiction readers know what they want, and are well-placed to convey this to writers. If you write enough fanfic, it can help you learn important things like how to craft an interesting narrative, convey a relationship that’s intense yet realistic, and bring a story to a satisfying conclusion. These are all things that please readers and publishers alike.

The perks of anonymity

Most fanfiction is published anonymously, with writers keeping their fan identity pretty separate from their real-life identity. This anonymity gives writers freedom to take risks and write more courageously.

It’s a myth that all fanfic is light and fluffy. Many fanfic writers explore challenging topics like mental illness and childhood abuse, in an environment that’s much more welcoming than your typical online forum. And we can’t talk about the perks of anonymity without discussing…

Queer stuff, hooray!

So you’re a young (or not so young) LGBT+ person who wants to write queer characters and relationships. The idea of sharing your work in a “real life” situation is pretty intimidating, and I speak from experience here. What if you have to come out? What if your audience is hostile, or just doesn’t understand?

If you’re anonymously writing fanfiction, much of that pressure is removed. Fanfic websites are full of queer content, and frequented by people seeking that content. While you still risk the odd nasty comment, bigoted voices are likely to be drowned out by supportive ones.

The fact that you’re writing about familiar characters rather than ones of your own creation can also be useful. It allows writers some distance, which can make us braver in exploring feelings and experiences that we might not be ready to accept. It’s surprising and heart-warming how many people have figured out stuff about their own identity through fanfic.

Fanfic good?

Okay, I know I sound like an unabashed fan of fanfiction, but next week I’ll be exploring the flipside of the argument and the problems with learning to write through fanfic. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the pros of fanfic. Do you write it yourself? Has it taught you any important writing skills or lessons? Feel free to share in the comments.

Top Ten Tuesday – New-to-me Authors I Read in 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

New-to-me Authors I Read in 2020

Since 2020 was such a clusterf*ck of a year, I did a fair bit of comfort reading. But amongst all the books by familiar old favourites, I did manage to find some new authors who I’ll be reading again.

  1. Gillian Flynn

I finally read Gone Girl and I feel like this is one of those occasions where the hype is justified. Sharp Objects is high on my TBR.

2. Lauren Groff

I read The Monsters of Templeton after my mum recommended it. Mother knows best, of course – Groff is a superb writer and the book is a great family saga with some subtle supernatural elements.

3. Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is one of the most purely fun books I read in 2020. Somebody please make this rip-roaring, daft-as-balls adventure into a movie. Or a TV show. Or both.

4. Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is one of the reasons I am determined to read more sci-fi in 2021.

5. Arthur Ransome

You’re never too old for a children’s classic, and Swallows and Amazons is as classic as they get. There are twelve books in the series and I expect I’ll be dipping into it again when summer arrives.

6. Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones is such a rare thing – a book that begins with a murder and DGAF about the murderer. More victim-focussed crime books, please.  

7. Hank Green

I’d read a couple of John Greens, but this year I read An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green and found it both an excellent sci-fi and a thoughtful exploration of fame, especially “internet fame”.

Since most of the authors I’ve mentioned so far are well-known, I’m going to narrow my focus a little. I read an anthology of fairytale retellings called Unburied Fables in 2020. And while I’m always up for a fairytale retelling, I particularly enjoyed these ones because so many of the stories feature characters who, like me, are asexual or aromantic or both. The stories also have lots of other forms of LGBT+ representation.

The authors all write beautifully, so which story you would prefer probably depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re after a sweet, grounded, m/m romance, I recommend The Last Lost Boy by George Lester. If you prefer sci-fi with richly detailed world building, you’ll like The Suns of Terre by Will J. Fawley. But three authors I really hope to read again are…

(SPOILERS for these stories)

8. Laure Nepenthes

No prizes for guessing which fairytale Handsome and the Beast is based on, but it’s the first story I ever read with a “happily ever after” ending for a platonic relationship.

9. Moira C. O’Dell

O’Dell’s story Satin Skirts and Wooden Shoes is a retelling of Cinderella. I’ll never get tired of aromantic characters using magic to wriggle their way out of unwanted marriages!

10. Minerva Cerridwen

Match Sticks is waaaay less depressing than the fairytale it’s based on, and a celebration of so many different types of love and relationships.

A Couple of Poems

One of my new year’s resolutions is to stop being a wuss and post more of my poetry on this blog, so here goes nothing If you like these poems, you might like The Problem with Magic Shows, published by Moment Poetry.

Pretty Bird

I wake up laughing from a good joke.

I was dreaming of an insecure crow, trying to convince him

of his beauty.

Beautiful

I said, stroking his slicked-back feathers.

Beautiful?

he squawked, looking sceptical.

Beautiful

I insisted, gesturing to my non-crowness.

My objective perspective.

Beautiful

he cawed, with a doubtful eye.

Beautiful

I persisted.

Because when you’re not a people-person,

you have to be useful.

Beautiful

he croaked,

sounding just a little choked.

And he puffed himself up like a cartoon,

faking arrogance to hide his brittle bones

and to hide my brittle bones.

And he preened and I laughed and the moment passed

and we were comfortable friends again.

The Day After the Funeral

It’s a bright day, and I’ve worn out my sunnies trying to keep the light out. I wore black to soak it all up, but it bounces off my back like I’m a beetle, or made of metal. Spring-heeled, I twirl my umbrella, half-dancing. I could melt at the shittiest torch song. I could laugh like the wicked witch married the joker.

You’re in the grass

somehow,

though you’re not yet scattered.

For breakfast, I sucked all the red from the strawberries. I’m hungry for every deer in the field, every handful of rain, every stranger’s story. I’m so hungry I think I might be a monster. In the best photo, your hand’s out like you’re offering something, no, not offering. Throwing. Your palm cupped the world like a cricket ball, you had that knack. And that greedy smile, like a hundred years isn’t enough.

2020 Reading Recap

There’s no getting around it – 2020 was a shit show. And books, as always, were a reliable source of comfort, escapism and inspiration. I finished 27 in total, which I know is hardly anything compared to some committed readers, but I feel like 2.25 books a month is pretty respectable.

As for the type of books I read, I did notice a couple of trends. I read more non-fiction than usual this year (inevitable for a grad student) and I read more books from series. I also stepped out of my comfort zone and read some very girly, fluffy chick lit.

My favourite/least favourite books of 2020

Maybe this makes me a basic bitch, but I finally read Gone Girl and I absolutely adored it. I want to read everything Gillian Flynn has ever written and get a tee-shirt with Amy Dunne’s “cool girl” monologue on it!

The most disappointing book I read was probably Death Comes to Pemberley. I was all set to enjoy Elizabeth and Darcy solving murder cases together, but that dream was just too good to be true. Elizabeth hardly gets a look in, and Darcy gets embroiled in a boring courtroom drama.

My reading goals for 2021

  • Read more YA. This is appalling, but I didn’t read a single YA book in 2020. I plan to make up for it in 2021.
  • Read more sci-fi. I generally lean more towards fantasy (sci-fi’s hippy older brother) but in 2021 I will give sci-fi the attention it deserves.
  • Read more indie-published/self-published books. Find hidden gems and support scrappy authors making a living outside the mainstream? Yes please.

Recommendations are very welcome. If you can recommend an indie-published or self-published YA with sci-fi elements I will be eternally grateful!

The Problem with Magic Shows

Just a short post today to share two bits of good news. Firstly, my poem The Problem with Magic Shows has been published by Moment Poetry and is now available to buy. The sleeve for the poetry card is illustrated by the very talented Martina Egedová, and I feel like the neon colours and quirky imagery (that poor bunny!) really suit the tone of the poem as well as the content.

Secondly, my contributor’s copy of Common Bonds has arrived, hooray! I’m going to whizz through Little Women as fast as I can, then dive in.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books to Read in Winter

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Top Ten Books to Read in Winter

I’d always thought of winter as thriller season. But when I sat down to write my top ten list of books with wintery vibes, it didn’t include a single thriller. It does, however, include six classics. So curl up by the fire with a hot cuppa (or a good whisky) and enjoy…

  1. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

The name alone makes this an obvious winter read, but the chilly setting of the Canadian prairies seals the deal. Also, hooray for queer characters in historical fiction! LGBT+ people have always existed, and have always found ways to live a life of our own choosing.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane’s entire childhood and adolescence seems like one really long January. Then she grows up and goes wandering over windswept moors. It’s enough to make you shiver.

3. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This is pure fairytale gorgeousness and will make even the most determined sun-worshipper wish for snow.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This one always makes me feel Christmassy. Yes, that is a real word.

5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Anything set in Victorian London seems to give off winter vibes. Also, I always think of Holmes as a slightly chilly character, though that’s probably more to do with certain adaptations (especially the modern-era one with Benedict Cumberbatch) than how he is in the original stories.

6. Northern Lights

My favourite book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. This is an epic adventure story, full of wintery delights.

7. Heidi by Johanna Spyri

This cosy children’s classic is a perfect read for when you want to imagine a simpler life on a snowy mountain.

8. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

If you’re looking for something a little less cosy, The Call of the Wild presents the harsh realities of a frozen landscape as well as the allure.

9. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Though this novel spans years, it seems like it’s always winter. Maybe that’s a coincidence, or maybe it was a deliberate choice to reflect the inescapable chill of grief.

10. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I suppose it ought to be a Halloween read, but this book feels like winter to me. Maybe it’s the essential harshness of the story, or just the icy ending. Brrrrrrr.

Have you read any of these? And what do you like to read when the days are cold and the nights are long?

How to Make “Bad” Characters Likeable

Badness isn’t fashionable these days. When I was growing up (way back in the 00s), being rebellious and cynical was all the rage and giving a f*ck about other people’s feelings was not. But now we’re expected to be respectful of everyone, channel our anger into political action instead of kicking dustbins, and buy exactly the right brand of fairtrade, organic quinoa.  

The trend for antiheroes also seems to have come to an end and I can’t help but feel it ended too soon. Maybe that’s because of a personal preference for flawed characters, or maybe it’s because the majority of those antiheroes were straight, white men. If you ask me, characters who are female, POC or LGBT+ haven’t had a fair shake at being bad.

Since “unproblematic” has become the ultimate compliment, I was a little worried about the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Other People’s Butterflies. She does stuff that’s not just morally questionable, but unquestionably bad. But so far, the feedback I’ve had about her has been positive. So here are my tips for writing a character who’s kind of shitty but also likeable.

Consider writing in first person

If you don’t see the thoughts and feelings behind bad behaviour, people will interpret it in their own way. And that interpretation is likely to be something like “She did an awful thing because she’s awful.”

If you write in first person, the reader becomes almost complicit when the protagonist does bad things and has a better understanding of why they are behaving that way. If you don’t want to write in first person, you could always try “deep third” – where you write in third person but still get right inside the character’s head.

Some sins are more forgivable than others

Forget everything you learnt at Sunday school, because when it comes to fiction, we’re pretty f*cked up. If you ask readers about the characters they hate and why they hate them, you’re unlikely to hear “I hate this murderer because he murdered loads of people.” You’re more likely to hear complaints about arrogance, constant whining or being a spoilt brat.

That’s because, for most of us, shocking crimes aren’t a part of our daily reality. Violence is something we see on telly and we’re mostly desensitised to it. But we often have to deal with entitled arseholes, closet misogynists and two-faced liars.

Because we have real world experience of how it feels to deal with this kind of behaviour, we’re often unforgiving of it. So basically, it’s easier to make a violent criminal likeable than a douchey dudebro or gossipy bitch.

Persuade the reader

A way of making a bad character more engaging is to make them difficult to argue with. Give them a reason for bad behaviour that, logically speaking, makes sense. Or, even if it doesn’t make sense, you could still have them express themselves so eloquently that it seems to make sense.

The latter is particularly powerful when crafting interesting villains. There’s nothing like knowing in your gut that a character is wrong, but being unable to explain why.

Seduce the reader

I’m not saying you should make bad characters gorgeous (though it’s surprising how many awful male characters get a “hot guy pass”). I’m saying you should recognise that we all have urges that are selfish, greedy or spiteful, and seeing a fictional character give in to those urges can be cathartic. So much so, that it often makes us feel like we’re on their side.

This is pretty much the opposite of the previous technique. Rather than having a character tell the reader, “My behaviour might seem bad, but here’s why it’s actually good from my perspective”, you’re having them say “Yeah, I know I’m doing something bad, but admit it … you want to do the same thing.”

Relatability is key with this technique, and this is a reason to show bad behaviour that kicks up instead of down. A character getting revenge on their awful boss? Pretty relatable. A character firing an annoying employee on a whim? Less relatable because, well, lots of us don’t have employees.

“Pet the dog”

This is a term coined by screenwriters that means showing a supposedly nasty character doing something kind. It softens their edges and shows that, hey, they’re not a total arsehole after all! Simple but effective.

A crappy childhood doesn’t make a supervillain

If your “bad” character grew up in an abusive home, or was badly bullied, or suffered a huge loss, this can act as motivation for bad behaviour. But don’t rely too much on sympathy. Plenty of people get bullied, abused or bereaved without becoming horrible people.

Go for empathy rather than sympathy. Show how your character goes from feeling bad to doing bad things, rather than just emphasising how bad he feels. That way, you’re explaining his behaviour rather than excusing it. You’re helping the reader understand, rather than just telling her “You should feel sorry for this character, not hate him.”

Thanks for reading my tips on how to make “bad” characters more likeable. Do you have any of your own to add? And who are your favourite fictional baddies?

More Exciting Writing News

Okay, I have an announcement to make. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have already seen me flipping out about it but for those of you who don’t,

Drumroll please…

I’m getting a novel published hooray hooray hooray!

My YA Contemporary novel Other People’s Butterflies is going to be published by Art Over Chaos publishing in 2021, and will be available as both an ebook and an actual book, made of paper!

So, what is Other People’s Butterflies all about?

Seventeen-year-old Gwen Foster’s first kiss is a mistake for many reasons. Mostly because it costs her the friendship of her two best mates, Martine and Angie. Feeling lonely and bored without them, she becomes obsessed with an old spy novel and develops a very unethical hobby.

Spying on her classmates and collecting the gossip she unearths on her phone is fun at first, and might even help her understand all the romantic drama that’s mystified her since she was eleven. But things go south when her phone disappears and a mysterious social media presence called “MimiKnowsStuff” starts spilling everyone’s secrets.

Now Gwen must make the transition from amateur spy to amateur detective, figure out how to get her phone back and put a stop to Mimi’s mischief. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, her childhood friend Ethan has reappeared, and decided he wants to be “more than friends”.

In a nutshell, it’s Harriet the Spy meets Gossip Girl, with an aro-ace protagonist. I’ll post more info when I’m closer to publication, but any questions are welcome!